Taking Fences

Regular writing for irregular people.

The Last Supper

The folks at Mamalode were kind enough to publish my essay, but their site has gone down, so I am posting it here. Happy New Year!

Two days before the birth of our son, my husband and I went to dinner at a place called the Screen Door with seven of our closest friends. We assumed the baby would keep us housebound and curb our social life for awhile. Everyone at the table called the dinner our Last Supper.

I store that meal in a pantry of sorts. Not the piles of piles of fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, shrimp gumbo, grits and cornbread. Not the massive dessert—the pecan banana cream extravaganza, drizzled in caramel, dusted with powdered sugar.

No. I store the moment itself.

I loved everyone at that table. We’d met because we all worked at a newspaper, and it felt like we would always work there, and as though I would be seeing their faces at candlelit tables for years to come. We shared an affinity for the news, an affinity for bitching about the news and an affinity for bitching about newspapers themselves. We could all hold our liquor and tell vicious one-liners. But more than that, the friends at that table had propped us up a year earlier when I’d lost another pregnancy, and they knew how much this baby meant to us.

We closed down the restaurant. At the end of the night, we posed for a picture, all nine of us, giddy and grateful by the red neon sign. We’d do it again soon, we agreed.

Back then, we spent three or four nights a week with friends. Our life was crowded with friends, busy with their parties, awash in their dramas, and our days sparkled and hummed with the pleasure of their company.

It seemed like everyone I knew I had met in my 20s. Do you remember making friends in your 20s? Do you remember being 24-years-old and leaving work with three or four co-workers, and settling into a bar stool at 6 p.m. and emerging at 2 a.m. for bad pancakes and bacon with your new friends?

I do.

I remember asking a woman who worked on my college newspaper if she wanted to go for a drive, and how we hunted all over for Systeme Biolage shampoo and sang along with Patsy Cline on the tape deck because we had not another single thing to do that day but make a new friend.

Three years later at my first real job, I remember taking the woman who sat in the next cubicle on a bizarre lunchtime sock-buying errand, confiding to her over the shelves of discount department store hosiery that I’d fallen out of love with my first husband, and returning to work with another new friend.

I remember being 25, newly divorced and with no plans for my birthday, until an editor and her husband rounded up half a dozen others, and we landed at a bar called the White Eagle, and there I turned 26, holding a glass of red wine and dancing off-tempo, with my friends.

Here is the thing: Our supper really was a Last Supper; at least, the Last Supper From Which We Wouldn’t Rush to Relieve a Babysitter.

We knew having a child would make us a family. We didn’t know being in a family would make of us such bad friends. And we are. We’re the bad friends, the ones who become parents, take the baby shower loot and the home-cooked meals and the best wishes and stop inviting you over, and only show up at your house on special occasions, because now our primary function is to orchestrate playdates for our children, who have an uproariously good time while we clean up their messes and resolve their petty disputes.

As our son grew we saw less and less of our friends. That’s partly because many of us began to peel away from the newspaper as the economy tanked. Of the nine of us at the Last Supper in 2008, none of us are with our former employer. We stopped bumping into each other in the halls and meeting for after work drinks at the bar across the street.

And then, in 2011, we moved to a new town. We had two built-in friends here, one of them a woman I’d grown up with.  We’d make more friends, we knew, as soon as I had our second child, as soon as my husband settled into his new job, as soon as I settled into my new job, as soon as we were getting more sleep.

Here we are, nearly two years later. We have the same two friends we started with, and thank God for them. One of them took me out to celebrate my birthday a month after it had passed, because breaking away for three hours on a Saturday required entering into delicate negotiations with our respective spouses. We ate sushi and got pedicures. It is the second time I have seen her without our kids since we moved here. We agree that the time we went to Costco together doesn’t count as a social outing.

A friend a few years older than me, a mother of teenagers, said not to worry about making friends in the new town.

“You’ll sign the kids up for soccer, and you’ll be standing on the sidelines with the other moms, and boom, you’ll find a friend,” she said.

My son is in soccer. I stand on the sidelines with the other moms, and we size each other up, but we don’t talk. I chase my toddler, and they juggle their babies. At the end of the games we smile and nod and dash to our cars.

Maybe I need a one-sheet questionnaire to pass out when these women rush by:

“I’m curious about you,” it would say at the top.

“I like your boots. I noticed a novel peeking out of the top of your bag. You handled it well when your baby vomited down your shirt earlier. I wanted to tell you that, in person, but I figured one of our kids would fall face first out of a chair/spill their raisins/launch into a nonsensical story about fire trucks and interrupt. Does soccer bore you as much as it bores me? Can you believe we have, like, 14 to 16 more years of this ahead of us?

“Do you mind answering a few questions and returning this form next Friday?”

And then the questions could be things like:

1. Have you ever thrown yourself at a man just because he owned Red Headed Stranger on vinyl?

2. Have you ever found yourself imagining which would be worse, if your daughter grew up to be a slut or grew up to be a vegan?

3. Does your car smell bad?

4. If you go to a diner and you see mud pie on the menu, how many slices do you order?

5. If your ex sent you an email riddled with misspellings, would you respond immediately or forward it to the woman who encouraged you to dump him in the first place?

6. When you were a girl, was your house so trashy or your parents so weird that you refused to invite anyone over?

And we could go from there.

Is this greedy and vain? To want that moment where another human decides we are worth one another’s time? To have them look past my filthy mouth and my dirty house and my too-loud laugh and my rotten attitude and decide there’s something more; that, at minimum, I will make them laugh and be honest with them if their chin ever gets too hairy and needs to be waxed?

I am within one coffee date of cementing this kind of friendship with three or four women. I should call one of them. I really should.

I advise a college newspaper now. My students spend all of their time together, on the job and after hours, the way my friends and I did when we worked on our college newspaper. I envy them their inside jokes, the way they disappear to get lunch and return, two hours later, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, laughing.

One of my students is a young woman who looks eerily like the woman who bought shampoo with me in 1998. On her 23rd birthday, this student told me she thought she’d better save the celebrating for the weekend.Tomorrow was a school day. She wanted to be fresh for it.

I might have been too firm with her, but I really couldn’t let her blow it like that.

Go out tonight, I told her. Go out this weekend, too.

Go. Stay out late, drink too much, laugh too much, share a secret with someone new. Go.

It is a screen door, after all, and I can see through it. I stand just on the other side.

I’m a runner. I’m not kidding.

One November midnight, I stepped into a Portland bar and asked:

“I’m feeling sick to my stomach, but I’d like to keep drinking. What do you recommend?”

And on another day – January; blazing daylight; bad breakup – I leaned hard on a bakery counter and inquired:

“What is the biggest piece of cake I can have for $4?”

Followed by:

“What if I gave you $5?”

So I startled myself, you see, a few weeks ago when I wandered in a Eugene running store with this question:

“What kind of clothing do I need to buy to keep running in the rain?”

“Did you just move to Oregon?” the sales woman asked.

“No, I’ve lived here 13 years,” I said. “I just started running in May.”

“Are you racing?”

“No. Actually, when I run, I think, ‘This isn’t a race.’”

She gave me a look like I’d just let out a fartlek.

“I’d like to keep running in the rain,” I said, again.

“You’re going to get wet,” she said.

“I don’t want to get wet,” I said.

“We all get wet,” she said, and despite myself I puffed up a bit at the notion that she and I – two runners – together made a “we.”

“Just take off your clothes right away when you come inside,” she said.

“What do you have that will keep my feet dry?”

“Your feet are going to get really wet,” she said.

“So I probably need a raincoat, then?” I asked.

“A raincoat will make you hot,” she said. “And then you’ll be hot and wet.”

I stifled a giggle.

“You don’t want to be hot and wet,” she said.

“Of course not,” I said. “Who does?”

“Lots of people stop training in Oregon in December and January,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say I’m training,” I said. “This is not a race.”

“They just take those months off. Do some yoga,” she said.

“If I stop running in December and January, I will never start again,” I said.

She offered me a hat, to keep the rain out of my eyes. I said I’d think it over. I joined the Y, instead. Running has gone from being something I would only do during a volcano eruption or a war to being something I feel I must do at least three or four times a week just to keep myself from ending up a middle-aged woman sweating my butt off in a creaking folding chair in the front row of a rage management seminar.

It’s not pretty, my running. Have you ever seen a grasshopper riding bareback on a banana slug? My chest flares. My face turns the color of cinnamon candy. I begin most runs thinking, “I cannot fucking believe I am doing this,” and end most of them thinking, “I cannot fucking believe I just did that.” In between I might enjoy 30 to 40 minutes of not thinking at all.

Forty minutes of not thinking at all times four equals 160 minutes a week of not thinking at all.

I get why people do this, now.

Controlling class size the natural way

Dear Parent of incoming kindergartner:

It’s here! The big day – your child’s first day in public school. Thank you for trusting your child, ZEN, to the teachers and staff here at Minimum Elementary, where every child is unique and special, and where we do the absolute best we can with rock-bottom resources.

I’m Mrs. Lean, your principal, here to alert you to some exciting changes our staff has made for the 2013-14 school year.

CLASS SIZE: ZEN’s kindergarten classroom will have one teacher, 42 students and one hyena. The hyena is new this year, part of our creative thinking around controlling class size!

LOCAL CONTROL: Not every school in the Eugene 4J School District will offer hyenas in their kindergarten classroom this year, because site-based decision-making is very important. Some schools chose jackals; others, wolverines; parents in more affluent parts of town banded together to raise extra money for honey badgers.

HISTORY: With the Legislature’s efforts around funding K-12 education fizzling, we knew we couldn’t possibly afford to keep on a second kindergarten teacher, so the district gave us $100,000 to hire a school community workshop facilitator to help us brainstorm ideas for controlling class size.

The money also allowed us to offer whole grain snacks during the school community workshop meetings, where parents, teachers, administrators and staff members rolled up their sleeves and looked at the issue of our marginally funded public system from all sides until, frankly, they really couldn’t stand each other anymore.

After vigorous debate, Minimum Elementary stakeholders reached consensus around the hyena late last spring.

HOW THE HYENA WORKS: On the first day of school, children will choose a name for the hyena, which will become the first – and for one child, the last – word they ever write in their own hand.

ZEN’s teacher, Mrs. Juggle, has worked tirelessly this summer to design rich lessons that integrate the hyena in a standards-based curriculum that meets local, state and federal guidelines for teaching, learning and the ethical treatment of animals.

Mrs. Juggle did not get paid for her efforts; however, her pension is locked down and her health insurance, robust, which we think is a fair trade, provided she keeps her job past next year’s round of budget cuts.

Anyway, following the naming, the hyena will be permitted to roam the classroom for 15 to 20 minutes. As you may have heard, last year we were forced to give up the 28 minutes allotted every other month for physical education instruction; we think the hyena provides a unique, creative opportunity to infuse that P.E. time back into the day, as we anticipate to see some healthy, active, authentic running from our kinders!

We do not anticipate that we will need to release the hyena more than a few times; however, s/he will be available to us on each of the 181 174 163 days of this school year.

KLEENEX: Finally, parent, we ask that you please remember to send ZEN to school with a full box of Kleenex, as we cannot afford to purchase our own, and first days of school tend to be emotional for everyone. There’s so much at stake.

Please take a minute to read the enclosed tip sheet, Surviving Your First Days of Kindergarten, which contains valuable information on school supplies, playing dead and where to get the fastest running shoes.

Enjoy your last few days of summer with your not-so-little-one. Remember: this is only the beginning. They have so many years of this ahead of them! (If they’re lucky.)

Sincerely,
Mrs. Lean

Transcendental Meditation and the year of trying not to think

Lake-Meditation by useitinfo
Lake-Meditation, a photo by useitinfo on Flickr.

My mother wore a black leotard and electric blue tights in the summer of 1984. Suited up, she liked to flip on the Jane Fonda Workout, sit down in her brown wingback chair, and watch.

“Studying,” she said.

Sometimes she ate a snack while watching the Jane Fonda Workout.

“Getting my energy up,” she said.

Sometimes my mother exercised, studying her form in a gilt-framed mirror. My brothers and I bounced around next to her, in front of her – on top of her, really – as we tried out moves and felt the burn. We were 9, 8, and 3. We liked to watch the Jane Fonda Workout. And we loved to watch my mother.

My mother turned 40 in 1984. She’d been with my father for 10 years. At 8 I had a creeping awareness of current and undercurrent, and could sense my mother’s stay-or-leave calculus, and knew that my father was around most days because she let him be around. Was he grateful? I was grateful. Did he know she could change her mind at any moment? I knew, and I scanned for the wind and wave that would warn us.

Wind: My mother dropped the baby weight in 1984, thanks be to the Jane Fonda Workout, iced tea, grapefruit, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and one-pound Hershey’s bars. She had her glossy brown hair shaped into a wedge, bought cotton culottes. She took up Transcendental Meditation in 1984, too.

Our Bodies, Ourselves; Diet for a Small Planet; Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health; Co-dependent No More; Fat is a Family Affair: all books my mother read in the 70s and 80s until their covers gave to suede. And then she read a book about Transcendental Meditation. She needed Transcendental Meditation. Fifteen to 20 minutes, twice a day; that’s all it took. Surely she could manage that.

In the mornings my mother would change out of her nightgown and bathrobe, put in her contact lenses, drink one cup of Taster’s Choice, and drive to Dull Knife Memorial College, to teach communications, human development, sociology, psychology and social problems. This, she kept track of in a red-covered gradebook, in an office down the hall from her friends; Mr. Ball, the police science teacher, and Mr. Engel, the math teacher.

Sometimes we borrowed money from Engel. Lots of people on the reservation borrowed money from Engel. He rarely saw it again, but he never said no. Once we made a special dinner for Engel – steaks, potato salad, cold sun tea and a chocolate cake. After dinner, my parents asked Engel for money, and he loaned it, no sweat.

My mother’s Dull Knife office locked. In between classes she could duck inside it, sit in her rolling chair, and meditate. Outside: Tribal college, linoleum floors, cafeteria french fries, Pell Grant panic. Inside: Closed eyes, slow breath, quiet mind. Mantra. Mantra. Mantra. Fifteen to 20 minutes a day.

My mother came home from work every evening at 5:10 and walked directly to her bedroom to change into a nightgown, robe and slippers. In the kitchen, my father – between jobs – browned ground beef for goulash or spaghetti. In the living room, we children sprawled on the gold carpet, watching the opening minutes of World News Tonight, waiting for mother to join us at 5:15. If anyone dropped by she would say, “Tell them I’m not here.” Sometimes, she said that over her shoulder, while crawling into her bedroom on her hands and knees.

After getting through World News, spaghetti and maybe another hour of television, my mother climbed into bed, under the sheets, and turned on her lamp. We would go to her, my brothers and I, The Indian and the Cupboard or James and the Giant Peach in our hands, to argue for the privilege of sitting closest to her, her lap our territorial capitol of love and literacy.

My nightly inventories confirmed the mole on her neck and the three brown spots on her cheek. She said a new one had appeared each time she had a baby. She wore thick glasses with huge frames and scratched lenses, and so did I. Surreptitiously, I sniffed her hair for the Selsun Blue shampoo. Her chin shook when she took a sip of hot Good Earth tea.

I’d examine her hands and ask again why she didn’t wear a wedding ring like my friends’ mothers, and she would explain that she’d taken it off one day to wash the dishes and lost it. She’d looked everywhere for it, she said. Absolutely everywhere for it. I’d ask her to tell me, again, about their wedding day, about her purple dress and his tan suit and the courthouse in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. “Can’t you get another ring?” I said. “Another wedding ring? And one for dad?”

We always left my father behind in the living room, to clip his toenails, watch television and smoke. My mother had stopped smoking, and now she had a book that explained how, by setting aside the money she’d spent on cigarettes every week, she could save enough in a few years to go to Paris. We were all going to go to Paris, she said. It would cost many thousands of dollars, but we would get there, now that she wasn’t a smoker anymore.

Never start smoking, my mother told us. Never start drinking, she said. It is better just never to start. Look at where drinking got people. Look at your father – he wishes he’d never started drinking. Look at all the kids on the reservation without families. Look at all the dysfunction, she said, and I’d wonder what dysfunction meant. Look at all the co-dependence, she said, and I’d wonder what that meant, too.

And then we had to leave the room on account of Transcendental Meditation.

Waves. What was this meditation? Was she thinking? Was she making up her mind? Could I stop it? I stood outside the door and listened. Nothing. I pressed my ear to the door; nothing. I retrieved a plastic juice tumbler from the kitchen, held it to the door like I’d seen on Scooby Doo. Nothing.

Her bedroom door didn’t lock. I cracked it. Listened. Nothing. She could be in there making a terrible mistake. I dropped to the floor in my Cathy comic strip nightgown, crawled on my hands and knees until I reached the foot of the bed, noting the position of the adored: seated, eyes closed.

“Paige?” my mother said. “Is that you?”

Climbing onto the bed next to her, I asked, “How do you do that?”

“Close your eyes,” she said. “Count every time you breathe out.”

“How high should I count?”

“Count to four, I guess.”

“Just when I breathe out? Can I count when I breathe in, too?”

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

“When do I start?”

“The sooner the better,” she said.

I closed my eyes, counting, loudly.

“Count in your head,” my mom said.

In my head, I counted to four.

“Nothing is happening, Mom.”

“That’s the point,” she said. She kept her eyes closed.

“What is supposed to happen?”

“Your mind is supposed to empty.”

“Is your mind empty?”

“Not at the moment,” she said.

“I don’t get it. Why do you need your mind empty?”

At this, she chuckled.

I scooted as close as possible, almost in her lap, drew my knees into my chest, and counted in my head for her, perhaps 10 times:

One, two, three, four.

One, two, three, four.

She looked so peaceful.

“Is your mind empty?” I whispered.

Her eyes flicked open.

“We’re done meditating for tonight, honey,” she said. Success. I’d calmed the seas. Father smoking in his chair; mother reading in her bed. There’d be Taster’s Choice and World News tomorrow, I knew it.

Television or my brothers often distracted me in the evenings, but if I noticed my mother’s absence, I crawled into her room. Once, I brought a friend with me and gestured to the specimen: “This is Transcendental Meditation. Tell Sarah how you do that, Mom.”

“Sometimes I like to imagine I have taken off the top of my head, and I am removing a piece of my brain at a time,” she said.

“I don’t think I can do that,” Sarah said, spooked.

“Oh,” my mother said. “That’s too bad. Maybe you two girls should go play, instead.”

Everyone must think of a word when they exhale, my mother told me, on one of those many evenings when I thought I could hold her back by asking questions that kept her mind full. “What’s your word?” I asked. “Oh, nothing important,” she said. And I didn’t ask again for almost 30 years. By then, I had two children of my own, and they often washed over me, the choices my mother had made in 1984.

If my mother had learned Transcendental Meditation from a guru, like she should have, he’d have assigned her a mantra. But she didn’t have a guru, so she’d come up with her own. She had three young children and not enough money for them. She had a husband, sober and smoking in his recliner. He might be there next week. He might not. She had Mary Baker Eddy. She had a trip to Paris coming up. She had Transcendental Meditation.

She breathed in.

She breathed out.

And her mantra spilled forth.

Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

Snakes on the plains

Late one summer my older brother Greg came across a snake skin clinging to a rock on the pine needle floor of my family’s hillside property. The skin appeared at once wispy and crispy, like dragon wing Kleenex, and it was gray, and tattered. He carried it into the house, where our father poked at it with a pencil and explained how the snake had gotten loose of it by rubbing up against a rough surface. Healthy snakes shed their skin as they grew, and our hillside sheltered many healthy snakes, our father said.

They prospered, these snakes. They thrived; held christenings and debutante balls and weddings, scattering their dated dresses about the landscape. And our family lived amongst them. Our family – of all families.

At this – the sight of a snake skin in her house, my father’s blasé announcement that we lived on a hillside teeming with snakes – my mother shuddered. Snakes terrified her. She seemed always scanning for them, and if we happened on one while out for a drive she would order my father to stop the car, back up, and drive over the snake again and again until we were sure it had truly buckled under our 2,500 pound station wagon and would not simply lie in cunning wait for our return, attach itself to our undercarriage, slither up through the ventilation system and coil, hissing, at my mother’s feet.

She had heard of a snake getting into a car once. She had heard of a snake coming up through a toilet, once. She had heard of a snake infiltrating a basement and laying the eggs which hatched umpteen baby snakes, which themselves reproduced, turning a nice, family home into an actual snake den. Once. She’d heard about this, once.

Ten snake species live in Montana; only one, the Prairie Rattlesnake, is venomous, reassures the state’s Fish and Wildlife division. Of course, no one wants to run into a rattlesnake, but my mother’s phobia extended to the other nine, hapless species – your garter snakes, your milk snakes, your bull snakes.

Faced with any of these snakes, my mother screamed, trembled and clutched at whatever might be handy – be it another person, be it a building, be it a tree – until the snake had moved on, at which point she stood absolutely still for several minutes more lest the snake, in confusion or malice, return.

Settling in a glass, steel and pavement world would have been a good choice for my mother; instead, we lived in the country, and her three children tramped around the outdoors because that’s what you do when you’re surrounded by it.

“Where have you been?” she might ask us as we leaned against our kitchen counter, gulping plastic tumblers of Kool-Aid, sweaty and breathless from a long afternoon exploring fields and dry creek beds.

“Playing in the hills,” we’d come back.

“Ug,” she’d say. “Snakes! All of that tall grass back there! Snakes love tall grass!”

But we hadn’t seen any snakes, we’d report; just snake skins, glimpses of the fragile, gossamer stockings, never the lady’s leg. We never saw any snakes.

“Oh, but you will,” she’d say. “You will.”

And then what, I never thought to ask. Would we die? Go blind? Pee ourselves? Become drug addicts? Republicans? What, pray tell, were the consequences of encountering snakes? If only I’d asked. But I didn’t.

Perhaps it goes without saying: My mother rarely ventured outdoors. Camping? “Snakes!” Hiking? “Snakes!” Fishing? “Snakes!” But periodically she’d start up on the exercise, which meant walking on the grassy shoulders of country roads. We’d go along with her on our bikes, pulling a few hundred yards ahead before circling back to check on her. Every so often she’d hear a rustle in the grass and jump.

On just such a walk I’d gotten way out in front, my filthy bruised summer legs peddling vigorously to attain the momentum I’d need to make it up our hill, expertly navigating the ruts along our shale road, riding out of my mind, really, 9 years old and pure speed. No fear. Pure speed.

Naturally, this is when I saw the snake.

When you’re a kid, you can pretend, as I did, that your mother’s likes and dislikes, her fantasies and worries, her hopes and dreams and fears, don’t matter. That they don’t touch you. But of course, they do.

I braked hard, tires skidding, shaking palms slipping off the handlebars as I fell, the snake close, very close, panic coursing through my body as I scrambled out from under the bike and ran to my mother, weeping, screaming, “Snake!”

I pointed at where it had been stretched across the road, sunning itself, a good 100 yards away. But by then it was gone.

She’d seen it; my brothers had seen it. We all agreed: This was a massive snake, nearly as long as the road was wide. I’d suckled on my mother’s phobia. Absorbed it. Manifested it. And no way, no way, was I going to walk past the spot where I’d seen that snake. That snake was out there. Somewhere. Mad at me.

“Harmless,” my mother said. “Just a bull snake. Big one.”

Just a bull snake? Just a bull snake? Where was she getting this whole “just a” business, anyway?

“It’s long gone. Come on up the hill.”

“No.”

I clung to my mother. She sent my brother up the hill with my bike to get my father, and when he came with the car I collapsed in the back seat, feet propped up, high above the floorboards.

I’d outgrow this fear, many years later. Twenty years later? Probably. It didn’t happen all at once. Several ridiculous scenes followed, culminating in the evening that my brothers, mother and I stood on our front steps throwing free weights at a small rattlesnake that had the misfortune to snooze in our yard. Most of the weights missed. He probably died of boredom.

It’d be swell at this point to report that I faced down a snake in the wilderness and prevailed, or learned to appreciate the beauty of snakes during a visit to a reptile sanctuary, or encountered a snake during a walk with my young son and decided, “This fear stops now, with my generation!” But none of that happened. I’m not going to go out looking for snakes, but I can live with the knowledge that they’re out there. Somewhere.

The fear just sloughed away. I guess I shed it, like you do.

Barnacles, old redheads: A day at the dermatologist

barnacles_7090604

You schedule an appointment with the dermatologist for the first time in four years because the recent emergence of a flat, brown blob on the left side of your face has given you an insurance-approved excuse to talk about your wrinkles.

Anything else you’d to discuss during this appointment, the scheduler asks?

“Retin A,” you say.

“Do you have acne?” the scheduler asks, her mouse clearly hovering over some insurance billing box or other.

“No,” you say, lacking a self-protective mechanism. “I have wrinkles.”

The day of the appointment arrives. You put on the eye cream you bought three months ago: Eye Hope. On top of it you layer the two-step concealer you bought two years ago: Fading Hope.

Five years ago, you had no wrinkles. You were a redhead with no wrinkles. You had smile lines, heavier on the left side of your face on account of the congenital smirk. Professional contacts questioned your skills and intelligence because you looked so young. You grumbled, but really, you were fine with this.

You haven’t been smiling much lately. But those lines .. well, look at them. How many millimeters deep does one have to be before it is considered a “crease?”

The doctor knocks. Her skin is poreless, like someone spilled a box of baking soda on it.

You show her the flat, brown blob. She touches it.

“There’s some texture there, isn’t there,” she says, taking what looks like a jeweler’s loupe, holding it up to her eye, and gazing through it at the blob.

“That’s a barnacle,” she says.

“Excuse me?” you say. “Did you say, ‘barnacle?’”

“Yes,” she says. “You know? Like the ones on a ship? They’re inherited.”

Immediately, your mind lifts up an image for consideration. You think of Ernest Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, and Paul Hendrickson’s description of it in dry dock: “The wood, marbled with hairline fissures, was dusty, porous, dry. It seemed almost scaly. It felt febrile.”

You think of Gretel Erhlich. “The westerner’s face,” she wrote, “is stiff and dark red as jerky.”

You think of the many raised brown blobs on your grandmother’s skin.

“Barnacle is a truly awful term,” you tell the dermatologist,  as she hands you a brochure.

“If you can pronounce ‘Seborrheic Keratosis” you can call it that instead,” she says, explaining that this mat of renegade skin cells is just a harmless wart-like mass you must live with unless you want to cut it off and risk a scar.

You think of the fifth- sixth- and seventh-grade field days, and how at each one you wore shorts and a tank top and not a lick of sunblock for six hours in the Eastern Montana sun, and how you stared at many boys who absolutely did not stare back, not once.

You think of cruising Miles City, Montana for hours on hot July days in a red Dodge Daytona driven by a boy who you knew, just knew, would eventually let go of his bottle of Pepsi, reach over and grab your thigh. The Daytona had a T-top, and you, you did not once think to apply sunblock.

You think of watching, without sunblock, the home opener football game in college on an unseasonably warm September afternoon. You hate football. You only went to that game because you had a crush on a boy who happened to be sitting behind you with his girlfriend, who had a great tan.

You think of the four hours you spent, without sunblock, at the outdoor REO Speedwagon concert in Rock Creek, Montana. You hate REO Speedwagon. You only went to that concert because your boyfriend was 10 years older.

The boys of summer have gone. But you’ll always have something to remember them by: The barnacle.

“Barnacle,” reports Merriam-Webster. “Any of numerous marine crustaceans (subclass Cirripedia) with feathery appendages for gathering food that are free-swimming as larvae but permanently fixed (as to rocks, boat hulls or whales) as adults.”

So they stick to whales, too. Great. Super. Terrific.

Perhaps noticing that your eyes have gone flat, your skin clammy and your pulse, shallow, the dermatologist clears her throat.

“Have you ever seen an old redhead?” she asks.

Your mind, nimble as the newspaper copy boy, now fetches several old redheads. Meredith Palmer from “The Office.” Mona from “Who’s the Boss.” Carrot Top.

You also think of several older redheads you know personally. Hey, they look pretty good. You consider calling one or two and asking their secret, then decide any conversation that begins with you referring to a friend as an “old redhead” is probably destined to fall flat.

“Time to double down on the sunblock,” the dermatologist continues. “Don’t forget your neck.”

“How about that Retin A?” you ask, testily, and the dermatologist leaves the room and returns with a box of Renova samples.

“These are about to expire, but they’re still good for two years. You can have them. Be careful,” she says. “This will burn your face off.”

You wonder whether that’s a bad thing.

“That’s a bad thing,” the dermatologist says.

Renova sells for $100 a tube. These samples could pull serious scratch on the street. You think about going into nursing homes and dangling them in front of old redheads. “Is that a barnacle on your face?” you’d ask. “That’ll be $400.”

Boom. Your MFA financed, just like that.

You stroke the barnacle. It’s a hermaphrodite. Only one more barnacle needs to pop up next to it for it to reproduce.

You decide to keep the Renova. It’s every old redhead for herself.

Why Track Town USA needs to slow down

I live in America’s premier running destination, Eugene, Ore., a city that has hosted the Olympic trials five times; a city that boasts a ghost — Steve Prefontaine — as a cultural touchstone and an economic catalyst; a city where, every spring, dozens and dozens of women with waists as big around as a javelin bound down bark-dust covered trails wearing nothing more than sports bras and spanky shorts.

(I don’t know how many men read this blog, but if you’re out there, just think of it: gorgeous, sweaty women in sports bras and spanky shorts. You’re welcome.)

Moving to Track Town USA has, naturally, motivated me to become an enthusiastic and committed … walker. An ambler, really. On a good day I might mosey.

Sometimes my students misuse the term “ironic,” and when that happens I always want to shake them hard and say, “Let me tell you about irony, buster.”

Living amongst so many hard-core, hard-bodied runners should have led me down a different path, or maybe the same path, but at a much faster clip. Actually, as I consider that last sentence, “living amongst” is a stretch. It’s not like I bump into Ashton Eaton at Safeway. The running elite travel in their social circles, and I travel in mine.

I wouldn’t even know what to do if I saw an Olympic athlete in the flesh. No, that’s a lie, too. I’d suck in my gut and feign a sprained ankle, lest he or she wonder why, at that exact moment, I wasn’t running at top speed.

If I saw a gymnast I’d probably try to turn a cartwheel and end up in the emergency room.  Thank God none live here. Where do the gymnasts live? Texas? Right now, I bet there’s some chubby woman at the Huntsville Walmart Supercenter attempting to execute a back flip because she just ran into Jordyn Wieber in the disposable tableware aisle and is feeling deeply inadequate.

I should be grateful I only have to hypothetically impress Olympic track stars. But really, living in Eugene has forced me to face up to what I have long considered a serious moral failure. I don’t run.

High-achievers run. They go to church. They volunteer.

They get up early every morning and run five or 20 miles, shower, and head out the door to cure Alzheimers or run Fortune 500 companies, eating perhaps a protein-rich salad for lunch before returning home for a peaceful dinner hour with their academically gifted children, followed by 90 minutes of sophisticated post-bedtime banter with their spouse, which is itself followed by tender, inventive love-making that just gets more meaningful and acrobatic as the years roll by.

That’s what runners do.

And what do walkers do? Well, this one teaches a basic writing class at a community college and wolfed a breaded pork chop for lunch.

If only I ran. If only running didn’t cause me to hyperventilate and give me shin splints.

I still remember the last time I ran a whole mile, during the President’s Physical Fitness Torture Test my freshman year of high school. One of my best pals and I made a pact to run that mile together, come what may. We finished dead last. Years later she told me she knew I was still alive by the awful rasping sound I made. You know what that friend does now? She runs.

She has left me in the dust. Everyone has left me in the dust, with their fulfilling careers and their advanced degrees and their really smart, hypoallergenic dogs.

I want to feel good about not running. I want to commander the announcer’s microphone at Hayward Field and announce to the crowd: “Athletes! There’s a better way. A slower way!”

A cold apocalyptic wind would blow and the Nike banners and other assorted crap would be shaken loose from the stands.

Everyone would follow me down to the track, and I’d set a 3.7 mph pace, and that show-off Sam Chelanga would try to break away from the pack, but someone would trip him and say, “Slow down, man, you’ll hurt your knees,” and he would, he’d slow down, and that night he’d go home to his wife and they would have a few minutes of, you know, pretty decent sex, and fall asleep.

I like this idea. I like imagining a world of walkers. Because, you see, if everyone agrees to go at my pace, I can be sure of one thing. I will never come in last.

The day the school secretary saw inside my soul

This is my favorite Eugene street sign. Hey, at least it's a town with a sense of humor.

This is my favorite Eugene street sign. Hey, at least it’s a town with a sense of humor

 

School secretaries give me the heebie-jeebies.

To be clear, any omniscient deity or quasi-deity holding sway over many vulnerable people frightens me. The pope. SEC football coaches. Labor and delivery charge nurses. The former office manager of the newspaper where I once worked — a benevolent woman of great and terrible powers.

But no one wigs me out quite like the middle-aged woman manning the desk of every elementary school I’ve ever walked inside. Every scrap of paperwork in the school passes through her hands. She knows every dirty secret, and she knows it first. Every budget cut. Every divorce. Every nasty bully-in-the-making. She sees it — and she remembers it.

So I kept my eyes down and my voice meek this week when I dropped off my son’s kindergarten enrollment forms. I’d planned to simply slide them onto the secretary’s desk and bolt before she could see inside my soul and ask about all the empty wine bottles in our glass recycling bin. (We only take it to the curb once a month, I swear! Oh, Pearl Street neighbors, your judgment, it burns, it burns!)

“Just a minute,” the secretary said as I skittered away. “I need to look over these forms and make sure they’re complete.”

“Of course,” I said, resisting the urge to glance at my phone, lest she snatch it and lock it in a drawer for the rest of the day. She can do that. This is her house.

“Are you new in town?” she asked.

“No, we’ve lived here two years,” I said.

“Well, there’s only one person listed in the emergency contact section,” she said. “Generally, we like to see several contacts, just in case. Don’t you have any more friends you can add?”

And there it was. Just like that — like a Nordstrom bra-fitter or a Jungian psychotherapist, she’d bared my great truth:

I might live in this town, but it ain’t home.

We’d only lived in Eugene about four months when I stopped trolling the real estate listings and told my husband not to bother hanging up anything more on the walls of our rental.

“You’re taking me back to Portland,” I said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

I could list the reasons why I prefer Portland to Eugene, but it’d bore you. Suffice it to say that living here has felt like I’ve been wearing the tightest jeans in my dresser drawer every day for two years, only the jeans are tie-dyed, and bell-bottomed, and were sewn in 1974.

A few weeks ago I gave my students a lesson about asking open-ended interview questions. They paired up to practice, with one student left to interview me.

“What do you like about Eugene?” she began.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Really?” she said.

“Really,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t have many friends here,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Probably because when I meet someone new, and they ask if I like Eugene, I say I don’t,” I said.

“I can see why that might make it difficult to make friends,” she said. “It’s a bit of a conversation killer.”

I had to let myself live with that for awhile, that moment of enlightenment, brought to me by the young woman who sits in the back of the class and asks the best questions.

Perhaps I need to actually get out there and embrace what makes Eugene, Eugene. Spend a morning at the Saturday market. Buy a bongo drum. Use it. Go to a football game. Pretend to follow along. Catch a show at the Hult Center without complaining loudly about how it looks like the inside of an Easter basket. Stop being such a grumpy old bitch, you know?

I relented. I asked my husband to hang a new picture on our wall. It’s a picture of the Portland map grid. I didn’t relent much.

And then, just to make sure I was paying attention, the universe introduced me to the Edgewood School secretary.

“Maybe you could try to get to know one of your neighbors?” she suggested. “It’s never too late to make friends!”

What’s next? Life coaching from the lunch lady? But I let myself live with that awhile, too. This life post may turn out to be temporary, but shouldn’t I allow myself to get something out of it, instead of stomping like a petulant child through the streets of Eugene?

Or, if I can’t manage to become civically entwined, can I at least let myself find home at home, with my husband and my kids?

“What are you doing?” my husband asked me one evening, seeing me guiltily slam shut the laptop.

“Definitely not looking at Portland house listings!” I said, and he sighed, defeated, and I felt like a jerk. Time to remove the needle from the marital toolkit.

When a Portland friend asked how I was doing, I reheated the old Eugene grumble-hash. (No, not that kind of hash. Jesus. Is everyone in this town high on something?) Anyway, she listened patiently for a while before cutting in:

“But you know what? You will always remember this period in your life as the time when you took a chance and moved away from everyone and everything you knew and had only each other to count on. This time becomes a part of you,” she said.

It’s not wasted time, in other words.

Not unless I waste it.

Why I always end up in Las Vegas

0-1

We were way down deep in the Mirage, having second thoughts at the tattoo parlor, and in serious need of a way out, when we stopped a security guard.

“Where do we go to get a cab?” I asked.

“Keep going straight until you see two mermaid statues, then hang a left,” he said.

That it is possible to navigate the Las Vegas Strip by using ridiculous sculptures as lodestones is something I finally understood last weekend, on my fifth trip to the city in 18 years.

Other people — healthy people, wise people, balanced people — seek out nature when they need to find themselves. They ski the backcountry, or crouch on a surfboard, or hike 1,000 miles and come back with sore muscles, deep tans and new attitudes.

Me? I head to Las Vegas, and take a right at the volcano.

This trip came about because my friend Julie and I hadn’t seen each other in almost two years, and, in discussing possible remedies, realized that we hadn’t seen each other without a man or children in tow …. well, ever, really. At least, not since college, which we left behind 13 years ago.

Because my children are at ages where they operate on two speeds —  balls out or conked out —  I knew I couldn’t saddle my husband with the sole responsibility for them for more than, say, three days. Julie and I drew a figurative circle on the map and came up with either Las Vegas or Palm Springs as a destination.

But I live in Eugene, Home of Many Earnest People. I’d had enough of nice.

And that’s how we ended up in Vegas, indulging in what felt like, to me at least, 48 hours of weapons-grade buffoonery.

The week before the trip, life unfolded the way it sometimes does, with crushing intensity.

My journalism students caught criticism for a story, and I fumbled when I tried to guide them. My daughter smacked up against a virus that caused her temperature to soar to 105 degrees and her heart to beat so wildly that she landed in the emergency room. My mother, recently diagnosed with a vicious form of neuropathy, packed up all her belongings with my brothers’ help and moved from Montana to Oregon, crashing at my house along the way.

At the end of the week, I got to escape. I got to sit in an airport, alone, and read. I got to sleep in, three days running. I got to eat three dinners with no one sitting in my lap (though, in Vegas, surely I could have paid someone to sit in my lap).

It’s so cliche, isn’t it? A woman in her 30s, exhausted and frustrated by her routine, sets out for Las Vegas with a best girlfriend for two days and three nights of carousing against the cheesy backdrop of the strip. That’s the plotline for a buddy movie, right there.

Yeah. I get it. And I don’t care. And here’s part of the reason why:

In the last few weeks I’ve fallen, hard, for a writer named George Saunders, who has been writing forever, but who I just learned about from a profile in the New York Times. The profile, written to mark the occasion of Saunders’ latest brilliant short story collection, included a quote from the man that has been ricocheting around my cranium since I first read it.

“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it,” Saunders said. “If you have a negative tendency and you look at it, then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”

Before I had kids, I assumed that becoming a mother would cure whatever it is inside me that makes me want to periodically behave like an idiot. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true. It’s by letting the idiot out now and then that I’m able to live — and enjoy — most of my days as a responsible adult and parent.

They were still celebrating Chinese New Year when we rolled into town, with the strip ablaze in red and gold. I bought a new pleather jacket and posed for a picture next to a big, golden snake. While I didn’t get a tattoo, I did wander the Wynn exchanging texts like these with Julie:

“Where are you?”

“At dragon!”

“Was just at dragon!”

Why do I go to Las Vegas? Probably for the same reason that I sometimes dream I’ve decided to start a small campfire in a lumberyard.

I just need the fuel.

0

Where I confess I’m a stick stirring my own pot of craziness

urlSunday, my 21-month-old daughter caught a nasty virus. Her temperature shot North of 103 degrees; her chest rattled; her nose ran; her eyes took on that dazed, watery quality of a child with a flooded immune system.

Her illness led to many sweet hours of snuggling with her on the couch as she sucked down Popsicles and watched a Barney marathon, asking me after each episode, “Mo’ dinosowr?”

It also meant four days without day care.

Four days of negotiating with my spouse over who would miss work, and how much. Four days of orchestrating pick ups and drop offs, canceling appointments and making excuses.

Four days of obsessively checking my email, knowing I couldn’t answer any of it. Four days of my spouse working until past midnight to catch up on everything and everyone he’d shorted that day.

Four days of me questioning whether my work — the part-time, low-paid teaching and the mostly unpaid, piecemeal writing — has value. Am I a writer, or someone who scribbles around the margins?

Four days of feeling like a stick stirring my own, bubbling pot of craziness.

Four sick days.

“That’s sick,” I’ll hear my students say sometimes, by way of a compliment. Not to me. Never to me. Never, “The way you raced in here from dropping off your kids with minutes to spare, then gave us your undivided attention for 80 minutes, then sprinted out again to pick up groceries and a prescription, damn, we see you’re busting your hump, and that’s sick Paige.”

No. They would never say that. Why doesn’t somebody say that to me? I would like someone to say that to me.

Actually, that is not true. I try mightily, while at work, to pretend like my family does not exist. Like I do not have a 5-year-old’s birthday party to plan. Or shoes to buy the daughter whose feet just decided to grow. Or cupboard coordinates to give a husband who cannot find the raisins.

At work, I dress up way more than necessary because I want to look in the bathroom mirror and see a professional woman, instead of someone who, an hour before, was wearing a snot-stained brew pub hoodie and cleaning dog vomit off the floor.

I would never presume that my students have tidy personal lives just because they don’t have kids themselves, but for some reason, I want them to look at me and see someone who is always managing, always on, never vulnerable, always chatty and handy with a quip or a curse word.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adviser. I want them to see me as someone who, from the imaginary vantage point of her hopping career, immaculate home and argument-free marriage, is actually qualified to give advice.

That’s sick, right? Compartmentalizing like that? And these sick days, they blow the myth to confetti.

I longed to have kids. Sometimes, amidst the chaos, when I am exhausted, it takes a huge effort to remember that.

I heard the Arcade Fire song “The Suburbs” today, and the lyrics reminded me of how much, six years ago, I ached to have children:

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young
I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done
But if it’s too much to ask, it’s too much to ask
Then send me a son

And I got both, the son and the daughter, by grace alone. And they’re stunning. Who knew they’d get sick so much? Not me. Nope. Don’t kids come sealed in plastic?

I dropped one of them off at daycare this week, set her down on  her classroom’s linoleum floor, chock full of Ibuprofen, knowing she was probably too sick to be there, to buy myself two hours to work.

Two hours.

Sick.

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