Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beautiful Dragons

The perception of what is small is the secret of clear sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength. --Lao Tzu

When I was very young, my mom read to me every night, and when I started first grade, she taught me to read. In essence, she gave me the gifts of life and literacy, yet while I have certainly enjoyed the former to its fullest (thanks, Mom!), I never became the "reader" I should have become. Don't get me wrong. During TV commercials and at the kitchen table I would read the newspaper, the dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, the TV manual, my dad's collection of off-color jokes, etc. I simply had no interest in age-appropriate fiction or poetry...even as a lit major in college, which is kind of embarrassing: I probably owe a huge apology to all my English professors for having read, at most, 20% of the literature assigned (and I'm being "generous" in my estimate because I'm a terrible person). This kind of begs the question of why I graduated with a degree in English in the first place, and the answer is because I thought that was how one becomes a writer.

I'm a little slow sometimes.

The truth is, though you might never catch me with my nose in a book (fiction or poetry, anyway), I love a good story. It's just that when my mom decided it was time for me to take over the bed-time ritual, I discovered that I preferred making up the stories in my head. It is a habit I have practiced nightly to this day. 

Usually, it begins with a dream I find particularly compelling. As I lie in bed recalling the dream the next night, I work out its cast of characters, how the story should begin, and how it should progress. I am always the hero, and no story ever ends...it fades away when a new dream sparks a new story. That way, I can pick up an old story if I think of something new to add to it.

These days I'm Lin, dragon slayer. Except that's just my cover. See, back in the day, humanity saw the majesty, power, and intelligence of dragons and honored them with gifts, thinking this would bring them good luck. The dragons thought the gift giving was utterly illogical, wasteful even, because they had no use for gold, diamonds, crowns, or necklaces too small for them to wear. But they accepted these presents because it would have been rude not to. 

Unfortunately, good luck doesn't actually exist, so when Jack lost his ass on a bad investment in a seed company and Peter's crop of peppers failed (the only thing he planted that year because "they were going to be huge!") and Hansel and Gretel were arrested for burglary and capital murder, they were a little nonplussed. Naturally, none of their problems were actually their fault. Oh, no, it must be the dragons, and just why were they expected to give dragons treasure in exchange for luck, anyway? Something had to be done. 

So they began a smear campaign, and the persecution of dragons commenced. 

That's where I come in. Admittedly, I haven't done much work on the back story (gotta leave gaps to fill in for tomorrow night) so I don't know how I got entangled in this mess, but I know right from wrong and I deplore injustice. So I went in search of the legendary Xpthxzyphnmcz to hatch a plan. Dragon language is unpronounceable to humans, we lack the proper vocal muscles, so you can call him Hughes. 

Hughes is an electric dragon...his defense is lightning which strikes with surprising accuracy, and his serpentine skin pops and crackles with static. His strangely orange, soulful eyes are home to solar systems, and you can see them when he's curled up resting and at human-eye level to marvel that other sentient beings might be alive on the planets that dot his irides (sorry, can't go back on my Latin roots).

But plans are never easy in fairy tales. First the hero has to descend into the underworld because stigmatized dragons aren't very trusting. They want proof you're legit. I had to do things...things you don't want to know about...things you shouldn't ask me about (yeah, I haven't made up that part yet, either). 

I've got mad skillz. So once I had the dragons' trust, I turned them all into house pets and hid them from vengeful humans forever...right under their noses. How brilliant is that?

Hughes happens to be an orange and white cat. If you want to see the dragon come out, step on his tail. Actually, don't do that. And don't pet his long fur while you're sitting next to the furnace in the winter because you'll see what I mean by electricity. 

In exchange for protection, the dragons pay me a tithe every year, and I spend three months collecting it from their various lairs all over the world, which leads to all sorts of adventures. In one, I had to save all of y'all from a horrific creature far worse than a basilisk that was going to turn you into stone. You're welcome. 

Lin is basically me: keenly fashionable but with messy hair, kind to animals, loyal to friends, and quick with a defense when wronged. But for a long time, Lin had something I thought I desperately needed.

Fearlessness.

She could hop on a dragon, fly all over the world, collect adventures like they were jewelry, slay demons, rescue kittens...all while I lay in bed in the safety of my little room thinking it all up. 

I couldn't do the things Lin did for one simple reason.

Fear.

For 28 years, I couldn't get on a dragon or a plane, take the elevator above the 10th floor, step foot in a glass elevator, look out the window of any room above the 5th story.

I had lived that way since I was 19 and took my last flight from Cincinnati to Indy, vowing, during a short and uneventful trip, that I would never do it again. I don't know why.

Okay, that's not true. I DIDN'T know why. Today is my birthday, and the beauty of growing older is that we get smarter (well, most people do). I understand something I didn't understand mere months ago.

Fear is a choice.

Case in point. Several years ago, the Hubs and I were in a head-on collision. I remember every detail vividly. I saw the look on the other driver's face as he slammed on the brakes, causing his car to fishtail before it crashed into us. Bracing my elbows against the back of the seat. Thinking, "This is going to hurt." The feeling of the air bag punching me in the chest. My vision obscured briefly by the bag's fabric. The acrid smell of the smoke emitted from the dashboard. Rolling backward into a ditch. Quickly unlatching the seat belt. The man banging on the cracked windshield, telling us to get out because he didn't know where the smoke was coming from.

In all of that, I did not at any time experience fear.

I didn't experience ANY emotion because I didn't have time to.

See, I've come to think that emotions are like orchids that need a lot of tending: if you ignore them, they die.

On the one hand, that's a bad thing because if you forget to take care of your love, it can fade away. On the other hand, if you want to kill your fear, all you have to do is stop watering it.

And I should know.

I am no longer afraid of flying. It helped that I wanted to go to South Korea so bad that I was willing to do anything and that my university employs several personal counselors whose services are free. But, ultimately, what it really came down to was deciding that I wasn't afraid anymore.

So, thirteen flights later, I'm planning my next trip to the country I fell in love with, and I'm thinking about the beautiful dragon turning away from the terminal, firing up her jets, racing down the runway. And that miraculous moment when she leaves the earth...she has left fear behind, she has left what is known behind, she has left all that could weigh her down. She is in the sun rocketing ever closer to the future, to what can be.

Her name is Jennifer.

She is a dragon.

And a writer.










Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Own Private Arizona

My Version of a Post-It
My nearly next-door neighbor is a private college with a mission to promote its newly minted four-year degree status. With that in mind, they've taken an "if you build it, they will come" approach. And building it they are. Two academic buildings in two years and now a dorm. As required by the historic-district rules that govern my neighborhood, they issued a meeting notice to discuss construction of the all-men's dormitory which The Hubs and I figured would be built across the street because they own those properties. I mentioned to a friend that Hubs and I were concerned about declining property values (because "men" and "dormitory" and let's face it; they actually mean "boys") and were considering approaching the college about buying our property at current market value and moving elsewhere in Old Town. Her response was "You won't get anything out of that house." And her demeanor suggested that she was more than happy to share her opinion with me. So I mentioned my dilemma to a mutual friend and got pretty much a similar opinion. I understate. It was actually word-for-word what the other friend had said.

Whatevs.

I watched my dad make life choices out of a sense of obligation and then out of a need to remand the commitments he made to his sense of obligation. I have, as Exhibit A, a prime example. Dad became a dry cleaner because my grandfather told him to. No, scratch that. He didn't just tell him to. He pulled my dad, first, out of the Navy, and, then, out of college because he needed him back at work. Later, Grandpa "sold" the cleaners to my dad; Dad agreed to pay a certain sum to his parents every month until they both died.

Books and Other Paper Storage

Dad began dreaming of selling the business and moving to Arizona when I was 16. But my grandma had moved to be near us because of her poor health. After my parents finally sold the cleaners and later divorced, Dad ended up in Florida because his oldest brother needed him to start a new restaurant. (I think I see a pattern here.) Within a few months, the brother didn't need him anymore (let's just say he found something better than a business partner). So Dad pawned his Masonic ring (gold with a 1/2 carat diamond and two sapphires...he never took it off) to get back home...which was never Arizona. About six years ago, my uncle gave my dad $10,000...enough to cover (but not recover) the ring and not at all what my dad was owed, in my opinion. In 2010, I inherited that money and used it to pay for my father's funeral. As I wrote the check, I wished he had used it to spend some extended time wandering around the Grand Canyon.

I consider myself lucky that my "intelligence," which I've never considered innate, consists mostly of two skills: 1) a gift for rote memorization of facts and 2) the ability to extract the moral of others' stories, so I do not commit the same mistakes. (By my own humble reckoning, most people have to live the mistake before they actually learn to avoid it. Which is a good reason to pull one's head out of one's ass.) From my observations, I learned that our only obligations in life are as follows: 1) do our best to stay alive for the people we care about (you know, obtain food, shelter, clothing, and water when the going gets tough and avoid problematic behavior such as sticking our fingers in light sockets or sitting on the couch eating potato chips all day every day), 2) be kind, 3) make yourself happy every day (and it's an act of will...not a state of being).

Office and Art Supplies
That's it.

I think if my dad had lived up to this set of obligations, he would have finished out his service to his country, gone to college on the GI Bill, and spent the remainder of his life practicing law. And his dad would have been pretty proud of him.

When the people we care about are happy, we're happy, too.

So when I turned 18, I filled my '76 Buick Electra with all my stuff and took off across the country to the place I wanted to be (not Arizona). I went to a university my parents thought was a bit sketchy, eloped with a guy they barely knew, refused to have children, and generally did whatever made me happy. And my parents were (are) pretty proud of me.

From the picture above and the one here, you can see that our walls are composed of wood boards of varying widths milled from old-growth pines before 1900, when the house was built. They had originally been wallpapered, as was traditional at that time. Of course, the tongue and groove gaps meant that holes in the paper developed over time, so someone got the bright idea of throwing up particle board paneling (and I doubt the person saw the irony of the skeuomorph). We stripped it all several years ago. When we got down to the original layer, we were sort of "Hmm. What do we do with this?" Then we discovered that we liked the wood, especially the holes where knots have fallen out. I decided I'm going to put a coat of polyurethane over the new moldings because I like the chalk markings the lumberyard used to mark them, which remind me somewhat of a cross between graffiti and Dadaist collage.

The leather-topped desk you see has a story: My mom and I answered a classified ad and took a trip to Indianapolis Southside (a neighborhood you never want to visit, trust me). The house was stuffed to the gills with old crap and children. A man sat in a recliner in a darkened corner contemplating us with a bottle in his hand. After we had packed it up and took off, my mother grumbled, "He could feed his kids for a month with that $100, but I guarantee it's going straight to the liquor store." The giant "thing" that holds my office and art supplies is a homemade job (the dividers are cut from a tin sign). I bought it because I liked it, not finding a purpose for it until a couple years later. I'm pretty sure it's standing on its side.

We bought the place from my Great Aunt Jewell (her spelling) in 1995 when she was 84. I spent summers with my mom and my second cousin here. I remember the corner grocery store that's now demolished, the concrete posts that served as street signs, the Dog and Suds at the corner of Oak and Harkrider...across the street from Hiegel Hardware with its windmill, still intact but closer to us now.

When we were in the process of buying the house, I single-handedly painted the underside of the carport as per the bank's requirements for loan approval. It took five days, and I was covered in paint and mosquito-bite welts the size of Gibraltar. The day I finished, my aunt boiled a chicken...with the skin still on it. I was a picky eater back then, and the chicken looked revolting as it stewed in the pot. But I was so tired and so hungry and my aunt had done this thing for me. So I sat down in the dining room (which is now the study in the pictures) to a meal of boiled chicken and plain rice, took the first bite, and wept (my aunt had a peculiar habit: she would only eat standing up in the kitchen, so she never knew). Every bite was pure joy, the celebration of a little fat, a little water, a little chicken, a little rice, and my aunt's love coming together to soothe the mosquito welts and sore muscles.

Things I Love
When I made the 600-mile trek to settle here, people asked me where I was from (which is, for reasons I will never understand, more important to people than where one's heart is, but I'm sure it all goes back to that obligation thing...be true to your school). When I answered, they gasped in wonder, "What on Earth are you doing here?" Making myself happy every day.

By the way, that's the chair from my dad's study. My mom's dad bought the typewriter, used, when he went to business college. The phone's number is 317 UPtown 3 3144, which translates to 1-317-873-3144. The drawing is an original by Ken Gardner, a friend, titled Adam and Eve. Below the Magritte print is a picture of one of my great-grandfathers in a Bowler hat.

The Hubs and I decided against selling: it turns out my collegiate neighbor owns the whole block and is constructing the dorm on another street, the university where I work has plans to develop a retail, restaurant, housing corridor five blocks west, and the city will be establishing a high-end shopping center five blocks east.

"You won't get anything out of that house."

I've already gotten quite a bit out of this house. It is a provider of shelter, memories, and psychic warmth. It is one means of my personal expression. It is MY Arizona.

Yes, I think of cobwebs and dust as decorative accesories.

I don't vacuum much.

The shower needs to be ripped out and the kitchen completely remodeled.

But I only have three obligations: dusting, vacuuming, and renovations don't currently fall within their purview.

My bad.

I only have one question (and I direct it especially at those who offer negative unsolicited judgments).

How's the weather in Arizona?








Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Word of the Day

Today is my birthday.

I turn 46 officially at 11:04 p.m., which is uncharacteristic because that's way past my bedtime.

Last year I made a Facebook goof and threw a lavish party.

This year I'm spending a little less. My present to myself is this.

Right here.

A chance to sit down in a cafe on President Clinton Avenue and write for myself.

My mom will probably call any minute now to tell me the story of her martyr...I mean...of my birth. She will tell me how, when told it was time to go to the hospital, my dad jumped in the shower...because...you know...that was important. She will recount how, unlike most men of his generation, he waited in the hospital during the three hours of my delivery. That he hoped for a daughter and cried when the nurse brought out a baby girl. She'll remind me that she weighed 93 pounds that day in '67 and that she was supposed to have a C-section if I weighed over four. And she'll wonder what the hell I was thinking by clocking in at 8 lbs., 10 ozs. and 19 inches tall. Because it was clearly my fault. She'll talk about the number of stitches (over 100...and not across her abdomen, either...sorry if that's TMI). The three weeks of not bonding. The doctor who told her to stop waking me up for feeding because it's fairly senseless to feed a baby who clearly isn't hungry.

I'll say, "Mom, I think I was born on a full stomach."

And she'll laugh and say, "Yeah, I guess you were. And I don't regret any of it. You are so special to me."

And I'll cry a little bit as she tells me she loves me and hangs up the phone.

So many miles.

Several years ago I had a curious experience. I had a student who made it his mission in life to make mine miserable. It was a shortlived relief when he disappeared for 18 straight days.

Then out of nowhere, he showed up in my office wanting to know what assignments he needed to make up in order to pass the class. I wanted to ask him if he had completely lost his mind, but, instead, I explained that I had dropped him from the course to save him from getting an F and told him to meet with his advisor, which I had to look up for him because he had no idea who that was.

On the first day of classes the next semester, a different student walked into class 20 minutes late. He was the spitting image of that other student. They were twins! And he was clearly on the same mission as his "brother."

I was hopping mad, so, after the next class period, I made him sign a contract stating he understood being so much as five minutes late counted as 1/3 of an absence and that he would fail the course if he kept up this "pattern" of behavior. He explained to me later that he had gotten lost and apologized that he did not tour the campus to establish where his classes were (which was not something I had suggested he should have done). Over the course of that fall, I watched this young man write six pages when I asked for two, find self expression through the written word, pun (!), and blossom as a campus leader.

On the day of the final exam (my birthday, by the way...it never failed that I had to give an exam on my birthday) I could no longer see a resemblance between him and that other student. Nothing. No similarities at all. And I looked pretty hard for them as he wrote his final essay.

A year later, I spent the day I turned 30 in bed crying with my cat, Bart, and a box of tissues. Bart was actually a beautiful, loving, kind human being who happened to exist in a cat's body. He knew when I was down even when I wasn't in tears, and he comforted me all day long.

I miss him.

During my 30's I watched myself in the mirror as the first wrinkle limned my face. The first grey hair sprouted. And how dare the hair on my head become thinner and sparser and turn grey as I started sprouting hair on my chin? Why wouldn't it all just stay where it as supposed to? I was shocked and horrified and angry.

Really angry.

Really, really angry.

My face wasn't perfect. My body wasn't perfect. My life wasn't perfect. I didn't know who I wanted to be, how I wanted to be, what I wanted, or how to get it. I had a work self, a student self, and a personal self, and I didn't like any of them. I just wasn't me. And those damn lines kept creeping across my face to remind me that time was wasting.

Then I turned 40 in 2007. I celebrated it somehow because the Hubs gave me a pair of Tiffany blue turquoise earrings from the famed store. But it was, otherwise, unremarkable.

And now it's 2013. In six short years I've seen a lot of change...some good, some bad. I became the assistant director of my university's writing center, a job I loved. My dad, my cheerleader, my best friend, died in 2010. My mom underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor in 2011. Factions in the department I taught in declared civil war, or so it seemed to me, in 2012, so I Ieft the job I loved for a new job I also love. Then, someone I trusted and believed in...actually cared about...betrayed me (and many others) this year.

More wrinkles. More grey hairs. Rosacea. Near-sightedness.

But I'm not spending the day in bed.

I looked in the mirror a few days ago, and I liked what I saw.

I'm getting jowls, and I can kind of see where's that's going in a few more years. I've got a turkey neck.

But I think I'm kind of lovely.

I learned from the experience with the two students that what you see in people's faces is a reflection of your feelings about them. And, therefore, a person is made attractive or unattractive by their words and actions.

People's faces can become terrifyingly ugly in a single moment.

It is the same for your reflection in the mirror.

When I turned 30, I thought I was over the hill, getting old, past it, no longer cool. I know many of those feelings were handed to me by a Photoshop-happy U.S. media, which I have mostly abandoned. But I think, too, that I was not the moral and intellectual self I was striving for.

All of the loss and change I experienced in my 40's has revised my perspective. It has made me a better person. It has made me a happier person.

My face is full of flaws, but I like it...especially my smile because it comes so easily. In the mirror I see the reflection of someone I like, and so she is lovely to me.

You can love and be loved all of your life.

You can be lovely at any age. 

Just lovely.

Monday, March 18, 2013

DIY Karma

"Meanness is generally rewarded. With itself." --Sans

Yes I just quoted myself. I posted that on Facebook yesterday, the result of a long chat session on FB with a friend. I can't say anything about that here, but I can tell one of my favorite stories.

Several years ago, my mom got a call from a man she had gone to school with and who had lived down the street from her. I still remember the block of small-town row houses he came from: squat, run-down, four-roomed houses that might have been called shacks...if one weren't feeling very generous. That was the 70's, not the 50's when my mom was growing up. Maybe they had been cute, cozy little cottages back in the day, but they cast the shadow of a slum by the time I was old enough to remember. Her house was palatial by comparison: two stories with a full basement, a two-car garage, a barn, a chicken house and a huge yard all built on a hill overlooking everyone else. And, because she was also shy, her schoolmates thought she was stuck up.

I'll get back to the guy later, but now, time for a flashback.

My mom walked the railroad behind her house (which, by the way, was a private track built off the Monon so a very rich townsman could drive his own locomotive to the local train station, such was the eccentricity of small-town Indiana life) to get to the Friend's Meeting every Sunday (my grandparents weren't much on religion; she always went alone). To get there from the railroad, which passed by the Meeting House as it wended its way deep into the park-like grove of trees that surrounded the rich man's estate, she had to walk behind the row houses.

One Sunday, she walked past the neighborhood boys as they were playing baseball in their collective back yards (there were no fences to separate them). She went to the Meeting and then returned the same way. This time, however, the boys were waiting on the track. She kept walking, I imagine with her head down, and started to go around them. The oldest one held out a stick, threatening her with it, and calling her names. And then, just as she brushed by one of them, the rest grabbed her from behind, and the boy with the stick lifted her skirt. They all cackled as they made fun of my mother's underwear. She wrested away and ran home crying. I imagine her face was hot with tears when she burst through the screen door at the back of the house.

After Mom told her what happened, Grandma sent her to bed for a nap.

So flash forward to the guy on the telephone. He had run into the woman who used to babysit all of them and found out whom my mother had married (her high school sweetheart) and where she was living. And he called to tell her the rest of the story.

See, my grandmother was so typically a grandmother, even at that age (she gave birth to my mother, her first child, in her early thirties and, being, herself, the first born daughter of 12 siblings, had already raised quite a few children) that you might have mistaken her for sweetness and light. She loved to bake cookies and pies. She sewed her own fashions. And she was typically Ozark soft-spoken with the whispy Southern drawl of hill people from Arkansas. My grandmother.

MY GRANDMOTHER. She married at 15, suffered her husband's mistress, and rejoiced when he was murdered by the mistress's bootlegger husband. She picked whatever crop she could during the Dust Bowl and loaded explosives into bombs in WWII. I never knew her to be afraid of anything, and I'll tell you, I respected and obeyed that woman for as long as she lived. But then she told me things she had never then or ever after told anyone else, and I understood I was not to tell either. We were kindred spirits; I felt, and still do, the power no one else really saw in her coursing through me so pervasively that it continues to shock me.

This grandma, who was the Annie Oakley of grandmothers in my book, went to the neighbor boy's house and spoke with his mom. He was still in the backyard, the baseball game having resumed. His mother, apparently infuriated with her son, told my grandmother to take whatever steps necessary. So she went out to the backyard, jerked him up by the collar, and brought his face within inches of hers: "If you ever touch my daughter again, I will beat you so hard you'll wish you were dead. And that goes for all the rest of you, too." And then she let go, made a sweeping gesture, and then a fist. Having made her point, she walked stolidly out of the back yard. The boy's father came out with the belt...and, well, you know the rest of that.

So the boy, now well into middle age, called my mother to apologize for teasing her and lifting her skirt.

And to let her know that the boys involved had told the story all over town, and everyone knew to be nice to my mom because there was one bad ass bitch standing behind her.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Metaphor of the Pot Lid

I'm in the middle of a week's vacation I took to clean my house. Yep, a vacation to clean house not a vacation from cleaning house. I've gotten a considerable amount completed and the list of of the lost-then-found items continues to grow (the most important being a watch my dad gave to me before he died). But there's a moment in every room where I start to panic because I've just made the situation a whole lot worse...by pulling every single item out of every single drawer, cupboard, and closet...kind of like this:

It has to get worse before it can get better, right?
So what prompted this sudden outburst of uncharacteristic domesticity?

  1. I volunteered my house for a photo shoot (a boudoir photo shoot, no less, because the interior of my home is so damned romantic that my 12-inch skillet ran off with my pair of pinking shears. I found the skillet in the oven and the shears under the bed; I'm afraid to ask them what happened or if I should be expecting the pitter-patter of...the feet of something I'm pretty sure I never want to see). 
  2. The Metaphor of the Pot Lid happened (which is way cooler than the Allegory of the Cave because I made it up). 

"So what is this metaphor?" I know you're asking yourself that.

Well, I watch a lot of Korean TV. (That might be an understatement: At this point, my Korean is passable enough to get me around Seoul, and I've never been to Korea nor taken a single Korean course in my life. And I'm not even remotely joking. I can hail a cab, order soju, ask for the restroom, and give directions to Gangnam...because that's what's really important, right? )

One of my favorite series is Boys Over Flowers (Kim Hyung Joon is so pretty I want to kiss him all over the face, which I'm sure he'd find appalling, given the 20-year age difference). In one scene, the main character, Jan Di, has moved to a rooftop apartment with her younger brother in order to stay in the private school she has won a scholarship to attend while her parents take off for the coast to make money in the fishing trade to support their two children. The first night, she and her brother sit down to a pot of ramen, and Jan Di does something so remarkable it changed my entire life.

She ate her portion of ramen from the pot lid.

Yeah, you heard me.

I nearly wept.

Rooftop apartments (which have nothing in common with penthouses, in case that's the image you have in your mind) kind of sprang up as an afterthought among apartment owners looking for extra cash. Many of them are single-roomed, ramshackle, four-story walk-ups that look cold and dreary, but they do have a certain appeal: no neighbors except for those downstairs; a terrace with a view (it may or may not be an awesome view; it's still a view); an outdoor furniture item that looks like a dais but functions as a table, summer bed, and bench (I suppose you could soliloquize from it if you wanted to...it seems to be relatively versatile); clotheslines; and plenty of sunshine. The drawback is that the apartments are tiny.

Also, if Korean TV is to be believed, they come with nosy, unforgiving landladies, but that's beside the point.

If you live in a Korean rooftop apartment, you are on intimate terms with your floor because space is at a premium and you use the floor for everything you do: reading, watching TV, writing, eating, and sleeping. In fact, the dining table, which is basically an over-sized lap table that can accommodate four people, is put up after each meal, and the "bed" is "folded up" every morning. (It's actually called a "yo," and is basically a very thick blanket.) This is the reason why street shoes come off at the front door: no one sleeping on a yo wants to find her nose in contact with a floor covered in dog-poop dust. And that's probably the least offensive thing your shoes track in.

On the rooftop, ramen is common (tee hee) because it can be cooked quickly without a lot of fuss. And eating it out of the pot lid, an awesome innovation, makes it even less fussy because...one less dish to clean!

And that's the reason tears welled up in my eyes.

Iced-tea maker, ramen pot, rice cooker, steamer. Comes with handy-dandy bowl/plate/lid and insulated handle to keep fingers and  counter tops from getting burned. Guaranteed to last the rest of your life. Never goes out of fashion.
So, I took on the task of perfecting my ramen-serving technique, and I learned that the Metaphor of the Pot Lid could be applied to other areas of my life.

First the technique:

  1. Add water to the pot (it really doesn't matter how much, though I don't like to dilute the flavor and sometimes reserve the broth for other things...okay, I always reserve the broth for other things...rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, millet...you can get a lot of mileage out of that stuff, plus you eliminate a lot of the sodium content by not actually drinking the sodium content).
  2. Empty the packet contents into the water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat. 
  3. Place whole noodle knot into the broth (unless you truly enjoy chasing short noodles around with your chopsticks, don't break the noodle knot). 
  4. Empty crunchy noodle leftovers into mouth, enjoy; throw package into trash. Or make bracelets out of it or something equally useful/sustainable...I'm advocating a "waste not, want not" approach to life in this post, after all. 
  5. Turn the noodle knot over (after crunching down the short noodle bits but before making bracelets). 
  6. Cover. 
  7. Wait five minutes. 
  8. Serve noodles in pot lid. 
  9. To clean, empty broth, add water to the pot, turn on heat, cover, boil, then rinse. No dish pan hands!
And now for the lessons learned. 

Let's think about the word "stuff." It has a number of connotations; one is "to stuff oneself," meaning "to eat to the point of being uncomfortable." It's also a vague sort of catch-all term for all the things we possess, and I don't think these meanings are coincidental. We are consumed by our consumption, and it's ubiquitous. On my counter, I could have (as the photo caption states) the following "stuff": an iced-tea maker, rice cooker, and steamer, and in my cupboard I could have a ramen pot. Four appliances/cooking vessels. Or I could simply have the ramen pot, which I'm going to have anyway and in which I can conduct many cooking acts. I could also have a food processor, mixer, and blender. Or I could simply have a bowl, spoon, sharp knife and mandoline, which I'm going to have anyway and which I could use for many cooking acts. So what's up with the space- and electricity-hogging appliances? 

I'll tell you, but, first, a question: Have you ever seen a commercial for a simple pot? No, because it's simple, and it's something you're going to have anyway, like I said. No one needs to sell you the need for a pot. But you do see plenty of commercials for panini presses (really? a little butter in a skillet and hardcore pressure on the spatula will net you the same thing...without artificial grill marks, but does that actually change the taste?), iced-tea makers, popcorn poppers, espresso machines. Interestingly, you are never sold the thing-in-itself. Instead, you are sold promises: having this will make your life easier, you will look cooler, it will save you time, it will save you money, it will take a shower for you so you don't have to. And just like that very last promise, the things you are sold cannot do what they claim. In fact, quite the opposite. 

I'm a little teapot...actually, I'm a cappuccino maker, coffee maker, and espresso machine. I'm also a mind reader: Sans is thinking, "Hmm, matcha green tea espresso!" This will be a fail, but she'll try it anyway. I run on propane, butane, natural gas, white gas, alcohol, wood, and a tiny amount of elbow grease. I do not come with an electric cord. I consider this a plus.
I have owned the pot in the first photo for over 20 years. It doesn't have a single dent, the lid fits as tightly as ever, it has never stained, and both handles are firmly in place. I can reasonably expect that pot to last another 20+ years, and it can fit in a cupboard...out of my way. Maybe a very expensive food processor will last as long as the pot, but I'll have to take it apart every time I use it and wash the pieces, wiping down the processor because it can't go in the dishwater (notice, dishWATER not dishWASHER) or be boiled clean (unless, of course, I want a piece of unusable melted plastic on my hands). 

The food processor actually makes my life more difficult. It takes up more time and money than it's manual relations because it and its many parts require more washing time. No one sees it, so it doesn't make me look cooler. It takes up space and psychic energy by being in my line of sight every time I walk into the kitchen. And at the end of the day, it really only does one thing well. (And I'm not going to tell you what that is because it's one of my three secrets to making dumplings so pillow soft you could take a nap on them. So I won't be getting rid of it, but its friends Mixer and Blender have got to go because they've been a bad influence). 

So what it boils down to (in keeping with our metaphor) is this. The pot lid now does double duty: It saves energy and time by concentrating heat in a small space, and it saves energy and time by acting as a plate/bowl. I think I should expect the same thing from all the other "stuff" in my house. If it doesn't chop, slice, dice, and so much more, I don't want it. If it has to be maintained, repaired, and handled with kid gloves, I don't want it. Unfortunately, I've spent the last three years, The Time of Troubles, engaging in retail therapy. So I find myself with a lot of one-trick ponies that have fled to the far fields in need of rooting out and then retiring (from me and onto someone else with the best sales pitch of all time: "ABSOLUTELY FREE!"). And not just in the kitchen but everywhere else. The vanity in the bedroom will learn tricks from the ramen pot, or I'm kicking it to the curb because I do not even use it to put on makeup. 

And before you go all Norman-Rockwell nostalgic on me, remember that in the scene I described earlier, a sister and brother shared a humble meal, and she generously gave him the bowl to eat out of. While that is fiction, it's so much more true and meaningful than a huge family gathering with all the china, silverware, and serving dishes that are used, at most, three times a year and need to be washed before and after the big event. You know, those events where you'd like to crawl across the table and choke your mother-in-law? The ones where you excuse yourself to mix a vodka martini in the bathroom, pouring it into a Nalgene container and declaring that your New Year's resolution is drinking more water? Where you watch everyone sleeping to the rhythms of American football and wish you were in a hot lava field? Yeah, Norman-freaking-Rockwell moments. 

Also, no matter how Zen someone tries to convince me the washing o' the dishes is...I'm sorry, it just isn't. My meditation on washing the dishes goes like this: "I hate washing dishes. Who dirtied this cup? Oh, The Hubs. Two sandwich plates? Where did those come from? Oh, The Hubs. Did I use all these forks? Oh, no. The Hubs. You know what I'd like to be doing instead of washing the dishes right now? Killing The Hubs." And The Hubs will laugh at this because I know he's thinking the same thing about me every time he washes the dishes. So let's do ourselves a favor. Let's find clever ways to avoid dishwashing. Let's save lives and eat out of the pot lid! 

Post Script: The Watch. I know you're thinking it does only does one thing. Actually, it doesn't even do that. I took out the battery and set it to the time of my father's death, preferring my phone for telling the time. Yet the watch serves two very important purposes: 1) It exists to be beautiful, and 2) It exists to remind me, like the Metaphor of the Pot Lid, that time is fleeting. I really don't want to spend it washing dishes. 



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bad Romance: Part II


How to Sexually Harass a Woman (Or Anyone, Really) as Seen through the Lens of a Lady Gaga Video

If you've known me for any length of time, you are probably sick of hearing about Lady Gaga. I am a Monstrous Fan...for a number of reasons: she shares my lone superpower of wearing heels so high that we breathe clouds (not plain air like all you plebeians...I kid...mostly), she doesn't take herself very seriously (she falls down in those heels on stage all the time and gets up laughing), I find her songs imaginative, and, sue me, I love the added layers synthesizers can bring to a piece of music in the hands of the right musician. But I'm also a fan because of her videos, which are rich with complex meaning.

The video for "Bad Romance," however, has always stood out for me above all others, even "Born This Way," which is the video responsible for completing Lady Gaga's very own cosmology, another world that exists apart from the quotidian for the short bursts of time she performs live. There is something about "Bad Romance" that practically eviscerates me. After the news broke about my sexual Harasser being arrested for taking upskirt shots of women in a local big box chain, the first thing I did was watch videos of him taking videos in the store. Surreal.


Then, I watched "Bad Romance," and I realized what it is about the video that elicits such a visceral response, and it's the constantly shifting point of view. When the video begins, the person whom we call Lady Gaga is a sleeping queen on a throne—an example of "subjectness" although, a, perhaps, lax subjectness. In a  plot twist, she touches a button on a console next to her (actually a Parrot by Stark speaker) and is shaken awake into a dream. The facts of this dream are what shock because as she morphs (the way I do when I'm dreaming) into the different people who populate the dream, she becomes a different example of the dark side of objectification (ending with the darkest of all). I realized that day, after seeing the news and subsequently watching "Bad Romance," that I was being shown a movie about my own existence. And this is where our instruction on sexually harassing a woman begins.


Step One: Kill Her
After pressing the button, the queen is projected into the Bath Haus of Gaga. Make no mistake: this is not a spa; it's a morgue. Gaga emerges from a sleek white coffin in the form of a ghost in white latex. In current popular culture ghosts possess two characteristics. First, watch any reality show that attempts to prove the existence of ghosts, and you will learn they don't speak. Second, they are beings whose ability to act upon the world is severely limited, if possible at all. 

For the typical sexual harasser, who is a misogynist, to be successful at his project, he must first "kill" his victim, rendering her into a ghost-like figure. The guy at the table who talks over a woman trying to speak during committee meetings is a sexual harasser in the making if not one in fact. In my case, the harassment began discreetly the summer before the Harasser felt comfortable enough to make an open display of it. To recap, I was taking part in the professional development workshop that I would later help administrate. As part of that workshop we handed in pieces we had been working on that were in draft stage. I had asked that no feedback be given on my work. The Harasser's response was "Well, how are you going to improve if you don't receive any feedback." 

True, but having taught writing for 17 years, I know there is a time when feedback is valuable and a time when it isn't, and the writer should be the one to decide when it's time. Additionally, verbal feedback is better because it tells the writer something about this one audience member's attitude, emotions, and frame of mind. Not only that, but I had a bad experience in graduate school with a male classmate who felt we were in competition and basically "ripped me a new one" in an attempt to eliminate me, and I still had that bad taste in my mouth. 

So I asked, "Could you record your comments and send them to me?" 

"No, that's not the way we do things." 

When I got the comments back, I looked at the first page and threw the copy in the recycle bin. The feedback was not going to help me...and not because I planned to ignore it...but because the Harasser was responding to his idea of what the final product would be and not to what it was at the time, which was unfinished. I was becoming the ghost who doesn't speak or, rather, can't make herself heard. 

The fatal wound occurred on the day I've described in "Bad Romance: Part I." Having given this a lot of thought over the last few months, I now understand that the harasser's ideal victim is the one who attempts to ignore the harassment, in other words, the ghost who does not or cannot act on the world. As I mentioned in Part I, this allows the harasser to fantasize that the victim is giving chase. In Lady Gaga's video for "Yoü and I," which is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, she sings, "Something, something about the chase," and we all know the titillation of that game...those first few weeks of infatuation where the would-be lovers play tag like children. This is what the harasser seeks, except the chase isn't mutual, nor is it about infatuation, nor is it ultimately about the freedom to play and experience joy (a point I will come around to later). 

There are other responses: I could have done as my friend advised and simply stood up, put my hand out, and said, "No." I could have reported it to his supervisor that afternoon. I could have "seen his 10 and raised him 20" by whispering, "Why is being married a problem?" And while my response was the worst possible because I allowed myself to be turned into a ghost thus giving him exactly what he wanted, none of the other responses really suffice. Saying "No" only sends him to some other victim. And I mean no offense to the director, who is still a good friend, but reporting it at that stage would have gotten him a slap on the wrist and me an apology of sorts: "I'm sorry; I really didn't mean anything by it." That's as far as any upper-level administrator could have legally gone. And reflecting his mirror image back to him may have made the situation worse, another point I'll return to later.

Step Two: Make Her into Your Own Image
In one short scene of "Bad Romance," Gaga is pictured standing in front of a mirror in a black dress, with that odd crown (this time in black) she's famous for, wearing black sunglasses. While singing "I want your drama, the touch of your hand, your leather-studded kiss in the sand," she reprises Madonna in her "Respect Yourself" parody of Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. To me, this symbolizes the point at which, after having metaphorically killed his victim, the harasser must now make the shadow-self that is the object of his "affection" into his own hyper-sexualized image. In order to keep up the charade that the shadow-self is giving chase, she must want what he wants. It is also, of course, a way to justify actions he knows to be wrong. My Harasser has a wife and daughters; I'm 100% certain that if anyone did to them what he did to me, his reaction would have been similar to my husband's. But he felt no guilt because I was like him and, despite all evidence to the contrary, wanted what he wanted. However, this does not make me "one of the boys." In "Respect Yourself," Madonna is wearing pants when she grabs her crotch. In "Bad Romance" Gaga is wearing a dress, and I think this is intentional because she is not mocking a man in so much as she is questioning what happens when a woman in the garb of a woman makes the same gesture. In making the victim into his own image, the harasser does not confer male status onto the shadow-self, he makes her a slut...all the more worthy of harassing. 

Step Three: Make Her Think She's Crazy
The scene of Lady Gaga in the insane asylum is so reminiscent of the bathtub scene in Valley of the Dolls that I'm convinced the director had it in mind. Tellingly, Gaga appears doll-like with curly pink hair and eyes disturbingly shaped like anime characters. She appears in a bathtub wearing earbuds and some sort of asylum-issued bath suit while being placated by the music she listens to like every stereotypical psychotic we've ever seen in a movie. She is unwillingly made to drink something by two nurses who force her mouth open and pour the elixir down her throat. Intermittently, the video flashes back to the ghost, and we hear the words "I want your love and all love is revenge; I want your love, and all your love is revenge." There are two psychical states being enacted here. The first is the deep anger a harasser feels over the lack of control over the "other" as evidenced by the lyrics, which switch point of view as often as the video, and the second is the age-old scheme of making the victim question whether what she believes to be happening is actually happening. 

For the harasser, "love" is revenge. 

I'm a technical writer and a rhetorician. It's my business to know the most efficient ways of communicating with people. So during the time I was working on the presentation submission form for the conference our organization was hosting, I often received e-mails from the Harasser about changes that needed to be made. Mostly, the changes took less than five minutes, so instead of initiating an unnecessary chain of e-mails, I took care of the problem immediately and assumed that, as happens with tech writers collaborating on a project, he was monitoring the document as the changes were being made, which I had shown him how to do. Instead, I got angry e-mails asking why I hadn't responded to his e-mails (which left me wondering why he hadn't just checked the document for the changes he asked for...as we had agreed). For him, this accomplished three goals: 1) it gave him further reasons to engage me, 2) it allowed him to assert authority over me (where he actually had none), and 3) it caused me to begin questioning whether the e-mails, which varied from sycophantic begging to acrimonious demands to obsequious apologies, were actually a form of sexual harassment. None of this behavior was described in the training I have to undergo every year as part of my position. My thought was "Maybe he is doing the best he can at his job and is truly stressed, and I'm the one being paranoid." Hell, he had me apologizing for things I didn't do wrong while dehumanizing me at the same time. His anger was a subterfuge designed to manipulate me into questioning my own sanity. 

So when I saw two stills of him angrily stalking the aisles of the local big-box chain, I knew that the anger was part of the MO. Now, I don't know what he's angry about in those photos...maybe he's not finding a skirt-wearing victim quick enough for his satisfaction, maybe he and his wife got into an argument before he left for the store, maybe he's angry because he's disgusted by his own behavior. It doesn't matter, he's angry. And this brings me back to two points I promised to come back to earlier. First, his endeavor is devoid of joy. The way he approaches it, with that countenance of consternation, it's more like a job taken on strictly to make ends meet. Second, anyone who's angry is dangerous. I believe it was the b-movie The Seduction where Morgan Fairchild plays a newscaster who foils a rapist by returning his "advances." He later begins stalking her with vengeance in mind. And while that was fiction, the mind that objectifies others in "violent" ways (in my case the violence was purely emotional, but it was there) experiences an es muss sein, "this must be." He considers any alternative that does not put him in control a violence against his own psyche, and he will most likely carry out an act of retribution. Which is why returning the harasser's advances is not a good idea. He must be in control at all costs, and while he will generally walk the fine line between ignorance of wrong-doing and open transgression so as to get off the hook when called out, if the axis of his world goes off kilter, the power of that anger remains. Emotional violence can transmogrify into the physical.  

There is no doubt that the man in the next scene of the video is the one responsible for sending Gaga 1) to the morgue, 2) to the mirror, and 3) to the asylum. Once this is a fait accompli, there is only one step left.

Step Four: Possess Her
I only want to touch on a few scenes in the final sequence of events in "Bad Romance." Lady Gaga is brought out against her will before a king who quite possibly now occupies her former throne and is made to dance for and then crawl to him for his pleasure. She is later shown frozen, as an object, in the middle of a circle of seated men as stocks in Lady Gaga, as a corporation and not a real person, continue to rise. We see her naked in a cage with monstrously huge vertebrae that force her spine to curve grotesquely. She has fulfilled the darkest stage of objectification possible: she has become a possession, a bauble, a sideshow freak, a slave. 

This is ultimately what a sexual harasser, a child molester, a peeping tom, a rapist wants: to claim ownership of another human being because that is the ultimate source of power for him. I'm no psychologist, so I can't identify where their sense of self got stuck or what may have caused this to happen. I just know they have issues with power and control, which they can only regain by dominating those they consider weak. 

In the end, Gaga tricks the new king and sets him on fire, Farrah Fawcett style, while he sits on his bed as she pretends she is about to perform for him and him alone. 

Lucky her. 

The article on "Sexual Harassment" at Wikipedia discusses how victims have coped in the past by taking on the personae of "the lady," "the flirt," and "the tomboy." The message is that we, as women, cannot be ourselves when being victimized by a harasser. It goes on to give the common side effects of sexual harassment, which include the following: stress, humiliation, being the subject of public scrutiny, decreased productivity, loss of support, etc. All of this says to me that I bear the burden for seeking counseling for and rectifying what was done to me. No mention is made of what someone who commits sexual harassment should do to make recompense. Is this an oversight? Or have we given into the idea that men simply can't control their sexual urges (to which I say, "Bullshit." I know way too many good men out there to buy into that load of hegemonical crap.)?

I'm enjoying the fact that my Harasser will live in ignominy for the rest of his life. But that's not enough. I've got a blog, a voice, two hands, and a laptop. And this, not counseling, is the solution that will finally have to suffice. 

And to those who would lament the death of flirtation because feminists see sexual harassment around every corner, have no fear. There is a huge difference. Real flirtation arises out of mutual admiration and a respect for someone that goes beyond the sum of her/his parts. It is childlike and free of darker motivations. It is play and joy. And it is wonderfully summed up by the wink, which is always accompanied by a smile. 


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interlude: Rhythm and Blues

For the last five years, I've been working 8:00 to 4:30, and I've arrived at a decision:

I don't really give a fuck when I brush my damned teeth.

Before my dad got sick and left us, I had this idea in my head that I would eventually achieve perfection, and, in my mind, perfection meant that a grid would superimpose order over my life, neatly compartmentalizing it into flawless squares. (And by the way, that square puzzle that's making the run on Facebook right now? I'm counting 37, not 24, and I'm willing to bet there are more. So much for counting squares.)

At one point, (I was still in my 20's) I literally had my days down to fifteen-minute time increments. (And what is a calendar except for a bunch of squares?) I'm not kidding you when I say that I scheduled brushing my teeth into my...gosh...what was the system then? Stephen Covey? Then I got hooked on David Allen. Don't get me wrong, I could listen to him talk about getting my inbox to zero on CD in my truck on a blustery wintry day driving to Indy for 10 straight hours because it all sounds really lovely.

He reads with perfect rhythm.

But he doesn't live my life.

He's in some other realm where the world waits on him, and he does the world a favor by always being on time. Good for David Allen!

On the other hand, I've lived in a world where I'm waiting on everyone else, even when I was teaching, but especially now in my new position. For example, Think-a-Header X has a proposal due October 5th and started working with me in July. Procrastinator Y has a deadline of September 27th and dropped the proposal in my lap...yesterday, a Sunday, a day I don't check my e-mail because it's the weekend, and I'm not working overtime anymore, and you can't make me...state law!

If I were still teaching, I'd say, "Welcome to the real world: first come, first serve, baby. Suck it up." Except that actually isn't the real world. Procrastinor's research has as much merit as Think-a-Header's. And if either one or both of them get the grants, I look good. My institution looks good. So every morning of my life now I walk into work not knowing what my priority is. I feel secure in knowing that my inbox and calendar will tell me. Secure in insecurity.

There are only two things I can count on in my weekly existence (because I can't count on the day-to-day stuff): I'll be at happy hour Friday afternoon at 4:30 (and one of these days I'll beat my new boss) and Sunday brunch at 10:00 a.m. And even those aren't a given. Sometimes I go rebel and head out backpacking or canoeing. Sometimes I climb mountains. Sometimes I squeeze through tiny holes to find a cave that has potentially never been explored. Sometimes I stay up late at night and write. Maybe I'll feel like cleaning house some time soon or cooking (probably not). I just never know.

And maybe I don't want to know. Because the day I wake up knowing exactly what I have to do every minute of the day is probably the day I'll wake up shaking Satan's hand at the crossroads complete with his retinue of hell fire and pitchforks, time clocks and bells on the quarter- and half-hours. And that devil will be wearing a sharp suit and a fedora cocked at just the right angle, but I'm not giving up to his charms. Better to live in happy chaos than reign over perfect order.

Photo courtesy ĐāżŦ {mostly absent}, http://www.flickr.com/photos/darrentunnicliff/4469318003/sizes/m/in/photostream/