Sunday, June 27, 2010

"You Know How On Extreme Makeover They Drive the Bus Away for the 'Big Reveal'? This Is Kind of Like That, Only Nobody Gets a Jungle Theme in the Living Room"


The kids raced away from the school bus on the final day of the school year, sweat and excitement mixed on their faces. Breathlessly, Paco reported, “Al the Bus Driver is so nice. We’re the last kids off today, so he gave us each TWO suckers to celebrate the last day!”

Just then, Al the Bus Driver, leaning out his side window, beckoned me over to the bus. As I approached, he turned off the ignition, turning the bus into a huge yellow Lego brick blocking the avenue.

“So your kids were telling me you all are going to live someplace else next year—like, you’re going to some other country? What’s that all about?”

Feeling a babble coming on, I made sure not to lock my knees (causes fainting) and then settled my hands onto my hips (an endurance posture) and did a quick saliva check (adequate lubrication being essential to extended nattering).

Brightly, I commenced:

“Why, yes, Al the Bus Driver, we do have a big family adventure afoot! The whole thing really started last January, when I was granted a sabbatical by my college—"

Interjecting, Al the Bus Driver asked, “And what would ‘sabbatical’ mean then?”

Having forgotten that the word “sabbatical” is the jargon of academia and Jews who have wandered the desert for forty years, I slowed down to explain, “A sabbatical is something college teachers can apply for every seventh year. Basically, we put together a plan for professional duties or ideas that we’d like to work on but can never find the time to get to when we’re handling our usual duties of teaching and service to the college. In a sense, we’re being given the time to do some ‘forward thinking’ and work on both personal and professional projects. We get partial pay during the time we take off, and then we have to have completed our promised projects by our first day back. Personally, I have four projects I’ll be hacking away at, but—quite cleverly—I planned them so that they can be done from anywhere in the world because, truth be told, our family’s underlying agenda is always about taking a trip and going somewhere. We do lots of road trips, and we went to Guatemala three years ago, but, heck, when you’re seven years old like that there Paco with a sucker in his mouth is, three years is pretty much half a lifetime ago, so we’ve been itching to get out of the U.S. again, especially because the kids are at an age to take in so much more of what’s around them. The good thing is they’re still young enough that they will cotton to a different language relatively easily."

Having inhaled a gnat, I broke off the stream of babble to hack genteely into my sleeve. Seizing the opportunity, Al the Bus Driver asked, “So what does your husband do, that he can just leave it for a year?"

Wiping saliva-covered gnat guts onto my kneecap, I hopped back in. “When he's not busy cooking all the meals and handling every other aspect of our lives, he sits on the couch and eats bon-bons; he's no bus driver, that's for sure.  See, he’s been our stay-at-home parent for the last decade, ever since that there Girl with two suckers in her mouth was born. His former profession was as a naturalist, and he has a degree in anthropology and environmental science, but for the last two years, with Paco in school, he’s also been taking art classes at the college where I teach in preparation for the next phase of his life, so we’ll see what he ends up wanting to do. Right now, though, it’s a perfect time for him to go to a whole new country and tap into their artistic traditions; I mean, light and space and texture are so different around the globe that it’s a rare gift indeed to be able to go feel them in person.”

Looking a little perplexed but still game, Al the Bus Driver attempted to redirect the conversation--but I picked up his cue of distress and swerved back onto topic, thoughtfully saving him the effort of breaking in. “Anyhow, Al the Bus Driver, once we found out I had been granted a sabbatical, we immediately signed up with a couple of home exchange organizations online and sent out about fifty inquiry emails around the world. Almost immediately, our email inbox was flooded with 45 ‘nope, not gonna work for us’ and ‘sorry, already booked’ messages, but then, after a couple of weeks, we got a response from a family in Sicily…”

Asserting himself, Al the Bus Driver asked, “And where abouts is that again?”

“It’s part of Italy—although many Sicilians would disagree with that sentiment as it’s a separate island with a very different history than the main land. So this family was very interested, and after some weeks of really slow, Italian-paced email conversations, they told us they were IN and very much wanted to do an exchange with us, starting in July and running through the following April. There was a bit of a hang-up with their teen-aged son not being able to take the classes he would need here at an American high school; I mean, really, Duluth high schools don’t offer art history, Latin, or Italian as a Mother Tongue, do they? But the family did some juggling around and arranged for the teen to come with them for four months, at which point he would return to Sicily and live with his aunt as he finished out his school year there. However, just as I was gearing up to head to Chicago to get my visa—which has to be done in person, and which I had to do first before I could transfer a power of attorney to someone in Italy, have that person go into a police station and get me declared a resident, and then, as a resident, invite my family to accompany me, at which point they could go to Chicago to get their visas—we got an email from the Sicilian family telling us that they’d had a hostile and confounding meeting at their son’s high school, and they’d been told he would receive no credit at all for study done in the U.S.—the administration must have heard about our schools!—which pretty much meant he couldn’t come along at all which, in turn, was something we call A Dealbreaker.”

Looking pensive, Al the Bus Driver asked, “Dealbreaker? Isn’t that a reality show on Fox?”

Undeterred from the babble, I inhaled deeply and continued to spew: “While we were really bummed about the Sicilian plan falling through, it seemed like fate that we received an email just then from a family in Prague, asking if we’d be interested in an exchange. After some backing and forthing (the husband in that family was an economist who, himself, was trying to arrange activities for his sabbatical year; for him, and for a long-term visa, this required that he obtain a letter of invitation from a local university), and after our neighbor extended herself to work her connections in the economics department at one of our local institutions of higher education, we thought the pieces could fall together nicely and make this thing work. And Prague! How beautiful that city is; I went there in 1985, before The Wall fell, and it was fascinating to see how we were assigned a guide whose job it was to keep us out of trouble; on one memorable hot, hot day, the guide took us on a five-hour walk around a cemetery which was, as you might guess, not this 18-year-old’s idea of a rockin’ afternoon in Europe. However, it did bring the term 'Prague Walk' into my personal lexicon as a term for anything painful and unending. Like, right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This conversation has turned into a real Prague Walk.’”

“No,” Al the Bus Driver noted, “I’m actually wondering about The Wall you mentioned. Was that an actual thing, or what do you mean?”

“Oh, yes, Al the Bus Driver, it was an actual, literal thing—but really a metaphor, too, for significant divisions between economic and political systems post-World War II. If you get on the Internet at all, during the hours you’re not safely chauffeuring loud-mouthed children around the city, you might do a search on the term ‘Berlin Wall’ and even input the year 1989. You’ll find lots of information that way, and then next year on the bus you could create a ‘Sucker Challenge’ game with the kids on the bus; make them answer questions about Stalin and Reagan before they get candy!”

“Yea, I’m probably not going to do that,” Al the Bus Driver said, plucking out a particularly long nose hair.

“No, no, of course not. That would be expecting too much from the first graders. All right, so the Prague family suddenly went quiet on us, not returning emails, not responding to the contact information I’d sent them at the university, until one day, we received a message from them that announced, ‘We’ve decided to go to Berkeley and rent there. However, if you’d like to rent our house in Prague, that would still be an option.’ Even though I grumbled a fair amount about how it wouldn’t have killed them to be up front all along, I finally managed to type back a message asking about how much rent they’d be asking. That was in April. We’ve still never had a reply. That whole thing was daunting in its own way, but we did luck out again and find hope in the form of a lovely Australian woman who contacted us and was looking to do a 6-month exchange—and get this: during the winter months, as her 14-year-old son likes to snowboard and play hockey! So we had a flurry of emails with her over the course of a few weeks, and she seemed both convivial and interested, if unaware of the concepts of complete sentences and capital letters…she was really going gangbusters until my husband sent her a lovely and helpful email full of links to the ski areas and hockey rinks around here…and until I sent her an email saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’d love to do an exchange with you.’ When she didn’t reply to either, I waited three days and sent another message, noting that often emails to get lost in the ether, but that yes, yes, yes, we’d love to do an exchange with her. Three days after that, I sent it again. Then again. That was in early May, and we have yet to hear back from her. Shortly after that, I began some crabby muttering that ended with me yelling ‘Citizens of Earth, you are a bunch of flakes; would it kill you to be forthcoming and regular in your communications?’”

“By ‘flakes,’” Al the Bus Driver wondered aloud, “do you mean like dandruff?”

“Not really, Al the Bus Driver, but I did wish that upon them, too, in my more punitive moments. At any rate, when Ms. Australia disappeared, we decided it was time to switch things up and stop trying to hinge our plans on those of others. It was time to do what we could do, under our own power. Pretty quickly, we decided to play the visa game, switching visa areas throughout the year and dodging the need to get any long-term permissions. We found out we could stay in the UK up to six months, so we thought we’d start there, and then we’d head to the Andalucia region of Spain for 90 days, and then maybe we’d head into a non-Schengen region country like Bulgaria or Croatia to round things out. It got so I was cruising online rental agencies at 2 a.m., trying to see where we could rent relatively cheaply, for about what our mortgage here costs us per month. Let me tell you, that’s a tough thing to do in Europe, as it’s expensive there! But we figured it if we could rent our house here, we’d have some money to apply towards rent elsewhere, and we could make it work.”

“Can you pay for a visa with Mastercard?” Al the Bus driver mused.

Clearly, although I’m crazymad for exposition, it was time to move past the backstory. “In general, Al the Bus Driver, cash will be your best bet if paying for a visa at the airport. So here’s what finally has happened: after asking everyone we know for ideas, my husband’s parents mentioned how my father-in-law’s boss’ daughter has lived in Turkey for some years and that we probably could contact her. Feeling pretty desperate, we sent off an email her direction, and guess what? While I always want to believe in the idea of ‘whatever’s supposed to happen, will happen, and the universe will hand you what you need,’ I had gotten so frustrated and put off that I merely felt bitch slapped by the universe—hey, incidentally, is this the first time a parent of a kid on your bus has used the term ‘bitch slapped’ to you?—and was really down about the idea of possibility. But guess what, guess what, guess what? My father-in-law’s boss’ daughter wrote back immediately and has been amazing. I think of her as the hospitable expat, as she’s lived in Turkey since 2003, now in the Cappadocia region where there are all sorts of fairy chimneys and cave homes and underground cities, and all she wants in the world is to share her love of the place with anyone who’s interested. We’ve had a slew of emails with Hospitable Expat, some chats on Facebook, and she’s already put out feelers for rentals for us in the villages in her area, along with negotiating a good rate for us at a pension in her village (we’ll base out of there while we find a rental for the year) and telling us where the shuttle driver will be standing to meet us when we get off the airplane in Keysari. Within a week of communicating with her, we knew this was the answer we’d been seeking for five months. We bought plane tickets a few weeks ago and leave August 3rd. The cost of living is significantly lower—our rent there may equal our monthly Sam’s Club bill here—and we can exit the country every 90 days (hopping over to a Greek island) and come back in and get a new visa easily. So that’s it. We’re going to Turkey for a year, we’ll home school the kids, and we can’t believe how fortunate we are.”

Bracing myself for him to use the line every lame jokester in our social circle had trotted out in response to our announcement (“I’ve always liked chicken better than turkey”), I was caught off guard when, after a moment of silence, Al the Bus Driver’s final question was, “And so what exactly would be your purpose in doing this again?”

My immediate reaction was one of “Duh and HELLO, Al the Bus Driver: living in another country? Experiencing a new language and culture and people? Seeing what it is to live as an expatriate? Watching my kids and husband and myself wade through the challenges of not having friends, security, and the same-ole same-ole around us all the time? Getting the reality check provided by being out of one’s element? Gaining a perspective on our place in the larger order of things, something that is awfully hard to keep in place when one is an American?”

I tempered my reaction, of course, and simply pointed out the cultural and linguistic benefits. Looking dubious, Al the Bus Driver started up the engine again, preparing to drive the bus to the garage one last time. Just before pulling away, he braved a closing remark. “Those kids of yours? Great kids. Nice kids. I wish all the kids on the bus behaved like they do. They’ve been a real pleasure.”

For a parent hearing those words, there is no thank you large enough. But I did manage the rejoinder of “Yea, that’s why we’re pulling them out of school next year; we hope to keep them like that a bit longer!”

Brakes squealing, the bus made its way down the road. I stood in place for a second, though, mulling over the wisdom in Al the Bus Driver’s question. Holy Whirling Dervishes, but what is our purpose in going to Turkey? How will we fill our days when no one is ever heading off to school or work? Yikes. Crikey. Jimminy.  That could stack up into a whole lot of empty hours of staring at each other, thinking, "Sure, there are kebabs, but where did all the playdates go?"

I’m guessing, as with figuring out the plan for my sabbatical year, we’ll have to make our own opportunities, figure it out for ourselves, shape our own directions.

Newly in awe at what we’ve wrought, I turned to my hopscotch-playing kids and teased, “So what are those bulging backpacks full of on the last day of school? Textbooks and toilet paper you stole from the school? If so, great. We’re doing to need both in Turkey.”

-----------------------------------------------------

(As of last week, our house is rented for a year. As of four days ago, our mini-van is sold and gone. As of right now, we’re overwhelmed and freaking out, trying to sort through and pack up our household; the renters are allowing us to store our things in the basement and will let us leave the main floor furniture in place, but the second floor furniture needs to be moved out, and all other belongings are going into tubs and boxes, a process that would be infinitely easier without bored children hanging around--a foretaste of life in Turkey?-- wanting help in finding amusement [makes a parent want to relax long-standing rules banning daytime use of electronics]. Even when we’ve gotten their friends over, in the hopes that they’ll hie off to play, they end up standing in front of us, saying, “What should we do? Will you play a game with us? It takes four people to play this game.” Thank Yogi Bear that we’ve stuffed July full of camps for them; then can go kayak, swim, and do fiber art while Groom and I participate in the boot camp known as Driving Garbage Bags Full of Old Shoes to Goodwill and Then Stacking All the Rest of Everything in a 12’ x 20’ Space)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"I Never Can Say Quite As Much As I Know"
--Robert Olen Butler

The thing about attending an academic conference is that the days are packed so full of sessions and readings and “plenaries” that participants find their time booked from early morning until dusk. When attendees have taken several flights to reach a major cosmopolitan city, only to sit in generic classrooms for 14 hours each day, a feeling of “So why did I come to this major cosmopolitan city anyhow, if I’m not ever going to see any of it?” sets in.

When the attendee is someone who loves the vibe of an urban center, who hates forced conviviality with people she’ll never see again, who dropped out of high school because she didn’t agree with the rules about how her time should be spent, and who generally doesn’t play well with others, well,

I believe we call that a recipe for Playing Hooky.

Certainly, I put in my time at the conference sessions, and I genuinely enjoyed hearing writers read their work out loud. That is a very unique pleasure. In fact, after hearing one woman read her story to the convened group—and being blown away by it—I found that story online and re-read it. It wasn’t nearly as wallop-packing on the printed page; hearing it in her voice, with her accent and pauses, imbued the prose with much of its power. Her reading made me want her to be my mommy.

However, after about fifteen hours of trudging from room to room, smiling at people whose names I didn’t know, every voice became nothing more than a grating clack.

The hour-long bus ride back to the hotel was a din of clacking (“He’ll sleep for two weeks after this”), clacking (“We don’t have that bank in Bermuda anymore”), clacking (“I should have worn different shoes; these have rubbed blisters”), clacking (“The tour to Niagara Falls took all day, and all I got was wet”), clacking (“In China, the punch line is that the woman forgot to wear her shirt, not her pants”).

Quite deliberately that night, I didn’t set the alarm. Quite deliberately that night, I watched home improvement shows (on cable, using a remote, on a flat screen tv—all things we don’t have at our house!) until 3 a.m. Actually, at 3:10, I caught myself crying at something Ty Pennington had just said about the Very Special Family whose house was about to receive an extreme makeover. Uh-oh. While snappy television shows were acting a balm to my “dialectically-exegesis-ized” brain, clearly it was time for a self-intervention. With the flick of a button, the shadows stopped flying through the air.

The next morning, nearly lunchtime really, I cracked an eye and exhaled a happy “ahhhhh” when I realized I was alone, in the quiet, without a clacker or his recently-anthologized essay within throwing distance. After a winding, dodging run around the waterfront area, I found myself eating a plate of kebabs while watching a World Cup match surrounded by Arabic speaking men. Now that was my kind of num and clack.

Well fueled, I was off to the Bata Shoe Museum, a place I one day hope to take my husband (he who maintains shoes are one of the evils of the world); it’s not that I want to subject him to something he hates—a sport in and of itself—but more that the museum was surprisingly rich in impact. The place starts with the earliest known shoe (the one found on the foot of the Ice Man who was excavated in the Alps in 1991) and continues throughout time and across cultures, explaining how shoes were made in various places and why they were constructed as they were. For the exhibit of Elton John’s 12 inch sparkling platform wedge, however, there was no possible explanation.

Once the shoes were being tucked in for the night, I headed over to half-price Friday at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is the fifth largest museum in North America and first in my heart for mind-blowing awesome crystalline shape:


The architecture is tremendously exciting from the outside, but once I was inside and had meandered around for an hour, I started to realize its drawbacks, especially after I’d traipsed across metal grated crisscross walkways a bunch of times and still couldn’t find the dinosaurs. Indeed, this museum proved unerringly that I should be hired as a bug tester for any venue that wants to proclaim itself “easy to navigate.” Give me ten minutes, and I’ll be lost and shouting, “A person would think she’d eventually stumble across the full-sized skeletons of the T. Rex and Diplodocus, if only she walked across these crisscross metal walkways long enough and followed the ‘helpful signage’!” This proving wishful thinking, I did enjoy visiting the Asian Artifacts display four times.

With the museum being so huge—and the exhibit of early Canadian furniture being so fascinating (gawking at furniture is like gawking at shoes for me: I get taken inside the thinking behind certain practical creations and see the wider world they reflect)—I realized it was nearly time for the conference’s evening reading, featuring Li Ang, Alistair MacLeod, Robert Olen Butler, and Margaret Atwood, yet I had a few more galleries to discover, and I’ll be damned if I was going to return home and tell my seven-year-old I’d missed the fossils. That’s the kind of omission that could result in life-long love diminishment, the kind that not even a wooden catapult purchased in the museum gift shop could overcome.

Incidentally, you wouldn’t believe the variety of objects we’ve shot across our living room this week: clay, little bouncy balls, metal washers, Lego figures, even gift-wrapping bows. Next on the list are Cheerios and fingernail clippings.

Eventually, I was done with the museum and began to hoof it to the public library for the reading.

Of course, I’m never sure I’m going to end up somewhere until I actually get there, and not only because I get lost so easily but also because there is so much that makes my head swivel between any two given points. Like shops. That aren’t Target. With skirts and tunic shirts and yoga pants. Which are very soft. And comfy. Soft and comfy clothes don’t clack at all.

Plus, since I was already running late, and since there were four readers, and since the program clearly would build to Margaret Atwood, I decided to give each shop its due.

That’s why I was buying underwear for Paco at The Gap exactly when Margaret Atwood was reading.

In my defense, I’d point out we don’t have The Gap or underwear in the United States. Also, I lie a lot.

Stuffing the underwear and a silky skirt into my bag, I finally slipped into the library an hour late, just in time to listen to the pleasing and mellifluous voice of Alistair MacLeod from my perch on the floor in the back of the room. The measured pace of his words, coupled with the burst blood vessels in his nose, took me back to some of my favorite professors in college.

After MacLeod, the last reader was Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993 for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He read his “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” to great reception, largely due to his clear experience in hitting the punch lines and imitating a squawky bird. It was a very adept reading, but I was left unsurprised that Butler is thrice divorced, having gained particular notoriety after his third wife left him for Ted Turner and he (Butler) subsequently sent out a highly-personal and startlingly-revelatory email to students and colleagues at the college where he teaches (here's the text of that email—a link worth following).

Finally, all four authors returned to the stage and participated in a question and answer session, which gave me the opportunity to partake in some Famous People Watching. Pretty much, it took all of two minutes before I tried to detect an underlying tension between Butler and Atwood--perhaps once a romance but now lapsed into "too many readings done together" or "you'll probably just leave me for Ted Turner anyhow, so why bother." There was nothing overt, but everytime Butler would take on a question and come across as perhaps a tidge too full of himself, Atwood would step in with a follow-up that began, "On. the. other. hand..." It became a joke by the second go-round, but I did want to read both of their diaries just to tap into secret grudges.  That shouldn't be too hard to do with Butler, as I'm sure he sends out a daily email detailing his antipathies to 55 of his closest friends and favorite strangers. 

Anyhow, Atwood comes across as both wry and gracious--and in possession of a healthy set of boundaries (her Website contains an entire section that begins "Dear readers, publishers, and fellow writers: Here are some guidelines about what I, and the office, can and cannot do..." and then lists things like "I cannot write an introduction to your book").  After looking over her Website, I rather wish she'd write my syllabus for me, though.

Despite the charms of the writers and the joys of people scoping, I was more than ready to grab my bag of undies and trek back to the hotel, grabbing a curry along the way.  As I worked my way down Yonge Street, pushing through the crowds of Friday night street life, I considered the sheer loveliness of listening to writers--both published and unpublished--read their work aloud.

So much of today's communication is quick, random, and unthinking that I felt, thanks to sitting in on various readings at the conference, like I'd just set down my dessert fork at a rich and lengthy banquet after years of eating only Big Macs.  In this age of texts and 140-character limits, in a time of quick messages devoted to arranging logistics or reporting updates, I very nearly needed to burp with pleasure after having been privy to words crafted carefully by someone who had sought out solitude, time, and peace as pre-requisites to thought

--thought preceding the commitment of ideas to paper

--and that commitment the precursor to re-reading and editing

--which must come before revising

--revising followed by sharing

--sharing an essential part of engaging an audience

--an engagement which is necessary if one hopes to cause a reaction in others

--thus harnessing the personal power that is talent.


I returned home the next day with more than underwear and a catapult.

I came home with inspiration.


And chocolate.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Northern Ascendancy:  The Moxie of the Imperfect"

I crossed a border yesterday. For a passport-toting white woman nowhere near Arizona, this should have been a straightforward endeavor. However, I failed to factor in that the airplane slotted to fly me out of Duluth was to have come from Chicago, and Chicago is windy and foggy and muggy and corrupt. Plus, pilots out of Chicago often bury their faces in hot dogs and pizza and forget to start the engine of the 747.

Anyhow, corruption and pizza (and fog) interfered with getting the plane to Duluth, a fact I discovered when I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m.—having woken up at 4 a.m. after pitching into a restless sleep on the couch not too long before that. Come back in nine hours, said the lady behind the counter, and then we’ll stuff you into a cramped seat and offer you two ounces of a diet beverage.

Few things undermine the drama of bedtime hugs, kisses, and “Mommy’s going to a conference in Canada and won’t be here when you wake up” goodbyes more than Mommy being there at wake up. When I returned home at 6 a.m., Groom greeted me with a sleepy “What are you doing here?” At 7:30 a.m., Paco dashed into the bedroom, took a gander at me lying there trying to get even 18 more zzzzz’s, and echoed his father.

My presence hadn’t been challenged with such suspicion and hostility since I’d strung a wire between the Twin Towers back in 1974 and gamboled across it for an hour, calling out all the while, “C’est magnifique, n’est-ce pas?”

Eventually, I did get my two ounces of Diet Coke, a fair set of leg cramps, and a glimpse of Chicago. A few hours after that, I hopped a plane to Toronto (because Canadian pizza and hot dogs are significantly less appealing than those found in Chicago, flights from Toronto generally run on time). Upon my arrival in The Country of Civility and Genuine Good Manners, I waded through passport control—handing my documents to a lovely young red-haired man and greeting him with a “Hey, I know people who are red haired. Are you my brother?”

Quite some bit later, the airport express bus deposited me at my hotel in downtown Toronto, at which point, considering the number of hours I’d put into waking up, driving around, returning home, laying back down, getting back up, neatening the house, going for a run, pushing kids on a swing, eating some quiche, and flying hither and yon, it seemed prudent to stare in the mirror for a minute and announce, “You might should brush your teeth now, Mavis.”

This morning, with a tidy 5 hours of sleep tucked into my waistband, I hoofed it over to the hotel where the busses to the conference site were departing at 7:30 a.m.

Two things remain unclear to me:

1) Why conference attendees were booked into hotels downtown, when the actual dealio is happening an hour outside the city;

2) How anyone could think it’s a good idea to pack a bunch of academics together during the fragile hours before mid-morning, as it only encourages them to start tossing around words like “solipsism” and “nihilism” whilst detoxifying from the previous night’s whisky.

Fortunately, I buried my face in hot dogs and pizza and managed to weather the bus ride without backing myself into a charge of semi-voluntary academic-slaughter (“But, officer, I had to cut off his air supply: that windbag violated the inchoate nature of my private experience”

…and if you think I just made that phrase up, here’s the truth: I wrote down some of my favorite poncey I Have a Ph.D. and Little Else jargon throughout the day, during the various sessions I attended, and “the inchoate nature of private experience” was actually uttered. So were “the hermeneutic of temporality,” “volitive modality,” “deixis,” and “unlimited extra-diegetic narration.”)

The highlights of today’s sessions, outside of frantically scribbling onto my agenda “blowhards should stop standing up front, parroting academic papers they wrote five years ago,” were the short story readings. I sat in a classroom with fifteen people—an intimate setting—and listened to Spanish, Irish, Taiwanese, and Sri Lankan women read their stories. I guess, um, the male writers were in the other room down the hall. The one with urinals and beef sticks. I actually could have used both when the Spanish authoress, in her heavy accent, read aloud the words “my neon womb.” Outside of that minor blip, the women were mad-hot-talented examples of how life experience shapes fiction. In particular, I was unable to breathe during the Sri Lankan author’s three brutal stories about the effects of the civil war in her country, particularly the ways in which the media intersects with the violence. Her first story was called “Too Many Legs,” and in it, a dispassionate journalist watches officials trying to sort out a pile of legs based on the clothing—depositing uniformed legs in the military pile and sarong and sandal clad legs in the Tamil Tiger pile, puzzling out where the missing leg has gone off to when they come up with a final tally of 19 random limbs.

Yea, like that.

A welcome counterpoint to such stuff was provided this evening at one of the Toronto Public Library branches when the charming and animated Sandra Cisneros read three unpublished stories, one of which used Affection for Doggie as a means of exposing the uneven marriage of Frida Kahlo and her husband.

Finally, fifteen hours after arising, my dopey self was returned to downtown, a wonderful place teeming with young, old, slow, fast, hip, nerdy and a whole. lotta. nummy. take-out, including the Vietnamese vermicelli salad that is currently sitting in my belly and upping my winkem-and-nod factor to eleventy-hundred yawns.

At this minute, although my eyelids are heavy with hegemonic praxis, I can’t yet sleep. I have tomorrow’s short storying to contemplate (wrap your gifts:  it’s Margaret Atwood Day!)…

along with notions about fitting in visits to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Bata Shoe Museum…

HELLO, yes, I just typed shoe museum, which officially makes Toronto a candidate for Jocelyn’s Favorite Cities Inventory (which has been dominated by Budapest since 1999, after it offered up the Proustian experience of a melty, warm chocolate croissant early one morning as I raced to hop onto a train)…

along with the fact that I’m lying here under crisp sheets watching “Mall Cops: Mall of America.”

It’s research.

See, at the next conference, I plan to present a paper entitled “Contesting the Liminal: Busting the Criminal.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"The Rare Photo That Captures Perfectly Each Kid's Personality"



One of these kids will grow up to teach in an elementary school classroom, run a human resources office, or become a sociological researcher.

The other one will grow up to work as a Lego masterbuilder or--even better--a mad scientist.


One of these kids passes spare moments sawing out new tunes on the viola.

The other one fills unscheduled minutes by hanging onto the side of an easy chair, shouting, "Look at how I sucker myself to the side; I'm the monitor lizard that ate Spiderman."


One of these kids' meal of choice is vanilla yogurt stirred with granola.

The other one begins many a meal with a bellered, "I'm not just a carnivore; I'm an omnivore, so watch out edamame, watch out beef sticks, and watch out plastic spoons!"


One of these kids likes to sit on the chaise lounge and read books about middle schoolers who dread the lunch hour.

The other one likes to sit on a frisbee swing and deflect galactic missiles with ultra-elemental ax kicks.


One of these kids gets us to our destination by directing, "Mom, turn here.  Left!"

The other one is oblivious to the concept of "destination," being too busy listening to Allie Finkel's Rules for Girls to register that an outside world exists.


One of these kids soothes a hurt sibling's heart by running to get beloved stuffed animals for hugs.

The other one believes the stuffed animal is actually alive.


One of these kids uses allowance money to buy unnecessary reading glasses to wear in front of the mirror while being "cool."

The other one wears drinking straws twisted into spectacles and sucks chicken noodle soup through them, an act that only works when the liquid is suitably cool.


One of these kids poses a Question of the Day on the whiteboard in our bathroom.

The other one refuses to answer the Question of the Day but, rather, makes spot edits to the responses of others.  Most recently, when the Question of the Day was "What American name would you choose for yourself, if you could?", and Groom answered with "Huckle Pie," this Other Child erased the "H," replaced it with a "B," and turned Daddy's answer into "Buckle Pie."   [the "Question of the Day" specified an American name because previous QotDs had asked about names of choice in other countries]   Thanks to Other Child's mischief, I'm now considering dropping the use of "Groom" on this blog and just referring to him as "...my husband, Buckle Pie."


One of these children will, in time, handle our estate matters with great aplomb.

The other one will pretend to be a Pokemon called Feraligatr during the memorial service.


One of these children learned to read rotely and diligently, from piece to whole.

The other one learned to read from the top down, understanding the essence of the book from the air hovering above it.


One of these children helps carry bags into the house when we get home from shopping.

The other one has to be tackled and loaded with a loaf of bread, all the while protesting, "But I'm too tired.  My legs don't work."


One of these children sets the alarm for 7:42 a.m.--all the better for popping out of bed in the morning and getting a start on the day.

The other one pours out of bed reluctantly, sliding into another bed for a cuddle and asking for a thermometer, just in case illness has set in, making further movement inadvisable.


One of these children is ying.

The other one is yang.


Put side by side, they pitch each other into starker relief, illuminating each other's borders, serving as each other's negative space--


Sunday, June 13, 2010

"One of My Favorite 'It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over' Examples"

While it always saddens me when my virtual life is neglected, I can't mourn it too much when the neglect stems from a flurry of activity in my here-and-now life.  That is to say:  we have visitors this weekend, as we did last weekend.

This time, our pals Virginia and Kirsten are visiting from southern Minnesota. They are married. They are gooey in love. Virginia is 74. Kirsten is 38.

They serve as a reminder to anyone despairing at the state of his/her existence that life, in any given moment, isn't necessarily all that it will ever be. Just hanging in there--doing things like traveling with an acting troupe, volunteering in Madagascar, going to college, battling cancer--is often exactly what paves the way for the bright, hoped-for happy ending (which, as for all of us, will end with a fade to black).

That's what Virginia and Kirsten did before they met. They got on with things, tra-la-la-ing here, dithering there, slurping mangoes while standing at the sink, meeting friends at the coffee house, tooting around, ministering to parents, shoring up friends, eating at Applebee's.

Then they met. Their fingers touched as they sat next to each other in a darkened theater.

Some months later, there was a wedding. To finance that big show, Kirsten sold her beloved motorcycle.

A few weeks ago, now a couple of years into their gig, guess what Kirsten went out and bought?


Because it is stormy this weekend, and because they were bringing us a huge suitcase (along with ninety-twelve other delightful things), and because Virginia's new chaps haven't arrived yet,
they drove their car and left the bike at home.


However, these photos make evident that, at age 74, after months of chemo for her third go-round with cancer (the chemo's not beating it, merely causing the tumors to hold steady, thus lengthening these ladies' time of high romance together),

Virginia's never looked better.

Plus, who even notices a bald noggin under a shiny helmet?


There can be no doubt:  they were destined to ride off into the sunset together.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"Just Read the Eudora Welty Story Already"

or

"In Which I Mix Metaphors Wildly, As Though This Post Is A Mime Stuck in an Invisible Box and So He Has No Place to Hang His Hat Because It's Not His Cup of Tea, and Then He's Carried Away on a Wave of Emotion That Leaves His Heart Desolate, a Veritable Sahara Desert"

Summer session began last week, and I was immediately reminded that the nub of my job is closing gaps.  For everyone, college does some bridging:  from past to future; from who one was to who one wants to be; from never having had a beer to imbibing a twelve-pack every Monday ("Rock ON, dudes!  Chug for Monday Madness!"). 

At the community college, the bridges we build often call upon a multi-faceted team of engineers, from teachers to administration to student services to counselors to the diversity office to the learning center.  The bridges we help students build can be quite complicated, spanning miles, requiring the construction of depth as much as breadth.  Put another way, many students enter our college having never read a book. Many of them, even when given a layout of all the points they've earned against all the points that have been possible, cannot figure out the resulting percentage. Every term, when I distribute the final exam in my Novels class, half the class reads over the questions and then asks me what the word "resonate" means.  I used to tell them to get a dictionary and look it up; nowadays I tell them to hit dictionary.com.  Either way, their reaction is a blank, unbelieving stare.  Even more tragically, I had a student my first year of teaching who had never before met a period or a comma and proved that quite stunningly in his first five-page paper.  Of course, that was when I was teaching in the panhandle of Idaho, so he'd probably spent his formative years grasping a semi-automatic and firing off bullets from Ruby Ridge in lieu of grasping punctuation and firing off pithy bon mots.

Hence, while I am ostensibly passing on some content in the classroom, the truth is my job is more about looking at where a student is, looking at where a student needs to get to, and creating a catwalk between those points.  That, I'm used to.

What I often forget, however, is that the bridges need to be built in a variety of directions--education does not follow a simple Point A to Point B trajectory.  I'm also building bridges between where I, the teacher, am and where the students are.  Sometimes that means I'm a standard-bearer who is waving a flag and asking students to run towards it.  Other times that means I see my students far off in the distance, ahead of me--better read, more articulate, crazily analytical--and I realize I need to kick it up a notch if I hope to remain in the race.  Sometimes, the chasm between our life experiences seems unbreachable; I have students who have served in Iraq...two times...three times, and then I have students who have never left their hometown, even to visit the state next door (a ten minute drive).  In both cases, I am left gasping at how my own experience has left me ill-equipped to comprehend their world views.

Even more, in addition to the gaps between the students and myself, and the gaps between the students and the material they are expected to master, there are the peer-to-peer gaps between the students.  It seems wrong, in fact, to use a collective term like "students" when there is such variety even within one class.  I have had an 88-year-old minister and a 16-year-old skateboarder sitting in the same room.  I have had women working their way out of domestic abuse enrolled in the same class with domestic abusers; in this case, my job is to run interference so that these individuals never intersect, even on the most innocuous of assignments.  I have had meth addicts and former nuns sharing a classroom--imagine the rousing "Hail Mary" that issued forth when the frustrated addict yelled "Fuck this" and stormed from the room after glancing at the grade on a returned essay.

These discrepancies in values and experience are highlighted when the class peer reviews each others' papers, when they swap drafts and attempt to critique the writing of their classmates.  Last semester, a very dear pony-tailed, acne-ridden hardcore gamer wrote, with some excitement, an essay on e-sports (particularly the rise of Starcraft in South Korea).  Throughout the process, I cautioned him to keep his audience in mind, to make sure he explained all of his terms and imagined that a 75-year-old grandmother would be reading his work.  By the time he wrote his final draft, I (the 75-year-old grandma) was able to understand his topic and points, but his peer reviewers remained bewildered.  Having never heard of Starcraft or e-sports or, in one case, South Korea, they could only sputter, "I didn't really get this paper."  Poor Gamerboy had poured hours into his research and writing, only to be told, "I didn't really get this paper."  The bridge between Gameboy and his readers was rickety, built out of rotten timbers and frayed ropes.

Based on two emails I read last week, as my online classes geared up for the summer, I foresee similar issues arising this term.  Read for yourself:

Hi, Jocelyn! (What a fabulous name. I used it for a main character in one of my novels years ago.)

I'm looking so forward to starting this class with you!

My home school is Ichabod Community College, but I've taken online courses with host schools DCC and LSC as well. I encounter the same dilemma every semester: not getting my financial aid until after my online courses have started, ergo no books. Not to worry! I'm a dean's list student, and I work very hard to catch up then excel! I've taken about eleven online courses, and I am confident with it. I just feel it's fair to let my instructors know that I cannot get books until about a week or two into the semester.

If you would ever provide me with the ISBN for our texts, I'd be so grateful. Now, please let me know if there's anything I can do for you! Thank you so much for your time.

~Marion~

P.S.

Outstanding intro on our home page. I laughed out loud.
------------------------------------------------------------ 
 
Hi, Marion:

Thanks for touching base and for the kind words. I'm named after a lullabye in a French opera of the same name: "Jocelyn." You presume correctly if you guess my parents were musicians.

I put the titles of our texts into the magic Google machine and get these ISBN numbers:

For the American 24-Carat Gold:

ISBN-10: 0205617654

ISBN-13: 978-0205617654

And for the World of Short Stories:

ISBN-10: 0205617662

ISBN-13: 978-0205617661

The good news is that our first few short stories (the ones for next week) are anthologized heavily and pretty well known, so if you just search them online, you'll be able to read them from the Web and, thusly, not get behind (which is helpful since I don't accept late work). Please remind me, if you haven't gotten your texts by the end of next week, that you need the Writing Prompt for the first Reading Log, and I'll type it into an email for you.

I am always confounded by the financial aid system that makes it so hard to get textbooks from the very start. No worries, though!

You're going to be a terrific asset to the class; I can tell already.

Jocelyn
----------------------------
That first email from Marion was followed immediately by this one, from a different student:

Hello,

I just tried to send you a page with the pager but it says that it is disabled because I have not filled out a student services work study quiz because I work as a Campus Ambassador but the quiz I'm supposed to finish is not available anymore so I do not know if I will be able to send you a page... but I do know how it works!! Let me know what I can do about this!

Thank You!!!

Madge Smith

-----------------------------------
Hi, Madge:

I'm a litttttttttle bit confused. First off, here's a copy and paste from my syllabus, which is at the top of the Content page in the class: "Also, please note that I don't use the pager feature of the class, so don't even try it, Mugsy."

Clearly, knowing that information is important, as I'll never get any pages you try to send. Email or the "Ask Jocelyn" folder in the Discussions area would be the best ways to contact me.

I don't know what a "student services work study quiz" is--never heard of it!--so don't worry about it. Just know that I don't use the pager, and it's not an issue.

So what were you trying to page me about in the first place?

Jocelyn
----------------------------------------------------------
After reading those two emails, back to back, I was left pondering anew how to bring together such disparate students coming from such disaparate levels of preparedness.  How will they read and respond to each other's thinking?  How will Marion make sense of Madge's spinning brain?  How will Madge understand the big words Marion uses?

Fortunately, we all will unite around the material of the class:  reading short stories.  I leave it to Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Juan Bosch, Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Roch Carrier, Grace Ogot, R. Sarif Easmon, Guy de Maupassant, and Leo Tolstoy to provide all of us, from whichever direction we come, with common language, common experience.  They are the finest of bridge builders.

I just hope Madge doesn't try to page Tolstoy.

Friday, June 04, 2010

“My Breast Hath All Those Pieces Still”


A brief summary, in case you’ve been spending so many hours cruising awkwardfamilyphotos.com and bluntcard.com that you were too pressed for time to read the last few posts:

So I had a break-up, and it took the stuffing out of me, and I cried a lot; and then I had another break-up, which really took the stuffing out of me, and boy did I cry a lot; then I hooked up with Groom (detailed story can be read here), who, by meeting me fully and loving me ridiculously, has done an admirable job of keeping me from self-sabotage and the Kleenex box, except when the series finales of The Office (BBC version) and The Shield (oh, Shane Vendrell, what you did to your family…) are on, during which Groom just hands me the entire box of tissues, rubs my shoulders, and keeps me hydrated.

--------------------------------------------

Now, the coda:

Three years after being sliced open by the Norwegian Bachelor Farmer’s destructive reticence, the universe had allowed me a triumphant rebound:

I had found the person whose love completed my confidence; having tasted easy, assured adoration with Groomeo, my hunger was sated.  Never again would I feel the compulsion to search for an Other. I had felt the exceptional balance that came from genuine partnership, so I was all good. If I’d never gotten to feel the sensation of soppy romantic love, I would have continued to crave that one elusive life experience, would have felt my heart had missed out on filling all of its chambers. However, now that I had been lucky enough to “get” it and with such force, my heart needed an annex;

I had given birth to our delightful Girl, then a toddling towhead who would bounce on my knee with excitement as she pointed at pictures of elephants in storybooks;

My little family and I had escaped the small town where I’d lived throughout the heartbreaks. While I’d made good friendships in that place, the town hadn’t felt like a perfect fit, and not only because any time I’d wheel my daughter out in the jogging stroller, I’d be stopped by at least ten people who would point and comment, “Sakes alive, Mabel, would you look at that thing she’s got that baby in? That’s quite a carriage, Missy!” The town also lacked a variety of green spaces, peers in our age group, and choices of activities. Plus, it smelled. Thus, when an opportunity to interview at a college in a bigger city, on the edge of a beautiful lake, cropped up, and I was subsequently offered a position there, we had packed up and sped northwards;

I had realized a new level of physical health once I ratcheted up my daily walking into very slow running. I started by running a minute at a time, increasing it to three minutes at a time, and had gotten to the point where, so long as I held my pace to a slog, I could run miles. In fact, when my long-time distance-runner husband broke his toe the week before a scheduled 10K (try this for indignity: he broke it on a piece of wicker furniture) and found himself unable to run the race, my thrifty self announced, “We’re not losing that race fee. Plus, someone’s got to uphold the family honor.” I got the race registration transferred to me and, although at that point I’d never run more than 4 miles in my life, I cranked out that 10K, turning in even splits on all six miles. It seemed, somehow, I’d learned something about endurance, pacing myself, and not bursting into tears in the middle of the race.

Rebound, indeed.

It was fitting, therefore, that I was running on a trail in my beautiful new city, buoyed along by thoughts of getting home to my husband and daughter, when the universe handed me closure.

I was almost an hour into my run that day, enjoying the burble of the creek that snaked parallel to the trail, when I saw a man step out of the woods about a hundred yards down. Instinctively, realizing how isolated the spot was, I slowed down and took stock. I had been running for an hour and had seen no one during that time, and then some Random Mountain Man stepped out of the forest—off of no existing trail—and he was carrying a basket.

Baskets are very good for toting around severed heads.

Needed a plan; needed a plan. So if I kept running, I’d get to him and his basket of severed heads and then what? Ask him if his arms were tired? And if he answered that they were, should I then offer to help him with his load (after all, since it seemed I was driven by a need to accumulate all possible life experiences, I could then add to my list the item of “Carried Basket of Severed Heads”), or would I simply use the advantage of my non-tired arms to bash at him when he sluggishly pulled his hacksaw out of his, um, buckskin hacksaw holster?

Or was all this frantic brain spinning—as usual—unnecessary? Because that lanky guy with a basket suddenly looked familiar. Like he was of Norwegian extraction. About 46. A bachelor.

When I realized who it was standing there, on a remote trail located six hours drive from his home, someone I hadn’t seen for three years, hadn't seen since he’d dumped me, raw and bleeding, out the back of his moving van,

well,

my knees got weak, my vision blurred, and my head felt all swimmy.

After six seconds of that nonsense, I shook myself straight, shrugged my shoulders, and thought, “What the hell. What a chance. Let’s see what this business is all about.”

More swiftly than before, I ran straight towards him, enjoying his jump when I approached him from behind and called out, “So. Do you accept hugs from sweaty people?”

He turned and, spotting me, registered the same weak-blur-swimmy feeling I’d had. I enjoyed seeing that, too.

We exchanged an awkward “aren’t we just fine with each other” hug, a few “what are the odds?” comments, and an explanation of why we were out in those woods at that moment. Turns out, he was there and carrying a basket because he was in town visiting friends and, since they were busy that evening with another commitment, had decided to go out mushroom picking.

Of course, sometimes mushroom picking is just Vixenish Universe’s way of giving people the chance for a random encounter that leaves them looking each other directly in the eye.

Having never gotten a final eye-to-eye moment with The Bachelor, part of me, for a nanosecond, considered revisiting old wounds. But damn if they weren’t healed, relegated to being nothing more than part of a previous plot. No need.

What I did get to do, standing there, was pull out a weapon called Bringing Up Personal Information. This had been the main issue when we were together: I wanted to say things out loud; he wanted to absorb them through some eighth sense. In particular, I knew that flashing around personal, romantic-type information would cause him to dodge and feint. I had no fear of a parry.

Moreover, it did rather seem we were on my turf. And that he’d be hard pressed to come up with an escape excuse. And that I could initiate the flow of personal information and probably keep up with him in my running shoes, should he bolt.

“Hey, so I’m guessing you’ve heard through the grapevine that I got married a couple years ago. He’s great. We have a daughter now; she’s 16 months.”

Decently glad for me, he made a supportive and kind response, a gush along the lines of, “That’s good.”

My next impulse was a common one: whenever I see someone alone, with no plans, and I know I’m heading home towards Tuscan White Bean Soup with Crusty Bread and a relaxed evening of hanging out, I want to invite that person to come along and join in.

I started to form an invitation in my mind (“You should come over for dinner and meet my husband and Girl!”)—only noting in passing that, while The Bachelor was tall, my husband was taller; while The Bachelor was attractive in his way, my husband was more attractive, in more important ways; while The Bachelor liked to cook, my husband invented cooking.

As I contemplated asking him over, mostly to eat and chat and only minimally to broadcast the jackpot of my new life, I followed up on the reports I had been hearing about him, which had filled me in on the fact that he was newly engaged to a friend of a friend:

“So I’ve heard you’ve been seeing Cassie for awhile…and that things are getting serious with you guys?”

Looking simultaneously discomfited and happy, he mulled over how to confirm that his hopes had landed successfully, too . “Yes. A wedding is being planned.”

Really? Really? “A wedding is being planned”?

Right there, my thoughts about inviting him to dinner screeched to a halt. In a single statement, he had reminded me of everything that had been wrong between us, had triggered some dormant indignation. Because, really? In confirming that he had met the love of his life, the woman for whom he’d been casting about for decades, and in confirming that they’d decided to get married and create something bigger together,

He used the passive voice. Further, he didn’t insert either of the involved individuals into his confirmation. Leaving himself and his fiancee out of the statement and implying, vaguely, that something was happening that he had no control over…THIS was his affirmation of a huge life choice?

I was truly and immediately exasperated. One of the twelve voices in my head piped up, “Hey, Joce? A few years ago, you knew how you wanted this guy in your life: as a partner and as a love. He didn’t want you that way. Moments ago, you were considering establishing a friendship with him. But that would be taking the consolation prize. You didn’t get him on your terms? Don’t renegotiate the terms now. You knew what you wanted. He’s just reminded you why you can be glad you didn’t get it. So be done with him. Keep his passive, elusive, slippery self away from the straightforward beauty of Groom and Girl. Be done. Move on.”

Promising that voice a big chocolate brownie later, I looked up at The Bachelor one last time, told him I was glad he’d found what he was looking for, and glanced at my watch. “I need to finish up my run before dinnertime, so must hie off now. All the best to you and Cassie—and, gollee, what a weird coincidence, meeting up like this, eh?”

With that, we parted—my choice this time--

and,

never once looking back,

I aimed my active self, my active heart, my active voice,

towards the people who loved me.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

"Nothing Can to Nothing Fall"
(Part III of III)

(continued from the last post):

Once I was plainly dumped, all the energy that hadn’t known where to land during the course of our relationship stopped spinning around up in the air. It came crashing down, thundering in like a freight train.

I couldn’t fall asleep at night; to feel as though I had company, I started sleeping on the living room couch, with the television on. I, who have been known to ask for a granola bar mid-contraction during labor, who can cut a thousand calories from her daily diet and consequently gain seven pounds, lost ten pounds almost immediately. At no point during any day did my nerves quiet. I paced constantly. I cried unceasingly, even while standing in the back of the classroom as students were freewriting. Ham-handedly, I lacked empathy with friends who divulged their own vulnerabilities. My compass was spinning.

Still, I needed to know that, although the relationship was over, not everything was. I continued to visit my friends in their city, continued to hope that my burgeoning friendships with the Cabin Crew would progress. In the course of putting on a bright public face to these folks, I occasionally encountered The Bachelor. When I did, I was piercingly, stridently, intensely fine.

The same goodnesses in him that had first attracted me to The Bachelor came out again, after one such encounter. I had seen him in the city and smeared merriness all over the tall buildings; later, as he drove back to his new home in the UP, he stopped in a rest area and called me aa I sat, alone, in my wood-paneled shack back in my smelly little town. “I think you still have hope about us,” he noted. Laughing bitterly in response, I assured him that one thing I lacked at that point was hope.

“I don’t think we should see each other for a while,” he decided. “It’s not doing either of us any good.”

I protested, and not only because I chafed at him setting the terms of our separation; I also protested because then I wouldn’t see him anymore. There would be no more cabin weekends. And he’d be unable to see how much I didn’t need him.

He was adamant. I was cut from the group; astoundingly, that entire cadre of friends followed his lead. He continued to invite everyone—except me—to the sporting getaways. I had protested. No one else did. For someone hovering on the precipice of a breakdown, as I was, the lack of support, the absence of anyone shouting indignantly, “Hey, The Bachelor was an ass to you” while flipping him the finger, was a whole new level of torment. It really was just me inside this thing.

As I took in how provisional had been my access to that lively world, the sole windfall came from The Bachelor’s parting point before he hung up the phone that night, before I went on to spend six hours emptying an entire box of tissues: “The thing is, you’re nice to me when I see you. You shouldn’t be. I was a jerk. You should be angry at me.”

My lifetime of training had taught me how to slide the continuum of passivity into occasional aggression. But I had neither witnessed nor felt a reaction as appropriate, as healthy, as anger.

Certainly, part of me resented that The Bachelor gave me license to feel as I should. On the other hand, part of me was obliged for the lesson.

I worked on turning self pity into something more honest. I considered what parts of the anger needed to be directed at The Bachelor and what parts were better aimed at my own actions and decisions. In my meta-moments, I apprehended that many women don’t really know how to feel justified anger, how to channel it, how to employ its force. Rightly handled, anger can burn away contamination. Then, beautifully, the festering recedes.

In my case, the anger would have felt more gratifying if The Bachelor had been less matter-of-fact in informing me of the proper response. The anger would have burned cleaner if he’d seemed even the slightest bit ashamed at having been such a heel.

Apparently, for me, one of the clearest signs that I’ve broken up with someone is that he urges me to be angry with him.

One doesn’t learn the healthy expression of anger through sheer will, of course. I hacked around my head for awhile, attempting to connect the collapse occurring there to the constant ache in my heart. Partially, I was successful.

As time went on, though, I got past reacting with “It’s okay for everyone else, but not for me” when a few pals suggested I see a therapist. I listened to their testimonials and realized I respected the hell out of them for being willing to unpack their pain. So I made a call.

Again, a “moral of the story” tale would end here with personal growth, a shoring up of spirits, and some healthy moving on.

Ah, but morals are too pat for real life.

I went three times to see the therapist, basically for an initial consultation before deciding what plan to put in place. She was a dear Midwestern woman, in her drop-waist jumper, sporting her Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut. Listening intently, taking notes, she provided me the solace of being heard. She also was an uncritical audience—which meant, were I so disposed, I could lead her anywhere. I wasn’t so arrogant as to think “I’m smarter than the therapist,” but I was nervy enough to realize that I could be, if I felt like it. She was lovely, but she wasn’t sharp. Inside, I felt very, very sharp.

Thus, by the time she advised me, “We’ve done our three sessions, and I have to tell you you’re fine. You don’t need to see me. You know what you’re thinking and why. You’re actually very healthy in the ways that matter,” I had already decided the sessions served as a marking point, but I would move on without them.

Through all my flailing around, I had hit on a few ideas—sloppy morals, if you will--that provided enough thought fodder to propel me forward:

From The Bachelor: I needed to get better at realizing when anger is called for, and then I needed to feel it fully and let it blow through.

From the therapist, after I described the recent baffling months: “Those people you keep calling your friends? That’s actually not friendship.”

From my own whimpering noggin: The thing that kept me crying all the time was a prickly sense of humiliation, the worst kind of devastation. Being bright and cheery and helpful for someone who hadn’t even been looking—who didn’t esteem me enough to say what he was thinking--was perhaps the greatest diminishment I’d ever felt. Part of leaving behind humiliation, for me, would mean always, always, always being willing to say out loud the things I dreaded the most, lest I cripple a fellow human in the name of “prudence.” Saying the hard things out loud, being willing to cause that pain, is a way of bestowing respect. Hogtying expression is a kind of degradation.

From my traumatized heart: I could be my best self, and that might not be enough. Spotting So Right, I did everything in my power to become The Right One for One So Right, and it still was a bust. Effort, intention, compatibility—they didn’t necessarily combine into a winning sum. What looked right on paper read quite differently out loud.

Ultimately, this break up was like trying to crack applesauce; it’s impossible to shatter something fundamentally fluid and viscous. Glass breaks. Concrete crumbles. But a bowl of mush swirls, jiggles, muddles, gains definition only through emptiness. Of course, for the one staring at the empty bowl, spoon in hand, napkin tucked into collar, dolefully trying to dig into something not there,

there is only bottomless hunger.



(coda still to follow)