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 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 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 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 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 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, 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.