Friday, November 19, 2010

The Undead

We're morbid people, Will and me.

It might bear mentioning again that when our relationship became serious (book-collection-merging serious), we were amused to see that we each had a copy of the atrociously-written and endlessly fascinating Helter Skelter. We watched The Bridge when it came out on Netflix; over the years, I've converted him to SVU.

We've become rather callous people.

On Wednesday night, we were taking the beloved B on his evening (and only) walk, first in pleasant near-darkness through the streets in our neighborhood and then through sudden crushing darkness in the park. It might have been midnight and not daylight-savings-induced 5:30, the way everything was so quiet. You know what I mean, I'm sure -- the kind of odd inner-city quiet where you fear you might have missed the rapture, although you don't believe in it.

We performed our customary scan of the park -- no potentially dangerous people lurking near the public restrooms, no off-leash pit bulls, no solitary cars parked in leafy shadow. But when we were halfway through the park (a slow journey, with the sky growing darker by the second as the lovely B sniffed each blade of grass excitedly and, at least a dozen times, lifted a back leg delicately), I spotted something strange in the newly mown grass of the softball field. Right field, to be exact.

"What's that?" Will and I asked at the same time.

"Not a dog," I confirmed, coming closer. It was difficult to make out the shape; maybe if I had the night-vision goggles I've requested for the past thirty Christmases... but with ordinary human limitations, I could only see so much. "Maybe a person?"

We were within a hundred yards. Seventy-five. Fifty. It could have been a person, I decided. A small person, without a head. I cleared my throat, whistled, called, "Here, boy." The lump in right field remained completely still. "It's just a coat left behind," I said finally. We kept walking, leaving a trail of disintegrated leaves in our wake.

On Thursday, home early, we decided to give the long-suffering B a proper, leisurely walk, and this time we ended up in the park with plenty of daylight left. There were a few people by the swingsets and a few more in the infield, pitching, batting, fielding and in general displaying more energy than I've had in months. And there was also, most definitely, a face-down person in right field.

We looked at each other. "Is that the same...?"

It was a man wearing dark clothes, except for a jacket with a thick cream-colored stripe across its back. That's what I'd seen the night before, the stripe almost iridescent in the darkness, the rest of his body only vaguely suggested in the dusk. We inched closer to investigate. It's difficult to "inch" with a beagle lunging five feet ahead, but we needed a closer look. There was definitely a head, although the jacket collar was pulled up past his ears. One arm was wrapped around the back of his neck in a quite unnatural position. I know; I tried it right there on the spot. My mind raced: No one would lie down that way on his own. He must have been... posed.

"Call 911," I gasped to the man with the ubiquitous cell phone.

Will chuckled. "And say what? 'Come quickly, there's a man lying in the park'?"

"He's been there for two days, he's not moving, he's face-down..."

Will considered. "I'll call the non-emergency number."

I waited anxiously while he dialed. The man had not moved.

"Hmm. Busy," Will reported.

Wasn't this always how it went in the movies? Danger at hand and no one home?

"I'll tell you what," Will said. "I'll come back in a little while, when it's dark. If he's still here, I'll call 911."

Fair enough. Twenty minutes later, Will left our house in my car. I sat paralyzed, too dazed to even pick up the remote. I was imagining myself at the edge of the park, wrapped in a cashmere shawl, my hair wind-tussled. "He was just lying there," I would say to the detective with the tiny notepad. "We were so worried."

I snapped back to reality when Will's key turned in the lock. "Well," he shrugged, "no one there. So I guess..."

"... he wasn't dead," I finished. Why did this feel like such a disappointment?

We stared at each other for a long moment.

And then we laughed hysterically.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Put Your Right Foot In

Let me just say: I love to dance.

This doesn't mean that I have a natural sense of rhythm or movement, that I can bust any decent moves, or even that other people like to watch me dance.

I do most of my dancing while I clean, dustcloth in hand, or while I cook, sampling from a wooden spoon. Think of it as a less graceful version of Julia Roberts' love-interest-neighbor in Sleeping With the Enemy, who sang and leapt to "When You're a Jet, You're a Jet" with his garden hose as a prop.

But dance in public? Not so much. I need a bottle or so of chardonnay to boost my confidence first.

On Wednesday, I attended my first ever junior high dance, not as a chaperone, but as the event coordinator. It was my job to make sure the DJ arrived on time, the kids had fun, and all the stepped-on Skittles were pried off the floor at the end of the night.

While the other adults hovered near the snack table or stuck to the doors, as far from the speakers as possible, I drifted around ther periphery of the mob -- 100 or so 12- to 14-year-olds who had crammed themselves into a tight, sweaty circle of approximately twenty square feet. Around the edges of the circle, kids were standing, barely moving to the beat. The real dancers were in the middle, their faces slick and shiny.

A boy from my second period class was sitting with his back against the back wall. "'C'mon, get out there," I motioned, trying to encourage him. He shook his head, but later I saw him ask a girl to slow dance -- no doubt the moment he'd been anticipating/dreading since dance posters went up the week before.

As I wandered the periphery, I kept bumping into one tiny dark-haired girl, who was busy spinning in dizzying solo circles. Whenever I passed, she would call, "Come dance with me!" And I laughed, smiling, thinking, No way, sweetheart. But I admired her guts. She didn't care that the cool kids were in a tight, grinding bunch -- she was dancing her heart out and having the sugar-fueled time of her life. She reminded me of myself, doing the Charleston in my kitchen or jitterbugging my way down the hallway, terrified pets scattering at my approach.

I took a break during a slow song and pulled up a folding chair to the snack table. "Who's that girl out there?" I asked, gesturing. Although the floor had cleared except for about twenty couples, the girl was still out there, swaying with her arms hugged to her chest, as if her partner was a slim, invisible boy.

"Seventh grader," one of my colleagues replied. "She's in special ed."


I kept watching her, noticing how she kept dancing even after the music stopped. You go, girl, I thought. Put that whole body in.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


This morning I went out to get the paper and was struck by how plain our front porch looked - barren, even. But why? There was the porch swing, the horseshoe chair... and then I realized: my flowerpots were gone.

I peeked around the corner -- still two cars in the driveway. Hmm. I was hit by a moment of deja vu. Two years ago, also on a Sunday morning, I'd stepped out to find Will's car gone although he was most definitely at home, mummified by layers of sheets and blankets. I'd interrupted his sleep to ask him, casually, "Did you park somewhere different last night?"

He'd rolled over, instantly awake. "WHAT?"

Today, I wiped my feet on the mat, calmly walked down the hall, and located Will beneath tufts of the comforter. "Um, hey, Will... did you move anything off the porch last night? Maybe because of the rain?"

He rolled over and groaned. Not again.

He pulled on clothes and we stood together on the porch, which was decidedly bare at second glance, and I allowed myself a few minutes to morn the loss of my flower pots.

Not that they contained actual flowers (or any plants really; I lack the commitment and responsibility needed to keep either alive). But they had beautiful, filigreed metal stands and last spring, in a spurt of renovation fever, I painted the terra cotta pots a glossy shade of chocolate brown, then sponge-painted over them in black so they looked antigue and, well, cool. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out. Then I "planted" them with willow branches in a mixture of potting soil and landscape bark. They were beautiful; they made me happy every time I stepped onto my porch -- happier, I was suddenly convinced, than a car could ever make me.

Inside, Will and I studied Baxter gravely. How could a dog with a ferocious howl that alerts us to everything else in the neighborhood (passing cats, neighbors watering their lawns) and sleeps a mere five feet from the front porch have missed this entire occasion? Perhaps out of guilt, Baxter declined his morning scoop of food.

Later, I went online to fill out a police report. THESE REPORTS ARE NOT INVESTIGATED, a pop-up window reminded me.

No problem. I don't expect a manhunt or anything.

I just want it on record for when I spot the planters on someone else's porch, park my SUV down the street in modern Nancy Drew fashion, and insist to the police dispatcher that I've got the "perps" in my "sights".

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Down Time

Yesterday, I left school after two periods and made it home just in time to enjoy the stomach flu in the privacy of my own bathroom.

Monday, I taught six classes, stopped at Walmart after school to pick up supplies for a school event on Friday, attended a neighborhood association steering committee meeting, took B for a walk, shopped for a suit for Will, typed out committee minutes and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Sunday was Mom's birthday party.

Saturday was the wedding.

Friday was an all-day event with 400 first to fourth graders in blistering heat. I was home by 3:30 and asleep by 4.

The last few weeks have been spent planning for the event, guiding twenty-three seventh and eighth graders to make posters, bring materials and arrive at the assigned place at the assigned time.

Then there's teaching my Language Arts classes, including some literature I've never read before, much less taught. There's grading and grading and grading.

There are the weekends where I sit at Borders with my laptop and hate myself for not being able to write a word. There are queries sent out and library books returned because I didn't even have time to crack the cover.

Then two funerals, two weeks apart.

There was August 16, when I started teaching full-time for the first time since 2007.

There was August 9, putting on my new suit and telling myself I could do this, I could be bright and well-spoken and as impressive in person as the resume I'd turned in a week ago.

There was my graduation party - the last time I remember relaxing. And four days before that, three weeks of traveling in New York and Boston -- and Maine, where I workshopped part of my novel, gave a reading and presentation and walked across the stage.

From June 8 to July 8 I taught summer school/dodged bullets/graded crappy half-assed papers/tried to hold it all together. Then packing, delivering a disappointed B to my sister's house, driving to the airport, dozing fitfully on a red-eye flight to Maine.

On May 27, I finished my novel, sighed, breathed, felt happy and empty all at once.

STOP. Is it possible that this was the last time I was happy, the last time that life wasn't pushing in on me from all sides? Is it any wonder I've been exhausted, disconnected from my friends and colleagues, unable to read a book from start to finish (well, I did read The Corrections in a listless five-week span), barely able to construct a sentence? There must be a way to find balance -- to find equal parts down time and "on" time, to be goofy, word-loving private me as well as the busy, polite public me.

If only I could split myself into two people and do everything well. And then maybe the real me could just walk away from the other, imposter, Paula. Walk or run.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wisconsin, Part IV

Friday night, after the funeral, we gather back at the farmhouse. There's a cousin picture to be taken, so we line up on the hill in front of the barn, as always. Does no one remember, Mark asks, when Grandma called out, "Everyone smile and say 'shit'?" We laugh, smile, squint into the sun.

We're in a bit of a rush; Rachel and Orlando's lives in Indiana are beckoning. These are the first goodbyes.

We've all changed into jeans and sweaters; free from the constraints of skirts and suits and heels, we wander the house, drifting together to watch a heated game of marbles at the kitchen table, falling away to study black-and-white portraits of ancestors who have been gone so long that their very names are lost. We look for resemblances -- can't you see Uncle Don in this face? Doesn't Sara have this exact chin? What happened to the curly hair gene, anyway?

We dine on leftovers from the funeral luncheon -- white bread, cold cuts, pre-sliced cheese, some fantastic salty-sweet German potato salad. Julie (sister of Sara, our somewhere-down-the-line cousins) brings over wine -- her own vintage. The kids, too exhausted to sit still, pad from one room to the next clutching rubber duckies in their fists.

Mom and I sit down with Omi's diary, which someone has unearthed. It's a multi-year diary, each page a date in the calendar year, the lines encompassing Dad's grandma's life between 1957 or so and 1973, the latest entry I can find. Sometimes her entries are solely practical -- "very cold" and "snowstorm" show up repeatedly. Mondays are clearly her wash-days. Birthdays are noted, as well as who came to visit and who left to visit elsewhere. Aunt Caroline's death three months after a terrible car accident is recorded; later, heartbreakingly, Omi writes of the death of her husband: "Dad dies in hospital in Manitowoc -- sick only one day."

"I remember that day," Dad says, prompted by the entry. It was the only Sunday that his grandpa didn't pick him up for church; during the whole service, Dad worried that something bad would happen.

Later, the girl cousins wander through the bedrooms, opening drawers and reminiscing. Our fingers trail over dusty surfaces; we're all aware it's our last time in the house. In the downstairs bedroom, Beth asks, "Remember the fruit candies Grandma stored in here?" I do; once we discovered their existence, we snuck into the room at every possible moment. It didn't matter a bit that the candies were stale, hard and possibly years-old.

In an upstairs drawer, we find a stash of Grandma's costume jewelry which leaves a greasy residue on our pawing fingers. We're mystified by the flapper-length necklaces, but instantly remember the white plastic beads. I can even conjure up the dress Grandma wore with them -- navy polyester with a white geometric pattern, a strange square apron-like flap of material in the front. Grandma's clothes were removed years ago; only Grandpa's shirts and dozens of ties hang sadly in their closet. In other drawers, we find dozens of crochet hooks and knitting needles; Heather finds a "charge plate" to the Boston Store -- the tiniest, oldest and coolest credit card any of us has ever seen. Kim discovers an old camera; it occurs to me that there might be film in it still, forgotten moments from our fathers' lives. "I've got to get going," Mark says, for the dozenth time -- he's got a drive ahead of him tonight. But he follows us anyway, gagging at the sight of his feathered hair in 80's-era photos.

Eventually, working our way in a circle around the upstairs, we reach the attic door. "You go first," I say, pushing Beth ahead of me. I've had many a private nightmare about these narrow stairs, the wooden door that creaks slowly open, the floorboards that aren't use to a footstep weightier than a rat's. All I need is to have someone pull shut the door behind me and extinguish the light, and I'll go crazy, Grace Poole-style.

If possible, the attic is more terrifying than it was when we were children. The overhead light illuminates only a tiny circle of stacked boxes; the rest of the room is hidden in inky blackness. But we're smarter than we were as kids, or possibly only more technologically advanced. Armed with flashlights, cell phones, digital cameras and the impressive flash on Heather's camera, we inch our way around the space. "I found a drum set!" Beth calls from a recess under the eave. I lift a plastic bag to reveal a telephone table which I proceed to fall in love with. "Tons of Christmas stuff over here," someone calls, and Kate asks, "Wouldn't it be cool to have one of Grandma and Grandpa's ornamenets on our trees?" A minute later, Joel calls out, "I found a gun!" "Put it down! Put it down!" we shriek in a chorus of female hysteria; this is how accidents happen, this is how a cousin gets picked off in the dark. "Relax -- it's a BB gun," he says. "I wonder if it's the gun," a few of us say, simultaneously, remembering the pellet once plucked from the white of my dad's eye. Other treasures slowly emerge: a rocking chair covered inch-deep with dust, the long-fabled fainting couch, covered feet-deep with empty boxes.

It occurs to us suddenly that the protesting floorboards may not be cut out for our collective weight, and that at any moment we might be whooshed downward in the fashion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, through the second-floor bedrooms into the first-floor living room.

Overwhelmed by so much history, exhausted by the day's events and fearing the development of black lung, the cousins abandon our noble quest. "I'm really leaving this time," Mark says, and after a round of goodbyes, does. Kim and Heather have a drive ahead of them, too; Joel and Kate (who successfully and admirably navigated the treacherous attic steps in her high heels) have children to send to bed. I'm exhausted by the mere mention of their plans - to leave at four in the morning for a day-long trip back to Georgia.

One by one, we splinter away. Aunt Barb is making airport runs on Saturday; Uncle Ed is proceeding with a planned trip to Haiti. Uncle Don and Aunt Myrene are the next to go, taking their leave on Saturday afternoon. I fly to San Francisco on Sunday morning, ungraded papers and unwritten lesson plans looming. Beth and my parents, catching flights from Milwaukee on Monday, are the last to go.

I should have been used to it, the chain of goodbyes. By the end, I should have been prepared. But the second my feet were on the back porch, my hand on the metal railing, I felt the lump rise in my throat. Goodbye, Grandpa, I thought. Goodbye, house. Goodbye, apple trees and cellar steps and towering barn. Goodbye, childhood second home. At the car door, I turned around one last time and whispered, "Goodbye, farm."

I know Dad heard me. I'm pretty sure that's why his hand came up and brushed against my back at that very moment.

Goodbye, goodbye.

Wisconsin, Part III

The Native Americans, it was said, used every part of the buffalo.

Grandpa came from a different tradition (German immigrants, struggling farmers, Depression survivors), but he had the same philosophy. Nothing should be wasted. Everything had another purpose, a chance at future usefulness.

To stand in his garage for one moment was to recognize this, to stand humbed before a life of so much carefulness, so much appreciation for the value of things. Gallon-sized ice cream buckets stood in teetering stacks; nails on the wall were carefully spaced to hold coiled lengths of rope and every imaginable tool. His workbench had dozens of tiny compartments for nails and screws and washers of every size. If we had been ordered, right at that moment, to build a giant ark to keep our family afloat for forty days and forty nights, we would have been ready.

"Look at that," one of my cousins marveled, pointing to a wooden device suspended from the ceiling which held, horizontally, a number of shovels and other tools with mid-length handles. "It's such a Grandpa contraption."

We stood, marveling.

"Actually, this reminds me of someone else's garage," I said, and pointed across the room to where my dad stood, staring at what I'd come to think of as the spot. "His."

One of my favorite stories about Grandpa was repeated at his funeral -- how, at age 95, his sons bought him a golf cart so he could get around the farm better. Grandpa paid his customary attention to the details, in particular the warranty on the vehicle's battery. "Only five years," he'd noted, critical of the value of this investment. The battery proved durable, but Grandpa was right. He did outlive its warranty.

In the attic, my cousins and I found every box that had ever been shipped to the farmhouse, complete with its packing peanuts and layers of disintegrating tissue. I checked the return addresses - some from Germany, most from the various adddresses of the sons through the decades: Kamala Court, Brookfield; Tucson, Arizona; East Graceway Drive, Napoleon; Carlton Avenue, Modesto; Bakersfield; San Jose; Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Other boxes contained wire hangers, magazines, paper plates and plastic cups still wrapped with cellophane packaging. I counted no fewer than seven vacuum cleaners.

Why would they save all of this? I wondered, although I suspected the answer had much to do with practicality and less to do with sentimentality. My practicality has taken a different form -- I have a small house, and therefore no room for sentimentality. If I won't use it or wear it within a year, it doesn't belong in my life. I don't clean; I purge. I've become an avid "freecycler" -- if someone else can use what I can't, they're welcome to it.

But in this attic, this weekend, I could afford sentimental attachments. I could allow myself to believe that every object had significance. The hangers crammed into boxes had once held Grandma's housedresses and Grandpa's everyday flannels, the boys' starched Sunday shirts, their too-big confirmation suits. Maybe this was the teapot that Grandma brought out for company; maybe it had been packed away in the attic when it was clear she wasn't coming home, and wasn't ever going to serve a crowd again. This wreath probably hung on the front door, an entrance which was never used by family. These were the very toys my dad and uncles had played with -- puzzles, the carrom board, the miniature tractor, the complicated erector set.

We vacillated between wanting nothing and wanting everything; between saying, "Everything's valuable" to "It's all junk." We were standing with one foot in the present, one tippy-toe feeling for balance in the past.

Where will it all end up, all those carefully saved things, the accumulation of more than a hundred years of living? After the weekend, we would all be gone, back to those far-away addresses, our busy lives. It's simply not practical to think of cramming suitcases, filling a U-haul -- even if those arrangements could be made, there would be nowhere to unpack or unload the contents. Disparate lives simply cannot be merged.

But I think it's wrong to assume that because the china is no longer with the tablecloth (and for that matter, neither is the table) that these things no longer have use or purpose. Grandpa and Grandma may have saved things with the family's health and well-being in mind, but now their belongings can go to others. An upstairs bedrame might be perfect for a little boy's bedroom in Sheboygan; a girl passing through a flea market in Milwaukee might fall in love with Grandma's swan vase -- someday, she might pass it on to her daughter. "It's very old, very precious," she might say. "Who knows what sort of life it has had?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wisconsin, Part II

Grandpa died on Monday, September 13, 2010, the day after he attended a birthday party for his brother-in-law, my beloved great-uncle Al. Earlier in the day he had been spotted in his golf cart, rolling down the gravel driveway to the mailbox. Later, he was found in the garage, his body still warm.

He was 101 years old.

Grandpa was a simple, h0nest, hard-working man. He read his Bible, he occasionally watched professional wrestling, he tamed wild cats, who would come running at his slightest, "Here, missy, missy." He could shake a dice like no one's business; it was uncanny how he always got the exact number he needed to send our marbles back to start. He was the gentler parent, the kindly grandparent who said goodbye with a quick smack on the lips.

When Grandma died (after surviving uterine and breast cancer, the bone cancer proved too mch) in 2002, we all wondered What Would Happen to Grandpa. Sometimes this was phrased as What Should We Do with Grandpa. But Granda didn't want anything done. He was content to live alone, travel the short distances between church and home, home and his sister's house, again and again. He gamely submitted to the long plane rides from Wisconsin to Arizona and Arizona to Californa to visit his sons. He refused any suggestion of going into a nursing home - instead, he took his vitamins and chose his steps carefully, perhaps knowing that he was one bad cold or one broken hip away from hospital care.

Dad, hearing about Grandpa's death, was consumed by the sort of guilt a son has for a parent who dies alone, far away. He tried to work out the time frame: What had Grandpa done that day? Had he been on his golf cart to get the mail? Had he eaten lunch, dinner? How long had he been lying on the ground in the garage, had he called for help? What if he had been found sooner?

But consider the alternatives, Dad. Someone sees or hears him collapse, rushes to his aide, performs CPR or other life-saving measures. Paramedics are dispatched, Grandpa is loaded onto a gurney, rushed to the emergency room in Manitowoc. Doctors examine him. Tubes are hooked up. Medications are ordered. A hospital stay is necessary; possibilities of long-term care are discussed at the foot of his bed.

No, Grandpa wouldn't have wanted any of that. It was best to go the way he did - simple, fast, a misstep that led to a fall, or his heart suddenly given out, having beaten longer than most other human hearts ever will.

We learned more details later. Grandpa was in the garage, sorting apples for the applesauce he made so often and ate every day. Had he made it back to the house, Grandpa would have washed the apples and settled down for an evening of peeling them, one by one, before placing them in a pot of boiling water. Or maybe it was a task for the next day; applesauce-making might have occupied several hours. When it was time, he would have walked down the ramp to his bedroom and begun his vocal twenty-minute evening prayer in German, names of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren popping up in English every so often.

After his funeral, we went back to the farmhouse, which bore marks of Grandpa at every turn. Each object was a relic from a different time - his magnifying glass and Bible on the table near the davenport, his recipe cards stacked on the kitchen counter, his closet hung with plaid shirts.

Out in the garage, we paused over the spot. Bushels of apples on the floor, gallon-sized buckets with sorted apples on his walker and on the garage counter. Dad and I spotted the newspaper at the same time - The Sheboygan Press, dateline Monday, September 13, 2010. Someone (Grandpa?) had placed a weight on top of the paper, so it wouldn't flutter away, caught by the slight breeze in the open garage door. "Well, now we know," Dad said. "He'd already picked up the paper."

There was nothing to say, so I squeezed him on the arm.

Wisconsin, Part I

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a "sense of place" essay about the Treick farm in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I'd spent childhood vacations there, chasing cats in the barn and sneaking into the attic for a peek at decades-old issues of Time and my dad's old report cards. It was where my dad and his brothers grew up; it was what they had each, one by one, left behind. It was where my Grandpa was born and where he was still living, 101 years later, when he died on Monday.

At the time, I thought my essay was wonderful.

Dr. Schaap gave me a B. In his notes, he wrote: "It will be a good essay one day."

I know now what he meant then. Understanding a place -- really getting a sense of it -- requires distance and perspective. Time must pass, things must happen, in order for an experience to have value. Otherwise a place is just a collection of objects and memories. In other words, it's only a place.

I'm writing this in the San Francisco airport, while seating zones one and two are boarding. I can wait a few more minutes; what's the point of being wedged into seat 21B for a second longer than necessary?

Since I heard the news on Monday night, I've been both anticipating and dreading this moment. The flight, the separation from real life, the reunion with far-flung family in a place that holds a strange, almost mystical attraction for me. I'm coming, I told my Dad. It doesn't matter the price. I'm coming to say goodbye.

Maybe he thought I meant a goodbye to Grandpa, but that's not really the case. When I saw Grandpa this winter (this winter of his fall, the head injury, the trip to the ER on a Sunday morning), I knew it might be the last time. My goodbye was a real goodbye; there are no certainties, especially when you hit the 100-year-mark.

There will be a viewing, a memorial service, family gatherings with fatty foods and laughter and tears. We'll say goodbyes again after a couple short day, and those might be real goodbyes, too. It's horrible to put into words -- but our next gathering may well be another funeral; it's what brings everyone together in the end. But we won't gather again in Manitowoc, Wisconsin - this I can say with reasonable confidence. What will there be for any of us, anymore? The land will be there, of course, but it may not contain a rambling farmhouse, the garage and sheds, the silos, the bar with its date, a proclamation: 1849. All the stuff will be gone, too, to one place or another -- the marble boards, the closets full of Grandpa's plaid shirts, the plastic containers he was always saving for some practical, mysterious purpose.

I'm trying to avoid cliche, but I know it's going to be true: only when it's gone will I finally have a true sense of the place.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Service Furniture

Our first apartment – all 500 square feet of it – was basically a spread from the 2000 IKEA catalog. The walls were lined with BILLY bookcases, the living room was lit by tall paper-shaded lamps that resembled cigars. A bulky blanket shed clumps of red wool that collected in the far corners of the room.

And then there was the TIMRA. We needed a TV stand, and this was about as basic a TV stand as IKEA offered. The TIMRA boasted four bulky wheels, two retro steel bars and a whole lotta beech veneer – which was apparent from the moment we sliced open the box. “This is beech, not birch,” I moaned. “We have to take it back.”

Will gave me his most gentle smile, the one that said without saying, I love you dear, but I’m not driving 90 minutes back to Emoryville to exchange this thing.

An hour later, the TIMRA assembled and wheeled into position by the cable hook-up, I’d made my peace with it. The TIMRA was clearly a temporary fixture in my life. It would hold the TV and VCR, the Playstation (three guesses which of us brought a Playstation into the relationship), stray cat toys, melted candles and random pieces of mail that defied categorization. And soon, we would replace it with real furniture.

Fast forward ten years. Not only did the TIMRA survive the three air-conditionless years in our apartment, but it also made the move to our house, where it has sat for the last seven years, all but buried beneath DVDs of Seinfeld and the Godfather. And at least once a month during this decade, I pestered my dad to build us an armoire.

“Think of your favorite daughter living with beech veneer,” I pleaded. He was always amenable, even sketching plans for what would be the world’s coolest armoire, but somehow always ran short on time. When he wasn’t busy, we were. When he could find the right wood, I was too poor to place an order. Eventually, I stopped pressing the point – mostly because styles had changed. The plans would need to be redrawn, since it would no longer be housing a 30-inch deep TV.

This weekend, overwhelmed by the possibilities of three days off in a row, Will and I made a spontaneous trip to IKEA. I composed a mental list as Will drove: a new slipcover for the “Baxter chair,” some sort of shelving for my classroom, wall art for Will’s office. New potholders, wrapping paper, plant pots. Other random, bright, cheap things. Swedish meatballs.

And then, wandering through the IKEA showrooms, marveling at the 200-square foot apartment and the coolest kids’ bedrooms on earth, Will and I saw it at the same time. A HEMNES TV stand – solid pine, black/brown finish, three drawers, perfect for the flat screen TV we will someday own. We gasped. Our eyes met across an EKTORP sofa.

“What do you think about –”

“I love it.”

Later that night, the unassembled pieces of the HEMNES strewn across the room, I didn’t love it quite as much. I was beginning to wonder, in fact, if it wasn’t easier to just box the thing up again and drive it back to West Sacramento, receipt in hand. There were no less than 31 steps to assembling this beauty, and each step was accompanied by vague pictures of boards and screws that all looked basically the same. It was a warm night and we had the windows closed while the air conditioner hummed. Otherwise, our neighbors might have overheard something like:

“Where did the other allen wrench go?”

(Deleted swearing.) “It looks like we’re missing a dowel.”

“It looks fine like it is. Let’s just leave it that way.”

“Wait – which side is the front again?”

“This thing is impossible! How can an average person put this together? I mean, don’t you figure we’re smarter than the average IKEA customer?”

“Apparently not.”

“Maybe we only need two drawers, anyway.”

“You know, I have a renewed respect for the TIMRA. Simple, elegant in its own way, already assembled.”

At one point, I decided it was best for everyone involved if I took Baxter for a walk. The walls had started to close in on us – and with all the scattered materials and shredded cardboard, there was nowhere to sit, anyway. Will took advantage of my absence and somehow – miraculously – assembled the entire rest of the thing in twenty minutes. Perhaps he had only been toying with me for the past three hours?

Anyway – the HEMNES is beautiful. Black, sleek, practically gleaming in its newness. I mentioned this to Will, who stared at me blankly.

“The what?”

“The HEMNES… hello?”

“Oh, that,” he said. “I guess I’ll always think of it as the TIMRA.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Weekend Writer

A few weeks ago, I started teaching again. The plan was for me to teach during the day and write three nights a week. Or two – at least two. Okay, one. Absolutely one.

Here’s how it’s going.

Week one was crazy. I spent ten hours a day at school and the rest of the time in front of the TV, too exhausted to move. My body was asking me: Really? We’re doing this again? My dog, transitioning from two walks a day to one, was asking the same thing.

So it wasn’t until Friday of week one that I packed up my laptop (Will’s, really – did I mention that my laptop died? Could the universe please stop sending me messages?) and headed for the Borders café. I almost made it, too. But somehow I ended up in the bedding aisle at T.J. Maxx. I don’t need bedding and I haven’t been inside T.J. Maxx in the better part of a year –but suddenly it seemed crucial that I be there. I fingered 500-thread count sheets discounted to $29.99. I tried out pillows – a favorite pastime. Finally, I snapped out of my funk, marched my behind to Borders, ordered an espresso with an extra shot, and went at it. Well – sort of. It had been exactly twelve days since I found out I got the teaching job and my life went into full-blown chaos, so I’d been away from my manuscript for a full twelve days. I was kind of scared to return to it. It was like suddenly returning to a friend I’d been avoiding, and there was a stiff awkwardness to my rhythm. I had a checklist for my novel revision, but those things all seemed too overwhelming to implement. Read over for references to the 1970s. Um, no. Instead, I fiddled with a few sentences, possibly making them worse. The next morning I hit Starbucks, which was simultaneously overrun by youth soccer players who definitely didn’t need caffeine in the first place. It was slow going, but I did get somewhere.

Week two. All I thought about was organizing curriculum, planning writing proficiencies, and how in the world I was ever going to fit in with my new colleagues. Exactly no writing happened again until Friday night. Will went to a football game, and I escaped again to Borders. I ended up writing something entirely unrelated to my novel, more as therapy. And then I read over things. Not bad, I kept thinking, grinning to myself. Who is responsible for this genius? Oh, right – me. I had managed to forget entire lines, if not scenes, of my novel.

Week three. It’s only Monday, and I’m in Starbucks, sipping an unsweetened ice tea lemonade and eavesdropping on the conversation of a couple next to me and trying to figure out how I know the man sprawled on the chaise lounge. I’ve even opened my novel file – it’s right underneath this one. This – in the world of the weekend writer – feels like a huge accomplishment.

Watch out, world. Here I come.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Animal Kingdom

This is what it’s like to live in a house ruled by animals.

One warm night you are asleep next to your husband, your body cooled by a slight breeze through the open bedroom windows. The down comforter, truly useless in such circumstances, is heaped between your body and his. One cat is perched on your hip – it’s where he prefers to wait, if not actually sleep, during the night. You have already rolled to the side, forcing him off your hip, twenty times – but he keeps coming back. Somewhere in the darkness the other cat is also waiting. Your dog, meanwhile, is under the bed making the strange helpless yelps that indicate a go
od dream.

You are aware of all of these things sub-consciously, while lost in a dream that is a strange amalgam of seventh grade curriculum, lines from your revised novel and conspiracies from the book on your night stand.

And then, all feline hell breaks loose.

One of your cats has apparently tried to jump from one windowsill to the other, sending a lamp crashing and all three pets scuttling into frantic movement. One claws your arm as he makes his way over your body into the safety of the hallway. You sit up. In the dim glow from the backyard solar lighting, you locate the lamp, balancing precariously between a table and the wall. Thankfully a glass of water from earlier in the evening is undisturbed. Your husband, despite the tremendous crash three feet from his head and being trampled by at least four feet, is still asleep.

You feel it is your duty to alert him to the fact that you are awake. You nudge him. “Did you hear that? One of the cats knocked over a lamp.”

He begins speaking as if you are in the middle of a long conversation, which is confusing but familiar. In half-wakened states, he likes to take charge of situations. What he tells you now begins with, “What you don’t understand is how it started.”

“You’re sleeping. You’re not making any sense,” you argue. All you want is for him to lean over, pick up the lamp, and fall back asleep. The lamp is closer to him. It is only fair.

“You’re the one who doesn’t make any sense,” he says. While this might be true in a general way, it is not true now – but you decide to give up. The cats have abandoned the bedroom perhaps for the rest of the night, but the dog is back, leaning his wet nose into the palm of your hand, which dangles over the edge of the bed. “I’m going back to sleep,” you tell your husband, with great dignity. He gives a general snore in response.

You fumble for the alarm, pressing its Indiglo switch. 3:06. Your alarm will go off in less than three hours, and unfortunately, you realize you are now wide awake. The dog licks your hand idly.

You close your eyes. You will yourself back to sleep. No – you are too uncomfortable, and everything must be adjusted before sleep can resume: sheets, pillow, hair, which lies hot on your neck. Much better. Now: sleep.

Count sheep. Listen to the cats, still traumatized, prowl the hallway. Husband’s breath, dog’s sigh, a truck lumbering by, blocks away. Check the clock. 3:09. Is this even possible? Have you disturbed the space/time continuum?

Come on – you need this sleep. There’s so much to do tomorrow – walk the dog, fold laundry, grade poems, plan what in the world you’re teaching this trimester. Oh, damn. Nevermind. You are now officially wide awake.

You fumble for your book light, reach for your book. You have been on page 105 in
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest for the last three days, bogged down in the inner workings of the Swedish Secret Police. You sigh and read until 4:30, when your eyelids droop again.

The next thing you know, of course, your alarm clock has begun its maddening beeps – gentle, then insistent. Sunlight floods the room. The dog stretches, ready for breakfast. A cat has once again settled onto your hip, and the other cat once again sits in the windowsill, his fur pressed against the screen.

You stretch, then pick your way through strewn blankets and pillows to the other side of the room, where you right the toppled lamp.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Official End of Summer

On Friday, a small group of us gathered for dinner at a friend’s house. We numbered six; five of us (including, as of tomorrow, me) are teachers. Will is the lone man out, but since he’s an expert on high school sports, he moves smoothly through our conversations.

I was almost too tired to put on a smile. It was the end of a whirlwind week that began on Monday, when I put on a suit and summoned my friendliest expression and interviewed for a job teaching seventh and eighth grade Language Arts. I didn’t tell Will I was interviewing; I had only mentioned, with extreme casualness, that I applied in the first place. Teaching isn’t my long range plan, but short term, it allows me to pay off bills, get ahead and pursue the long range plan (writing) in the future.

On Tuesday morning, I got the call: The job was mine. “I’m so excited!” I said to the person in Human Resources, and this was true. But my mind was already reeling – thinking of what needed to be done to set up a classroom, and the freedom I was leaving behind. While still on the phone discussing my units and benefits, I emailed Will: “Got a job. Dinner’s on me.” That afternoon I drove to the school and picked up my keys.

Wednesday was spent signing papers at the district office and filling two Walmart shopping carts with all the stuff I was going to need – all the stuff I’d essentially left behind at my last teaching job, since some of it had been purchased with school funds, and besides, I was done with teaching, anyway, wasn’t I? Notebooks, lined paper, pencils, crates, manila folders, Sharpies, dry erase markers. I ended up spending $160 on items ranging anywhere from ten cents to two bucks apiece.

Thursday I spent cleaning in my new classroom, sorting into piles of things that may be useful (ancient curriculum binders) and things that definitely wouldn’t (three mismatched shoes). I met my new colleagues. I drew posters, determined to cover as much of the light gray walls as possible.

Will had Friday off and helped me move desks, hook up my computer and – surprising both of us – complete an art project for my “Word Wall”. I ran copies, skimmed through textbooks, made frantic lists of things to do over the weekend. So I was exhausted when we finally got in my car for the trip to Hughson – if I allowed myself to close my eyes, I would have been asleep instantly.

But the company was fantastic, our friends’ remodel so gorgeous I offered my housesitting services, the food melt-in-my-mouth delicious. Four kids wandered around the periphery, kicking soccer balls and racing each other. The sun went down and the night was gorgeous, the sky a velvety black dotted helter-skelter with stars. The kids started it, dragging blankets to the backyard, and we adults joined them, settling onto our backs. We spotted the Big Dipper, the North Star, a few planes that might have been UFOs – you never know.

In a week, we would all be back in school, back in the rhythm of bells ringing and pledging to the flag, passing out papers and collecting homework. Our time would not be our own. My time would belong to hordes of twelve-to-fourteen year-olds and I’ll be lucky, I know, if I escape grading papers for an evening or two of writing.

But it’s just a change of circumstance, not a change of essentials. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

State of Mind

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d never been to New York before our trip this summer. My personal experience with the city was limited to a view of the Manhattan skyline from the Newark terminal and a wait in an endless line at JFK. (I was also passed a counterfeit $10 bill and the most rubbery chicken sandwich of my life at a Burger King at JFK, but since I have almost forgiven New York in general for the incident, it only bears noting in parentheses.) Other than airport vendors hawking “I [heart] NY” t-shirts, I really could have been anywhere.

This unintentional avoidance of New York was becoming a source of shame for two people who consider themselves travelers and, for that matter, writers. We’ve stood at the base of the Jungfrau in Grindelwald, Switzerland; we’ve taken a boat up the Bosphorus in Istanbul, where Europe meets Asia; last summer, I got a healthy sunburn on Great Blasket Island, which is considered so remote that Ireland no longer lets its residents live there. Not visiting New York City was just plain silly.

But even though it was my first official visit, New York felt instantly familiar to me, from the moment we stepped off the train at Penn Station. I’ve seen, after all, a few thousand episodes of Seinfeld and Law and Order, not to mention dozens of movies with New York as a backdrop. A glance at my bookshelves reveals my recent mental journeys to the city: Motherless Brooklyn, Netherland, Lowboy. And of course, during the fall of 2001, Manhattan was an ever-present fixture on my TV screen.

So in a way I’d grasped the essence of New York without ever physically being there – the swarms of people of every race, religion, nationality, social class; the crowded, clacking subways; the overwhelming glitz of Times Square; the stately museums with stern-faced docents…

What this west-coast, dry-heat-loving girl had failed to envision, however, was what it would be like to experience the city under oppressive humidity and crushing heat. I saw New York through the sweat that had dripped into my eyes: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the almost airless subway tunnels. I sweated through every shirt in my bulging suitcase; I sought refuge in front of the dinky air conditioner in our hotel room, blasting away at a constant 68 degrees. I watched, with a growing sense of despair, as recording rising temperatures, with record highs predicted. For Saturday, July 24, the local news warned of 97 degree heat. “Stay inside if you possibly can,” the weatherman advised. It didn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

Oddly enough, no one else in New York seemed to be sweating. While twin semi-circles of sweat sprouted under my breasts, everyone else walked happily – if purposefully – down the streets of the Upper West Side. I checked carefully for beads of sweat on foreheads, for swamp pits lurking in underarms and at the backs of knees. While I fanned myself with a pizza menu on the subway platform, wishing I could stand over a grate Marilyn Monroe-style, New Yorkers calmly read from their Kindles. Even Will (who had showered three times a day when we were in Wisconsin, cursing the humidity all the while) didn’t appear to be bothered.

“I’m dying,” I croaked, when we were exactly halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge. Moving another step was impossible; I was going to have to stay there forever, suspended between boroughs, watching bodies float by in the East River. I flicked sweat from my face, noting that my bangs were completely plastered to my forehead. I felt for my water bottle – only a few, precious swigs left. “I can’t go on,” I gasped.

Will didn’t hear; he was ten yards ahead of me and presumably nestled in a pocket of clean, cool air. He turned around, grinning. “Isn’t this fantastic?” he said. “I could see us living here, couldn’t you?”

I didn’t answer. I was thinking of how I would love to visit New York again – maybe in the fall, when the leaves in Central Park were changing red and gold, maybe in the winter, when I could schlep through the snow and slip on the ice and see a glorious cloud of white air emerge from my lips with each breath. While sweat slid over my eyeballs, I stood perfectly still, with visions of mittens and snow boots dancing through my head.

Now that’s my idea of New York.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Samuel Adams Showered Here

Boston, it turns out, is an expensive place to stay.

Will and I have a basic theory when it comes to travel: the accommodations should be clean, somewhat quiet and close to public transportation. The rest – a comfortable mattress, a soaker shower head – is only a bonus. Last summer, we spent a night in a room approximately the size of a small walk-in closet in Stratford-upon-Avon, so small that only one of us could be standing at a time, and the other had to curl up on the twin-sized mattress or wait in the hallway. And yet we shrugged, laughed, spent that last day trekking through the countryside to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and allowed ourselves to be regaled again by the Royal Shakespeare Company at night.

As we travel, we constantly store up the small details that will make their way into Will’s review on TripAdvisor – the friendliness of the proprietors, the promise of the venue versus its reality. If it doesn’t work for us, we’re going to warn others away. If it meets all our needs, we pass on the tip to other bargain-hunters.

After much searching through Boston’s pricier hotels, we found ours. Not a hotel, technically, but a small apartment – one of a series of small apartments, etc., controlled by a single company. It boasted a bedroom, living/dining room, pocket kitchen and a full bath, close to the orange and green lines of Boston’s T.

“It’s received some mixed reviews,” Will admitted as we pulled our suitcases along cobblestone streets.

“Well, we won’t spend much time in it, anyway,” I assured him.

There were a few bumps to begin with – the man at the front desk had a difficult time locating our reservation, although it was directly in front of him on the desk. He insisted we pay in advance, but then seemed reluctant to return my Visa. We were given keys to open the front door of an apartment building a few blocks away, but once we’d located the address, the room number on the key didn’t match any of the room numbers in the building. Will called and an employee came down with replacement keys.

And then there was the smell. I’ve taught public school for eight years, so it’s a smell I immediately identified – mold.

“The carpet is wet,” Will marveled, stepping out of his shoes. That turned out to be no great mystery – to survive in an apartment with non-functional windows during a Boston summer, the swamp cooler was an immediate necessity. Everything in its path – an expanse of Berber, the contents of our suitcases – quickly became damp.

I don’t know what was worse – the pungent mold stench that hit us fresh each time we entered the apartment, or the fact that in five minutes our nostrils had adjusted and the smell seemed completely normal. Each morning, we went through a five-minute nose-blowing (me) and coughing (Will) routine that could not have been healthy.

It was an odd set-up – we returned from a sweaty circuit of the Freedom Trail to find our bed made, although nothing else had been touched. A small loop of my hair was still in the drain, our towels still wet and crumpled. I popped a Fanta into the freezer for a quick chill and the freezer handle came right off – it was affixed with nothing stronger than a swab of rubber cement. At night we cuddled up on the vinyl couch in front of a flat-screen TV, the experience somewhat muffled by the fact that the volume had to be at its highest level to counteract the swamp cooler. Last night, wending our way to Legal Sea Foods, we passed a Marriott, Sheridan, Westin and The Colonnade, laughing. This morning, I made a concerted effort not to notice the way the plaster above the shower enclosure was peeling, or the way the bathtub seemed to list to one side, ready to drift down the Charles River, maybe. It’s an old building, I reminded myself. Besides, the founding fathers had to deal with much worse – no taxation without representation, massacres, etc.

So we shrugged it off – the location is good, the price is right and changing hotels would be a huge hassle at this point. Anyway, we were less than a day from our train to New York and our completely honest review on TripAdvisor.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Things Observed from an East-Facing Window Seat on the Downeaster from Portland to Boston

(or Lists I Make on Various Forms of Transportation to Amuse Myself when I Can’t Sleep, Part 82)

-- Two marmots picnicking on grass outside the Portland station. They were lovely, wild, fat-bellied things and may not have been marmots at all. Woodchucks, maybe, Will theorized. Or prairie dogs. Look it up, he instructed, but somehow I couldn’t log on to the train’s free WiFi.

-- A fellow passenger, a monk, with a black robe, a bald head and thickish glasses. Two other monks were seeing him off at the platform in Portland, and he called them on his cell phone when the train was pulling away from the station. “But why were you crying?” he asked, gently. “I’m going to see you again.” He got off a few stops later, at Durham.

-- Old Orchard Beach: ice cream stands and surf shops and a somewhat rickety looking roller coaster, a fantastic water slide, tanned bodies, Crocs and brightly painted murals.

-- Christmas tree farms. A man standing uncomfortably close to the train platform. Heaps of railroad ties. A baseball field in West Medford. Woods. Ocean. Lakes. Swamps thick with lilypads. John Deere tractors. Shoes, laces tied together, looped over a telephone wire. Trees that had fallen or were kneeling, about to fall. Field hockey practice in Dover, New Hampshire. Cemeteries. Backyards. Trailer courts. Graffiti (we all want to get our names out there, don’t we?), even in the smallest blinks of towns. On the back side of a tin shed: SHY. Initials? A moniker? A lament that I share, all too often? Elsewhere: SOUP and OUST.

-- My own reflection: mascara smudged, my bangs fallen flat, chapped lips (my lip balm inconveniently stored in my suitcase, which was inconveniently lodged in the overhead bin).

- Empty buildings, self-storage units and smockstacks in Haverhill (“Have-rill”), Massachusetts. A funky-looking bookstore (Bookends) in Winchester.

-- A man who looked like (but sadly, was not) David from my writing program. I caught a glimpse of his dark hair and flannel shirt on the way into the bathroom and waited for him to come out, waited so long (about 15 minutes, according to Will’s wristwatch) that I began to really hope it wasn’t him at all, because he might be embarrassed to make eye contact after such horrible intestinal issues or to be publicly exposed as a cokehead.

-- Will: in his favorite Royal Robbins garb, Nick Hornby book splayed facedown in his lap, hands clasped, mouth open, sleepy smile on lips, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.

- The New York Times’s Style section wedding pages, which I went through with a pen, circling all mentions of “Harvard” and “Yale” and “Princeton.”

- The inside of the bathroom (technically not observed from seat). Until this moment, lowering myself carefully to the toilet seat, I had not noticed just how rocky the train was.

- Boston: the Charles River, a funky bridge, lots more grafitti, mammoth concrete loops for underpasses, overpasses, onramps and off-ramps. Brick everywhere. Blue sky. My home for the next three days.

All Good Things

I’m sitting in a laundromat in Brunswick, Maine, watching the clothes that I have been toting around for ten days take a much-needed bath. Will is out scouting shampoo and batteries; in the trunk of our rental car is my suitcase, bearing amongst other things my MFA degree, barely twelve hours old. I’m one iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts and a few hours away from taking the Downeaster to Boston.

Last night I said goodbye to the friends I’ve had for two years, the ones who freaked out over the printing of our theses with me, the ones who understood when other people just didn’t get my writing. Wearing my gray-and-silver heels and a beautiful borrowed necklace, I sweated out a few beers and half of an all-meat pizza on the dance floor. I laughed, for maybe the last time, at what MFA students look like while they’re dancing.

And now it’s time to move on.

For me, literally, this means a return to California, to my house and dog and the cats I sometimes forget I have. It doesn’t mean – not yet, anyway – a return to full-time teaching; I’m hoping instead to polish up the novel I finished in May and send it out to the world. I want to take everything I’ve learned, about writing and about life, and apply it to whatever comes next.

It hasn’t fully sunk in yet that I might not be returning, ever – but I can already sense the nostalgia that’s coming.

When I resigned as a full-time teacher at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, it took another year for that fact to hit me. In the meantime, I stayed in touch with some of my colleagues. I bumped into my former students on Facebook. It wasn’t until I went to graduation this May that I realized I had really left. I didn’t recognize most of the faces around me. No longer a staff member, I stood outside the gate, catching only a few snatches of commencement speeches that the microphone (and the wind) floated my way. Until that moment, I hadn’t really looked back. I had only considered what I was headed toward; I hadn’t really considered what I was leaving behind.

It might take me some time, then, to really miss my MFA program and the strange cast of characters (myself included, I suppose) that populated it. Give me a week, a month, a season, a year. Give me until January, when I’m not taking a propeller plane to a snow-covered northern landing strip, my winter boots taking up half the real estate of my suitcase. Give me until next July, when I’m not thinking about how my hair will react to humidity, or once again waging the dorm vs. hotel room debate.

All good things, I know, must come to an end. Even bad things do – even this moment right now, where I am waiting for the rinse cycle under the intense scrutiny of a strange woman with copious amounts of facial hair who is trying to ascertain if I am, indeed, writing about her. Yes, even this will end – with the sound of a buzzer or a natural disaster that wipes out the Northeast or the arrival of Will. Some experiences, of course, are more miss-able than others.

But right now I’m bracing myself, just a bit, for what I know is coming sooner or later. When it finally hits me that Stonecoast is in my past, I want to be prepared for the impact, like a fighter clenching his stomach muscles, unwilling to take the full brunt of the blow.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What's Next

At the end of May, I finished my novel.

Well – a first draft. A good first draft. I’ve had to let it sit for a while, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it in a month or so. I open the file occasionally and read over passages, surprised at what surprises me, now that I’ve read the book a dozen times straight through.

I spent the first week of June editing a 184-page-manuscript – a volunteer effort, but something that you can bet will show up on my resume.

I printed out my thesis, which meant two trips to Office Depot and, somehow, five trips to the post office.

And then I started summer school. It’s my fourth straight summer of marking time on chalkboards, which probably makes me even less intelligent than some of my students, who assure me that they spend each summer making up the work they failed all school year long. Not every minute is horrible – sometimes five minutes at once goes by and I haven’t looked at the clock.

The rest of my moments feel stolen – working on my graduate presentation, reading an article in the New Yorker, picking a few weeds here and there, making lists of things to pack and then quickly misplacing them.

I’m a few days from getting on a plane and leaving my life behind for three weeks. There are a million things to do – last minute straightening, so I come back to a clean house; the actual act of packing – and somehow I’ve spent my fifth of July in a state of inertia. Even bringing in the sun tea required great mental effort. Flipping channels, I found the AMC marathon of Mad Men and have barely moved since.

I know what it is – transition. I’m never really good at that.

For a long time I was plotting my enrollment in graduate school, and then it happened. I spent the last two years looking forward to a completed manuscript and graduation – and now it’s practically here. As of the 17th, I’ll be an MFA graduate. The scariest thing may be what’s next – a return to teaching? part-time jobs while I rewrite/search for an agent/move forward in my writing life? If I sit still for too long, a weird panicky feeling settles on my chest.

Get up. Move. Keep going.

Last week, I gave Mona the go-ahead to experiment with my hair. Sure, go a shade darker on the bottom, I said. Why not? And now I’m a half-blonde with black hair that sticks to my neck in the heat.

I think I might hate it, I told my sister.

Nah, she said. You needed some more edge. You’re a writer, after all.

I laughed at the time, and too rushed to do anything about it, I’ve still got the hair. It’s funny how sometimes the decisions are made for you. Maybe this is just a case of hair as destiny.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The World from this Window

At Starbucks, I grab a seat at the window, and while writing the epilogue to my novel, I also make the following observations:

A woman comes through the drive-thru at Starbucks with pink curlers in her hair. She looks young (younger than me, anyway), and I puzzle over this for far too long. I thought curlers went the way of bobby socks and poodle skirts. I thought going out in public with curlers was the domain of elderly women in housedresses, support hose and lipstick-stained teeth. I thought What Not to Wear, after years of noble fashion warfare, had put a stop to this sort of public behavior altogether.

Two women come in wearing long, floaty skirts and elaborate hair arrangements that involve numerous clips, claws and bobby pins. I imagine they are part of a religious group where long hair and skirts are mandatory. Either this or a traveling theater troop, and they have raided the costume trailer. Although they order at the same time, one woman’s order comes up quickly and the other is lost in a line of white cups (made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber). “Bless you, dear,” says the older woman when the barista finally hands over her mocha. I place them back in the religious group. This makes me wonder if I wonder if anyone looking at me would place me into a religious cult. I belong to that strange sect that worships caffeine, values silence or mind-numbing noise, types fast and loud, and doesn’t feel embarrassed to be caught staring.

It’s been raining on and off for days, so business is slow at the carwash across the street. A few cars do come through – drivers without access to weather reports? I’m tempted myself – my car was dusty before the rain, and rivulets of water have created muddy streaks down the hood. I wonder if car washes are half-price on rainy days, or if this is proof that I have no future in marketing. And then I wonder if the Pacific Northwest – where the Beths live, unaware of each other – has any sort of thriving car wash industry at all.

Earlier today, over breakfast, I browsed for editing jobs on, and noted one promising lead for which I met many of the “required” qualifications (B.A. in English, experience in editing), but when I got to the “recommended” qualifications, I noted that ideal applicant should also be fluent in Portuguese, Arabic and French. The world is a big place, so I’m sure that ideal applicant exists, though whether s/he is willing to work for what amounts to slave labor seems less certain. But you never know – I make assumptions about people all the time and am constantly proven wrong. Perhaps the woman with her hair in curlers was on her way to translate at a multi-lingual conference on bioethics; she would rather be following her passion – ballroom dancing – but takes the occasional translation gig to pay the bills. Fiction is fun.

After all this musing about others, it suddenly occurs to me that the man at the next table is wearing a sweater that my husband owns. I haven’t seen Will wear this sweater in a year, but maybe he should. It looks nice on this man, even paired with light-washed jeans and ratty loafers. I’ll have to remember to tell Will. When the side-effects of a venti skinny vanilla latte kick in, I ask this man if he would mind watching my things. I have to ask him three times, because the first time he apparently doesn’t register the question, the second time he’s completely puzzled, looking me up and down as if we are former colleagues and he should remember my name, and finally on the third plea he says, “Um, sure.” Only in the bathroom does it occur to me that there is no other copy of this novel, at least not the last twenty pages or so. I do the quickest hand-washing job ever and rush back to my seat.

My neighbor Rob is in this Starbucks, in the corner table without a view – the place for serious work. He’s writing too, a project for which he will presumably get paid and for which he has great enthusiasm. All I can see from this angle are his shoes – black Converse – and a stack of napkins, slightly wadded. I am tempted a dozen times to interrupt his concentration with a stupid joke or a witty observation, which is proof that I have the potential to be a horrible person, but since I ultimately resist, I am happy to observe that I do have at least one redeeming quality.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Great Flood of 2010

Will and I don’t clean out our garage like normal people.

In fact, I have to draw on my fiction-writing sensibilities to imagine how other people accomplish this task. They clear their schedules maybe, setting aside a few hours on a sunny Saturday morning in which to move, sort and reorder their belongings. While they move objects onto the driveway, neighbors pass by with children in strollers and dogs on leashes. Pleasantries are exchanged. Afterwards these normal, happy people collapse onto the couch with a sense of accomplishment, a cold beer in their hands and a baseball game on TV.

Will and I prefer a different approach: We wait until the washer malfunctions, then wade through ankle-deep water to salvage what’s left.

The washer malfunction is a strange fact of our lives. It is a rather-new, deceptively competent-looking machine. It works like a charm 99% of the time and then every few hundred cycles – once a year or so – something backfires. Since the prime laundry-washing hours for a night owl are between ten p.m. and midnight, we usually discover the flood while we’re winding down for the day. We drop everything else, curse the faulty washer, and begin the task of moving everything to dry ground.

In the seven years we’ve lived in our house, we’ve performed this task six times and therefore have it down to a sort of science. Our garage is too small for either of our vehicles, even Will’s Civic – which is strange, since homes in the ‘40s presumably had larger cars. So instead of accommodating a car, the garage is a repository for our stuff – notes from Will’s seventeen years as a journalist, texts from my eight years of teaching, cleaning and paper supplies, half-empty gallons of paint, random garden tools. The garage is also functions as a limbo for the things we don’t really want anymore, but haven’t absolutely destined for Goodwill – wedding gifts we’ve never actually used, clothes we haven’t worn in a while.

It’s a mostly silent task. Will opens the garage door (a feat I’ve never mastered), most of the water spills out onto the driveway, and we start dumping things on the lawn. By this point our neighbors – sane people, all of them – are asleep, their homes dark. Each time I’ve expected a police cruiser to drive by and idle at the curb, but this has never happened. (There's no trouble, Officer!) Spread out on the lawn, our belongings are a sorry lot. If I had to imagine the people who owned these random things, I would never picture the two of us.

Some things are lost for good, like the bag of cat food and a twelve-pack of toilet paper – things that actually belong on shelves, but through laziness and general apathy end up on the floor of the garage, now weighted with water and rendered completely useless. The real joy is the cat litter, which takes on the mass and consistency of a load of cement. It has to be scraped off the floor, then wrapped in layers of plastic bags. I try not to think about the bodily functions of my cats as the litter oozes between my toes.

The first time it happened, we were emotional wrecks – Will angry at the disruption, me weepy over what we’d lost. By now we take it in stride, which in a way is even worse. We’ve resigned ourselves to the situation; we’ve accepted the possibility that our benign-looking washing machine will one day turn on us. (Annie Dillard, if I recall, had a similar experience with a typewriter that one day exploded, showering her writing table with sparks. After this single incident, it worked fine.) And so, an hour-and-a-half later, the garage is drying, our belongings are reorganized and a shopping list of toiletries is affixed to the refrigerator. Will and I call dibs on the first shower; in what has become our pattern, he lets me take it.

For a week or two afterwards, we’ll watch the machine carefully, opening the garage door for a quick peek to catch it in the act, like a disobedient child. And then, inevitably, we’ll forget. Nah, we think, listening to the whoosh of the rinse and the rumble of the spin cycle. It’ll never happen again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Back-Up Dog

Baxter is sick.

It is probably not his intention to cause me worry and heartache, but I’m worried. I’m heart-ached.

Last week we spent three days in Santa Rosa with my sis, her husband, and the lovely Sabine. Baxter survived the drive – he was eerily quiet in the car, actually; so much so that occasionally Will and I muted the radio to listen for his breathing. He even survived our ill-planned stop in Richmond for sustenance, although he was plainly eager to be on the road again.

While Will and I chatted up my sister and cooed over Sabine, Baxter inspected every inch of their backyard. He burrowed under hedges, rooted through ivy, stared curiously at the goldfish, and then proceeded to drag all of Sabine’s belongings from the deck to the yard. In short, he made a happy fool of himself. It wasn’t until late that night, the adults in bed after laughing ourselves into exhaustion with the New Yorker caption contest game, that he finally relaxed.

Day two included long walks through a hilly Santa Rosa neighborhood, a few sunny hours at Doran Beach and then a lazy afternoon nap. That night I pronounced that Baxter was finally acting like a “real” dog – he wasn’t frantically sniffing or insisting on our attention. He even ignored the allure of Sabine’s diaper and cuddled up, real-dog like, at our feet.

On day three, he wouldn’t eat. This was unusual for Baxter because he’s a beagle, and beagles will eat anything and everything, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Occasionally this means non-edible things like food packaging, but it absolutely means his dog food, served in his doggy dish, at six a.m. sharp. When he finally ate later that day, I chalked it up to the general excitement of new people, the break in routine…

And then on Sunday, back home, he ignored his healthy serving of Beneful. He ate grass instead and threw up, before finally turning to his food. He slept as if were catching up for a lifetime of lost hours. On Monday he seemed fine, if lethargic. On Tuesday, he wouldn’t eat again. “No walk until you eat,” I told him, exhibiting my fine parenting skills. He ate, and once on a leash he went right for the grass again, so he could vomit the food his cruel mother had force fed him.

It was time to call the professionals.

I dropped off Baxter at the vet at nine o’clock, which gave me about forty minutes to make a fifty minute drive in another direction for class. I couldn’t linger for anything more than a “Bye, buddy” – and I was off. I mourned him the whole way. Later that day I was back home with no one to greet me (we have two cats, yes, but for the purpose of this blog there was no one to greet me). I called the vet for a check-up – probably your basic gastroenteritis, but they wanted to keep him over night. I did a load of laundry without worrying that Baxter would snag a sock and run under the bed. There were no toenails clicking on the hardwood, following me from room to room. It was empty-nest syndrome.

“I miss Baxter,” I said, getting in to bed next to Will. I hated to think of him in a cage, too keyed up by the presence of other dogs to get any sleep. I could picture him doped up on anti-nausea medication, pumped full of fluids for his dehydration, letting out the occasional whimper. The evening had assumed a surreal quality – there was no hike through backyard darkness while Baxter gave his last pee of the night. It was too quiet in our room without Baxter settling onto the old quilt and performing his ritual of grunts, moans and snorts. This, then, was what it was like to be dog-less.

Earlier in the week I had been joking about the “heir and a spare” concept – it generally worked for the royals, as it does for most parents today. And apparently it worked for pet-owners – just think of all the happy people who walk more than one dog each night. That’s what I needed just then, a back-up dog.

“You’re not crying, are you?” Will laughed.

“Nnnnhommm,” I mumbled.

“You know he’ll be back tomorrow, right?”

I sighed. It would be a long night until then. “I know.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Reasons to Dislike the Woman Sitting Across from Me

1. Poor cell phone etiquette. Perhaps she has not noticed that the room is otherwise quiet, that the rest of us are typing madly and importantly on our keyboards, and she is the lone nattering voice, drowning out even The Bangles’ “Manic Monday”. Because I can’t help but overhear, I must also report that her conversations are not even interesting. As a connoisseur of eavesdropping, I know when something is worth recording (i.e. jotting down in my omnipresent notebook or laptop), and her loud, monotonous conversation bores me.

2. Failure to act in the best interest of others. This woman has no sense of community. For proof I offer the following scenario: It was a mild-weathered Saturday afternoon and those of us who appreciate power sources for our laptops over hiking or cycling were indoors, typing away. Logging on, I found that I couldn’t connect to the Internet. Not a big deal – I should be deeply ensconced in the 27th version of my novel anyway, not checking to see if one of my lit sisters has sent me a witty piece of correspondence. I have also come to the point in my life when a few minutes away from the Equifax alert system doesn’t send me into a cold panic. And yet, perversely, I kept trying to connect. Then a fellow caffeine addict leaned over and said, “Are you connected?” “Nope,” I reported, trying for cheerful. A third patron professed unconnectivity, and voila! We had a problem on our hands. The manager, once alerted, looked doubtfully at the WiFi thingamajig and said, “Is anyone connected?” And SHE, the woman sighing importantly across from me at this very moment, said, “I’m online.” Liar! It was impossible. We – the disenfranchised three – pressed her: “Really? You can refresh your page? You can send and receive email?” She gave us this very annoyed glance and said, “I’m sorry. I’m very busy. I don’t have time to talk right now.” Talk? We didn’t want to talk. We wanted validation that the Internet was down. “Well, as long as one person is online…” the manager said, trailing away to other responsibilities. I wanted to wrestle away the woman’s iMac, forcing her to acknowledge that she was looking at an Excel file and NOT the Internet, but I took a deep breath and let it go. Breathe in: citizen of the world. Breathe out.

3. General selfishness and display of coffeehouse bullying. So this morning, inexplicably, all the tables were taken. I shuffled in with my laptop case and noticed that one table was littered with food wrappers and an untidy stack of newspapers. “Excuse me – do you know if anyone is sitting here?” I ask the man next to me. “There was someone there, but I guess he left. That was maybe ten minutes ago.” Aha. I stacked up the papers, brushed the crumbs onto the plate, and prepared to set myself up, when SHE appeared, swooping out of nowhere. “I’m sorry, I’ve been waiting for that table,” she announced. Waiting where? In the bathroom? At another table on the other side of the house? It’s not like we’re in a gym, signing up for time on a treadmill. It’s every woman for herself here. It’s catch as catch can. It’s snooze or loose. So back off, lady. While you were staring at this empty table for ten minutes, I made my move. I will now proceed to type beautiful prose and get on with my life, thank you very much. Except – I didn’t do that. It was like being in grade school all over again. I caved to the bully. Here’s my lunch money – er, coveted seat near the window. While I was standing there not sure how to respond (be gracious, be eloquent, Paula), a man at the facing table announced, “Hey, I’m leaving now. You can have my spot.” Now we face each other over our laptop screens and she jots important notes on a napkin and I type this, my small form of revenge.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Don’t Understand How Time Passes

Will tells me it’s been a month since I’ve updated this blog. A month? That can’t be. I mean, I know I’ve been busy… but a whole month? So I took a break from my other writing life to figure out where I’ve been. And here’s what I found:

-- I’ve been working on my thesis. Slow, painful work that I haven’t even invited others to read. This involves quick spurts of activity – days where I write ten or more pages – and then a sluggish half-week of revision where I realize that at least half of the “spurt” has got to go. It’s fun.

-- I’ve been blogging elsewhere – at Her Plot Thickens, a group blog with two of my whip-smart writer friends. I insist you check it out!

-- I started a sort of internship/unpaid teaching assistant position at California State University, Stanislaus, and suddenly I’ve found myself immersed in American Modernism. I’m teaching on Wallace Stevens, H.D., William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot (insert gulp here).

-- I’ve subbed for 5th through 12th grade – Special Ed, 7th and 8th grade Language Arts, Reading Lab, 6th grade Math/Algebra/Geometry/Algebra II/Finite Math (don’t even ask what they were supposed to be doing… I have no idea), American Government, World History… Most of it is a blur, which is a good thing.

-- I’ve walked Baxter a few dozen times, at least. Once he got out and led me on a wild-beagle chase through our neighborhood and beyond. That was ten days ago and I’m still catching my breath.

-- I’ve collected manuscripts from my compatriots in the graduating class of July 2010 for Stonecoast Lines. Now I’m editing, formatting, stressing when the publisher doesn’t call me back…

-- I’ve cleaned (not enough), cooked (probably too much) and generally neglected the laundry.

-- I’ve worked out at four to five days a week, visited the post office a half-dozen times, and stopped by the library once a week at minimum to recharge my mind.

- I’ve read: not just the stuff I’m teaching, but also A Thousand Acres, A Short History of Women, Olive Kitteridge, Motherless Brooklyn, Americans in Space, When Will There be Good News?, and I’m nearly finished with Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. This book is seriously hilarious, and I often have to put it away at night so I don’t laugh myself into a state of permanent awake-ness. Right now I’m at the part where a fired employee dressed as a clown returns to the office with a paintball gun.

-- I tried (and failed) to keep up with LOST. I discovered a few weeks into the season that Project Runway had started without me. I learned the “essential seeds” for any diet on Dr. Oz.

--I’ve been accepted as an ETS rater (rating college entrance exam essays, etc.) and start soon. It remains to be seen if I will like grading essays – that task used to be the bane of my teaching existence. Now, apparently, all anyone has to do is dangle a money-shaped carrot in front of my eyes and I’m in. I’ve also started to apply for post-graduate fellowships, teaching positions, etc. It’s tiring. I can only write so many cover letters and statements of purpose before I degenerate into silliness.

-- I celebrated Grandpa’s 101st birthday in February. A week or so later, I was on hand to bring him to the ER when he fell and hit his head. I spent a full day with him when my dad was out of town, alternating between FOX News and Animal Planet. I left with a huge headache.

-- I’ve emailed Paige and Beth recklessly, helplessly, laughingly, knowingly. I’ve told Will long, detailed stories that he politely pretends to listen to. I’ve forgotten birthdays, forgotten to comb my hair, forgotten to pay the pest control service. I took a cold shower when the “stem” in our hot water faucet broke. I’ve daydreamed about the shoes I might wear when I cross the stage to get my diploma.

-- I took a two-day, 720-mile trip to Oregon and back with my dear friend Alisha, and loved every minute of it… even the minute when we realized the alarm didn’t go off and we would have to rush to breakfast as we were.

-- I’ve sipped chai lattes at The Queen Bean, like I’m doing at this very moment. Sometimes – like right now – I’ve eavesdropped on conversations. I’ve chuckled to myself. I’ve passed judgment. I’ve stored up tales to repeat to Will over dinner, to Alisha over Guinness, to the dear faithful readers of my sadly not-up-to-date blog.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Trip to the Discount Store

This girl isn’t afraid of discounts.

I grew up in hand-me-downs, spent my college work-study checks at thrift stores and still make a monthly trip to Wal-Mart for “the necessities.” (I go before six a.m. – there’s less chance of being accosted by toothless panhandlers my own age in the parking lot or by the swarms of unattended, sticky-faced children who roam the aisles.)

On Saturday, I went to another discount store, one I’d only been to once before, a few years ago. I remembered the experience wasn’t exactly pleasant, but I was fuzzy on the particulars. In any case, I was now in search of the same item I’d bought then – a new pillow. The store was basically the same as I remembered – racks upon racks of flimsy clothes made from stretchy synthetic fabric, rows of shoes that looked cute but wouldn’t survive more than a single wear. I made a beeline for the back of the store – home décor.

I’m sort of particular about pillows. My neck needs support – not too firm, not too soft. I love a down pillow, although not necessarily the accompanying sneezes. It’s an awkward thing to try out a pillow in a store – especially when there’s no bed, and thus no way to exactly replicate the experience. I was left to lean my head into the shelves – which was not, I reflected, entirely unlike sticking one’s head in an oven.

Well. I found a pillow I liked, and so immediately grabbed a second one, entirely voiding the purpose of seeking a discount. But Will would like this, too, and even if Baxter had only thrown up on one of our pillows, at some point we would need another.

On the way up to the register – the line, I recognized with a sick feeling, had wound its way halfway through the store – I passed a display of area rugs. Hmm. We do need a new rug at our entryway. The braided rattan rug I loved at the time has sadly proved impossible to clean. This rug, a plush shag that the cats would love to dig their claws into, was only $14.99 and the sort of beige that would hide human and dog footprints. Why not?

And then, I faced the line. Clutching two pillows under one arm and sort of inching the rug forward with my free hand, I waited with a few dozen other Modestans who love a good bargain. Each transaction at the register (only two were open… why? WHY??) took a mini-eternity. I realized that half the population of my line was already clutching a bag; apparently, they were previous dissatisfied customers. I eyed the pillows carefully, considering. But they had felt so good on my neck, at least for the twenty seconds I stood with my head angled into the shelf.

At this point the women in front of me caught my attention. They were a family of four very large people, and they were arguing volubly about the cost of their potential purchases.

“I need these pants,” one of the women said, and – I couldn’t make this up if I tried – held up a stretchy pair of navy blue leggings printed with pink heart-shaped peace signs. There were approximately 600 peace signs on this pair of pants. If she had scratched at one of them with her two-inch acrylic fingernail, I bet the decal would have flaked right off. We’re talking quality product here.

“You’re already getting the balloon pants,” another woman pointed out. Balloon pants? I leaned forward, curious. There was indeed a pair of leggings emblazoned with rainbow-colored balloons nesting in the shopping cart.

“I need those, too!”

I was trying to figure out why in the world anyone would need either the peace-sign or the balloon leggings, let alone both (Tryouts for the circus?), when suddenly the experience I’d been blocking out for the last twenty minutes came rushing back into my head.

I remembered my previous trip to this discount store.

It was three years ago, summer,one of those hellishly hot days when you escape the heat of the parking lot for the chill of air conditioning and feel momentarily sick and disoriented. The store had just opened; curious, I decided to give it a walk-through. I was wearing a pair of flip-flops, my warm-weather uniform, and I had only taken a step inside the store when I slipped. Talk about a slip. It was kind of like being on a Slip-and-Slide (that dangerous, lawn-killing piece of plastic that rarely made an appearance in my childhood), only I was sliding past a row of shopping carts, a laughing security guard and a dozen people waiting in line for the register, all while toting a massive shoulder bag. I eventually caught myself on a display case, which because this is real life and not a movie, did not topple dramatically. It seemed like the whole store was holding its breath during my performance, and when I finally righted myself, straightening my shoulders, they let out a collective sigh. A long, wet, flip-flop shaped streak stretched across the floor behind me.

“Are you hurt?” the security guard said. He tried to cover his smile with a look of concern.

“Only my pride,” I said, laughing it off. I’m sure I was all shades of red, and would have loved to turn and walk right back out (this time avoiding the puddle of mystery moisture), but that felt like admitting defeat. Instead, I wandered the store, and found in the back a very lovely pillow for only $5.99.

On Saturday, I lugged my purchases inside and displayed them for Will.

He admired the pillows, but looked curiously at the rug. “Uh-oh.”

“Oh. Whoops,” I said. The dimensions were entirely wrong. Somehow I had vastly underestimated the size of my own entryway.

So, I guess I’ll have to return it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Humiliations Galore

Will and I like to play a certain game when we’re out in public – restaurants, bookstores, theatres. It has no official title, but here’s the gist of it: we get points whenever someone recognizes us. At the end of the night, the person with the fewest points wins.

This game was my brainchild, forged during an anniversary dinner where no less than four people (coaches, parents, athletes) stood at the side of our table and chatted up Will, for an average of five minutes each. At the end of the night, I commented bitterly, “Will: 4, Paula: 0.” Then I put in a formal request for eating meals out of his jurisdiction.

My husband, for seventeen years, was a journalist at a daily paper with a circulation of around 90,000, give or take. For the last dozen years or so, he was on the high school sports beat, which put him in regular contact with the coaches, parents and athletes at about fifty-five high schools, not to mention potentially thousands of other readers who read his daily articles and weekly columns. In 2000, we decided to escape California for a European vacation. With Dad D. and Heather as my witnesses, we were in a hotel lobby in San Francisco when I said, “The best thing about this vacation is that for a month we’re not going to see anyone we know.” And then the elevator door opened and a husky guy (wrestling coach, I later learned) stepped out and said, “Will!”

Fast forward a decade.

Will and I were at P. Wexford’s Tuesday night, well into our second pints of Guinness and a punishing trivia loss, when I leaned across the booth. “Do those people at the next table look familiar?” I’d been watching them out of the corner of my eye for a half pint now; I was sure I knew the man from somewhere, and the woman had a friendly, could-be-familiar face.

Will squinted in their direction. “Yeah, but I don’t know from where.”

We continued to answer trivia questions wrong. Apparently we should have brushed up on our Puxatony Phil knowledge, and one of these days I need to memorize birthstones by month.

And then suddenly, the man leaned over. “Will! I don’t know if you remember me… Steve Garfield*.” (*Name has been changed to protect my fragile ego.)

Ahhh, shit. Suddenly, it all came back to me.

A while back, I interviewed for a part-time English teaching job at a local high school. This man was the vice principal; he led the interview. To tell the truth, it was the salary I craved, not the job. Right now I’m substitute teaching and finishing my thesis… I can’t imagine what life would be like were I to bring home a few hundred essays a week to boot. But at the time, I was completely committed. I wore a suit, sharp heels, carried my most expensive purse. I fielded questions like a pro. I rattled off my accomplishments as if they were nothing – six years of yearbook, four years as department chair. I have a cleared credential. I am CLAD certified. And then… I didn’t get the job. Actually, I didn’t even get a phone call saying I didn’t get the job, I had to call them.

“Look, I probably didn’t get the job,” I said by phone after four days. Steve had mentioned that a decision would be made within two or three days. “And that’s fine. I just figured if I did get the job, I needed to start planning right away. That’s just how I work.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t divulge the status of employment applications. That’s an issue for the HR department.”

“I’m not going to come down there with a gun or anything,” I said. “I just want to know.” After all, I’d waited for an hour for my appointment (English teachers do love the sounds of their own voices), then interviewed for another forty-five minutes. An hour and forty-five minutes of my life, and I wasn’t entitled to a quick “yes” or “no” by phone?

Tonight, at Wexford’s, I suddenly prayed hard for invisibility. I was wearing jeans, flats, sparkly lip gloss. Maybe I wouldn’t be recognized?

“Oh, and I remember you,” Steve Garfield said, nodding at me. “Paula interviewed for an English position,” he announced to his companion, to Will, to the world at large.

I smiled back, took a drink. “Yes – hello.”

He made small talk with Will. I checked my cell phone, pretending I had a busy social life.

And then, inexplicably, the conversation came back to me. “You were really good in that interview,” Steve Garfield said. “You know, I think we interviewed” – don’t say it, please – “about a dozen people that day. Very competitive.”

I smiled. Will paid the bill.

“Nice to see you again,” Will and I said in chorus, standing. We shook hands all around.

“Keep us in mind, Paula, if you’re ever looking for a job,” he said.

I smiled again, held in my words until we were outside, out of earshot. And then I let them fly. Keep us in mind???

But on the way home, we laughed. Will pointed out that there could be one person on earth that you just don’t want to see, and sure enough, when you turn a corner, there he is. Why is that, exactly? Why doesn’t the universe serve up a dose of a long-lost childhood friend or a college roommate now living half a country away, someone who could cheer me up or remind me that I’m not such a bad person after all?

We left with a tied score tonight. The me from a few months back would still be burning with humiliation as I type these words. But the me from today shucks it off her back. I’m a writer now, after all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thoughts from a Cruising Altitude of 39,000 Feet

1. I wish I could sleep on planes. Even for a minute, or twenty, or three hundred. It’s stupid, but I’m convinced that if I close my eyes, if I’m not absolutely vigilant, there’s no way the plane can stay up. In fact, the second I start to relax and close my eyelids, I immediately snap back awake, worried. Who’s flying this thing?

2. I wish I could read on planes. I read everywhere else – waiting in line at the grocery store, lying in bed, sitting with a bowl of cereal in the morning. I’ve been tempted to read while stuck in traffic. But on planes I can’t seem to focus on plot and character. Instead, I alternate between Hidenko and Sudoku. On this trip, one round of “Fiendish Sudoku” lasts me all the way across Utah.

3. I love the individual mini-screen. Thumbs up, Delta! I keep flashing to the “My Flight” screen to see what I’ve missed. We’ve passed Grand Junction and are flying just south of De Beque. Somewhere in the last ten minutes while I was worrying about whether or not our plane had properly functioning landing gear, our cruising altitude had increased from 39,003 to 39,010 feet. Pretty cool.

4. The man in the seat beside me, Leo, is traveling with nothing other than a jacket. Hello? No book or magazine? No sudoku? No crossword puzzle? I once drove cross country with someone who intended to talk the entire way, so naturally I was worried. But Leo isn’t in a talking mood, either. Instead, we play a dozen silent games of in-flight trivia. I feel bad that I keep winning and briefly consider throwing a game, because everyone should be happy. Everyone should know they are doing well at something, right? But in the end, I just can’t do it.

5. Nothing is free on Delta Airlines. Not the charge for an extra bag ($50), the headphones ($2), or the snack packs ($3 to $5, depending). “Delta Airlines has gone cashless,” a flight attendant chirps into the PA system. “All purchases must be made with a credit card for your convenience.” My convenience? Really, nothing about air travel is geared for my convenience, much less a $1 Visa charge for a $2 purchase.

6. In the first half-hour of the flight, we are fed two packs of peanuts and our choice of beverages. Three hours pass before it occurs to the flight staff to come through with another round. By this time I’ve chewed fifteen consecutive pieces of gum, trying to suck out any possible nutrition or moisture. A flight attendant passes and I say, “Excuse me? Do you think I could get something to drink?” She is clearly annoyed. “We’re coming right through.” It takes her twenty-five minutes to reach me, though, and by this time my lips are one cracked blister. Leo doesn’t look too happy either. “I guess I’ll buy the snack pack, too,” I say, surrendering my credit card.

7. Once the plane lands, I can finally relax. It’s hard work, mentally keeping the plane aloft, and not for weaklings. Everyone stands at once, snapping open overhead compartments and jostling for space in the aisle. I stretch, curling my toes inside my boots. What’s the hurry, people? We’re all getting off this thing sooner or later.