Friday, May 28, 2010

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

Continuing where the last post left off:

Essential to my ultimate disintegration was the beauty of our beginning. For the next few months, I drove to his house—nearly two hours away—at least once a week. He made me feel doted upon, as though I was the final piece to his life’s puzzle. Simultaneous to our starting up, he was planning the huge life change of leaving his longtime job at an engineering firm; he and his best friend were planning to poach a major client, move to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and open their own firm. Early on, he pointed out teaching possibilities in the UP that I could explore, suggested that I might consider a move, too.

Between “smitten” and “maybe you could move to the UP, too” I was besotted—so infatuated with the vision of a social, outdoorsy future of parenting that I overlooked conspicuous deficiencies. I accelerated my efforts to become unquestionably the “right person.” I wore Patagonia. I tossed out ironies. I picked blackberries and morel mushrooms and contributed them to his kitchen. I showed up, week after week, to help prepare his house for sale. I painted stucco for hours and, ironically, ruined expensive Patagonia shorts in the process.

He never visited my town, never saw my house, never met any of my friends that weren’t mutually his.

Each week, I would offer up when I could visit, outlining the projects I could tackle. My desire to be a helpmeet to him distracted me from noticing that--whereas he’d once asked me where he could take me out for my birthday, once reached for me with eagerness, once bought me copies of his favorite books—he now simply said yes, I could come. Yes, I could paint the upstairs bedroom while he was at work. Yes, I could make a triple layer cake for his birthday party. Yes, I could provide a feminine presence that caused his friends and colleagues to put their heads together and clack that The Bachelor had someone. Interestingly, no one ever asked him what was going on between us; they came and asked me. My answer consisted of a shrug and a vague rambling answer about his needing to get through the move to the UP before either of us could be sure of anything.

In the moment, I felt glad that I was able to speak for him because that meant I was part of an Us.

In retrospect, I can see that I was surfing on a crest of bewilderment, ready to accept any excuse for the lack of clarity between us if it meant I got to be with him.

And I was with him. However, he wasn’t with me. At some nebulous point in that stretch of months, he was done.

Because I had fallen in love with something as substantial as a moonbeam, I neglected a cold reality. The traditional practice of Norwegian Bachelor Farmers is to carry on steadily and deal with life situations through quiet compliance. Even when the humane thing to do is utter a few necessary words, the NBF isn’t compelled to step up, cannot force himself to violate the comfort of passivity.

Although it feels safe to the NBF to put his head down and tuck his arms close to his sides, such a posture of tameness can destroy those around him—can dismantle those putting out the energy to keep their chins up and extend their hands outside their personal space.

As the months carried on, I did cop to the one-sidedness of our relationship. One time, I hung up the phone after talking to him and thought, “Okay, this doesn’t feel right. Even though I’m petrified to face it head on, as that could mean the end of this thing, which then would deposit my lonely self back onto the pavement around the ponds, getting chased by geese as I listen to Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors on tape, I’m ready to ask him what’s going on.” Inhaling a dramatic breath, I picked up the receiver and, with cold and shaking fingers, dialed his number again. Even though I’d just talked to him, and even though I knew he was home, it rang and rang and rang and rang and rang, endlessly.

By the next morning, my resolve was lost.

Something was starting to shift in me, though, starting to wake up to his absence. Because I was stubbornly blind in matters of the heart, the shift only began with an act of nature: my town was struck by a group of tornadoes one summer afternoon. Nothing in my life will ever again feel as starkly terrifying as being alone in my basement, crouched behind the washing machine on the grimy cement floor, pleading to a potentially-nonexistent God for safe passage, while all the world outside turned ominously yellow, hundred-mile-an-hour winds thrashed electrical wires loose, and the sound of a freight train bore down on my house. Alone, I screamed and screamed, hugging the washing machine, hoping it wouldn’t be lifted, only to land on top of me. Because if it did, who would know? Who would find me? Who would save me?

Someone who was loved would not have to ask such questions. Someone who was reasonable would have realized that if she was going to die, she was going to die, and even being loved wouldn’t change that.

Feeling neither loved nor reasonable, I emerged from the basement twenty minutes later, more grateful to a washing machine than I knew I could be. The town was devastated, with more than 250 trees down across major roads; there was no electricity restored for 4 days. I rapidly discovered orienteering by headlamp and candle after dark only feels “fun” and “like a lark” when in the company of others. In a house alone, the darkness flowed directly from my heart. My mechanically-challenged self also couldn’t figure out how to open the garage since the garage door opener was powered by electricity, and simply tugging on the door budged nothing. For the first three days after the storm, I walked and biked everywhere. Eventually, I waited outside until a stranger passed by, and, feeling rather like Blanche DuBois, asked him how to disconnect the opener and pull the door up manually.

A week after the well-publicized decimation of my town, all services restored, I still hadn’t heard from my—what to call him, wondered the woman who likes to sculpt snowmen out of air—boyfriend. Eventually, I called him, assuring him somewhat sarcastically that I was fine. Sarcasm, of course, is a sublimation of graver feelings.

Yet. I am nothing, if not loyal to moonbeams.

For the thing between us to be over, he needed to participate in the separation; without his acknowledgement that it was over, I would never be certain that anything had existed in the first place.

Respite from the haze came when I took another trip to Ireland that summer. I was gone for six weeks, and further regret came after I neutralized several opportunities involving lads with lilting brogues, uncertain as to whether I needed to honor the relationship back home or not.

Upon my return home, the issue came to a head. Two of the friends from the “cabin weekend” crew were having a commitment ceremony; because I was relatively new in their lives, yet they liked me, they assumed that the best approach was to invite The Bachelor and that I would be his date. So I waited. As the days passed, other Cabin Crew friends called to see if he’d asked me. Finally well and sick of not knowing what my own life even was anymore, I strapped on my Big Girl Belt—which was heavier than anticipated—and I called him and asked what was going on, straight out.

Catching him unawares was an efficient technique, as he had no dodge prepared. His answer was a clean, “No, I wasn’t going to ask you.” From there, he admitted, using the worst of clich├ęs (“It’s not you; it’s me”), that our connection was quite over for him. We actually talked, and although I sobbed through much of it, at least when I hung up, I knew something.

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

Morals are too pat for real life.

(Part III forthcoming)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

“Nothing Can to Nothing Fall”
(Part I of III)

Even as it was happening, I didn’t realize we were breaking up.

This time, I missed it because I was too busy cataloguing evidence that we were “together.”

Certainly, I had acted the part. I drove once, twice, each week the two hours to his place. Once there, I shared his bed, made meals, answered his phone, painted his house. I was energetically—unrelentingly—devoted to providing what I perceived he wanted.

Certainly, I had been crazy for him, and if he’d suddenly blurted out, “Let’s get married,” my answer would have been a rushed and hearty “YES!” I would have been planning how to stuff Siberian Iris into every centerpiece before he’d had the thought to learn my middle name.

Curious, then, that I was never completely certain of where I stood…or if I was even welcome to stack up each of my vertebra into the tower of my full self. A posture of anticipative crouching typified those six months.

Easy psychology might conjecture that I hunched into the crouch after my previous six-year relationship with a man who had never wanted what I wanted, with a man who rarely made me feel prized or desired, with a man so wounded that I finally had to refuse to be his healer, lest I start dropping limbs myself. It could have been posited that the remnant damage from that relationship of my twenties—a mere nine months behind me when I launched into Hope with this new man—readied me for New Man’s confounding treatment, an approach that careened from blood-rushing attentiveness to perplexing inscrutability.

Of course, the workings of the psyche are never easy.

In truth, ending the relationship of my twenties ultimately felt right and good, like a release from middle school lunch hour—something I craved for the opportunities but, more deeply, mourned for the daily disappointments. Once the redheaded man and I had parted ways, I had turned my face, beaming, towards the future; I was both unfettered and gleeful. Within months of his moving away, I’d retrieved cached pieces of self, lost 40 pounds, reinvigorated friendships, found a new recipe for cashew chicken, gone bowling, seen movies requiring Deep Thought, shopped for new sweaters, and planned a summer trip to Ireland with several Women of My Heart.

Then again, there was also the loneliness. Without the definition of a relationship, life seemed aimless, without purpose or momentum. So, what?—I was to get up every day, eat some Raisin Bran, and—then what?—try to figure out where in the world Matt Lauer was? And I was to repeat this ritual until when? And why was I doing any of it anyhow? At least in a relationship, the yoke to Other nudged me when it was time to turn back to the barn at the end of the day.

Unyoked from my former love, I felt free to sprint across a sun-dappled meadow, yet part of me wondered if I weren’t also dashing toward the edge of a long, flat world, galloping into a pre-Columbian void of darkness.

Caught between dapple and dark, I engaged in a deliberate Creation of Meaning for my days, no simple feat in a town of 23,000 people, two-thirds of whom were over the age of 65. Mostly, Meaning Creation entailed fine-tuning my personal profile, trying out activities that might ripen me for presentation to A Different Kind of Man: A New Man. In this quest, I rented inline skates; I made a pair of snowshoes; I cooked a cauliflower pie in a hash brown crust. Each of these—undertaken solo--filled hours and gave me material for conversation.

Should anyone ask.

And that’s what loneliness is: deliberately filling the hours, warding off potential silence in the face of a welcome inquiry.

After being single for a handful of months, recovering from the six-year relationship, listening to countless hours of books on tape while walking paved paths that encircled ponds, shooing the geese when they waddled up to hiss and peck at my feet, some friends came to visit.

I didn’t realize at the time that they were on a reconnaissance mission, that they were checking the walls of my house to be sure I’d removed all pictures of Redheaded Long-Term Man before beginning to orchestrate a series of “introductions” to the single men in their lives.

Apparently, I passed their covert tests and, subsequently, began to get invitations to come visit them in their city. And so long as I was there, I was welcome to accompany them to whatever they were doing that weekend--even and especially if it involved opportunities for me to stand in the same room with single men. This I realized only after the fact, as seems to be the case with most anything that might potentially change my life.

The first guy I was tossed towards was too recently divorced to realize I was single and in the same room with him. From my side, I was too recently single and too unable to see myself as appealing.

The second guy noticed me in the room with him, registered that I was single, and found me appealing. Oblivious, I asked him a lot of questions about his previous girlfriend and counseled him as to how to get back together with her.

The third guy was hosting a dinner party, so I was one of many in the room; he was making a Thai meal from scratch, showcasing skills he’d picked up in the Peace Corps. While he was convivial, he also spent three hours sweating over the food. Most of that time saw him sitting upon a wooden construction he’d hammered together, a little wooden bench called “The Rabbit.” The purpose of The Rabbit was to allow the sitter to shred, pummel, and juice a whole coconut until it yielded enough coconut milk for the meal. Terrifically hungry by 9 p.m., I still grasped these points: there was actually very little food put out on the table for all that effort; my idea of a dinner party involves more than 2 ounces of food per guest; I was going to need a burger on the way home; sometimes it’s okay to take the shortcut called cracking open a can of coconut milk, particularly if doing so allows you to talk to the people who have come to your home; and, finally, at least the host had enjoyed a vigorous and gratifying date with The Rabbit.

The fourth guy was jokingly called a Norwegian Bachelor Farmer, for he was tall, lanky, laconic, nearly 43, never married. I met him at a ski weekend at a friend’s cabin in Wisconsin—the type of weekend for which my parched soul had been thirsting: there were people, food, talk, laughter. Because I had no notion that my participation in the weekend was actually an audition for affection, I was relaxed and easy. Beneath the joking around, though, some part of me observed that The Bachelor was charming in his quiet way; some part of me discerned that a place in his affections would also grant me continued access to this group of friends. He was a package deal.

Thus, a squeal escaped my lips a few days after the cabin weekend when I opened my email to find a message from him. True to his form, there were few words, simply a brief “I believe I’m smitten.”

Reading those words still qualifies as one of the most heart-poundingly-satisfying moments of my life. I checked quickly over my shoulder to see if a television camera hovered there, recording my reaction as part of that week’s episode of The Jocelyn Chronicles, an episode entitled “Life: There’s Payoff After All.” Unfortunately, all I spotted was a withered house plant, its own parched self crying out for a little attention.

I replied to that email with excitement only loosely harnessed. Fairly quickly, we arranged an actual date, and when we shared asparagus off the same plate during that meeting, I was further convinced of our potential.

He also tempered the residual backlash from Redhaired Man of My Twenties. Still reacting to that previous relationship, I saw The Bachelor satisfying my desire to have children, for he felt his own clock ticking and was more than ready for fatherhood. We wanted the same things. We liked each other. What more did there need to be?

Naturally, The Bachelor had dated before me. One of his ex-girlfriends was part of the “cabin weekend” group. She and The Bachelor seemed fine friends, which spoke well of his character, I thought. Later, I did hear that, after he had broken up with her, she had not participated in the “friend weekends” for quite some time, absenting herself for a few years. He had also brought an unfortunate woman to one of the cabin weekends; she was quickly tagged with the name La Nerviosa due to her evident feelings of unrest, anxiety, and confusion throughout the weekend. The rest of the cabin group was taken aback by her questions about why The Bachelor seemed to distance himself from her presence; they were incredulous that she cried; they still told stories of how La Nerviosa, after that cabin weekend, followed The Bachelor around plaintively, unable to make sense of what was going on between them.

Chortling at the “craziness” of La Nerviosa is one of my greatest regrets.

It would take ten months for me to be rendered La Segunda Nerviosa.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"At One First Blow Did Shiver It As Glass"

Even as it was happening, I didn’t know we were breaking up.

What I did know was that my guts roiled whenever I thought about him coming home. I’d had four months alone, living in that house, making new friends, starting a new job—while he lived an hour and a half north, living there, working there. After four months of a commuter relationship, however, his loneliness caused him to observe, “We didn’t move from Colorado together so we could live apart in this new state. I’ll have to quit my job, but I’m moving down there.” From the moment of that announcement, to the day he arrived in my recently-adopted town with a vanload of his belongings, I felt sick.

We had been together for six years, meeting in Colorado, then weathering the long-distance years of my graduate study in Idaho. Once I finished in Idaho, I got a job teaching at the University of Colorado, in Colorado Springs. He lived two hours from Colorado Springs. Most weekends, I went to see him. Eventually, he quit his job and moved to live with me. Eventually more, we both realized we needed the chance to make more money, to feel connected to friends and community. We agreed on Minnesota, which had a lower cost of living and, for me, was home to a host of college pals and relations, and he and I made the move. Then we landed jobs in different Minnesota cities. Surprisingly, only when I was looking at him from a distance across our new state did I find I could exhale again. I hadn’t even known I’d been holding my breath.

He was 16 years older than I. When we met, he’d just turned 40 and entered therapy—to deal with the childhood abuse he’d suffered but never dealt with, to deal with the OCD that had him flipping the blinds open and shut three times every day, the minute he got home from work. When we met, he’d been renting his house for seven years. I was the first person, outside of his landlord, to enter it. When we met, and I started staying over, he got hives. When we met, and I started staying over, he noticed envelopes were out of line, the remote control was at the wrong angle, the CD’s weren’t alphabetized.

When we met, he was the one who couldn’t breathe. Yet he’d been lonely. And I learned quickly how to ease my way through the fields of landmines, taught myself where the triggers were. I stopped touching things, acting casual in his space, presuming I could make plans for us.

Then, six years later, he was the one moving to follow my lead. I was the one who couldn’t breathe. At the time, even as it was happening, I gasped but didn’t fully comprehend the constriction of air.

The rub was that I’d decided early on that I loved him. If I loved him, I would do anything, compromise any objections felt deep in my belly, to keep it going. Everything in my life’s experience had taught me that love meant choosing someone who would have me--and then never leaving, no matter how agonizing the feeling of falling asleep night after night, too often his lack of touch smacking me with rejection; no matter how jealous he acted about my smallest interaction with any other male; no matter how our individual strengths (his ability to fix anything; my ability to trust in people’s innate goodness) turned into reproaches of the other’s weaknesses. The lesson I had taken from my parents, books, movies, and television was straightforward, if flawed: once committed to the idea of love, quitting wasn’t an option.

The bigger rub was that, six years in, I would tell him I loved him, and his response was, “I don’t think I love you.” I met this statement with a response that I am actively training out of my own daughter: “Fair enough.”

He had red hair and blue eyes. I have red hair and blue eyes. He would say, “I’ve never liked the way I look. I’m not really attracted to red hair and blue eyes. I like brown hair. Brown eyes.” I would agree that brown hair and brown eyes are lovely.

And once his breathing would calm into steady rhythm in the darkened bedroom at night, I would let tears leak down to wet my pillowcase.

I stayed because I loved him, and everything I knew about love meant seeing it through until

Until what?

Bless the subconscious, for my aware mind wasn’t assisting me a whit. By the time we moved to Minnesota, we had put in years together, established routines, traveled around parts of the U.S. and Ireland, created inside jokes, relied upon each other for comfort and support, accustomed ourselves to the tugging, dissonant, familiar sense of being Not Enough. In no way did my brain contemplate a break-up. We had moved together. Hence, we should be together. On the phone one night, after I recounted a wonderful evening in my new city and he recounted a measurement of the four walls of his rented bedroom two hours away, he went so far as to up the stakes by halting, hemming, stuttering, “I, uh, well, er, I, em, have been thinking and, well, you know, uh, think, well, I might love you.”

The neutrality of my response to the words I’d been craving for six years should have been my first clue.

Then he drove up to my house in my new town, just before the Christmas holidays, with his vanload of belongings. I tried not to vomit. I paced as he pulled in. I forced myself to throw open the front door and hug him, telling him, “Welcome home.” I felt acid run up my esophagus. As I put my arms around him in reception, he burst into tears.

Were we in a film, viewers of this scene would have leaned over to each other under the guise of grabbing a hand of popcorn, whispering, “These guys are SO over.” In real life, lacking a script, we had no idea.

For the next three months, we play-acted, him getting temp work, me solidifying my new friendships and job, perhaps knowing I’d need to faint into them in the near future. The only thing I heard clearly in my mind was, “You’re almost 30. He’s 46. He had a vasectomy when he was 25. He’s never wanted kids. You’ve always wanted kids. Where do the kids come from in this scenario?”

That conflict of agenda was the only thing that was unambiguous. Simultaneous to asking myself these questions, I would muse about how I would be with him forever, since I loved him.

Yet I hoped for kids.

But I loved him.

What the subconscious does in such situations is this: it finds a way to agitate for change. I started mentioning how I was almost 30 and had always hoped for kids. He countered, rightly, that he’d never wanted them and had assured it wouldn’t happen. A few weeks later, as our continents continued to drift, he offered up the idea that maybe having kids was a possible road to happiness for him after all; he offered to get his vasectomy reversed.

The rapidity with which I pointed out the low odds of his regaining reproductive powers should have been my second clue.

His last-ditch offers felt like a desperate afterthought. Of course, I still loved him--with a messy, choked affection newly-tinged by acrimony.

Teetering on the precipice of unmet need, we cried—thirty-two nights in a row. Tentacles clawed at my guts.

During daylight, I smiled at my new friends and made every student feel special.

Then we cried and laid in the dark on a futon on the floor, and we hugged each other, and we cried. For thirty-two more nights.

Still, I didn’t realize we were breaking up.

You see, I loved him.

As time passed, I started emailing with friends about how wracked I felt, about how I was meeting men in their 30’s who were single and wanted children. While I had no interest in these men, they had put my senses on alert: they had shown me possibility. Time passed, and something nebulous, unformed in me, hammered for release.

I wanted him to know. That I had seen possibility Not Him.

At the same time that I loved him.

One day, I headed off to teach a night class and tossed out, with no thought behind it, “I've been trying to put a finger on my feelings when I write emails to my pals; if you want to see that process, just read the emails.”

That night, as I stood in front of students lecturing on cause and effect, he did.

Before I drove home, I called him from my office, to see if he wanted me to pick up anything.

He was crying. He sounded like he wanted to vomit. Like tentacles were clawing at his guts.

He’d read my emails and been more than enlightened. He’d been destroyed.

Strangely, I had needed that.

His unadulterated pain powered me--

to the point that, after three more nights of holding each other and weeping, I could say, “What if we didn’t live together, as we try to repair this?”

You see how much I didn’t know we were breaking up, even as I engineered the thing?

What ensued was—in retrospect—a nearly comical tug-and-pull of trying to make the other into the Bad Guy. So long as I didn’t announce “I think we need to be done and move on” first, then he would have to. In the retelling, when the script was written, I could be the maligned one. Somehow, it was very important not to be the offender.

But also—in retrospect—I can see that I was the one who kept pushing, kept suggesting alternatives, kept offering to help him find an apartment in a neighboring city. The night before he moved into that apartment, we lay in the dark, holding each other, crying still and yet, this time promising, “It’s not a break, really. It’s not like we’re closing the book. We’re just starting a new chapter.”

So I helped him move out, helped him become lonely again, in that new state where he knew no one. Me? I thrived, unable to believe the deep breaths I was drawing, joking with my students, percolating as I sat at the coffee shop with my new friends. When he would call, I’d agree to our meeting, never letting him see how grudgingly I gave up the hours. I’d drive to his city and, as it felt, put in my time. He got more clingy. I got better at driving back home fast.

At some point, probably on the highway between his city and my town, it dawned on me that we had broken up. This dawning came, I’m sure, only after he decided definitively that he was done in our new state, where he was alone and lonely, and that he was going to move back to be near his family, in his birth state.

With well-contained zeal, I helped pack up the vanload of his belongings and helped to point it eastward. I was very helpful. As his van nosed out of the parking lot, I sat in my own car and wept. At the same time, my fingers tapped out a lively tattoo on the steering wheel.

An hour later, I filled my lungs from the very bottom of their deflation, punching out their sides into wide curves, tightening the flow only when it reached my tonsils, hovered near the smile on my lips.

Certainly, he and I talked on the phone after his move. Being home, in the same town as his family, was stressful. He thought maybe he’d head back to Colorado. He did. Then that didn’t feel right either; he left to return to his home state. Then,


I don’t know.

Apparently, for me, the clearest sign that I’ve broken up with someone is that I no longer know where he is.

Now, thirteen years later, I have greater clarity. From that relationship of my 20’s, I was left with:

Evidence that my biggest decisions were fueled by shaky self-esteem

50 extra pounds on my frame

The knowledge that I was viable relationship material—not always to be relegated to the role of supportive friend

An acceptance of honest loneliness as preferable to agonized togetherness

A realization that love is not the answer to a question only half considered

Something inside of me broken

Something inside of me reborn


Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Meanwhile, While the Kid and I Were Listening to 'New York, New York' and Eating Toasty Cheese..."


"A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was" --Joseph Hall

My husband recently comprehended the richness of life in a way that would have defied planning. By accompanying our daughter's 4th grade class on a three-day field trip to the regional environmental learning center (ELC), he experienced a familiar institution from an entirely-new angle and, thusly, has felt himself brush up against every last of its walls and aspens, first with with the skinny shoulders of a pre-pubescent lad, more recently with the faciitis-ridden sole of a middle-ager:

In 1982, when he was in 6th grade, Groom first visited the ELC as a student.  What he remembers most of this field trip is a feeling of freedom and that he and his best friend wandered off and threw stuff--the bras of 6th grade girls?--into the lake;

In 1992, during college, he toured the ELC at its new location and interviewed for an intern position as a Student Naturalist.   Notably, on the drive up to the interview, he ate sausages;

In 1993, freshly graduated from college, he began working and living at the ELC as an intern--this year was one of the rare ones when Lake Superior froze over entirely.  He also remembers with great clarity the Blizzard of '94 when a snowstorm started at noon on a Wednesday and ended two days later, on Friday afternoon.  During that time, the snow fell at a steady rate of an inch per hour, which actually alleviated the fears of visiting students regarding the ropes course, for the ground had suddenly risen 4 feet and closed the gap on the ropes.  As well, Groomy recalls climbing to the roof of the dormitory and jumping off of it into 15 feet of blown snow, landing feet first and getting resultingly beached in a mound of fluff up to his chest. Another strong memory is of the day in October when a visiting 6th grade student leaned too far in the canoe she was sharing with Student Naturalist Groom and unwittingly dumped them both into Raven Lake.  Fortunately, although they couldn't "unswamp" the canoe, the lake was shallow enough that Groom was able to load the girl into the canoe and then push-walk them all the way back across the lake, trudging his way through a foot of muck on the bottom.  Once they reached the shore, it took him an hour in the shower to warm up.  Still not over this incident some seventeen years later, he's pointing at me, as I type this, asserting with Sassy Nature Boy Pride, "It was all her fault.  Completely her fault.  I've never tipped a canoe in my life, even accidentally."  Finally, that memorable year stands out in his memory as a time when he deliberately sought solitude ("All that togetherness proved what an introvert I am.  I took a lot of walks alone at night, trying to get away from people");

In 1995 and 1996, after teaching environmental education at various locations around the country, he returned to the ELC as a seasonal employee (his best recollection of this time is of attending the annual kick-ass, imbibe-your-body-weight New Year's party along with his colleagues...and then being the only one to show up the next morning for a dog-sledding demonstration.  When complimented by the dog handler for his attendance, all Groom could say was, "Yea, I'm here.  But I feel like CRAP."  I like to think he's carried that modus operandi into our marriage, lo these many years later);

In 1997, he was hired at the ELC as a permanent staff member, which entailed both teaching and administration (his administrative job was as "The Scheduler," which meant he got to make charts and graphs and spreadsheets of the hundreds of schools that would be visiting the ELC throughout the year:  their dates, the classes their students would be taking, who would be in which dorm, who would be teaching each class, etc.  Have I mentioned lately that he's the one who makes sure our bills get paid?  In my defense, I sometimes do a diverting version of The Twist for him while he's writing out the cheques);

In 1999, on a blind date arranged by my cousin (who also worked at the ELC), Groomy met me.  Suddenly, compared to the radiance of a chatty freckleface, the ELC felt a little dim.  Plus, he was beginning to get tired of teaching the same classes over and over (let's just say he was tired of offering instruction on "Beavers" and, instead, was ready to experience one without the aid of a lesson plan);

Also, in 1999--having experienced beaver outside of dictated curriculum--he knocked me up.  I like phrasing that in a way that makes it seem like I had little to do with it;

Also, in 1999, we got married.  At the ELC.  In the cafeteria.  Which proved that sterile linoleum can be dreamy, so long as you feed people roasted pork and have them play bingo until the band is ready to play.

Our guests stayed in the dorms and were able to take on the rock-climbing wall and ropes course during the weekend--hearty prep for the post-outdoor-activity show that was me in the cafeteria at dusk, sobbing uncontrollably as I made my vows to Groom Naturalist

Here I am at our wedding reception.  Please notice that, as I talk to my niece and brother, I am bending down.  You will be quizzed later on the details of this photo--particularly what you don't see in it;

Also, in 1999, we realized that English teachers make, in nine months, fully twice what naturalists do for working year 'round;

Also and therefore, in 1999, Groom quit the naturalist life and moved five hours south to where Chatty Freckleface, now "wife," lived;

In 2001, with a toddler in tow, we moved back up to the North Shore of Lake Superior and settled in Duluth, a mere hour and a half from the ELC;

In 2007, Groom worked periodically as a substitute naturalist at the ELC. Mostly, that period reminded him that there's no beaver like home;

In 2009 and 2010, he visited classrooms and parents' meetings to answer questions about the ELC, prepping one hundred 4th graders and their handlers for their upcoming field trip.  In particular, he found a boy named Tommy annoying for his ability to ask, repeatedly, "So do we really have to shower everyday?";

In 2010, Groomeo realized a final role at the ELC when he drove up to its campus in a caravan of school busses containing 100 keyed-up 4th graders; as chaperone to wild and giggling elementary school kids who poke each other in the armpits to express deep affection, his ELC journey came full circle. There, in the place where he once had been an acrophobic boy who refused to do the ropes course, he found himself a near-40-year-old, standing high on a tower, coaching scared kids through the ropes course. Of course, as with everything good in life, it ended with a zip line.

Once Groom and Girl returned from the field trip to the ELC, I plied them with pot pies, cous-cous salad, and a battery of questions.

From Girl, I learned that she had enjoyed The. Best. Time. Ever. And she did the ropes course twice, and she thought the food was pretty gross, and she'd had a couple of girls in her group that she hadn't really known before but they were nice, and she had sat three-to-a-seat on the bus ride home, and she had a piece of paper onto which she'd glued mouse bones that she'd extracted when Daddy taught a night class about dissecting owl pellets, and she didn't know if she'd ever unpack her bags from the trip because she needed to check her email and play her viola.

From my husband, I learned that he'd been Point Man, due to his previous experience with the place and knowledge of how things ran, but that had been fine.  Moreover, despite having to sleep in a dorm room with six 4th grade boys, he'd cobbled together enough hours of sleep to remain functional.  As an added bonus, he made sure his group of pre-pubescent boys didn't shower every day--since they don't do so as a habit in their own homes and since, HELLO, water conservation might just play a role in environmental education.  In his off moments, marveling at it for sheer spectacle value, Groom watched a fellow chaperone, the father of a lad named Cody, sustain his outdoorsy chaperonage by heading to the fridge in the parents' lounge and guzzling Mountain Dew straight out of a two-liter bottle.

Ultimately, though, two impressions made the strongest impact on my husband this time around, both stemming from the "then" and "now" vantage point inherent in his long-term familiarity with the place. 

First, Groom noted, "I was caught off guard by how different it looks up there.  The forest is entirely different because it's all dying off; mostly, it just feels kind of bare and sad."

Ready to assume the worst and rail at some injustice in the world, I prodded, "WhatWhy is that happening?  Is it logging that's decimating the area?"

"No, no, no.  It's just that the birches are all dying off naturally; birch has a 70-100 year life cycle, and most of the birch trees in the area were planted early in the last century, so it's just time for them to die.  But because of that, the whole landscape looks different.  It feels really wrong."

After a moment of sober silence punctuated by cous-cous salad being shoveled into his mouth, he continued, "And, well, actually a whole lot looks different up there.  For example, there were cracks everywhere."

Not sure what he meant, I clarified, "You mean new fissures or something?  Is that drought related?  I mean, we don't have earthquakes around here, so what's going on?  What would cause the earth to split?"

"Nope, it's not a drought issue.  It's a low rise issue.  I know it's the fashion and all, but I swear, I'd rather sleep in a dorm room with twenty-two 4th grade boys for a week than have to look at one more crack exposed in the name of being 'with it.'  I spent three days walking around the ELC, thinking I was going see volunteer parents helping to belay the kids on the climbing wall or bending down to clip kids into harnesses for the ropes course, but no.  What I saw were cracks.  Everywhere cracks.  Here a crack.  There a crack.  In the lounge: a crack. In the gift shop:  a crack. In the cafeteria, perched upon a bench:  a crack."

"You make it very hard to eat pot pie here," I gasped, trying not to blow a carrot out my nose.  "So these were the female chaperones, I assume?  The parents? And they had their rear ends on display because they are hip? Out in the wilds of the Northwoods?"

"I can tell you Gracie's mom wears a thong, and I never needed to know that," he replied grimly.

Immediately, I realized how problematic this revelation was:  "Holy Kim Kardashian.  You're aware of how dangerous it can be to give me information I shouldn't have.  Now I'm probably going to walk up to Gracie's mom at school, open my maw, and greet her with a big, 'SOOOO, I hear from my husband you wear a yellow thong, and he didn't even find that discovery enjoyable, so maybe buy some longer shirts as a favor to the viewing public, wouldya?'  Oh. GAWD. Me must keep mouth shut.  Me must keep mouth shut.  But what the hell?  All these moms in their 40's are wearing the low rise and then stretching and bending while they assist with the ELC activities?  Like, how do you not think ahead and at least bring yoga pants or a cumberbund or the name of a little 'I'm with the kids now and not attempting--somewhat pathetically--to prove I'm still worth bagging' ass coverage?"

"The thing is, it wasn't just the mothers who were filling my eyes with moons at midday.  There are also all the Student Naturalists who are in their twenties... Sure, low rise pants are a bit less jarring when worn by that set, but I still couldn't believe it:  they're at work; this is their job; and all twenty-five of the students gathered around during a class are exposed to CRACK as their teacher bends down to point out lichen.  When I was working here, back in the Nicey Nineties, the women mostly wore Carhartt's--as part of the overall vibe of being well-equipped, practical, and ready to rescue a lost hiker at a moment's notice.  To this day, I'm glad I never saw any of their cracks.  Stick cracks in a night club; take them to the mall; send them to Disneyland; but I don't want to see them in the woods unless they're being wiped by a handful of moss."

Setting down his empty plate with a clank, he admitted, "So I guess the ELC has taught me many things over the years, the most recent of which is that I'm vehemently not a publicly-exposed-crack man." 

Then, pulling me in for a hug, he concluded, "Now. Let's talk beavers and freckles."


Final Exam Question for Readers:  In the photo of Jocelyn bending down at the ELC during her wedding reception, which part of her derriere was not receiving callers?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Start Spreadin' the News"

A few weeks ago, my husband and daughter went on a three-day field trip with her 4th grade, leaving Paco and me rattling around the house with nothing but matches and beer to amuse ourselves.

Nominally the adult, and in an effort to avoid situations requiring bail money, I decided to label our time together as Paco and Mamma's Glitter-Filled Days of Splashy Fun.  Mostly, this meant I squeezed a line of glitter glue onto his arm and then threw him into the bathtub.  Otherwise, he just went off to school while I graded rough drafts of research papers.  However, one night we did go out to Paco's Choice of Dining Establishment (But It May Not Be Fast Food; Sorry, Kid).  He chose a pub-like local restaurant called Sir Benedict's, a place he loves for its bottles of Orange Cream soda pop and its Toasty Cheese (quick recipe:  get hunk of French bread; slice it up; melt cheddar cheese on top; add pickle to plate for garnish).  He also likes that Sir Ben's has an "open" piano where anyone can sit down and play.  On the night of our Toasty Cheese visit, a bug-eyed "my piano skills might be the only thing between me and a life on the streets" grandpa type was noodling away on the ivories.  As Paco and I stood in line contemplating the merits of Orange Cream soda over root beer, the Piano Man launched into a catchy tune.  Never one to pass up a teachable moment, especially in the rare instances when I actually know something, I bent down and whispered into my first-grader's ear, "This song is called 'The Entertainer.'"

Without missing a beat, he whispered back, "Yea, Mom, I know.  Mrs. H plays it for us in music class.  It's by a guy named Scott Joplin.  At first I couldn't remember his name, so I almost told you it was by Vivaldi, but then I remembered that she's been playing us the part of 'The Four Seasons' called 'Spring, and that's Vivaldi, so I realized that I was wrong.  Then I thought for a minute and remembered Scott Joplin."

Considering sputtering, I instead expressed my amazement with a follow-up question, "Mrs. H rocks.  Don't you guys get to try out some cool instruments in music class, too, like that one Finnish thing?"

"It's called a kantele, Mom, and it's kind of like a lap harp.  Yea, we all get to take turns playing on those.  That stuff is fun, but I don't really like music class.  There are too many rules:  'Stand up straight!' 'Shoulders back!'  My shoulders get kind of slumpy feeling after not too long. It's like that in choir class, too. Music and choir make me tired."

"Aw, honey, you're a kid who says walking to the sink to fill up his drinking glass makes his 'widdo wegs tiwed,' so I can't take your complaints too seriously.  You are, and bless you for this, not a high energy child.  It's a blessing, in truth--what with the way the fatigue in your legs is always holding you back from things like going into your closet to find clean clothes--that you have a rich inner life, something that allows you to move not at all yet still access its intricacies.  I mean, the fact that you can be a Pokemon trainer, roaming the many regions of Japan in search of your next Venosaur or Charizard, without ever getting off the bed, well, that ease has really contributed to the success of your training career, hasn't it?"

Understanding full well the level of crap I was tossing at him, and being a worthy companion, Paco gave me a wry grin before announcing, "Gee, Mom, all this standing in line waiting to place our order has made my legs tired.  How about I go find us a table while you get my Toasty Cheese? That Piano Man is done playing Scott Joplin.  Now he's playing a song called 'My Way.' I know it because it was in that one movie with the penguins."

As I stood at the cash register, watching the owner swipe my card again and again--and again (due to high use, its magnetic stripe is getting sketchy), I took a moment to feel--again--a mixture of sadness and anger and disappointment.  You see, when my daughter was 18 months old, we put her on a waiting list for the music magnet school in town, wanting her, and then Paco, to experience elementary school as a time when music would be infused into the overall curriculum.  And even though the music offerings have been pared down each year that our kids have attended that school, they've still gotten more music education and experiences than they would anywhere else in the city.  As Paco demonstrated at Sir Ben's that night, it has proven an enriching option.

Now, starting next year, all of the "magnet" (read:  focused enrichment) schools in our district are being de-magnetized.  The rhetoric coming out of the district office explains that magnet schools are being abandoned in favor of "closing the achievement gap."  Once the rhetoric is made honest, that simply means:  "We still have kids who, due to the complications that can come with race, ethnicity, language, and economic status, aren't turning in slamming scores on the standardized tests, and so now we're going to cut the music (or, in other magnet schools, the science or language) enrichment classes and focus more on getting those scores to where they need to be, lest the government cut our funding even further."

As a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a parent, as a nominal adult, my response to this could go on for trillions of ranty words.  In short, though, I would merely point out that, in an ideal world, district officials would have interviewed 50 Cent, Louis Armstrong, Shania Twain, Jerry Lee Louis, Billie Holiday, Seal, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Ritchie Valens, Edith Piaf, Ice Cube, Fiona Apple, M.I.A., Bruce Springsteen, Henry Rollins...

...and noted, "Life didn't set you up for success.  Yet you found a way to overcome that gap.  You tapped into something that pulled you out of and above the track set for you at birth."  Then, I wish they had asked, "Could we use your story as we compile a heap of evidence to shove at the highers-up? What they don't seem to comprehend--but what seems essential for them to comprehend--is that music not only transforms lives; not only enhances all other learning; not only removes the barriers of race, ethnicity, and class; not only provides a common language for all of humanity; we also want them to see that it can save lives...which, compared to 'closing an achievement gap,' is profoundly more important."

However, the decision was made before anyone even knew the discussion was underway.  Snap.  Done.

My musings ended abruptly when a tray of melted cheese and creamy soda slid towards me, swooshing across the counter.  Tucking my credit card back into my wallet, I grabbed the tray, turned, and stopped to savor the sight of Paco tapping his hands on the table, in perfect time, as he tried to mouth the words to "New York, New York."

When I reached the table, he looked up and told me excitedly, "This one's by Frank Sinatra, just like the penguin song was.  Mrs. H told us in music class one time!"

Just as a point of interest, here's what I was listening to as I wrote this post:

Dan Wilson, singing "All Kinds of Beautiful"

Thursday, May 06, 2010

"That Gentle Rustle You Hear?  It's the Sound of Monet Rolling Over in His Grave"

"I love this place," breathed Paco, looking around in wonder. "There are zombies and aliens everywhere."

Of course there were.

We were at the end-of-semester community college art show.

Speeding up to a trot, Paco cruised down the concourse, calling, "Hurry up! Here's a Super Mario made out of mosaics! Come ON. You won't believe what some of these students were able to make. Look, there's a chair made out of pop cans!  And a mask in the shape of a devil's head! Wait, and then someone put a baby in a bucket and took a picture!  I wish we could buy it all!"

While uncountable pieces in the art show induce eye-rolling exchanges between me and my husband, we do delight in Paco's untrained taste, which makes him the perfect audience for artistic work that grows out of, ahem, untrained taste.  For many participants and onlookers, it's their first brush with creation and appreciation.

Of course, there are many pieces in the show that grow out of talent and skill; there is much to look at that is lovely, arresting, worthwhile.  Even the efforts that aren't perfectly accomplished are often interesting, for they mark points on a continuum that runs, on one end, from airplanes made of beer cans to, on the other end, professional pottery.  A student art show makes visual all the bumps and jolts inherent in the learning process.

For Groom, who took Watercolor, Art History II, and Digital Photography II this semester (he's finishing out some generals at the college where I teach before he launches himself towards another degree in the next few years), the classes have been challenging and fun--have put him onto that continuum somewhere between the fledgling "Look, Ma, I scratched out a parrot" student and one who pounds out impressive metalworked pedants.

Here.  See?  This is some of his work:

The watercolor class was difficult because it's such a delicate medium that it can be difficult to paint something forceful or "sharp."  I do like this rendering of my in-laws' house, though.

This one is my favorite Groomed watercolor; it's a picture of workers in the ginseng fields (which, em, we have lots of here in the frigid Midwestern U.S.). Anyhow, both Groom and I like looking at little people doing stuff.  That's why we make our kids vacuum.

This painting is the one Groom was racing to finish and submit before leaving town for his grandma's funeral.  While I quite like it, I can only hear his mutters of, "Just two more hours in the day would lower my blood pressure right about now" when I look at it.

His Nibs also has a few digital photographs hanging in the show.  One is the "Pursuit of Frankenstein" featured in a previous post.  But he also did a nice shot of the former drive-thru window at a now-closed bank:

Here's my pretentious, artsy critique:  Jumpin' Jeeeehosephat, but get a load of dem colors.

And finally, this last is my favorite thing Groomeo did all term; it's a photo of a pine needle and some sort of wrapper laying out on our rickety deck:

Appropriately, it's called "Deck Litter"

After admiring all the dragons and guitar heroes and Tinkerbells featured in the student art,

and after scarfing down the free Domino's pizza that was served at the show (a truer indication of the event's quality I cannot find; get this:  as I ate the pizza, my lips and tongue got kind of buzzy and then numb...could it be, perhaps, because I was ingesting food items with no actual connection to anything growing or existing in nature?),

the kids each grabbed a bottle of water, and we headed out into the parking lot,

whereupon they transitioned quite naturally into a kind of performance art:

the Art of the Spit Take.

Monday, May 03, 2010

“When two people decide to get a divorce, it isn't a sign that they 'don't understand' one another, but a sign that they have, at last, begun to.”--Helen Rowland

Our next door neighbors recently signed divorce papers.

In the ways that divorce can be awful, it has been. The husband has been angry, betrayed, wanting retribution. The wife has been sad, confused, feeling defensive.

Lately, the nine-year-old son amuses himself by putting his Lego creations in the middle of the street and watching cars run them over. When her dad starts yelling, the seven-year-old daughter buries her head under a couch pillow and sobs.

Although the marriage lasted fourteen years, its death commenced shortly after the first child was born, when the new dad experienced, for the first time, how stressful life with kids is. Rather than forcing himself to step up, he chose to absent himself, even when physically present, rendering his wife, in essence, a single parent, albeit it one with the added level of resentment that comes from having the children’s father sitting out back on the steps, strumming his guitar, while she wrestled two toddlers to bed each night.

Of course, relationships go both ways, and the dad’s story would include chapters of resenting a wife who gives everything to the kids and nothing to him, of supporting a wife who opts to stop working and expects him to pull all the financial weight, of a wife who changes her mind midstream. He feels used.

This divorce does not hinge upon blame, though. More, it pivots on a glacial growing apart, of getting married in their twenties and realizing, in their thirties, that they have trouble liking each other, that their views of the world have diverged radically, that he wants to go to Rush concerts while she wants to design little girls’ bedrooms in Shabby Chic. As is the case in many divorces, their break-up isn’t a case of flashy drama but, rather, of slow decay.


In the ways divorce can be freeing, this one has been. Although the Rush Lover is acting as though his wife enjoyed a leisurely vacation at home these past years while he hauled himself off to the office to give and give and give of himself, I daresay a part of him is relieved. He won’t have to feel guilty anymore for puttering in the garage, building furniture, when the rest of the world wants him to tell his wife, “Your job is 24/7, and there’s no clocking out, so why not take an hour here and go for a walk?” He won’t have to feel put out anymore when his wife asks him to watch the kids so she can go get her hair done. Instead, the emotional nuances that play into good parenting and spousing—nuances that have largely eluded him –are no longer a factor, since the expectations of his fatherhood have been typed out, clearly, with set hours and boundaries, on legal paper. He now knows when he can and can’t make furniture or strum “Closer to the Heart.” He now knows exactly which hours of the week he should call out, “Okay, kids, let’s go to the playground!” The murkiness that comes from sharing a household, from not being able to decode a complicated set of encrypted expectations, has cleared.

For the wife, freedom comes from the abolishment of resentment; from no longer having to tamp down her disappointment, fear, and hopes; from realizing that, if she couldn’t figure out how to be strong within marriage, then it’s time to master strength on her own.

Despite her excitement at being free, the wife existed in limbo for some weeks after the break-up became official. He got the house; she got primary custody of the kids. With no place to move with the kids and very little money in hand, she remained in the house until the final possible move-out date. Only through the kindness of friends did she land in a perfect rental, which she is just settling into.

Currently, he has a steady flow of income from his clients; she is living off past garage sale earnings and applying for public assistance to tide her over until he sells off some investments to raise the settlement money she has coming to her. Despite these financial straits, she was holding steady, attitude-wise, until her final lawyer’s bill arrived. She had expected it to be $800. But since Ex-Husband had drawn out the finalizing of the papers, asking for meetings twice a week to change a few words, the final bill came to $3,000.

As Ex-Wife sat with that bill on her lap, moving more of her things out of her previous house, Ex-Husband walked in with a trailer load of new IKEA furniture totaling well over $1,000.

The disparities snapped her positive attitude. She had known her lawyer was inept; she had realized she rolled over too easily on some agreements; she was the first to admit the marriage had been a two-way street.

But. It. Just. Felt. So. Unjust.

A feeling that had been fomenting inside of her hardened, became shiny. In the fashion of a 1987 Women’s Studies class, she became rabid about the word “empowerment.”

Eventually, she accepted that, on some fundamental level, her final step to complete empowerment entailed financial self-sufficiency. Her plan to open a shop of “gently used” clothing and household items—the kind of shop she’d started and successfully run two times previously--gained momentum. The space is rented, partially painted, awaiting carpet replacement. Up until the lawyer’s final bill arrived, Ex-Wife had hoped to keep her stock for the shop in Ex-Husband’s garage while the store’s interior was polished.

After the lawyer’s final bill arrived, she became amenable to a mass transfer of Stuff to the half-finished shop.

So now her future Empowerment is stacked in a heap on the ratty old carpet in her will-open-one-day-somewhat-soonish store.

It’s dingy, it’s mottled with the splotches of decades, but that damp, smelly rug feels like a less toxic place to risk her future than her husband’s arms ever did.