Thursday, January 24, 2013

Don't Eat Dinner In The Ladies' Loo

So I had that dream again. The one where I'm in an endless public restroom.

A bit of back story: I will give myself a bladder infection if it means avoiding a public restroom. I will squat in a parking lot before I use a public restroom. I have been in public restrooms all over the world and I hate them all. I have a reaction similar to a panic attack if someone is in the stall next to me. If I have to use one - or, as is most often the case, one of my children has to - I spend the next few hours convinced that at best we've contracted a dreadful stomach virus. At worst... only Dr. House knows. My happy-go-lucky, lasseiz faire, live and let live attitude stops at the threshold of the public potty door. As soon as I set foot into one of  those echo chambers of filth and all manner of unmentionable-ness, I become fierce, territorial, paranoid and elitist. I don't want to hear your shuffling feet, your zipping fly, your sighs of relief or your rolling toilet paper. I will jump out of my skin if - for the love of all that's holy! - I hear your bodily function noises in any form. And you absolutely may not, under any circumstances whatsoever, poop near me.

I have a recurring dream where I am stuck in an endless public restroom. It only seems fitting, somehow.

This was one of the posh ones - with soft lighting and marble counters and an attendant. (Small digression here: Have you ever read David Foster Wallace's piece about a restroom attendant? It's in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It is both brilliant and terrifying.) So I'm sitting in this posh, public restroom (lipstick on a pig, my friends, lipstick on a pig!) eating dinner. You know how some restaurants have that special table in the kitchen that you have to reserve months and months in advance? Well this was like that, except that it is in the ladies' room. I'm dining with a friend. The friend is no one I really know. I only know that she is female and that she is a close friend. I can't pin her down any more than that. We are enjoying steaks and convivial conversation, feeling a little bit naughty and decadent, like you do when you go out for a nice dinner while the husband feeds the kids hot dogs and mac and cheese at home. I am having a good time and feeling special that we got this primo table when the lighting shifts just a little bit. Barely perceptible, but enough to make things feel a wee bit ominous. A well dressed man comes rushing into the ladies' room and flings himself into a stall where he then proceeds to become violently ill. Violently and loudly. Excessively.

I jump up, horrified, completely uninterested in my steak, and I run. The door through which the man has come is gone and there is only the endless stretch of restroom which has morphed into a sort of subway station atmosphere - echoing tile, greenish flickering fluorescent lighting, grime and litter - completely lined with stalls. Most of the stalls are occupied with people in the midst of horrible, private activities. I run and I run and I run, haunted and chased by the man's voluble and voluminous retching. I feel no sympathy for the man, only disgust and anger. My friend is chasing me, trying to explain that it's OK, I should settle down, we'll work it out, just ignore it. I am deciding that she is crazy because there's no way to ignore it and anyway, it was her stupid idea to go out to eat and shut up and help me find the maître d'.

This is the point in the dream where I am so sound asleep, so entrenched in this complete nonsense that I am positive that I will reside in this horrible bathroom forever, wandering until I am either starved or die of typhoid, forced to witness the horrors of human waste in all of its forms for eternity. This is where I start to cry in exhaustion and desperation. It is always at this point in these dreams - the point where I give up and give in to despair - that I find whatever it is I'm looking for. In this case, the maître d'.

I am breathless, choked with indignation, I can barely speak I am so angry. "That man! That man in the ladies' room!" It seems the pinnacle of injustice to me that he is in the wrong restroom. "That man is throwing up so loudly it has ruined my dinner!" I am screaming at the calm maître d' in a way that I have rarely screamed at anyone in my waking life. "And he's in the ladies' room! Fix it! This is unacceptable!" 

In the process of all of this screaming, the background fades back to that of a really nice restaurant where nice people are calmly eating their nice dinners. There is no man horking up his internal organs; only me, creating a spectacle and screaming at the top of my lungs. The maître d' appraises me calmly and says "Why were you eating in the ladies' room?" and I am completely devastated. I sputter and stammer and try to explain and there is no explanation. I am overwhelmed by the complete unfairness of it all and anger at myself and at the barfing man and the smug people eating their dinner so calmly in the dining room and the maître d' with his critical eye and silly coat and suddenly I'm full of doubt and I wake up.

That's it. I'm just gonna leave this with you. Draw your own conclusions.
Here's mine: you can't blame a guy for barfing near you if you're going to dine in a public restroom. Or something like that. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tangled Eulogy

It's a good thing I'm not very sentimental.

They were rescues, you know. I found them there, cast off, disliked by someone else, smashed between other hopefuls vying for my attention.

They were a perfect fit and we immediately established that comfortable rapport as if we'd always known each other.

They've been with me nearly everywhere for the last five or six years. I can barely imagine a life without them. They've been like a part of our family, even included in our family photos.

They've grown old and it's time for them to go, but I just can't seem to let go. I nurse them along and try to hang on to the last scraps of what we've had together.

It's not the same any more. They can't go as many places as they used to. They are fragile and sensitive. Strangers find them off-putting and look away. So it goes when those we love grow infirm. Strangers may balk, but their beauty is only enhanced to me by their frailties.

I took them out today as I have on so many other days, knowing that this would probably be our last day together. We visited the place where we first met, as we often have over the years, and quietly wandered there together.

My heart broke today and I felt guilty for already making plans for a life without them. "I can't do this," I whispered. "Not with you here."

There will be others. I will heal and move on. It will be uncomfortable and awkward and nothing will ever take the place of my beloved ones. I can't hang on to them any more, though. After a certain point, it just becomes pitiful, this clinging to thngs that have naturally run their course. It becomes absurd and a little bit cruel to pretend things haven't changed.

It's time to say goodbye.

Farewell to my favorite jeans. You have served me well
these many years.
From Goodwill ye came and to Goodwill
ye shall return. 
It's a good thing I'm not very sentimental.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guns and Butter (and Shoe Horns, Inexplicably)

Does anyone actually use shoe horns?

It seems a fairly simple and rudimentary kind of technology, but I'm not even sure how to use one.

If your shoes have to be horned on, isn't it time for new shoes?

Perhaps this is just another way I have failed to assimilate into polite society. This is always a possibility when it comes to things I don't understand.

"Oh, dahling, this shoe horn is just mah-velous! Where ever did you find it? It horns my feet so smoothly. It's just like butter."

I like butter.

I'm skeptical of recipes that insist upon margarine or butter substitutes.

I don't know when butter became evil.

Sure, it's fatty, but it's natural fat. Fat that's supposed to be there, not fat that has been chemically engineered to kill rats and chickens.

Were people eating sticks of butter like Popsicles and then someone in the Department of Appropriate Foods declared that this nonsense must be stopped?

It's not like we're all getting any slimmer with the Pop-Culture Moratorium On Butter.

There are so many things I don't understand about my own culture.

Like how you're not supposed to eat two pieces of cake for dessert when you're at someone's house for dinner.

Why put out two different kinds of cake if I'm not supposed to eat a piece of both? All the men did it and no one commented on that.

One of them was a delightful pound cake, scented with lemon and nutmeg. The other one was a gooey store-bought chocolate mess. Both delicious in their own ways. I also drank eight cups of coffee.

Apparently that's strange, too.

I was trying to keep my mouth full so I wouldn't say anything about guns.

If I knew how to use a shoe horn, I wouldn't get into these kinds of predicaments. I'm almost certain of it.

I know how to shoot a gun. My dad made sure I learned how to so that I would never think it was a good idea to keep one around. My mom taught me how to churn butter. My dad tried to make cheese but it smelled like feet that had been too long horned into shoes, so we threw it out.

I know these things. I know how to bake bread and grow vegetables, how to clean a fish and how to sew. My friend taught me how to forage edible plants in the city. Come the revolution, I'm all set. I also know how to do a specific Filipino folk dance with long sticks. That might come in handy some day, too. Come the revolution.

Unless it's a footwear revolution that requires the use of shoe horns. Then I'm sunk.

I know how to do a lot of things. I have spent a lot of time and energy over my lifetime thus far learning how to know things. Is it the onset of early dementia or aged wisdom that I'm starting to feel that I know the wrong things or not enough things or there are too many things to know or that it's not important after all to know anything? I don't know. I don't even know how to use a shoe horn.

Maybe I should learn the art of Photoshopping aggressive rhetorical nonsense.

There are so many things I don't understand about my own culture.

I think I'll wear shoes that fit me and have another slice of cake.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Freezing Fog

In grade five we did a weather unit in science class. Mr. Ladabouche was a short and slick man with a wee mustache and a high, nasal voice. He was grumpy and strange and had delicate manicured fingernails upon which I would obsess while he did scientific demonstrations. In my memory, he looks like this:
But that might be an exaggeration. He was on my brother's paper route and he would leave nasty, instructive notes in his tidy, finicky handwriting about where the paper should and should not land when tossed from a bicycle at five in the morning. One time my brother went to collect from him and he answered the door shirtless and in sweatpants and even though I never actually saw the incident, my imagination was such that sometimes this knowledge made it hard to pay attention in science class. To be exposed to the horror of man-breasts at such a tender age is a travesty.

In spite of these distractions, I took copious notes and great pride in the pages and pages of diagrams and science-y stuff that filled my unicorn notebook. I learned the meteorological difference between sleet and hail, how weather balloons and barometers work, how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius to Kelvin and back again. For a few months, my passion was to become a meteorologist - not a weather girl, she was just set decoration - but the one with a lab coat and glasses and a bun who got to tinker with all the instruments and plot the high and low pressure systems.

(OK, so maybe a little bit I wanted to be a weather girl: she was the Vanna White of news broadcasts and it was in the 80s, before it was all done on computers and they got to use a big felt map with Velcro numbers and suns and clouds and move them around and that appealed to me in a very tactile way. But you should forgive this because during that school year I also spent several weeks wanting to be Mahatma Ghandi.)

One of the biggest hose jobs of fifth grade science is that he didn't actually let us conduct any experiments. Mr. Ladabouche would hold up different scientific instruments and his tidy little hands would twitch them around and show us how they worked, but we were absolutely not allowed to touch them. Of course, it's because we were animals, not to be trusted. We were the sort of creatures who threw his newspaper into the bushes instead of onto the porch and who passed notes in a steamy love triangle during class. 

(Oh, did I not mention that? Part of the reason I took such copious notes during science class is because I sat across the aisle from Eric Waters, the very Aryan-looking boy on whom I'd had a crush since grade three, who was rude to me and had a crush on my best friend, Sara, and spoke to me about it in no uncertain terms and that only made me pine for him more and so I thought I would - silly me - woo him with my great big brain since my breasts were smaller than Sara's and the curious side-effect of all of these demented machinations was that I learned an awful lot of science that year.)

I begged my parents to install a wind sock on our house. I could envision myself climbing up on the roof every morning with my clipboard and lab coat (because let's be honest, it's really about the costumes) and recording the wind direction on a chart along with the temperature and barometric pressure. They, shockingly, said no. Too much trouble, too tacky, too weird, and why on earth do you want a wind sock? I consoled myself with Huey Lewis and the News and blamed all of the adults in my life for thwarting my ambitions. The heart of rock 'n' roll is still bea-tin' and all that. Because, as you know, all aspiring pre-teen meteorologists have a heart of rock 'n' roll.

I moved on from my wind sock heartbreak; I got over my taste in mean, Aryan-looking boys (although, seriously, that took until about my sophomore year of college and I don't know what gives with that) and I survived such devastation long enough to grow up and get married (to a man with dark good looks who has often been mistaken for my brother and we shall not even get into the weirdness of that right now) and give birth to two children who also would like to become meteorologists right now. This being the twenty-first century and all, they actually get to do experiments in science class and even visit a weather station, so they are far more advanced for their age than I ever was. They almost missed the bus yesterday because they were faffing about on the deck trying to measure the amount of precipitation from the night before. I had an un-winnable argument with the Hooligan in the car last night about how even though there was a little snowflake next to the temperature on the dashboard display, thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit is not actually freezing, that you must be precise about such things. ("Yes, but I'm freezing." Boom. No arguing there.) I have had to explain repeatedly to my jBird that yes, I understand the metric system is a much more accurate and simple system of measurement, but that's not what we use here in the good ole US of A, so learn your conversions. I wonder if this obsession with the weather is somehow genetic?

This morning, my world was encased in an almost imperceptible layer of ice. The dark grays and greens of winter were muted just a little bit more and the cloud still touched the trees in the valley below my house. Freezing fog.

Mr. Ladabouche never taught us about freezing fog. Perhaps it's because we lived in Vermont, where the weather was much more straightforward than it is here in this temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it's because freezing fog was one of those things that was invented in the 90s while I wasn't paying any attention - like Karl Rove and the Internet.

I like to think it's because freezing fog is more the purview of fairies and poets than it is of scientists. My fairy-poet-scientists and I stood on the deck this morning and inhaled the powdered sugar frost that had sifted down through the night. We counted the treetops rising out of a valley of cotton candy fog. And then I shooed them to the bus so I wouldn't have to drive in this mess and came back inside to warm up. I'm not ten years old anymore and I'm quite happy with my non-Aryan life of not being the female Willard Scott, but I still came in and wrote about the weather in my unicorn notebook. I'm glad that Mr. Ladabouche never taught us about freezing fog. I'm glad I got to discover it by seeing it myself just a few years ago. I'm glad that my monkeys get as excited about it as I do. Perhaps this afternoon I will buy them a wind sock. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Karmic Nickels

A man stood too close to me in line at the grocery store today and hollered about his great karma. It would seem that he came up five cents short for his bottle of vodka and went away empty-handed only to find a nickel on the ground in the parking lot. He and the man on a motorized cart at the lottery ticket machine yelled congratulatory things to each other over the top of my broccoli and bargain shrimp.

They spoke to each other in boundless, booming voices and laughable lies. I listened, because that's what I do. I soak it in and make attempts at sense and without particular judgement. The vodka man's breath was toxic and it was ten thirty in the morning. There are certain logical conclusions to be drawn from that. He stood exclaiming and making my eyes water and blessing his sweet luck. It was lucky, indeed, to find the nickel he lacked. Who wouldn't be excited about a gift from the parking lot being offered up in exactly the denomination you sought? From my perspective, it is no luck at all to be able to purchase off-brand vodka mid-morning. I'd be barfing by lunchtime. But he didn't ask my perspective, only exulted in his own for me to hear and stood inside my admittedly large body bubble and touched my coffee cup. How was he to know such things were off limits?

My friends' baby died Friday evening while they were getting ready to sit down to dinner. This lives like a balloon in my head and inflates and touches everything I think these last few days. This knowledge makes the world taste different, look different, feel different. Everything seems to distill around this one simple fact and vanish or become grotesque and out-sized beside the corpse of a tiny two-month-old boy. The man with his lucky nickel and his morning hair of the dog and his capering resilience has no way of knowing this, either. It is unfair to expect it of him. As it is similarly unfair to expect the crows who sit and squawk on my back deck to know they are interrupting my thoughts.

Sometimes I think karma is a load of so much rotten meat. I'm not Buddhist, so I can't really cop to being a believer in karma. But the notion is held in the Christian principle of "you reap what you sow." These friends of mine have sown service, unconditional love, good humor, patience and mad silliness to the people whose lives they touch. It would be tempting to allow all this goodness to be swallowed whole by a small heart that no longer beats. To look and say how unfair the world is and cast about for someone to blame. I wanted to blame the man and his nickel this morning, layering yet more unfairness upon unfairness. I refrained then and refrain still. But I wonder. I wonder that this man walks and hollers and collects dropped change and purchases morning spirits and calls it karma - the recompense of his good deeds come back around to greet him - while my friends get to decide whether to embalm or cremate ten pounds of innocent human flesh. It would seem I blame him just a little bit, in spite of myself. He was just an easy target, so loud and tangible in my ear. I know better than this.

There are no clear and satisfactory answers to this. I am too small to see the entirety of the human picture. I am too narrow in my view and too dim in my understanding. I have to accept this to be able to move on. Not just from the tragedy of my friends', but to move on from everything, every day. To be able to walk day to day surrounded by the absurd and the moving, the beautiful and the horrific, the tragic and the joyful and somehow contain it all, make my peace with it all; I must walk with steps one in front of the other and discover where they lead me and leave the larger forces to shuffle the pieces of this puzzling existence around.

It's dizzying in its magnitude, this species, this race of which I'm a part. That we humans can contain the reaper of karmic nickels, a blameless little child, weeping, grieving parents, a man buying lottery tickets and telling fantastic lies about fishing yachts, and me - a tired and confused housewife who only wants to buy her toilet paper and get home, who finds herself in a moral and existential struggle while bagging up the meats, who tries not to judge and does it anyway and tries again to erase the judgement, who smiles and takes her receipt and her tainted coffee cup and wishes everyone a good day. We are all part of the same organism, cut from the same basic cloth. We are all of these things and none of these things and some days, the contemplation of it makes me tired. I get tired and my eyes start to blur. The ugly details start to fade and the images soften and run together. I catch a quick and finite glimpse of the whole and its beauty takes my breath away.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


That's my word.
This year it's all about space.

Space: planets, stars, moons, asteroids, the whole shebang. So huge and encompassing and mysterious. It keeps me in my proper perspective. I'm just such a small part of this whole project.

Space: between breaths, between tasks, between thoughts. Relish the rhythm of things.

Space: between people. Measuring distance and closeness and respecting the spaces between.

Space: room. Space to grow, space to learn, space to achieve, space to fail, space to try again. For myself and for others.

Space: between perception and reality. Respect it, accept it, don't fight it, try to understand it, bridge it only when necessary.

Space: physical space. The space I occupy as a human - the organism of me. What is my habitat? Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Does it work for me.

Space: emptiness. Embrace emptiness, loneliness, hollowness. Love it as part of the whole of experience. Don't try to fill the spaces that can't be filled, certainly not for other people. Also the emptiness of waiting and of inaction when no productive action is called for.

Space: head space. Less spacing out, letting things go on autopilot. More mindfulness, more deliberate thought and choices in words, in actions, in inaction, in silence.

Space: ineffable space. This one is hard to explain in words. It has to do with the space I occupy in the perception of others. It has to do with knowing what to believe, what to reject, what to aspire to and what to laugh off and ignore. It has to do with that limbo space where the reality of things lies, knowing that what I see, what you see, are entirely subjective and that the thing of it lives somewhere in the middle.

Space: for myself. Not selfish-get-away-from-me space but the kind of space where regeneration takes place before I get to the get-off-me-right-now point.

Space: these signals I send off into space. The writing needs to continue, it needs to be pushed into something, it needs to be made to sweat and strain and become more mature.

I have allowed myself the space of a year to focus on these spatial concepts, to put some things into motion, to guide my decisions and my thoughts. This is not a New Year's resolution in the traditional sense, I just choose this fresh calendar year in the cold of winter to germinate some seeds that I have gathered in my pockets and tend them and watch them grow and see what they become.

Let's watch this space together, shall we?