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 Sans, 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 (because I haven't made up those parts yet, either). 

I've got mad skillz. So once I had the dragons' trust, I turned them all into house pets (mice, hamsters, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, geckos...those things that are Lao Tzu small) 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 and it won't be pleasant for either of you. 

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. 

Sans 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, Sans had something I thought I desperately needed.


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 Sans did for one simple reason.


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.

She is Sans. She 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.


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?