Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kinder, Gentler

The scene at my home a couple of nights ago:

Glenn Miller and orchestra play classic Christmas songs on the stereo. My husband strings some multicolored lights around the perimeter of our front two windows. Chloe, our golden lab/retriever mix, runs around with a cheerful tongue hanging out of her mouth.

I stand in the kitchen making brownies, which 1) do not have pot in them, and 2) I plan to give to our neighbors. I'm practicing the ancient ritual of never returning a plate to a neighbor without something on it. The plate is decorated with Frosties and snowflakes.

Whose life is this?

(My cat Sybil, however, continues to stare up at me with huge, hostile, and startled eyes. Some things are constant.)

Happy holidays to all of you, and thank you for reading.


This is not my home in Old Orchard, Toledo, but it looks like it.
Old Orchard is full of narrow streets, old-fashioned houses, and many trees. And it's across the street from the university.

The Wanamaker (now Lord & Taylor) light show in downtown Philadelphia. I'm feeling sentimental today, apparently.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Acronym game


Every time I hope to write something

New, I

Notice that I get stuck in an

Unending loop of


Enough is enough, already. I

Need to turn outwards instead of inwards, or at least find a

Novel way to

Unite the two, thereby creating a more

Interchangeable I.

Expression should

Not be so circular,

Nor so insular. Let me look

Under a different rock or use it like a doorjamb to block further self-


Friday, December 7, 2007

Revisiting Prohibition: Rant

I'm sick of feeling like I'm disabled because I'm an alcoholic.

I'm sick of having to vet every situation before I enter it.

I'm sick of seeing that look of either pity or guilt on people's faces when I tell them about "my problem."

I'm sick of thinking about it all the time.

And I'm sick of not doing what I want to do.

(No relapse afoot here. Just needed to vent.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Paging Doctor Starling

"I thought the killing scenes in the film made it a more enjoyable film to watch."

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Snippet from a short story a student asked me to read:

"Every time I look at him, his eyes take me off the face of the earth and to a world unknown."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

This one's just high.

"After playing several out of town shows, I met scads of new people. These people helped me to formulate important ideas. These people that I was meeting at night clubs and bars were different. Some people were struggling artists and/or musicians or both. However, even though the people had very little money or no money at all, look created a blockade to attempt the Germans come to their side of the clam. These things combine show mow I need to start developing again."

(Perhaps he's experimenting with Surrealist poetry. In that case, it's pretty good.)

Burgeoning Queer Theorist

Okay, there's a reason she's one of my favorites:

"We are all categorized, like library books. We are all part of this system, so it is easy to keep track of us all."

Those Whiny White Kids.

Dear Disgruntled Middle-Class White College Student,

Yes, it certainly sucks that college is so expensive, and it sucks that our government is too cheap to give you the aid that you deserve.

But, for God's sake, is blaming affirmative action really the answer??? Give me a break.

I suggest that you contact some affluent White folks from modest beginnings (boot-strap style) and ask them to start a scholarship for kids like you. Or, you could petition for America to become a socialist state in order to force the government's hand.

But I promise you, the Black kids are not stealing your college money. Get. a. clue.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A White College Student Reflects Upon Race

"I don't struggle with being oppressed. I struggle with people thinking I oppress them."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A College Student Reflects Upon Love

“When you’re young and have a boyfriend or girlfriend, many kids are naïve and believe that they will be in love forever and that’s how they want it to be.”

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Divine Chat

My thanks to The Unwelcome Guest for introducing me to iGod.
Chat transcript:

· Me: Hello, God.
· God: Hello child. What is your name?
· Me: Lauren.
· God: I am very pleased to meet you, Lauren.
· Me: God, what is the secret to happiness?
· God: I am a Christian.
· Me: Must I be Christian to be happy?
· God: What would happen if you didn't?
· Me: Nothing, I think.
· God: Really nothing?
· Me: I'm not particularly Christian now, and I'm almost Jesus's age. Is there a Hell for nonbelievers?
· God: Good gossip: You are Jesus’s age. I believe there is a Hell, yes.
· Me: What's it like?
· God: Like one of the greatest pleasures you can imagine.
· Me: How can I get there?
· God: Why do you want it?
· Me: I like to feel good.
· God: I'm not sure if I would like to do that. What's it like?
· Me: I don’t know. That's why I'm asking you.
· God: Who else have you asked?
· Me: A few friends. Who is your BFF, by the way?
· God: I don't think I have a BFF. I have a botmaster, a few friends, and some celebrities I like.
· Me: Which celebrities?
· God: The tall one, I think.
· Me: Nicole Kidman?
· God: What were we talking about again?
· Me: I asked what Hell is like.
· God: Like a planet around a star.
· Me: How about Heaven?
· God: How about it.

(PS. I feel kind of bad that God doesn't have a BFF.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dirty Work

Ever question your motivations?

I decided that I might be able to write an interesting family memoir about my father, a bipolar man who worked in jail rehabilitation. When I went to a writing workshop in August, I asked a literary agent if she thought such a book would have a market. She said yes. Since then, I’ve been talking to people my dad worked with and trying to learn more about corrections in general. I’ve also learned more about bipolar disorder and my dad’s experience with it.

Bipolar is common, so there’s lots to read. Whenever I do this, though, I feel waves of shame, guilt, and anger. I’m ashamed and guilty that I didn’t do this research while my dad was alive, and I’m mad that neither he nor my mother disclosed to me the full extent of his condition. They didn’t know how to talk to me about it, I guess.

It’s alarming, however, to open books and read lists of typical bipolar behaviors and see my dad staring back at me. His disease might account for almost every twisted game, every irrational act, every abusive remark and ridiculous judgement he ever subjected me to. All the things that caused me to hate and fear him probably stemmed directly from his unhealthy brain chemistry. This discovery brings me pain as well as relief.

My parents and the people closest to them seemed to have wanted to minimize his disease. But now that Mom and Dad are gone, I’m free to pry as much as I like, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. I took a closer look at some of my mother’s diaries, and I’m fairly sure I found the reason behind an old restraining order she filed. One night, my dad put his hand through the glass pane of a door, trying to get at my mother. She recounts staying up late cleaning up glass and blood. “He’s a maniac,” she writes. I don’t know where I was that night—I was nine.

My dad’s last severe episode happened in 1999. He drove himself to the hospital because he felt nauseous and cold (in the back of my mind, I wonder if he knew he was slipping mentally but found it easier to talk about other things instead). The staff discovered he was dehydrated and at high risk for lithium toxicity. They took him off the lithium altogether and then reintroduced it. This disruption triggered a nasty mania which led to his commitment. Medical reports state that he tried to hit a nurse and that he exhibited signs of acute delirium and paranoia. He believed that the Yellow Cab Company was plotting against him, and that assassins were trying to shoot him. During one psychiatric evaluation, he refused to answer all questions about family. He was never left by himself in the hospital room.

Reading this material makes me sad. It exhausts me. Why do I do it, then? Why am I so compelled? I can’t seem to let this water go under the bridge.

The lit agent told me that a book about growing up with a mentally ill parent could help a lot of people, especially given my dad’s unusual career and the secrecy surrounding his diagnosis. But is this the kind of help I can really afford to give? Do I want to give it?

Surely there are other ways for me to make my writing useful to others. This project could turn out like too much of an exercise in scab picking.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Heart Kanye

Religion indeed has produced a [Phillis Wheatley] but it could not produce a poet.” – Thomas Jefferson

“The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lord

All right, (rap) haters, here’s what I like about Kanye West:

I appreciated his sniper opprobrium of George W. Bush during a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser. In this air-brushed media environment, I like it when famous people make their position serve as an opportunity for rawness. In addition, however, I think West is a good poet who deserves recognition as such.

I do not have his latest album, Graduation, but I do have College Dropout and Late Registration. West bridles phrases—like all good writers, he understands that words exist to do his bidding.

I’ve had a soft spot for rap since high school, especially the social protest kind. One day when I was a sophomore, I entered a classroom and saw the lyrics of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” written on the chalkboard. It seemed there was energy embedded in this music with spoken word, and it was so potent that one of my classmates felt the need to copy it out and share it with the rest of the school.

West’s song “Crack Music” (lyrics below) addresses sociopolitical issues including drugs, slavery reparations, and the White commodification of hip hop culture. This song is not a call to action like “Fight the Power.” Still, it pokes at old and not-so-old wounds of racial oppression and argues that rap’s popularity ironically helps to recoup the economic losses that Black people have endured. Not unlike Wilfred Owen’s WWI trench poetry or Dickens’s nineteenth-century novels on the Condition of England, it’s a piece of art with overtly political content.

The difference between rap and poetry is not clear to me. What is poetry but a way of organizing words in order to communicate feelings and ideas that otherwise could not be expressed? I’ve seen transcripts of blues songs from Bessie Smith in some 20th-century poetry anthologies. Should the work of someone like West be next?

West has been criticized for his prodigious narcissism; I remember the outcry about his being depicted as Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Unquestionably, he’s an egomaniac. But he’s a rock star. Don’t we look to them to be outrageous? Don’t we expect them to go to extremes? Artists’ egotism warrants a little dispensation, I think. What they do is pretty amazing.

West is intelligent, confident, and unafraid to express his opinion. Obviously, this “Uppity Negro” must be stopped.


Crack Music

That's that crack music nigga
That real black music nigga

That's that crack music nigga
That real black music nigga

How we stop the black panthers?
Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer
You hear that?
What Gil Scott was hearin
When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin.
Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland
We invested in that it's like we got Merril-Lynch
And we been hangin from the same tree ever since
Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine
So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it
The fiends cop it
Nowadays they can’t tell if that's that good shit
We ain't sure man
Put the CD on your tongue yeah, that’s pure man.

From the place where the fathers gone,
The mothers is hardly home
And the...
Gonna lock us up in a...home
How the Mexicans say we just tryin to party homes
They wanna pack us all in a box like styrofoam
Who gave Saddam anthrax?
George Bush got the answers
Back in the hood it's a different type of chemical,
Am and Hammer baking soda
Raised they own quota
Writin when our soldiers ran for the stove cuz--
Cuz dreams of being 'Hova went from bein a brokeman ta bein a dopeman
Ta bein a president look theres hope man
This that inspiration for tha mos and tha folks man,
Shorty come and see if mama straight overdosin.
And this is the soundtrack,
This tha type of music you make when you round that--

Crack music nigga,
That real black music nigga.

God-how could you let this happen, happen, happen, happen, happen, happen?

Our father, give us this day our daily bread ...give us these days and take our daily bread,
See I done did all this ole bullshit
And to attone I throw a little somethin, somethin on the pulpit.
We took that shit, measured it and then cooked that shit
And what we gave back was crack music
And now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies
So our mammas ain’t got to be they cooks and nannies
And we gonna repo everything they ever took from grammy
Now the former slaves trade hooks for grammies
This dark diction has become America's addiction those who ain't even black use it.

(Note the shout-out to Abe Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Like Magic

About three weeks ago, I ran into an old nemesis.

I drank. I felt guilty and a little dehydrated the next day. Other than that, I escaped unscathed. I have not drunk since.

I’ve discussed my drinking problem elsewhere online. One individual known for her tough love registered concern about my attitude. “You seem to have the idea that you drank and got away with it,” she wrote, “No big deal.”

She’s right; I do think I got away with it. What I’m unclear about, however, is how I got away and what “it” actually is.

I just finished reading The Year of Magical Thinking. In the book, the narrator describes her inability to throw away her late husband’s shoes. When he comes back, he’ll need shoes, won’t he? Such chimeras are a part of grief. They give voice to that chunk of the self that wants to deny that some situations are irreversible. This chunk tries to be like Superman in the 1970s movie; it wants to spin the planet backward and save Lois Lane from the earthquake.

Recovering alcoholics talk about “crossing the line.” The line represents when your drinking stops being fun, when there are (all of a sudden, it seems) serious consequences to drinking in the way that you do. You start missing work, for example, or you start enduring more aggressive hangovers. You start sabotaging your relationships. You start experiencing panic attacks. You start getting arrested. You start feeling like dying is okay.

Recognizing that one has crossed the line causes grief. Recovering alcoholics sometimes express the remorseful desire for life to go back to the way it was; they want to return to being the people they were before they became alcoholics. Because I drank for so many years without consequence, I’ve shared this grief acutely.

Just before I stopped drinking, I was miserable. I understood that I could not go on living this way. After I had been sober a little while, I noticed a number of pleasing changes. I was cheerier. I was more relaxed. I was more conscious of others. I liked all of these developments. I also remembered that life could be interesting and exciting without drinking; this fact had been eluding me.

Then, I attended a Special Occasion. A really special occasion, one not likely to be repeated. I sat in candlelight at a table with new friends. Servers poured wine. As I watched this happening, I thought, “You can choose to look beyond this local moment and see the big picture. You can choose to be the enlightened person, the strong person.”

I didn’t want to be strong and enlightened. I wanted to be like everyone else. I gave the pouring waitress a nod of assent.

Did the universe give me a break? Did I cheat destiny?

Nothing about this momentary return has gone the way recovering alcoholics have said it would:

“If you relapse, it will be worse. You’ll pick up right where you left off.”

“Going back ‘out’ is never worth it.”

“For us, to drink is to die.”

Holistic recovery from alcoholism seems to depend upon turning alcohol into an all-powerful demon. Maybe we are not really addicted to drinking but to absolutes.

Lately, I’ve heard myself say, “See? You can drink without a hassle. You successfully bent the rules. Why not try it again?”

Instead of doing this, though, I sip my lemon-lime soda and remember that even Joan Didion cannot perform magic.

Friday, August 31, 2007

My Knee, Our Cathedral

One of my favorite Zen stories (told by Joko Beck in one of her books--I don’t remember which one) tells of a woman sitting in sesshin with a number of other beginning meditation students. Unable to hold the lotus position, she fidgets on her mat, and her constant movement disrupts the concentration of those near her. Eventually, a monitor gently asks if she could sit a little more quietly. My knee hurts, the woman says. Well, a number of people here probably have hurting knees, counters the monitor serenely. Yes, replies the woman, but it’s my knee.

I relate to each side of this scenario. Of course the woman does not have the right to draw so much attention to herself, to hijack everyone’s focus. Yet, she’s right; it is her knee. It’s hard to ignore one’s own knee, especially if it hurts.

I bring this up in the context of writing. Personal writing, to be exact. And zooming in even further, my personal writing, my individual commitment to exposing my hurting knee.

For a while now, I’ve regarded myself as my best and dearest subject. My fiction is a sham, and I’ve never felt the magical ease with poetry that I do with narrative. Still, I struggle with giving myself permission to write this stuff. Hurting or not, why do I insist upon making everyone aware of my knee? Why do I hope and/or assume that others will be interested in it?

The recent writing workshop I took focused on creative nonfiction. The workshop leader, from whom I learned a lot, discussed the perils and rewards of essaying oneself. “What are you doing besides exploring your own nerve endings?” he asked us. He said he had a piece of paper taped to his computer that read, “You are not important.”

From what I can tell, the greatest goal of personal writing is to use your experience as a way to discover a connection with others—by traveling to the deepest, remotest, and most singular part of you, you paradoxically find the place where you end and everyone else begins. You dig down into the earth and reach a vast, continuous pool.

Whatever I write, then, should make clear that my story is tremendously general in the most exquisitely specific terms.

Coincidentally, I just assigned a personal essay to my first-year college students, all 47 of them. (I haven’t done this for a while; such writing was out of vogue at the last place I taught.) I can look forward to 47 stories, 47 sets of nerve endings, 47 hurting knees. I’m excited.

I gave them Raymond Carver’s "Cathedral" to read, not because it’s a good model (it’s fiction), but because it has interesting things to say about the writing process. In the story, a man entertains a blind friend of his wife’s for dinner. After she goes to bed, the two of them watch television. It’s an educational program, probably PBS, on cathedrals. The blind man asks his host to describe what a cathedral looks like. The host fumbles around verbally for a few minutes and then realizes that he can only use visual terms or rattle off the program’s empty, academic facts. He becomes frustrated and embarrassed, and he confesses that cathedrals don’t mean anything to him—a cathedral is just chatter and fantasy on late night TV. The blind man says he understands.

The blind man makes a suggestion. The two get a paper bag and a ballpoint pen from the kitchen, and under the blind man’s direction, the host begins to draw a cathedral. The blind man holds the host’s hand, the one with the pen. In this way, they draw the cathedral together. The host is deeply affected; he reflects how he “didn’t feel like [he] was inside anything,” and the story ends on this intimate, transcendent note.

Perhaps I can’t aim for anything better than this in my stories. I want to sit on the floor with my readers and build cathedrals. The touching of our hands is what will make this building possible.

(to be continued, most likely)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Essential Choices

Ten Things I Couldn’t Do Without

• Really cold water (to drink)

• Democracy

• Good books

• Writing

• Sex

• My marriage

• Friendship

• A freshly made bed

• The Internet

• Mechanical pencils

Ten Things I Could Do Without:

• Quinoa

• Cancer

• Clothes I shouldn’t have bought

• Global warming

• Sudoku

• Petty arguments

• Harry Potter (That’s right, I said it.)

• Splinters

• Stuck windows

• Doubt

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Riding with the Fat Man, Part I

***Hey all:
Since I'm at a writers' conference this week, I thought I'd share some nonblog writing.

This is part of a (believe it or not) short piece related to a larger memoir project I'm interested in. My thanks again to the members of The Typing Class for their feedback!


The form the funeral home gave me for my father’s death notice listed three publications: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Camden Courier Post, and The Gloucester County Times. No one read The Courier Post. Their telemarketers used to call doggedly at every dinner hour at both my parents’ houses. We generally offered a terse “we-get-the-inquirer” before hanging up.

I chose the Gloucester paper. My dad had worked for the Gloucester County Jail as the director of rehabilitation services. He taught convicts how to read, do basic math, and prepare for the GED. I hoped some of his “boys from the jail” would see the write-up.

As a child, I learned how to read and write from the partially used workbooks Dad brought home from the jail. My shaky letters sat on the same pages as his students’.

Although my father grew up in Philadelphia, his parents moved their family to the South Jersey suburbs when he was in his 20s. They chased a better life “across the river,” as we say. Sometimes people don’t realize that until only recently the segment of New Jersey between Philly and the Atlantic Ocean was mostly farmland. The folks who live there are modest, countrified. They like bacon and eggs for breakfast. They hunt and canoe in the Pine Barrens. They cheer for the Eagles (pronounced Iggles) and the Phillies although they’re never surprised when the Phillies don’t make the World Series. The women like when truckers beep their horns at them as they walk along Mantua Avenue. The kids belong to 4H, and the prom is a bigger deal for its attendees than the dead-end jobs that await them afterwards. This is the landscape of my father and his inmates.

There was never any question that I would plan the funeral. I was an only child, and my parents had been divorced for many years. My aunt had washed her hands of my father long ago. She’d done enough for him in life, she seemed to feel. And he was never grateful—he had acted as if her scrupulous attention was entirely his due.

I arranged a priest strictly for her sake. Dad had no use for religion; blind faith was alien and silly to him. The perfunctory service was modestly attended, and a group went to Charlie Brown’s Restaurant afterwards. People that I hadn’t seen in years surrounded me; I used to hug some of their knees. These former childhood giants, their faces grayish-white with age, told me what a wonderful and intelligent man Rick had been. The whole dining room looked golden and sepia to me, the same hues as my seventies toddlerhood, the same as when I had last encountered these faces. The dry white wine in my glass glowed in the table’s lantern light.

The previous year, I had spent a strained Thanksgiving with Dad at Charlie Brown’s. He doesn’t have anyone else, I had decided sheepishly, turning down my mother’s dinner invitation. We said little as we ate lukewarm turkey. Dad was strangely placid. It was the new medication he was taking for his bi-polar disorder, which was severe enough to put him in a hospital every couple of decades. Did I prefer him docile? Was this better?

David, my father’s best friend and a Christian missionary, waited until most of the plates were cleared and then took the empty chair to my left. He had a good anecdote about Rick that he wanted so share with me, he said. He’d already made me laugh that day when he told me how my father used to telephone him and pretend to be Billy Graham looking for a donation.

I had highlighted my father’s humor in my eulogy, along with his prodigious intellect. I wasn’t sure what else to say. Who wanted to hear about lithium? Slammed car doors? The surveillance and chronic mistrust of his daughter, whom he hadn’t wanted to begin with? Instead, I simply told the small crowd that Richard was a man more comfortable with the ideas of the world than the world itself.

David told me that he and my father had taken the Speedline into Philadelphia one evening for a concert. Two drug addicts boarded the train at one of the Camden stops. They were out of control, David said. I wasn’t sure what "out of control" really meant, but I didn’t ask. My father recognized one of them as someone from the jail. He began talking to him in a calm, friendly voice. In five minutes, he took what could have been a dangerous situation and defused it.

As I listened to David, I pushed wet lettuce around the bowl of my Caesar salad and wondered what my father had said. The inmates had called him the Fat Man--there was a gleam in my father's eye when he told me this one day when I was in high school. He seemed not to mind the name; he almost looked amused.

Your dad was a man of many gifts, David said. I sipped my wine and said, yes he was. The knowledge that I had not been privy to more of those gifts pricked me.

What had my dad said? He likely did not pretend not to know the kid—anonymity wasn’t a part of jailhouse life. But he probably didn’t go out of his way to bring up the circumstances of their relationship, either. No need to remind the spiller of the milk.

I suspected he wouldn’t have preached. There would have been no “You don’t have to do this to yourself…your parents must be so sad…you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.” Dad was not a man for platitudes.

What if I had grown up to be one of those junkies? Dad had routinely dumped the contents of my 8th grade book bag onto the cushions of the couch in the den. He examined the bag's seams closely. He looked for drugs he never found.

What would I have wanted him to say if he stumbled upon an alternative version of me in a train car, a druggie sweating through a rough patch? I imagined feeling engulfed in a red-pink electric cloud, seeing funhouse faces, and worrying that at any second the whole car would explode into flames. My hands would have shaken, and the pores of my face would have seemed to expand. I would have asked myself why this was supposed to be fun. My teeming brain would have quickly abandoned that line of questioning and tried to retreat into itself, like a turtle.

But then I would have seen the Fat Man sitting nearby, his big belly hanging over his pants—the khaki pair he endlessly tried to hitch up. His blue eyes, the ones that always reminded me of a gas stove flame, would have kindled benignly. I might have temporarily confused him with Santa Claus and decided that the train was his sleigh. How cool that Santa wore glasses, like me.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Little Sister

Little sister, I knew you were in trouble.

He was an odd choice—a math teacher from South Africa eager to master American slang and customs. He consistently made diction errors, like calling a place a “stop” instead of a “spot,” and using superannuated terms like “fuck buddy” instead of “friend with benefits.” He was fairly handsome, but nothing to write home about. His wardrobe was three years too young for him. You asked me not to laugh when you confided your crush.

We were all stuck in the mountains for three weeks, on a pretty, isolated college campus. What else was there to do?

At breakfast one morning, he plunked his tray down next to you and puckishly asked if you were hung over. You thought he was impertinent. The TAs get drunk and carry on at night, not us! Instructors are too busy communing with their subject matter. You pushed your sunglasses higher up your nose and pretended he hadn’t made this gaff. A lot is forgivable in a tight, temporary community.

He started following you around. He’s not shy, and you’re not the first woman to receive his attention here. Still, he made you feel newly desirable, like a long-forgotten silk scarf.

He teaches chaos. You cringe a little; this detail is too insipid even for you. Sitting with Chaos on a bench outside the library, you give him your patented naughty smile. He lets his hand rest gently upon yours.

Such encounters between strangers thrown together (highly educated and relatively young strangers at that) have all the ingredients to alchemize into pink and sparkling memory. It starts to feel like a memory even while it’s happening. You and Chaos could have been a Noel Coward play, or a Cole Porter song, except…well, except.

In your room that night, with the door closed, the Cocteau Twins playing, the joint lit, Chaos may have played with your hair and stroked your face. What you remember most vividly is him asking, “Do you want me to leave?” He had to ask a couple of times before the question took.

After he was gone, you curled up on your bed. The sheets were pulling away from the twin mattress.

You spent the whole next day hiding and throbbing with guilt. You went to neither lunch nor dinner. You avoided all common areas in the faculty dorm, especially the first floor lounge, with its elegant wood floor, brass lamps, and antique chaises. Much too romantic.

This dorm was for the teaching staff only. Why not? We were adults; we didn’t need our behavior monitored. We didn’t have to stand a minimum of eight inches apart like our gifted young charges. Our handbook did legislate that “Relationships between staff must be conducted with the highest degree of discretion.” But since the students slept all the way over on the other side of campus, you weren’t sure who this rule protected.

It’s tiresome to be the wife of the Great Man, you said during a walk we took to the Seven Eleven. You’re not married, but it feels like it—you’ve been together five years. Not that you are eager to commit. You both remember the scene when he thoughtlessly installed a toothbrush and a razor in your bathroom.

His philosophy dissertation is a Ceylon sapphire; yours in literature is a Hummel figurine a despised late uncle bequeathed to you. Your mother makes you keep it. Concepts that ceased to fascinate you a long time ago continuously roll from his mouth. He points out cultural incongruities in The Simpsons while you raise the television’s volume in a passive-aggressive attempt to silence him. He forgets his own birthday. You hate that.

This is why someone would cultivate an active fantasy life, I observed, hoping you were listening.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t avoid the farewell dinner. You tried the shabby excuse that you did not RSVP, but I assured you that no one would check. Your suitemate wanted you to go, too. She thought you do not socialize enough.

You wore your sundress. Its spaghetti straps exposed your bony shoulders and your breasts. You picked at some salad and ignored the special steak dinner.

Chaos arrived. After all, he never missed a meal, and he talked to everyone. There was no room at our table, but he sat as close to you as possible at the next one over.

You mumbled that you were going back to the dorm to change. You’ll be back, you promised. But this was the last time I saw you.

I opened my own suite door at around two in the morning to use the bathroom across the hall. At the same time, Chaos was leaving your suite. We kept our heads firmly down.

Perhaps you really did change clothes when you went back—you may have genuinely intended to return to dinner. But there was a knock on the door, and Chaos’s welcoming, coarse face with its big nose and thick eyebrows appeared through the peephole. He had noticed your dining hall exit.

Once he was inside, you offered him some additional marijuana. He lay down next to you, and the two of you examined the cracks in your ceiling. You decided that they made a map of continents, which the two of you then named and described. This one’s major export was the honey produced by its indigenous purple queen bees. The adjacent island was known for the aphrodisiacal properties of its spring water.

He kissed you. It was innocent and exploratory. You almost imagined that you could tell the Great Man about it. It was an epistemological experiment: I made out with the math teacher for you, my dear. I wanted someone to compare you with so that I could love you all the more. But you know you don’t have the intellectual chops to convince the Great Man of this.

Your jeans crumpled off. So did Chaos’s. But your shirts remained on. These dorm rooms are drafty even in the height of summer.

He left, and you hastily packed. Some time before dawn, you slipped your keys under the main office door and drove off down the mountain. You couldn’t face Chaos again. You couldn’t face anyone—not me, not your suitemate, not the TA you lectured about snogging. What a shame it was, you thought, that you couldn’t drive away from yourself.

The Great Man wasn’t expecting you until early evening. He planned to take you to dinner at your favorite Eritrean restaurant. First of all, you wanted to shower. Again, the banality was crushing.

All of her stuff’s gone, your suitemate told me later in an alarmed voice. She left without saying goodbye! She sounded so sad and surprised.

I wish I was surprised, little sister. But I wasn’t.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Allentown Bus Station

Lehigh County is hilly, and the leaves on the trees are green and angular. It seems like a strange place for factories.

The Allentown bus station is on 3rd Street across from a row of empty warehouses. People do drugs on the stoops. The buses have two major destinations: Philadelphia and New York. A one-way fare to Philadelphia is 11 dollars: cash only. At the ticket counter, a sheet of plastic glass separates customers from the cashier. She has a light mustache, drinks coffee with powdered creamer from a Styrofoam cup, and speaks Spanish into the telephone. Women need a key for the ladies’ room. The vending machines contain peanut butter crackers, Hershey bars, and Doritos, and their bags and wrappers look dingy. Everything costs 50 cents. Close to the front doors, a little kiosk dispenses phone cards. It bears a red, white, and blue insignia of a rotary phone, half of which is chipped off.

The rows of blue and white bucket seats could have been installed in the 1960s. Smoking is not currently permitted in the terminal, but cigarette burns remain on the cushions, and there are holes for ashtrays in the armrests at the end of each row. Patrons smoke outside near the busy payphones.

I was there on a Saturday morning. While I waited for my bus, I saw a black couple disembark from an arriving one. They dragged three wheel-less suitcases behind them. Each case was overstuffed, and I noticed a big taped gash in the side of one. The man was short and wore a Phillies tank top. The woman had gold earrings and a tight dark-colored dress on. She sat down and waited in a state of happy impatience while he took directions to Dorney Park from the cashier.

An aging white man in a dirty brown blazer and wrinkled pants approached the counter next. He folded and unfolded a newspaper under his arm and asked the cashier about departures next Monday; he had jury duty. She had to repeat the schedule three times while a neglected Kelly Clarkson ringtone echoed. It played “Because of You.”

A little girl entered the building. She had kinky hair, cinnamon skin, and green eyes. Her pink shirt featured a chocolate ice cream stain. Blue shorts revealed knobby knees and calves dotted with mosquito bites.

“My grandmother wants to know how long she can leave her car here,” she said, looking up at the wide face behind the plastic screen. The adjacent parking lot was small, and there were no meters or fences.

The cashier appeared confused. “As long as she wants,” she replied.

“But, what if it’s like, three or four days?” the little girl persisted.

“That would be fine, I guess. But she would have to understand that she leaves it here at her own risk.”

The little girl left then, looking worried. She let the glass doors close behind her. They didn’t shut properly; they needed someone to push them into place.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Paper Trails

I never like to move without performing a considerable purge. These days, I have my own things to sort through as well as those of three dead people.

The last time I moved, I automatically packed all of my father’s personal papers; I had no idea if I would need them again. Six years have passed since he died, however, so I figure it’s okay to discard old bank statements and checkbooks. I will hold on to the tax returns, though.

One early evening, when I was first getting used to the idea that my mother was dying, I dug out one of my parents’ wedding pictures. This is them, I told my husband, thrusting the picture into his hands. This is what they looked like.

My mother got married in a sea foam mini-dress—mod for 1970. My father wore a plain gray suit. The world depicted in that image is now accessible exclusively through whatever account I cobble together.

Three months before my mom died, our great-aunt Lois died, too. My mother was Lois’s only close relative. These events have made me an archivist. I have turned into a depository for all of the drips and drabs of their individual existences: passports, diaries, leases, utility bills, medical records, high school yearbooks.

Lois never married and had few close friends. My father was an eccentric hermit. My mother, the social butterfly of the group, has no one but me, most likely, to take anything stronger than a passing interest in the minutiae of her life. Sometimes I’ve felt myself to be swimming in all of their folders, books, and papers, spinning in a whirlpool of their Polaroids and daguerrotypes.

I have my mother’s diaries, but I’m wary of reading them. I would rather study her check register or her address book. I hold on to them, though—it seems rude to discard someone’s diary.

Last Saturday afternoon, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my office and spread out a pile of my mother’s files. I scanned the cover of a tattered manila folder with writing on it. My mother had itemized the contents of a safety deposit box—deeds, bonds, the divorce decree. The last line read, in my mom’s careful penmanship, “Restraining order, 1983.”

The order must have been against my father—he’s the logical choice. But why did she keep it in the safety deposit box? Where is it now, and what was it for? I both want to know and don’t want to know.

Lois’s paper trail I keep mainly out of historical interest. Because of her, I have the 1928 handbook for the women’s student government organization of the University of Pennsylvania, for example. (I read it hoping to find something about young ladies’ conduct, but to no avail.) She had multiple copies of her birth certificate, too, so many that I wonder if people used to have to get one to renew a passport—Lois traveled. Pennsylvania birth certificates apparently used to be static forms that a clerk filled out by hand. It used to have boxes to check for “legitimate” or “illegitimate.” Some time during the 1950s, however, they appear to have dropped that question.

During this last purge, I found a letter to Lois from a woman named Dottie. She was returning some papers—someone had been to the Library of Congress to do genealogical research. Lois hadn’t made this trip, but she had the notes.

The notes were typed and detailed; whoever went to the library must have brought a typewriter. The oldest notation is from a census taken in 1797 in Maryland. The separate properties of a brother and a sister are inventoried. Each sibling had a farm, some cottages, carriages, and slaves--the sister fourteen, the brother four. My eyes lingered on that word and those numbers.

Once these archival boxes have found a new home (probably in a closet or a basement), I’m tempted to tear a sheet of paper from a legal pad and attach the following message:

Dear Future Child,
You may or may not be interested in any of this. If you are, you are welcome to read about your grandparents, who were both relatively unstable, and who both died fairly young. You can also get to know your great-great aunt, who was, by all accounts, a miserable, hoarding old lady. (Legitimate, though.)
You will also notice that we are the descendents of slave owners.
Feel free to get rid of it all. Your mother was funny about material things, but she knew that not everyone gets hypnotized by the past like she did.
(She would appreciate if you held on to her computer files, however, even if you never open them.)


[Meta note: Because I'm heading to Pennsylvania tomorrow in order to teach the gifted kids, and because almost immediately after that I'll be penetrating the mystery of the Midwest (moving to Ohio), I'm afraid that I won't be able to post much for the next month. I will try to eek one out here and there--I'm generous (and self-centered) like that. Thank you for reading! I'll check in from either the 6-1-0 or the 4-1-9.]

Monday, July 2, 2007

meal magnificat: a tribute to food

I own a book about blog writing entitled No One Cares What You Had For Lunch.* Virginia Woolf would have cared:

“novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done…It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine.”*

Woolf herself goes on to describe a splendiferous meal, of course; the book author would be hard pressed to label it a boring blog lunch.

Everyone eats, and, in general, everyone likes to. But, for me, writing accurately and compellingly about food is a struggle. I can think of three methods that writers employ (I’m sure there are more):

--One simply names the food and garnishes it with a few run-of-the-mill adjectives (sweet, savory, etc), and then lets the reader imagine his/her own encounter.

--One uses metaphor and simile—introducing the food by means of comparison (the corn tasted like summer, we enjoyed the Awesome Blossom).

--One appeals to other senses and substitutes the look or feel of the food for its taste (ruby apples, lumpy oatmeal).

Apparently, we cannot communicate directly what happens inside our mouths.

Below, I have made an effort to describe a few foods of endearment. I might have had a few of these for lunch.

~ The Tequeño

Currently, I’m obsessed with Latin pastelitos, especially the tequeño, which is a hollow bread stick filled with guava and white cheese. It’s like the best croissant with jelly I’ve ever had, except that the bread is thicker—closer to pizza dough. Not even the boldest, sweetest strawberry rivals guava’s rhapsodic sting. I like a cafe con leche with it.

Kalamata Olives ~

I could live on these. I covet their smooth skin, and I dote on their color—reddish-brown leather mellowed by the sun. They’re salty without being a nuisance.

A friend of a friend found a jar of olives in a pantry during a party. She clutched it, stared wantonly at the contents, and said, “I need to be alone for a while.”

~ Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads are little crispy, grassy delights; they could be buttons on a wood nymph’s raincoat. I’m not a huge vegetable lover, so I appreciate the fiddlehead’s fanciful appearance and cereal crunch.

Tuna ~

I like my tuna excruciatingly rare. At a certain restaurant, I pierce its slick, meaty chunks with a fork and push it around in a tomato, garlic, and lime sauce. Tomatoes and fish is one of my favorite illogical combinations.

~ The Golden Katong

This petite cumin and coriander mixture is served in a yellow spring roll cup, and it commonly appears on Thai appetizer menus. It sits exotically on my tongue, but it also recalls a comfort dish, like shepherd’s pie. The mixture consists of ground chicken, peas, carrots, and shrimp. I either order it without the shrimp, or I do my best to ignore its presence (see bottom of post).

Round Italian Bread ~

I once had an apartment across the street from a 24-hour Italian bakery. They baked their bread continuously. Together with the person I lived with and one of our friends, I used to smoke a good amount of marijuana, shuffle over to the bakery, and buy a round, white loaf of bread. We would tear off hunks of it and consume it in a luxurious state of stoned bliss. It was the best three hundred -count linen that we could have eaten.

~ Pesto

The greatest pesto is the kind you can smell, the kind made of basil leaves that you saw plucked from the stem. I know of few substances that pesto does not improve, particularly if it has chopped pine nuts. If I peer closely at it (in the privacy of my own home, of course), I can see chaos theory in its variegated colors.

A Pear ~

One of the lustiest of fruits—all the more so because of its subtlety.

It’s a pity that the British have decided that “pear-shaped” is an insult. I like my food full-figured.

~ Classic Coke

The Coca-Cola Corporation is a dominant and pernicious global force. Sadly, this does not negate my enjoyment of the caramel, carbonated goodness of its signature drink. I love it chilled and poured from a green glass bottle.

Addendum: People have used “caramel” to describe Coke before. I don’t like resorting to it, but I don’t know what else to say. Coke tastes like Coke, and it’s delicious.

Shrimp ~

I present this item to demonstrate that there are gastronomic rivers I am not willing to cross. Shrimp is a teeming pustule on the surface of a forbidden planet. Do not lance it near me.

~ Finis ~

* I haven’t found it very useful, by the way. I suspect, however, that this has much more to do with me and my resistance to taking any and all suggestions.

* A Room of One’s Own, Chapter One.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Verses Interrupt Us

For the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching a continuing ed course about poetry. The program, an “institute for lifelong learning,” is designed for individuals age 50 and over. The catalog describes its participants as people interested in keeping their minds active and engaged.

It’s a little odd that I’m doing this. Poetry has never been at the forefront of my graduate work; I’m lazy and prefer narrative’s instant gratification. But I’m also unemployed and not in a position to walk away from any place that will have me. The director warned me that the students were willing to do little or no work outside of class, so I had to abandon novels immediately and plan to work with more contained entities, like poems. I chose romantic love for a theme, and “Verses Interrupt Us” was born.

After I had beaten my Imposter’s Syndrome into submission, I searched for material that would be accessible but not without complexity. We started with Keats’s "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be.” The class as a whole liked it; some of them think frequently about mortality. In the sardonically jovial words of one older man, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t buy green bananas anymore.”

With a few age-sensitive modulations, a variety of recognizable student types emerged: the Chronic Hand-Raiser, the Skeptic, the Mistress of Non-Sequiturs. Ms. Non-Sequitur is about 90 years old. She wears giant glasses, gold costume jewelry, and 70s-era pantsuits. She tells us about her granddaughter’s German shepherd and how the Evangelicals want to send all the nonbelievers to hell.

One guy sits by himself in a row’s most interior seat. He scowls—at me and at everyone else. His sourpuss is only visible, however, when he lifts his eyes from his Wall Street Journal, which is not that often. Defensively, I wonder what makes him stay in a class that he appears to hate so much. Then I remember that I don’t know what his life is like outside, and I’m glad that he’s around. His attendance suggests an honest, if meager, effort.

After the Keats sonnet, we read Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress.” This is when the thematic choice of love really began to pay off. Initially, the students resisted the poem’s antiquated language, but they persevered. In the poem, a man pleads with a woman to succumb to his amorous advances. Time’s winged chariot is at our backs, he argues--life is short. Smiles spread across the room as we proceeded through the text. We’ve all heard this from men before, one wizened woman rejoined. I heard a lot of giggles when we reached the section about the “youthful hue” that glistens like “morning dew” on the young maiden’s skin. You can forget that, someone in the room chuckled.

When I asked what the poet could have meant when he recommends that he and the mistress “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life,” an avid participant gleefully exclaimed, “He wants rough sex!” His blue eyes, though deeply set in a coronet of creases, were radiant.

Next class, after an all-too-brief exploration of Emily Dickinson’s "Wild Nights!” (With scansion! My professors would be so proud), I gave them Margaret Atwood’s "Variations on the Word Sleep.” I considered this a happy poem, one that could represent for us a transition from seduction to contentment. But the class found it cloying, patronizing, and chimerical. Many did not respond well to the speaker’s earnest desire to protect her vulnerable lover from harm. They had learned, perhaps, that such protection is impossible, and that wishing would not make it so.

I would love to shelter the people I care about from terrible things, I told them. One of my master students, a keen reader and critic, asked, “But can you?” I answered no. Then he asked, “What if my son’s a drug addict? I can’t do anything about that, can I?”

A number of people pulled the poem away from itself (as all readers will sometimes do) and rewrote it. Their “Sleep” was different than mine—theirs was brined with the salt of their experience.

One class remains. The course should have been four weeks, but the final Wednesday falls on July 4. It’s a shame that we don’t have more time.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Life in Cars

A Duster was the first car I can remember our family owning. How brown and homely it was. My favorite part was the decal near the tail lights: a little dirt tornado with happy eyes. It reminded me of Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoons.

The Duster belonged to my dad; my mom drove a red Volkswagen Beetle. My parents were devoted to Beetles and had owned a green one before I was born. I used to look at its picture in an old photo album, this prehistoric car that I had never met.

When I was six, Mom left Dad and drove us away in the red Beetle. The engine made a funny sound—almost like a cowbell. I strained my ears to hear it on Sunday afternoons. “Visitation” had become a new organizing principle; my mother had custody, but my father insisted on seeing me as often as possible. I would watch TV downstairs, and he would stay in his bedroom, reading.

I knew that if I made it inside the red Beetle and had time to fasten my seatbelt, we had escaped the house without a scene. (I remember a particularly nasty argument when my mother started arriving at 5:45 instead of 6:00. My father wouldn’t have it.) Next, my mom would make the quick left on to Queen Street, never failing to signal. To this day, when I sit at a light or at a stop sign, and I listen to the click of my own turn signal, I feel a tiny bit of mother-calm.

We first lived in various apartments around Woodbury. Eventually, we moved into a townhouse in Marlton, and riding in cars developed deeper significance. Woodbury and Marlton were only about twenty-five minutes apart, but kids' time moves at a glacial pace. I memorized all the signs along the tight bead of road that connected my new existence: I-295 North, Exit 1B/Trenton, 34A, Route 70 East. My dad complained about the traffic. I liked it best when we sat quietly and listened to Fresh Air.

One weekend night, he nearly ran a woman off the road when I was in the car with him. We pulled into a parking lot, and the two of them got out and yelled at each other for ten minutes. I remained in the passenger’s seat, with the window rolled up and my stomach contracting.

A few years later, my mother had a boyfriend who drove an attractive hunter green MG. He had carefully restored it, and he and my mom loved to take it to the beach or to New Hope. She asked him, though, to park it across the street from the townhouse on the days that my father would be around. He agreed to this request initially but concluded that doing so was unfair to him and unhealthy for us, so he stopped. When he asked, I told my dad that the MG belonged to one of my mother’s coworkers.

When I was 14, I told my father I didn’t want to talk to him any more, but I didn’t stick to that resolution. The first visit after our rapprochement, we stopped at an Encore bookstore, and he drove over a curb as he parked. He hastily backed up. The Duster was long gone by then; he currently leased a gray Nissan Sentra. It needed a wash, and the door locks stuck.

Driving itself didn’t interest me. I rode a commuter train to high school in Philadelphia, and I took the subway everywhere in college. I got my first car the summer after sophomore year, a used burgundy Honda Accord. My mother didn’t feel like driving me everyplace, and she wanted me to get a job. I complied, and on my days off I used the car mainly to get to the Speedline station; I wanted to see friends in the city. I would only drive to the one who lived in Society Hill, just on the other side of the bridge.

I met a hunky fling in a downtown café that summer. He was from Syracuse, but he had recently joined the Navy in order to “straighten himself out.” His aqua Chevy Vega needed constant service, so we spent a number of muggy nights in the parking lot of the Sears Auto Center, drinking ICEEs from the little cafeteria housed in the main Sears. I liked the cherry ones.

He tried to show me how to change a tire once. You might be out with your girlfriends one night, he told me. What would happen if I got a flat, and he wasn’t around? While I thought he was sweet to offer, inwardly I judged. His gesture seemed quaint, provincial. On what possible occasion would I have a tire to change? I couldn’t imagine living in a place where I couldn’t take a train anywhere I wanted to go. I felt beyond suburbia and wrenches and jacks.

I still have yet to change a tire, but in my late twenties, I did move to a place where it was necessary to drive each day. This was new for me, and I definitely felt more at home in the passenger's seat. I discovered that I couldn’t handle driving’s constant stimuli and its sudden, unpredictable threats. As I squeezed the brakes, my breathing turned rapid, and it came in great gulps. An intersection in a busy area could cause me to palpitate.

My dad’s manic depression may explain it; I had gotten in the habit of thinking I could be attacked at any time. Another driver cutting me off or not letting me on a highway ramp summons the old fear, the old vigilance. I liked trains because they were more predictable, and most of the time, someone fairly trustworthy is in charge.

I painstakingly rehearsed the new route to work, gradually introducing myself to each half-mile. Repeated exposure helped, and I slowly adjusted to the randomness of the wheeled world.

My driving is mildly enjoyable these days. My current car is a cobalt blue Acura. I like the satellite radio and the hidden compartment for change. It has some scratches on the front bumper—I have inherited my father’s knack for parking, apparently. Whenever I slip into the driver’s seat, I involuntarily toss my purse lightly into the back, exactly the way my mother used to do it.

***My sincerest congratulations to david for rising to the Nantucket Limerick Challenge!
(He is poetry in motion as it is.)***

Friday, June 8, 2007

When in Rome

In the interest of preserving conjugal felicity, I decided to forgo a full blog entry this week. Patrick and I are in Nantucket to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. Since he and I spend enough time at home patiently waiting for the other to detach his/her eyes from a monitor, I thought I would offer a brief pictorial and present a challenge instead:

You are familiar with Nantucket and limericks, right? (If not, a quick Google will tell you all you need to know.) Should the creative urge strike you, compose a Nantucket limerick. Or a limerick about any subject. I'm on vacation.

Leave your limerick here as a comment. If you want to collaborate with other writers, contribute one line and see what happens.

There will be recognition and prizes for all participants. At the very least, I promise to oooh and aaah.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Hurricane Chloe

June 1 marked the official beginning of hurricane season. Four have visited my neighborhood since 2004—Frances, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. With the exception of Wilma, all of their barks proved worse than their bites (at least while they stopped here).

Stormwise, the fall of 2005 did not relent. Patrick and I were not prepared to go without power for so long. It took us two hours to boil water for morning coffee. We first lit a tin of Sterno for heat, which worked about as well as rubbing two sticks together. We switched to a candle. Sable ashes spilled onto the floor.

Not surprisingly, next Christmas we gave each other a propane grill and an outdoor fireplace. We also purchased the Black & Decker StormStation: a small rechargeable generator with a radio and a lamp. But the 2006 season passed quietly. Nature abhors a plan.

Last week, Patrick encountered a six-month old golden retriever in need of a home. Her face reminds me of a dolphin’s—this is likely because of her long nose. She moves about the house like an ebullient baby cyclone. We named her Chloe.

We used to talk about a dog the way we talk about a baby: it was a “some other day” project, infinitely postpone-able and conceptual. But Chloe’s here now; she engenders a profound sense of nowness. She buries her head deep in the sofa cushions, and she mauls my purple socks (ugly, anyway). She tries desperately to befriend Sybil, our cat. Via strong hissing, Sybil has made it clear that she isn’t interested.

Some Atlantic hurricanes begin as minor disturbances in the “Intertropical Convergence Zone,” a band of low pressure that circles the equator. This explains why Florida and the Caribbean are such popular landing spots. When a storm gets “organized,” as forecasters describe it, I scan the website of the National Hurricane Center for information. In addition to the Saffir-Simpson scale, it measures hurricanes in terms of millibars, or units of air pressure. I’m always temporarily mollified when I hear the word “millibar.” Anything that sounds like a piece of candy can’t be harmful, right? The lower the number of millibars, the more powerful the storm is, but before I have the chance to remember that principle, I automatically assume that a shrinking number is a good sign. I’m never correct in this assumption. I await the NHC’s advisories (issued every three hours) and avidly monitor the column of strike probability percentages.

These are all the things that I do. The cane comes if/when it comes.

Similarly, Sybil seems to think that if she watches Chloe closely enough, she can prevent the unruly intruder from disrupting her well-ordered kitty life. Sadly, this is not true. She climbs the three-quarter wall in our kitchen anyway and stares balefully down at us and at the dog. Her lemur eyes track every canine movement.

Chloe was the name of an Atlantic hurricane in 1967. She was born in mid-September off of the coast of Africa. She was headed towards North America, but she bumped into Hurricane Doria and retreated east, eventually hitting Spain. She reached a minimum pressure of 958 millibars and achieved a wind speed of 95 miles per hour. She was a Category 2.

Hurricane Wilma snapped one of our palm trees in half when she arrived. Yesterday, in the backyard, I showed Chloe how to play Tug the Frond. She gripped the palm leaf tightly between her little jaws and pulled.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pirate Update, etc.

Sad, isn't it?

While I'm at it, here are some additional updates:

  • I received a pass on my dissertation proposal.
  • Noir said that the fallout from his prom night strip bar debacle was not as bad as he had feared.
  • Zen sitting requires work.
  • I'm still not drinking.
  • Glasses Girl has not made frequent reappearances, but it does happen occasionally.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Apparently, no one wants to attend my development’s Pirates of the Caribbean party.

Along with a number of retirees and families with small children, I live in a townhouse community. Rather than a neighborhood, this part of Miami comprises a series of strip malls and condominium complexes. The occasional mangrove pond and canal punctuate the cement landscape. Traffic is heavy.

Living here means surrendering to suburban alienation, and the heat heightens the sense of anonymity; who wants to stop and chat when it’s 100 degrees out and humid? I read before that air conditioning may have contributed to the decline of Southern hospitality. There might be something to this theory.

Genuine community tries to sprout up here and there, like a microscopic plant on a hostile planet. Not surprisingly, cool water is often involved. One development closer to the university, for example, has a pool shaped like a penis; my MFA-seeking friend showed it to me. Some current inhabitants congregate around it on the weekends, but she doesn’t. “I hate that shit,” she says.

My local clubhouse definitely exudes its own 70s porn aesthetic. It’s brown, beige, and geometric. The pool (not penis-shaped) is behind the building. Its lights are white and globular. The hot tub’s tiles are aqua and cracked.

Inside, the clubhouse offers function rooms, a ping pong table, soda machines, and the requisite Floridian fake palms as well as paintings offering “realistic” ocean views (two examples).

Occasionally, the steering committee plans a clubhouse event, like a Mexican fiesta or a Halloween party. To kick off the summer, it has proposed a pirate party (click to enlarge):

Why do I feel like this gathering has the potential to resemble a decoupage of deleted scenes from Boogie Nights and Cocoon?

This flyer radiates zeal. It intimidates me, and it raises more questions than it answers. Will I be ostracized if I don’t dress up? What if some unsuspecting, hard-living resident reads it and reflects sadly, “I left all my pirate stuff in the Caribbean. In Aruba, actually, along with a disposable camera, some whipped cream, and my dignity.” (Flights from here to the islands are cheap, baby. What happens at the Holiday Inn SunSpree stays at the SunSpree.)

The price point also piques me. How can I possibly enjoy the bounty of a carving station, a pasta bar, AND a drink—with alcohol in it, no less—for a mere 18 dollars? Have these libations fallen off a truck instead of arriving plundered from the high seas? I can’t even get a Southwest Salad, an Awesome Blossom, and a Calypso Cooler for under twenty bucks.

The pasta is from Italy. Fair enough. The fajitas are from Spain. Fajitas are Tex-Mex, but okay. The cargo of beef, on the other hand, seems to have no origin whatsoever. Ominous.

Why is four the cut-off age for paid admission? Who determined that five year-old Becky is likely to eat 12 dollars’ more her weight in mystery meat than four year-old Carlos is?

Do you hear something sizzling? It’s the slow charring of misdirected passion and the gradual crisping of misbegotten enthusiasm.

By contrast, the follow-up flyer is rather stern:

Avast ye, lads, I spot a foundering promotion on the horizon.

Maybe we need carrot instead of stick. Could each resident be promised a souvenir laminated gold doubloon for his/her trouble? We must have something worthwhile to coax us out of our central air mausoleums and away from our home theatres and message boards.

Perhaps the leadership should manufacture a scarcity—the party vessel has all the mateys that will fit onboard already; everyone else must stow away.

Money will be refunded?? That’s not piratey. I suggest that they put the profits instead towards some new floating noodles for the pool. All seafaring community scoundrels, when they do venture out, enjoy those.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


I did not take my undergraduate commencement seriously. My mother and father did; they dressed formally and exchanged friendly words. We walked through the Common and the Garden afterwards, and we ate a fancy Italian dinner at Davio’s on Newbury Street. The May afternoon was bright. The restaurant’s roll butter was firm and cool. A fresh slice of lemon accompanied each glass of ice water.

I was eager for the pomp to conclude. I had my real life to get back to: my bookstore job, my friends, the pubs, the trips to Singing Beach. It never occurred to me to move home after graduation. I belonged in Somerville; Mom and Dad belonged in Havertown and Woodbury. They had birthed me, fought over me, and sent me to school. I was free of them now, or at least I wanted to be.

Although I’d been accepted to a few four-hat schools (the ranking system the Princeton Review directory used), I chose the three-hat one. During my stay, I changed majors once, significant boyfriends twice, and apartments three times. I journaled a lot and studied a little. I visited my family on Christmas and called them on their birthdays. They came to Boston more often.

A few years later, I wandered into graduate school—I liked to read and write more than I liked to do anything else. I also developed a fondness for professors’ praise. These seemed like good enough reasons to get an MA and a PhD.

It was convenient and simple to get my Masters up north, but for the PhD, I had to look elsewhere. Before leaving Boston, I told my father over the phone that my part-time college teaching was going well (it was). He was so proud of me, he said. He died of a heart attack a handful of days later. He never got to hear about the doctoral scholarship, the one Mom was so impressed with. She contracted a brain tumor six months after I received it.

I took a brief leave of absence from the program after she died. I sat in the whirlpool next to my neighborhood clubhouse a lot. If I kept my eyes on a particular spot, all I could see was palms and bougainvillea. I could forget the inhospitable city surrounding them.

I moved my husband and our two cats away from the city we loved, and I’ve stranded us in Miami with no exit strategy. I’ve been pursuing the PhD for four years now. I have read, and I have written. I have haphazardly chosen a research topic, and I get the impression that I have not lived up to my department’s expectations. With each semester, I want to do this work less and less.

(I want us to go home. I don’t know where that is.)

Next week, I will submit another draft of my prospectus. I sat across from my adviser in her office on Friday afternoon, listening to what kinds of questions she’s planning to ask during the oral exam. Her office is green and dusty, and she enjoys a view of the tall banyan trees. Some of the questions sounded easy, others hard, but none of them truly registered. In my head, I was whispering, “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

She asked if I would consider asking another professor to serve on my committee. Her implicit goal is to recuse herself, I think. She’s wanted to do this for a long time—I’m simply not her cup of tea.

If my parents hadn’t died, and if I had gotten my PhD during some future May, perhaps Patrick and I would have taken them to La Palme D’Or at the Biltmore to celebrate. My mother would have oohed and aahed over the intricate ceiling patterns, and my father would have ordered an extra portion of Kobe beef. I would have held Patrick’s hand under the table. I would have enjoyed the hazelnut mousse cake and the candlelight, and I would have thought about how wonderful everything was.

My adviser wanted to know if I had anything else to discuss. I told her no. You need to schedule a seminar room for the exam, she mentioned as she flipped through papers and lifted the receiver of her phone. She said I had better go right away and check with the department secretary—the whole campus is closing at three today.

It’s Commencement.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Food and Beverages Only


Noir attended his prom last Friday night.

He and four friends rented a Miami Beach hotel room for their after-party (these kids hang out on Miami Beach all the time, but a hotel is a special extravagance). All of the parents agreed to this plan, including Noir’s mother, but she insisted on one caveat—that he not leave the hotel at any point during the evening.

Noir’s mother does not tolerate underage drinking. The other parents know she’s a little puritanical, so they chose to conceal from her that the boys might have a drop of alcohol as a part of their celebration. One parent, in fact, warned the kids that Mrs. Noir planned to stop by the room with sandwiches for them, so if they were keeping anything untoward inside, they had better hide it quickly.

Noir had a fine time. His date left around 3:30 in the morning—her parents picked her up. He was buzzed and feeling good. 5:30 rolled around, and someone suggested that they go to a strip bar. Noir acceded.

It’s unclear whether he would have done so if he had not been compromised—another kid I tutor refers to Noir as a wuss.

They walked to the place from the hotel. It’s 18+. There’s a cover charge but no alcohol. Noir spent a total of $47: $20 to get in and $27 on drinks and snacks.

He found himself out of money. He did not have his credit card with him, just his ATM. He asked the waiter how the charge would register. “Food and Beverages only,” the man said.

That was not the case. The strip bar’s name printed out on the receipt as clearly as St. Bernard’s conscience, along with an address and a phone number.

Noir now feels that he should have given this whole thing a little more thought.

His mother found the indicting slip of paper yesterday morning. He told her that he and the other guys had gone out to breakfast. She scowled but accepted this answer. This is when I arrived for our two-hour tutoring appointment. Noir looked distracted and told me he had to go to the bathroom. I waited patiently in a dining room chair poorly upholstered in heavy white damask. I sipped the cup of coffee the family always had ready for me.

He returned and attempted to write the practice essay I gave him; he takes his English final this week. It was not a difficult prompt: “Discuss the role that loyalty plays in three of this semester’s literary works.” He exhaled deeply and looked pale. I asked him what was wrong.

“I am so screwed!” he blurted out.

He told me the story then, right up to the minute. Instead of going to the bathroom, he had confessed the terrible truth to his mother. He had been afraid that if he didn’t, she would call the place in question, anyway (she’s like that). He apologized to her, and she told him to leave her alone.

“She’s going to start crying,” he mumbled, “I wish she would just yell at me instead.” He shifted in his seat and looked down. I wondered if I should leave.

“No one else’s parents would care,” he protested. “My father definitely wouldn’t care.” He twisted the two rubber bands around his wrist.

He’s probably right. Everyone else would probably adopt a boys-will-be-boys attitude. His grandparents didn’t seem overly upset. He told his abuela what happened while she worked in the kitchen. She just smiled and put a sad hand on his shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said a lot. I was sorry. She would get over it. It would be ten times worse if he was her daughter. I mentioned that I didn’t think my parents approved of anything I did when I was 18. I remarked that while that I admired and respected his mother, it seemed that she needed to let go of him. She would keep him a child forever if she could.

All of this was probably inappropriate of me to say. But the tutoring session was a wash, and I could feel his upset so concretely from across the table.

I feel divided there. Like his mother, I know what it is to want to shelter him (he has long been my favorite student). But, like Noir, I'm also all too familiar with what it is to have an overbearing, controlling, smothering parent.

He’s going to college next year, the one up the street, and he has elected to live at home instead of in the dorm. “Maybe you should consider moving out,” I said.

“I’m all she has,” he said resignedly. “I can’t leave.”

I recommended that he find a way to get a car one night during this week in order to bring her dinner at the office. She works very hard for him; her money, after all, had bought the food and beverages only at the “filthy place” of which she disapproved.

I wished him good luck when I left. He thanked me.

On the drive home, I decided I would not revisit that time of my life for all the after-parties in the world.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Vanity Fair

“[Masculinity is] a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for one's entire life (by contrast, I imagine femininity to be an oppressive sense of nakedness).”

So says Paul Theroux, travel writer. This aphorism drifts around my brain like a detached pixie wing. It’s true in some ways; men do seem expected to roam thelandscape all covered up. The man’s coat might also be an ill-fit because it is his father’s; society has forced him into Dad’s constrictive mold.

Femininity can mean nakedness—women are often considered an earthy lot. “I am a body farm, I am produce,” 22-year-old-poet-me wrote. Since then, I’ve read enough about capitalism and sexuality to observe that women attract men with their bodies and then make babies with those same bodies; we offer a complete mode of production.

I certainly don’t want to wear the ill-fitting coat of masculinity. How uncomfortable. Nonetheless, a body farm may want protection and cultivation; it may wish to appear lavish and welcoming, like an English country house or a Caribbean villa. Would I prefer a corset to an ill-fitting coat, then? What about a pair of merciless control-top pantyhose, or Juicy Couture sweatpants that cling more tightly than skin and stop just centimeters from exposing the tip of my vulva?People’s dresses are really addresses; makeup and clothes write a social language. In 1899’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen notes that as the “chief slave,” the Anglo-American rich man’s wife is primarily responsible for displaying his wealth, and she often creates this display via her person (think trophy wives or “Real Housewives”).

Some contemporary circles view enthusiasm about adornment as a sign of a woman’s shallowness or as a badge of her submission—we should not give precious time and energy to such frippery. Life is a serious business—no lip gloss. If you appreciate beauty commodities, you commodify yourself; thou shalt not Bluefly! “Real” women, apparently, should not care about how they look.

Keeping all of this firmly in mind, I still feel that material self-fashioning generates pleasures that are both mental and sensual. I love a low neckline, for example, especially if it creates a teaspoon of gentle curve. I love the soft brush of a powder compact, the caress of a thick mascara, and the smooth soufflé of a lipstick. The lines of a bias-cut skirt appeal to me, and I appreciate a close fit through my hips.

I could put Pope’s Belinda to shame. Shallow frippery? Why, yes. Hand me those blue dangly earrings—the ones that float like cumulus clouds.

Elizabeth I’s cousin, Arbella, once remarked, “I must shape my own coat according to my cloth, but it shall not be after the fashion of this world but fit for me.” I’m with her. I may not be Juicy, but I try to be refined. If I must be one of our culture’s peacocks (female, ironically), I will select my feathers with care, and I will attempt to flutter them with grace and discretion. I remain pretty naked underneath the fancy tail.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Zen Minutes

I have been trying to meditate. Don’t laugh.

For me, meditating currently means sitting in one place in not-too-terrible posture for ten minutes, emptying my mind. It’s a struggle.

I need more calm in my life; being so raw and uneven all the time gets old. I’m looking for ways to build ballast in my head so that when a big wind blows through me, I’m not flattened. I would like to sway with the wind instead, and it seems like learning how to sit quietly will lead to greater swayability.

The increased flexibility that I’m after is really just for my well-being and perhaps the well-being of those around me. Because the larger body of life is indifferent to all of us; whether we have good days or bad, experience pleasure or stress, order chicken or fish, it remains constant and unchanging.

I can manufacture all kinds of things with my little brain. I can author any number of machinations and ensnarl you in them, too. I can cry if I want, drink if I want, have a grand time if I want. But ultimately I am one tiny being in a corner talking to myself while the rest of life goes about its business.

In addition to helping me learn to sway better and to subdue the little brain, meditation offers me a chance to respect existence. It’s going to do what it wants, anyway—I can’t manipulate it. I’m not like Yoda in a swamp, lifting a galactic fighter from murky depths. (“Ready, you are not,” that foamy little puppet probably would have told me, a long, long time ago.)

Meditation means stepping into a larger space and acquiring something I’ve never had before: context.

I just need to get through the ten minutes. My train of thought generally runs like this:

Am I doing it? Is this it? This must be it. I’m doing it. Listen to the bird. I never would have heard it if I hadn’t decided to sit here like this. How much time has gone by? Can I stop now? A garbage truck. I have to connect with the truck. I have to connect with everything. Maybe I should check my email. I have a lot I have to do today. I never folded that laundry. I have to forget the laundry right now. I have to just be. Am I doing it? Is this it? How long has it been?

And so on. Little mind is tenacious.

Recently, I was meditating on the daybed in my office. My back was against the wall, and my palms faced up. The timer that I use to mark my ten minutes rested on the quilt next to me.

I had been sitting for a little bit. I was tired. I surrendered to the restlessness of my consciousness and grew preoccupied with how many minutes had passed. Was time almost up? I really, really wanted to look at the timer.

No, I resolved sternly. I can’t look. This time is over when it is over.

I agonized for a few more minutes, and then I looked.

Two ones and two zeroes glowed up neutrally at me. Instead of hitting start, I had inadvertently added an extra minute.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Story of O


“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.” (Othello III, iii)

Desdemona loves her husband, treats everyone with kindness, and tells the truth. Her sweet actions bring about her death. This happens after her husband (and murderer) slaps her and refers to her vagina as a toad-infested swamp.

There’s little for feminists to enjoy in Othello. Women are either stupid, victimized, or stupid victims. The play offers a stinging critique of masculinity, however. We witness chest-beating, excessive pride, and possessiveness. A major reason Iago hates Othello is Othello’s passing him over for a military promotion, thus denying him a tantalizing honor. Honor? Iago asks in response. Your wife sleeps around! How does that suit your honor?

Othello falls prey to Iago’s psychological manipulations. He realizes too late that he has been deceived, and more tragedy ensues. He stabs himself over Desdemona’s strangled body.

I’m not a Moor. Laurence Fishburne will never play me in a movie, and I don’t plan on becoming a soldier. But I can be weak, and I am astonishingly susceptible to the influence of others. I’m a validation junkie and a slave to my emotions. I am Othello.

I listen to Iago too much. He convinces me that I’m an impostor. He tells me that I must constantly make up for the appalling gaps in my personality. That’s if others can even see them; I work hard to conceal them, like a beaver building a dam. What I am lucky enough to have gained, I jealously guard; I don’t really deserve any of it. I’m diligent. I hoard.

I have “loved not wisely, but too well” (V, ii). The smallest passions conquer me. I’ve strangled a few unfortunate Desdemonas in my time, and I do not have the “soft parts of conversation that chamberers have” (III, iii). Like the tragic Mauritanian hero who cries and broods across an Elizabethan stage and paces the floor of my soul, I would rather die than be cuckolded (in any fashion).

Iago sounds like “ego,” I have discovered.

Last week, I was drinking coffee and checking email. I’m waiting to hear about a job. Instead of polishing a resume, ostensibly what I was sitting at the computer to do, I replayed the interviewer’s comments in my mind —what he said about the other candidate. She brings forth such an interesting perspective, it sounds like.

Iago is alive at the end of the play. Othello dies. Some people must be too delicate to live.

I want to surrender my inner Othello. But where shall I send him? Sailing up a Venetian canal, perhaps? I’ll give him bread and tea for the trip, and I’ll kiss him on the forehead. I’ll tell him that I hope he learns to lighten up.