Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Windshield Factor

It took me a long time to learn the parts of a car; I still really don’t care about them.  I didn’t own a car until I was 24, and now—21 years later—I feel just as disconnected from my current car as I did from my first.

But the term “windshield” bannered itself across my forehead today as I was driving home from a frolicsome air-conditioned breakfast up north in Sedona, back down into the belly of Arizona’s worst heat in years: 118 degrees and humid.  

There is no pretending that these conditions are healthy for us, or that it’s okay to be outdoors.  My mom called from Minnesota last night and I said, “These are the opposite extremes of a way-below-zero day in January for you guys…with a high wind.” 

After all these years, I still could not bring myself to use the phrase “wind chill”.

I’ve never been comfortable with it, because I learned it incorrectly from the start.  To my young ears listening to adults talking all the time, something sounding like “windshield” ended up being correlated with something very bad, usually very cold.  Death related to windshield factor was particularly brutal.

In fact, I took “windshield factor” to mean the very worst thing possible that might happen in a car.
Around the same time, when I was nine, I’d been asking my dad how hard it was for him to get our car up a mountain.  “Do you have to work harder when we go uphill, or does the car do it for ya?” I would ask between my parents’ two front seats.

“The car does it,” my father would say, eyeing me through the “rear view mirror”.
“But you’re doing something with your feet,” I remember saying.  I could see my dad’s feet moving from pedal to pedal, and his right arm seemed to tense as it moved the car's handle.  There was always more commotion in the car whenever we went uphill; there had to be some connection.

Some years later, when the differences between cars and bikes were firmly set in my mind, I was off to college to discover, finally, two years into my undergraduate English degree, that there was also a significant difference between American Literature and English Literature, a difference that had somehow escaped me before, geography never being my strong suit.  I was not helped by all the ex-pat writers we studied, nor by one of my Honors English teacher’s feigned British accent, when in fact he was from New Jersey.
For one entire semester in 1986, I thought that the poet Ezra Pound was female based on the name “Ezra” alone, which for me fell into the same category as Edith and Ethel.  “She was this and she was that,” I wrote on my midterm.  “Her poetry was memorable.”  I could not have cared less about poetry at the time, much less learning any history behind it or seeing specific examples.  There was one picture of Ezra Pound in our textbook, and I remember thinking she looked masculine.  

One more thing that didn’t make sense.  I didn’t give her a chance after that.

So maybe it’s no surprise that even though I was born in Wisconsin, split between Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania as a child—and even after I grew up and moved to Alaska—the meaning of “wind chill” did not come home to me until I began to travel as a young professor in Arizona.  I would attend writing conferences, and sometimes present.

To watch hotel TV was weird enough.  To finally see what I had always heard as “windshield factor” spelled as “wind-chill factor” on The Weather Channel made me doubt myself entirely.  Of course it was spelled that way: the term referred to a chill created by wind, so the spelling made perfect sense. How could I have misunderstood that word for so long?  Where had I been all my life?

What kind of an English teacher was I?

Twenty years later—this morning after breakfast—I was driving myself home through highway traffic too heavy for me.  I was safe and confident, but not particularly invested.  When something smaller than a baseball but bigger than a walnut hit the windshield right in front of my eyes, it happened so fast, it was over before I had time to react. 

I just kept driving and nothing else happened.  No glass splintering.  No other cars adversely affected by this careening object. Feeling a little lucky and surprised at the favor, I became particularly fond of my windshield in that moment, and all of its protective powers.  

I’m sure it would be good with the wind chill, too.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Itinerary Interrupted (Interpreted)

Mr. Jones
sounded frankly on the phone:
"We wait for you.
There’s more than enough work to do." 

They expect me in September.

Small talk is good; it’s not very serious.
Every detail we can talk about when I'm there,
said Mr. Jones to me.


Two choices aren’t fair.  The idea of them
dismisses the idea of three.

I don’t spend time convincing men
to spend longer times with me.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

How to Survive Food Poisoning on a Nine-Hour Flight

In order to survive food poisoning, you first must acquire it.  If you happen to be studying abroad in Prague, stock the refrigerator in your Stalin-era dorm with lunchmeat sandwiches, boiled eggs, yogurt and cheese.  This will remind you of what you eat at home, plus will help keep dining costs down.

Towards the end of your stay, eat heartily from this stockpile for several days without realizing that the refrigerator keeps going off then coming back on, going off then coming back on.  Notice water leaking from underneath the fridge one early morning on your way out to class.  Decide not to eat any more of your picnic when you return that night to warm everything.  You know trouble when you see it.

Board a nine-hour flight back to the United States the next day.  Fly coach and make sure you have a middle seat.

Shortly into this flight you’ll start to feel hungry, or nauseous; you’re not quite sure.  Decide to play it safe and eat some of the almonds you brought from home.  Pop two into your mouth and realize after several chews that either these are the worst almonds ever, or you are about to become severely ill.

You are severely ill.

Jettison yourself over the young man sitting in the aisle seat and move as quickly as possible down the aisle to where the bathrooms are.  There is no line this time (VACANT) so lean into the accordion door and get yourself inside.  Unleash.  You are Linda Blair without benefit of priest, pope, or parent.  Try to match orifice with receptacle, receptacle with orifice.  Try to tidy the bathroom so that the next guest can have a pleasant experience.  Return to your seat.

Repeat entire process minutes later before dragon-breathing to the young man next to you that you are really sick and need the aisle.  He’ll switch with you immediately, no questions asked.

You will make your way from your seat to the bathrooms and back at least three more times before a flight attendant kneels down next to you and asks if you are feeling alright.  Say no; you think you might have food poisoning.  When he asks if you’d like for him to call for a doctor on board, hesitate: You don’t want this attention, so of course you would not like that.  But remember that you called 911 a few years back when your gall bladder went out, and if you’d been stubborn with the paramedics who came to your rescue that time, you might not be around anymore.  

Listen through the haze of plane light and sweat on your lip as a doctor is paged over the intercom; a nice doctor-person is soon kneeling next to you.  When he gently asks if he may take your pulse, agree.  When all the nice people want to give you some oxygen in the curtained-off area where the flight attendants rest in their reclining chairs, don’t resist.  

It won’t be too long—an hour, a day—before you have to move back to your upright aisle seat.  There is no other place for you.  Ask to lie to down on the floor even though the flight attendant says, “You don’t want to do that.”  You want to do anything other than sit up for the duration of your flight.  But all of your desires and those of the people around you are no match for your body’s natural reflexes.

During your next several trips up and down the aisle to the bathrooms, you push a small child out of line and say “I’m sick” as you take her place waiting to get in.  You will your body to not revolt again until a bathroom opens up.  These are the longest seconds of your life.  On one of your last trips into the bathroom, shoes no longer on your feet, glasses no longer on your face, look down at the fluid sloshing on the floor and recognize it as urine from the men as they lost their balance during turbulence.


An afternoon or a day into this flight, people sitting by the windows will begin to raise their shades.  For about an hour, you think, you’ve been sipping warm water and keeping it down.  Somehow you will acquire a ginger ale, and you will keep that down too.  Never has a ginger ale raised your confidence as much as this one.

Pay attention when the flight attendant who gave you his own soft, sterilized blanket and his reclining seat—not to mention the doctor and the oxygen—when he pops down next to you and says with a smile, “You look so much better now!”

And don’t be surprised when the strangers around you, people who you kept from their fair turns at relief, look at you with kindness in their eyes, not anger, as you were expecting.