Friday, September 28, 2012

In Need of a Clipboard

It would seem of vital importance today that I procure a clipboard.

This talisman of industry is exactly what would make my life complete. It speaks solidly of one who is in charge. Observe me writing things while standing up; perhaps even while walking.  Look at my important papers. They are too manifold for mere paperclips.

Every job I have ever had required a clipboard in some way. Except that one temp job at the bank. Clearly, it was Unimportant. My lack of clipboard would explain why I showed up kind of late in last night's clothes and stared out the window while writing angry poetry and dreadful prose. Clipboard-less, I could never answer the questions on the phones I picked up, only put them on hold for the people who had clipboards and then spill coffee in my keyboard. But all the others, those were clipboard-worthy jobs: there were cakes to decorate, equipment lists to check, diesel engine parts to bar code and package, attendance to take, progress notes to write, therapy group summaries to complete. Oh, there was that other job, too. The one where I worked for the postal service. There were no clipboards for me there. Only late-night hallucinations and buzzing fluorescent migraines. I had to ask the clipboard if I could go to the bathroom. But I digress.

I need a clipboard.

It will collect all of these fluttering bits of me and hold them to something solid. I can take inventory right now while I charge about, clicking the top of my pen. I can store the importance of things in a tidy stack in plain sight and tick off all the right boxes to draw a picture of subtle accomplishment.

When questioned I can look back through the notes, peeling back the layers to what's gone before and peer over the tops of my glasses at the charts and notes and squiggles and dots I've labeled "Meaningful" and find the answers there.

I, with my clipboard, will have the authority to check schedules, discern production and give myself permission. To tell myself when I need to show up and when I can get off.

I will have, at my fingertips, all that is Important. I will have a comprehensive list of all the equipment I need to function in this world. I will never forget my patience again. I will remember to pack that emergency box with safety pins and duct tape and gratitude in case I hit a snag.

It will give me preview of things to come: reminders of times to celebrate and to coat the world in sweetness, icing flowers and curly fancy writing. It will keep me looking forward, seeing the work ahead.

It will have simple directions for packaging the things that are hard, impossible and strange, greasy and for someone else. It will house the codes for sending those things away from me and to where they need to go.

I could record while I walk, the notes of small progressions. I opened my eyes and acknowledged the presence of another human being in the room. I attended Anger Management Group and participated in the discussion. I did not eat cigarette butts and throw up my lunch. I've borrowed these from clients, but they seem to be important progress to make for anyone, really. I could record these and see where I was static, where I grew, where I failed. I could code them all on a Leichert Scale and find a way to turn behavior into math. A simple equation wherein I add up the things that I do and subtract the things that I don't and have a definitive answer for my worth.

I think I need a clipboard. Then I would finally feel in charge of all this. I would show up early and smartly dressed. I would direct the people in my charge where to go with certainty and fortitude. I would feel prepared. I would hold the answers in my hands.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Crying on the Playground

It has been a while since I have stood in the middle of a playground and cried.

This is a half-truth.

I have stood in the middle of a playground and cried more often in the last 4 years than I did in probably my entire childhood. But it still catches me by surprise almost every time. I have also stood in an auditorium and cried, in a school cafeteria and cried, and in a classroom, and one time in the hallway.

It's embarrassing.

But not really.

I stood on the playground of the monkeys' new school yesterday afternoon in the brilliant, warm autumn sunlight and cried. I was wearing large sunglasses, so my tears were mostly hidden.

I watched 300 little people in lime green shirts walk in circles and I cried.

I cried because all last week I was grumbling about how our state is lame and under-funds our schools; about how the powers that be think that things like art and music and theater and classroom aides and vice principals are luxuries in education and we have to go, hat in hand, to ask for money for our schools several times a year. And yet, on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, dozens of parents took time out of their schedules to count laps, hand out stickers and pretzels and small cups of water, to cheer for little students and to dance to loud music. I cried because people who didn't have to, happily wrote checks to be given to teachers in grubby little crumpled envelopes so my kids could paint pictures and sing songs.

I cried because there were hundreds of kids walking with purpose in laps around the playground, collecting stickers for each lap as if it were the most important thing in the world. I cried because they were laughing and singing and clapping and skipping and happy to do it, full of pride for their school.

I cried because after searching the sea of constant motion, all in matching T-shirts, I saw my jBird. She's a cygnet on her way to a swan. She was walking alone with a goofy grin and an occasional shimmy to the music, her head tilted forward in determination and her little wings flapping. I missed her on her first few laps because I was looking for someone shorter, less mature, closer to the chubbiness of the baby she was than the long and lean and graceful young lady she's becoming. I cried because when she saw me, her pretense melted away and she came clopping over on suddenly larger feet and uneven teeth and breathless and said "I am having so much fun!" Because she asked me to walk with her and was still child enough to proudly hold my hand and giggle at my ridiculous jokes. Because she let go of my hand when I walked too slowly, telling me: "I need to do this."

I cried because my Hooligan cruised up with a friend in tow, their hands full of snacks and water, and told me they had 'Nilla Wafers. Because he is so very much himself, my slow and steady tortoise who stops for snacks whenever they're offered. Because he will happily participate in whatever is there and find a way to make it suit him. Because he is so small, but such a large presence there, whooping and singing and exclaiming about the food. Because he doesn't seem to care about anything but then saves important things up to tell me later. Because he wanted to sit in my lap and show me his stickers, but then realized he had to get up if he wanted to get more. Because he is still so much my baby, but goes mightily about his business.

I cried because while I watched the two of them holding hands and urging each other along, another mother, a stranger, told me they were sweet and I was lucky they were such good friends.

I cried for all of it. For the community and the generosity. For the absurdity and the silliness. For the determination and the spirit. For what is past and what is yet to come. For this fleeting moment on a weekday afternoon where I could be suspended in time for just a little while and watch them walk in circles. For the knowledge that they are really walking onward, heads tilted forward in determination, small wings flapping and growing stronger, ambling and charging and occasionally stopping for snacks.

I stood on the playground and cried.
It's embarrassing.
But not really.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stick Your Arm In My Washing Machine

My washing machine locks up when it is in the wash cycle. Does yours do this? Being slightly less organized than I should be, sometimes I find a stray sock I need to throw in after the wash has started, but the door locks itself. I'm pretty sure this is so no one sticks their arm in the machine while it's agitating and breaks it. As if I would do that. I certainly wouldn't be overcome by the unnatural urge to grab one of those paddle thingies and let it wash my arm with the jeans just to see what it felt like. Who would do that?! Anyway, it locks. So if I need to put something in after it has started, I have to turn the whole thing off, wait a few minutes and then open and add. This takes a little bit more attention that I have the patience for, so it just means that sometimes that stray sock doesn't get washed or it gets washed with the next load, regardless of color. This bothers me inordinately, by the way, that sock out of place.

So it goes with the old noodle today. I've got an idea that is agitating around and the stupid door is locked. It has hung up its "Do Not Disturb" sign and is up to all kinds of nasty behind that closed door. I have a stray sock to throw in, but I'm not of a mind to shut down the whole production just to add it. I'm generally all right with this. I know from experience that eventually the cycle will end and the door will unlock and there will be wadded, soaking wet piles of stuff in there for me to work with. I have this stray sock, however, and it bothers me. I think I'm just going to hang onto it for a while and see what grows out of it. That's vile when you think about it. It's a metaphor, though, so you know... no real fungus.

This is where you can help, though. Think about femininity and give me some descriptors. What does femininity mean to you, personally? How about in a more universal sense? Is it only a function of gender or sexuality? Let us discuss. Shall we? Are there any metaphors, images of femaleness that have not been overused? I have recently come to the conclusion that our language and its usage is a wee bit sexist in this regard. Are you feminine? Are you comfortable with your femininity? Do you have trouble typing femininity like I do? Seriously. Are you casting about for a post? Is your washing machine locked right now agitating something else and you need another thing to focus on? Am I the only one who has appliances in her brain? Leave me a comment, write me a post, send me an email, draw me a picture. Tell me about femininity from whatever angle you choose. There needn't be any ghastly housewifely references.

Meanwhile, I'll try not to mangle my arm in the washing machine.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tangled Fables: The House that Freud Built

Once upon a time there were three roommates. They lived in a damp and cave-like place that was filled with odd bits of furniture and mythical beasts. It was often cramped and chaotic, with dust on the shelves, floors that frequently moved like the deck of a ship at sea and the windows and doors had a habit of relocating unexpectedly. There were brilliant spots of sunlight, though and some pleasant comfy chairs, so they made an uneasy peace with their surroundings.

Ichabod Droolie was immature and whimsical. He wandered about the house, belching and scratching and telling scatological jokes. He shrieked and cackled at his own humor and casually upended trash bins and jewelry boxes and then rolled around in the debris. He was a tiresome roommate, but amusing. He had an odd sweetness about him that made him tolerable at times and was so blessedly naive, that the other two roommates liked to keep him around, in spite of the mess and the appalling behavior.

Egotha was generally easy going, or so she liked to think. She was the middle of this trio and could see things from both sides. She was a little bit messy, herself, but mostly meant well. She just wanted to mind her own business and get along. She liked to laugh, but sometimes would stop short and wonder if it was all right. She craved the sunny spots and soft, comfy chairs, but frequently acquiesced when her other, more vociferous roommates demanded them. She spent a lot of time trying to facilitate disagreements between Ichabod Droolie and her other roommate, who was, oddly enough, also called Egotha.

The other Egotha was ancient, almost primordial, a shriveled old prune and she wasn't much fun. She preferred not to be called Egotha Senior because she was sensitive about such things. "Call me Super Egotha," she insisted. Mostly because she deeply believed in her superiority to these other two slobs with whom she lived. Super Egotha was in a permanent state of aghast. She was fussy and fastidious, overly critical and strict; and although she would never admit it, her roommates thought she was tedious. She spent a lot of time and energy bossing the other two about, demanding they clean up their messes and stop laughing so much. She was a chore, but the other two tolerated her because she did help keep things tidier and they believed that in spite of her methods, she had their best interests at heart.

These three lived in a sort of detente, occupying the same space and trying not to get in each other's ways too much. Every now and then there were golden moments in which they three would catch themselves happily enjoying tea together and laughing like friends. But almost as soon as those moments came, the recognition of them would send them scurrying self-consciously behind their napkins. Except for Ichabod Droolie. He would rip a great billowing fart and laugh until the tears ran down his face, laughing all the harder as the other two gagged and choked on his fumes.

Ichabod's only employment was amusing himself. He played video games, ate cookies and left the crumbs around and even though he was really quite intelligent, he frittered away hours doing things like contemplating light switches and smelling his own armpits. Super Egotha had aspirations so wild they immobilized her. She wanted to save the world, buy them all a Coke and teach them to hold hands and sing. Because she could only fail at the impossible tasks she set for herself, she instead contented herself with endlessly wiping counters, folding clothes and vacuuming the ceiling. All the while, tut-tutting and sighing the deeply passive-aggressive sighs of one who felt so put-upon by her own constructions.

Egotha decided that somebody needed to pay the rent, so she set about to use her skills in a way that both mattered and amused her. She decided she would tell stories about the things that fascinated her and try to see if they fascinated other people. She was unsure about this decision but it had clung to her for so long that she wasn't sure it was wise to ignore it any more. So she set about gathering her tools and making a space in their cramped abode to do this very thing.

She sat down one day in a patch of sunlight and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into her typewriter and started to type. The words danced and splattered onto the page and she was feeling quite satisfied with the clackety ring of the keys and the words. Ichabod wandered in and looked over her shoulder, spilling his beer into her hair as he did so. "Boobies!" he bellowed, "You need to add more boobies! Funny!" Egotha giggled a bit, but shooed him away as he danced and hollered swear words and twisted her train of thought into a bungled heap. Egotha shook her now-sticky hair and began to focus once again. "I will think about funny," she assured Ichabod, "but let me think. Stop shouting in my ear." But alas, as she set to work again, all she could do was hear his ringing shout: "Boobies!" and giggle to herself.

Drawn by the distraction, Super Egotha stormed into the room and clobbered Ichabod with a feather duster, sending him whimpering to his room. She turned her attention to Egotha and started to read over her shoulder. Super Egotha's sighs got louder and louder and were combined with foot tapping and lip smacking until it was deafening. "You're wasting your time," she said. "Just who do you think you are? I just don't see the value in it. Isn't there something more useful you could be doing?" She kept up her nattering until Egotha, deflated and distracted couldn't bear it any more. "This is what I want to do! It isn't entirely useless! I have to at least try!" she shouted. Super Egotha rolled her eyes and huffed around. "Who cares what you want? Why do you inflict yourself on others so?" and then she wandered off to scrub the floor, muttering to herself as she went about starving children and self-indulgence and hand baskets and hell.

Near tears and fed up, Egotha packed away the typewriter for the day and went out for a walk. It was so claustrophobic sometimes, living with these roommates. But she couldn't leave them, not completely. She could only continue to make her peace and try to snatch some moments alone when they were otherwise occupied. Her only hope was to sometimes get in a belching contest with Ichabod and and laugh until it hurt; sometimes help with the cooking and cleaning and the saving of the world so Super Egotha would stop breathing down her neck; and sometimes demand their silence so that she could sit and write their story.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Company Retreat

One time at a company retreat, we did personality tests and then separated into groups according to our personalities to accomplish a task. I was the only person in my group. That sounds sad, but that is exactly how I would prefer it most times (which is, of course, a function of my personality). When we were presenting our finished tasks to the group, the company accountant yelled at me and told me I did it all wrong. She vented her entire spleen (and I suspect part of her liver) about how creative people just thought they didn't have to follow any rules and they could do things however they wanted to and they made it hard for everyone else. It was fascinating.

You know how when someone is hollering at you and there's that point, that certain shift in perspective, where you realize they aren't really hollering at you. If you cross your eyes, you can maybe even see their own demons floating somewhere in the middle distance. Don't cross your eyes for real, though. They might think you are making faces at them. I thought the "life coach" who was leading the retreat was going to faint. I felt bad for her. I don't think she expected the accountant to flip out. I waited until the tirade was done and asked the accountant if I was turning in my billing late or wrong, was I making her life harder? It turns out I wasn't, so I was in the clear. She just didn't like me. Fair enough. We had to have a five minute break for the group facilitator to get herself together.

I just thought of this all of a sudden. It would explain my distaste for company retreats. Stuck in the woods with fellow employees and touching each other - trust games and whatnot - and having to watch them wear jeans and eat. Too intimate and strange. It also serves as a reminder that I annoy people with my methods from time to time. I'm not a Point A to Point B kind of person. I take detours and trip and fall into pits and check on Points W and ! and 6 while I'm at it. I get to Point B eventually, and usually on time. It requires a good bit of discipline and note-taking, list-making, heart-breaking along the way. Not really heart-breaking. I just liked the rhythm of that and three is stronger than two. I'm a good note-taker.

Somewhere in the bowels of a box are a couple of giant binders with all of my notes from college. Perhaps in the box that is labeled "Excess Chewbacca fur, fondue pot, & some things I forgot what they were". My literal little jBird is bothered excessively by that label. "Open it and look!" she tells me. "Maybe I will, but won't it be a nice surprise?" It drives her nuts. "But what if you need something in there?" she demands. She wonders how I ever did anything until eight and a half years ago. "Well, then I suppose I'll find it." This is a digression of sorts. Somewhere in one of those binders is a photocopy of a study that really stuck with me. I can't remember the specifics of the experiment, but I remember the outcome. It would seem that people who suffer from depression are actually more apt to see things as they really are.

I can hear all of the accountants and the Virgos yelling at me again. Apparently, though, depression sufferers can look at a situation and make a relatively objective assessment of what's happening. This is startling news. Because we all know depressed people and sometimes we want to strangle them because they seem so bleak about things: I am unattractive, I am useless, what's the point of all of this? and so on. What it would seem, though, is that non-depression sufferers have more mechanisms for window dressing the truth to make themselves feel better. This is not a bad thing, within reason. I'm thinking about this today because perspective is a persnickety thing.

I am currently working on a piece about the distant past. It's about a time that was powerful in my life. Do you have those times in your personal history? The ones where you look back and see the watershed? Where you maybe even felt it at the time? Those times may be brief and intense and mortifying, but they are like giant chisel-blows to your psyche and help shape who you are? I don't think I'm in a group by myself on this one. But then when you look back, you cannot help but have the layers of years and changing perspectives to see through. Those layers can cloud and obfuscate some things, they magnify others. And then you get to sit and sort out all the images like a dream and put them on paper. Maybe you don't. I do. I can't help it.

It's this kind of perspective shift that fascinates me today. No matter what kind of writer you are, you eventually have to dig into that box that's labeled "Some things I forgot what they were" and find something you desperately need. For fiction, it may be to get the dialogue just right, to understand how your character feels and would react to something. For non-fiction, it would seem more straightforward, but it's not really. Because really you're writing a character anyway. It's the character that your present self sees as your former self. Maybe you're not making it up, but you are not just reporting facts, either. So you do things like spend the morning listening to nostalgic music that brings your lizard brain right back into a certain time and then you walk around in there and listen to the conversations. Does that sound insane? Well, probably it is. Sometimes there's an accountant in there who is yelling at you and telling you're doing it all wrong. Maybe there's a depressed accountant in there who is tearing down the pretty displays of memories that you've constructed and screaming at you to get to the point. Certifiably insane.

It is a given that my perspective will be different from yours; that it will be different from the accountant's, that it will be different from my jBird's. It is a strange thing to examine how my perspective differs from my own. Noodle that around a bit. It might even start to make sense. I am wandering toward Point B. Bear with me, please. Sometimes you need those layers of intervening perspective to sort things out. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, everything is too raw and chaotic and new and unresolved to think clearly about it. Sometimes you need the safety of years to wrap around yourself like a HazMat suit to wade into particular moments in time and return unscathed. Sometimes by writing from a distance, you can really get up close to things that were too hot to touch before.

Point B was a mirage, it turns out. I've been re-writing this paragraph for an hour and I can't get to the point of it. One of my brilliant readers should do it for me. Show me how this works. I need to get my billing done on time and correctly. I don't want to unduly annoy people. I am interested in your perspectives. Just pretend we are at some kind of awful company retreat together, all up in each other's lunch and in our play clothes in the woods with the uncomfortable proximity to each other. How does your group accomplish the task? How do you label and unpack those boxes? 

Friday, September 14, 2012

September 13, 2008

On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall near Galveston, Texas. Its 120 mph winds and rain reached 275 miles from its center. It ripped roofs off of houses, knocked down trees and power lines, blew the windows out of skyscrapers and exploded a giant hole in my heart.

On September 11, 2008, my dad called me from Conroe, Texas to tell me that the trip he and my mother had planned to come out and see us would have to be postponed, the airports were closed. I was confused because of the date. Was it because of terrorists? "No," my dad laughed, "I don't think the terrorists have figured out how to control the weather yet. It's because they're expecting Ike to touch down. They're extra careful about these things since Katrina." My parents lived on a flood plain and I begged them to consider going to stay with friends. "We'll be fine," said my dad. "I want to be here to move the sand bags if I need to. Don't worry about us. We'll catch a flight out when this blows over." We talked a while longer, a rare treat. My dad didn't like chatting on the phone. We talked about a passage in the Gospel of John. I don't remember which verse, specifically. I just remember it was John because we both loved that book with its non-linear perspective, its mystery and its poetic leaning. "Give my babies a kiss from me, and we'll see you soon," he said. "My babies." That's what he called his grandchildren. It irritated me irrationally. I hung up a little relieved that the mad cleaning frenzy could wait a few days before they came to see us in our tiny house.

I checked the weather throughout the night Friday and into Saturday morning. Ike made landfall around 2:00 Saturday morning. I tried to call my parents, knowing I wouldn't be able to get through. Everyone was trying to call their parents. Jammed phone lines, phone lines down, no cellular service. Not that my parents had cell phones. I prayed and assumed they were all right. Saturday afternoon with my babies in the back seat, I drove downtown to pick up my husband from work. We chattered about replacing our fence, I'd found someone giving away old fence boards. My husband answered my phone when it rang because I was driving.

It was my sister. I listened to his end of the conversation: "Oh.... oh... OK... well where are they now? ...  All right... she's driving, I'll have her call you."
I was pissed. I had assumed that my parents had jumped a plane somewhere and were on their way to our house. They sometimes had a habit of arriving unannounced. I thought about the toddler mess and un-dusted shelves and panicked. "Where are they? Don't tell me they're here!"
"No, they're not here. Just drive home."
"Then where are they? Are they OK?"
"Just get home."
"No, tell me now. What's going on?" My panic had shifted. I didn't like how calmly my husband was speaking. I didn't like that he wasn't telling me anything.
"I don't want to tell you while you're driving."
"I'm fine. Tell me."
"Your dad had a heart attack."
I don't remember the rest of the drive home. Only fighting the urge to throw up and the hot, pounding, ringing of disbelief in my head.

I sat in the garage and called my sister. We wept together and tried to figure out what to do. The airports were closed. My mother had no cell phone. All my sister had was the front desk phone number of the intensive care unit of the hospital where they were. I called over and over and over, trying to reach my mom. Phone lines still jammed. All I could think of was my mother, afraid and alone in a hospital waiting room with nothing to eat, nowhere to turn and her family stuck thousands of miles away. Her worst nightmare come true.

Later that evening, I finally did get through to her. Dad had been out in the hurricane, shoring up some things in their yard, moving some debris. He could never sit still in a crisis. A tree had fallen across their driveway, hitting their car. He came inside and told my mom he thought he was having a heart attack. The car was ruined, the driveway was blocked, the roads to their subdivision were impassable, so they started out on foot to the hospital. A stranger in a pick-up truck stopped for them, picked them up and got them as far as he could before his truck got stuck in the flooded streets. They walked some more in the wind and rain until another stranger picked them up, a doctor as it would happen, who took them to the hospital.

My phone rang Sunday morning during church. My mom had no idea what time or what day it was, just that the doctors had discovered a hole in the septum of my dad's heart. They would have to operate and repair it. Sunday night, instead of boarding a flight to visit me in Seattle, my dad boarded a life flight on a stretcher, heavily sedated and in critical condition. The hospital chartered an emergency flight to get him to San Antonio for open heart surgery. The hurricane had knocked out the power in the hospital, too. The generators were too overtaxed to be reliable during surgery. The airports were closed. I sat all night on the couch, nursing my baby, watching mindless TV, knitting a useless shawl, uttering wordless prayers from that place where anguish and fear live deep beneath the ability to verbalize.

Early in the morning I got the call. He made it. He was too unstable to operate. Congestive heart failure, wait and see. I took my kids to the park and sat on a stump. "My dad is dying," I wanted to tell the other moms as they chatted about shoes for pre-walkers and the best baby food mills. "There's a hole in his heart," I wanted to tell the birds that chirped obliviously around me. "He can't breathe on his own," I wanted to tell the sun that twinkled in the beautiful fall sky. "I can't get to him, the airports are closed," I wanted to tell the leaves that were just starting to change their colors. I said nothing and stared at my phone and let the kids play in the sandbox.

The airports finally opened. My sister went first because she didn't have any children. My brother went next because his wife would take care of his children. Then it was my turn and I would bring my children with me. We stayed in a hotel near the hospital and ran errands for my mom. Dad was stronger by then, but not yet ready for surgery. They released him to the hotel. FEMA vouchers paid for them to stay there. My dad fell in the lobby when he came down for breakfast. My daughter cried, the hotel employees scurried to find a wheelchair, hotel guests looked on with morbid curiosity, I watched as if from above myself. This was someone else's life. My mom sent us home. FEMA wasn't covering our stay, we were useless, they didn't need our help. My son called hotels "hospitals" for a year.

The morning Dad went in for surgery, my brother and sister thought to call and speak to him before he went in. I didn't. I didn't know I could do such a thing. It was so early. He made it through the surgery. One of the best heart surgeons in the country patched the hole in his heart. Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, my mom called and told me that the doctors thought he was making good progress and they were going to take him off the ventilator the next day. She sounded a little more rested, hopeful, excited even. "I held his hand and sang to him. I told him I loved him. He's non-responsive, but I know he heard me. I'm almost positive he heard me. He moved a little." I passed on the good news to people who called to check, I went to sleep that night on the couch, lighter than I'd felt in weeks. I slept so hard I didn't hear the phone in the wee hours the next morning.

At about 4:00 AM on Sunday, October 5, 2008, the hurricane made landfall again. I missed the call because I was asleep. It woke me up but I didn't get there in time. I had to call her back. She was crying so hard I didn't recognize her voice. "He's gone. He didn't make it. He's gone." I hung up the phone and called a friend to go pick her up. I sat in the dark with my baby on my lap and the phone in my hand and I didn't know what to do. I threw up. I wondered if I should go back to sleep. I wondered if there was some kind of mistake. I sat for an hour, not wanting to wake up my husband or my daughter. Numb and empty, nursing my baby back to sleep. It finally occurred to me that my husband might want to know. I would have to say it out loud. I went up to the bedroom where they were sleeping and nudged my husband. "He's dead," was all I could say.

Four years later, I can't help but remember the hurricane. The sun shines today, the leaves are thinking about changing, the birds are hopping around the trees. My baby and toddler are full-fledged kids now. My son knows the difference between a hotel and a hospital. My daughter doesn't cry over her Papa any more. My mom is on a train tour of the Rockies with friends right now. None of us live on a flood plain any more. It sometimes seems unreal that we weathered that particular storm. But we did. The waters have receded, the power has been restored, the debris has been cleared and repairs have been made, the airports have been reopened and we can fly again. I always think of my dad on this day and tell him silently: "Don't worry about me. I'll catch a flight out when all this blows over."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hunt Elk! Win a Weatherby!

At two separate times in my young adult life, I worked for a subcontractor of the U.S. Postal Service. My job was to sit at a computer screen and look at pictures of mail and code them for delivery. I learned a few things from this job. The first being that people really, really do not know how to address mail. The second being that you don't know the meaning of fun until you have typed postal codes for nine straight hours in the middle of the night under fluorescent lighting. The third, and probably most frightening thing, is that it is by sheer miracle that any mail gets delivered correctly at all.

Of course now we don't use the "snail mail" very often any more. We can pay our bills online, send notes, upload photos, send e-cards, submit essays for rejection, enter contests, receive newsletters and coupons and just about anything else you want to do. It's simple, right? Enter your email address in the form and save the planet from all those pesky envelopes and stamps. Why teach kids to write at all? Why not just start out in primary school with keyboarding classes so they can type their way into adulthood?

Into adulthood where they cannot seem to remember their own email addresses. I have been in a 15 round grudge match with the NRA over the last several months. It would appear that a man named Stuart thinks he's me. I don't really blame him. Who wouldn't want a piece of all this? Judging from his preferences, I'm guessing actually he wouldn't. We don't have a lot in common, Stuart and I. How on earth do I know this?

Because he has used my email address to sign up for every newsletter the NRA sends out, for several golf publications and discount superstores, for an extremely right-wing alumni group, for a long johns manufacturing and direct sales company (OK, so sometimes I look at these when I get them), and a few other assorted mailing lists. At first, I would just casually unsubscribe. I know sometimes we slip up when we type. It was probably an accident. There was that whole span of time where I signed all of my professional correspondence "Love, Lou" by mistake. My rather startled clients probably just thought they were receiving really good customer service. (That would help explain the hugging, too, now that I think about it.)

But eventually it seems that my dear Stuart would realize that he wasn't getting his NRA credit card offers. Did you even know that you could get a credit card through the NRA? I think you can earn points with it or something. (Bullet points. Ha!) There are typos and then there is using an email address that is clearly not yours to sign up for the most random crap. Not only that, but when I unsubscribe I get a few weeks respite and then dear Stuart signs me up all over again. To everything. How does this happen? I feel dirty reading someone else's mail. It's a felony. (This is what I tell the monkeys when they open my mail. "You don't want to go to jail for reading my mail, do you?" "But it's just a packet of oil change coupons!" "Felony! Jail! Do you? Do you?!" We're a well-adjusted family.) I feel dirty getting NRA newsletters. I'm terrified Charlton Heston is going to show up at my house with a shotgun or something. (Another quick digression: I know how to shoot a shotgun, by the way. My dad borrowed one when we were kids and took us out into the woods and set up things like milk jugs filled with water to approximate a human head. He wanted us to know that guns were real and to see the real damage they could do and also how to use one properly. Like I said, we're a well-adjusted family.)

I realize this email thing is what a friend of mine calls a "white boy problem"; that it is only a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things; that my grandparents had to walk uphill barefoot in the snow to the outhouse to get their email, but there's this nerdy part of me that worries over it. I worry that Stuart is missing out on updates about his favorite pastimes - wearing long johns and going on golf ball hunts with his alumni group - and I worry that the gun and golf loving Stuart is mentally unbalanced because he can't seem to grasp what his own email address is. We can't have folks like that just hitting golf balls willy nilly.

The "not right"ness of it all bothers me on a cellular level. It makes me worry that the fabric of our very society will unravel because of this blatant lack of attention to detail. It bothers me that we just generally accept that we will get this weirdo crap in our inboxes and that there will come a day when we can't tell the difference anymore between honest communication and misdirected messages. That one day it will all be spam. (Brief digression: when we lived in China, people would send us care packages from the States with things we couldn't get like brownie mixes and mac and cheese and stuff. And Spam. "Oh goody! Spam! You know, there's just not enough mystery meat here in China. I think I need some in a can from the good ole U S of A!" I think this is the very origin of calling unwanted emails "spam": my family's care packages. It's literally Spam. A whole inbox full of goodness and just for the heck of it, we'll throw in this nasty can of Soylent Green.)

Canned meat products aside, my dear Stuart, I don't want to hunt elk. I don't want to win a Weatherby. I don't even know what a Weatherby is! (How does that sort of contest even work, anyway? For every set of elk horns you send in, you get an entry into the Weatherby drawing?) I don't want the latest technology in ball washing. I have plenty of silk long johns. I attended a different crazy para-military state university, so I won't be attending your reunion. But I would like you to do all of those things if you want to. At the very least, can you use my email address for your personal correspondence so at least I can have access to the really juicy stuff?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dear John Jeremiah Sullivan: An Epistolary Book Review

Dear John Jeremiah Sullivan,

I just recently picked up your collection of essays, Pulphead. Someone, somewhere recommended it to me and I have no idea whosoever it was. I can't thank them, so I will thank you instead.

Thank you for being exactly my age. Thank you for your perspective on this world we who were born under the sign of Nixon's resignation have inherited. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of topics that generally just send knees jerking. Thank you for not being smug and condescending from your literary perch. Thank you for using phrases like "facty-facty" and making me laugh. Thank you for treating topics like Hurricane Katrina to a Christian rock festival to the Real World with equal parts seriousness and levity. Thank you for not taking yourself, nor this world we live in too seriously. Thank you for taking it seriously enough to really examine it. Thank you for writing in a voice that is authentic and entertaining. Thank you for encapsulating the beauty of our twisted human experience in ways that make me cry with recognition.

I aspire to write, to find my collection of essays in a book somewhere, some day. I plug away and ship them off; I sit and cringe and think I have nothing valuable to say. I know on some level that isn't true, but I wonder if there's a place for me in this great big literary world with my silly words and my self-deprecation, my goody-two-shoes roots, my irritability and my unconventional views. I wonder sometimes if it's even worth it. I struggle against the notion that fiction is the crown-jewel of genre, and I wonder if I'm just biased because I suck at it.

Reading your book has reminded me, yet again, of the value of essays, of literary non-fiction. It has reminded me of the beauty of examining closely a tiny facet of a larger whole and trying to figure out how it all fits together. It has reminded me that under seemingly "shallow" pop-culture references and icons lie much larger, deeper ideas. It has reminded me that a well written piece, even if it is about Axl Rose, has the power to move. Mostly, and less selfishly, your collection of essays has reminded me that in a world of sound bites and status updates and Tweets and platitudes and aphorisms, there is still a place for the long-form article, for opinions that are backed up with the heft of research and experience, for observations that sometimes go against the grain of the expected. Thank you most of all for that.

Tangled Up In Lou
Aspiring essayist and not-at-all-creepy fan-girl

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


We were driving somewhere a few weeks ago and I noticed all the flags were at half-mast. I asked the Chief Lou about it because he works for the U.S. government, you see, and he should know about such things. They probably sent it to him in a memo.

"I don't know," he said. [This is where your tax dollars go, my American friends. They help feed my family and they are not wasted on memos explaining half-masted flags.]

I may be a socialist, but I know that when the flags are flown at half-mast, someone of national importance has died. I know it wasn't a former president, because the Chief Lou gets the day off to attend their funerals. So I wrack my brains trying to remember who has died recently.

"It is because of Phyllis Diller?" I ask.

"Um, yes. It's because of Phyllis Diller," says the Chief Lou, "Pretty much everything is because of Phyllis Diller." [I think he maybe is being sarcastic, but you never know with him. He's got an awesome deadpan and he's also a bit of a closet conspiracy theorist.]

"Oh wait! It's because of the astronaut guy!" I suddenly remember. "That makes more sense."

"The 'astronaut guy'?! Would that 'astronaut guy' be Neil Armstrong? The first man to walk on the moon?" [Obviously, his conspiracy theories do not include the one that posits the moon landing was a complete cock-up. He's not a complete nut-bag.]

I try to explain that I said "astronaut guy" because whenever I go to say Neil Armstrong's name, I am gripped by this rapid succession of doubts: Is it Neil Armstrong? Not Lance Armstrong? No. That's the bike guy. Neil Diamond? No? Why not? I even accentuated my argument with my best Neil Diamond impersonation, singing this song. I think it's perfectly understandable how all that could get garbled up in my melon, what with the patriotism and stuff.

I noticed today that the flags are at half-mast again. This time even I know why. I don't have much to say about it except this:

If we are going to remember, let's remember how for a few fleeting days we forgot that we were Democrats and Republicans, we forgot that we were men or women, gay or straight, light or dark, rich or poor, Neil Armstrong or Neil Diamond, and we stopped and mourned together. We watched horrified and dumbstruck, heartbroken and scared. For a few hours we forgot our differences and even if we sustained no personal loss, we stepped into the shoes of those who did. We understood what it was like to be a friend, a parent, a spouse, a lover, an employee, a boss, a child, a person and the terror of not knowing if your loved ones are all right. We held hands and we cried with strangers; we hugged our families and reached out to our neighbors. For a few short days, we were united. Will it take another national tragedy for us to do that again? Don't we still want to know that our loved ones are all right? Don't we still understand that other people have loved ones that need to be all right, too?

Monday, September 10, 2012

I Dreamed of This

I am puttering. Putting things to rights after a weekend of ignoring most of everything except the people who live here. I am surrounded by piles of paper demanding attention, piles of clothes that must get clean, piles of dishes that need to be scrubbed and then refilled, piles of words that must be rearranged and sorted out and written again. I am tempted to groan. I am tempted to complain. Instead, I am drinking my coffee and thinking about my younger self. The one with larger jeans and smaller frame and longer, darker hair. The one who sat and looked half-starved at families in public places and snorted with derision to hide the aching want. The one who spoke of selling out and giving in and letting oneself go.

This younger me could not let herself go then. She was tightly wound and afraid the broken parts would fall out on the floor. An upturned purse with tampons, gum wrappers, empty pens and cigarette lighters splashed around for all to see or avert their eyes and gingerly step around. This younger me would never have given in to the soft places inside, the ones that lie curled and fetal around another sleeping body that is small and dependent and cries out in her sleep. This younger me mocked the selling out because she didn't understand that she had anything of value to trade for her dreams.

Today I give that younger me a hug. I reach back through time and space and tell her not to worry. It will all work out. I tell her that things will be hard and then lovely and then hard again and lovely still. I tell her that is just what it is like to live. I tell her that things will not go as she has planned, but they will be better than she ever dared imagine. I tell her to relax and enjoy the steps ahead.

She bristles and doesn't listen. She's not supposed to. She was supposed to ignore the advice of wiser souls and come smashing, whirling, prickly and hard through her path to get to here. She was supposed to test the very fiber of her body, her faith, her mind, her soul. She was supposed to dash herself against hard places to break open and see the soft light that was hiding inside. She was supposed to do that. She was supposed to etch these canyons and these valleys of scars so they would heal and overflow with the rushing joy that fills them now. She can't have known that the inundation would come and bring verdant life to the desolate places, that her harvest would be so bountiful that she had plenty to share with friends and strangers alike. But she'd secretly hoped.

This younger me looks up from that well of time. She winks and hunches down further around herself. To protect from the cold that seems to permeate the skin tightly wrapped around bones, to protect from the coming days of confusion and making one's way, to protect from herself and from the wishes she dares not make.

She glances at the piles of paper, clothes, dishes, and words.

She whispers quietly with breath of smoke and sadness:
Enjoy it for me then. This is the life you have dreamed of.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tangled Pot-Luck

Growing up as a preacher's kid, I've had more than my fair share of opportunity to attend pot-lucks all over the world. Pot-lucks, covered dish suppers, pitch-ins, whatever you want to call them, the concept is the same: everyone brings a dish to share and everyone eats. Nowadays people are more savvy about it and break up last names by letter of the alphabet and specify what kind of dish to bring, so we don't end up with too much Jell-O salad, but when I was a kid this did not appear to be the case.

Some places we lived, people took pride in their home cooking and pot-lucks were a gastronomic wonderland of simple, yet delicious foods and there just wasn't enough room on your plate. Other places we lived, it meant half the congregation stopped at KFC or Little Caesar's and got take out. In China, people brought whatever they had - a coveted bottle of Coke, a bag of fresh grapes, oranges (there were always oranges!), barbecued chicken feet, whatever. Some places we lived, my definition of "food" appeared to be different than that of some of the cooks. The only time I have ever in my life had food in my mouth that I just couldn't swallow was at a pot-luck where some very old socks were masquerading as green beans.

You learn the tricks of the trade: if it's got enough cheese on top, you can probably eat it; that "Famous Taco Salad" has not hot sauce on it, but FRENCH DRESSING, so warn your taste buds in advance; nothing, I repeat: nothing, encased in Jell-O retains its flavor or texture; beat the kids to the dessert table; avoid anything with tuna, especially hot tuna.

If you learn to follow your own simple guidelines, pot-lucks can be tolerable, even joyous affairs.

When the Chief Lou and I got married, I was appalled at his pot-luck behavior. He broke all of the cardinal rules of pot-lucks. He snubbed the potato and cheese casserole with the cornflakes on top and went straight for the fried chicken. He ate that mess with the scary pot-luck trifecta of Jell-O, Cool Whip and canned fruit. He passed over the fresh veggies and ranch dip in favor of the store-bought cupcakes with Day-Glo gobs of icing on top. Clearly, being raised a heathen, he didn't know about these things.

I have been sitting on my hands for the last few days to avoid posting in any public way about our nation's political process. Anything I would have to say about the specifics of anything is going to appease the people who agree with me and outrage those who don't. That kind of communication feels dishonest to me and there are any number of people out there who have already said it and said it better, so go read them. I want to think about pot-lucks. I want to write about casseroles and canned cream of mushroom soup. Does anyone ever actually make soup out of those cans? I think not. When I was a kid, I used to think those little gray mushrooms were boogers. I might still think that.

So, this particular nation takes pride in calling itself a melting-pot. (Mmmm. Fondue. Why can't it be 1973 so we can all hang out in groovy polyester and eat fondue and put our car keys in a bowl? I digress.) I think we're more of a pot-luck. Everyone brings their covered dish to the table. There's that one lady who brings that same casserole every time because she thinks everyone loves it when we all just quietly scrape our portions into the trash when no one is looking because we don't want to hurt her feelings because she's half-senile anyway. There's the guy who always, always, always brings whatever the grocery store deli has on sale that particular day, so it's hit or miss whether you want to eat it. There's the one woman who makes the most amazing salads and you have to get in line first or it will be all gone. There are the mystery dishes that look like one thing and taste like another: oh look, they put Miracle Whip in the chicken salad, I was not expecting a mouthful of cloying sweetness and chicken. There are the super creative dishes, the old standbys, the vile and frightening, the surprisingly delicious, and the "I'll eat it because I'm starving and there's nothing else" ones.

Here's the thing about pot-lucks: we don't go to them for the food, really. We go for the association, the sharing of a meal, the convivial choking down of casseroles. We all have our favorites, our distinct palates, our untouchable items, the things we have to spit into our napkins. But for each of us, those are different things.

I would not touch pot-luck fried chicken with a cattle prod. The Chief Lou eats as much as he can if it's there. I am especially fond of the cheesy potato casserole, the Chief Lou thinks it's a textural nightmare. And I hate him for it. Oh wait, no. I don't. That would be a silly reason to hate someone, wouldn't it? For expressing a preference? Well, I don't hate him, but I stand up and loudly complain that he's an idiot for not seeing the merits of cheesy potato casserole and he's probably a Nazi or a fascist or a baby killer or a socialist or something. Yes, that makes for some fun pot-lucks, doesn't it? Of course I wouldn't do that. That would be a level of obnoxiousness that even I have yet to achieve. No, what I really do is walk around gasping because people are clogging their arteries! eating small dead animals! there are horses hooves in the Jell-O! they don't even know what that is and they're eating it! It's bad for them! No one should ever eat that much canned soup and American cheese in one sitting! Also, obnoxious. Obviously.

So, every few years we pull ourselves up to the democratic table and everyone takes the tin foil off of what they brought and it's horrifying. It's disgusting and unhealthy and there are boogers - boogers, I tell you! - in most of it! And you have to watch people masticate, and listen to their conversations muffled by mouthfuls of what you thought was mayonnaise but is actually Miracle Whip (blech!), and you get to discover that someone for whom you previously had a lot of respect just ate fifteen cookies and a pile of mashed potatoes for lunch and you wonder how you'll ever be able to look at these people again. But then...

But then you look at your own plate. It was you who took all of the carrots off the veggie platter and didn't leave any for anyone else. You are letting a glob of dripping barbecued something run all over into your Asian cole slaw with the uncooked Ramen in it. You have taken a large dinner roll to conceal the fact that you have three helpings of that oddly fascinating French Dressing Taco Salad. You know it's the only time you would ever eat a dessert concocted from instant pudding and Chips Ahoy, but bless it, it's tasty in a way you'd never admit publicly. And you realize as you're looking at your plate that this isn't exactly an accurate representation of your diet. It's not full of your favorite things, nor is it completely balanced, but it works for now.

But look up from the plates now, it's not about the food. It's about this disgusting, belching, tooth-picking group of people. Our comrades, neighbors, our fellow citizens, coming together to participate in a shared something. Sure, if we think about it too much it makes us gag a little bit, but I guarantee, someone else is looking at your plate and gagging, too. Heck, I gag on half the things I try at a pot-luck, but that's part of the fun, isn't it? To taste how other people cook, to try out what other people think is delicious, to get a glimpse of what it might feel like to eat dinner at their house every day? Sometimes we taste and say "No thank you." Sometimes we can't even swallow it. Sometimes we are deliciously surprised. Sometimes we know which ones are "safe" and stick with those. Those are all different things to different people. That's what makes pot-lucks so great. A little something for everyone. But we're all sharing this meal together. Don't talk with your mouth full. Nobody wants to see that.

If it all becomes too intolerable and you can't find the joy in it, just remember these two simple things:
1. If you sit quietly and avert your eyes, the pot luck will end and people will soon go and watch football or take a nap.
2. Be glad you aren't in China, where someone always brings barbecued chicken feet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Back To School

We here in Seattle are rugged individualists. We do not start school the day after Labor Day. No sir, we start two days after Labor Day. I secretly believe it is to give the parents an extra day to recover from attending Bumbershoot. Maybe it's to give everyone a chance to get back from their last ditch camping trip of the summer. Or maybe it's to give us this spare day between holiday and routine to speculate and ruminate and drive each other crazy.

My jBird has proclaimed herself the "luckiest girl in the world" because she gets a locker in her new school, because her mom bought her the tackiest shirt on Earth to wear for back to school because it was deemed "cool" by that fascinating eight-year-old rubric, and because she gets to ride the bus this year. The Hooligan is more quiet about his inner-workings, preferring instead to give involved descriptions of space machinery. But today he told me that "School is awesome because there are so many possibilities." They are ready to go. They've been counting down the days for a month now. Tomorrow is the day. Today is the day they will eat popcorn for breakfast and watch too much TV and wrestle with each other in great, giggling, tumbling chaos that spills into every room of the house and out in the yard. Today they will get on each other's nerves and holler and then hug. Today is summer. Tomorrow is not.

Tomorrow they will go and learn the geography of a new school. The odd chemistry of making new friends. The arithmetic of when to sit quietly, when to stand in line, when to run and play. The poetry of being on their own amid a crowd of friendly strangers. Tomorrow when they dress it will be for school. When they eat breakfast it will be with an eye toward getting them through the day. When they step out the door, it will be into the unknown. Tomorrow they are going back to school.

Tomorrow I am going back to school, too. I will have to learn the silences of my house. I will have to regain the trust that the things they've learned that are far more important than reading and writing will stick with them as they navigate their days. I will have to resign myself again to giving them away to others for what is the best part of their days. That I will only see them sleepy in the mornings, worn out in the afternoons, and recharging on the weekends for the next several months. I will have to remind myself that this is for a greater cause. I will have to remember how to go about my days without stepping on midday Legos, stopping to make lunch for three, listening to the non-stop narration of two little lives. I will re-learn how to paint by myself, write by myself, eat by myself, clean by myself, shop by myself, even go to the bathroom by myself without the inevitable urgent conversation through the door. I have a lot to learn.

I am glad to learn it, though. These small people given to my charge are ready, so ready, for this next step. Their little wings are wet with newness, their fawn legs are wobbly but strong. They are thrilled with learning, with stepping out, with independence, with challenge and with the chaos of all those new people to meet. They gobble with their senses and absorb new knowledge as if through their skin. Who would I be if I were to deny them that? If I kept them babies in my nest and squashed their first attempts at flight with my feathered, motherly ass? I talk big. I'm all bravery and centered and selfless in my speech. I'm terrified. I always am. I resolutely do not think of the worst possibilities and smile brightly and say "It will be so much fun!" And indeed, it will. For all of us. I crave a quiet cup of coffee, uninterrupted time to think. And yet I quake inside. Have I done enough to prepare them? Will they be all right?

Of course they will. It is they who have taught my wobbling fawn legs how to walk like a mother. It is they who have helped to unfurl the wings of my heart to soar higher than I ever thought imaginable. It is they who have prepared me for this. This incremental letting go. This watching two distinct people who carry a little bit of me in their DNA to walk around, to succeed, to go further bit by bit away. It is they who have taught me that I have no control, only love and fragments of my own experience to share with them. They will be fine. I will be fine. Tomorrow, school starts for all of us.

Today I will watch them play and enjoy this spare day.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Digging Again: Bamboo and An Essay

The Chief Lou and I decided to put the "labor" back into Labor Day weekend and finish digging up the grove of bamboo that is taking over our yard. This has been a most counter-intuitive activity. I like plants. I like pretty plants. Bamboo is pretty. It sways and it is delicate and strong and it's a survivor. It is strange to feel an overwhelming need to eradicate a plant, but it threatens the structure of our house, so it must go.

I am in the final polishing, editing, sweating phase of writing an essay for submission. The topic of the essay is "Regret". The instructions were to explore a thing I did that I regret or would like to do over and write about what I learned about myself from it. This is a counter intuitive exercise for me. I don't believe in living with regret. I pay lip service to embracing one's mistakes and learning from them, not wasting a lot of energy wishing I could do them over. I look back over bad decisions I've made and see how they've worked together to bring me closer to who I am now. I like this philosophy. It's pretty and it works for me. This essay has been giving me fits. It hasn't been about the writing. I could write a bunch of pretty tripe and send it off, but then I would regret it for its dishonesty.

When digging bamboo, you start with what you see: the shoots, the canes, the above the ground pretty plants. You trim those down so you can see the real business of the bamboo. The roots don't go all that deep. You dig around the base and you start to see that the shoots are not alone. They are connected to strong, cane-like runners or rhizomes that spring from rock-like culms. They march in a steady, persistent line along the rhizomes, connected to each other beneath the surface of the soil. I wrote about this already. You just have to get in there and dig. There is no magic spray or pruning technique that stops them. Sheet metal doesn't really stop them. You just have to dig them out.

I spent far too long spinning my mental wheels about this essay. I wrote about this already. I received such great support, encouragement and gentle chiding from this lovely blog community that it shames me a little. Time to stop whining and get to work. I started with the surface. I picked an event that was truly painful to think about. It was something that happened a long time ago, but had its hooks in a lot of emotions for me. I attacked it from the surface. I wrote my 1500 words, relieved to have done it, and shared it with some trusted critics. They kindly read and gave it back and said "Good start." Time to get the shovel.

One of the amazing adaptive qualities of bamboo is that the culms harden with age. That's why it's good construction material. Even when cut, they secrete instantly a kind of sealing sap in the new wound to keep out infection and pests. It makes them strong, and prolific. They grow easily and with abandon. They are self-protecting, durable. If you block their growth in one direction, they will send out rhizomes in another with new shoots within days, reaching for the sun.

I rewrote the essay. One friend said "Tell me how it feels." Another said, "You are protecting yourself. You are justifying. Let the truly regrettable actions show." They were right, of course. That is why they are trusted critics. I rewrote again. Here is the difference between writing and life: in life we seal off and protect the wounded places, we find new ways to grow, we harden and it helps keep us strong. We cannot stay open, gaping wounds all the time or we would wilt. In writing, however, sometimes it's necessary to peel back the protective layers, cut open that wound again and seize it, rip it up before the protective sap begins to flow. But this is where writing intersects life for me: this process of writing and digging up the roots helps rid my life of the neglected offshoots of old injury that would eventually threaten the structure of my life.

We spent the day in the sun yesterday, laughing and acting like fools. We spent the day with crowbars as long as our legs, prying stubborn culms. We spent the day sweating and dirty and digging and pulling. We spent the day with our combined weights thrust against the handles of tools and only then barely having enough leverage to rip these ancient things loose from the soil. We wanted to quit. I hit my knee so hard with a rogue crowbar that my kneecap is black and looks dirty. I dropped my iPod down my pants and as it slithered cool against my leg, I feared I'd wet myself from the exertion. We drank lots of water, we collapsed in heaps. We prized and muscled and lifted with our backs instead of our legs. We slipped on rocks and fell. We made jokes and spoke in lines from movies. We let the kids wander in and out of the house, eating random things they found in the fridge. We got it done. It took hours of back breaking work, but it's done. Those rock-hard, ancient roots have been excavated. All of their tendrils and delicate shoots have been removed. They have been officially dealt with... we think.

So this essay. I've sent it to another trusted critic. I'm unsure about it still. I am a little sketchy about the outcome. But it is in a place of honesty now, with many of the protective layers stripped away. I have not changed my general philosophy about living without regret. I have, however, exhumed it and looked at it anew. I have examined what the pretty leaves and swaying canes on the surface have distracted me from. I have pulled out the ancient roots of things I no longer needed in my soil. I have exposed the neglect with which I have treated the topic.

Our bamboo was an artifact from another time. It was neglected and allowed to run amok. We bought it with the house and knew when we bought it that it would need to be dealt with. We have done the best we could with the tools we have (and some loaned us by the neighbor) to amend this neglect and protect our home from its far-reaching roots. It is with satisfaction that we can look at the freshly dug soil, the rocks out of place and the giant pile of disembodied roots. But we wait. The rains will come, life will go on, there may be some things we missed. Their shoots will pop up and surprise us, yards away from their source. We will see them and deal with them when they come, but for now, we are satisfied, we have accomplished the task at hand.

I will send off this essay that has plagued me so unnecessarily in a couple of weeks. I will be satisfied, I will be unsure, and I will wait. Life will come and go. I will live some more and hence, write some more. But the work I've done for now is finished. I will doubtless return to the subject, both in writing and in life. But now the worst of the work is done. I will sit and I will wait on the rain. I will see what springs up again.