Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rite of Passage

My niece Kylie wanted her ears pierced.

She was thirteen and her parents figured she had waited long enough, so that’s why Beth called me on December 23. Any chance I could pick them up and take them to the mall?

Ears pierced? I had to laugh. “What, you mean Kylie doesn’t have to wait until she’s 16?” I was referring to the draconian rules that governed my own childhood. My sisters and I couldn’t get our ears pierced until we were 16, or drive until we were 17, or go outside of the house – ever – until our beds were made. I was the third born, which meant that my older sisters did most of the parent-breaking-in before I even came along, but it also meant I had a long, jealous wait to catch up to these milestone dates. Of course, being the brat I was, I waited until I was 16 to get my ears pierced, and then went back a few more times for good measure. The extra holes have basically closed over by now, but Kylie was still able to spot them with her teenage eagle-eye.

“No, it’s okay with us,” my sister said. “She’s a teenager now.” And such a sweet, Washington-bred, farm-raised girl at that. The teenagers I know in California communicate only by cell phone and spend their class time doodling the design for their next tattoo.

All right, fine. But – the mall? On December 23? The crowds, the horribly overplayed Christmas music, the abysmal parking situation. Visions of road rage were dancing through my head.

But this is what you do for family – particularly family that lives out of state and only flies in once a year for a week.

I sighed. “Okay.”

An hour later (after circling the parking lot and stalking a family with small children as they walked back to their SUV) we found ourselves at Icing, and Kylie was sitting in the chair at the ear-piercing station. Another girl – a veteran, from the looks of things – didn’t even flinch as the piercing gun punched a stud through her cartiledge.

“Look at that – nothing to it,” I said. I was trying to remember if Kylie had been looking a little green earlier, or if this was a recent development.

A little girl who barely reached my elbow came up with her family. Her cheeks were tear-streaked. “Well, are you going to do it or not?” her mother demanded. “We’re not coming back here. You’re either going to do it now or not do it at all. You have to decide now. Ears pierced or no?”

The girl shook her head, and the family disappeared back into the mall.

I smiled brightly at Kylie. My sister was engaged in complicated negotiations with the Icing employee, which ended when she initialed a release form a dozen times confirming that Kylie wasn’t pregnant, didn’t have diabetes, and would seek medical attention if needed.

The employee went through the schpiel: Clean your ears four times a day with the solution on the tip of a cotton ball. Don’t touch your ears without washing your fingers. Make sure you don’t get your clothes or hair caught in the earrings. Twist them back and forth every day. Keep the studs in for six to eight weeks. (That last part – waiting six weeks – was always my downfall.)

The employee made two tiny dots on Kylie’s earlobes. “Ready?”

My sister and I grinned encouragement at Kylie. Kylie nodded.

The first punch was over in a blink. Kylie’s eyes got a little wider, but otherwise I didn’t see any reaction.

“See? You didn’t even feel that, did you?” my sister asked.

“Yes!” Kylie gasped.

Another punch and it was over. When she stood up from the chair, her step only slightly wobbly, Kylie looked a little older, a little more mature, more womanly. She was ready to take on the world – or at least, the crowds at Sephora.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Will the real me please stand up?

I have an unusual maiden last name – so it was quite a shock to learn that there were two of me.

For the first twenty-four years of my life, I got used to my last name being misspelled and mispronounced wherever I went – unless one of my older sisters had been there before me, and paved the way. Oh, no, not another “T” sister, my teachers must have thought.

When I got married in 2000, I took my husband’s name and my place at the beginning of the alphabet, where I always felt I should be. But by that time I’d been writing for a newspaper for a few years, and it was my editor who suggested a more gentle transition to my byline. So I took my maiden name as my middle name and I’ve been writing under it ever since.

By best estimate, there are only a handful of us “Ts” living in the United States – all originating more or less from the same small town in Wisconsin, and before that, a small town in Germany. I collect information about the “Ts” outside my immediate family – this one is a photographer in Portland, that one is an orthodontist in Denver. We meet up in Wisconsin at increasingly rare intervals for fish fries and sauerkraut and stories. And it seems we’ve grown smaller, through attrition or marriage. My dad has two brothers and my generation numbers nine (including my three sisters and me); I have five first cousins on the “T” side, only two of whom are male.

You see? The name is dying out.

Or so I thought.

Last week, my sister Beth pointed out that there was another Paula T. on Facebook.

Curious – but the world is a big place, I reasoned. Some long-lost, far-flung Paula T. is out there, trying to re-connect.

Yes, added Rachel, a T-cousin in southern California. And the other Paula friend requested me.

What? It was time for some investigative work. Yes, there was indeed another Paula T., and she was friends with four of my relatives – and only those four. In fact, Paula T. had no other friends.

Curious, I fried requested the other Paula T., and was accepted. Her page was nearly blank, save for a 1986 birthdate and a hotmail address. No picture, no cutesy “about me” section, no links.

Hmm. I was beginning to feel uneasy about the whole situation. Could there really be two of us, within the same small circle? Nah — impossible.

I sent Paula T. a message: Hi! We have the same name and the same friends. Isn’t that weird?

No reply. Aha! I’d caught her and she knew it. The fraud! I sent the four relatives who had befriended Paula T. a message, letting them know that in fact Paula T. wasn’t me – just in case they wanted to guard their personal information.

Still no reply from Paula T. I started to stalk her, logging on at random hours to see if I could catch her in a chat. The situation was starting to feel bizarre. Was it just pure narcissism that led me to believe that out of billions of people in the world, there could only be one Paula T.? Or was some nefarious hoax at work, perpetrated perhaps by the person who stole my purse last December (and then attempted to make a $1500 purchase at Walmart) or the person who stole my laptop in June? Could someone really want to be me that badly, enough to collect my relatives as her own? I wondered what else she wanted to share – my husband, my pets, my bathroom with the six-lane ant highway? Perhaps my savings account and student loans and low metabolism, too? The zits I still get, even though I’m in my 30s? The tooth that needs a new crown? Come on – who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

I logged on again to Facebook and noticed that Paula T. had liked my status, the one that said “Paula is still taking antibiotics for strep throat, so does it make sense that I now think I have bronchitis?” Excuse me? How could anyone “like” that status? I was hoping to find out that the other Paula had good (similar to mine) taste, but instead she appeared to be evil, reveling in the tragic illnesses of her namesake.

It was time to excise the imposter Paula from my life once and for all. This was relatively painless – a click of the button and whoosh! we were out of each other’s lives. With only a few keystrokes, I had regained my identity. The world is a pretty small place when you get right down to it – not big enough for two of me, after all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Night Run

Tonight, Baxter and I took a walk. I needed to clear my head, and he needed to run through leaf piles. It was just cool enough for a winter coat and gloves. The streets were deserted, and I could see people inside their homes doing normal people things – decorating trees and watching TV and washing dishes.

It was good to be alone (save for the canine and the felines) tonight. I’d spent the day running errands, sitting in the bleachers at my nephew’s wrestling tournament, working in the backyard and then wandering through the house, straightening random things here and there half-heartedly. Will was pulling one of his marathon 20-hour work days and we communicated by leaving messages on each other’s voice mail. I didn’t feel like calling anyone else, but when the phone rang, I lunged for it, and gave the telemarketer from AT & T a whole three minutes of my life before hanging up.

This has been a tough week. The antibiotics finally kicked in and my throat started to feel more like a throat and less like a tiny orifice with a brillo pad wedged inside it. In the meantime, I’d lost a few days of writing time and it was hard to pick up the pieces. My sentences felt stiff and predictable, like the writing on the old USA network sitcoms, back when only people with no other options watched USA network.

Then the bad news began.

Another student, a beautiful, brilliant girl who sat in the back corner of my creative writing class two years ago, committed suicide. I can’t begin to understand it. If I had to name an emotion, it would be anger. I’m so, so mad about it – and so sad, too. I subbed on Thursday for two classes she was in, noticing how there was a sort of negative space in the classroom, something that everyone was stepping around and talking around. Our hearts were still aching from Dillon, only a month ago. I said to anyone who would listen, and many of them did: it gets better. And it might get worse again, but it always gets better. And there are always people who love you – even people you might have forgotten in the middle of things.

Then on Friday, I came home to a letter in the mail, a sort of “thanks, but no thanks” from the government job I’d applied for. There were other applicants better suited for the position… blah, blah. I told myself over and over that I wouldn’t be hurt if I didn’t get the job, because if I wasn’t right for it, it was better to know that up front, rather than at the end of some prolonged training period. I am the first person to rail against the incompetence of officials, elected or otherwise, and I wouldn’t want to be one of those incompetent people myself. But still – I guess I’m hurt. I haven’t found a way to reason myself out of that emotion.

So tonight, I left the house with a stack of clich├ęs – a heavy heart, a lump in my throat, my brain fried. “Let’s run,” I said to Baxter, and we did, through dark streets and dozens of leaf piles. We ran past cats, too absorbed in our running to slow down for a proper sniff. We settled into a sort of pace, although Baxter the show-off always likes to be in the lead. I suppose if any of my neighbors had looked out the window at that moment, they would have seen a wild-haired woman in a bulky coat chasing a frantic beagle down the street – and they wouldn’t have been too wrong. But the thing is, I felt better with each mucky step. I wasn’t running from anything, exactly – and in fifteen minutes I was home again, setting the alarm behind me – but it did feel like I escaped something. Maybe it was a only a layer of skin, like the gray feeling that had settled over me, but by the time we were crunching through the leaves on my unraked lawn and climbing the steps to the front porch, I was believing what I’d been saying all week: There’s always a tomorrow, and if that one doesn’t work out, another tomorrow right around the corner. And also, there’s always the possibility of a night run, and ready-for-anything beagle to take it with you.