Sunday, October 30, 2011

Novelty items

On Saturday, Will met me in the parking lot of the big box grocery store, armed with our weekly list. I was coming from one direction and he was coming from another, so it was a relief to see his Honda pull up next to me, to see that I hadn't been stood up.

This was a significant moment. For the third time in our thirteen year history, we were shopping for groceries together.

I remember the first time well, because we were a new couple. Walking the aisles of a grocery store together, pushing a cart together, looking at chips and dip and bottles of beer together -- it all seemed significant. We had entered the Shared Grocery Bill phase of our relationship.

I cannot actually recall a second time, but it's been thirteen years. There must have been a second time.

This time, our third shared grocery experience, Will produced the folded list. Half of it was in my handwriting -- yogurt, cereal bars, ingredients for the pumpkin chocolate chip mini-loaves that have been my staple this season. The bottom half was in Will's handwriting -- burritos, steak, parsley flakes.

"That's it?" I ask.

"I reserve the right to make twenty-seven impulse purchases," Will says, and commandeers the cart.

This explains, to some extent, the reason why I generally do the grocery shopping by myself. I make careful lists, noting the events I'll be baking for, checking the inventory in our pantry. I stick to the list, watch the prices, and approach the register with an estimate of the cost. I am, after all, half German and half Dutch.

Will is the impulse buy king, which, I'll admit, makes life interesting. It's always a pleasure to find boxes of Junior Mints tucked into the freezer door, or a cheese I've never heard of and can't pronounce waiting on the counter. He tends to see my list as a set of gentle suggestions, not imperatives. "Couldn't find these things," he'll report, indicating cream cheese or tomato paste. Once I sent him off with a list of four items and he came home with nine, including one item from my list.

Also, the trip tends to take somewhat longer with Will, due to constant doubling back and rerouting. "Did we miss the cheese aisle?" he asks, baffled, as we wend our way to the frozen food.

"We just came from there," I point out.

"We did?"

At the register, we split up according to our strengths. Will plucks items from the cart and plunks them onto the conveyor belt. I arrange them according to size and shape, thinking of how I'll bag them.

When I look up, I notice the woman behind me rolling her eyes at her husband, and I instantly understand this eyeroll is directed at me. But I forge calmly on. Excuse me for liking things to be in a certain order.

While I bag, Will strikes up a conversation with the cashier, who couldn't seem less interested. But it's obvious that for Will, this is a novelty experience.

"Let me ask you -- what's the biggest order you've ever rung up?" he persists.

The cashier considers. "Eight hundred dollars, and they paid cash."

"Whoa!" Will throws up his hands. While the line waits behind us, he considers. "I bet it was some kind of group, and they were heading out on a camping trip or something."

The cashier shrugs, tears off the receipt, and I notice the couple behind us is openly chuckling now.

I place Will's final impulse buy -- cheddar cheese and sour cream chips -- into our cart, and as we head for the door, I suddenly realize that Will and I are something of a novelty ourselves.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I've Always Been a Writer

I wrote my first novel when I was nine years old and my family was driving cross country from California to Wisconsin, with infrequent stops along I-80. I filled up an entire wide-ruled notebook, using the front and back of each page. When I got to the end of the notebook, I figured the story must be done.

I used to write at night in the top bunk, a flashlight balanced against my pillow.

In high school, I wrote long, tortured poems about the boys I loved who didn't love me back. I finished my school assignments and in my extra time I wrote poems on sheets of binder paper and passed them to friends in the hallway between classes.

I majored in literature and writing in college. I started each assignment early - I really did. I was a nerd's nerd. I wrote for the student newspaper, the yearbook, the alumni quarterly. Sometimes my writing wasn't noticed. Sometimes it earned me praise. Sometimes it got me into trouble.

After college, I freelanced, writing about real estate and bridal showcases and county fairs and yard sales. I wrote press releases for companies I knew were dishonest; I wrote a "Marketing Tip of the Day" column -- marveling that anyone would pay any attention to me, a person who knew not a lick about marketing.

Then I married a writer.

I took a job teaching English, thinking, this is only temporary. Thinking: I'll teach during the week and write on the weekends, on holidays, during the summers. I would write five pages in a spurt and walk away from it, returning never. I started teaching a creative writing class and when my students pretended to write in their journals for ten minutes, I really did write in mine, finding for the first time in years the discipline of writing, the routine that serves as a launching pad for creativity.

I took a leap of faith and the burden of new financial responsiblity when I enrolled in an MFA program. I burned my brains out writing, I sweated every sentence, I grappled with character and plot, I cried and laughed and loved every second of it.

One day I wrote a three-page scene about a wrestler on the mats, with his girlfriend watching from the stands. I owed my mentor twenty-five pages and was three pages short, so I included this scene with my submission, adding, I don't know what this is, exactly, just an idea I had. He wrote back: It feels like there's more to the story. Why don't you keep going?

So I did. I wrote hundreds of pages, keeping maybe one out of every three or four. I spent more time with these characters than I did with my own friends and family. I researched the 1970s, Wisconsin, wrestling, Vietnam, forensics. Will gave me tips on wrestling, even showing me the "arm bar" on our cat, Copper. I shared the story first eagerly with sisters and friends and then cautiously, wondering exactly what I was writing. There was always a chapter, a paragraph, a word that needed revising.

Last January I signed with an agent, someone who read my book in a weekend and fell in love with it. I was teaching again by this time, and writing on weekend mornings. In August my revisions were finished; in September it was submitted to publishers. Somewhere around this time I stopped sleeping and took up full-time worrying. What if my book - my baby - wasn't good, or wasn't good enough? I was glad for the distraction of 175 junior high students, their drama, their pestering questions.

And then I got the offer, from Mira Books. They wanted to publish not just Face of the Earth, but my next book, too -- a book that right now is a collection of vignettes waiting to be linked. I told my family and the friends who had been with me from the beginning, cheering me on from the sidelines. My parents took Will and me out to dinner at a place that doesn't rhyme with "Crapplebees." I hesitated to say anything publicly (and by that I mean here, and on Facebook), because I was still pinching myself. Was this really happening? Was it happening to me? Amidst the emails of congratulations, one friend wrote, "You were always this."

He's right.

I've always been a writer.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

...For no reason at all.

The man at the table next to me looks like he’s just come from the gym. Actually, he looks like he lives in a gym, because those are seriously the biggest biceps I have ever seen, and he has the smooth, hairless look of someone who regularly oils up for bodybuilding competitions. He boots up his laptop and pulls out a book titled “Refrigeration 1994.” In 1994 I was a senior in high school. I have one of those senior pictures with the big number blocks 9 and 4, and in the picture I have huge, very curly hair. My last purchase of pink lipstick probably dates to 1994, also. My hair has changed considerably, and I have to believe that refrigeration has changed considerably during that time as well. When he reads, he rocks forward and back from the waist as if he’s in a catatonic state. He would have been right at home in an audition for Cuckoo’s Nest, a background character scuttling out of the way of Nurse Ratched. He wears a wedding band. His fingernails are very well groomed; they put mine to shame.

At the next table over is a man reading today’s edition of New York Times, out loud to himself in a not particularly quiet monotone. The name on his plastic Frappuccino cup is “Mark.” He reads nonstop, one word after another, pausing only to follow the jump to an inside page.

An intense-looking blonde woman comes over with her coffee, sees rocking man, reading-to-self man and me (woman avoiding novel revisions), then turns and heads for an outdoor table.

A fiftyish-woman comes in sporting baggy overalls and gray pigtails. She reminds me of a carnival attraction –the young woman with the old face. For no reason at all, she grins broadly at me, and for no reason at all, I grin right back.

In general, I’m against sequins on jeans, but what walks through the door next gives me immediate pause. This woman is older, sixtyish, wearing black heeled sandals, black jeans with tiny sequins on the pockets, a black and white shirt with a black scarf wrapped around the waist, and a black cardigan. She has a serious diamond on her finger. Her companion (tallest woman to walk into this brach of Starbucks today, I’m convinced), is also wearing black and white, which leads me to believe they are caterers or wedding planners or hostesses at a restaurant downtown. They are fantastically overdressed and impeccably groomed for a Saturday afternoon latte.

I start to wonder what I’ll look like when I’m in my fifties, sixties. Will I go the pigtail route or the sequined jeans route? Will I ever have my life together enough to have my fingernails and toenails painted at the same time?

I take a long sip of my latte, which has cooled considerably, and wait to see what comes through the door next.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Darkness, My Old Friend

Last Friday, I sent seven emails between four and five a.m.

Last night, I sent five more just after midnight.

Normally, I'm asleep during those hours. These days, I curl into a ball, my thoughts spin, and eventually I give up, deciding to read myself back to sleep, snuggle with the resident beagle, or just get started with the day.

I've begun to think of sleep as a long-lost friend -- someone who has been avoiding me, maybe, or someone with whom there is unfinished business.


The thing is, I love to sleep. Every roommate I've ever had can attest to this. In college, I used to try to make myself stay up late, but at a certain point I became silly and useless -- usually hours before the rest of my friends became silly and useless.

Occasionally I assign my students this sort of journal entry: Imagine if you had to leave home suddenly, without knowing if you would ever return. What items would you bring with you? If it were assigned to me, I would write: "My bed" followed by "at least two down pillows" and finished with "a duvet with an Egyptian cotton cover." Wherever I'm headed, I'd like to be able to sleep when I get there.


"Are you okay?" a friend asks. Her voice trails off: "You look..."

Old. Just go ahead and say it. Tired and old.


If only I could mainline caffeine, I would be fine. I would be able to make it through Job #1, teaching four sections of junior high Language Arts, a typing tutorial, and leadership. I would be able to make it through Job #2, teaching five hours of class a week at a community college 45 minutes away. I would have the creative spark to tackle Job #3, revising my novel for publication (which, to be honest, is more important than the first two right now).

"I like your hair today," says the barista at Starbucks.

"Thanks," I say, privately horrified. I can't remember exactly how many times I've seen her this week. This is usually when I begin to break off relationships with proprietors -- when things become too familiar. I become too embarrassed by the private attention, and disappointed in my own predictability. A venti skinny vanilla latte, hot as you can make it.


At 4:30, I'm suddenly awake. My alarm clock is set for 5:30, so I pray for about 15 minutes that I can please, please, please fall back asleep. Baxter, perhaps noticing my change in breathing, jumps up on the bed next to me and gives my cheek a big, meaty swipe with his tongue. I'm officially awake.

My neighborhood is not. It's still dark and too early for the paper to arrive on my doorstep. In the distance, a car alarm bleats and suddenly my neighbor's sprinkler system sputters to life, surprising me.

I take a few deep breaths. Ready or not, it's time to start the day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bathroom Etiquette

In general, I believe in an open-door policy. I'm all for transparency -- in government, in personal life, in conversations with parents about their seventh graders.

But not when it comes to the bathroom.

Last year, my friend K. and I discovered that, in addition to a million other things we have in common, we both observe complete silence when in the bathroom.

I'm not exactly sure how we discovered this fact, but once it was... well, out in the open, we had a few thousand examples to illustrate our point.

"I swear to you, the second I sit down --" I began.

"I know! I mean, all I need is just a minute --" K. continued.

"And then, inevitably, he'll have a question that just can't wait. Like, 'Where do we keep the spatulas?' or 'Have you seen my belt?' -- really crucial stuff."


We stared at each other, amazed. We had been living all this time, miles apart, in parallel universes.

In our eleven-plus years, the hubs and I have come to some sort of agreement about bathroom etiquette. We've had to, since for our entire history we have shared a bathroom. The agreement works something like this: Under no circumstances* should he attempt to talk to me through the bathroom door (*possible exceptions include house on fire, home invasion, or appearance of Publisher's Clearing House van). In turn, I try not to enter the bathroom during the "hair" phase of his morning routine.

It mostly works.

When it doesn't, we have no choice but to scream at each other.

At work, I face many of the same problems. The women's bathroom in the office has four stalls and two sinks. During our breaks, we file into the bathroom one by one, and inevitably, inescapably, someone will talk to me through my stall door, through toilet paper unwinding and toilets flushing, through paper towels dispensing and water rushing in the sinks. Sometimes there are comments about the weather or about yet another stupid policy behind handed down by our bosses (aka, the government). I submit to this as best I can, inserting, "mm-hmm" and "yeah" to every question I'm asked. But don't try to ask me about a student's grade, or about a novel I'm teaching. This is not the time to argue, not the time to engage.

Every time this lapse in bathroom etiquette happens (once a day, five days a week at least), I suddenly remember the contract Will and I have with each other, and wonder if it can be imposed upon my colleagues as well.

Imagine the possibilities:

I could draft a simple version, slide it into their mailslots, and collect signed contracts by the end of the week. I could circulate a petition, then post the collection of signatures inside each stall. We could institute a small fine for violators and encourage self-reporting.

Because I, too, have a dream. It is not a lofty one. I would simply like two or three minutes of uninterrupted quiet to do... well, whatever I wish.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Least Interesting Topic of All

Last week I was asked to submit a short bio of myself, to be sent out with my novel to potential publishers. I was feeling pretty great about all three hundred pages of the novel, but to write a short paragraph about myself? Hello, palm sweats and nausea.

When I started this blog it was mostly out of curiosity. What in the world would I say? Could I keep it going? Would anyone other than my husband read it (without me asking every four seconds, "Have you read my blog yet?")? I have some friends who write excellent blogs (one is here) -- and although this intimidated me, I started to see this little site as a public writing exercise, a chance to experiment in a new genre.

When I write fiction, I have an internal editor that kicks in, that starts shaping the words as they come out my fingertips - moving a word here, a sentence there, trimming adjectives like stray eyebrow hairs. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking about useful things like plot and character and where the story is going and how I'll know when I'm there. But when I set out to write about myself, the early drafts are always a muddled mess. I'll read them over and think: Thank God I didn't post this.

So yesterday morning at *bucks, I sat down to make a short list of things to include in my bio. Now, I'm quite aware that this bio was supposed to focus on my writing, but in my muddled-mess-of-a-first-draft, this is what came out:

"Who wants to know that I wouldn’t miss Project Runway for the world, that I limit myself to a single episode of Hoarders per month, that I read everything that I can get my hands on, including ingredients and usage instructions on the backs of beauty products? That, when I have a waist, I have an affinity for wide belts and when I don’t, I rotate through an unhealthy collection of cardigans? That I believe I truly should have been a spelling bee champion at least once in my life, and would sign up for an adult spelling bee in a heartbeat? I can drop literary references and play the snob; other times I sit mute, afraid to be the smart girl in the room. Nothing is better to me than the five minutes in the morning when Will and I are still in bed and Baxter sandwiches himself between us like a sturdy-limbed two-year-old. I have always loved to bake, but have only recently learned to cook. In a recent period of unemployment, I wrote a letter to a local baker, offering to be an unpaid intern for a few weeks. I almost sent it. I have trouble deleting things from my inbox. I’ve had a bad run of luck with laptops. I can say no – but it hurts."

Stop: Breathe.

My laptop was smoking, and the woman next to me had subtly shifted her shoulder so that her back was to me.

Okay -- this is the non-essential information, I told myself, drawing an imaginary line in teacher-red ink through the paragraph. Now you have to focus.

Once, a student told me he couldn’t write about himself for his personal essay, because he basically couldn’t stop himself from lying (exaggerating, he said) to make himself seem better than he was. "I just want to be interesting," he told me. "I want someone to read this and think: Yes! We need him at our college!"

“No, you have to be honest. Be you,” I remember telling him, “but be the best you.”

But now I can sympathize. What is the best me?

Forty-five minutes later, my skinny vanilla latte drained of the last drop, here's what I came up with:

Paula T D is a writer, latte drinker and all-around slave to public education. Her first novels – written in the back seat of a station wagon where her parents let her jostle around from California to Wisconsin and back, unprotected by a seat belt – were sadly lost in one move or another. Face of the Earth is her first novel to survive. Previously, her writing has appeared in deCOMP, Cantaraville, The Shine Journal, Staccato Fiction and The Sycamore Review, where her short story “Casualties” placed second in the Wabash Prize, judged by Tobias Wolff. A recent graduation of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, she has been invited to read at the AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair in Chicago, 2012. In her down time, Paula takes long walks with her husband and their beagle/child. She often records her thoughts here:

Whew. And now, I wait for the right person to find it.

Monday, August 22, 2011


We have new neighbors.

The house in question has been empty for the better part of two years, bringing all the usual things that go along with vacancies -- towering weeds, telephone books tossed onto the porch, and foot traffic in and out the backyard gate which was always, always open.

Will and I had been in the house years before -- in one of the long periods of vacancy sandwiching its brief period of occupancy. We were with our realtor, riding in his impersonal, neat-as-a-pin sedan, and we parked across the street at another house for sale.

"It looks like they've converted the garage to a den," our realtor said, snapping on light switches as we trailed behind. It had been converted, indeed -- into a strange, wood-paneled room with built-in stone benches lining three of its walls. It was the perfect arrangement for a hunting lodge in the mountains, or the meeting of a secret society that required a password, special handshake and torchlit votes.

I shivered.

Our realtor, walking ahead, discovered a burnt patch in the hardwood floor. (Animal sacrifices????) "Um, guys," he said, holding out both arms as a barrier, so we wouldn't go a step further. "It's a no. Believe me, you'll thank me some day."

We nodded, defering to his wisdom. It was sobering to realize exactly what was in our price range.

We ended up buying the home down the street -- a solid little house that proved a blank slate for our lives. But I've watched that other house, feeling somewhat reassured when it was occupied and vaguely uneasy when it was not.

Then one Friday a For Rent sign was posted in the front yard. Within a week, the new neighbors were moving in. I watched the scene from the kitchen window. It was difficult not to stare, the way it would be difficult to sit in the stands and not watch the circus perform. People and furniture spilled out of trucks, no fewer than twelve children ran circles on the yard, a horse-trailer was parked on the street, and a boat was parked diagonally across the driveway.

"Looks like the whole family is helping with the move," Will remarked, joining me at the window.

I nodded grimly, beginning to suspect the truth.

By Sunday night, there were still six pick-up trucks parked along the block. I counted eighteen people crowded onto the front porch, in the sort of temporary seating that I feared would be permanent. The sheer number of people was overwhelming, as was the way those people stopped and half-turned in my direction whenever Baxter and I walked by. What about the hunting lodge? I wondered. Why couldn't they all gather in there, maybe raise a glass of mead and sing of the adventures of a hero?

"Have you met our new neighbors?" asked D. from the house on the corner, watering his lawn.

I confessed to only watching them from the window. "What about you?"

I observed him closely. D. is the most upbeat, positive person I have ever met, but he struggled to get this one out. "I think they have thirteen kids," he said, and his smile, although still a smile, was bleak.

I'm a neighborhood watch coordinator; it's my job to shake hands and make friendly, and eventually, that's what I'll do. I'll suck it up, I'll get over my snobbishness, I'll back away from the window, cross the street and extend my hand. Eighteen times, if that's what it takes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Letters to Mrs. D.

I ask my students on the first day of school to write me a letter. Not only does it set the tone for what English/Language Arts is all about, but I've learned it's the only time all year a junior high student will be completely honest.

Step one. Tell me about yourself, I say.

This is where I learn who loves football, who just moved to town, who has gone to five different schools, who has three brothers and two sisters, who has pets, who plays the ukelele. They are surprisingly candid: I have two parents but both of them hate me. They are resigned to circumstances: I'm from a broken home, and all I can say is that I've survived it.

Step two. What do you love and what do you hate about Language Arts? And don't hold back, I tell them.

The responses are varied: I love L.A.! It's my favorite class! It's easy for me because I already speak the language (there is always, always, at least one who says that). I love to read books, but I hate to read any book a teacher assigns. I hate all books except one, and our school library doesn't carry it. I love to write stories. I hate to write essays. I don't hate hate L.A. I like writing essays because for some reason I'm good at it and always get an A. One student tells me: Last year I completely screwed around in your class, but this year I'm making a fresh start. It's a new me. Another writes: Yours is my fave class!!! But why do you assign SO MUCH HOMEWORK? A third tries this reverse bribe: I'll turn in all my homework if you make that bean dip again! A new student writes: I can't tell yet if I like you. (Fair enough.)

Step three. And now, I say, set three goals for yourself this school year:

It's shocking how many of them plan to be valedictorian (37), to get an A in Language Arts, to get no grade lower than a B in every subject. Some are more practical: I just want to pass. I just want to graduate. I'm just going to try to stay out of trouble.


One of the eighth grade boys lurks near my desk at the beginning of lunch. I'm trying to answer an email that needs just the right wording.

"So, you like to write?" he asks me.

"I love it," I tell him.

"What have you written?"

And for some reason, I tell him what I haven't even told my colleagues. "Well, um. I wrote a novel last year, and actually... well, I'm hoping that it gets published within the next year." My heart beats a little faster, saying that.

He nods, shaking his head so that the hair hanging in his eyes is somewhat dispersed. "Cool. That's cool."

"What about you. Do you like to write?" I ask him.

"Yeah," he shrugs. "So far I've written five novels and seventeen short stories."

"Oh. Well, that's great," I say. I wonder what my paltry one-as-yet-unpublished novel sounds like to him.

He shrugs again and wanders off, throwing these words over his shoulder: "I'm going to write a lot more this year, though."

Sometimes teaching makes me smile.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You Won't Feel a Thing

Everyone, it turns out, has a gall bladder story.

It's like an appendix -- one of those extra parts we apparently don't really need, something that can be removed without much difficulty. Between my three sisters and me, we have a grand total of zero appendixes, and that's even counting the sister who started with two. For a while, every time the phone rang at night, it was with news that someone from Will's family was in the ER with a hot appendix. Now I keep a careful eye on Will's own abdomen -- it's only a matter of time, I tell him.

"You know, your grandfather had his gall bladder out," my mom says, in what is probably intended as a pep talk. "That was in 1999." See? Proof that a person can live for 12 years without this extra bit of tissue. Then she begins listing family friends -- Pam too, and what about Katie? She got out of the hospital only last week.

Armando, our brother-in-law, had his out, Will reminds me. Yes -- I remember. The waiting area, the hospital room, cracking jokes with Dad before Armando even came out of the anathesia.

I mention this to Mona, the sole person on earth who can tame the beast that is my hair. At the moment I have silver foils sticking out of my head; I look like a pale, somewhat lumpy Christmas tree. "Oh! Well you know, I had my gall bladder out..." she begins. What follows is a medical horror story that pauses only when it's time to stick me under the dryer, resumes for the shampoo, and finishes during my cut.

It's only a laparoscopy, everyone points out. I'll be back on my feet in no time -- my sister's co-worker, I'm told, was back at work in three days. No one mentions that the last time I was scheduled for a laparoscopy I spent seven days in the hospital.

I'm in no hurry to be cut open again, and besides -- I've had exactly one really bad stomach ache that may or may not have been my gall bladder. Who gets a tonsillectomy after one bout with tonsilitis? I'm too cynical not to ask: Would this option be suggested to me if I didn't have double health insurance coverage?

Will provides the theme music for my musings: "Losing My Gall Bladder" to the tune of "Losing My Religion." Meanwhile, I start to wonder if a bad gall bladder can get me out of chores like taking the trash out, washing my car, emptying the dishwasher.


I want to explore other options first, I tell my doctor -- like a change in diet. I'm 35, and it's time to kiss fried and fatty goodbye. I quote some passages from things I've read online about people who have just as much pain after gall bladder surgery as they did before, and other people who live with their gall stones, pain-free.

"I understand your concerns," my doctor says.

For the first time ever, I have her full attention. We're sitting in chairs, facing each other. It feels empowering to sit in a doctor's office fully clothed, in control of my dignity.

"Let's say I have one or maybe two more attacks, and there are no other obvious causes..."

She nods. "Then it will be time to come back."

I agree. We shake hands on the deal and I head back to the lobby, feeling suddenly much better.

A gall bladder is a terrible thing to waste.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Speaking Too Soon

Although I was mostly feeling better by the time I finally had my sonogram -- to see if there were other possible causes for my gastroenteritis -- I went ahead with the procedure anyway. Let's just say that for someone who is already complaining about stomach tenderness and "unexplained gas" (sorry for the high-tech medical jargon), an abdominal ultrasound is a painful, painful thing.

You basically lay on your back while a plastic wand smeared with cold, translucent jelly is butted up against your ribs, and you think cheerful things, like: I wonder why she keeps looking at that spot. Is that my pancreas? It must be my pancreas. Fabulous - I have pancreatic cancer. I've got six months to go, maybe. But I feel fine! Almost fine! I'm going to have to go "out of network" to get a second opinion, and how does one begin to do that? How many days of sick leave do I have again?

"Lay on your side," the technician says, and so you do. It's a very strange sensation, like an alien abduction must be. There's nowhere to put your arm, although you try a dozen different possibilities. Over the head is weird, on top of the breast is uncomfortable. Maybe if you can reach the arm back, behind yourself... "If you can keep still," the technician reprimands gently. You busy yourself by staring at the monitor, which looks exactly like the screen for a pelvic ultrasound, except there's no baby in there. Other things surface randomly - kidneys, the gall bladder, the liver - like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond.

The technician is infuriatingly professional. It's her job to do the procedure; it's the doctor's job to interpret the results. She doesn't even allow a "hmm" to pass her lips; there's no hope of getting a "Looks good!" either. "I'll send the results to your doctor," she says at the end, snapping off her gloves.

Half an hour later, I was home, listening to my answering machine. Someone had left a message that essentially asked, "Hello?... Hello?... Hello?" for thirty seconds without providing a name or number. I listened to the message again, suddenly convinced that this was my doctor's voice. She was calling me with THE NEWS.

Shaking, I dialed my doctor's phone number, which goes not to her office but to a call routing service. "I think someone may have tried to leave a message for me," I said, lamely. "I just had a test done, and maybe someone is trying to tell me the results?"

"I can leave a message for the doctor, if she hasn't gone home for the day," a female voice says smoothly.

"Yes -- thank you. It's very important."

At this point I'm too keyed up to read, write or look at curriculum. There's nothing to do but turn on Millionnaire Matchmaker and wonder how people get so messed up.

An hour later, I dive for the phone when it rings. It's a physican assistant from my doctor's office, the one who gave me a T-DAP shot last week and told me jokes while we waited to see if I had a reaction to the vaccine.

"Hi, Paula," he says. "I see that you called for your test results. Doctor told me to pass on a phone number to you, so we can go ahead and get you scheduled."

"Scheduled?" I repeated, a pen in my hand.

"Yep -- hope you don't have any plans for a while. It looks like you'll be getting your gall bladder removed."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Summer of Sick

I used to work with a person who cornered me daily to relate horror stories of her Crohn's disease -- and while I tried to listen and be sympathetic, I also started inventing ways to avoid her. Sorry! Not now! I'm trying untangle all these cords going into my monitor! Or I would roll my eyes, apologizing for the fake phone call I was fielding just as she walked past my cubicle.

It was simply draining, listening to the sad litany of her complaints.

And so, dear reader, I sympathize with you. I doubt you've been thrilled by my tales of strep throat, toothache and Will's man-child illnesses. So I hesitated to write this post.

A week ago, S. asked me what was next for my blog.

I shrugged. "No idea."

"What about your abscess? You could tell all about your five-and-a-half hour tour in the ER."

Um, yeah. I laughed uncomfortably. Just thinking about it made me want to take a Percocet. (What's to tell, anyway? Innocuous-seeming bump on inner thigh quickly becomes horrific mass, the dimensions of which made me gasp when viewed in the bathroom mirror. "How are you feeling?" Will asked, and I burst into tears. "All you need is a pore-sized opening in the skin," the internist explained much, much later, when the waiting room had filled and emptied twice and all the serious cases had been dealt with, "and just a teensy bit of bacteria to get in there, and then, voila!" I languished in the trauma room, clutching the skimpy gown to my body and waiting for the painkillers to kick in. In the meantime, I pleaded with God. I promised to throw away my razor. I apologized for thinking a plague of boils wasn't as bad as a plague of toothaches. I wondered if euthanization was a better option than making small talk with a nurse during the painful "lancing and draining" procedure. And then I went home, sat for three days with a hot compress and downed 72 antibiotic pills "just to be safe.")

So it seemed logical to wait for other inspiration, something not abscess related.

Like a nasty bout of gastroenteritis, which struck just as my gaping wound was healing.

"Oh -- you're back again," said the physician's assistant at my doctor's office. "We didn't expect to see you so soon! What's going on?"

"Well, it's just that..." I hoisted myself carefully onto the bed in the examination room. "It sort of feels like something is inside me, sticking its foot in my ribs. Not a baby. Well, maybe an alien baby."

She chuckled, strapping the velcro blood pressure cuff around my arm. "I remember that about you. You always have such creative complaints."

"I'd rather be boring and healthy," I confessed, wincing as the cuff inflated, squeezing my arm.

"Blood pressure fine," she said, tossing me a paper gown. "I'll send the doctor in to see you."

There was nothing to do except stare at the ceiling, wait for my diagnosis and pray for an end to the summer of sick.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Spatially Challenged

From my dad, I have inherited the ability to pack things really well. Every summer, he would pop the back of the station wagon (and later, minivan) and begin the slow process of cramming in the belongings of a wife and four daughters who would be traveling for a minimum of three weeks. My sister B, who also inherited this trait, recently confided that it had allowed her to become a master Tetris player.

For me, too, this skill has come in handy over the years:

I have no formal grocery experience, but I can bag like the best of them.

I have the belongings of a 2,000 square foot home but have arranged them neatly into 1,100 square feet.

I can fit two weeks worth of trash into our black bin, useful for those weeks when we forget to drag the can into the alley.

Last week, we had approximately 20 hours between getting an estimate on new carpet and having said carpet installed, which posed a time problem and also a slight geographical problem. We basically had to take the contents of three bedrooms and cram them into our living and dining areas, which are hardly spacious to begin with.

I rubbed my hands together, ready for the task. "Okay," I said to Will. "I think you need to let me take the lead on this one."

Will threw up his hands, conceding defeat before the battle began. (I obtained Will's permission to tell this story: When we moved into our first apartment, Will spent the day packing his belongings while I was at work. When I came over that evening, intending to load my car with his boxes, I found that he had packed all his clothes, books, CDs and bedding into one giant appliance box -- which was too large to fit into my car and too heavy to budge, even an inch.)

First, I took stock of the more troublesome items -- a six shelf bookcase with a few hundred books arranged alphabetically; three dressers; a massive CD unit, with CDs organized more or less chronologically; two desks; my beautiful cherry red file cabinet; a seldom-used treadmill and one bed that was too large to go down the hallway. Second, I formed a plan: If I had to live in a 400 square foot studio with all my current belongings, just how should they be arranged?

What followed was a furniture moving marathon too tedious to relate here, with the AC cranked up to counteract a 106-degree day. We worked in 20-minute shifts, stopping to guzzle Arnold Palmers and comfort our pets, who were increasingly freaked out. The result was that every available inch was stacked with something, and by the end of the day, there was just enough space on the couch for two humans, one beagle, and two cats.

The next day, I had to leave the house for a few hours to meet with the dean for a new teaching gig beginning this fall. I returned with Taco Bell (the perfect food for when your kitchen has disappeared) just as the carpet crew arrived.

In the meantime, Will, unbeknownst to me, had invited some neighbors over to pick plums from our burgeoning tree. Now, the plum tree is actually located outside, but for unexplained reasons, it turned out that at least one neighbor traipsed through our home and out the back door that day, past the reassembled furniture, the heap of clothes from the bottom racks of our closets and the dresser dumped in the middle of our kitchen, which happened to be where it fit best.

I gasped, learning this. "Through the house? You mean, someone was in here?"

Will grinned. "Don't worry. He said he liked what we had done with the place."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Mother of All Toothaches

I'm not afraid of going to the dentist. Twice a year I plop myself into the chair, allow my head to be lowered to an uncomfortable angle, and submit to a battery of abuse - scraping, scrubbing, speed flossing, sometimes drilling, strange tastes and the occasional freezing shot from the Water Pik. Maybe the worst for me is the X-ray - an odd-shaped piece of plastic wedged so awkwardly in my mouth that I instantly feel like gagging.

And yet, I know -- I'm one of the lucky ones. Plenty of people have no such luxuries.

Eight days ago, I started to feel a slight throb in my lower right jaw. Just a teensy throb, hardly consequential at the moment. We were in New York, a stolen two-and-a-half day idyll before Will's conference in Philadelphia. I pushed the throbbing to the back of my mind - I'm good at ignoring things -- and soldiered on. And then, that night, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake in our room on the 19th floor, listening to the city not sleeping below me, and tried to isolate the pain. It really did seem like my entire body was throbbing, and unaccountably so. We'd climbed some steps, sure, and walked quite a few blocks, but that's nothing I can't handle. My entire head seemed to ache, too, like my forehead had become a pulse point. Eventually, I took four Ibuprofen and slowly drifted off.

But the dang pain just wouldn't go away. I confessed it to Will the next morning over breakfast: "I think I might have a bit of a toothache."

"Oh, no!" Will dropped his fork, mid-bite. If anyone can sympathize with tooth pain/dentist phobia, it's Will, a man who did not visit the dentist for eleven years, a man who once lost a hefty chunk of porcelain to a piece of sourdough bread in Monterey.

"It's okay -- it's not too bad," I insisted. I'd brought along a Ziploc baggie of Ibuprofen, but needed to stop for more as soon as we made it to Philadelphia. I had a brief vision of the ulcer I was creating - first a tiny hole, then eventually the sort of fissure I could punch a fist through.

The painkillers took the edge off, and for two or three days this was remedy enough. I met up with friends, favored the left side of my mouth when I ate, timed my doses, and tried my hardest to fall asleep at night.

By the fourth day, I had to admit defeat. I'd toyed with the idea of calling a dentist in Philadelphia, but hesitated, not knowing if this were truly an emergency and not having the slightest clue what my insurance covered when it came to this sort of thing. Because at this point I was really thinking: Exposed nerve. Root canal. The pain was so intense that I couldn't bring the lower half of my jaw to meet my upper. I walked around the city slack-jawed, cringing if anyone or anything came within a foot of my face.

I called my dentist and explained the situation. The next morning when Will headed into a conference, I hiked myself down to CVS and obtained a five-day supply of Vicodin. I have a love-hate relationship with Vicodin. I love how it lets me forget, if only for a couple of hours, that I've been experiencing pain. I hate how it wreaks havoc on my stomach (nausea, anyone?) and my sense of equilibrium. Will was instructed not to laugh as I made my way to the bathroom by holding onto the wall in our hotel room.

Eventually, I settled into a sort of rhythm, designed to last until Tuesday morning, when I could see my dentist at home. Every three hours I dosed myself: 1 Vicodin, three hours later 4 Ibuprofen, then 1 Vicodin and so on. If I missed a dose, I was alerted by pain radiating down my neck -- my own built-in alarm clock. There's a quote I half-remember from somewhere: "A headache? I had the kind of headache God smote you with in the Old Testament." I had the sort of toothache that could easily have been swapped for one of the ten plagues. Bring on the locusts, the flies, the hail, the boils (okay, maybe not the boils) -- they had nothing on this toothache.

This morning, I was twenty-five minutes early for my dentist appointment, a Paula record. I thought I held it together on the outside, chatting about my trip through teeth that didn't meet, although inwardly I was begging: Me next! Call me next!

I submitted to the wedging of large, sharp-edged plastic into my tender mouth and waited anxiously for the results. "Hmm," my dentist said, "Nothing there."

I dug my fingernails into the plastic armwrests. Look more closely! There must be something wrong!

"Why don't we take a look at your bite?" she suggested.

Was she insane? I couldn't bite. People in the throes of pain should not be asked to accomplish such unreasonable tasks. But I submitted again, grudgingly, to a series of "tap, tap" and "side to side" instructions.

"Are you biting as hard as you can?" she asked, skeptically. "It doesn't seem like you're biting at all."

I estimated that I was a good thirty seconds away from crying.

"You know, this might be the problem. Head back," she instructed, and before I knew it, sans any sort of numbing agent, a tiny silver drill was whirring away in my mouth. Only, it didn't hurt. It actually felt ... okay.

Here's the problem, as it was explained to me: In March (yes, four months ago), I'd had a crown installed. It didn't seem to fit exactly right at first, but after a day or so, I got used to it. Nothing hurt, nothing seemed problematic. In fact, it was ill-fitted, meaning that I hadn't been biting down correctly for months, and the entire area around this crown (basically, the lower right section of my mouth) was inflamed. It might take a week, but now that my bite was corrected, the pain would gradually subside and I would soon be back to normal. With any luck, I would be able to chew something more complicated than a piece of gnocchi or cereal completely saturated by milk.

"And if it's still hurting...?"

She snapped off her gloves, then gave me a pat on the shoulder. "Then just give me a call."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Culinary Adventures

Famiglia Italia - 8th Avenue, New York City, 2 a.m.After a full day of travel and fine dining on Southwest's peanut and Cheez-It packs, we arrived in the city ready to eat. This pizza was fantastic, especially when seasoned by terrific hunger. We got it to go, and practically ran across the street to our hotel, kicked off our shoes, and feasted on a buffalo chicken pie on top of the bedspread while an episode of Law & Order played in the background. Bliss.

Tick Tock Cafe, 8th Avenue, New York City, 9 a.m.
I went for the bowl of fruit, already feeling that my arteries were clogged. It was basically a chopped up grapefruit with a few bruised grapes. Yummo!

Street Vender, 5th Aveue, New York City, 1 p.m.We took a walk down Madison Avenue and eventually ended up in the Reading Room at the New York Public Library (yes, the Ghostbusters room, as one of us recognized). Then we hit the streets again and oh, the humidity. Needing a refreshment, we bought drinks. Will scarfed down a dirty water hot dog and I bit into the hardest pretzel of my life. It literally needed to be submerged in my Diet Pepsi to be palatable, and once submerged, it was disgusting. I date my raging toothache to this horrible brick.

Somewhere near the post office and Madison Square Garden, New York City, 8 p.m.
Cheese pizza = a thin crust, a swirl of sauce, and easily two pounds of cheese. A teensy-tiny bathroom. Once I was enclosed in it, someone immediately began pounding on the door. "You'll have to wait!" I called, contorting my body to reach behind me for the toilet paper. Pounding persists throughout the flushing, zipping, washing, and drying. "Sorry," a twenty-something girl says when I step out. "I just really couldn't wait." Pizza grease gets me, too.

Cooper's Tavern, 8th Avenue, New York City, late
We decided to stop here for a nightcap, since we were approximately 10 feet from our hotel and thus would not have to worry about stumbling down the street afterwards. Will ordered a margarita that was heavy on the triple sec and tequila, and I went for a Midori sour that came not in a tumbler, but in something more like a pint glass. I couldn't let it go to waste! Besides, I was fine to walk through the lobby to the elevator bank! Life was good! And it wasn't until the next morning that I realized I'd left a hand-scribbled outline of my novel at the bar.

Beck's Cajun Cafe - Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, 8 a.m.
Beignets! Heaven dusted with confectioner's sugar. De-lite!
Muffuletta! This for Will, who kept tempting me with bites. Would you like a little olive with that sandwich?

Chinese Restaurant, Arch Street, Philadelphia, 8 p.m.The sign in the window boasted that this was the 8th best Chinese restaurant in the US, and as we appeared to be the only white people (read: authentic cuisine), we went inside. We ordered two iced teas. "In a can?" the waitress said. I grimaced: "How about brewed?" We were then served two massive tubs of tea; the sort of large take-out containers that usually hold a quart of soup, except pierced through with a straw. Every other person in the restaurant was drinking out of a glass, and I tried to figure out where my ordering had gone wrong. Paige arrived when I had picked out all the chicken from my kung pao plate, and demanded to know why we were drinking tea out of a tub.

Will ordered the sweet and sour chicken, which arrived as tiny bites of chicken minus any sauce. A few minutes later, he got the waitress's attention and asked if his order included any sauce. "Yes," she said, confirmed in her belief that we were mentally challenged. She seemed in no hurry to rectify this situation.

Capogiro Gelato Artisans, various locations around Philadelphia, various times of night.Yum. My favorite combination: Sea Salt and Nutella. Will, always braver, went for the Avocado.

El Vez, 13th Street, Philadelphia
Fried plantains (not for the bananaphobic), corn on the cob slathered with chipotle, mayonnaise and fresca queso, guacamole that could convert the avocadophobic, red chile and chicken enchiladas with crema fresca and cotija cheese, more than my share of a pitcher of margaritas which left me feeling I could pronounce any of the terms on the Dia de los Muertos montage on the wall. El Mercado! Amor Eterna! Excellet company: Paige, Beth, Rick and Will.

Portofino, Walnut Street, Philadelphia
Bottle or two of pinot grigio, fried calamari, spinach salad with walnuts and gorgonzola, fettucine alfredo (toothache persisting with some urgency...), 17 glasses of water.

Dunkin Donuts, Market Street, Philadelphia, 8ish a.m.Large iced coffee with cream and sugar, vanilla creme donut, loads of guilt.

CVS Pharmacy, Market Street, Philadelphia20 Vicadin tablets for the low low price of $4.95! I haven't cured my toothache, but I've forgotten to care.

Vending Machine, Downtown Marriott, Philadelphia, 2 p.m.
After a day of the Constitution Center and wandering downtown, I'm parched. A Diet Pepsi at the vending machine will cost me $2, but I decide the expense can't be avoided. Exiting the elevator, I head left to the machine. "Excuse me!" called a hotel maid. "Excuse me, but you're going the wrong way! Room 1915 is to the right!" I explain about my urge for overpriced cancer-in-a-can, but the conversation stays with me throughout the trip. 23 floors in this hotel and thousands of guests, but somehow this person knew exactly who I was and where I should be.

Le Cestagne, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 6:30 p.m.Sarah's pick, which ended up having just the menu for a girl who was suddenly subsisting on a mooshy-foods-only diet: flan di Parmigiano con crosta di pistacchio and gnocci di patate alla Sorrentina, which translates to high levels of food coma deliciousness.

Home, Modesto, CA, 6 p.m.
Will and I realize we have no food in the house. Lamely, I offer to call for a pizza, but it's the wrong choice by a mile. Finally, Will heads to the grocery store for what sounds like heaven: cereal and milk.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

If you go...

If you ever find yourself heading across country or around the world with my travel companion, you should know:

1. Talking is permitted, but discouraged.
The W takes flying very seriously. Why not? We're hurtling through the air at many miles an hour in a quite heavy piece of metal - at least, that's how it's been explained to me scientifically. The best thing for all parties to do, he figures, is keep quiet. Stay in your seat, headphones on, reading or sleeping. There is no need to strike up a conversation with a neighbor -- this can be done once the landing gear has safely been lowered. There is also no reason to talk to one's travel companion -- you'll be seeing each other for the duration of your trip, and any chit-chat can wait. Once, nearly twelve years ago, he turned to me somewhere over the Great Plains and said, "Bag." What? I hesitated -- purse? Shoulder bag? Laptop bag? Little plastic bag from the airport bookstore? No. "Bag. Bag!" he insisted. He was referring to one of the sweet little vomit bags tucked into the back flaps of the seat in front of us. Sadly, I failed that test, which proves the talking-is-unnecessary theory.

2. If you try, you can hold it.
I tested this theory on our recent trip. The W has an iron bladder, whereas I feel the urge to pee every hour or so. After our flight from Sacramento, we had a short layover in Phoenix, during which I grabbed a cup of gelato (so what? It's vacation) and the W grabbed a burger, fries and medium iced tea. On the plane, he was served a plastic cup of cranapple juice and later sipped from my water. It was a four-hour, fifty-minute flight, and somewhere over St. Louis, I gave in and waited fifteen minutes for a chance at the smallest bathroom of my life. You need to get up? I asked. He shook his head, frowning; I had violated rule number one. In Newark, we waited for half an hour for our luggage, discovered the Air Train was down for maintenance, took a RailLink bus to the train station (where the bathrooms were locked and I suddenly had to pee again), took the train to Penn Station, walked to our hotel, checked in, and the W graciously said, "You can have the bathroom first." By my calculations it had been eight hours at this point. The W officially has superhero status.

3. Walk faster, if possible.
The first time the W and I went to Europe (Paris, Athens, Istanbul, Rome), I realized that we walked at two completely different paces. The W walks with purpose, and I sort of slump along, not seeing the forest for the trees or the city for the skyscraper. Occasionally he turns around to make sure I have not disappeared down a manhole, and occasionally I catch up to him to point out things and request a bathroom break. Sometimes this means we get separated by large groups of people and sometimes I'm left to call, "Hold the elevator!" On our current trip, I trailed a good 20 feet behind him at the airport, holding my carry-on in one arm and pulling my suitcase with the other. In addition to laziness and curiosity, my footwear keeps me behind - a high heel or a delicate sandal, compared to the W's steady brogues. He has developed more patience for this over the years, I'm happy to report. Now when he turns around, it's to give me a smile, a shrug, and a look that says: Walk faster, if possible.

4. No need for a map.
The W could be dropped out of an airplane over an undisclosed location and find his way, blindfolded, to his destination. There are reality shows dedicated to this now, but the W does this not for fame or monetary gain. He simply can't help himself. I, on the other hand, once got lost in Venice. In Venice - a tiny island with signs every three feet (er, meters) directing pedestrians to St. Mark's Square. Even if I do get a slight grasp on our location, it's lost the minute I stop paying attention. Tonight, we stepped out of the restaurant onto a crowded street and I realized I had no idea where I was. (This used to cause me no small amount of panic, for which I would like to publicly thank the people who make GPS possible.) The W, however, knew just where we were, including which combination of left and right turns would lead us most directly to our hotel. As I marveled at this (from five feet behind), he turned around and said, "You know where we are, right?" It felt like a trick question. But then I saw the sign: 8th Avenue. "Yes! We turn right," I said, triumphantly. The W gave me a pitying look, and took me by the hand. "Two blocks to the left," he said.

So there you have it. My travelling companion is quiet, a urine camel, speedy and a flawless navigator. And I am one lucky girl.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You've Got Karma

The day I turned sixteen, I picked up my blue-and-gray striped uniform and started working at McDonald's. From that day until I left for college two years later, I clocked in for three nights a week and three weekends a month. In my sleep, I confirmed drive-thru orders. In the shower, I tried to scrub off the filmy coating of vegetable oil that accumulated over the course of an eight-hour shift.

I was basically assigned to the drive-thru because 1) I could speak English and 2) I could do more than three things at once. It was far better than being assigned bathroom duty or the never-ending task of wiping down trays, but the problem with the drive-thru was that I had exactly sixteen square feet in which to operate, and one or two coworkers in that space at all time, with a carful of hungry customers breathing down my neck at the window.

At the time (and probably, still), McDonald's customers could fill out a comment card about their experience. Was the food hot? Order correct? Employees friendly? It seemed a rather unfair system, since we couldn't rate the customer back. (Was the customer rude? Was the customer able to read the menu? Did the customer pay for a Value Meal entirely in pennies?) In fact, all we could do was smile politely, if tightly, and keep up the pretension that the customer was, indeed, always right.

One day I showed up for work, and Monica, who worked the 6 to 2 shift, cornered me. "Oooh, Paula - you got carded," she said. Her eyes were full of a mixture of sympathy and superiority. In the hierarchy of this particular franchise, Monica might have been a step below a shift manager, but this was only semantics.

Now being carded was serious business, but unfortunately, I had trouble with Monica's thick accent, and what I heard was, "Oooh, Paula -- you've got karma."

I wondered about this for the next few hours of my shift, in between asking, "Would you like to add a hot apple pie to your order for only 99 cents?" and restocking paper cups. What did it mean that I had karma? My understanding of the concept was basically limited to "what comes around, goes around." Had I offended one of my co-workers, somehow pissed off a customer? I couldn't recall spitting in anyone's Coke or serving food that had hit the floor. It must mean, then, that I had done something wonderful, and the universe was going to reward me. It was true - I was an excellent employee: always on time (my mom's doing), professional (I didn't get involved in disputes with my coworkers, mainly because my attempts at speaking Spanish were universally mocked), and I had one of the best drive-thru accuracy records on the crew. Of the 40 billion served, I was probably personally responsible for several million. Yes -- good things were surely coming my way.

When I clocked out for my ten-minute break, the store manager cornered me. "Paula, we need to talk in private," she said. Private in this environment meant wedged between the cook station and the walk-in freezer, where we stacked half-empty boxes of promotional Happy Meal toys.

"Okay," I said, wiping my greasy hands on my pants.

"You probably heard that you got a card."

A -- card? Not... karma? The sympathetic looks of my coworkers suddenly made sense.

"Do you want to read it?" She asked, and then handed it to me before I could say, "No, no thanks."

What I read was basically a diatribe against my hair - it was ugly, it was dirty, it was a horrible representation of this fine dining establishment.

I swallowed. I have had the same hair for much of my life - blonde, long, generally in a ponytail, washed every night of my life no matter what was happening, and basically, I've always considered it my best feature. I handed back the card wordlessly.

My manager studied me carefully. I think this was actually the first time she had ever looked at me, other than to notice that I had or hadn't completed a task. "You always wear your hair like that, right?"

"Yeah." Baseball caps were part of our mandatory uniform, so there weren't too many hair options available. Every day when I started my shift, I tucked my blonde ponytail into the back of the hat and that was it.

"Well, Paula," she said, ripping the comment card in half, then half again and again, until dozens of shredded pieces floated from her hand into the trash basket. "I think we should just forget all about this."

"Thanks," I said, and wandered off to the employee lounge, where I spent the final two minutes of my break shaking, wondering what cruel person had taken the time out of his or her busy schedule to humiliate a seventeen-year-old girl. It probably wasn't a person who went straight from school to work and home again to write essays and cram for tests, and yes, try to wash the residue of grease out of my hair. It probably wasn't a person who banked 75% of her paycheck to cover private college tuition. And if there was any fairness in the world, it probably wasn't a person who had good things coming.

Talk about karma, indeed.

Monday, June 6, 2011


My parents are getting cell phones.

The news almost floored me. For much of my adult life, my parents have been virtually unreachable. They have a home phone, yes, but whenever they worked or traveled or went to dinner or stepped into the backyard, they were basically off the grid.

They didn't even... wait for it... have an answering machine.

I took it upon myself to rectify this one Christmas, purchasing them the same new model Will and I had recently bought for ourselves. Testing it a week later, I received the same frustrating series of endless rings.

"It doesn't work," Dad informed me later (when I happened to catch him on the phone) after several minutes of interrogation.

"What? It's brand new. Let me have a look at it."

"Well, the problem is, it picks up too soon," Mom explained, her voice startlingly loud on the other extension. "We need more than four rings to get to the phone."

"I'm sure that can be adjusted," I said. "I'm coming over."

"No, I'll work on it," Dad promised.

He's generally good at fixing things, but this particular project has been a decade in the making -- a decade during which I fielded dozens of phone calls from friends and family: Do you know when your parents will be home? When does your dad's flight get in? Can you tell your mom to call me before ten tonight? It was not unusual to find that one or two of the messages on my own machine were actually bits of information to be passed on to my parents.

Dad eventually did purchase a cell phone, but it was solely for emergencies, turned on only when he traveled and banished to his desk drawer for long periods of hibernation when he did not. "It's for your emergencies, then," I tried to reason. "If one of us had an emergency, you'd never know." It must have been difficult to refute this logic, but my parents offered their own puzzling bits of rationale -- the phone takes too long to charge, charging that phone is expensive, if you overcharge the phone the battery will need to be replaced and that's expensive, and sometimes it's hard to find the phone in the first place.

So when I heard the news at dinner on Friday, I squealed. "You're getting a cell phone? I mean" -- ignoring my Dad's raised finger of protest -- "a cell phone that will be turned on and that I'll be able to reach you on at any time?"

My mother considered this cautiously before replying, "Yes."

It was taking a moment for the information to sink in. I tried to find the catch. "Okay, so you're each going to have a cell phone and you're going to carry it with you? So this whole summer while you're traveling, we'll be able to check in with you?"

Will put his hand on my arm to steady me - in my excitement, I had nearly toppled a glass of water.

"Well, now," Dad grinned at me. "Let's not get carried away."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Secondhand Goods

I'm not afraid of secondhand shopping. It's how I remained clothed during college ($2 men's flannels at the thrift store in Le Mans) and how I furnished my first apartment ($10 mission-style nightstand at Goodwill) and how I found the extremely cool urn that now graces my patio. Sarah and I once had a good-natured, decade-long battle over a yellow bag sold at a yard sale in Sioux Center.

Not to mention the books... probably a thousand of them, conservatively.

But I can also say no to secondhand; I can paw through someone's collection of records and walk away. I can praise a card table full of overpriced handmade jewelry ("lapidary art," I was informed) and make a graceful exit without producing a twenty.

This is more difficult for me, though, when I'm at an estate sale. At this point it's not just clutter from someone's garage or outgrown clothes -- it's basically a person's entire life on display. It's what's left behind; it's a wake for the pots and pans and Christmas decorations and figurines and empty picture frames that accompanied this life.

I'm strangely drawn to these displays, moving reverently between coffee pots and lamp shades, trying to imagine something of the people who lived here, who used these objects. I can't meet the proprieters eye-to-eye, because I know who they are: children, grandchildren, volunteers from church, employees from the company handling the sale. I can't help but think of what's next -- the house put on the market, or passed on to a descendant who will paint over the pastel walls and rip out the pink carpet. Anything that doesn't sell will be transported by a non-profit or tossed in a dumpster. In my own life, I'm not very sentimental. When I'm inhabiting, even for a few moments, someone else's, it's a different story.

This is why I own a rickety six-foot metal cabinet with rusty splotches. This explains the mailbox I mean to paint one day and use as a planter. It explains the houndstooth handbag I bought last week for $2.

"That's a very cool bag," commented the woman behind me in line, leaning over for a closer look.

I almost gave it up to her; I'd dithered between the suitcase and a small porcelain owl, neither of which I needed. But she was right: it was a cool bag, big enough to handle a change of clothes and a jumble of toiletries, a paperback or two. And then I did what comes all too naturally to me: I brought it home and set it to the side and promptly forgot all about it.

Tonight, putting together the clothes I'll need for a marathon teaching/class picture/graduation ceremony/dance day tomorrow, I realized the bag was exactly the right size for this purpose, and out it came once again.

At the bottom of the bag, I'd initially spotted some wadded up tissue, the sort of thing you might find in a new purse. Or that's what I thought. Emptying the bag for the first time, I pulled out not a ball of tissue, but a handful of disintegrating white panty hose, the hose of a newly dead stranger.

I gasped and flung the offending hose into the garbage can, shaking off its touch like I would the ghostly strands of a spider web.

And cured myself - for a week or two - of secondhand shopping.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Amendment to Teacher Handbook

In case your door lock breaks, and you are trapped in a classroom with 34 middle school students:

1. Don't panic. This very rarely helps.

2. Instruct students to stop screaming.

3. Phone the office. Get voicemail of clerk who has gone home for the day. Phone alternate number and beg for someone from maintenance or janitorial.

4. Wait. Convince students that banging on the tiny rectangle of reinforced glass is unnecessary.

5. Wave to crowd gathered outside.

6. Phone the office again. Wonder if secretary's giggling is related to your specific situation.

7. Vaguely recall someone from maintenance asking if door was working properly. Vaguely recall saying, "Sure! Everything's good."

8. Say prayer of thanks when janitor arrives, tugs on door knob, and proposes the only logical solution: the window.

9. Line students up single file to jump out of window, emergency fire-drill style. Hope that no one is putting this on You Tube.

10. After clicking heels together three times to no avail, climb on top of counter, pass belongings out the window, and jump. Be sure to stick the landing, throw your arms in the air and pronounce your stunt a perfect 10.

Repeat as necessary.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Al Capone Was Here

My leadership class voted: for our end-of-the-year day away, we would visit Alcatraz, eat at Hard Rock Cafe, and buy overpriced trinkets at Pier 39.

I hadn't been to Alcatraz in years; Will, my friend Alisha and another chaperone had never been. There were some logistics to consider, including the transportation of 22 twelve and thirteen year-olds through commuter traffic, all of us catching the same train at the same time, a long walk from the Embarcadero station, a boat ride, and a weather report that referenced "heavy winds."

But we made it, arriving at The Rock without a single student overboard. (Dear M, from the front office, had suggested that perhaps a few students could be left behind at the end...) It was sunny and clear, atypically beautiful San Francisco weather, and after a much-needed bathroom break (one of us, in particular, had been holding it since her morning latte, five hours ago), we climbed the hill and donned headphones for the audio tour.

Alcatraz, for anyone who doesn't know, was home to Al Capone (tax evasion), the Birdman (killing a prison guard), Machine Gun Kelly (kidnapping, failing to have proper permits for his signature weapon), and a host of other prisoners who vaguely resemble the gang from Shawshank Redemption. They lived in the tiniest of cells, ate their pasta with real silverware in the dining hall, staged uprisings and escaped on rafts made of stitched together raincoats. Or at least, three of them did, and maybe even made it.

Will and I brought up the rear, making sure no stragglers from our tour took a wrong turn. We were at the tail end, about to turn in our headphones, when an older man stepped out of the shadows and said, "Anyone want a private tour of Robert Stroud's cell?"

Um... yes!

I know what you're thinking: Don't take private tours from strangers, Paula. But this guy was seventy at least (yeah -- I could take him), and there ended up being six people in the private tour - Will and me, two of my students, and another couple who had possibly taken a wrong turn to the bathroom. Plus, this guy was clearly an authorized tour guide, because he had a set of keys, wore a badge that I couldn't actually read, and seemed to know what he was doing.

So we headed up a skinny set of steps marked "Authorized Personnel Only." The guide produced a massive key and unlocked a heavy gate, then locked it behind us when we had passed through. Was that really necessary?

"Regulations," he explained.

I started to get nervous.

My students were snapping pictures like crazy and high-fiving each other for being the Chosen Ones. Everyone else in our group had probably filed into the theatre for a screening of Capone-era footage, but we were in a secret wing that was basically off the Alcatraz map. It concerned me that the place was disintegrating: brush against a wall, and flecks of pale green, undoubtedly lead-based paint flecked off.

We found ourselves in the medical ward: a dentist's office, a pharmacy, a primitive operating room. I battled a sudden urge to give everything a good once-over with some Formula 409. How old was that fingerprint in the grime?

"This is where Robert Stroud, the Birdman, lived for eleven years," the guide said, and we entered a room that was spacious by Alcatraz standards. He could have entertained a dozen other prisoners here, easy. "He was your basic psychopath," the guide explained. "He killed a guard at Leavenworth... practiced cannibalism... wasn't even allowed any birds at Alcatraz."

Huh. I glanced at my students, but they hadn't reacted to "cannibalism." Maybe they didn't know what it meant; it hadn't shown up in our Vocabulary for Success workbooks.

We also got to see Al Capone's cell during his last, syphilis-ridden year on the island.

Will was giddy. "This is Al Capone's toilet!"

I also took note of Al Capone's shower, which was not as uncomfortable as one might expect.

"Here's where they filmed The Rock," the guide continued, leading us into a wider room lined with huge cells. There were a few rusty gurneys and wicker wheelchairs locked behind bars. "Over here is the TB ward. We kept them segregated from the rest of the population."

"Oh -- did you work at Alcatraz while it was in operation?" Will asked, at the same time I asked my students, "Do you know what TB is?"

"I worked out of my garage for 31 years," our guide said, vaguely. "I've been volunteering here for three years because They want to know where I am at all times."

Huh. Will and I exchanged a long glance. I looked back down the hallway to where a gate was locked behind us. I remembered the trouble the rioters had gone through to get that key.

I glanced at the time and gestured helplessly. Probably time to go... a boat to catch...

We shook hands all around and my students took a picture with the guide, their own private tour guide, as proof that they had a much cooler experience on the island than anyone else.

As for me, I was glad to be out in the open again, stumbling down the crumbling hillside to the dock. There's no way I was missing the boat.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hail to the King

Forgive me for not writing - but it's not really my fault.

Blame can be placed on the usual suspects -- three demanding pets, 136 Language Arts students, my novel revision, and of course... Henry VIII.

Here's what happened: I finished the excellent BBC series Wire in the Blood and, while scrolling through Netflix in a deep state of despair, I discovered The Tudors.

My grasp of British history is weak at best, despite tons of Shakespeare and a 2009 trip to England that included an excellent Beefeater tour of the Tower of London. The various Richards, Edwards and Georges are basically interchangeable in my mind (but so, to be honest, are Buchanan and Pierce and Fillmore).

That said, I have a sick obsession with Henry VIII, his six wives, the lone son and the daughters who were so inconsequential that they only stayed on the throne for half a century.

I was hooked by the end of episode one. Castles! Crown jewels! Jousting! And if the TV-MA status was initially off-putting, it's amazing how quickly I started yawning my way through the boudoir scenes of the king and his flavor of the week. All right, let's get to the good stuff -- like when Henry denies the supremacy of the Pope to get his divorce, thereby bringing the Protestant Reformation to England.

Essays to grade? Not when the Queen is exiled to the Fens.

Sleep to be had? Nah -- not when the country's best executioner has been summoned for Anne.

And illogically, I started rooting against history. I knew what would happen; I had memorized long ago the sad demises of the six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived), but still I found myself hopeful. Catherine is too noble to be set aside! Poor Anne would give him a son if she could! Maybe there was some way sweet Jane could survive that difficult childbirth...

Between seasons two and three, foiled again by the Treick stomach, I spent a night shivering/sweating and dizzy with vertigo, unable to sleep because of my tangled 16th century nightmares of beheadings and courtiers. I'd drift off for a moment, then wake with a gasp, thinking, If if could happen to Sir Thomas More, it could happen to me.

Seasons three and four, tragically, were available by DVD only. I was forced to stalk the mailman, grasping the mail greedily as he approached. In the meantime I checked out a stack of books from my public library, which for probably my whole life has housed an entire shelf on the Tudors. It's possible that this obsession isn't normal, I thought, when the librarian asked if I was writing a research paper on Henry VIII. Walking through the park, I casually mentioned to Will that Anne of Cleves was granted the status of "sister" after Henry annulled their marriage. Will smiled tolerantly at me; perhaps he was wondering when I would finally change the subject.

Maybe "The Tudors" falls into that ambiguous "for better or worse" category; one of the strange future things about our spouse that we simply cannot predict. But Will rose to the challenge. Later that day, there was an early birthday present waiting for me - the last season on DVD. And that's where I'll be for the next week.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some Day, Correcting the Wrong Person's Grammar Will Get Me Killed

I speak for my fellows: it's hard work being a grammarian.

We are constantly cringing, wincing and clutching our dictionaries to our chests. We battle dueling forces: the urge to blurt out a correction or the willpower to just keep quiet.

We talk Strunk and White; we quote from the scripture of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. We get emails from co-workers who should know the difference between there, their and they're; we can't take seriously a superior's remark that a situation is "unexceptable." (Wouldn't this necessarily mean that there is nothing to which she can take exception?) We vote for the candidate with the best grammar; we cannot, in good conscience, support someone who says "irregardless".

We are an ungrateful lot. We have a hard time accepting a thank you note that reads, "Your awesome!" By the same reasoning, we refuse to be offended by graffiti that reads, "Your a bitch." Not us, no; we are merely grammarians.

We stand tongue-tied when a colleague asks us to "pronunciate" a word; later, a student asks, "Does spelling count?" and we are baffled. Of course it counts. Can there possibly be a situation in the entire course of human history in which spelling has not counted?

We are often moody, wary, loathe to get involved. Who, anymore, wants a grammarian for a friend? We turn the same critical eye inward, flogging ourselves for typos in emails, offering extra credit for students who find our mistakes. We have a creed: Proofread twice, print once.

Stopped at a red light, we laugh at the message on a license plate holder with a grammatical error; isn't that akin to a misspelled tattoo? The driver, who possibly failed grade-school Language Arts, who likely has not read any good panda jokes, flips us an angry gesture. We stop chuckling, suitably warned.

Correcting the wrong person's grammar may well get us killed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Short List of Things I Know Nothing About

1. Pregancy/childbirth.

2. Kissing up to the boss.

3. Dogs over 41 pounds.

4. Meat.

5. Doing my taxes.

6. Bananas, pickles, mushrooms (except the accidental taste of cream of mushroom soup).

7. Planning ahead.

8. Housewives - Real or imagined, Orange County or New Jersey.

9. Learning to let go.

10. A really good list of anything should have a logical end, preferably on a round number (10), but I'm feeling otherwise knowledgeable. I could at least fake a little bit of knowledge on most topics, at any rate. With a little luck, I could reach the low-hanging fruit ("I'll take Shakespeare for 100, Alex") and knock the socks off any fifth grader. So long as those fifth graders haven't learned to itemize deductions.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Seat by the Window

I have few requirements when I write at Starbucks. A venti skinny vanilla latte, so hot that I can only tease myself with it for the first ten minutes. Background noise that doesn't intrude too much on my foreground, typical of Starbucks' moody hipster blend. And always, always, a seat by the window.

Here's what I see today:

Two teenagers (seventeen?) sitting on the brick wall that surrounds the convention center fountain, sharing a cigarette. It's a boy and a girl, and I would guess that this is new love, this is we've-just-kissed-for-the-first-time-within-the-last-twelve-hours love. He rolls up the sleeve of his hoodie, reaches into the fountain and comes up, dripping, exuberant, with a handful of change. She takes his offering, laughs. They wander off down K Street. It's 7:19 a.m.

A fiftyish man carrying a plastic bag and - no kidding - a Walkman. He stops by my table on his circuit to the bathroom, sees my laptop and says, "Did you ever work for HP?" No, I say, smiling. He says, "They offered me a job once and I should have taken it. I should have taken it," and shuffles away. Five minutes later he comes out of the bathroom and asks, "Are you still here?" Yes - I think so.

A beautiful woman wrapped in a striped scarf. I aspire to be this woman. I would at least like to have this scarf.

A man in an NFL windbreaker with pop-up Dwayne Wayne glasses. He takes a call on his cell, which means he has to stop walking and lean against the car closest to him. This happens to be my car. I stop myself from rapping on the window and throwing him a gesture; when the call ends, he moves on, leaving a clean smudge in the middle of my accumulated Valley dust.

Pigeons. Tons of them.

A red Ford Contour that just stopped, stopped, in the middle of the street, despite traffic and a green light at K and 10th. I had recently watched an episode of Hoarders where the family's "treasures" (like boxes of expired cereal and yellowed magazines with curling pages) had taken over their house and the husband had to sleep in the car - so I instantly recognized the problem here. This was a hoarder's car, filled to the brim with crumpled McDonald's cups and things wadded up in plastic bags. The driver him/herself was a mystery, since the passenger window was completely blocked by trash. After about a minute of cars honking and swerving, the Contour moved on.

A large, kindly man with puffy bags under his eyes. Much older than me, I would guess, but as I age myself I find it impossible to estimate the age of someone else. The last time I was here he came by my table three or four times, leaning into my airspace, asking me what I was writing, what I thought of the music, had I been to the local, organic grocery store that just opened up a few blocks away? In other words, flirting. Today he gives only the tiniest, most embarrassed glance in my direction - he's with his wife.

What I don't see today, and almost miss: the crazy man. I probably overuse the word to refer to everyone from Charlie Sheen to the parent who thinks her daughter will still pass my class, despite empirical data and a very blunt email to the contrary - but this man is genuinely crazy. He holds a constant, one-sided stream-of-conscious conversation, like Kerouac would have sounded had he sat in a Starbucks and composed On the Road orally. Last week I had the pleasure of finding myself at the table next to him, which meant I had a front row seat for the "Riders on the Storm"/"Hotel California" lyrics, the muttered comments about Donald Trump, OJ Simpson, Tiger Woods, technology and everyone who walked past us. (I had a suspicious feeling that the "bull dyke" comment was somehow related to me.) Today it's quiet without him, and almost a little boring.

Which means I'd better get to work.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Laverie Automatique

In 2002, Will and I were in Paris for five days.

It was my first trip "abroad" - the first five days of a month-long trip that would encompass seven countries, five flights, a two-day "cruise" and miles and miles (er, kilometers and kilometers) on our EuroRail passes, but after only four days of the Louvre and Orsay, brasseries and patisseries, and a day trip to Versailles, we were filthy.

We had already worn everything in our backpacks and I hadn't yet learned that washing my underwear in the sink wouldn't kill me. And, if the "one-day transportation strike" ended on schedule, our flight for Athens would leave the next day.

So we wandered over to the "laverie automatique" just across the street from our hotel - chocolate bars, paperbacks, and bottles of Vitel in tow. Look out, punks - here come two dirty Americans with their laundry.

It was mostly uneventful. We figured out what coins needed to go where and how to purchase detergent, and settled in for a quiet morning. We chatted briefly with two Americans from Seattle, discussing the relative merits of one Rick Steves.

And then, the most spectacular thing happened: Two Parisians got into a heated argument over their laundry.

It was the same sort of argument that happens in American laundromats every day, I'm sure. Someone, impatiently waiting for a dryer, removes another person's clothing from the dryer before said clothing is actually dry. Or wet clothing is heaped on a counter while the waiting person nabs a washer that has barely stopped spinning. But it was impossible to tell exactly what the situation was here, because it was all in rapid-fire French, and my fingers couldn't have spun quickly enough through my French-English dictionary to catch even one word in twenty.

But I didn't really care what they were saying. The translation itself was beside the point, and may have detracted from the real drama of the scene. How exciting can words like laundry, wet, dry, mine, I was here first, etc., really be?

For Will and I, chugging our Vittel and nibbling gleefully on our chocolate bars, this was entertainment at its best. For the last five days the most exciting exchange we'd had was with the hotel maid, who came into our room while we were napping to remove - mysteriously - the quilts from our bed. This fight - between a man and a woman - raged all over the laundromat and involved his clothes and hers in various stages of cleanness. Their voices had fabulous range - from dramatic whispers to raspy screams to strident demands. At one point, a woman holding a toddler by one hand and a laundry bag by another, poked her head in and immediately walked out.

I would have loved to stay all day, but at some point our meager load was finished, our backpacks were repacked with clean clothes, and the rest of Paris was waiting. I wondered how long they stayed there, engaged in a verbal duel. I wondered, all day, who won.

It's a funny thing when I think about it now. I remember walking along the Seine at night, and our picnic of bread and wine at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I remember the Monets and Manets, the extravagences of the Louises, the graffiti as seen from my window seat on the RER. But nothing says Paris to me like a passionate argument in the laverie automatique.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Pepper Spray Works!

B and I, minding our own business on our daily walks, have been attacked by all sorts of dogs – the blue-gray hound with the high-pitched wail, the chocolate brown dachshund who lurks, waiting for us, beneath a parked car, and twice by the snarling pit bull with the oblivious owners.

After the second incident with the pit bull, I gave in. Clearly, pleading with the owners, screaming at the top of my lungs (a surprisingly girly sound), and calling Animal Control had little effect. So we changed our route. B and I now cut down another street and make our way to the park – where we still might by accosted at any moment by a variety of other off-leash menaces.

At least, this is my fear.

The dogs who run up to us in the park are often benign, tails wagging, no doubt attracted by B’s friendly demeanor and his wet brown eyes. If we’re with Will, he’ll take care of the approaching dog, calling him off, yelling at the owners (who always, always, seem shocked that their dog won’t obey their commands. “But he never does this! I don’t know what’s come over him!”), and in general, offering protection.

But at least half the time, it’s just B and me. And B is never scared – at first. He looks with mild interest at our neighbor’s snarling German shepherd, he wags his tail when a little Yorkie tries to take a bite out of his ear. Ever since the second pit bull incident, I feel like we’re walking targets. I’m extra vigilant, constantly scanning the area for the enemy.

And so I bought pepper spray – a purple, phallic-shaped canister that bulges strangely in my pocket. It works quite well, as I learned from pulling the trigger in my kitchen and then coughing for an hour.

Only a week later, I used it on a dog – a German shepherd mix that charged at us from out of nowhere when we were on the edge of the park. B, in typical B fashion, didn’t notice, but I heard him coming – picked out the particular jingle of a dog collar, the pounding of feet on soft grass. I whirled around, holding the pepper spray like it was a gun and the dog was an intruder in my bedroom.

“Stop!” I yelled, figuring a warning was only fair. The dog was maybe 20 yards away, and it was impossible to read his intentions. “Halt!” I ordered in my best Nazi imitation. No reaction. Well, you stupid dog, you give me no choice. I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.

When I opened my eyes a second later, our attacker was about five feet away, spinning in a confused circle. He kept snapping his jaws in the air, like he was chasing a fly. He turned to face me again and I gave him another shot for good measure. After a yelp, he took off in the other direction.

My heart had somehow crept into my throat. I slid the pepper spray back into my pocket, and then I felt a tug on the leash. B was looking at me – enough, already. It was time to get moving. From a little farther on, a tree was calling to him.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Up for Air

Send out query letter for novel, do laundry, walk the dog, read for five minutes, plan lesson, brave the commute, teach lesson, collect assignment, curse self for assigning 105 written responses, walk the dog, make dinner, decide to let the dishes soak indefinitely, read response from agent: Not the right project for me at this time, search for clean clothes, call DJ for junior high dance, schedule field trip to Alcatraz, grade final drafts of research paper, feed the cats, write a blog post that never gets posted, realize library books are unread and overdue, send out new query letter to different agent, bake “Too Much Chocolate” cake, indulge in sugar coma, call parents of miscreant seventh graders, enter grades, make dentist appointment, take aspirin, search for new job online, stare at empty refrigerator, walk the dog, record agent response: Not taking new clients at this time, spend day sick in bed reading Uglies, attend before school parent meeting, teach, tutor after school, attend steering committee meeting, spend five precious minutes with Will, marvel at cost of filling the tank, take more aspirin, show up unannounced at dentist, leave two hours later with shiny new crown, clean bathroom, wonder how two people can produce such a mountain of laundry, submit new query letter to different agent, spend evening writing, realize Facebook status has been static for some time, miss Alisha, walk the dog, spend weekend grading papers, accidently step on cat’s tail, spend evening coaxing cat from under bed, chaperone junior high dance, worry about Egypt, sit alone at lunch, call parent of misbehaving seventh grader, take a deep breath before opening email from agent: I love the novel! I’d like to talk to you about representation.

Exhale. And come back up for air.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


From the woman in front of me in line, smallish, grayish, crazyish: "He was doing so well, had this nice girlfriend, and then one day he just snapped and started spitting on her and slapping her, and I said, 'What on earth, Gerald?' and oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize there was anyone behind me."

From the barista, with a blonde stripe on his mohawk: "Sorry about that." And then: "What size would you like that tea - small, large or extra large?"

From a man with his nose buried in 101 Things You Should Know About 2012: "No, go ahead. I'm not saving it for anyone."

From two girls next to me, punching in numbers on scientific calculators: "... expression for the compression factor... solve for P over T..."

Older woman, grandmother-helpful, from the counter: "They're out of cookies, John."

Older man in armchair browsing A Photo History of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. "What?"

Older woman: "They're out of cookies. They're OUT of COOKIES."

Man in armchair: "Oh."

Older woman: "Would you like something else?"

Man in armchair, flustered: "Ah, no. Forget it."

From fiftyish woman wearing a babydoll dress and go-go boots: "I don't know if I should date that guy from the restaurant. He's a little too New York for me."

Fiftyish woman's much younger companion with wet curls and her back to me: "Where do you meet these people? Seriously?"

Fiftyish woman: "I go out. You know -- Starbucks."

From long-haired employee who once helped me order a rare book: "You can buy these mugs at any '76. Half-gallon size. And they're really a steal because they only charge you for a large drink when you fill up."

Short man with bulging muscles, Incredible-Hulk-style: "Is anyone sitting here?"

Woman in three shades of purple, to bored husband with toothpick in his mouth leafing through Golf Digest: "Look at this chair. Don't you just love this chair?"

Impossibly young girl in killer heels: "So I saved his note so you can see his handwriting. It's girl handwriting. Don't you think so? Isn't there something wrong with a guy who has such girl handwriting?"

Barista: "Erik? I have your caramel apple Americano with salted toffee on the bar..."

High-pitched voice over PA system: "Attention, customers. The store will be closing in fifteen... ten... five minutes. It's time to make your final purchases."

Sunday, January 30, 2011


When we were living in our first apartment (a second story walk-up bordered on the north by the junior college campus and on the south by twin seedy apartment complexes), Will experienced a brief moment of clarity.

Let me explain.

Will has poor vision, which is putting it kindly. He's worn glasses as long as he can remember, a fact borne out by childhood photos, where he's a happy, tow-headed, four-eyed kid. Contacts don't work for him; ditto, Lasix. He's something of a celebrity when he visits his optometrist. Once I overheard the receptionist whisper to another: "You see that one? He's a negative twelve." She caught my glare and hushed up immediately. Please, there's nothing wrong with his hearing -- or mine, either.

Anyway, this isn't a sob story. Will wears expensive glasses in even more expensive frames, and never thinks about it. He drives, he writes, he makes a fabulous stromboli, he rereads Mario Puzo novels. He's used to his few moments of blindness each day - fumbling for his glasses on the nightstand, reaching for the shampoo in the shower. With his glasses on, we're nearly ocular equals. I only get to show off my perfect vision when I spot road signs miles in advance.

But on one otherwise inauspicious day, Will had his moment of clarity.

He was standing at the bathroom sink in our apartment, his glasses on the vanity. If he had looked out the window over the sink -- if he had been able to see out the window, that is -- he wouldn't have been greeted by a pretty sight. Our bathroom overlooked the corrugated roof of our carport, a huge dumpster that attracted rats, flies and the occasional diver, and the canal where once, after a cerveza-feuled Cinco de Mayo celebration, a dinky Geo Metro missed the turn, crashed through the railing and dangled crazily over the water. All of this was watched over by a massive, seldom-updated billboard which for years boasted 59 cent cheeseburgers on Wednesday. The golden arches were our very own version of Doctor T. J. Eckelburg (fittingly, an oculist).

In other words, Will wasn't missing much.

And then it happened - a chest-wracking, body-shaking cough that rattled him so deeply that for the briefest of moments, he could see clearly. 20/20 vision, without his glasses.

"Wow," I said, when he told me the story, a towel wrapped around his waist, his reapplied glasses fogged. "So, what did you see?"

He had looked out over the canal and spotted the row of delivery trucks for a linen service; he could read every single word detailed on their trucks. As proof, he repeated the company tag line to me.

"Huh," I said, impressed and depressed at the same time. I'd once coughed so hard that I literally saw stars, but this was a new one. In a way, I felt sorry for him. A single moment of clarity, and this was what he saw?

When we talk about it now, we have different theories.

Maybe there hadn't really been clarity -- maybe it was just his memory filling in the blanks. After all, with his glasses on, he'd probably seen those trucks a few hundred times.

"Or it was a mini-stroke," Will suggested.

"Or a mini-stroke," I agreed.

Either way, we both shy away from the word miracle, which today means the moldy figure of Elvis or Mary on a tortilla. But "mini-stroke" seems unlikely and too cold, the clinical explanation of a medical textbook. I like to think of it instead as Will's one moment of clarity.