Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Hot Child in the City"

Remember in 1991 when Demi Moore squatted down, and a girl child fell out?

Less memorably, remember the Friday night in 2000 when I put my knees to my ears and emitted a squalling bundle of flesh?

Now, some years later, I'll be tumpluckered if a national organization hasn't gone and named itself after those two kids. There was a Scout. And then there was Girl. And then there was Scout Girl.

Wait a minute.

That's not quite right.

What we need here is a deranged hospital nurse (one with the magical ability to knit together distant years and hospitals) who, for unexplainable nefarious purposes, is willing to switch Demi and Jocelyn's babies at birth. Then, thanks to her unhinged machinations, we'll have something more like Girl Scout.

Yea, that's got more of a ring to it--much more marketable and less pedophilic than the whole "scouting girls" bidness.

When I see the words "Girl Scout" in that order, in fact, I find myself Do-Si-Do-ing through a vortex of Thin-Mint-heavy decades, through cyclonic winds of time that bash me about the head and ears with Carmel deLites.

I am hurled back to 1977, when all I wanted was to earn my Cookie Patch.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should also note I wanted a pair of those new Nike sneakers. White, with a blue swoosh.

Maybe also I wanted a pair of HASH jeans, with the star on the pocket. (The star would be prominently featured during Ladies Choice songs at Skate City, when I would circle the rink with a big yellow comb tucked into the star pocket. Onlookers would be distracted by the glamour of the star and the comb as they caught fire under the illumination of the disco ball; they might not even notice I was trying, futilely, to do "bouncers" to "Blinded by the Light" with my pal Lisa Mackin instead of falling in love on wheels with some Eric Estrada look-alike.)

As long as I'm in True Confessions mode, I can admit that in addition to wanting the swoosh and the HASH and a badge for a sash, I also rewy, rewy wanted the K-Tel Stars album.

Holy and sacred K.C. & the Sunshine Band, but I needed that album. You see, I had in my closet some fine, metallic boogie shoes--rather a ballet flat, actually. And I wanted to put them on. And then I wanted to boogie with you. After that, Cliff Richard and I would be compelled to warn you that some nameless "She" was just a Devil Woman. Even more pressing was the fact that she had evil on her mind--AND she was going to get you not from the front, which would be a fair fight, but from behind.

And that's the strategy of a coward, Devil Woman. A coward, you emasculating vixen.

Clearly, this album and its contents spoke to my life; they were tailor-made for a ten-year-old dancing around her basement bedroom in a split-level ranch house. Down there? Sure, we had orange shag carpet and dark wood paneling. But we also had boogie shoes, we had Devil Women, we had--thank you Atlanta Rhythm Section--"voodoo in the vibes."

Oh, yea, baby. I was ten, and I was a Girl Scout, and I knew what I needed.

With a pair of Nikes, some HASH jeans, a hot LP, and a mood ring, I was ready to roll my way through my Scout troop's requirements and straight towards that cookie patch, fo' sho'. Armed with the necessities, I was ready to sell me some cookies.

The neighborhood wouldn't know what had hit it until it woke up one day to find the chimneys stuffed with Savannahs, the gutters littered with Scot Teas, the driveways paved with Samoas.

Indeed, in the Spring of '77, I nearly calloused my soft white knuckles by knocking on doors, pulling out the order form, and trying to strongarm Mrs. Starkweather and Mrs. Bergendahl into helping me meet my cookie quota. I was on fire for the sale; I was the Tony Robbins of Tagalongs; on my honor, I would canvas the neighborhood as I served God, my country, and helped people at all times by selling them vast quantities of Trefoils.


After about an hour of really tiring trudging around the subdivision--it was not a flat place, I'll have you know--, during which I managed to sell a mere 8 boxes of cookies and experience the death of a dream, I realized that door-to-door sales might not be my forte. I was reluctant to scuff my new Nikes by inserting a foot into the slamming doors; and I was averse to banging a HASHed hip against unopened screen doors.

My K-Tel album was at home. And it needed me. More than the Girl Scouts ever could.

Ten minutes later, as I twirled around the basement with Thelma Houston, both of us "IIIIINNNNN LOOOOVVEEE," I stopped short. Good-night, John Boy, but I was being such a spaz. I could never be truly bitchin' and funkadelic without...

...the patch. As a creature of rad accumulation, I still wanted the patch. I just didn't want to have to sell cookies to get my cookie patch. Selling wasn't fun.

Twirling was.


Naturally, she came through, for both me and my sister, writing The Girl Scouts of America a tremendous cheque that year. And did you know a chest freezer can hold half a cow PLUS 32 boxes of cookies? Bless the chest. It coughed up Thin Mints year 'round for our family, box after box. The chest is the best. Frozen Thin Mints aren't bad, either.


Thirty years later, I have a seven-year-old daughter. She's a Girl Scout, and it's cookie season. The order forms lounge on our counter, next to the cheque book.

Fittingly, she is indifferent about moving product.

But she does covet a patch.

Pan downstairs now, to the lowest level of our house, past the orange shag carpet. Zoom in tighter. Yes, there it is: the chest freezer.

From now on, any time I find myself in a Climax Blues Band kind of mood--you know, when I keep on lookin' for a sign in the middle of the night, but I can't see a light, no I can't see the light, maybe I'll remember I can look for a way to take me through the night--and you'll know where to find me.

In the basement. Near the open freezer. Gnawing on a Thin Mint. And thinking about how the sewing badge I earned in Girl Scouts in 1977 remains safety-pinned to my sash. Right next to the Cookie Patch.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"All of Y'all Need to Eat More Whole Grains. 'Ceptin' the Poor 'Uns. You're Good"

"Wait! What's that?" asked seven-year-old Girl, catching a glimpse of the email I had opened on the computer tonight.

"It's just a message someone sent. But it's time for bed; go choose your book, and then we'll brush teeth," I responded, ever task-minded at 8 p.m. I get profoundly more task-minded when my husband has just run to the local brewhouse to pick up a Growler (read: big-ass jug) of micro-brew Stout for us to crack open as soon as the kids are snoring and dreaming of their Webkinz.

"No, but who are those people on the screen? I want to see them," she insisted.

"Okay, okay, but quickly. Then it's read, brush, and hop into bed with you, " I conceded, turning the laptop's monitor her direction. Quickly, there on the bed, Girl was joined by her five-year-old brother, Dinko, who chimed in, "What're all those people doing? I wanna see too."

"Well, the pictures in this message show people from all over the world standing next to the food they ate in one week. Then it tells us how much it cost for them to buy that food. Basically, it's showing us how different we are in the ways we're most the same." As I've mentioned before, I'm the parent who's devotedly working towards turning her children into The Boors in the Corner at future art openings.

For the next ten minutes, after we were joined by Groom (who'd been downstairs frying up onions, peppers, and fajita meat--cost: $5.43) on the bed, our little crowd of family scrolled through the photos again and again, up and down, responding to requests to "see the Italian people again so I can see their bread" or to "show me one more time the ones who live in a tent."

During this spontaneous family gathering, it was noted that:

--those Ecuador people don't seem to live in a rich house...but they have the best smiles
--Egyptian people are lucky because they live in Ancient Egypt, where the mummies are
--the Bhutan people have a richy-looking house, but there sure are a whole lot of them in it
--the Germans need to mess things up a little
--the Mexicans drink too much pop
--the Americans eat a shezbang of junk food
--the Polish people have the cutiest stuffed grey elephant in the whole hungry world

Do you see what we saw?

Italy: The Manzo family of Sicily
Food expenditure for one week: 214.36 Euros or $260.11

Germany: The Melander family of Bargteheide
Food expenditure for one week: 375.39 Euros or $500.07

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina
Food expenditure for one week $341.98

Mexico: The Casales family of Cuernavaca
Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09

Poland: The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna
Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27

Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo
Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53

Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week: $31.55

Bhutan: The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23


As we powered down the computer, the kids asked if we couldn't delete the photo of the crap-eatin' Revis family of North Carolina and substitute it with one of our family and its weekly eats.

"We'd have to put lots of apples and oranges in the picture," Dinko noted.

"And for my lunch at school, I'd need five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," piped up Girl.

"Then we'd need a bouquet of biscotti," I continued...

"Plus yogurt, granola, pears, carrots, peas, and a box of Teddy Grahams," contributed Groom...

before we all shouted in unison, "And a tower of homemade cookies!"

Ten minutes later, after the kids' ears had been filled, their teeth swabbed, their bladders emtpied, and their bodies strapped to their beds,

I tromped down the stairs towards the Oatmeal Stout in a Jug,


I took a happy second to savor

my blessed good fortune.

Monday, January 21, 2008

“I Need Fifty-Nine Drinks”

When I was 18 months old and napping one day, my aunt felt compelled to hold a mirror to my mouth to check my breathing and find out if I was still alive. I slept that deeply.

When I was an adolescent, my sister once poured a glass of water on my face while I was asleep. I didn’t wake up. This proved her hypothesis.

When I was in my thirties, two squalling babies kept me from REM sleep for a total of six years. I did not hurt them. They will make it up to me in my dotage by bringing me hazelnut lattes at The Home and helping me to change the channel when “The Price Is Right” is over.

As it turns out, too many people messed with a good thing.

Crushingly, this week, I can’t sleep.

Insomnia is largely unknown to me; ever since I first pledged to life and passed the initial hazing of swallowing multiple bowls of gummy rice cereal while strapped to a chair, sleep has been one of my favorite sorority sisters in the Delta Delta Gamma house.

But this week, sleep is a mo-fo, and it is my foe.

I know the cause of my open eyes. I know why my brain races. I know from whence my anxiety stems.

It’s a student, of course. I’d love to disclose all sorts of juicy details, but I daresay that’s unethical, even for someone of loose ethics like me. An abbreviated, anonymity-preserving profile of him might read: “batshit, narcissistic, delusional, illogical, excuse-making, sweet, sad, and, oh, yes, most likely alcoholic.”

All of you who have met this person in his many forms on the planet are nodding knowingly right about now, ja? This person, when you met an incarnation of him, caused you lost sleep, too, didn’t he?

But his presence in my life this academic year is teaching me all sorts of things I wasn’t aching to discover: he’s showing me how ill-equipped I am to deal with his pathologies—how easily the teacher role casts me as an enabler. He’s good, too. When I try to reset the boundaries a bit, drawing a pre-1989 line to send him back into East Berlin while I keep partying and buying truckloads of consumer goods over in West Berlin, he gets defensive and broken and lobs a few little rocks over at my wall. They take chinks out of me, too.

So all these hours when I’m not sleeping? I’m trying to figure out how to help both Gorbachev and me keep that all-important wall intact. I need the protection.

Dropping the labored metaphor, I can just say that he’s got me obsessing and has inspired an exhausting mania in my darker hours. I completely want him to miss the bus (see, he has a car or two, but can’t drive them, um, because doing that is expensive, so he has to take the bus. It’s not at all related to DUI issues.). I want him to miss the bus and miss class. Forever.

What’s getting me through this very minute of internal fretting and typing, this trying minute of 2:41 a.m., is the bear-hunting program I’m watching on Channel 10. All these guys in camouflage are kind of sad in their own way (and trust me, I can see the case for hunting…but baited bears?). They’re assuring themselves of their own worth with all their guns and gadgets, the same way poor Batshit and his delusions and drinking give him a skewed sense of validity. It’s all about wanting to feel that you’re powerful, that what you're doing has a purpose, that you’ve got control over something, inn’t it?

Ooh, now that they’ve dropped the mighty beast, the shooters on the screen are urging me to buy an ATV trailer called the “Tail-gator.” Apparently, it can also help me drag carcasses out of the woods.

What I really need is an “Alkie-gator” to help me drag a student out of the classroom.

And fifty-nine gin and tonics to help me sleep.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"The Twelve-Inch Scar"

Five years ago, on January 17th, I made one of my students vomit.

I hadn't even assigned "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," either.

Rather than yacking up her lunch as a reaction to Coleridge's opium-induced writings, she barfed out of affection and empathy.

See, this student came from a background so sketchy, so traumatic, that you would be skeptical of the details. The first twenty years of her life were positively and brutally cinematic, in a directed-by-Quentin-Tarentino-and-starring-Harvey Keitel-as-a-coke-addicted-mafia-enforcer-with-a-blowtorch-and-a-pair-of-pliers kind of way. In short, any possible abuse that you can imagine inflicted on another human being had been heaped upon her before age 11, when she finally broke free of her parents' terrors one seminal night and found possibility--found life--on the streets.

I didn't know all this at first, of course. All I knew was that she seemed oddly experienced yet unformed there in Freshman Composition, and when I gave students twenty minutes to write up a paragraph of introduction, she fidgeted and ultimately turned in less than a line, apologizing that she was having a bad day. At that time, I didn't know her literacy was so newly-minted that it shattered in the face of pressure.

As the weeks passed, I noticed that she was making tentative overtures of friendship and that she seemed willing to expose some hidden parts of herself (when she came up after I'd assigned the persuasive essay to say, "You told us to write from our personal experience, so, uh, could I argue that the War on Drugs is a good thing, from the point of view of those in the drug trade? I can easily come up with three reasons to support that idea--it keeps our, um, their prices higher and keeps employment opportunities up for some of us, um, them and such to have drugs outside of government control). I told her to go for it, draw from her experience, and if she didn't want to share her essay with classmates during a peer review session, she didn't have to.

In particular, she seemed fascinated by my expanding belly that semester, as I was in my last trimesters of cooking up the Wee Niblet. She started with "I've never seen a healthy pregnancy before" and, a week later, progressed to "So this kid won't be addicted to nuthin' when it comes out, right?" before eventually winding around to "Because of some stuff that's happened to me, I can't have kids."

Thusly, through small disclosures, we became friends. The semester and third trimester carried on.

Then the semester ended in December, and the third trimester carried on. And on. And on. Those last weeks dragged out endlessly, as they do in most pregnancies, but for me they were exacerbated by a big baby in my uterus deciding to turn. Generally speaking, at the end of the pregnancy, a fetus is too big to move much, but Niblet apparently was feeling the squeeze because he shifted from happily-head-down (the Ready to Rock position) at about Week 38 of my pregnancy to Head Up and Right, Head Up and Left, and eventually Head Slowly Descending, which I think is also a yoga pose.

Trust me, having a huge ball of flesh move around in a womb that's stuffed to bursting--bursting like Paris Hilton's closet, but not like her head--is painful. Each time he started travelin', I had to stop and grab the counter or the car or Groom's leg, thinking, "Holy Red Hots, but this is some funky contraction."

Then it would stop, not a contraction at all. I'd clean up the spilled cereal or pick up the groceries or administer a soothing cream to Groom's broken leg skin, and we'd move on.

We did have the support of a doula during the pregnancy and labor, fortunately, and during the "Where the Hell's the Head Now?" phase of things, when I was getting weekly ultrasounds to determine the babe's position, she would come over and help me try to flip the Niblet. There are age-old methods of baby moving, apparently, that require the expectant mother to crouch on the living room floor in a position called Turtle or to do lunges against the edge of the couch, in the hopes of prompting the Little Shaver to rotate. Since these methods have emerged out of eons of childbirth, I found them worth trying, although I never could figure out how prehistoric women did them--what with not having living rooms or couches.

After all my contortions, the baby ended up head down, but anteriorly, not posteriorly (translation: when you're standing behind a birthing woman--which is safer than standing in front of her, where any missiles she lobs...water glasses, car keys, unopened condoms...can nail the innocent onlooker--the baby's face should be looking right at you when it exits the birth canal. In my case, the baby was trying to come out face forward, so he could watch and flinch each time innocent onlookers were pelted with unopened condoms). The upshot was that the kid was overdue and not in ideal position, but he could make it out.

Ultimately, labor was induced. The night before, I was checked into the hospital, where a heavy-handed resident practiced, with loudly-whispered advice from the bystanding nurse, inserting a little P-gel, in the hopes of ripening my crabby cervix and making it more amenable to labor. It didn't help much, so the next morning, they broke out the hard stuff: Pitocin.

Haysoos Marimba, but a Pitocin contraction is a regular contraction on steroids (or, um, Pitocin). Bigger, harder, meaner. I labored for about six hours--in awe at my water breaking, at upchucking my Nutrigrain Cereal Bar when I dilated to four centimeters (classic stuff, I was told). Truth be told, I was only awed for about 4 seconds during that time. The rest of it?

I wanted to die.

There's a reason why I've never written about this day before. Even with my love of juicy vocabulary and a sound thesaurus, I have continued to have the sense that there just aren't words for that day. When I type, "I wanted to die," it sounds cliche. It sounds like me at the mall when I spy the perfect pair of ankle boots on clearance--and, amazingly, they are available in my size--but when I get them to the check-out, I am told they weren't on clearance after all. That's when I usually drum up a good "I just want to die."

So it's almost impossible for me to convey my longing to die that day. Unquestionably, if I had been Linda Purl in The Young Pioneers, out there alone on the prairie, just me in my corn-husk bed, raising my calico skirts to make way for the delivery, reaching for my sewing shears to sever the umbilical cord, I would have died. I would have reached over for my plow-loving husband's rifle, angled it towards my head, and pulled the trigger.

Fully aware of the impact of my actions and the fact that I would miss that year's wheat harvest, I still would have pulled the trigger. Knowing how much we had desired this baby, craved his addition to our family, planned to have him, I would have pulled the trigger.

On our way out of the world, I might have whispered an apology to the baby. But mostly, I would have welcomed the release from the agony. That day, in the hospital, I just didn't care. I only needed it to end.

In my recollection, the long hours are actually a blur. Women in labor dive so deeply, internally, that we don't realize our husbands are shoveling in Dagwood sandwiches while standing next to us--getting the bones in one hand crunched during a contraction, snarfing down a stack of turkey and lettuce with the free hand. I certainly had no idea Groom had eaten. Later, I expressed to Groomeo my admiration at his uncomplaining fast, noting that he must have been incredibly hungry as he worked Support Staff. Turns out, he ate quite a bit while standing a foot away. He probably answered the phone, too, fluffed some pillows, and carried on conversations about the local news anchors' hairstyles. I had no idea.

Certainly, I was not proud; I availed myself of one, two, three epidurals, the story of which is another twelve-page post. In brief, epidurals are more efficaciously administered when the hospital pages the anesthetist on duty, not one who is at home shoveling his sidewalk. And certainly, I had my peeps. Pulling me through that day were not only the doula and Groom but also our kids' Godmamas (the beautiful lesbians), my cousin's wife (herself nine months pregnant, yet she dropped to her knees repeatedly to massage my lower back as we paced the halls very early in the process, helping me wheel the IV stand along), and my mother (who was ultimately sent from the room, when she couldn't handle seeing her own grown-up baby girl in such a state). This troupe went through their own physical contortions on my behalf: pressing into me a foot or an elbow to counteract the back labor; chasing the heartbeat around my uterus with a mobile monitor, to avoid having to insert a scalpal monitor into the baby, who was firmly lodged inside of me; getting my husband that big ole sammy.

Even surrounded by help and love, however, I was ready to die.

Still working, our doula urged me to lower my vocalizing from high, squeaking, ineffective pips down to lower, stronger, diaphragm-centered tones, yet the baby didn't descend any further. The nurses came and went with a bustle. And then the resident insisted on checking my dilation during a contraction.

As I bellered at this painful indignity, and the cast swirled around me, trying to regain focus out of chaos, the curtain shielding the door to my room was pushed aside. It was my excited, naive student. She was happy, expectant, ready to see a healthy baby for the first time in her life. She was ready to behold the post-birth beauty of Mother and Child, nestled in joyous union.

Instead, she walked in on Dante's Inferno, if Homer Simpson had doused that inferno with charcoal lighter and held a Bic to it before spraying the whole thing with aerosol hairspray.

At the moment she popped through the door, she heard one of my low, gutteral,"I-am-a-broken-person" moans. It struck her as a familiar a sound. It struck her as the same sound she'd made herself in moments of profound physical pain, when others were on her, in her, torturing her. It struck her that I was dying. I wager it struck her that I wanted to die. She'd been there.

As the doula called out to my stunned student "This is NOT a good time," she'd already turned and run--run down the hall, stumbling into the nearest bathroom, where she vomited up her visceral reaction to what she'd seen and heard.

For the rest of that day, both of us were shaking. I had five more hours of torment before decelerations in the baby's heartbeat led to an emergency C-section. Strangely, I felt shame about not being able to get that baby out on my own. I felt I hadn't worked hard enough. I felt a failure.

However. When the blessed epidural finally took effect in the operating room, and the misery ceased for the first time in eleven hours, and I proclaimed my everlasting love to the anesthesiologist, they pulled the Niblet out of me, and no matter how he got here, I was oh-so-glad he had arrived.

(with Niblet weighing in at a few ounces over 10 pounds, the surgical team greeted him with a roar of appreciation; for at least a few more days, he had the distinction of being the biggest baby born in the city that year)

Due to the sheer amount of painkiller my body had accumulated throughout the day, I had been on oxygen; I had the shakes; I had uncontrollable itching. As I was prepped to move into the recovery room, the brusque surgeon took two seconds to stop by my arm, which she touched briefly. I had been warned that bedside manner wasn't her forte, but her words sliced me as deftly as her knife: "You need to know that you couldn't have done this any other way. Neither you nor he would have made it. This was the only option."

It is so rare that we hear exactly what we need to, exactly when we need it most. She gave me that rare solace.

The day after Niblet was excised, when I was still hooked up to the ease-inducing morphine pump, the phone in my hospital room rang.

It was my dear, traumatized student. She opened with, "So you're alive?" An hour later, she sat at my bedside, a bag of chocolates in her hand. With awe, she took in the fact that I had been through such an ordeal, yet I was still her same Jocelyn (read: happy to see the chocolate). When the nurses brought my boy in for a feeding, she refused to hold him, aw-shucks-ing that she wouldn't want to drop him.

A few minutes later, after our goodbyes, I spied her down the hall, standing outside the nursery, where she stared through the glass at him with marvel bordering on reverence. Overwhelmed, I hit the button on my morphine drip and clutched a pillow to my foot-long incision, grimacing as I anticipated the pain of an approaching sneeze.

That hospital hall saw my student move from spew to wonderment in the course of twenty-four hours. It took me weeks to recover from the agony of Niblet's delivery, but the sight of her down that hall, her nose against the glass, appreciating for me what she could, can, never have, was an instant benediction.

Her joy at my good fortune,

her joy at seeing a healthy, welcome child,

her joy in his tightly-swaddled purity

reminded me that beauty can be birthed out of terror and anguish.

And now Niblet is five, and Student has just this week accepted her first professional job.

As a nurse.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Flaking and Cursing"

Thanks to Jesus and his lot--and Lot's Wife--I need some new swears.

If it weren't for them and all their high-fallutin' "Biblical history," I probably would never have heard of the Dead Sea and its abrasive salts.

Which means I wouldn't use sea salt in my homemade olive oil/cedar essence/sea salt body scrub that I daub on during Almighty Showertime Exfoliation. Instead, I would use pine needles and lentils softened with sap.

And if I'd never heard of Dead Sea salt and therefore didn't use it in my sacred exfoliation process, then I would be a nicer person with a cleaner vocabulary.

You see, I have a little trouble with the order of my shower agenda; I get wet, add shampoo, slather on the soap, shave, rinse, add conditioner, and then scrub up with saltishness. But Sweet Maria von Trapp, if there's one thing on the planet that scourges the body with an evil necromancy, it's salt applied with great vigor to freshly-shaved legs.

To make things worse, this morning I managed to nick one my legs as I shaved. Then, a mere 74 seconds later, having forgotten all about the recently-inflicted Nick (I did that one hungover morning in college, too! But that Nick had blue eyes, little endurance, and lacked the depth of the one on my leg today), I massaged on a hefty palmful of my sea salt scrub, making sure to grind and rasp it into every crevice of my newly-minted nick.

As it turns out, the sins of the razor do not wash away. Instead, they fester and protest, as did my mouth at that moment.

Easily, I came up with a "Frick!"

Thoughtlessly, I shouted out a "Tarnation, you wascally wabbit!"

Off the tip of my tongue tripped a "SHEEE-IT" and a quick "Hell would be a mercy right now!"

But, frankly, all my efforts at verbal expressiveness fell flat compared to the stinging, briery pain that shot through my stubble-free gam as salt met blood.

Thus, I curse--ineffectively--the salt that buoyed the Lamb of God.

Damn it, Jesus. Just damn it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

(Note: If you didn't read the previous post by my guest blogger, Jim, you'd best do that before reading this one.

No, seriously. Go do it.

Stop skimping on every facet of your life. Just go read it, for the love of Mary Kate and Ashley. Then read this one.

Still here?

Kee-rist, slacker, is it that hard to scroll down and do the teensiest bit of background work? You won't understand what's going on in this post unless you put in the three minutes it'll take you to read the previous post. Love it, baby.)

"The Night Elizabeth Taylor Didn’t Kiss Me"

I am visiting L.A. for a working weekend: Chris and I are putting the finishing touches on our book Love, West Hollywood. I didn’t bring anything to wear. No problem; I borrow a jacket from Chris, and we go shopping for an appropriate shirt. I drive to Tom’s house in Beverly Hills, and we take his vintage Mercedes convertible to the Paramount lot. After we arrive, we walk along the red carpet where a TV actor (from E.R.?) is doing the step-and-repeat.

Inside the lobby is a crush of people. “Do you know anyone?” I ask Tom. He says no. But we see Mary McDonnell (love her) and Maria Shriver (looking better than expected) and, who’s that really tall guy? Kareem Abdul Jabar. I smile and say hello to Mary McDonnell who returns the smile and the hello. I love her all the more.

It takes us 30 minutes to identify the TV actress trying to hide her bad cosmetic surgery behind long blonde bangs: Joan Van Ark. A particularly Hollywood tragedy.

Our seats are third row center, reserved for Tom and his boyfriend, an Internet gazillionaire. Next to me is seated a middle-aged man, dark hair, and next to him is, I presume, his boyfriend. The man turns to me eagerly and asks, “Are you Tom?” I say no and indicate Tom next to me. “Are you David?” he’s very eager now. “No, I’m Jim.” The man then engages Tom in discussion over me, never again to address me, refer to me, or look me in the eye. The man has some relationship to ET, and Tom is happy to talk to him. Liz’s man clearly wants Tom’s money for her foundation and offers to set up a meeting with Elizabeth for Tom and David. Score for Tom!

I wonder if Liz-man thinks I am Tom’s whore for the evening and marvel at my sudden invisibility. (“You haven’t been in L.A. long have you?” a friend asks me later.) Neither famous nor rich, I better get used to it. Still, I’m used to the L.A. attitude of being friendly with everyone, since you never know who might be on their way up. I like to believe that ET wouldn’t act this way to anyone and that she wouldn’t approve of her man’s treatment of me either.

Up on stage there is a raised platform with a table on it. On the table top are two script holders. Love Letters by A. R. Gurney is a two-character play that is usually presented more as a reading than a performance. There is only one chair at the table. I mention this to Tom. “Wheel chair?” he asks.

Soon speeches are given to honor Elizabeth Taylor for her AIDS activism and fundraising. The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation is the organizer of the event, and it was ET’s idea. She hasn’t been on stage in 25 years. Without anyone saying so, we all understand that she isn’t likely to ever perform on stage again. Eventually the side door opens, and Liz herself is wheeled out to the auditorium, up the stage and to her place at the table.

She looks good. Old, but good. Her hair is dyed jet-black, as in the old days. Her face is thin, with sharp angles where it used to be heart-shaped. She is Dame Elizabeth here. I look for some remnants of Maggie the Cat, finally finding it in her smile and the glint in her eye. She’s wearing a long loose dress (one couldn’t in good taste call it a caftan) and a shawl. We all stand and applaud wildly. She nods appreciatively. James Earl Jones comes out too.

The play starts out with letters between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Ladd as children. They are playmates and neighbors who become teenage sweethearts, college lovers, and adult correspondents. In middle age they rekindle their romance and become lovers again. Elizabeth is good with the girlhood letters, all flirtatious and rebellious. She has clearly prepared although not enough to get her over the French words in the script. She loses her place in the text a couple of times but she gets over it.

The most gripping part of the performance is the shawl. Midway through the first act, Elizabeth’s shawl has dropped from her right shoulder. She continues her lines as she tries to put the shawl back on. I can’t stand the thought that she is cold or uncomfortable on stage. I want to help her out. You’re sitting on it, I whisper to her. I try not to look at Tom next to me, but I feel the whole audience is riveted to Elizabeth and her struggle with the shawl. James Earl Jones, help her! I scream in my head. He continues with his lines. Finally, the shawl does her bidding, and I relax. I feel a sigh of relief around me. We will not mention this, we silently agree.

Andrew and Melissa’s affair resumes after he is elected to the Senate, and she has become a successful artist. Her success, however, comes with divorce, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. Although I think Gurney packs a lot of clich├ęs about successful East Coast establishment figures into the play, the last half of the second act is good, tense, and funny. The ending is a disappointment and, I think, an artistic cop out. But it gives Elizabeth a final bravura performance: Maggie the Cat lives!

Standing again, we cheer wildly. Elizabeth beams. She is tired. For nearly two hours, she’s been on stage, working hard, and it shows. James Earl Jones graciously steps aside and applauds for her. She nods to him and takes his hand. Then she turns back to the audience and nods again. Slowly she puts her hands on the wheelchair arms and boosts herself up. She inches up until she is in a half-standing position, supported by the wheelchair. She nods again at the audience, once, twice, three times. Slowly she sits again. Dame Elizabeth, having made her appearance, is ready to go. The assistant wheels her off.

On the way home, we dissect her performance and her appearance. Tom refers to Elizabeth Taylor’s reputation as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” saying she was “the most beautiful YOUNG woman in the world.” I feel somewhat sacrilegious but remember my own view of her when I was young. She was 32 when I was born, an age I no longer find old, and her movie-making peak was soon behind her. But her work continues and her stardom endures.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sometimes we see our craziness only in retrospect. Ah, hell, not sometimes. Pretty much always; I mean, if we realized how off kilter we were at the time, we'd probably tame our wilder impulses.

Right, Britney?

My most recent crazy decision occurred in mid-December, when I agreed to teach a class this upcoming semester that is entirely new to my pedagogical repertoire: English Literature: 18th Century to the Present. Sure, it trips off the tongue nicely and all--but the truth is that I haven't even thought about this stuff (things like the Romantic poets, the Victorians, the poets of World War I) for 22 years, since I was a freshman in college. And even then? When I was still impressionable and unformed and sopping up the world?

I didn't so much like it. In fact, I trace my longstanding poetry ambivalence to that year, when I found myself worn out with trying to parse meaning out of meter. In the intervening years, I've amused myself by reading everything but Good English Major works.

So now I find myself, crazily, spending my winter break between semesters trying to reteach myself a ton of material that I never mastered, even way back when Reagan was president. Hence, I'm in a tizzy. A panic. A whirlwind of lyrical ballads and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and writings about the abolition of the slave trade and Marxist manifestos and me pulling my armhairs out with a tweezers.

In short, even though a part of me is glad that I get to meet all of these authors again from a point of more maturity, I'm gasping a bit.

And isn't it at just such moments that friends kick in? As I plot how to stay just one damn day ahead of my students this semester, I find relief: my pal Jim (known in the comments section of this blog as iJim) has stepped up as guest blogger for me this week so that I can begin to ferret out the mysteries of the attraction between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Although the jury is out on the Brownings, I yuv Jim.

While he lived in Duluth for the last three years (serving as my dean, no less!), he now has moved to hotter, drier, sexier (if a culture NOT based on fleece clothing can ever be sexy) climes in Southern California. His two guest posts, starting with the one below, give us a peek into his current Gilded Age:

"Elizabeth Taylor’s Dress"

I have been a fan of Elizabeth Taylor for about 20 years. That’s a comparatively short time for a gay man in his forties. But when I was growing up, Elizabeth Taylor was an old woman with her best work behind her. Who’s this and what’s all the fuss about? I wondered. After all, I was born in 1964, and ET is two years older than my mother.

My views changed around 1985 when I saw the film of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer. I thought the movie was dreadful, but ET was gorgeous. I understood her appeal then. Later, I saw ET’s other major Williams screen role, as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I was hooked.

By 1990, I was a graduate student, studying Williams’s plays, and I wanted to write a paper about ET and her relationship to the gay community. The paper would note her friendships with Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson but would focus on ET’s identification with Williams’s screen heroines. I would focus on imagery and iconography, and there was no image more powerful to me than Elizabeth Taylor wearing a white dress with Paul Newman in the background. It wasn’t the slip she sauntered around in, by the way. I never wrote the paper, but I did come up with a good title: “Elizabeth Taylor’s Dress.”

My fascination has ebbed and flowed over the years as ET has limited her film and television appearances, introduced fragrances and jewelry, and become the first lady of AIDS fundraising and activism. For her 75th birthday last year (February 27), I threw a party at my home in Duluth, asking guests to contribute money to AmFar, which ET helped found in 1985. (Okay, so the birthday and fundraising were tie-ins; the party was for me and my friends.)

Then I moved to southern California, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I was able to meet Elizabeth in person. After all, I’d been visiting LA for years and had a social network there. I had met or at least seen many celebrities on my visits. (Assistant Director Skinner IS hot. Who knew?)

So I wasn’t particularly surprised when I was offered a ticket to see Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones in a one-time-only performance of Love Letters on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007. A friend of a friend—okay, a fabulously wealthy friend of a very thoughtful friend—had an extra ticket: Tom invited Chris, and Chris deferred to me. Score!

Next: "The Night Elizabeth Taylor Didn’t Kiss Me"

This is Jim, our guest blogger. He took this photo with his cell phone after he got a new haircut and I begged him for a glimpse. I am glad he lives in California now, or else he'd come to my house right now for posting this photo and shove his cell phone down my throat. And then he'd have the temerity to ask me to make him a martini.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


If there is a circle of life, that circle just might be the "O" at the start of "Oprah."

It all starts and ends with Her Royal TalkNess, dunn't it?

If we need a book to read, she tells us what to buy, and invariably we'll find ourselves gratified to have paged through yet another tale of an abused foster child in the American South.

If we need shoes to ogle, she marches out in a pair of brown suede Louboutin ankle boots, rousing all viewers to a fevered pitch.

If we find ourselves feeling politically undecided or veering towards independence, Ms. Winfrey-If-You're-Nasty tells us for whom to cast our vote.

If we need to buy Christmas gifts, she details a list of several thousand dollars worth of her Favorite Things, never minding that we can hardly afford to buy Panini Presses for twenty-four of our closest friends, much less fit such a thing into a stocking.

And if we find ourselves spiritually hollow, she recommends we keep "gratitude journals," catalogues of our internal thank you's which spur on greater appreciation and, subsequently, result in renewal and abundance.


Frankly? I'm not sure how challenging a gratitude journal is when you sleep on 700-thread count Egyptian Cotton sheets, own six homes, and have a personal chef flavoring your gnocchi with truffle oil. And personally, I feel the time I would spend on a gratitude journal is better spent clinking the spoon into my nearly-empty ice cream bowl, as I--deliberately and gratefully--swipe out every last remnant of the Moose Tracks.

Plus, I can hardly make it through a day without at least a two-minute weeping break simply for the wonderment of it all: my robust health, my children's intelligence and beauty, my husband's steadfast adoration, my dynamic job, my gracious house, the stack of books on my nightstand, the readers of this blog, the chance to see Juno, the espresso maker, the fleece socks, the gentle curve in the handle of my toothbrush.

Every day is full. Every day is amazing. I don't get over that.

So I don't keep a journal of my thank you's, as a rule. However, since the new year has just launched, it does seem a fair moment to take stock of the bounty that plumps up my life and waistline.

Of course, I am also bountiful in years, and since I've hit forty, the memory ain't what she used to...

Crap. I trailed off there. What was I saying?

Something about losing the power of memory. I can't recall the rest.

At any rate, since my memory would be hard-pressed to cover the entire year in review, I'll limit myself to Recent Days of Gratitude:

1) Saturday: Thank you, Little Pork Pies. When Groom rolled out that pie crust and brought the muffin tins up from the basement, I knew it was still the giving season. Of course, I'm almost better at receiving than giving, so thanks for the receipt of those warm, crusty, flaky pies stuffed full of pork and onions and sloughed-off skin cells. Every bit of it was yum.

2) Sunday: Thank you, Zamboni, for being the perfect distraction. Most wondrous of machines (save the hot air balloon, if we can count that as a machine), you were there at the hockey rink in Lester Park at just the right time, re-surfacing the ice as Girl and I, tired from an hour-and-a-half ski around a groomed loop, hit that last long, steep hill. Knowing we'd break limbs if we attempted the descent, our pretended interest in you, Zamboni, gave us cause to take off our skis and let them slide down the hill, unpersoned, as we chased after them. You kept up your work as we retrieved our rogue skis from the bushes, chere Zamboni, so we could point at you and marvel at your prowess instead of considering that we might be spineless wimps, too cowardly to hurl our bodies into the open, white softness, preferring instead to hoof it down Everest there.

By the way, Zambon-er, through the twirling of your brushes, did you get a look at that Girl of mine? Did you see her chugging along all that time, over hill and dale, before she de-ski-ified? Could you believe she's only seven and just kept going and going, so good-naturedly? If you are ever fortunate enough to spit a little Zamboodlie out your junk, Ms. Zamboni, you'd count yourself doubly lucky to have one like my Girl.

3) Monday: Thank you, Chicken McNuggets, for providing the leverage to get my kids to agree to play in the YMCA's "Kids' Club." They have been burned there before by a scary babysitter lady named Judy (as Girl described her a couple of years ago, "Even when a kid hasn't done anything wrong, she talks at them like they have"), making them reluctant to hang out in this "club" so that their mama can get in a workout on the days when Pappy is at work (good thing he's a lazy slouch, and that's a rarity in our lives). But as soon as I slip the words "Happy" and "Meal" and "McNuggets" and "new Bionicle toy" out of my mouth, along with the caveat that these things find life only in the Kids' Club, the deal is struck; the deed is done; the fries are ketchupped; the mother is sweaty and giddy with endorphins.

4) Tuesday: Thank you, NPR, for talking in my ear whenever I run or ski or cook. Sure, as happened today, you freaked out some onlookers who passed me on the Superior Hiking Trail. They couldn't figure out why the redhead running on snowshoes was sobbing as she puffed along. It didn't look that painful, after all, and she seemed to have a choice about what she was doing. So why the tears?

Because your stories move me, NPR. When you pour into my ears audio essays about people's lives--as a man weakens from cancer and passes away in a hospital bed placed in the living room; as a father of a child with mental delays notes, "My son has so much to give, but unfortunately there are very few takers"; as a transgendered individual explains why a life on the streets as a "working girl" is the best she can expect for happiness--I am reminded of my copious luck. These vignettes, peppered with the sublime counterpoint of Pavarotti's soaring tenor, keep my cheeks frozen with tears of salutation.

So you see, Ofrey Winprah Steadwoman, my hours are breathing entries in an unwritten journal of gratitude. You can tell me what bra to buy, how to network with angels, and how to lose weight by dragging the fat out onto a stage in a Little Red Wagon, but the truth is that you can't tell me how to live my best life. I'm on my own with that one.

Providentially, 2007 offered up 362.5 days of grace and acclamation and awe.

The other 2.5 days sucked fudge crackers, of course.