Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Remain Sober

I have brunch out with Vivian, a girl I’ve known since high school, a best friend for thirty years.  She is bright and bubbly, a social butterfly; I am reserved and quiet, a social pupa.

I’ve stopped drinking again and it is my job today to apologize to Vivian—who looks pretty much like she did thirty years ago, without the tight shorts her mother used to scold her about.  She is a mother herself now, wearing a fashionable and age-appropriate copper-colored dress.  

I am wearing tight shorts.

We sit across from one another in the booth and Vivian pours a small bottle of champagne into three different glasses of juice, a sparkling flight, just for fun.  She will end up sipping half out of each in the two hours we sit there.  I would be more inclined to guzzle everything, lick the glasses, then order more, which is why I’m having coffee.

Vivian and I haven’t seen each other in six months, so we don’t touch our menus.  First we must catch up.  I say, “My dad started shaving his head, but he’s whittling again.  My parents have home health-care nurses coming in now to help.”  This is my most important news, the number one choice of information to share with Vivian, who loves my parents.

“What!?” she says. “Did you say hospice?

“No!” I say. “I said home health-care.”

Vivian is losing her hearing.  I am wearing bifocals.

“Oh, thank God,” Vivian says.   

I change the subject to my second most important piece of news.  “Hey, you’ll be glad to hear that I quit drinking again.”  I give Vivian a silly smile and she gives me her kindest back.  “Ohhh, that’s so great!” she says.

We’ve had this exchange before.

Vivian quickly picks up the mini-bottle of champagne and sets it at the table’s edge.  She circles her arms around the dainty flight of champagne flutes and looks at me, worried. “I shouldn’t have ordered these!  I don’t have to drink these!  I’ll have the waitress take them away!”

I laugh and tell Vivian to leave her alcohol alone.  “Something feels different this time,” I say, back to my second most important subject.  “I think it’s gonna last.  I mean, at least I hope it’s gonna last.  And I want to apologize to you this time, because I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘I’m sorry’ in all these years of messing up your parties and making you worry.  I wish I could’ve been a better friend.  I’m very, very sorry for all of that.”

Vivian must see a ghost of me, maybe the one from better years.  She looks at me like I have just arrived home from a very long and dangerous trip, her face open and sweet and relieved.  That’s her true nature; that’s why I love Vivian.

“Also, please say anything you want to,” I add. “You’ve never said anything before.”

She takes a sip from her cranberry juice and champagne before replying, “The time I was most worried about you was when you were with that porn guy.  I mean, you were green.  You were yellow and green.Vivian shakes her head like she still can’t believe it.  That was four years ago.

“He wasn’t really a porn guy,” I say, correcting her. “He just had a mustache and poofy hair.”

“Well whatever,” she says. “You looked really sick when you were with him.”

I sit across from Vivian, 43 years of sunshine to my 44 years of wreck, wreck, wreck.  She will always be a junior to my senior, a cheerleader to my yearbook photographer.  She is not the person I ever wanted to tell about liver panels, or trips to the ER when my gums wouldn’t stop bleeding.  In fact, she’s the type of person who always makes me want to live better, so that when I see her at times like these, I have lighthearted stories to share.   I hate to disappoint Vivian.  I hope I don’t disappoint her again.

The waitress comes to see if we’re ready to order.  Vivian needs to keep looking, but I know what I want.  “I’ll have the oatmeal breakfast that comes with fruit,” I say.

Vivian’s eyebrows knit together as she scolds me over her open menu: “Kate!  You should order something you can’t have at home!  That’s the point of going out to a restaurant!”  These are Vivian's rules. 
But the rules that I follow now include being honest.  No more hiding my real feelings.  I especially like this part.  “I’ll have the oatmeal breakfast,” I say again, and the waitress writes it down. Vivian glares at me.  I grin back.

No one has to know how close I was to ordering the five-alarm omelet that Vivian wanted me to get.  No one has to know how easy it is to set myself aside like that, and in other important matters.

I count it as the day’s first personal victory.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Blind Spot

For over a week, I waited for my new glasses to arrive, the ones with rose frames and…bifocals.  I spent that time wondering how a young person like me could end up with bifocals so early.  At 44, I was getting regular mammograms and had endured a colonoscopy.  I worked on core strength at the gym so I wouldn’t fall and break a brittle bone; I chewed calcium tablets and listened to elevator music by choice.

I was already doing so many old-person things, and now bifocals too?  It didn’t seem fair.

When my glasses came in, I drove to my optometrist’s office and sat down at a little table across from the office manager, Selena.  She would instruct me on the use of my bifocals.

“Okay, you’re still gonna look straight ahead to see most everything,” she began, “but you’re gonna use the bifocals when you read or do things close up, like texting.”

I made a doubtful face. “I don’t need bifocals to read or text now,” I countered.  I could win this one.

“Well, you and the doctor must have discussed bifocals during your last exam because here they are, and you should try them,” Selena said.  She had apparently gone through this routine with a few other resistant bifocal wearers.

“Alright,” I said.  I opened the hinged box to reveal my new glasses: there they were, neatly folded and gleaming, with a bright round faux diamond sparkling near both temples.  They were nothing like the plain-Jane frames I usually got; these were a true accessory, with color and lights.  I put them on.  So far so good.

“Okay,” said Selena. “There are a few rules to wearing bifocals.”

There are rules for wearing my glasses?  It’s not bad enough to just have bifocals, but I need to learn new rules to see?  That’s bogus.  Disgust and Self-righteousness came to join Doubt.

Selena continued: “You’re going to notice that your peripheral vision is now a little blurry.  That’s because the bifocal is in the lens.  You’ll have to actually turn your head to see things to the side.  Try that.”

These instructions flew in the face of all the old deer hunting rules my father had etched into my brain: “SIT STILL!  DON’T MOVE IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO!  DON’T TURN YOUR HEAD—USE YOUR EYES TO SCAN.”

I decided not to share these hunting rules with Selena, as I was sure she would think I was just making excuses.  I put the glasses on and stared straight ahead.  That worked; I could see.  I glanced sideways without moving my head and sure enough, there was blurriness.  How would I be able to hunt deer in these glasses?  It had been 23 years since I had gone hunting with my dad, or with anyone for that matter, and chances were slim that I would ever go again, but still—this was a blind spot, which was unacceptable.

“I hate these,” I said, and took them off. “I don’t want them.”

Selena became agitated.  “You haven’t even tried them!  Put them back on, and here, read this piece of paper.”  She handed me what looked like a fortune cookie slip, and I placed it where I might read a student essay, or the newspaper.  It read: “You are a stubborn woman, a difficult customer, and unrealistic in your expectations.”  Wow, that was really on the mark.  Maybe Selena knew better than I thought she did.  I put the glasses back on and practiced turning my head left and right, up and down, so I could look at objects through the regular lenses.  When it came to further attempts to utilize my bifocals, I began to bob and weave, like a chicken pecking at seed.

“There you go!” said Selena, clapping her hands. “Now you’re trying!  You’ll get used to these in no time, and you’ll be surprised at how natural they become.”

I had to believe her because the evidence was already there.  I looked at my fingernails through my bifocals: dirty and split.  I held my leather purse up to my face and gave it the bifocal once-over: dull and smudged.  Maybe these bifocals would work for me after all; they were already helping me to identify imperfections, one of my favorite hobbies in life.  It would be like having a built-in microscope.  

No wonder my mother loved hers so much.  We are two peas in a pod.

I glanced in the mirror then, the round one sitting on a base on the desk.  I tilted it so I could see my face full-on.  To my surprise, there was my mother staring back at me.

“Hello Kathryn,” she said.

“Hi Mom!” I said back. “What are you doing in there?”  I touched the mirror and she touched me back.

“I came to see you in your new glasses.  They look grand!  Those are keepers; you’ll get great use out of those.”  I kind of agreed with her; the frames did brighten up my face, and there was every indication that the bifocals would serve me well.

“Ya think?” I said.

“Oh yes, definitely.  And you have the new kind where the line doesn’t show, so nobody will know you have bifocals unless you tell them.”

“What about the color, Ma?  They’re rose.”  We usually get brown, my mom and I.  I didn’t want to accidentally buy old-lady glasses.  Not only were these pinkish, but the fake diamond set by the hinge would catch the light.  I have a life-long habit of buying old-lady everything, from foam slippers ordered out of the backs of magazines to big white padded sneakers at Sears.  All of my prescription sunglasses appear to have come from the Phyllis Diller collection.

My mom took a sip of coffee from her favorite plastic travel mug and looked at me with love in her eyes.  “You’re too hard on yourself, Kathryn.  You look beautiful in those glasses.  I have to go wake your father now because we’re going to Fleet Farm.  You give those a good try.”

My mom disappeared and I was once again looking at myself in the mirror.  I guess my new glasses didn’t look too bad.  I looked up and Selena sat there, expectant and hopeful.

“I’ll give these a trial run,” I said, and Selena brightened.  “Good!” she said. “People who start off with a positive attitude usually succeed.  If you go in negatively, you’ll never adjust.”

I knew this to be true for just about everything.  I would also speak to my father about the use of bifocals in hunting situations.  He would have good advice about that, and whittling too, and a lot more.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sweaty Yeti

I get into my car after a long day of teaching and it’s one hundred and eight billion degrees in there.  My body goes into zombie mode as I try to get things done in the car without moving a lot: turn the keys, pull the sunshade down, crank the AC.  My 2001 Sonata gives me a gentle puff of nearly cool air, after being on for awhile.

I’m driving down the road, reviewing the day.  I can’t believe that kid plagiarized his paper, like I wasn’t going to catch him referring to himself as a girl.  I can’t believe that NewMan suggested that the student might be transgendered.  Maybe the student is.  NewMan always makes me think.

I stop at a light, surrounded by cars and cameras, which makes me think about the accident I had a few weeks ago, the guy who rear-ended me, and the fact that there seems to be some kind of investigation going on involving possible surveillance evidence.  God, that’s just what I need, a videotape of the accident showing me in the wrong.  Back to jail.  I hate that feeling.  

I drive along with the rush-hour traffic, another mile and a half, getting close to my gym’s turn-off.  I’m already hungry and wiped out and I have to get up early for the kitten’s surgery so I might as well just skip the gym and go to Home Depot since I have to stop at the pet store anyway.  I slink into the middle lane and then the far lane, away from the gym, and I feel greasy.  I haven’t showered since yesterday morning, time being tight.

I park my car, reach into the back seat for the broken 1984 motion detector light that used to hang on my house, and zombie-walk into Home Depot, flailing down the middle corridor and hanging a left, back to where I know the lighting department is.  Apparently I am the only person who knows where the lighting department is because I stand there alone, being my best monster in the deserted aisles.  Several minutes pass before I scream out, “DOES ANYBODY WORK HERE???”

Mr. Ed gallops in from the paint department.  “Helloooo!” he says, stopping in his tracks right in front of me.  “How can I help youuuu?”

I whip around my stiff zombie-arm with the light fixture tied to my hand.  “I need something like this,” I say, and Mr. Ed noses around to find me something I like even better.  I’m too grumpy to smile when I say thank you.  I stomp up to the registers, pay, and leave with both the old dead motion detector light and the shiny new one.  I throw them both in the trunk.

One last stop: the pet store.  I’ve run out of food for my older cats again.  How can I keep doing this?  Since when did it become okay to not have an extra bag of food on hand?  This is the third time this year that you’ve run out of food…is that acceptable?  What’s wrong with you?  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know I never seem to have enough time for everything.  I spend the rest of the trip making a mental list of everything in my life that seems neglected, and everything in my life is on the list.

I get to the pet store and there are two kinds of carts available when you first walk in: normal big ones, and smaller ones, all of them red. The smaller ones looked kind of midgety, but I only need a few things, so I grab one and push it towards the cat food aisle.  The front and the back wheels on the left side are stuck and dragging; I have to throw my weight into the left side to keep it going straight.  We make a great zombie team, me and this cart.

On the way to the food aisle I remember that I could use some litter, so I grab two fifty pound jugs of it and haul them into the midget cart. None of the wheels are moving at all now, so I just keep shoving it across the linoleum.  I park it in the food section and load up some bags of adult cat food, then I run over to the birdseed aisle quick to see if there might be a sale.  Sure enough there is, so I bear-hug one bag at a time off the lowest shelf, haul it across the center aisle, and into the broken midget cart.  I wrestle one bag onto the cart’s lowest shelf for some kind of balance, and shove it towards the check-out stations like Bigfoot might shove a boxcar.

There is only one checker, so it takes time to make it through the line, and there is no one to help me out.  Not that I usually let anybody.

Soon enough I am slamming the trunk door; I am one sweaty Yeti saying goodbye to the midget cart.  Without the dead weight of all my purchases, the wheels have sprung back enough so that the cart can be rolled again.  I push it across the parking lot in the general direction of the store's front door.  Adios, amigo.  It stops and rolls back.  I stride up to it, grab it, swing it around, then march it off towards an empty space behind my car.  It’s far from the front door, but at least it won’t roll.

I back up and hit the midget cart.

I fly out of my car as fast as a zombie can and hulk over to the cart, now even more crippled than before.  I grab the handle and easily tip it over on its side; its wheels spin.  It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

I know how it feels.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Wake-Up Fairy

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I stand in front of my class—25 freshmen college students—trying to instill in them a love for community service, for kind acts and the resulting bursting hearts. I haven’t done any community service myself in about thirty years, but I know it to be a good thing. I want to inspire them: Go to the nursing home and listen to an old person! Volunteer to scrub some graffiti! Go to the homeless shelter and serve some food. Then, of course: go home and write about it because you have a paper due next week.

Always at this time of the semester, when I am waving my community service pom-poms, I tell The Wake-up Fairy Story. It’s always waiting in my brain, ready to be called up as an amusing anecdote that will drive home the importance of giving back. I begin by suggesting that visiting a local kindergarten class and helping the teacher with art or reading might turn into an enjoyable learning experience for all.

“I used to be in kindergarten once,” I say, segueing into the juicy stuff. “When I was in kindergarten, many moons ago, we would have nap time every day. We’d have to get our mats off the pile and lay them on the floor, then the teacher would tell us to lie down and go to sleep, for probably fifteen or twenty minutes.

“I could never fall asleep!” I continue, elevating my voice as a preacher might do to startle his flock back to attention. “I would lie on my mat with my face turned to the side—no pillow, arms straight down—and at first, I would try to fall asleep. But I was never tired enough.”

I don’t tell my students that I considered the kids who did fall asleep to be weak and stupid. Did they not sleep at home? Did they not realize that they were being watched? Dummies.

“Since I could never fall asleep, I could never lie still, and since I could never lie still, I never got picked to be the wake-up fairy.”

I feel this to be the most powerful line of my story, and expect my students to be giving me their full attention. They are, kind of. I gear up to deliver even more rising action: “You had to lie perfectly still for twenty minutes if you even hoped to get picked as the wake-up fairy. The teacher had this wand with a star at the end, and you knew when she started walking around with it that she was looking for someone to tap. The kid who had moved the least would always get chosen, and then that person would get the star wand to tap everybody else on the shoulder, one by one. You could only get up and put your mat away after you were tapped.”

My students hang on every word of this story, every time I tell it. I know they do.

“Only two kids ever got picked to be the wake-up fairy,” I continue, lying for effect, but this was basically true. I’m sure lots of kids fell asleep and lay still and got handed the wake up-wand that year, but two kids got it more often than the others, and they all got it a hell of a lot more often than I ever did.

I look at the wall behind my students, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone lest they assume that what I’m about to say next has anything to do with them: “The only kids who ever got the wand were the fat kid and the pretty girl. The fat kid always fell asleep instantly and snored. The pretty girl would also conk out and I could never believe it. She’d drool on her mat. I saw her pick her nose one time, in her sleep. Drooling and picking your nose is okay? Snoring is better than turning your head quietly like me? Getting up still clean without drool in my hair doesn’t count?”

I cross my arms, the heat of my lecture on. “I wonder what that kindergarten teacher was thinking, always choosing the kid who could fall comatose in thirty seconds. I mean, that’s a natural ability; there’s no trying involved.”

My students sit in silence because if they don’t, our own class will never end. They are poised over their backpacks.

“My point is that when you write this next paper, I don’t want you to settle for what’s easy for you. I want you to aim high and try something new. Get out of your comfort zone and go out and learn something. Then bring it back to us.” I pause for effect. “This is the paper where effort does count. Okay?”

“Okay,” a few people say, winning a few extra participation points.

As my flock clogs the chute leading from our room to the weekend, I wonder if I will ever get over the wake-up fairy thing. I wanted to be so good at nap time, but I just couldn’t stay still. If ever there was a student who deserved an “A” for effort, it was me in kindergarten during nap time.

I walk out to my car hoping that my students decide to write about soup kitchens and animal shelters, nursing homes and kindergarten classes. Any topic that involves being at the mercy of someone else is a good one.

Any bit of humanity they can uncover will be most appreciated.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lost and Found

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At one point during the past couple of weeks, I realized that I had lost my favorite black leather sandals. They were open-toed flats with plain but classy straps, perfect for showing off a new pedicure. I missed them casually at first, the thought of wearing them sometimes leading to actually looking for them.

Casual miss soon grew into ears-pricked desire: I wanted them back and I would hunt for them. I spent every spare moment searching my house for anywhere the sandals might be; I went outside to see if I had kicked them off and left them there. I even looked through my book bag; sometimes I put them in there because I’ll change into them if the shoes I have on start to hurt.

I just couldn’t imagine where these sandals could be.

Then I started to think about how maybe they weren’t even home with me, how they could be somewhere else. But where? Where would my shoes end up without me? I started to worry about them. I had seen shoes flying down the freeway before, and I wondered if my elegant black sandals had somehow met that fate.

Scenarios in which I would have set my shoes on top of my car consumed several days’ thinking before the most popular and best-case scenario popped into my head: I had slipped them off in the locker room at the gym and left them on the floor instead of putting them in my gym bag. Somebody must have seen them there and turned them in. I would call right away. Okay, I would call the next day. Okay, for sure I’d call tomorrow.

In these calming days of self-relief, somehow I managed to feel completely better about the missing shoe situation since they were obviously at my gym’s Lost and Found, or—outside of that—completely dead to me, because there was no way they could be anywhere else. This imaginary comfort zone was still happening when yet another day came and I lost my wallet.

It was the kind of day when you go to work knowing you have no ID or credit cards on you, but you decide not to worry about it because you know your wallet has to be back at the house, somewhere you didn’t have time to search this morning. Then you race home at the end of the day like your dog’s dying, look in every conceivable place your wallet could be, let your blood begin to churn a little as your anxiety rises and your eyes dart: you’re thinking of the last place you were with your wallet.

You’re standing in the kitchen, thinking back in time.

You know it’s the grocery store, yesterday. Most likely you left it in the basket part of your cart. You call the grocery store pharmacy because that’s the first number you find and they transfer you to Customer Service, where you wait on hold forever until the line gets dropped. You call the pharmacy again and firmly tell the technician that it is very important that you do not get dropped this time because your wallet has been missing for an entire day and you need to know if it’s there or not!

This time the technician assures you in a confident voice that you will not get dropped, that you are being transferred directly to Monica. Feeling protected and strangely confident yourself—you think you’ll be driving back to the grocery store in two minutes—you grab your keys and walk out to the garage. You open the front passenger’s side door of your car; it’s the only place you haven’t looked for your wallet twice, the only possible place your wallet could be other than at the grocery store, or in the hands of strangers. You’re still on hold when you start to lean down to look under the seat again and what do you see but a glint of black leather in the space between the seat and the door: your black sandals, the ones that started all this, maybe having slipped out of your gym bag on the way home from the gym.

You are thrilled to find your favorite black flats and view this as your most significant accomplishment of the week. Then Monica picks up the line, asks if it’s you, and confirms that your wallet is waiting for you right there at Customer Service. You knew it.

The Barney Fife inside you puffs up with pride. You wish you had a kidnapped baby to place into your own open arms. Instead, you slip on your leather shoes and drive back to the grocery store to bring home your runaway wallet.

It takes somebody like you to run this crazy life.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Little Words

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“Who does he look like?” my mother asks over the phone, five little words I’ve heard so often over the years. I can picture her in the basement with the phone tucked under her chin, a basket of wet clothes on the floor next to her. She’s hanging nighties on the line inside because it’s raining outside.

“It’s hard to say,” I tell her. I’ve been asking myself this very question for a month or so, regarding a certain gentleman who apparently enjoys having coffee with me quite a bit. “He doesn’t really look like anyone.” My mom and I have a habit of using movie star comparisons to describe any male who is not related to us. My mom and I, two Hollywood should’ve-beens.

“I guess he kinda looks like Ed Asner,” I say, meaning this in the best possible of ways. “Remember Mary Tyler Moore?”

Of course she remembers.

“The young Ed Asner,” I continue. “Also he looks like the captain on that police show, the fiftyish guy with the round head.” She wants to know if we’re talking about the old police show or the new police show. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “It’s the guy who always plays the captain guy, or maybe the chief. He’s really handsome in a tough kind of way.”

All of this impresses my mother to no end. “Those are big words comin’ from you,” she says. I hear her climb the steps upstairs into the kitchen. She puts her jacket on and carries the phone with her into the garage to have a smoke. “This is startin’ to sound serious,” she says, clicking her lighter. She only takes a couple puffs and then puts it out. She could make one cigarette last a whole day.

She’d want you to know that.


I sit with the coffee man again, having more coffee. I watch his fiftyish TV-police chief muscles move underneath his clothes, and we get to know each other. “I like to go out with my friends for wings and a couple beers…,” he says. I wait to hear if our fate will be sealed with the words “every night” or something close to that. “Every other month,” he finishes, and my tiny-cheerleader leaps into the air.

“What about you?” he asks. “Do you go out with your friends once in awhile?” He leans forward, the good cop.

What an invitation he has handed me, and he doesn’t even realize it. I’ve been waiting for a question like this ever since we met, hoping it wouldn’t show up too soon. Here it is, right on time. It’s never going to get any easier or harder to say three little words I have never said in my life, certainly not to a man. But here I go: “I don’t drink.” My tiny-cheerleader wilts on the field and plays dead.

I’ve revealed my past, defined my present, and raised the bar for my future all in three words, and I expect that a clever man will get his. A good man with a good heart will understand this. Lou Grant does not disappoint. “I also like to snuggle on the couch and watch TV,” he says, smiling his smile.

Tiny-cheerleader disappears, poof. “Me too,” I say, touching Lou's wrist in a way that I could get used to.