One Hot Day

Lawsy, it was hot.

We’d weathered a memorable ride on a mini-bus (dolmus) to get there, a ride packed full of sweating bodies overlapping each other, a ride reeking of body odor, a ride without moving air to calm the overheated brain. Once we got off the mini-bus, we then had to walk down a long road to reach the attraction: the ruins at Efes.

Sweet Stinky Jehoshaphat in a Sauna, but it was hot.

Efes, the Turkish name for the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (Have I spouted lately about how there are more Greek ruins in Turkey than in Greece?), is a place rich with history. The Temple at Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was there. The Gospel of John is rumored to have been written there. Pliny the Elder hung out there. At one point, before the Roman Empire fell, it was second in importance and size only to Rome itself. And guess at whom Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was aimed?

Visiting Efes, for a ruins maven like myself, was a kind of heaven.

If heaven is ninety kajillion hell-like unrelenting degrees.

The thing about Efes is that it’s crazy awesome–but it’s not as though ruins, as a rule, offer up a lot of shade because hello no roofs. By the time we reached the amazing reconstructed library (how do I get a card?)

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we needed to stop and recover in the shade behind a wall:

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Despite the heat, it felt like magic to walk upon such worn stones, and we all (Byron, Allegra, Paco, friend Kirsten, and me) milled around and stared at ancient toilets and brothels for a few hours. Eventually, everyone was ready to retire to the area of restaurants and shops for bartering, ayran (foamed yogurt and water with a pinch of salt) and gozleme (sort of like a Turkish quesadilla).

Actually, I wasn’t.

Before calling it a day, I had an itch to scratch. There was an archaeological project going on at Efes; for an extra fee, visitors could walk through the covered, enclosed area and view the excavations of terraced Roman houses. Normally, we aren’t ones to pay an extra fee, but my gut kept saying, “Do it. Go look at those things.” Since the kids were nearing heat exhaustion, Byron and Kirsten took them off to shadier places while I…

had one of the best–unexpectedly sacred–hours of my entire year in Turkey.

It didn’t hurt that the excavation was covered, of course, and it didn’t hurt that very few other tourists were willing to pay the extra fee. When I walked into the cool hush of the work site, I watched the only other visitors, both of them, working their way toward the exit.

Suddenly, it was shady and quiet and calm, and I was in the presence of something that felt like greatness.

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I stayed on the marked boards and paths, craning my head, using my long camera lens to try to view and capture some of the mosaics and details that were well removed from the walkways. Even more than loving a ruin, I do love a mosaic.

And then my reverie was interrupted by a voice, a man who was talking quickly to me in Turkish, taxing my brain to track his intent by applying the 100 words of vocabulary I’d acquired over time. Some sort of greeting and then some strident-sounding verb thingies. Was I not on the path? Was I in trouble? I hadn’t touched anything, and anyhow, it’s habit in Turkey for museum attendees to pet, hug, sit on, and kiss items on display. To the best of my recollection, I hadn’t petted a thing since parting from Paco. So what was he telling me? Were they closing? Had I paid my extra fee for only six minutes of bliss? Was this place the ruins version of a money-grabbing whorehouse?

Ah, but then he used the international gesture for “Come on!” and motioned that I should step off and over and under so as to join him. Holding a finger up to his lips, he looked around at the empty place, a glint of mischief in his eyes, as he said something about lunchtime. Or food. Or eating. Or maybe bears. Gesturing again, and using one of the Turkish words I did know, he bid me “Come!”

So I followed him. Off road. To experience rooms and walls and mosaics and paintings that couldn’t be seen unless one was on a personal, semi-illicit guided tour.

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He walked quickly, but I trotted along behind him, stopping to snap as many pictures as I could without making him impatient. When we’d get to a particularly wonderful bit of something, he’d stop and point, waiting for me to get the photo.

Rather than make this post seventy-two feet long by embedding each photo, I’ve put some of the best ones into this slideshow. The first pictures are of Efes itself, so you can get a sense of the ruined city before heading into the terrace houses. Any photo that is up close of a painting or mosaic is something I look during my once-in-a-lifetime walk through ancient homes.


When, finally, my guide deposited me back where we’d began, I used all three of the thank yous I knew in Turkish and clutched, meaningfully, at my heart. Then I meandered through the upper levels of the terraces, carefully staying on the marked paths, before stumbling back out into the searing sunlight, feeling more than a little bit changed.

I wandered back to find my crew, breathlessly telling Byron he just had to go back and see those houses. But, alas, everyone was more than done, more than ready to make the dusty walk back out to the main road, more than ready to stand, unprotected from the heat, next to the black asphalt highway until the next dolmus came by.

Fortunately, our plan for the tail end of the day was to hop off the dolmus as it re-entered the city of Kusadasi and take a refreshing plunge in the cooling waters of the Aegean–

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Taking Stock

As one year ends, and a new one begins, it is tradition to slow down for a moment to take stock.

Although I generally chafe at tradition, and although I tend to exhaust myself by taking stock every day of every year, I do like the notion of recording some of my favorite things from the past clump of days. Then, when my memory fails, I can come back and read this blog as though someone else wrote it, and it’ll be so fun to get to know the lady who wrote this stuff! I’ll be a new friend for my own addled brain!

A quick sampling of some of 2013′s delights, then:

1) Beer. I can never thank beer enough for all it’s done for me, and in this era of craft brews, whole new worlds are opening. I view the hoptimization of our country with great hoptimism.

2) Friends. I mean, there are friends, and there are friends. We have a good sampling of types, but there are a few specific pals who happify me with their ability to be playful, thoughtful, analytical. For me, the best friends will leap onto the sled that is life and take a wild ride down the hill (Hey, Addled Jocelyn, have you noticed how the lady writing this blog enjoys not only wordplay but also clunky metaphors? Just like you used to?).

I cannot tell you how much this picture, taken at the weekly summer "Wednesday Night at the Races," makes me laugh. Three-year-old Aliya has a proper match in her Mama Julie there.

I cannot tell you how much this picture, taken at the weekly summer “Wednesday Night at the Races,” makes me laugh. Three-year-old Aliya has a proper match in her Mama Julie there.

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3) Reading. This is not news, of course, but somehow I feel like reading in 2013 was particularly good; perhaps I was just in the mood to be entertained that way, or perhaps I happened upon a very good string of books, but, holy crikey, did I enjoy reading this past year. In particular, I liked feeling challenged by books without having to find them challenging, if that makes any sense. Books like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries play around with structure and the limits of storytelling in ways that pushed me to pay attention and commit. Also, my friend Tim sent me a book that, at first, I thought was simply a joke, but once I started reading it, the thing was balm to all the stresses of every day. I’m not quite sure how she did it, but when Agnes Sligh Turnbull wrote Gown of Glory (penned in 1952 but set in 1881), she wrote a tale of faith and goodness that is much better than it has a right to be. I’m not a religious person–unless you count crying at the beauty of snow on a pine tree a kind of worship–but I was very taken by the story of a family completely living within the mores of the era while, at the same time, wrangling with the issues in their lives in a way that is surprisingly authentic. After finishing Gown of Glory, I went online and ordered two more of Turnbull’s books, hoping for similarly satisfying reads.

4) Boots. Familycousins, specifically, in these photos. Doesn’t hurt to have a thirteen-year-old with a heap of forbearance, either.

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5) This city. Duluth’s charms are many, from its lake to its greenspaces to its burgeoning culture of breweries. I adore that we’re currently experiencing a true winter (although you know it’s been damn cold for a damn long time when unflappable Byron announces, mournfully, “I need it to be, like, 20. Can’t it just be 20 outside?” That would entail a 40 degree spike from the current temperature, however, so it might actually be too much to ask).

Nevertheless, the North Shore of Minnesota is swell.

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Ghosts on the surface of the lake are caused by the water temperature being so much warmer than the air and by the unsettled souls of dead people.

 

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Shadowing Byron in the kayak as he swims in Lake Superior.

 

6) Equal rights for all loving couples, per the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, including Minnesota. We had a summer full of celebration, as several beloved couples in our lives were able to make it official. As it turns out, I don’t only cry at snow on a pine tree.

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7) The ability to give myself an inner chuckle. Last week, speaking of Addled Jocelyn, I couldn’t come up with the word that would follow “Mongolian…” or “marauding…” Instead of landing on “hordes,” my brain filled in “hoarders,” which then let me go off on a riff about yurts stacked to the ceiling with inflated goat bladders.

Then, today in yoga class, I had a little inward grin when the teacher kept telling us, as we lay on our stomachs, to rest our foreheads on the floor. Given the genetics of my proboscis, there’s no way my forehead will ever touch the floor unless I launch myself into an inclined headstand.

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Making my own fun

 

8) Music. So long as I can crank Kansas’ “Carry on My Wayward Son” or Bob Mould singing about the Hoover Dam, there will be a sashay in my hootenanny.

9) Always, the three people I live with. I actually dodge many opportunities to socialize, simply because I am so fully satisfied by just these three. They are soft, wry, creative, capable, goofy. And they never flinch, no matter what kind of nonsense I spout. They are my sweetest and my best.

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Merry Banana-mas to All, and May Your Pants Be Skin-Tight

“I’ll have a banana split,” said the nondescript man in the Member’s Only jacket, placing his order.

A banana split?

For high school girls working the counter of Rimrock Mall’s Hipster Doogan ice cream and corn dog emporium, an order for a banana split was cause for excitement. Sure, we scooped a lot of single chocolate almond fudge cones. You bet, we dipped a lot of the store’s specialty item: the Doogan Bar (a rectangle of ice cream on a stick dunked into warm chocolate and rolled in crushed nuts). On the other side of the store, we ladled cheese for nachos; we popped bags of corn; we made taco salads, we fried chicken nuggets and corn dogs.

We fifteen-year-old mall workers were diverse in talent, high in energy, and well able to fulfill the store’s Mission Statement (with a liberal dash of personal interpretation overlaying corporate intention):

To ensure that each guest receives prompt (once we stopped comparing notes on curling irons), professional (dripping with lip gloss), friendly (if he was cute) and courteous (lowering our voices before observing, “She’s so stuck-up”) service. To maintain a clean (slopping bleach water on the tiles of the floor while singing “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”), comfortable (go ahead: lean on the counter while we fill your Dr. Pepper) and well maintained (only minor chips in the industrial counter top laminate) premises for our guests (like YOU, Members Only Guy!) and staff (wait, who? OH!). To provide at a fair price (not like that wallet-gouging movie theater down by J.C. Penney’s)nutritional (popcorn’s a whole grain, People, and there are many important mystery nutritions in a corn dog, not to mention positive fats–the kind that’ll make your hair shiny–in two scoops of Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream), well-prepared (we crushed the chips on your taco salad with our own hands) meals – using only quality ingredients (the ever-liquid nacho cheese that comes in a 96-ounce can). To ensure that all guests and staff are treated with the respect (hey, Sailor) and dignity (“A chocolate milkshake made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup? I commend you on your sophisticated taste”) they deserve. To thank each guest (“You were rad. It was bitchin’ of you to stop by!”) for the opportunity to serve them (“The napkins are in the dispenser on the counter. Help yourself”). By maintaining these objectives we shall be assured of a fair profit (our boss Connie barely made it through 8th grade but could count out that till each night like someone who’d taken and nearly passed algebra) that will allow us to contribute to the community (Billings, Montana! And surrounding regions! Including Upper Wyoming!) we serve.

Mission Statement Fulfillment aside, we teenagers on the Hipster Doogan wait staff also spent countless hours standing around, wiping the same patch of counter repeatedly. We sprayed the mirrors. Wiped them. We stirred the Doogan Bar dipping chocolate. Restocked the butter pats. Compared notes on our various high schools. We counseled the older workers, women well into their twenties, when they came up pregnant or missed their bus. We joked around with our bosses so that they’d like us and give us lots of hours on the next week’s schedule. We punched in, scooped, wiped, chatted, took a break, punched out.

Thus, when a customer stepped up to the counter and ordered something unusual, something we had the chance to make maybe once every two months, something like a banana split, it was a thing–

especially when such an order was placed on a quiet weeknight during which my co-worker, Jamie, and I had already exhausted our troves of gossip. We’d already replaced the getting-low barrel of Fudge Ripple ice cream, and we’d wiped the grease off the doors of the popcorn machine. Stacks of cups were towering next to the pop machine; to add any more would have been madness. Possibly, we’d swept. For sure, we’d already decided Jamie should dump her boyfriend.

So what to do? Hmmm? What to–

A BANANA SPLIT, YOU SAY, SIR?

Why, yes, it would be our pleasure to get right on that.

Fortunately, we had a bunch of bananas right there on the slightly chipped counter top, just waiting to be sliced. I grabbed the best looking of the bunch (which is, incidentally, also how I scored my husband seventeen years later), peeled it like I was removing a pair of toe socks after a long night of dancing to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and ran a knife down its center. Huzzah! The fruit was split! And if this customer ate enough banana splits, so would his pants!

Jamie reached under the counter to retrieve a banana split boat while I peered into the lowboy, trying to spot the can of Redi-Whip. As we both bent down, I slipped on the banana peel that had fallen onto the tiles, and our heads clunked.

And with that, Member’s Only Guy found himself witness to a spontaneous bit by the Two Stooges. Jamie dramatically rubbed her noggin while I mock fell to the floor. Looking up at MOG, I managed to suggest, “While my colleague here restores her rattled brain, and while I hoist my polyester-smocked self off the floor, perhaps you’d like to peruse the flavors of Montana’s own Wilcoxsons ice cream? You get three scoops in your split, so what flavors would you like? Myself, I cannot recommend too strongly the combination of Bubble Gum with Licorice offset by a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip. You will never regret a choice that bold.”

Looking dubious and entertained in equal measure, the man made his way up and down the line of flavors, putting his nose to the case. “I tend to be more classic in my tastes, so let’s go with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.”

Hiding my exasperation at his lack of imagination, I dusted off my rear end and moved to the sink to wash my hands. “Okay, Jamie, are you good to scoop?”

As her eyes uncrossed, Jamie noted, “There’s more than one scooper here for a reason. I’ll get the vanilla and the chocolate while you round up the outlier that is strawberry.”

As it turned out, having one of us hold the banana split boat while the other lobbed ice cream in its general direction was infinitely more fun that an easy division of scooping labor. Jamie hucked frozen balls my way, and I–only missing the first two (more to mop up after closing while humming Annie Lennox)–eventually caught three balls with the boat.

Smashing the scoops gently into some sense of order, and cradling the two halves of the banana around them, I then turned to Members Only Guy and ushered him to his next decision: “All right, Sir. Now: you can have two flavors of syrup on your ice cream. We have hot fudge, butterscotch, pineapple, and strawberry.” Lowering my voice, I whispered, “To be honest, if you have a strong feeling about all of them, I believe something can be arranged. I can be very bad at counting, if you feel you need the synergy of four.”

“Naw, I’m good with two. Let’s go with hot fudge and strawberry.”

What’s awesome about hot fudge versus strawberry, as sauces, is the difference in their consistencies. Hot fudge is all “I’m late for the office” runny, whereas strawberry is more “What’s your hurry, Mr. Type A?” in attitude. Jamie and I proved this, systematically, by having a sauce race wherein she held a ladle of fudge three feet above the split, and I held a ladle of strawberry at an equal height. On the count of three, we began to drizzle, and it would’ve made Albert Einstein sit up in his grave to see the hot fudge hitting the scoops first because SCIENCE.

Comfortable enough to comment, Member’s Only Guy noted, “That little experiment there was kind of messy, wasn’t it? I hope you don’t have to stay late tonight, cleaning up.”

“Never fear,” Jamie assured him, “for we’re experienced cleaners. A little strawberry sauce in the cracks is nothing to us. Now, butterscotch in your bangs is another story, of course.”

Watching the ice cream begin to wilt, I jumped in, “We’re almost done with your masterpiece. Next, I’d like to offer you the option of a cloud of whipped cream atop your sauces. Would you like a cloud? Are you a Cloud Man?”

“Why, yes, I’m very cloudy,” he affirmed.

Those words were all the permission Jamie and I needed to use up the rest of the can of Redi-Whip. First, we built a foundation of cream; then, handing the can back and forth between us, we tacked on a scaffolding, after which we sculpted a three-tiered tower of cloud.

“Wow,” we all breathed together in wonder. “That’s just…beautiful.”

“It makes me believe in God,” Member’s Only Guy confessed, his eyes lifting to the top of the banana split and, therefore, the heavens.

He was ready to convert, but we weren’t completely done proselytizing there at the Cathedral of Banana Split. An eyebrow cocked, almost as a challenge, Jamie offered up the crowning glories: “It may be beautiful, and you may see God in that rapidly melting whipped air, but there’s more. Might I interest you in a scattering of peanuts and a spoonful of sprinkles? We also have maraschino cherries. Think of them as the angels.”

“Oh, yes,” he confirmed, still rapt. “Whatever you’ve got, put it on there.”

As I stood a few feet away and lobbed peanuts onto the cloud, Jamie added three tablespoons of jimmies and a handful of cherries to the white peaks.

Then, slowly, carefully, each of us taking an end of the boat, we moved our creation from the back counter to the front. Setting it next to Member’s Only Guy, we stepped back with a flourish, grabbed hands, and took a bow.

“Here’s a spoon. You might need about fifty napkins out of the dispenser on the counter there, too. Oh, and there are bathrooms down the hall and to the right, in case you need to stick your head under a faucet after you’re done,” I told him.

“Thanks for the fun,” Jamie said, wrapping up the transaction. “That’ll be $3.50.”

Taking a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and sliding it across the counter, our satisfied customer smiled. “Watching you two make that banana split is the best time I’ve had in ages. Keep the change. You deserve it.”

With that, he slurped at the whipped cream, picked up his boat, and, like a banana, split.

Jamie and I couldn’t believe it. We generally didn’t get tips at the Hipster Doogan, and if we did, it was the odd nickel or dime. But this man had just gifted each of us with $3.25 of our own, simply because we’d been goofy, and he’d been good-natured. For Jamie and me, in a year when the federal minimum wage was $3.35 per hour, his tip was huge.

Indeed, the tip he gave us was a tremendous gift. It was like Christmas, only it wasn’t December, and no one had declared it was Mandatory Gift-Giving Day. No one had announced, “At this pre-ordained time, everyone should feel happy and full of togetherness.”

Rather, the delight, the happiness, the togetherness, the zest, the generosity

all just happened.

By virtue of being unplanned and unexpected, those ten minutes of making a huge mess at the Hipster Doogan were my idea of a perfect holiday.

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And that’s my wish for you, dear readers:

May all your best holidays come out of nowhere,

requiring no orchestration or planning.

May they be free of expectation

and full of surprise.

May your heart overflow with freedom and whimsy,

and may you marvel that life is grand–

simply because it’s a Wednesday night

or a Thursday afternoon

or a Saturday morning…

no day in particular–

simply because people are good,

and the fun of it all puts you in the mood to see Possibility in whipped cream.

 

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Where I’m From

A lesser daughter would have been mortified and fled down the corridor to stuff herself into the nearest locker, slamming the door and refusing to ever come out.

A lesser daughter wouldn’t have stood there, hanging close, her face flushing red as she, too, fought back tears.

A lesser daughter wouldn’t have told her oblivious father, who was trying to herd the family down to the Scholastic Book Fair, “Hey, Dad, we need a minute. Your wife’s crying over here.”

A lesser daughter wouldn’t have made me cry, right there in the hallway during parent/teacher conference night.

I couldn’t help it.

I’d been hearing, at random moments during the previous few weeks, that she’d written a poem for Language Arts class and that she could take that poem down from the wall and bring it home after the parent/teacher conference with her home base teacher. The fact that this doesn’t-talk-much kid mentioned it more than once alerted me to her excitement.

Thanks to childhood training with my Finnish-ish father, I know full well that if someone of Northern European/Scandinavian extraction mentions something more than once, it’s equivalent to an Italian climbing the side of a bell tower drunkenly at midnight and ringing the carillon until Mount Etna erupts in response. Seriously, if my daughter mentions something three times over the course of two weeks, it’s something.

So we finished her conference with her home base teacher (standard stuff: “So smart; such a great kid; only one thing: it would be nice if she raised her hand and participated more”), and then she went out to the hall and peeled her poem off the wall. Knowing that my role is to create the clamor that helps express my kids’ excitement–they all don’t mind, at our house, if I externalize the things they have tucked inside–I demanded, “Lemme see it! Lemme see!”

She handed me her poem, and we walked down the hall until we could pull over in a quiet corner so I could read it.

That’s the point where this mother of a 13-year-old girl burst into tears, right there in the middle of the middle school, and the 13-year-old didn’t roll her eyes or give me the “Maaaw-um” of embarrassment or stuff herself into a locker. She stayed close, got red, and fought off tears.

For someone of Northern European/Scandinavian extraction, this was equivalent to an Italian rending her clothes, yanking out tufts of her hair, beating her breast, throwing her hands to heaven, and collapsing into a heap in the dust as the tinker’s cart pulls away. She’d wanted to buy two buttons, you see, but the tinker had none.

That poor Italian. With all the clothes-rending that goes on in her daily life, it’s a wonder she didn’t need more than two buttons.

 

So my reserved daughter stood there, awfully close, and absorbed the compliment of my public tears.

After a minute, I gasped, “Okay, I’ll go to the bathroom and do a little recovery there. I don’t need to keep standing here, crying, but I can’t stop. The thing is, about this poem, Allegra, is that it’s just the best thing. It’s just the very best thing.”

It’s not that the assignment was original; I’ve seen this assignment come home before, during other years of school. It’s a somewhat standard assignment.

What moved me so very much–what moves me still, even after I’ve read the thing fifteen times–is that her poem feels like the biggest thank you a kid could give. Her poem shows that she sees her life clearly. Her poem shows that she’s taken stock of something even as she’s in the midst of it. Her poem shows how it’s all the little things in life that pile together into a more powerful whole. Her poem shows that she knows she’s lucky and loved. Her poem captures it all.

Then I read it again and start crying all over.

Do not let the fact that I also cry every time I watch a commercial that uses a John Denver song convince you that my tears come cheaply. Oh, all right: they do. But these poem-tears are different tears. These are “My kid gets it!” tears–very different, the discerning observer will note, from John Denver tears.

I love her poem. Just as much, I love that she loves her poem, too.

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The 13-year-old wrote:

“Where I’m From”

I am from tricycles and fisher price people

From getting rolled up in blankets

I am from the overflowing flower gardens

Tall and colorful, and blazing in the sun

I am from painting on the easel in the kitchen.

I am from the photographs and drawings, books and magazines

That make the house

Not so empty and bare.

 

I am from forests and lakes,

From my Norwegian great grandparents.

I’m from bunny hats

and too much disco.

From the “good jobs” and the “keep goings.”

I’m from mosques, turkish tea, and headscarves

From fairy chimneys and cave homes

And the call to prayer.

 

I’m from the sound of running shoes hitting the ground

And breathing hard after a race.

I am from gliding up and down the snowy hills on a Sunday afternoon

and the click of the camera capturing every important event in my life.

 

From the peanut brittle on Christmas Eve,

and the scent of roast beef invading the kitchen.

I’m from the smell of banana bread and popcorn throughout the house.

I am from all these photographs, videos, memories, and stories

That are just waiting to develop into more.

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Inspired by “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon

That’s Right, Billy Joel: Here’s Another Fire You Didn’t Start

Last night, I told my husband, “In case you were doubting my power or questioning my influence–and it’s the wise man who does neither–I have definitive evidence that I’m changing the world.”

“Really?” he responded, cagily remaining neutral until he figured out what direction this announcement was headed.

“You got it, Mister. I was at the Y today, enjoying the loosely-harnessed passion of Cloud Cult through my ear buds, marveling at how much my forearms sweat when I’m on the stair machine, and, as is my wont, reading celebrity gossip magazines. Thoughtlessly, I flipped to the next page in my mag, only to cease my panting and catch my breath. For you see, cher husband, on that next page was evidence of my far-reaching influence.”

“What was it?! What was it?!” he demanded, jumping up and down like a preschooler at a Wiggles concert.

“I’ll give you a hint: I was presented with a visual connection between something that matters to me and the lives of the rich and famous.”

He began guessing: “Was there an article in which Michelle Obama discussed her love of eating toast late at night? Was it a feature in which Zooey Deschanel talked about how she likes to read three books simultaneously, locating them in various rooms throughout the house? Was it a blurb about how Steve Martin has been learning to play ‘The Can-Can’ on the piano, but in a fashion so lurching and clumsy that listeners have to dig their fingernails into their legs?”

“Fine guesses, for sure, Dear Husband. But no. Let me give you some hints. Hint #1: do you remember when I made a little video earlier this year?”

“Jocelyn, every time I turn my back, you’re making a little video. Seriously, you’re the person who took a stuffed Santa outside and had him smell a pine tree for the camera. So, yes, I remember a whole bunch of little videos you made this year. I need more information before I can solve this mystery.”

My eyebrows lifted as I provided greater specifics: “Well, it was this video right here.”

Exasperated, he threw his hands up and noted, “We’re standing in the kitchen, talking to each other. WHAT VIDEO? I CAN’T SEE A VIDEO WHILE WE’RE STANDING HERE, TALKING TO EACH OTHER. Are you running a video in your head again? I thought we’d clarified that I can’t actually see the movies playing in your mind.”

Whoops. That’s right. Limited seating in there.

“Okay, then, Lord Byron, here’s a different hint: remember these photos–which showcase both classic and acceptable variations of the topic at hand?”

It's called The Tunnel Bun.

I'm also going to be promoting a look called "Wear Your Hanger Strings Outside Your Sweater."

This is how I look when I re-enact the scene that's winning me the Oscar. I was very stern in that scene. Plus, I had a limp. And an accent.

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At this point, an odd purple color began flushing through Byron’s face. His normal pacifist tendencies seemed to be straining against something that might have been an urge to throttle.

Clipping out his words, he reiterated. “One. more. time. WE ARE STANDING IN THE KITCHEN, TALKING TO EACH OTHER. I CAN’T SEE ANY PHOTOS. You. have. to. remember. I. can’t. see. the. digital. slideshow. that. runs. in. your. head.”

Whoops squared.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I agreed. “Then let me reference something more directly. Although I realize you can’t see the picture I’m about to mention right now, since you’ve led me to believe we’re talking in the kitchen, I can take your brain to a memory, right? That’s something we can do with wordies? I mean, you can hear my wordies while we’re standing in the kitchen? I’ll take that slump of your shoulders as a resounding ‘Yes!’ Soooo…do you remember how, on Halloween, I was talking about the way one of my favorite blogger buddies did her hair–how it was a super rad side-tunnel bun?”

tunnel bun PVZ

And with that, the light bulb flicked on for my beleaguered spouse.

Or maybe he just opened the door to the fridge.

Either way, the room got brighter as he drawled out, “AHHHHHHHH, so this is a tunnel bun conversation we’re having?”

Why, yes, yes, it was.

Clapping my hands excitedly, like a preschooler at a Wiggles concert, I shouted, “YES! The success of my Tunnel Bun campaign was confirmed today while I was sweating on the Stairmaster! I turned that page in the magazine, and behold the glory that greeted me…”

tunnel buns001

“Sweet insanity, woman! No, I can’t ‘behold’! There’s nothing here. We’re in the kitchen. There is no magazine here. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Oh, yea. Gollee, but there’s a lot to keep track of in life.

I helped the poor guy out. Skipping happily, like a preschooler during an unexpected encore at the end of a Wiggles concert, I headed toward my gym bag and retrieved the magazine, throwing it open to the pertinent page, babbling to my beloved, “And you know if Jake Gyllenhaal is rocking a tunnel bun, and Bradley Cooper is in aspirational stages for one, then the tunnel bun has not only take hold with the femmes but has crossed genders, and when a style crosses genders, like pants for women and eyeliner for men, then the thing has ARRIVED–and so the Year of the Tunnel Bun has not only fulfilled its promise; it’s actually blown up to the point that it’s achieved world domination, right?”

Realizing the broccoli was ready to drain, and feeling somewhat drained himself, Byron took the shortest route to ending the conversation:

“Yes, yes, Jocelyn. There’s no doubt about it: you rule the world.”

 

While I Still Don’t Look Like A Model, I Am Closing in on Hairy Old Grandma

junior high001

A group of girls–some of them my “best friends”–wrote this note and gave it to me in junior high.

As much as the words still make my stomach hurt (do we ever lose touch with our 11-year-old selves?), and as much as I fall to my knees and thank the sky gods for the fact that my middle school daughter’s life, according to all observations and firsthand reports, is free of this kind of venom, I can also concede that this note is, in its way, normal. I’m not the only one who went through junior high and was the recipient of this kind of Girl Group Mass Attack. The term for this kind of stuff, incidentally, is relational aggression.

I tend to prefer the term soul-shredding bullying, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.

What’s amazing to me, as I consider the contents of this note, is that I can recall incidents of girl-on-girl cruelty in later years that were actually worse—and it’s a sad story, indeed, when junior high isn’t the peak of immature, uninformed judgment. At least the above summary of my flaws and deficiencies addresses the whole person. Not only was I a fat, tall, ugly, hoggish hairy old grandma, the authors of the missive also took into account my weirdness, meanness, insanity, and retardedness—spooning a healthy dollop of “stuck up” on top of it all. I give them credit because they really were considering the entire package and not basing their assessment sheerly on the superficialities of appearance. Had we taken the note into a courtroom, I daresay the accusers could have drummed up significant evidence to prove their claims about my weird, mean, stuck-up insanity. The word “retarded” is loaded with enough complexity, however, that I am certain I could have successfully counterargued that point.

Eventually, after a flurry of notes and tense exchanges, we all reached a kind of détente and were able to move into sixth period, and seventh grade, as “friends.” The arc of decades since the early 1980s has tacked on a few interesting codas: Jennifer, the “stuck up little rich brat,” has become a Lutheran pastor and adopted a daughter from China; Lori, the “very weird fat slop [sic],” still lives in our hometown, has never married, and appears, from a quick Facebook stalking, to take great pride in her motorcycle; Debbie, the “very fat boy who plays with girls and wear’s [sic] a bra,” appears to live in our hometown and work at a local college; of the accusers, two of them are my friends on Facebook and have become teachers (and in a terrible irony, the head note-writer did almost “drowned” in a lake) while the third married a boy from up the street, became a doctor, and moved to Switzerland. In addition to the three who signed their names to the grievance against me, Jenni, Lori, and Debbie, there was also a nebulous “bunch of others” affixed as a final signature. It’s hard to gauge how Bunch of Others is doing 35 years after Notegate, but I feel confident that at least a couple of them now fill their days with full-time Internet trolling and flaming (“u seem to be confusing education and intelligence. you cant even hold to an argment with out going off track and your basic ten year old math is still f***ing stupid to apply too this situation you fat headed little clown. btw your name is clown from now on ok clown?“).

As it does, life, with all its relational ups and downs, carried on—and although I didn’t have the tools yet to understand that cruelty and anger are offshoots of pain, and I didn’t really comprehend that the target of vitriol isn’t actually the source of the problem but, rather, a convenient repository for the attacker’s issues, I look back now on the artifacts from those years and see it all plainly. Just look at the interplay of agony and affection, for example, in a yearbook message the head note-writer later penned:

junior high002

Because I was young and in the midst of figuring things out, though, the lessons I took from Girl Attacks weren’t ones of compassion or empathy. Instead, what came out of Girl Attacks were strategies of coping and defending, and I’m here to tell you that coping and defending is exhausting work.

I suppose that’s why heading off to college seven years later felt like a most-welcome liberation. Not only did college present a chance to be new again, it also released me from all the various friendship contracts and treaties that had been drawn up over those early years of drunken nights at the drive-in, stolen boyfriends, changes of zip code, and divergently trending report cards.

It’s not that the first weeks of college were easy. Oh, no. Often, I felt lonely and unsure of how to make connections. I would leave my history class, during which the professor had spent more than a few minutes predicting the ways our collective idiocy would play out over the term, and then head to the student union to check my mailbox (empty, unless my mom had written to tell me about symphony concerts or my grandma had penned a note with details about the first frost of the year). After that, I needed to…well, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do to get through those late-afternoon hours. My Indian tapestry and Paul Klee print were already hung on my dorm room wall, and there were only so many times I could play my Howard Jones cassette tape (a super cool girl from Boulder who lived down the hall had this new thing called a “CD player,” but I was still rocking my boom box) while tamping down the urge to sing along loudly “What is loooooooooove, anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?” I knew I couldn’t break into boisterous song and the usual maze of accompanying dance steps in the presence of my college peers, these strangers, lest they witness the weird insanity that could be mistaken for retardedness.

Naturally, I had to watch my behavior in that carefully decorated dorm room, as my roommate and I were still figuring each other out. She seemed nice enough, and the fact that she’d brought her hot-air popcorn popper from home opened quite a few doors in JocelynLand. Initially, we worked diligently at Becoming Friends and Facing This New World Together. We’d pop some corn, melting butter in the little “dish” on top, and we’d sit on the grungy carpet and lean against the cinder block walls of our shared room, comparing life stories. As I say, she was plenty nice. And, well, popcorn popper.

There was, however, a kind of reserve in her that kept me from unleashing all my very best weird insanities. She was a petite, gentle, quiet girl. She was extremely pretty. She also had to be smart, or she wouldn’t have been there. She took her classwork seriously.

Unfortunately, she took her lip gloss even more seriously.

What’s more, she was tidy, proper, the kind of 18-year-old who kept her shampoo and conditioner in a basket with a handle and who wore her robe tightly belted on her way to and from the shower. Me? I’d slop across the hall to the bathroom in a big t-shirt and some sweats, juggling handfuls of hygiene products haphazardly. I didn’t plan out my outfits or sit up straight at my desk when I studied or go to bed at 10:30 p.m. When, one night, a random guy from the other end of the floor offered us some ramen noodles that he’d made in his hotpot, she quickly said, “No, thank you. I’m fine” at the same time that I bellowed, “WHAT ARE THESE RAMEN NOODLES OF WHICH YOU SPEAK? WE DO NOT HAVE THEM IN THE LAND FROM WHENCE I COME. Give them to me now, and then give me more!”

Neither of us was doing anything wrong. We were just…different.

Different was okay, if not particularly relaxing or fun.

Then, a few weeks in to fall term, my roommate invited me to come for a walk downtown with a group of freshmen girls from across campus. She’d been hanging out with them a bit and seemed, in her understated way, to be excited about them, especially because they lived in a “cool” dorm. They knew guys who were athletes. Something about the promise of these girls set her former-high-school cheerleader self to thrumming. The plan for the afternoon was to wander through the stores on the main street, maybe get something to eat, and just enjoy an off-campus afternoon of hanging out. Pleased by the invitation and the possibility of new friendship (and perhaps a stop somewhere for popcorn), I tucked in beside my roommate as we headed out to meet the group across campus.

Then.

The whole thing made me sad.

No one was unfriendly. No one was unkind. Everyone handled the pleasantries acceptably.

But no one was actively friendly. No one was clearly kind. No one was interested in talking to me beyond the pleasantries.

To put a finer point on it, no one was interested in me. They were interested in each other and the magical synergy that came from Them as a Collective of Tiny Cutenesses. No one seemed to think my ham-fisted jokes about mannequins in shop windows (“Good thing she’s got a lot of personality ‘cause she sure doesn’t have a head on her shoulders!”) added to the group’s magic.

At some point, maybe a half hour in, I stopped trying, stopped attempting to edge up to the two walking shoulder-to-shoulder in front of me, stopped attempting to compare classes, stopped asking questions about where they’d come from. Even the warm, slanting sun of September couldn’t keep me from being frozen out. At least in junior high, when I was ostracized, the other girls saw me, acknowledged my existence, and then rejected it. Being ostracized through pure indifference was new to me; particularly galling was that, before receiving this version of “go suck a lemon,” I had taken out loans and driven a thousand miles.

Eventually, we all meandered back to campus, them full of the delight of burgeoning friendship, me empty and subdued. At dinnertime, I hardly had the energy to add milk to my second bowl of Captain Crunch.

That night, back in our room, I decided to tell my roommate how the afternoon had felt to me. At least honesty would give us a way to connect to each other with some meaning.

When I told her how left out I’d felt and how I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to walk with me or talk to me, a look of confidence, even wisdom, hit her face. It was as though she knew something I didn’t; she was going to explain, and that would help me.

“The thing is, you have to look like a model in order for these people to like you.”

 

Well, now. Huh.

Implicit in her explanation was the idea that I had, by being me, disappointed her. She had a vision of her college friends, and if my galumphing self was loitering on the sideline of that imagined 4×6” photo, she would need to pick up her scissors and trim me out.

When my roommate said those words and attempted to convey (her) reality to me, I had a moment.

All the years leading up to college had sent a similar message—that looks equaled character, that looks brought power, that looks should, naturally, reap rewards. Of course good looking kids were the popular ones. Of course good looking kids should be aped and admired. Of course, it was considered a “win” if a good-looking teenager liked me; that friendship made me feel worthy…of something.

By the age of 18, I hadn’t parsed out what all this admiration of pretty people truly meant. All I knew is that the world kept telling me it was better to be pretty because that meant you were better.

Yet.

Everything that had brought me attention and acclaim was distinct from appearance. I did pretty well at playing musical instruments. I had good ideas. I could relate to a variety of types of people. I could memorize a speech and present it to strangers. I was easy at experiencing and sharing laughter. I had an intelligence suited to traditional education. I tested well. I was game for adventure.

On one hand, receiving praise for these gifts was lovely. On the other hand, receiving praise for things Not About Looks, when clearly good looks were the ultimate goal, was devastating, a donkey kick to the gut. Somewhat grimly, I continued to curl my hair each day, at the same time nurturing a little tendril of hope that somewhere an alternate view of success existed.

That’s where the promise of college revealed itself: by heading away from my hometown to a place where the criteria for being part of the club were entirely intelligence-based, I was stepping into a new life, one where the things I was good at were the things that were valued. College was going to redefine the terms of “winning.”

Yet now college was shaping up to be a continuation of the same, tired game.

In junior high, I bought into the game of cruelty; irrationally, my heart, head, and stomach believed that the observations made by The Note Writers had some merit, that they might actually be seeing me really clearly. From those early periods of conflict, I learned skills of coping and defending. By age 18, I was ready to find a less-enervating strategy. I was ready to challenge my heart, head, and stomach to try out moxie rather than capitulation.

I was ready to reject the basic premise.

I was ready to disengage from the dialogue.

I was ready to be done.

And there it was: a glorious moment of clarity. I let my roommate’s sentence work its way through my mind. “The thing is, you have to look like a model in order for these people to like you.” It was more ignorant than the junior high note, in truth, because it set up Winning Life as nothing more than a struggle to be physically attractive.

This–“The thing is, you have to look like a model in order for these people to like you”—was completely one dimensional.

Fortunately, I knew, at age 18, that I was multi-dimensional, what with being weird, stuck up, insane, mean—and perhaps more importantly, I was kind; I made the people around me feel good; I asked smart questions and listened to the answers; I was an expert at peeing in the woods; I was a brain trust of “Facts of Life” trivia.

And, yes, my nose was prominent enough to become a topic of some people’s conversation. My mid-section tended towards sofa-like softness. My breasts were far from pert.

If face and body were the criteria for success with my roommate and her new pack of friends, then I could only fail with them.

As it turned out, I wasn’t ready to begin college as a failure. I thought about it again: “The thing is, you have to look like a model in order for these people to like you.”

The thing is, no, I didn’t.

The upside to that sad afternoon and startling evening conversation was that these events released my roommate and me from trying to create something artificial with each other.

As the term continued, she deepened her friendships with the Beautiful People, and I deepened my friendships with the crew who lived in my dorm.

Just before winter break, my roommate told me she planned to move out—as there was an opening across campus, in the dorm where the cool people lived. I wanted to swoop the back of my hand across my forehead and shout “WHEW!” but instead I remained impassive and said that seemed like a good decision for her.

Then she left for the library

and I ran, my big nose, belly, and breasts in balance with each other, down to the other end of the floor I lived on.

I had news. There was someone I had to find. I needed to tell her—

I needed to tell her that she could move in with me, that we could blast The Pretenders before dinner, that we could sing along loudly with Alison Moyet (“Midddddnight…it’s rainin’ outside…he must be soakin’ wet”), that we could make up nicknames for every third person we saw, that we could dance until 2 a.m., that we could stagger down the main street of the town, holding hands and laughing—

I needed to find the new great friend who had confirmed for me that college was, indeed, going to be a whole new world—

she had asymmetrical hair (weird!), the sharpest wit I’d ever met (mean!), had dated a guy with blue hair in high school (insane!)—

she was so flawed as to be beautifully perfect.*

———————————————

As time passed at college, I would occasionally encounter my former roommate. We would exchange all the acceptable pleasantries without being interested in each other. Even more interestingly, two of the girls who had been part of the pack that day downtown ended up being not at all what they had seemed. Over time, they and I became part of the same large swirl of pals. Now, decades later, one of them has been through the wringer, and the other is a yoga teacher (not a scary one) and a highlight of my Facebook life.

The afternoon when I felt they were ignoring me was, for them, a time when they were excited to get to know each other better. They were just into each other. It had nothing to do with me, and the furthest thing from their minds was the idea that I didn’t look like a model. Both my roommate and I had been unpacking the baggage of junior high and high school into our perceptions of them; since we two were toting around dramatically different luggage, the contents spilled out into mismatched heaps.

Now, every time I post something on Facebook, and one of those girls who hurt my feelings so badly in 1985 comments enthusiastically and positively that she loves me, I blip back to elementary school, to junior high, to high school, to college, to graduate school, to my current work life. As I flash through the profound aches and wild joys all mixed up together, I think:

“The most amazing part of life might just be that we manage to live through it.”

———————————–

 

*Wouldn’t it be something if I’d written all that in a note, folded it into a triangle that could be finger-punted like a football, and slipped it to her as we passed in the hall?

 

 

 

 

Flushing the Queer Birds out of the Bushes

She was built like a hobbit hut.

Squat. Stout. Solidly constructed. Unlikely to tip over, even when besieged by orcs.

Then she bent down to examine something on the path, and as the elastic waistband on her denim shorts stretched to its limits, the outline of her person both shrank and expanded. Her skin was as pale as Dita Von Teese’s soft white underbelly in mid-winter, her brown hair shorter than General MacArthur’s at the peak of his power in the Pacific Theater.

Although she appeared to be nearly fifty, she struck me as someone who would move through life, even in adulthood, under the watchful eye of a guardian.

Yet there was no watchful guardian there on the trail. Hobbit Hut Woman was entirely on her own near the Amity Creek that day, apparently just another hiker out enjoying the gorgeous September sun.

I was out for a run, soaking up that same sun, and as I neared HHW, I tried to gauge whether or not she’d heard me coming. Giving her another second or two to note my presence, I prepared to emit a quiet cough to alert her. Wouldn’t want to affright the nice lady enjoying a lovely afternoon all on her lonesome, now would we?

She was squatting, deeply engrossed in the dry, packed earth. Just as I opened my mouth to give a warning cough, HHW stood up dramatically from her crouch, raised her arms above her head–What was that in her hands? A screwdriver? Ah, an awl!–and plunged the tool into the ground. Then again: she straightened, raised, and plunged, over and over, like Buffy slaying a vampire, if the earth were The Undead.

Coincidentally,

unfortunately,

just as I opened my mouth to alert her–with a warning noise that could potentially save me from an awl to the heart–a bug (smaller than a fly; bigger than a mosquito) flew into my mouth and shellacked its twitching body to the soft, wet wall of my oropharynx.

The moment was a perfect storm, wherein a Human Hobbit Hut was stabbing at, puncturing, the surface of Earth, no doubt striving to reach Middle, and I, citizen runner hoping not to trigger anxiety in an awl-wielding maniac, was tamping down a gag reflex so strong I felt my gall bladder heaving.

In a nanosecond, my priorities became clear:

1) Stifle, lest history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” startle;

2) Get past The Wild Awler as quickly as possible, affording her a wide berth, and put enough yardage between us that history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” could come safely tearing out of my mouth. Repeatedly. Followed by some ladylike spitting, genteel hoiking, and polite mouth dabbing.

 

Lawsy, friends, but the gag reflex is a powerful thing.

Repressing it while simultaneously running quickly as possible past one of the forest’s Special Creatures, well, now, that was a physical challenge akin to being ten centimeters dilated and ready to push but having to fold a load of laundry first.

I tried distracting my gag reflex–recalling the words of a Texan college roommate who advised, referring to a drastically different scenario involving gag-reflex-stifling, that she’d always found helpful a policy of “Close your eyes, and think of flowers.” I tried distracting my brain–thinking about how I never could get through The Hobbit, yet my ten-year-old gobbled up both it and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple years ago, so whatever, J.R.R.. I tried distracting my body–forcing it to leap every tree root and muddy patch it came to.

It didn’t work. I couldn’t close my eyes and think of flowers while running on an uneven trail, or I’d trip and fracture my patella. I couldn’t think of The Lord of the Rings because such thoughts would just make me want to give Gandalf a makeover (don’t get me started on that hair). The mud and roots weren’t challenges but, rather, obstacles between me and a satisfying one of these:

All I could do, as I tried to put a reasonable distance between me and HHW so that I could expel my innards, or at least one very small insect corpse, onto the ground, was chant, “A few more feet. Just cover a few more feet. Almost there. Almost far enough away. Almost time to release the hack.”

Ahhh, there it was: a curve in the trail thirty yards away from HHW. Once I rounded it, I could stop, prop my hands onto my knees, get intimate with my uvula, and not fear the jamming of a stabby tool into my clavicle.

All right, then…almost there…just about around the bend…time to give in and let-’er-rip…

But wait.

WHAT HO?

Coming toward me were an off-duty Santa Claus and his Alison Bechdel-ish hiking partner. Even worse, these people were looking to friend up with any random passer-by on the trail. Full of direct eye contact, wallets stuffed with dollars aimed at the Whole Foods Co-op’s tills, and a desire to combat personal body odor by rubbing crystallized mineral salts on their armpits, this couple viewed every walk in the woods as an opportunity to commune with the immensity of existence. Their eyes clapped warmly and intensely upon my purple face, and Off-Duty Santa noted, under his breath, “Well, now, Runner Lady appears to be suffering from a tragic overdose of Blue Gentian ingestion.” His gentle gaze turned even kinder and softer as he contemplated a mid-trail Intervention.

This would, obviously, not have been the right time to scald my vocal chords in an effort to shed a thorax, for these were more Lorax than thorax folk, in truth, the kind who have the word “Unless” emblazoned on their car license plates.

“Beautiful day—the kind of day that could tempt even the strongest soul to lose her willpower and eat a field of trumpet-shaped flowers,” offered Off-Duty Santa mellifluously, gesturing to the bounty of Gaia that filled up our senses as he began his Intervention. To his right, Alison Bechdel stoically bore witness and adjusted her backpack, which presumably held binoculars, a birding guide, and a mason jar of chia seed trail mix.

Unable to speak, and therefore unable to admit I was powerless in the face of my addiction and make amends, I gave them my best fake grin, an affirming nod, and kept my legs churning. Never let it be said I failed to run frantically in the opposite direction the second I saw a helpful Intervention coming my way.

Actually, the “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI,” she was rising, and the last thing I wanted to do was unleash it upon hearts that were already bleeding–especially because, if Santa and Bechdel abandoned the lost cause that was me and kept walking down the trail, they were about to encounter a Human Hobbit Hut vigorously attacking The Earth Mother. There’s only so much trauma dreamcatcher-lovers in North Face jackets can withstand in the space of an hour.

Trust me. I know. Some of my favorite people are lacto-ovo-pescatarians.

Fighting down my gullet, attempting once again to open a reasonable space between imminent yacking noises of insect carcass clearing and the good intentions of friendly question askers–Are you okay? Do you need some water? Should I slap your back? What’s wrong exactly? Do you need a doctor? Can I do anything? Is it still bothering you? Should I call someone? Maybe you should sit down? Now how are you feeling? Are you sure you don’t have a problem when it comes to Blue Gentian and all the rest of this is trumped-up deflection from the true issue?—I focused on rapid foot turnover and finding a companion-free oasis of trail.

Twenty yards; thirty yards; forty yards; out of sight. YES.

I let loose with it: “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI!”

Although the freedom to hack at will was glorious, the bug corpse didn’t surface. It had Become One with The Jocey. There was no other option: it was time to settle into some deliberate swallowing. Willing my stomach to welcome the protein, I frothed mouthfuls of saliva and forced them down my throat.

At some point during this esophageal hysteria, the itch that was the bug diminished to a tickle—most likely because only its wings remained plastered to my glands while the rest of its being descended into acid–and I was able to continue my run, this time with both voice (scratchy) and normal stride (glacial) back in place.

Tra-la-la, and ain’t the sunshine grand? sang my brain.

After a bit, I glanced at the time and decided to turn around and head back to the car–where a refreshing, larynx-restoring beverage would get the chugging of its life. Skirting muddy bits, avoiding horse apples, I looked up to see a fellow runner heading the opposite direction. As many runners do, she raised her hand to give a wave, but, as not many runners do, she raised her arm slowly, robotically, bent to 90 degrees at the elbow. She looked like a cactus propelled by Adidas. Articulating her hand back and forth a couple of times, she then returned the square angle that was her arm down to her side.

Apparently, that’s how we say “Hi” on Planet Cyborg.

Four minutes later, retracing my route, I looked down a straightaway of trail and spied Off-Duty Santa and Impassive Bechdel standing so close together that I feared the birth of their first child 40 weeks hence, save for the fact that they were fully zipped into their hemp clothing and unencumbered by attraction. As they sensed my presence, they stepped apart rapidly, each retreating with suspicious dispatch to opposite sides of the path. Nearing them and actually able to speak this time ‘round, I prepared the type of enthusiastic greeting that would assure them I’d never needed the Twelve Steps for Blue Gentian addiction at all, as I’d merely been purple-faced due to my penchant for opening my mouth at inopportune moments. If my enthusiastic greeting hit the mark, and Santa and Bechdel and I ended up chatting and eventually becoming friends, I would demonstrate this talent again and again throughout the years.

The enthusiastic greeting never found purchase, however, for Santa and Bechdel quite purposefully turned their backs to me as I approached, with Bechdel immersing herself in deep study of the flowing waters of the creek and Santa sticking his nose up and into the needles on a pine tree.

Perhaps they were contemplating their next purchase of Dr. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, or perhaps they were giving me a good old-fashioned passive-aggressive payback snubbing. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes with tempeh Reuben eaters.

My feet continued clouting the dry earth step after step as I mused upon the colorful cast of characters populating the trail that sunny afternoon. From pine sniffers to cyborgs to aggressive Hobbit huts, Nature was displaying both its most beautiful autumn colors and its most distinctive oddities.

The thing is: it’s all a matter of perspective. I saw a woman assaulting a trail with a tool; had she noticed, she would have seen a knock-kneed Michelin woman staggering sideways while clutching at her throat. I encountered a puzzling couple loitering without purpose; they encountered an antisocial runner the color of an eggplant. I passed a fellow runner whose body language was robotically bizarre; she passed a weak-looking peer whose eyes crossed and eyebrows furrowed together as she flitted by.

By the time I got to the car, snatching desperately at my water bottle, I knew only one thing for certain: it sure is hard to identify which ones are the queer birds in the forest when, in reality, we all are.

 

Conscious Sedation

Yog and beer

The other night, as I was sipping the head off my third beer, I started to contemplate the complex relationship I have with my yoga teacher—even though she only knows me as Beefy Lady in the Colorful Headband. Although I have recently discovered subtleties in my relationship with this woman, mostly I’m afraid of her.

For one thing, her aura is cloudy.  I suspect that if I were walking in front of her down a sidewalk on a rainy day, and I slipped in a puddle and fell with an ignominious splash onto my gluteus maximus, her reaction would be to stop, stare condescendingly, and then, after a scornful beat, say, “GEEZ. Get up already. What are you? A whiner? The longer you sit, the wetter you get.”

Sometimes, during yoga class, I fear she might belittle my hamstrings.

She’s not a harpy. That’s not what I mean. But she’s toughlike an over-salted T-bone steak grilled for ten hours on a well-stoked hibachi in the middle of August in the hottest part of Death Valley. There is no nonsense brooked in her yoga class, and woe to he who comes late, locks his elbows while in Plank position, or refuses a clearly-necessary foam block to bolster the buttocks during Pigeon pose.

These feelings about my teacher don’t align with the general woo-woo vibe of yoga and the ways in which those pursuing their practice generally regard their instructors. Yoga practitioners want to wax on meltingly about how nurtured, safe, and harmonized their yogi leaders leave them feeling.

Tree Pose Yoga

I’m well acquainted with this brand of chakra-opening yoga teacher love because I’ve experienced it. Ten years ago, when my husband, Byron, and I first started attending yoga twice a week, we went into the initial session as skeptics, with Byron threatening, as he entered the studio, “There better not be incense. That’s all I’m saying.” Five minutes later, a lovely young woman with long auburn hair floated in, unrolled a mat in the front of the room, and asked winsomely—her voice tinkling with silver bells—if anyone had allergies, as she didn’t want to trigger them when she started burning incense. Smitten, Byron extended his hand toward her, a lit match pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Moments later, as she picked up two small cymbals and sent their tone ringing, I felt all tension leave my body, and when she announced, “Let’s begin with the Breath of Fire,” Byron and I exchanged a glance that said, “Yes, yes, let’s do start with the Breath of Fire! Whatever that is!” At the end of the hour, warm, cleansed, full of peace, we staggered out of class, leaned into each other, and hummed a new mantra: “Yummmmmmmmmm.”

Silver Bell Teacher cranked up our woo-woo something fierce.

In contrast, my current yoga teacher gives the impression that she could order All the Positive Energy in the Universe to go sit in the corner and think about what it had done, and APEU would comply with no sass, no backtalk, not a single protest of “But I didn’t even….” What’s more, my current yoga teacher has a cadre of regulars she knows by name and with whom she shares insider “I like you more than the others” talk. Her no-nonsense attitude, coupled with the implication that she prefers certain pupils, is intimidating in a way that leaves me feeling guarded instead of flooded with ananda, that blissful feeling of utter joy that is—DUH—an essential quality of the ultimate Reality.

So why is she my teacher? Why do I attend her classes?

She’s really, really good. That’s why. Her classes are challenging, no doubt, but she knows her Sanskrit, and her cues for each position are detailed and clear. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s her natural speaking style that makes her seem terse. The way the words come out of her mouth doesn’t accurately reflect who she is inside. In fact, she laughs and chats easily—even though I still quiver and brace for a slap as she socializes. My perception of her is as much about my own insecurities as it is about what she’s emitting. She’s a nice person. I just don’t think she’d have much patience for tears at the dinner table.

Having such knotty feelings about this woman, I would never have predicted that I’d rely on her—heavily—during some grim and painful hours.

You see, I had a root canal a few months ago.

This is the point where Third Beer Brain is tempted to send my yoga teacher into the endodontist’s office so that she can startle him with a brusque command to set down his barbed broach and step away from his reamer. Third Beer Brain wants Yoga Teacher to defy my 220-pound endodontist, a bit of a crabby beast in his own right, to attempt Standing Half Moon pose right there in the office. When he gives it his best shot, she’ll clip out, “This. is. not. a. side. bending. pose. This. is. a. side. stretching. pose.”

The thing about Third Beer Brain is that it’s not buzzed enough to be dishonest. My yoga teacher has never met my endo, much less barked at him in a way that would result in a strengthening of his core. With my luck, if the two scaries ever do meet, Yoga Teacher will suggest he release his ego, at which point they’ll devolve into fits of laughter at the very thought and, in the space of three minutes of friendly giggling, realize they have much in common, for they are both deep tissue practitioners. A week later, I’d encounter them when they’re out on a date having chai, and the ensuing shock and distress at seeing my life’s most-frightening people at a table together would result in a need for therapy I can’t afford.

Clearly, it’s a good thing Third Beer Brain is a regular Abe Lincoln when it comes to probity.

Anyhow, having had a root canal a handful of years ago, and having found it fairly traumatic, I headed into this recent procedure plagued by nerves. The night before I went into the endo to have him open the afflicted tooth, I was chatting with a friend on the phone, attempting to explain my trepidation. This friend has never had a root canal, but she was sympathetic to the sustained and invasive awfulness of the process, noting, “I can only imagine what it’s like to sit there and have part of your skull scraped out with a drill and a baby toothbrush. I’m pretty sure I’d have to cope with the whole thing by doing yoga in my mind.”

Wazzat, Harmony Borealis? You’d have to huh?

As we say in the Midwest: real good then. You go right ahead, honey, and imagine you could visualize your way into a sun-dappled mental state, a place where chataranga dandasana trumps three hours of dental dam. Realistically, though? Having a team of professionals pour bleaching agents into a well that’s been drilled into one’s gums isn’t something a person can tune out.

Of course, nothing is more familiar to me than a feeling of superiority being brought sharply to heel.

Because, um, well, you see, the next morning, er, well, uh,

the endodontist had to give me twelve shots before my mouth would go numb (which was in NO WAY related to my body’s well-developed tolerance for painkilling substances, so hesh up your observational thinking already; if you want to be such a smarty pants, maybe go read the studies that prove redheads require more Novocain before they feel the effect and lay off my love of beer… and wine… plus the odd vodka-gin-rum…). After the twelfth injection, when finally he was able to get down to serious drilling, I felt my innards trending towards panic.

Tree in Tooth

As hysteria was cresting, my yoga teacher’s firm voice floated into my head, and BAM, just like that, my consciousness detached from the drilling and traveled onto a mat in a darkened studio illuminated only by strings of Christmas lights. For the next three hours, every time my nerves started to rise, Yoga Teacher would lead me through a sun salutation or set me up in a balance pose. She reminded me to find a drishti and keep my eyes focused on that point; she reminded me to breathe so that my ribs expanded out to the sides; she reminded me to tuck my shoulder blades into their sockets like wings. She got me through.

I was entirely on my own over the following weekend, however, when my opened tooth abscessed, and my face swelled up with pus so that I looked like Eric Stoltz in Mask.

After calling the endodontist to establish that the size of my face was abnormal, I went in that Monday morning to have him look at it. One glance and he pulled a syringe out of his hip holster: it was time to numb again. As the first shot slid into my cheek, the pain was so intense it made me long for an un-anaesthetized C-section, simply so I could hurt a little less. Agonized moans and sobs rolled out of me and echoed throughout the office.

In the waiting room, my husband put his head between his knees, but in the examination room, the endodontist took enough of a break to issue a quick, firm talking-to: “Listen, there’s no way around this. I have to give you these shots, and, quite simply, it’s going to hurt”—as if I could control the anguish.

When he leaned into my mouth with a needle once again, admonishing me that naturally I was sore from the twelve shots a few days before, I mentally lifted my arms to the sky, did a swan dive to the ground, planted my hands, jumped my feet back into Plank, and slowly lowered to the floor, tucking my elbows into my ribs. There, resting in Cobra pose, I heard my yoga teacher’s voice overtake that of the endodontist, drowning out his scolding as she cautioned me to raise my chin, for if my gaze was lowered to the floor, my breath would be impeded. My chin lifted. My breath flowed. The doc inserted yet another needle. I moaned and sobbed. Then my yoga teacher’s voice slid in again, with the instruction to raise myself up and push back into Downward Dog. She left me there, resting, for five breaths. By the end of the five, my face was numb, and the endo was making an incision into my gums so that he could insert a drain.

I left the doctor’s office that day understanding that his gruffness protected him from his own feelings about being the instrument of someone’s pain. Perhaps more importantly, I left his office that day with a prescription for penicillin, a desire for a long nap, and a respect for the virility of oral bacteria.

When I went back a few weeks later to have the endodontist finish cleaning out my canals before jamming a filling into the hole in my head, I told him that I had been worshiping at the altar of penicillin and was infinitely grateful to have been born post-WWII, during the age of antibiotics. In reply, the endodontist pointed out that all the penicillin in the world wouldn’t have helped without his work lancing and draining the abscess.

It’s a marvel that man can walk without tripping over the hubris swirling around him. Wanting to be done with my time in the chair, I cast about for an ego-massaging reply. Fortunately, at that moment, it was Yoga Teacher who gave me voice, who was tough as an over-salted T-bone steak, who helped me slurp out a response:

“Definitely, it was your expertise that got the pus out of my face. I was just giving credit to everything that aided in my recovery, including that prescription. I’ll tell you what, though, in the interests of absolute honesty: there are two things that are going to help me long-term much more than the excellent lancing you gave my soft tissues.”

Beer Yoga

The endo raised an eyebrow and snapped the dental dam onto my back tooth as he asked, incredulously, “Oh, yea? What would those be?”

Grinning and enunciating as clearly as the dam would allow, I informed him, “Yoga. And beer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Huge thanks to Byron for drawing images to accompany this story. If you like his work, you can visit his blog at: www.layingfallow.com.

 

 

 

Summery

I haven’t been taking a break from blogging on purpose. Rather, summer hit, and life sped up to the point that there wasn’t a minute in any day to think about writing or visiting blogs. As summer winds down now, I”m left thinking of the slow, dark, cold months ahead and wondering why everyone seems to pack all events and celebrations into three short months when it would be eversomuch kinder to spread them throughout the year. I mean, I can tell you right now, without looking at a calendar: if you’re having a party in February, I’m free, unless I’m busy eating my children that day.

For me, blogging isn’t something from which I ever want or need to take a break; it brings me joy to conjure up nonsense and figure out how to shape ideas. It brings me joy to visit other people’s blogs and read about their lives. I would blog full time, if only the bloggers’ union could reach a contract agreement that would result in a livable wage (and dental benefits) for this work.

One reason I particularly appreciate having a blog is that, over the years, it’s become a family diary of sorts. When I look back at posts from a few years ago, I marvel at how much they help me remember, how many small details of life are recorded here that I’ve totally forgotten. Thus, I’mma use this post as a summary reminder of The Summer of 2013 so that, in about three months when I can’t remember a thing that happened in June, at least I can come here and look at the pretty pictures.

At the start of the summer, a couple of my cousins’ eldest daughters graduated from high school–and may I just say EEEEEEEK because I’m still deeply in touch with my inner eighteen-year-old and can easily take my brain back to warm summer nights of packing into a car with friends and cruising “The Point” aimlessly, looking for fun and action, literally driving in circles as I waited for the rest of my life to begin. And here, now, my cousins’ daughters, girls who will always be four-year-olds to me, are at that tipping point, too.

The good news is that I’m extremely excited for these amazingly poised and accomplished young women; having them graduate gave the family as a whole a chance to come together and do the things we do best: talk, eat, and play cribbage. While I have a crew of cousins who live nearby here in Duluth–which makes them feel like bonus siblings–the graduation parties summoned up a couple of cousins I hadn’t seen in ages, and that was a delight.

Here, the family groups together outside my cousin Kurt’s log home in Northern Minnesota, and Byron gets grabby.

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Early summer also saw us hosting a baby shower for our now-former next-door neighbors. Over the last few years, they have truly been a big part of our feelings of “we live in a seriously wonderful neighborhood,” so it was traumatic that the addition of their third child meant they needed to find a bigger house and move a couple of miles away. We still see them, of course, and we’re thrilled about the addition of Baby Charlotte, but I’m still having trouble being as “into” the new neighbors as I should–simply because they feel like they’re imposters in Kim and Dan’s space.

Opening the presents at the shower:

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The trampoline got further use when Paco had some pals over (nothing new there) for a Minion Party (a one-time Special Event). Unfortunately, the much-anticipated Despicable Me 2 was nowhere near as awesome as the first one. I may have yawned during the movie, but I certainly didn’t yawn during the Minion Party.

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Our pal Kirsten came up from Southern Minnesota for a weekend visit, and, blessedly, we had warm enough weather to tromp her through some of the trails of one of Duluth’s many green spaces. Nobody fell in the creek and got a boo-boo that later became infected, then gangrenous, so we called it a win.

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And then, just as the kids’ school year ended, my three online summer classes began andwegettothepointwhereIdon’thavewordsforhowintensethatwas. Suffice it to say, I haven’t taught three classes during the summer before, so it felt like a lot. Also, one of the sections entailed teaching a sixteen-week class in four weeks while the other two sections were sixteen-week sections taught in eight weeks. Two of these summer classes were revision-based classes, which means students not only did the usual daily assignments, discussions, and quizzes; they also had to post rough drafts, semi-final drafts, and final drafts of each essay. Initially, my thinking was, “If this pace is killing me, then the students–since they’re doing all the heavy lifting–have got to drop out over time, and then my grading load will be eased.” Damn diligent students hung in there, however, and none of us ever got a break until we collapsed in breathless heaps at class end. The upside to the frenetic summer teaching was a nice paycheck, which we’ve been sorely needing here at our house.

Anyhow, here’s Paco burning his much-disliked math workbooks on the last day of school. More power to him and his non-workbook brain.

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I took a notion that hauling the kids and a couple of friends to stay at my friend Pamm’s house in Southern Minnesota–as kind of a celebration of the end of the school year–would be a good idea. It was…even though it meant I was doing my online teaching at 2 a.m. We left Byron at home to work at The Greenhouse down the road, and four kids and I hopped into the car to do a little road tripping. First stop? The science museum in St. Paul.

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In addition to Byron working the unrelenting schedule of someone selling flowers in June, we volunteered at the library book sale and at some races…and, throughout the summer, we hosted aunts and uncles and cousins and sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces…and we took a huge load of random junk to Goodwill, and we began an epic sorting of Lego mini-figures…and Paco decided he doesn’t hate bike riding after all…and Allegra completely fulfilled her goal to go out for a run every other day (what 13-year-old sticks to her summer goal?!!–the same one who asks for new three-ring binders and highlighters for her birthday, that’s who).

In mid-June, we flew to Maryland to do a little touristing and to attend the wedding of our kids’ godpappies, Chip and Rob. For the first few days, we stayed in Alexandria, Virginia, a town with fro-yo and great Thai food, which are both things we can’t get in Duluth.

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We did a day in DC, and I’m not lying when I say that both Byron and I, Hardcore Library Lovers, got eyes full of tears as we entered the Library of Congress.

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Readers, this is where they keep the books.

 

I also got eyes full of tears each evening at 3 a.m. when I was still grading my online classes while the rest of the family slept. I’d sit on the floor outside the bathroom in the hotel room and type messages to students about how to open up and view their graded essays (HELLO, 2013!) and think to myself, while weeping silently, “In a few hours, we’ll all awake and head off to see America’s greatest sights, and wouldn’t it be nice if I’d slept a bit first?”

One day we met our Duluth friends (and the kids’ godmammas), Julie and Alison (and their kids), in DC. They, too, were in the region for Chip and Rob’s wedding. We all met at the Postal Tower and went out for noodles. Here we are in front of Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated.

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Nobody died that day.

 

We also wandered through Chinatown as we sought out a restaurant for dinner. I kind of want to turn this picture in to a jigsaw puzzle that I work on completing during those long, dark, non-social months:

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Also during our trip to the East, we visited Mount Vernon–something I recall doing as a kid. You know, you can tell your kids about history, but nothing matches the power of showing them the slave quarters on the plantation of our nation’s first president.

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Let us not gloss over the power and joy of the main event there in Maryland. Chip and Rob live in Virginia, but since Maryland had the good sense to legalize same-sex marriage, the wedding was held there. I congratulate Maryland, as well, on all the dollars that went into its coffers from wedding-related expenses.

But mostly, I congratulate Chip and Rob, perhaps the two swellest men I know, outside of Byron.
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So then we flew home, and I despaired that my four-week section of composition would never end, and we threw a yard party called the Ginger Potluck Showdown. Guests were challenged to bring dishes to the potluck that featured the theme ingredient of ginger. Savory dishes were at a distinct advantage, for most folks brought sweet stuff.

There are few things teen girls like more than registering potluck entrants, labeling the entries, and tallying votes.
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Because I’m sure you’re dying to know: the under-14 category was won by a ginger cheesecake topped by grapefruit slices, and the over-14 category was won by an Asian ginger pulled pork made in a crock pot.

The close of the potluck saw neighbor girl, Katelyn, and my online class student mentor, Deanna, doing cartwheels. There is a 40 year difference in their ages, so this photo is a testament to the generation-bridging power of lawn tumbling.

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Also a highlight of the Ginger Potluck Showdown was the appearance of one of Byron’s childhood buddies, Karl, who drove up from Minneapolis with his daughter and pitched his tent on our trampoline. The report in the morning was that Tent on Trampoline is amazingly comfortable.

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Time to fast forward to the 4th of July, or we’ll never get through this summer. As we usually do, we went out to my aunt and uncle’s home on Lake Pequaywan for swimming, kayaking, pontoon boating, and eating. The annual watermelon-eating contest was won by Paco–he is his mother’s child when it comes to gifts of rapid binge ingestion.
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All along, coloring it all, there were our gardens. My fingernails are permanently full of soil this time of year.

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Perhaps my favorite event of the summer was the first annual Aquathon, held by a local running company. Byron’s been getting more and more into open water swimming, which is a very different beast from pool swimming. He has a couple of people with whom he can venture out–swimming with others for safety’s sake, mostly–and so he’s been having a blissed-out time stroking a swath through Lake Superior and Lake Pequaywan (only 9,998 more lakes in Minnesota to try out before he’s done ‘em all!). As part of this new interest, he signed up for the Aquathon; it was a series of races, held every Thursday night for four weeks, and it entailed swimming a kilometer, transitioning, and then running a 5K.

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That’s Byron in the neon green beanie there. At the end of the four weeks, all the points and times were tallied:

AND GUESS WHO WON?

Very proud wifey here.

 

Buttons continued to bust off my shirts (which is really weird because I don’t actually wear shirts that button up, as a rule) when judges at the county fair were smart enough to award both Paco and Allegra prizes as Grand Champions in photography in their respective age divisions. Each of them submitted photos they’d taken in the gardens at Mount Vernon.

I’m not very good at putting any “humble” in my “humble brag,” am I?

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Paco used the county fair as a fundraiser for new WiiU and DS games he wants, so he also entered a drawing in the mixed media category and also made a robot scarecrow and got some prize money for those, too. The robot protected our strawberry plants from marauding crows all through July ‘CAUSE THEM BLACK BIRDS KNOW THERE’S NOTHING MORE FIERCE THAN A ROBOT SCARECROW.

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Thanks to the protective powers of the scarecrow, we were able to have strawberry shortcake about eleventy nights in a row.

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Another really fun Duluth tradition is the Wednesday Night At The Races event that is held for a bunch of weeks throughout the summer. Kids ages 14 and under can show up at a local track or field and run a race in their age group. Allegra’s been running well with the big kids, and below you can see Godmamma Julie and Daughter Aliya re-enacting the drama of fleet-footed children.

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We also had a delightful camping interlude on Madeline Island (drive the car onto the ferry to cross kind of dealie) where we spent a couple nights sharing a site with some college pals. Games, beach time, good food, quizzes, bikes–all so restorative.
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Random sidenote: at the end of July, my two eight-week courses finished up. The next day we drove up the Shore to Finland, Minnesota, to fete Chip and Rob a second time, as they’d come to Minnesota to throw a reception with all their friends in this neck of the country. We played ring golf in the rain in the woods, and I’m here to tell you that the food at a potluck populated by naturalist/eco-friendly types is dammmnnnn good.

Speaking of Chip and Rob and of godpappies and godmammas, DID Y’ALL HEAR THAT MINNESOTA MADE SAME-SEX MARRIAGE LEGAL? *throws confetti*

August saw the enactment of the law, and so Julie and Alison were able to legalize their 12-year commitment. They had a big wedding way back in the early 2000s, so they opted to go low-key this time around and do a courthouse wedding, followed by a yard party.

They are so beautiful, I has to make crying from my eyes now.

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You better believe I love me some lesbians. A few days after Julie and Alison’s wedding, we headed to Southern Minnesota for the wedding of Virginia and Kirsten. When they had their ceremony five years ago, I was honored to be a witness for Virginia, and this wedding allowed a replay of that role. A personal highlight for me this time was getting to sign their certificate and be included in something both moving and historic.

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While we were in Southern Minnesota, my mom and her husband arrived in our neck of the woods for a visit. We hadn’t seen them in two years, so it was lovely to have some time together. She was a real Stand- Up Grandma when she went swimming with Paco, and he took her out to the float in the lake and asked her to jump off with him. Although she didn’t really want to, she did it. Way to go, GramMax! SONY DSC

In addition to all the above, the kids also did some day camps, with Paco attending a YMCA outdoor camp, a game design camp, a fiber fun camp, and Allegra attending a photography camp and a mixed media camp. My aunt and uncle also had them for a week of Camp Grandma out at the lake.

And now it’s the end of August, and all of us in the family went back to school this week. I have classes both online and on-campus from now on; the kids are in fifth and eighth grades; Byron is starting a stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer, in the Minnesota Reading Corps, specifically. He’s had training, and he’s got an ID badge on a lanyard, so you know it’s serious. Basically, he’ll work 20 hours a week at a local elementary school with kids K-3rd grades, helping them bridge gaps in their reading skills. He wanted a part-time position so that he could still have time to draw and be our household Point Man. Each year that he works with the MN Reading Corps (up to four years), he’ll get not only a modest monthly stipend but also accrue tuition dollars, in the event he decides to go to graduate school one day here, when he’s a Big Boy.

When my mom was visiting, she slipped Byron a cheque as an early birthday present. Thanks to her generosity, we bought a summer’s-end clearance kayak (for years, we’ve dreamed of buying two hight-end sea kayaks, but the reality is that those thousands of dollars are never going to be staring us in the face, wishing for a place to be spent, so we got real and went for a low-end sit-on-top kayak). Now I can be Byron’s swimming buddy and accompany him out into the deeps. It feels like a honeymoon each time we do it.

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The coda to summer’s close is that Paco lost a tooth, and I lost my wedding ring, on the first day of school. My nearest guess about the wedding ring is that it slipped off my hand in the locker room at the Y when I was putting on lotion and chatting with a shirtless woman whose decolletage was riveting (I’m only human, people. Plus, now I’m more certain than ever that my biography should be titled Massive Breasts: When Is Life Not About Them?). So either it’s on the floor of the locker room, it’s been picked up by a thievin’ elliptical user and sold to The Gold Guys at the mall, or it’s deeply embedded in the Columbia River Gorge that exists between my chatting partner’s amazing breastuals.

That last option implies that my hand must’ve been in there, of course, and damn your probing mind for tracing that route.

Anyhow, Toothless Paco quickly applied his mad kumihimo weaving skillz (honed during three years of Fiber Fun camp) and pulled out a makeshift wedding ring for me to wear:

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It does the job although it’s kind of a sweaty accessory to wear during hot, humid days. The above photo of my hand also shows you my first-ever manicure; as a back-to-school fun thing, Allegra and I went to get manicures. What an interesting process it is, to have one’s cuticles snipped off. My, my.

In closing, in sum, in summer-y to this meandering roll through the last few months, let me leave you with this image of yet another seasonal clearance item: my new Born sandals.SONY DSC
Put another way: life is good.

The Boogie Started to Explode

When my daughter was two, her developing speech couldn’t quite articulate the words hair clip. Instead, what came out of her mouth was hippie kip.

Naturally, charmed by our creation, Byron and I started copying her words, and in no time at all, a hair fastener, in our household lexicon, was always referred to as a hippie kip.

Eleven years later, with that two-year-old now heading into the homestretch of middle school, I can be heard on windy days telling the kids and Byron–spitting out the words through a mouthful of hair–that I sure do wish I had a hippie kip stashed in my purse. Admittedly, that thought generally finishes with me noting that I’ve left my purse at home and then, after rubbing my dry lips together, asking the assembled crew if anyone has a lip balm I can use.

What with all of my dry lip assuagers being at home in my purse.

Then I usually announce that I’m hungry. At this point, I ask Byron to go buy me some food.

Since all my money and credit cards are at home. In my purse.

 

Suffice it to say, I rarely have anything, much less a hippie kip, on hand when I need it, and subsequently my family is well accustomed to watching me cough up hairballs (through parched lips, as my stomach growls). They don’t bat an eye; they’re used to it: we live together. And that’s why we speak the same language. Indeed, most households are rife with specialized words and phrases, a unique familyspeak only insiders can understand.

We have friends who have a word for the leftover crumbs in, say, a pie pan–those random bits that don’t comprise a full serving but which are worth scraping out with the tines of a fork or pinching out with the fingers. The word they use for this pinch of bonus delectablity is schnibbles. These same friends (both with strong environmental education backgrounds) can be heard asking their kids, “Do you want limpets for lunch?” when they’re referring to this:

I hooted when I found out about limpets because, in our house, we have a special name for a related Annie’s product:

Our name for this box of yummy stuff is bunny hats. As far as we can recall, one time when the kids were little, the grocery store was out of regular bunnies (aka limpets), and so, in a stroke of parenting genius, we convinced them that the hats the bunnies wear are equally tasty. To this day, both kids believe shell-shaped pasta noodles double as hats for forest creatures.

We’ve also taught them to call pasta covered with pesto sauce green noodles.

Thusly educated, they will be standouts on their college campuses.

Picture them marching into the cafeteria during Orientation Week and requesting heaping plates of green noodle bunny hats. They’ll be rushed by sororities, drafted onto the best ultimate frisbee teams, and awarded premature honorary doctorates.

 

Oh, but there’s more.

After the members of my family watched the following video,

…the phrase “Worry about yourself” entered into heavy rotation around these parts. A few weeks later, the kids then had a visit with their wee cousin–of an age with Miss “Worry About Yourself”–and came home using the cousin’s special phrase for nearly every question she’s asked. In response to most queries, she replies, “Maybe you’d like to.” For example: “Say, Toddler Cousin, it’s dinner time. Could you put your toys away before we eat?” Her response? “Maybe you’d like to.”

What’s charming in a toddler is less so in kids over five feet tall, as it turns out, especially when you’ve just told them it’s their turn to empty the dishwasher.

Family shorthand evolves out of shared experiences, but it also comes from sheer proximity. When you live with someone, you start to speak a common language. I have any number of usages that would confound an outsider but which my nears-’n-dears can follow easily.

Were I to say, “Hey, Paco, have you seen my putrescent egg thingie?” he would know immediately I was referring to the bottle of deer repellant spray that I use on the most-besieged flowers in our yard, a bottle I’m remarkably good at setting down in random garden spots and then wondering where it went.

As well, Byron knows that my brain refuses to remember the correct name for the Summit brewing company’s Horizon Red Ale and that I will only understand what he’s talking about if he uses my special name for it: “Red Hook.” Sometimes at beer o’clock, he asks, “Would you like me to pour you a Horizon–you know, the one you call Red Hook?” Before I can answer him (YES!), I actually have to reframe his offer: “You mean, would I like a Red Hook, which the rest of you insist on calling Horizon Red Ale?”

One time, the kids and I walked to the neighborhood ice cream shop, and on our way home, as we meandered through a block of local businesses, a member of our group announced a need to speed up the pace because–how to put it genteely?–that group member’s colon, spurred on by something delicious and chocolatey, had taken a notion. We needed a toilet, and we needed it sooner rather than later. At the moment the “let’s walk faster” announcement was made, we were passing the office building of a chiropractor named Dr. Daniel P. Dock. Of course, because there was no adult present in the group to shut down unnecessary bowel talk, our conversation quickly shifted from the announcement of “Could we walk faster? I need the bathroom” to “Don’t you think the name Dr. Daniel P. Dock sounds like a great euphemism for pooping?” Since that day, therefore, the words “I need to make a visit to Dr. Daniel P. Dock” mean, in reality, pull. the. car. over. at. the. next. gas. station. and. I. mean. hit. the. brakes. NOW.

Examples of family-speranto are endless, particularly after our intense year of togetherness in Turkey, a time when we gathered phrases and words unto ourselves in more than one language and in a variety of memorable situations. When Byron sees a phone call coming in from me, he still answers it with the Turkish “Efandim!”, and we still drop the word komshu (“neighbor”) to indicate we’re in the presence of a greedy soul who’d negotiate a fee before saving a four-year-old from drowning.

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Komshu there had barely finished entwining me into that headscarf of hers before she shouted “TEN LIRA!” It was a long year of dodging her overtures on our way from the house to the bus.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my all-time favorite bit of Family Code Talk was born in Turkey, albeit in English.

There was this day, you see,

a day when we’d sent Allegra out of the house as Canary in Coalmine, to check the path for offending komshu. Our aim? To get from the house to the bus without being sold a significant bill of fare along the way.

After dropping to all fours and scuttling along the roadway like crabs, we made it to the village square unaccosted, boarded the bus (aka dolmush), and made our weekly ride into the nearby city of Nevshehir.

They have a mall in Nevshehir.

It’s a big deal.

In this mall, devout Muslims and bewildered Americans alike can explore an earring store, a toy store, an underwear store, some shoe stores, a sausage store, a couple of coffee joints, a Burger King, a liquor store, an electronics store, and a place that makes all kinds of baked potatoes, including ones with pickles and kernels of corn ladled on top.

With such a variety of shops, all topped off by a comprehensive food court, the mall is hopping.

Clearly, a place like this needs lots of employees. I mean, someone’s got to heap the pickles onto those baked potatoes, right?

On the day in question, one mall employee was hard at work clearing up after food court patrons. He wiped tables, swept floors, tossed trash. He wore a beige shirt with a name tag, and he was, to put the finest of points on it, the ultimate service worker. He couldn’t have been happier.

At first, we didn’t notice him. The kids and I had our faces buried in baskets of Popeye’s chicken, and Byron was lapping the last bit of lamb off his Turkish pizza. More than likely, we were exchanging congratulatory tales of komshu dodged.

Hearing our English, the table-wiping employee began tightening his orbit around our table. The moment Byron lifted the last bite of pizza off its plate, Mall Employee Man eased in for the grab, reaching for the cafeteria-style tray nestled between Byron’s elbows. Quickly, Byron reached out, trying to find the right combination of words and gestures to indicate that he wasn’t done, that he still wanted his drink and the napkins that were on the tray.

Yok, lutfen. Sag olun” (“No, please. Thanks”), Byron squeaked out, as Mall Employee Man attempted to ease Paco’s tray out from under his half-eaten meal. Under his breath, Byron advised Paco, “Just grab your chicken and drink, if we can’t stop him from taking your tray.”

Feigning surprise, as he’d been quite obviously eavesdropping for some time, Mall Employee Man said, “You speak English? I speak English!”

Quickly replaying the last few minutes’ family conversation in m mind, I heaved a sigh of relief when I realized we hadn’t been discussing the size of Mall Employee Man’s mustache (fair to middlin’, but a ‘B’ for effort) or trash talking the Flock of Seagulls-ish haircuts of the Young Turks at the table next to us.

And, yes, our familial unit does spend an inordinate time on follicular-based conversation topics.

With no need to feel sheepish for having bashed his ‘stache, we straightened into the posture of Friendly Foreigners, ready to engage our interest in this man’s English abilities.

“Did you learn English in school?” I began.

“No. Well, little bit. When young. I learn real English England. I live England seven years.”

Picking a bit of lamb out of his teeth, Byron also picked up the line of inquiry: “What were you doing in England for seven years?”

“I have cousin England. I go England work cousin restaurant. Turkish restaurant. I kebap English people.”

“That sounds very interesting,” my English teacher self continued encouragingly. “It must have been good to have family there and to have a waiting for you.”

“Well,” Mall Employee Man replied, his face suddenly becoming less animated, more grim, “it maybe not so good.”

Always a fan of a wrench thrown into the works, I leaned in as Byron asked, “So it was not a good experience for you in England?”

“Ohhhh. It too much fun. Too much fun not good,” our new friend explained. “I have friends. I go out night. I go out all nights. I no sleep then I work. Seven years. Too much. I need come home.”

So much story fell between his broken sentences; our kids only heard that Mall Employee Man hadn’t slept enough in England. Thanks to the nine-kabillion decibel mosque speaker across from our house in the dusty village, they hadn’t slept enough in Turkey. From a child’s point of view, his story was simple.

For Byron and me, however, Mall Employee Man’s experience in England was rich. The story that fell between his broken sentences smacked of women and booze and 3 a.m. yelling in an alley. As I imagined a young Turkish man discovering London’s streets in the late-night hours after bone-numbing shifts washing dishes, the sounds of glass breaking and tires screeching filled my head.

There was a moment of silence there in the food court that day as we screened our respective mental movies of MEM’s years in England.

Recalling those years took a toll on Mall Employee Man. His shoulders sagged a bit; his middling mustache drooped. Resting onto our table the cafeteria trays he was holding, he slumped forward, taking a break from the weight of memory. Then, slowly,

with all the weariness of the world compacted into a single gesture,

he lifted a meaty paw and wiped it across both eyes, exhaling dejectedly.

His face was woebegone, desolate–haunted by visions of Funkytown, Bad Girls, A Celebration That Lasted Throughout the Years–as he spoke again. Summing up his seven years in England and the mark they’d left on him,

he began, “I leave England because…”

before uttering the phrase that our family still uses to describe overwhelmed senses; exhaustion and limpness; the desire to crawl home and hide under a soft blanket:

“…too much disco.”