Monday, December 30, 2013

Sly Dawn

We rattled off into the dark too early this morning. The hours saved only for farmers, travelers and returning to senses from regrettable indiscretions.

And now we sway and toddle and click northward toward home. It's the Coast Starlight. A name full of some kind of Art Deco romance.

I whispered to my true love in the early dark hours down the line: I'll be on the first Coast Starlight. It's been too long. As if I've been away at war instead of visiting family for a few days. As if I'm all pin curls, champagne cocktails and throaty femme fatale instead of yoga pants and bedhead.

But when the train moans and shimmies over aching trestle bridges into sleepy urban back alleys, what else can I be?

The holidays came up fast and blurry this year. Sudden brake lights on a slippery street. I saw it all coming out of the corner of my eye. At some point between the falling of leaves and the big turkey dinner, I decided to get out and walk. Just skip the screeching, stressing adrenaline buzz and watch it calmly from off-center. Heavier pockets and lighter hearts in the end of it all.

Our train crawls steadily on toward home. Day breaks over warehouses, trackside bodegas, forgotten real estate. Buildings, landscape worn gray by the constant whistle rattle of transience. It's all beautiful in the way it survives.

The fog lies heavy, snags on bare trees and mutes the sunrise. It's a sly dawn. Imperceptible shifts in shades of gray. Layers of darkness peeled slowly back in transparent layers. Lightness comes by degrees but undeniable even so.

And I'm content.

I will ride this Coast Starlight to my true love. Humble, shambling, sounding its presence through back lanes; hesitant and mournful, but ending with a bold declaration.

I will ride this sly dawn into day.
Portland in the sly dawn

Friday, December 13, 2013

4 Reasons Why You Are A Chicken, But Not A McNugget

We seem especially fond of all these lists lately, don't we? I see them everywhere. I suppose because it is reducing the whole bird down to the McNuggets that we can digest quickly from our smart phones while we do other things. You know the lists: "7 Things You Say To Your Children That Will Destroy Their Will To Live", "25 Things That Happy People Do Better Than You", "18 Ways To Make Your Life Perfect", "147 Things Never To Say To Me Even If I Am Moody and Unpredictable and You Meant Well" and so on. Perhaps I paraphrased a few of those titles, but you know what I'm talking about.

Let's dish, mmm-kay? McNuggets are manufactured meat. They are the offal and beaks and other scraps flavored and packaged and brilliantly marketed as cheap, bite-sized food. We all know this. Some of us eat them anyway, some of us crusade against them, some of us wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole but feed them to our children occasionally. None of us confuses McNuggets with actual chicken.

We are the actual chickens, folks. I'm going to chase this metaphor around the barnyard a little bit. We are the living, breathing, flapping birds. I say "chicken" and you might imagine this:
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Or this:
Photo credit
I imagine this:
My late cat, Chicken, helping with the laundry.

Do you see my point, here? 

McNuggets are all right sometimes when you just need a little something to get you through the afternoon, but as a steady diet, they will give you diarrhea at best and diabetes at worst.

I get a little antsy when we boil down the human psyche and all of its complex wonder to a few bite-sized pieces and then we hand them around in the greasy cardboard container of the internet as if they were actual food for thought. These lists are entertaining; they have their place, I suppose. I can read the "7 Things That Perfect People Do" and either pat myself on the back for scoring 4 out of 7, or I can read it and post it on my Facebook page as a wink and a nod to all my friends who are far less than perfect, or I can read it and feel like crap because here is another list of things that I'm failing at. Maybe all three at once. But over time, a steady diet of these over-simplified, over-generalized, deep fried bits of beak and feather can make you pretty unhealthy.

We chickens are a varied and beautiful species. We are also ridiculous. Sometimes we stop laying eggs, sometimes we sit in our own poo. Sometimes we go over to the neighbors' yard and repeatedly uproot their freshly planted pansies as if we are on some sort of seek and destroy mission (not that I'm bitter about that at all.) Sometimes we wedge our heads in trees and need the help of a small child in a helmet to get us out.
jBird and Golden Eagle
Of course, we're not chickens. McNugget-ized or otherwise. We're people who seek to better ourselves; who want to do what's best for our communities and our families and all that. We are also people who, by the very fact of being human, say and do appalling things, make terrible mistakes, hurt people. A lot of the time, we don't do nearly as much or as well as we know we should. Most of the time, we're doing the best we can with the information and the resources we have.

The greatest minds in the world have devoted themselves for thousands of years to studying and understanding humans and there are still not very many clear or definitive answers to the largest questions we ask. Chances are, a blogger listing his or her personal experience isn't going to get it completely right, either. 

These McNuggets are seductive. I love checklists. They make me feel like I've accomplished something, they help keep me on track, they help organize my thoughts. They are not the whole story. And ultimately, I can't operate from anyone else's To-Do list. There may be some overlap, but no one's going to go and return my overdue library books or understand why there is simply the word "stuff" on my grocery list except me. Likewise, "The 63 Things You Say To Your Daughter That Will Undoubtedly Make Her Anti-Feminist and Bulimic". 

It's time to step back and take a look at the whole bird.

If you are struggling with illness or depression or an emotionally abusive relationship with someone, do not take these things lightly. A 20-piece McNuggets will not satisfy those particular hungers and could do more harm than good. Get real help, professional help, spiritual help, whatever you need. A handy checklist of happy thoughts is not the solution.

If you are basically all right and are just amusing yourself, so be it. I eat McNuggets, too, sometimes. But if you start to get a tummy ache and nothing tastes quite right, stop and think about why. There are more than enough reasons in the world to hate ourselves, and honestly, a lot of them are justified. It is the onus of human existence to try and deal appropriately with the abominable things that are within us. This is a difficult enough task without adding layers of manufactured meat product guilt because I call my kids "freak" as a term of endearment. 

There is no magic, one-size-fits-all checklist of how to escape this life without the ruffling of feathers. I wish there were, because I would give it to my kids and loved ones and I would never have to see them hurt or make mistakes or just really foul things up irreparably (pun not initially intended, but left there, nonetheless.) I would give it to myself so that I wouldn't have to do those things, either. According to the font of all knowledge, Chicken McNuggets come in four shapes: Bell shaped, Boot shaped, Bone shaped, and Ball shaped. It rightfully gives us the willies to think of mashed up chicken parts crammed into four, and only four, wholly unnatural shapes. Even if it gives you delicious willies, you at least realize there is no actual part of a chicken called "The Bell".
Photo credit

It should give us the willies to do that to ourselves as well. Step back and flap your ridiculous wings. 
Do I need to make a list of reasons why?

Monday, December 9, 2013

It's Kind of Crazy and It Hurts

My Hooligan woke up this morning and asked me to scratch his back. "Harder, Mama. Really scratch it. A little to the right. No, the other way. Up, up... perfect. How many days until Christmas?" A little early morning subtraction lesson and hey! It's sixteen days until Christmas.

"How many days until today?" I asked him. He narrowed his eyes and rolled them at the same time. Can you picture it? He pursed his lips and silently held up his hand in a closed fist: zero. "What's today?" he asked me. "Today is Monday. It's a day we get to enjoy." I drive my children crazy with this. He yawned and stretched and lazily rolled onto me so that his face was right in mine - morning breath and all. "I know, Mom. I need ten more minutes of cuddles before I get up." Ten turned into twenty and then we decided that school lunch sounded good today.

I spent yesterday evening on the phone with my sister. She had some questions about the mechanics of small-human care. Her baby boy is the most beautiful boy ever born and is only just a week old. We talked nipples and blankets for a while and then she paused. She took a deep, shaky breath and sniffled a bit. My tough little sister almost never cries. She sounded like the child with whom I shared a room and whose hair I used to brush and braid.

"I love him so much," her voice broke for real. "Sometimes I just look at him and it hurts, I love him so much. I feel like I'm going to break in half. It's not pretty. It's huge and it's scary."
"I know, baby. That's how it feels sometimes."
"But don't you think that's neurotic? I mean other mothers love their babies and they don't feel like that. They don't break and fall apart."
"Of course they do. They just don't talk about it to you. Because it's kind of crazy and it hurts."
"Will that go away? Is it hormones? I feel like I am breaking."
"No, it doesn't really go away. You just get used to it."
"Great. I don't know how I'm going to live."

I have no useful advice to give her in this department. How do you tell someone who is exhausted and overwhelmed and up to her eyeballs in brand new experiences that yes, you just break in half and then you keep going until you break in half again, and then you keep going some more.

My husband and I were talking about it later. I told him: "It's like when you first get married and you have these flashes of overwhelming fear. Where you think to yourself, 'This person just gave me the rest of their life and I could utterly destroy them.'" He laughed and said, "Yup. You could, but you don't."

Love is a fearful thing. Trust is a fearful thing. They are large and they hurt. They break you in half. They push you until you think you can't bear it anymore, and then you can. They wouldn't be worth a whole awful lot if they didn't do these things. It's kind of crazy and it hurts. Well-wishers and greeting card writers tell us "Enjoy every minute, it goes by so fast" and we feel like there's something a little bit wrong with us when we admit that it's huge and scary. I have not enjoyed every minute with my children. Sometimes the minutes that brought the most joy have almost crushed me. It's not always pretty.

My husband and I spent the rest of our evening in huddled conference about how we would face this next phase of parenting in our own lives; marveling at how far from diapers and feeding and sleeping positions we've come. We conceded we still know almost nothing about the raising of small humans. And yet we've all lived.

This morning while my Hooligan was giving me sass and demanding back scratches and being such a cliche by asking how many days until Christmas, I felt it again. Like I might just break in half. Like I might just grab his big old head and squeeze it until it popped. And then we got up and went in search of his sister and some breakfast.

Because somehow, we've found a way to live.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Say Hello to My Hair

This is a multi-media presentation. Listen to this song while you read, if you please.
This post is also dedicated to Marie, who among many other things, understands the power of a really good head of hair.

A few years ago, I broke up with L'Oreal.
Because I'm worth it.

In a fit of birthday madness, I decided that I would officially be all done with covering up my gray. I'd been at it for 15 years. I am quite vain. I was terrified of looking like a tired, old hippie, so I cut all of my hair off. I sometimes have to remind myself to not grow too attached to dead cells that sprout out of my head.

Here's my hair a year ago:

I spent several months looking exactly like Dan Zanes:
Dan Zanes
photo credit
He's the one who's singing the song you're listening to if you followed directions. He's telling you "open any door and say 'hello, hello,hello!'" There are worse people to look like.

I'm writing a blog post about my hair. 
It's not just about my hair. 
It's about saying hello and not no.

Like the song says, every day brings more.
It brings more gray hairs, I can say quite authoritatively. 
Many more:
This is my hair today.
Every day brings more.
It brings more pain, more annoyance, more things I gotta do, more things that make me contemplate the purchase of a large flame thrower.
It brings more absurdity, more gracious gifts, more laughter, more things that make me remember that flame throwers are awesome, but not as awesome as a hug or a nap or maybe a cup of coffee.

Open any door and say hello, hello, hello...
Here's why I'm thinking about my hair: it's out of control, really.
So is yours.
Oh sure, we have our pastes and creams and treatments and stuff to try to make it do and look the way we want it to. And you know, all that's all right. It helps us get through the day, it makes us feel a little better about life for a while. It's like a happy little scented patch we put on things as they are. (I purchased off-brand organic shampoo that promised an "invigorating citrus scent" but it kind of smells like bathroom cleaner. Sometimes these patches don't work out in the ways we expect them to.) But it still just keeps growing out of your head however it feels like it.

It's the same bright sun that shines on everyone, and though clouds may come, just say "hello, hello, hello".
It's all out of control, isn't it? I can't make the sun rise. I can't do anything at all about this Arctic front that has come through and frozen everything solid. I can't even really make my hair behave.
Sometimes life is a song that you want to dance to, sometimes it's a crotchety old lady who smacks you with her cane. Sometimes our complaints are about our hair or the latte we didn't get to drink. Sometimes they are far more encompassing than that. Sometimes very real and heavy rain clouds pelt us with heartbreak, loss, fear, brokenness. I do not dismiss these with the wave of a breezy hand. It's all out of control, though, so say hello, hello, hello.

Back to my hair. I have spent a lot of time and money trying to tell it no and then a few years ago, I told it hello. It's a sign of other things, you know. The slowly letting go of an artificial image of myself, of my life. What I think things should be, how I think things should look. It is a small and ridiculous thing, but I am nothing if not small and ridiculous.

I'm tired of NO. I'm tired of resisting things that are out of my control anyway. Somewhere along the line - was it our Puritan forebears? Let's blame them. They wore silly hats. They did not accept their hair - we gathered to ourselves the subtle and false knowledge that life should be all good, all pleasant, all positive, and if it's not, we must be doing something wrong. We have the empirical evidence every day that this is not so, but we still kind of believe it anyway. So we fight and we resist and we expend all this energy fighting the wind.
All it does is mess up your hair.

OK, I like silly hats, so I can't be too hard on the Puritans. But still... sometimes you just have to choke a turkey, you know?

Just say "hello, hello, hello"...

Say hello to real life. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it soars. Sometimes it's boring, sometimes it's so stimulating we want to fall over and cry. It is uncertain, it is out of control. It is unwieldy and it sometimes smells like bathroom cleaner when we'd rather it didn't. Pick a door, throw it open, shout HELLO. Welcome it all and give it some hot cocoa or a biscuit, ask it what it came to teach you and then send it on its way because another guest will inevitably come a-knocking. And probably the nasty ones will come around again because they felt they didn't teach you enough the first time or because you were bored or because they really liked the biscuits and wanted your recipe. Tell them hello again.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Say hello.

And one more hello.
Hello Kitty. Because it's absurd and because the day this was taken, I was having the worst day ever and it delighted me to my toes to photo bomb a children's birthday party. And because my hair was atrocious that day.
And because... well... hello!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Above Reproach

So, it's nearly four in the afternoon and I just discovered that I've been wearing my leggings backwards all day. So, there's that.

Thanksgiving is all over but the leftovers and now it's on to the next.

A ninety-year-old woman walked up behind me today and muttered, "Bitch!" and when I looked startled, she patted my arm. "Not you, honey. You're above reproach." Now I'm wondering who she was talking about.

Over the Thanksgiving break, I read an entire trilogy of vampire-steampunk-alternate-history kind of books. They were dreadful and wonderful all at once, as only that genre can be. Now I'm torn between doing penance by reading something a little more literary or writing fan-fic about the tall and mysterious Prince Gareth in his swirling cloak and welder's goggles. Am I the only one who reads vampire steampunk trash? Can't be. I like to refer to it as Alabaster Trash. I may even start a whole tab on this blog to review all of the Alabaster Trash I've read in the last several months.

I have concluded my No-Shave-November-National-Write-A-Turkey-Novel-and-Polish-Sausages-Month. I only did two of those things. Three. I didn't write a novel. I'll leave that in more capable hands. I did polish sausages, though. (Dirty!) Seriously, though, I set a goal for the November madness to polish and submit at least five pieces for publication. Done and done and then some. It was very gratifying and all that. But, like Thanksgiving, that's all over now and it's on to the next. Well, it's not done. It's never done, but you know, the goal is met.

I also set my oven on fire last week. It's all good, though. Only some extremely soupy chocolate chip cookies were harmed.

Well, my chickadees, I'm going to have to summon forth some dinner that does not involve leftovers. I am in no mood for a dinner table revolt this evening. The world spins on. My Hooligan prayed last night: "Thank you for all the stuff I have that I can give away." I think I like that. In a month of cliche, it is refreshing to hear a 7-year-old's unsocialized take on things.

The sleet just started. I never watch the news or check the forecast, so the weather is always a surprise. There were whispers of wintry weather among the senior citizens at lunch today and I smiled and nodded politely. They were right, though. You should always listen to the senior citizens. Except when you think they are calling you a bitch, then you should remember that you are above reproach.