Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's My First Time

Yeah, It's been a while since I've used that line.  It's probably been a while for you, too.  Yet those were the words I uttered - actually tongued, aloud!- this morning as I rested my elbows on a reception desk deep in the bowels of a strip mall on the edge of town.

It's my first time.   I spoke the words with no irony and a twist of trepidation.  The grandmotherly woman behind the desk squeaked as if I'd goosed her.

"Oh!  How fabulous!  It's fabulous.  Isn't it fabulous?"  This to the woman who'd come in behind me, already removing her shoes.

"It's fabulous," the woman confirmed. She bounced up and down on her toes, adjusted a pair of shorts smaller than any I'd seen on any adult woman, ever.

"OK," I said, "Great."

I wasn't gunning for fabulous.  I was gunning for tolerable, or maybe non-lethal.  I was at the Bikram yoga studio, prepping for my first class.

Oh, sure, I practice yoga.  If practice means whiz through a 20-minute video on your computer while thinking about what to have for dinner and occasionally checking your Twitter feed during upward-facing dog.   But I'm not a serious yogi, and  I'd never done, or much wanted to do, Bikram yoga, which involves spending 90 minutes flailing semi-nude in 104 degree heat amongst flexible and odiferous strangers.

Yet, here I was, clutching my towel.

It was the gift certificate's fault.  Nothing gets my cheap little heart beating faster than the prospect of losing out on free stuff, and a while back some misguided soul had gifted me with expirable Bikram.  A lot of expirable Bikram.  Good for a year, gifted a year ago.  It was strip or be stripped.

I stripped.  I lay back.   I closed my eyes and thought of England -which, among other virtues, boasts a climate substantially cooler than the interior of the Bikram yoga room.  I did some other things I don't want to talk about, having yet to work through their ramifications for my dignity.

I didn't find Bikram horrendous.  Nor did I find it particularly revelatory.   It was what it was, and I will probably go again, if only because I continue to labor under the crushing psychological weight of additional expirable Bikram.  But it won't be as important, because it won't be my first time.

It's my first time.

The real revelation I took from Bikram today was just how God-awfully long you can go without speaking those words.  As we age, as we work ourselves into the more or less comfortable ruts of our lives, there are fewer and fewer instances in which we require of ourselves the leap -and it is a leap- of doing something we come to naked.  When's the last time you did something with which you had no experience, something you weren't even sure you wanted to do, but nevertheless, were up for trying? 

There comes a point at which we've made many of our leaps.  We're married, most of us; we have careers and kids and hobbies and homes and tastes.  Nevertheless, I think it needs to be done: stepping, even if ever so briefly, out of line, opening the door, opening our mouths.

Hey, yes, It's my first time.

Monday, August 29, 2011


So Irene's been and gone.  She was poorly named, to my mind.  Irene is someone's great aunt, a stooped, sweet old woman who plays makes bad cookies and plays the organ when the regular organist takes vacation.  Alternatively, she's a California baby boomer lawyer, smoking her medical marijuana after a long day spent prosecuting the deviant.  Perhaps, just perhaps, she's a waitress at a diner in the Rust Belt.

What she's not is a hurricane.  Zorg is a hurricane.  Wizwallop.  Ixminy.  It's possible I have a new career ahead of me as a dubber of hurricanes.  Codswalloper!  Ning.

But nobody asked me, and in any case, Irene has passed, if slightly more violently than we anticipated.  The winds blew for longer, and stronger, than the weather service had guessed, and 80% of the city lost power.  We clung to ours, but nevertheless, Irene's going to cost us: $550 for two days of lost work (and counting) on my end,  $325 for tree branch removal, plus several hours of picking up sticks and hauling branches.

Of course, it could have been worse.  There's a sycamore through the middle of our neighbor's house, bisecting it neatly, like a knife cleaving a cow's heart in middle school science.  You can see the boxes in their attic, festooned with insulation from what used to be their walls.  You can see where the rain came into the house, and the nothing where the chimney used to be.

Even for the neighbors, it could have been worse.  Their house will be condemned, but they have insurance, and all of them are alive, saved, evidently, by their preteen daughter's devotion to the downstairs television set and iCarly.

The incontrovertible truth is that "it," whatever it is could, always, always, be worse.  That's what one of my social media friends was trying to get at, I think, when he complained about the endless hurricane coverage.  Come on, he railed, what about all the people dying in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Syria?

He's right, of course. My irritation at being out hundreds of dollars pales in comparison to losing a home, which pales in comparison to starvation.  There's a long ladder of misfortune, and we can always drop a rung or two.

That's the trouble with being human, though: We name things.  We personalize our hurricanes and we remain, for better or for worse, deeply attentive to the squalls and breezes of our own lives.   We're limited, we humans.  We're small.  Irene can take us, even as we baptize her: an old, bent woman, the spitting, gusting image of ourselves.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hunker

Hurricane, here.  Well, really just a tropical storm in Richmond. Meaning we're just outside the range of Irene's full wrath, but we can still hear her rattling our windows.  She's a snake of a rattler.

And so we hunker down.  We drag our lawn furniture indoors, take down our tiki torches (why did we buy these?!), and stock up on batteries.  We pray our power keeps flowing, so that we never have to confront the disturbing prospect of no Internetz, no microwave, no milk.   We get a little stir crazy, debate a run to the store, to the coffee shop, anywhere.  Then we look outside and stay home.

It's peaceful, hunkering, but it's also, at least in this day in age, frenetic.  I imagine our grandparents holed up in snow storms, in thunder, in raging wind.  The rain would have come like chloroform, blurring the edges, smothering the senses, until the only thing you could see, could feel, was you.  Your own heartbeat, your own breath, your own body hunkered it its skin.

Now, of course, we have radar.  We have weather radio and television and twitter.  Since I woke up, I've been glued to all of these simultaneously.  I've been tracking the garish progress of the storm, the increasingly agitated twittering of weather nerds, all the preparations and perturbations taking place in our wide, wet world. 

It's an improvement, of course.  You've got more info, more facts, you are better equipped.  And, unless you happen to be the poor schmuck chosen to stand in the blinding rain clutching a microphone to your chest, you are safer.

But you are also -doubly- inundated.  Flooded with the wet weals of the storm, flooded with the surge of more, better, faster information.  It's wonderful.  It's overwhelming.  Which is why, in a minute, I think I'll close up my computer and listen to the rain.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Nothing Doing

I don't really want to go into the specifics online, but suffice it to say that, for this week and the following two weeks, I am effectively being paid $44 an hour to sit on my ass.

It sounds like a good thing, really it does.  Who wouldn't want to park themselves in front of a computer in a comfy chair and watch the dollars pile up?  Making money for doing nothing: isn't that the ultimate dream?

You'd think so, but then you'd actually do it.   You'd start off OK in hour one.  By hour two, you'd be cross-eyed.  By hour four, you'd be  cross-eyed, hunchbacked, and raving.  By hour seven, you'd be filling in small red dots every five minutes on the minute mark, just to feel as if you'd accomplished something.  

It crosses my mind that work, though a lot of... work, is also somehow essential.   Even once we've retired, we need to feel productive; we need to feel as if we're contributing something; we need to feel engaged.  I've been going on and on about how Americans work too much, but there's such a thing, it turns out, as working too little.

I would sign off with "back to work," but it looks like I won't be getting there anytime soon. 

Friday, August 19, 2011


In August, in my hometown, the world holds its breath.  Summer session is kaput.   Fall semester hasn't geared up. The streets are empty but sultry with it, beckoning you deep into the warm black to catch the last of the fireflies, the dribble of the creek, the microscopic erosion of stone after stone.

There's no one much around, in August.  You're down to a handful, the people you grew up with or threw up with, the folks you love and the folks you hate with a hate so comfortable it's the back of love's hand.  There's a spareness to August.   But an expansive spareness, a luxurious certainty that soon -very soon, even now gathering itself just beyond the horizon of your consciousness- will come the storm of Moving Day, the black and terrible thunder of Escalades and Hummers barreling the wrong way down one-way streets.

But not yet.  Not just yet.

It's the not yets that define this particular part of the year.  August, with its not-quites, it's almost-theres.  You may feel it even if you don't live here: the year pivoting on its fulcrum, the days folding themselves into smaller and smaller squares.  If you do live here, you can't help but feel it, and you can't help but feel, too, the secret sweetness of it, like honey deep in its combs.
But not right now, see, not at the moment.

I walk a lot, whenever I come home.   It's common sense.  From one side of town to the other is an hour on foot, so why go any faster?  Why bother to get your car out, only to miss the simmer of walking, the low heat, the secret pathways, the limping old woods?   There's never much to see: a mother and her son waiting for the bus, one loose dog, the road, like old thread, giving out.   Even the grafitti is quiet: a few tags, a delicate wall of flame, the words, in blue paint: I'm still here.

I wish I could the same for myself.  The truth is I don't live here anymore.  The truth is I can't live here anymore.  The truth is that here is, in any case, sorely, irrevocably changed.  Just a minute, though.  Sixty seconds, eighty: I'm still, here. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Black at the End of the Tunnel

When does an affliction become a way of life?  We've had fleas for 8 weeks now.  They've been fairly infrequent for the last 2 weeks, but nevertheless they are a daily office, appearing without fail in ones and twos and threes, lunging for us with every fiber of their tiny bodies.

My husband tried to engage my sympathies:  "Think about it.  There's the flea, just born, going about its business.  It's hungry!  It sees food!  It leaps!  Then, all of a sudden, pain and death  I mean, how wold you feel?"

I am unmoved.  I enjoy every thrashing of their tiny drowning bodies.  I'm tired, heartily, excruciatingly tired, of the vigilance, the white knee socks, the liturgy of vacuuming.  Nevertheless, three exterminator visits and eight weeks later, I've become...if not numb, then inured.  We've stumped the exterminator, who persists in telling me the fleas should already be dead.  I'm out of ideas, too.   I don't really have anything on my agenda except endurance.

There was definitely a grieving period.   A full-on, seven stages process.   I lived in denial.  I bargained with a God I don't believe in.   I got pissed.  I mourned my former lifestyle (bare feet!  Actually enjoying my home!  Unpacking! Having people over!  Mornings without vacuuming!  Yoga!  A sense of safety!).  I've come out the other end now: I can still feel the ache of my former life, the carefree, flea-free person that I was, but my life is what it is, and there's not much to be done but live it.

It occurs to me that I'm experiencing, on an infinitely smaller scale, what I've seen caregivers and parents and folks who are ill go through after receiving a diagnosis.  Autism, paraplegia, Parkinson's, aphasia, MS, dementia: you rage, you mourn, you wail, you keen.  You recalibrate your expectations, watch the world you believed in -goals, entitlements, priorities- crumple and fall away.  Then you get on with it, the whole dirty business of living.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


My grandmother used to greet me by asking how much I weighed.  "I like a trim figure," she's say.  "How much do you weigh?"

I'd lie, of course.  Perversity, like the camera, adds ten pounds.

"One thirty-five," I'd venture.  "One thirty-two."  Or, once, daringly, "one forty."  Just to see the skin crumple around her eyes, her lipsticked mouth turn in on itself.  She wore too-bright lipstick, corals and roses.  Her eyes, small sharp and formerly brown, looked as if they'd been dipped in sugar.

"I can't see," she'd fret.  "Do you go to a lot of parties?"

"I never go to parties."  Like her, I used the same lines over and over, but I would try, every time, to twist them, find a way to make them sharper.  "No one invites me."

"I can't see," she'd repeat, folding and unfolding her hands.

This was, by and large, our only coversation. We repeated it, with subtle alterations, throughout the last years of my grandmother's life.  It was our chaconne, our theme and variations.  We fell into the conversation so naturally, so unpremeditatedly, that it was almost as if, walking along, we'd started to hum an old hymn tune or the ABCs.

It was cruel of me to lie.  I recognize that now and I recognized it then.  I did it anyway.  I was skinny enough, but I wished my body were different.  I went to parties, but I wanted to be invited to more.  I was not as pretty or as popular as my grandmother wanted me to be, but neither was I as gallumphing and dour as I claimed.  I was somewhere in the middle: just one more young woman slogging through the slow years of youth.

I was cruel, but I didn't care.  If she would just be stop asking what I looked like, I reasoned, I could return to my dogged cultivation of the belief that what you looked like didn't count.  And I wanted, desperately, to believe that what you looked like didn't count.

I took to wearing baggy pants and thermal t-shirts.  My grandmother's nurse took to applying her lipstick; she couldn't make out her own mouth in the mirror.  On nice days, my grandmother sat on the porch and had her nails done and I searched for the most shocking, most awful thing I could say about myself, the thing that would be so large, so round and dreadful, it would sit in her open mouth like an apple in the mouth of a pig, shut her up.

"Do boys ask you out?"

"No."  A lie, but not much of one.  It was only the sad or scary boys, and I didn't want any of them.

"Do you have a lot of friends?

"I don't have any friends."  A bigger lie, with a nice, raw edge.

My mother told me that my grandmother grew up with money and maids, but that her father, who owned orange grove after orange grove in Florida, had lost everything when the stock market crashed.   My grandmother was nineteen.  She'd had cooks, but now she had nothing.  Her father died.  They lost the house.  My grandmother went to work as a nurse.   She didn't like nursing.  She wanted to study English, get married, throw parties.   She did eventually marry, but her husband divorced her, so she had to go back to work.  She didn't go quietly.  She didn't forgive anyone, for anything, ever.

I told her my true weight, once, shortly before she died.  It was in a fit of remorse.   She was lying there semi-conscious, dessicated in her bed, her lips nude and cracked and her hair ragged.  She hadn't been to the hairdresser in weeks; someone had clipped her nails down close to the nail beds.  I told her I loved her, which was another lie, but only just.  Then I told her, silently, the three numbers I saw every morning on the scale.

After she retired from nursing, my grandmother threw parties.  Gourmet, dressed-up, best-china parties to which she invited all her friends, other southern widows (by this time, my grandmother was putting it about that her husband had died) who threw gourmet, dressed-up, best-china parties.  That's how I like to think of her, when I think of her.  Deep into those evenings, champagne or sherry, every woman sloe-eyed, with a tidy waist.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dog Daze

There's languor in summer.  Yes, it's true that my summer has been, and continues to be, a whirlwind of upheaval, travel, toil, and insects.  I feel it anyway: the slow air, the overripe sun, the chubbiness of the days.  I'm not sure, after all, that one can can scrub summer of its summeriness.  Even when you work through it, try to shrug past it, it gets its grubby fingers on you, leaves a trail.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Skin Deep

I did a couple of shocking things this week.  One of them involved climbing a mountain, getting stark naked at the top, and hopping around like a lunatic.  The other involved enjoying superficial breakfast conversation with strangers.
The preceding may or may not be true .  But in any case, it’s #2 that’s most out of character.  Superficial conversation is just that: superficial, and we all know that beauty is more than skin deep, that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, that surfaces are deceiving, and on, and on.
Deep conversation is what you’re supposed to enjoy.  It’s what you yearn for as a nerdy high school student, what you savor in French movies, what’s supposed to draw you into Serious Relationships of the Soul.  And who the heck wants to talk to random nobodies when you could be sharing Deep Thoughts with the folks who already enliven or irritate you?
To which I say:  How’s the weather? 
We are who we are, but we also change.  At thirty, I am evidently both more likely to perpetrate mild criminal mischief and more likely to enjoy talking to your grandmother at length about her plans to visit the national sled dog museum.  In an odd way, the combination makes sense to me.   You shuck off the fear, keep your shoes on, hop.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Golden Heart

As a child, I was always drawn to those corners of the globe you cannot conceive of.  And I mean conceive literally: you can’t birth the places, can’t push them pink and distinct and squalling into your imagination.  You can’t people them, can’t detail the fauna or the flora, can’t do more than block in the vague outlines of an alien topography: Here there be…. nothing.
It’s seductive, that nothingness.  It’s the underside of your tongue, the backs of your knees, the space between your liver and your lungs.  It’s all the secrets you keep from yourself, the furthest assay into your darkest places.
Alaska was one of those corners, for me.  I’d trace the outlines on the globe.  I’d review certain facts.  There was more coastline than anywhere else in the world.  Its islands stole past the international dateline, wrapping around until today turned into tomorrow.  There were peaks and cold and long, white stretches of nowhere.  I imagined myself driving there, hopping into a car and cruising up the long, cold backbone of Canada until I spilled over into naught.
In real life, I boarded a plane.  I ate bad peanuts, drank tomato juice chilled to the temperature of cold feet. The cabin was close and stale and Canada stayed sunk in clouds.  Past midnight, I arrived.  It was hard to imagine but easy to walk into, the city of nothing, everything alight with sun.