Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Nurse Who Kept The Baby

My kitten, Leo, gallops across my desk, right underneath my nose: “You’re lucky you didn’t hit my tea, sister.”  I quickly correct my mistake: “Mister I mean.”  Later I’m holding him under my chin, breathing his fur; he always smells like dust.  I rock back and forth in front of the window and kissy-kiss his head.   “You’re such a good girl,” I murmur. “Boy I mean.”

The real girls in my house—me, Sara, and Lucy—are still getting used to this rocket engine of a boy-cat who seems to be everywhere all the time.  We weren’t expecting him nine months ago when he was born in the neighbor’s shed and arrived at our house three inches long, dirty, blind and without a diaper to his name.  Sometimes we still don’t expect him.

He stalks around like a bulldog, this one, but when his eyes are weary, all the world’s ills are my fault, and he looks to me to cure them.  When he was still tiny, he refused to give up his bottle no matter what else I offered—the best of gruels.  He had no reason to switch, and what was I going to do about it?  Yet, the kitten formula didn’t keep his belly full, and one night I had to do something before he turned himself inside out trying to suck a bone out of the empty bottle.  I drove to the Animal Hospital and bought more kitten formula, even though to me, this was a step backwards on our milestones.

That was the night I bought puppy formula by mistake, and nothing has been the same around here since.  In fact, I think there’s something funny about that Animal Hospital, because not only do they say that there’s no harm in giving puppy formula to a kitten (I beg to differ), they have on display in the lobby canned food made explicitly for cats and dogs.  It says that right on the label: Canine/Feline.  It’s for “the nutritional support of recovering pets”, which—I know now—means that any sick, skinny, or baby pet in your house will be unable to resist eating this food, and will grow to the size of an elephant.

Now at nine months, Leo follows me around and likes to play fetch.  He guards me from his older sisters, who were obviously here first, and that’s created some tension.  We take it one day at a time.

I call Leo Tiny One.  I call him my boy, when I’m not calling him my girl.  

It’s been raining all day, a nice spring drench.  I’ve had the windows and doors open since this morning, enjoying the pitter-patter, but the stinging aroma of cat urine has finally filled up my senses.  I feel like I did when I toured the San Diego zoo with my niece and we passed through the big cat enclosure: practically overcome.  I’ve always known that the stray cats use my decorative graveled-covered yard for their litter box; I’ve been cleaning up after them for years.  It’s just this past year—these last nine months in fact, since the day I plucked one of their own from somebody’s nipple—they come around more often.  They spray my front door, like that’s ever helped anything.  I’ve given up washing it.  I noticed somebody sprayed my poker table out in the garage, too.  I’d like to know how that happened.

But how can I blame these cats when I hold Tiny up to the windows, taunting them…the nurse who kept the baby.

I close the doors and windows, and turn to real chores, not just thinking.  Guests are coming and I need to unclog the sink in the bathroom.  I get the Drano and read that I’m supposed to pour 1/8th of the bottle down the sink from this non-see-through bottle.  How am I supposed to know what 1/8th of this bottle is?  How am I supposed to know what 1/4th of a bottle is for a tougher clog? How do you define “tougher”? I am totally stressed by the time I have poured some amount from the bottle down the sink, turned the fan on, and closed the door behind me.  I’ll go back in thirty minutes because that’s the maximum wait, and maximum is always best.

I sit down at my desk to work, and reach over to ruffle Lucy’s thick black fur coat.  She is our Elizabeth Taylor, now in full lounge on her chair, next to my chair.  “Mother, you undignified me when you pet me that way just now,” Lucy meeps to me.  “I’m sorry, Black One,” I meep back, and I am.  I’m ashamed of my aggressively friendly pet.  I slip Lucy a dainty bite of catnip treat, though she is not supposed to have many of these.  

Leo is curled in a ball under the lamp on my desk; Sara is curled next to me in Leo’s bed.  She has lost weight since he joined our family, and I bear the guilt of this too.  She used to eat more and have more muscle, but she’s thinner now, and uneasy.  We’ve had long talks about how the oldest sister has certain responsibilities and should not attack the baby.  I’ve tried to convince her that this is all normal, but she’s not having it. 

So, we are all eating the Canine/Feline canned food for the nutritional support of recovering pets, because—as a matter of fact—we are all recovering in this house.  


I end my day by folding a blanket that I had tossed over a chair to air out.  I hold it to my nose and it still smells musty.  I’ve been wondering what to do with this blanket ever since I got it.  It’s a quilt actually, made out of patches cut up from my grandpa’s overcoats when he died, with scrap material on the other side.  I want to tell the story of how this quilt came to me, but it’s too good for tonight.  It’s just that my baby Leo is named after this grandpa, who I loved specially for enduring my grandma, just like I do my baby, for making it this far with me.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Click here, then read.

In a dark, medium-sized auditorium filled mostly with older couples of all genders, I sit near the wall in back.  There are people in the balcony with better views, people sitting down in front for the best views of all.  Having just dealt with and slain all ghosts of Christmas in Minnesota, I have come to Key West to see if any other ghosts need straightening out. 
I know this is the wrong attitude for the place I'm in.  Arizona has turned me tough.  I am the older lady who should have let Rod Stewart return to his studies.

But a famous poet is coming on stage and I must listen.  I’ve heard good things, and I know some of his friends, so politeness must rule: I must listen to Billy Collins.  I hope he’s good.  Billy does come on stage and he looks far younger than a man of his talent should.  I miss my eighth grade band who had been up there earlier, in my mind.  I’d been just about to play my first trumpet solo. 

Bill walks up to the microphone and starts telling a joke, but I can’t tell if it’s his or not, a poem or not, or just a funny line.  Is this to warm us up?  He only has ten minutes.  I warn my students about plagiarizing all the time, but here I go, retelling a poem-joke that Billy told:

Q. What is one unfortunate thing right on top of another?

A. My love life

How I got into a Billy Collins’ poem, I don’t know.


I tiny-raise my hand in the dark, pardon myself, and leave to no one’s notice but my own.  There’s a dog outside I know from yesterday passing by with his owner.  This prompts me to walk towards my house, which is what we call our hotels here. 
I walk down Fleming, past Fausto’s.  I pick up a sandwich at the deli and some Diet Mountain Dew.  I know what I need.  I know what I don’t: the drunk screaming couple on the first night, stumbling down this very street.  How did they acquire that much property to split in the first place?  

Some of us still have to make a living, so I go home and drag my laptop and my pop and my cell phone and my water and my pen down from my room out to the covered deck where the reception is best.  I must check in with my one jillion students lest two jillion exist by the time I get home.  Admission rates at my school rival those of a concentration camp in Germany.

I settle in at my post, and start knocking out e-mails.  I regret to say that this is what my life of teaching has become.  I am also the leanest I have ever been in my life, all bone and muscle and ear flap.  I have no explanation for this.  Other times in my life I could have claimed super-fitness or super-sickness.  These days, it's just me being me, with just enough Botox in my head to make people look twice.

Other guests come through and people like to visit, so I get up and lean against the doorframe of someone else’s haus door.  I listen to two other Germans debate the fallout of World War II.  

I always start out working so quietly.


I didn’t come here to learn what German kids are being taught these days.  I didn’t know that when I went home for Christmas, I would be researching my dad’s cousin’s service in the Korean War and find the image of a man stabbed up the anus, and other men laughing.  I can’t say that we had these kinds of talks across my family’s dinner table.  I don't even know if I have a family anymore.  In the breezeway here in Key West, three Germans descend on their historical education like wolves, and then we defend all versions of it.  We can't all be lying, which means truth must be here somewhere.

I regale these other Germans with a classic tale from my childhood, one that I’ve always found amusing about my family.  I trot this one out when ice begs to be broken, and sometimes when it is melting, melting.  At least when my mom tells it, it works: She came home from school to help her mom get supper one time, waited for her dad to get seated at the table, then from behind wrapped her little girl arms around his neck and breathed onions into his ear.  He always said he hated onions, but somehow--on his little girl's breath, and probably all the time--he loved them.  My grandma hid them in everything. 

I'm sure my Grandpa Leo was not expecting, "And hey, guess what else?  I think we might be Jewish!”  to be sung out next by his little girl, still just recently arrived home from the local Catholic school.  I'm sure my mom thought this would go over just as well as the onion. 

“You might be," Leo said. "But I'm not."

I touch my ear flaps sometimes even now, wondering about the truth. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Protest Lady

Driving to the Mesa Gun Show, I am remembering a conversation I had with my cousin about having an extra cell phone in case of an emergency, like an intruder in the night.  Of course we had the intruder coming in through the front door with a crash, which I would somehow hear in the back of the house in time to grab my extra cell phone, dial 911, and have him subdued before he killed me.  I said, “I’d need a gun for that.”  My cousin agreed.

I exit the freeway and soon am parking outside my friends’ home in a historic neighborhood; we drive another short distance to the Mesa Convention Center to protest the sale of assault (-LIKE) weapons and advocate for universal background checks.  We can’t find a parking spot anywhere; we end up parking several blocks away in the city library’s big lot.  By the time we make it back to the convention center with our signs, we are almost warmed up—it’s such a cold day in Phoenix.  Sunny, but cold like it’s never been.

We pass a huge line of people curving around the convention center, all waiting to get in.  We find the protesting place, the public sidewalk out front, because the gun people have rented the entire facility, including the grounds.  I wonder out loud why they don’t just rent the entire city of Mesa. We start to walk with our signs, joining a few other straggler protestors.  The youngest is a male elementary school teacher, and all together we total seven.
I keep looking at my sign to see what it says because I didn’t write it; my friend did.  Am I really for that?  Am I really against it?  Yes, I am.  We take a moment to talk later, and decide that people seem to like the universal background check and mandatory mental health screening signs better than the ones with the word “ban” in it.  The small group of us protesting often checks in with one another:  “What was that guy showing you?”  “What were those people saying?”  We agree that the older gentleman, a veteran who is going from one of us to another, telling us about the second amendment, is just an old man who wants to visit on a sunny afternoon.  Two out of the seven of us carrying signs are women who are older than this gentleman, and they all make me smile.  I hadn’t met them before today; they each came out on their own.
One guy walks by and reads my sign when I’m carrying “Ban Semi-Automatic Weapons”.  “Why don’t you try using one?” he shouts.  I have no idea how to respond.  “I was raised in a hunting family” has begun to make me feel like Wolf Girl.  I can hear our new teacher-friend yell out in a friendly response to someone, “Come to the schools!  We’ll tell you we don’t want guns there.”  Gah, this is such a simple message, I think.  How can people be so ignorant?  Soon I’m telling somebody, “I can assure you, no teachers want guns in schools,” knowing that there have to be some, but not being able to resist using the lie to emphasize my useless point.
I go back to walking, holding my sign high in the air, saying, “Good morning!” to people as they pass by.  Most people say “good morning” back; some ignore me, some look at me with disgust.  It’s all okay with me.  I don’t know why I’m completely shocked when I look at a truck in a line of traffic driving slowly through the intersection—leaving the gun show—and the truck driver lifts a gun to show it to me.  He puts it across his chest: a gray metal handgun that looks heavy.  We stare at one another; he must see that I look down at the gun, then back up at him.  By now I am used to the jeers and the middle fingers, the blaring horns, the pairs and groups of men, but this shakes me.  What does he mean?  I’m frightened not so much of the gun but the total lack of feeling on the man’s face.  I go to my friends and they tell me that the man’s action is illegal and that I should have gotten his license plate number.  This is my first time protesting.  I make a note for next time.

My friends are low on water, so I volunteer to walk down to the Circle K; it’s only a couple block away.  A dad and his two little boys are rushing out as I go in.  I ask to use the restroom and the girl says sorry, no, it’s not for the public.  I find this very odd.  I ask why, and she says because it doesn’t have outside access, but as soon as the owners finish knocking a hole in the wall and installing a door, then customers can use the bathroom.  I ask if customers were ever allowed to use the restroom, and she says yes, but the bathroom is way back in the office area and people were stealing stuff.

The dad and his boys are back, rushing through the store, standing there with us.  The dad pleads with the girl to let them use the bathroom because they can’t find one anywhere else and “it’s an emergency.”  I can see in the face of one of the boys that it definitely is.  The girl is regretful for not being able to let them use the bathroom.  She wrings her hands and glances around.  If she doesn’t let the boys use the bathroom, I am going to throw a fit.

She looks at me as if to ask if I mind letting them go first.  Go!

On my way back to where my friends are, carrying my bag of bottled waters, I think about how I would probably get arrested for something like the bathroom thing before I would lose my cool on a picket line, and about how easy it is to be nice out there and say good morning to everyone, even if that wacko did flash his gun at me.  Guns don’t scare me.  Hateful people scare me.

“I am the person that has to be convinced.”  It’s later at night, near my bedtime, and I’m reading a Facebook message from a guy who I actually had a bit of interest in until just this very second.  I'm trying to understand the motive and strategy behind anti-assault rifle mentality,” he writes, his tone escalating.  “What is the plan to disarm America??” My immediate response is, What a freak!  How could I have liked him up to now?  I know how derelict this makes me, how it makes me too much like the hateful people, only seeing the bad and not the good.   I’m not going to let me get away with this.  There’s a fringe protestor in me who wants out, obviously.  She embarrasses me.

She’s the one who always gets me in trouble.