non-fiction

All Funnied Out Until September

This is not my favorite time of year.  Crunchy ground, frost framing window panes, the warm glow of a fire, the silence of snowfall:  lovely, lovely Winter is my favorite.  In a close second is Fall with it’s rich colors and cool evenings, leaves rustling and falling, animals preparing, dashing about in their last hurrah.  Next is Spring in its glorious awakening and unpredictability, delivering colorful abundance and the cheerfulness we have all learned to expect.  The three together culminating in a nine-month family and friend affair chock full of birthdays and holidays, most of which have something to do with gratitude and love.  And then, there is Summer…

One of my biggest issues with summer is the widespread obsession with sunscreen and the scorn that diehard adherents reserve for those who refuse to slather stinky stuff onto our skin just so we can brag about how brilliant we are for doing just that one thing.  All else could be a complete bust, but if you dunk your family in 75+ you are a genius, and you can write a book on parenting, and run for office.  Personally, a nice glow is the most decent thing about the entire season, the one chance for everyone to at least look cheerful and alive, to fill up on Vitamin D and melatonin.  But the tyrants want summer to be sticky, noxious and pale.  And expensive.  I shouldn’t have to argue with so many about the whole sunscreen controversy.  That I choose to not buy poisonous chemicals that may or may not prevent my skin from developing cancerous tissue at some point in my life is nobody’s business but mine, and that they think it is makes me despise summer even more.  Because summer makes people nosy.

It is also when mothers turn into helmet centurions, wagging their fingers and shaking their heads as they paint their toddlers’ arms and faces in goo, while buckled to a tricycle two inches off the ground and strapped into a helmet the size of a suitcase.  I am in the perfect frame of mind to argue against this paranoid, mom-generated tyranny all the way from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They must think an enormous ball of radiated rays is going to fall on their children if they happen to turn their helicopter eyes away from the flat driveway for a split second.  I do not share this type of fear.  It requires an extraordinary amount energy to maintain a complete suspension of reason.  To be terrified of a two inch fall, one must constantly be imagining crashes and blood and breakage, and lost scholarships.  I have not noticed the same degree of paranoia the other nine months of the year.  Because summer makes people irrational.

Women love summer.  It is a woman’s season, and women are difficult.  They wait for it.  They diet in anticipation of it.  They buy clothes to show off how their diet succeeded and then they complain all winter long about how the cold made them gain it all back.  They chat about camps and beaches and clubs and vacations.  They read magazines and talk about their pedicures and how they’re just not as good as they used to be, and about what the heat does to their hair.  I know this because I participate in the emptiness, and I hear it as it leaves my mouth and I feel like I’ve been possessed, unwittingly driveling and sniveling, and I pray that God will drop an arctic weather bomb and free us from our heat-inspired insipidness.  Let the cold wind shock us into depth and mental clarity, let it force us to jump around and huddle close together to keep warm.  May the temperamental and deciduous dream of Florida as their leaves and bikinis fall away for the year.  Because summer makes people shallow.

There is another frustration that is gnawing at me, and it is that I want to laugh more.  I want to be around funny people, and I want us all to laugh together in a cackling chorus of frivolity and wit.  I want the random phone calls from faraway friends and the meeting of kindred spirits with whom you can banter for hours, best friends in humor, forever.  But summer is too disjointed and hot for this.  People are more easily agitated, they are too busy road raging and sitting in air-conditioned rooms to work into an endorphin laughing fit.  So, here I sit, writing one unfunny essay after another, trying to fulfill an arbitrary posting goal and coax at least one crooked smile from my husband as he scans it.  Of remembering the good ol’ days of September through May in any given year, and of being stuck, waiting for the pool to open, for vacation to arrive, for camps to begin, sitting in a lounge chair with a criss-cross pattern of plastic weave imprinted in the backs of sunburned legs.  Because summer is not funny.

It’s an incredible feeling to make someone smile, or laugh.   But good humor, for me anyway, is conditional.  It has to be just right, the proper ratio of ingredients:  affable companions, absence of stress, excess of endorphins, good energy, lack of judgment.  It does’t take much more than a negative nellie or a know-it-all, or a super-serious jerk, humor parasites who suck creativity wells dry, to leave those around them inspiration-less and depressed.  Conversely, there are the muses who may not even say a word but simply being in the same room with them fills you with so much positivity and energy you feel you may explode with ideas, and happiness.  I don’t know where the muses hide, but I know they don’t like the heat.  Because summer makes people crabby.

And so it is, I’m stuck in a rut that is just as un-fun to experience as it is to be around.  I find myself wanting to read political treatises and to complain, to analyze human nature and protest things, and to be nosy.  I want to brood and to be serious.  To be analytical and argumentative, and at times, shallow.  This time of year is very stressful for the mercurial types, irrationally sensitive to seasonal changes and who wilt in heat and humidity, indeed not funny.  And, not to sound crabby, but for some of us summer is a misery filled with bugs, body odor, and a panoply of chemicals, mildew, skinned elbows and knees, and incessant demands for play dates.  Where is the joy?   I do apologize if you are a summer lover.  I’m not trying to spoil your sweaty adventures, I’m just not a fan.  Because summer is stressful.   And I’m all funnied out… until September.

 

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Two Gigs and a Warehouse

Not so long ago I was in a rock and roll band that tested my previously high tolerance for drama and danger.  Music has a way of attracting colorful characters, sensitive types with explosive and expressive personalities.  The kind and the wounded.  Having only played the guitar for six months or so, I was honored to be invited to sit in with some musicians who were talented and seasoned, and I was looking forward to the experiential learning that is more my style than the incremental.  We rehearsed Thursday nights in an old converted warehouse that rented two stories of studios with padded walls, black paint and graffiti, soiled bathrooms, grungy floors.  It was disgusting.  And in a terrifying part of town.  And I loved it.

This is not how it was described to me, but if one were to ask directions to the studio, they would accurately be thus:  Drive south under the Saint Louis University archway on Jefferson (the one where the “S” in “Saint” is upside down), cross over the highway and keep going until you feel uncomfortable.  Take a right at a gas station you thank god you don’t need.  After three stop signs (at each one check the locks on your doors and take notice of the prostitutes staring at you across the street).  Veer right towards a weedy lot.  The Warehouse is the lone, dark structure with an open gravel parking lot dotted with tattooed skinny people in interesting tee-shirts.  You made it!

Inside was a deep cave with hallways holding secret doors that opened and closed as people darted in and out, loud bursts of music escaping for an instant and disappearing.  There were pool tables in a ghostly common area at the entrance just behind the steel door you had to be buzzed in through by a faceless, ageless reading guy at a desk who pushed the button to let you in and never looked up at anyone.  Ever.  The thumping of drum beats and vibrations of strings mixed in the air, where you knew there was music, and it was exciting, but you couldn’t tell whether it was good or not.  It didn’t matter anyway.  Once you were in, it was all good.

We were preparing for our first gig together, an outdoor music festival in the West End with blocked off streets, barbecue, beer trucks, and friendly crowds.  It was perfect in every way, aside for a demonic heat wave that descended upon Saint Louis that week, raising the temperature ceiling from an almost pleasant eighty-five degrees to a stultifying one hundred and five.  In the intense late afternoon sun we trudged onto a black wooden stage perched on a cul de sac of naked asphalt and gasped for air.  There was only a small canopy above the stage and behind us, more for sound than for comfort since it, too, was black.  I had the genius to wear a summer dress, only, it too was black.  As was my guitar.  And my hair.  As the sun beat down, all that surrounded us mercilessly worked in concert to greenhouse the relentless rays and insulate us in a hot box of darkness, shielded from all drifts of cool evening air and humanity.  Even the fan was black, shapeshifting into an old drunk man exhaling intensely into our faces.

It wasn’t long before we were ragged and drenched, resembling more a group of protesters shot with a water cannon than entertainers.  We didn’t utter a word to each other.  My fingers slipped around helplessly on steel strings and electrocution flashed in and out as a distinct possibility for all of us.  A voice was convincing me it would be a good way to go.  Maybe the next song I’d be out of my misery, checking out on a high note;  it had been a good life, after all, no need to be greedy.  Sweat rained down from the top of my head, mixing with mascara and stinging my eyes dragging black streaks down my cheeks.  So there I stayed, plastered in place, dripping and dizzy like a grizzly bear in the desert, fantasizing about electrocution, until our time was up.  It was a very strange sensation, an addictive cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins, of self-pity and generic loathing.

Our next gig was at Bob’s, a dive bar with an interesting story in another questionable part of Saint Louis.  I drove there at night, by myself, guitar strapped in the front seat.  It was a sordid adventure, even farther away from my newly expanded comfort zone, but when you survive scary things, it is emboldening.  Streets grew darker, restaurants disappeared, row houses carried post-apocalyptic accusations, but I wasn’t deterred.  Courage welled inside me as I reminded myself of the harrowing treks to the Warehouse.  Abandoned lots and burned out buildings, zombies standing and staring on sidewalks, cars with broken windows.  It took the sudden sound of an alarm to strip me of my courage and fear rushed to fill the void.  My heart raced.  I was about to turn around when I saw the sailboat on the pockmarked sidewalk.  A half-lit sign flickered Bob’s in neon like a prophesied star.

The faded yellow Sunfish lay on its side chained and bolted to a lamppost that didn’t light by the front door.  It was the landmark I was instructed to look for.  With several pulls and a hard yank the door popped open and a wall of smoke greeted me with open arms, hugging me, flying up my nose and into my eyes and filling my lungs.  I stepped in, coughing and squinting, seeing first two grimy, hollow bartenders, and a row of gray people wobbling on bar stools.  Muffled Jimmy Buffet blared overhead.  No one looked up when I walked in, and although I felt safer than I did outside in the de-militarized zone, the margin wasn’t by much.  I cut my way through the already drunken throng to my band mates in the back setting up between the pool table and Golden Tee.  I took in my surroundings and was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was far too old for these sorts of scenarios, when a thump thump thump on my thigh redirected my attention.

I looked down at a wheelchair with an outstretched wooden arm, attached to a man with a wooden nose, a wig, and a cigarette dangling from his lips.  The other wooden arm was resting across his lap.  How you doing?  I’m Bob, he rasped and thumped me a couple more times on the leg.  Nice to meet you, I said and smiled, shaking the dainty outstretched mannequin hand.  Bob continued to tap me as we were setting up, and stayed at my side.  He tapped when I was singing.  He bumped into my knees when I was strumming.  He ran his wooden fingers down my arm, and when I leaned down to reach a dropped guitar pick, he rapped me on the top of my head.  Hey! and You need anything? were all that he would say, and he said it to me a thousand times.

It was time for the band to take a break.  As we were turning down volumes and setting down instruments, Bob was in front of me, nudging me with his wheelchair and his wooden arms towards his office, which was covered in pictures of girls in bathing suits, beach scenes and racing sailboats, ashtrays and cigarette butts, full packs and empties scattered across his desk, and on the floor.  He lit a cigarette while one still burned in his mouth and  for a few puffs smoked them together.  And then he told me his story.  He had owned a bar and lived in an apartment above it.  After a late night of partying and closing down, upstairs he went with his smokes in hand and awoke in the hospital weeks later without his limbs, his nose, his hair and most of his skin.  His recovery was horrific and grueling, and eventually, he reopened another bar two blocks farther east from the old one, which remains burned out and abandoned.  As he spoke I stared at the tinder, casually clinging to his lower lip by a spec of moisture on dry paper, the ashes breaking off and fluttering onto his shirt and pants as it lightly bounced with his words.  I desperately wanted to brush them off, but the strangeness of being the only one of us worried about those ashes kept my hands still.

Those two gigs and rehearsing in the Warehouse are special memories ranging anywhere from humiliating to enlightening, from terrifying to liberating, and some others in between.

 

 

Some People Just Don’t Like Tomatoes

My family’s common denominator is the tomato.  Everybody grew them, stewed them, ate them and appreciated them.  Everybody except me, that is.  I was never beaten with one, or embarrassed by one, or became mortally sick by ingesting one.  I simply did not like them.  And, yet, they were everywhere, in every dish, a determined and incessant presence with a bitter smell and a slimy texture.

When you reveal to someone that you dislike tomatoes, inevitably the question follows, Have you ever tried one?  This exasperates me.  As a full grown adult married with children, who has held jobs, gone to school, and solved a whole host of complex problems, one could safely assume, Yes, of course, I have tried one and I did not like it.  If I had a dollar for every time someone sincerely asked me that question over the years, I would be able to buy my own island and create the only place in the entire world that would be completely tomato-free.

Mom was convinced that my tomato aversion was a passive-aggressive election, that I was using the fruit to assert my independence, a latent defiant nature.  Determined to prove her point, she would smuggle them into every morsel she prepared.   She buried them in salad dressings, stuffed them into sandwiches, chopped them into microscopic bits, and folded them into sauces and meats.   The red pepper ruse was a desperate affair, incredibly deceptive, openly declaring those tiny red squares to be something my discerning eyes and palette knew they clearly weren’t.  Her efforts had a contrary effect.  I developed into a finely tuned picker-and-flicker.  A tomato ninja.  Even today, I close my eyes, and with Jedi precision I find them.  All of them.

In college I wrote a paper for a psychology class about the probable root of my tomato issue.  We had been learning about all sorts of pathologies, psych horoscopes general enough to make you think that you and everyone you have ever known is a semi-psychopath, and I thought this might just be where my answers could be found.  The assignment was to write a paragraph about one of the disorders we had discussed, so I wrote a ten-page in-depth analysis of the tomato and how it correlated to my intense dislike of individuals with similar traits:  thin-skinned, fragile, bitter, duplicitous.  I stayed up all night writing, and at the next class as everyone handed in their one and two paragraphs, I plopped my pile of life-changing observations and theories with a soft thud that only the wrinkly professor and a couple of other girls in line noticed.  Satisfied, I slid back into my seat, knowing that life could very well be different after this moment.  I may be asked to guest lecture on the nuances of behavioral observations and their relations to food fetishes.  Or, about how I was able to cure myself of a slight phobia.  Life was taking an exciting turn, indeed.

I couldn’t wait for the next class, about which I made several promises to God.  I swore I would try very, very hard to never skip it again.   I vowed that despite the comforting baritone humming barely above a whisper, and the rhythmic lullaby of chalk dancing in hypnotic cursive circles across the blackboard, I would not fall asleep.  I promised to stop asking questions.  At the end of the lecture, we single-filed out the door, each handed our graded work on the way.  I held out my hand and the professor tapped my forearm a couple of times and asked me to step aside, that he wanted to have a word with me in private.  I was thrilled!  We were going to delve into this once and for all, really pick apart the clues and find some answers, and then move on to other world challenges and write some books together.

In his office, I settled into a stiff wooden armchair, one that doesn’t want you to get too comfortable, under the gaze of thousands of dusty ancient volumes on endless rows of shelves.  My professor leaned in, lightly placing the tomato tome in front of me, pressing his hand to it for a moment, as though it might leap back into his arms and he was reassuring it to be still.   Shuffling to his desk, he silently took a seat.  He cleared his throat a few times.   He brushed at invisible things on the polished mahogany space in front of him.  He moved an empty engraved silver and leather pen holder slightly to the right.  Then, entwining his fingers he looked at me.  Intently.  After a deep sigh, and in a gentle tone, he declared:  Erin, some people just don’t like tomatoes.

I was stunned.  Firstly, I had been told my entire life that, everyone, in fact, did like tomatoes.  If you didn’t like them, you were either lying or something was wrong with you.  It was an illness, not an allowable preference.  But it wasn’t until he started to chuckle that I realized that my efforts had not been taken seriously.   He found my earnest work entertaining, not enlightening.

On that agonizing revelation, I silently gathered my thesis-that-almost-was and drifted out the door, quietly closing it behind me.  I felt as though I had been kicked out of a spaceship and instead of careening through the atmosphere and smashing into earth, I just floated around aimlessly, devoid of gravity or time-space continuum.  He gave me extra credit for my hard work and asked me to complete the original assignment with a strict adherence to the one or two paragraph specification, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something had been lost.  No books would be written;  no cures discovered.  Just another day as a human being with simple answers and common sense and a lot of blah blah blah.

My professor’s words still echo in my mind.   In this tomato-oriented world where it is inexplicably both the fruit and the vegetable in every restaurant in America, somehow making its way to the forefront of nutrition on a lycopene wave of false promises, we are out there, the dislikers, everywhere, misunderstood rebels against a red tomato brigade, without excuses or shame.  I even married one.   And so the irony is that one of my least memorable college courses, taught by one of my least favorite professors, was also the one that seared an ownership into my consciousness:  the stupefying and liberating declaration that some people just don’t like tomatoes.

 

Walking the Tightrope

photo-1High school is a trying time.  I remember most of it well as one of discovery, individuation and staggering screw-ups;  of parental power struggles, duplicity and hormonal triumphalism.  It is a bubble where kids navigate life’s deepest paradox, to simultaneously conform and be unique, a tightrope walk that favors the stable.  For those of us prone to emotional swells and sensitivities it is the same walk but on a moving cable.

My parents are in an anti-nesting phase right now, shedding all relics of their children by loading their reminders into bins and depositing them with their triggers.  Last summer when they drove in for a visit, they left behind a carload of deposits, boxes and bins of random papers, photos, clothing, books.  From one, I unfolded an entire closet’s worth of formal dresses.  It was as though a giant reached in and pressed them together like an accordion and folded them neatly in half, hangers attached.

I unfolded the dresses onto a bar and flipped through them, one by one.  Out flooded the memories they carried, a few in particular.  The strapless black taffeta with the beads I wore to homecoming my junior year, and my new fake nails punched holes in my stockings shooting white runners down both my legs as I stepped out of the ladies room.  That was super.  The other black beaded one with the oversized bow on the hip reminded me of advice I had followed in a magazine about using masking tape in place of a bra, and left me with red stripes across my chest from the mild flaying I suffered when I removed it.  The faint water mark on the red one with the sash reminded me of my allergy to silk which caused profuse perspiration under one arm, so my right appendage stayed unnaturally plastered to my side for an entire evening of socializing and dancing.  The bright purple sequined stretchy one was beautiful.  It was the same shade as the Hubba Bubba Grape Bubble Gum that twisted itself into my hair when I was a little girl and when they cut it all off suddenly everyone thought I was a boy.  And then there was the rebellious one, my favorite, a ruffled, strapless, multicolored floral number that I wore to my last dance of high school.

The guidelines for senior prom attire have dramatically changed, but in 1988 your dress was expected to be white and to the floor.  Having had a difficult time in the conformity department, I gravitated to colorful and short, and I found exactly what I was looking for in a women’s clothing store in the West End that serviced primarily old preppy white ladies.  I don’t know what they were thinking when they ordered the one that I fell in love with, but I knew nobody else in our small world was going to buy it, but me.  With black pointy-toed pumps, a black clutch, and wrapped tightly in an extravaganza of giant tropical flowers, I waded into the sea of white with my date/friend at my side.

Fondly, admiringly, I removed the dress from it’s hanger and held it against my body in remembrance.  It doesn’t look so small, a voice said deceptively to the image in the mirror.  Let’s give it a try, it encouraged, and moments later I was changing my breathing patterns to accommodate an uncooperative zipper.  I hooked the clasp at the top and wriggled it around the back where it was supposed to be, and with great concentration I edged it further up with my arms twisted awkwardly behind me, and in a final exhalation I was in.  Eureka!  I spun around excitedly and in one quick breath the zipper popped open in the middle and released twenty-five years of gradual BMI accumulation.  It was getting tighter by the moment, the hook not budging, my fingers not nimble enough to navigate it, my body uncooperatively cementing itself to the fabric, becoming one.

Belly-breathing in yoga is when you fill your lungs deeply and instead of your chest expanding, it’s your belly that rises and falls.  It is also what to look for when your child has asthma and the stomach muscles engage in the quest for air.  I would like to tap into some pubescent deception and claim to have been yoga-breathing in a Zen trance of relaxation, but the reality was more that of an asthma attack.  I was trying not to panic as my obituary flashed in front of me:  Loving wife and mother of two, long sufferer of body dysmorphia, asphyxiated by vengeful attire.  I left messages and sent texts to family and friends to the tune of:  Help me, I am stuck in a dress and I cannot breathe.  

Sending out an SOS is one thing, and having nobody respond is another.  I sat on the floor as a range of emotions flooded through me, from embarrassment and helplessness to fear and anger, from desperation to hope.  The tightrope was flying.  I closed my eyes and adjusted to the pace, looking for balance, frustration subsiding.  As the adrenaline receded it became easier to inhale, and with the oxygen came sounder perspective: I was going to make the best of this imprisonment.  With a book that had been waiting patiently in the queue on my bedside table, and sitting unnaturally erect, I began to read.

Two hours is not a long time to spend in a book, unless you have a million other things you would rather be doing, in which case it is an eternity.  One hundred and twenty minutes hanging in the air.  Seven thousand and two hundred seconds mercilessly dragging their feet.  It’s what dogs feel when you walk to the end of the driveway to get the paper and they stare at the front door closed behind you wondering if you’re ever returning, and when you do, a moment later, they freak out.  It’s what children feel fifteen minutes into a road trip prompting them to inquire ceaselessly, Are we there, yet?  How much longer?  Are we there? Are we there?  Are we now?  Are we close?  I reread the same paragraph, every other word glancing over at my cell phone that sat silently beside me.

My sister-in-law, Marty, was the first responder to my predicament.  When I answered the phone, it became clear that I had not appropriately communicated the gravity of my situation.  She chuckled as I recounted my ordeal, how I cried and despaired, alone in my home, far from Whole Foods where I longed to be, combing produce aisles for organic purple potatoes and fennel bulbs.  She gently questioned me in the way you approach small children and fragile people, the way that tells you that you may be an idiot.  I had felt a lot of emotions up to that point, and I had approached ridiculous but in a wave of self-defense I batted it away and chose not to revisit it and settled on unfortunate, instead.  But my sister-in-law was determined.  After forcing me to declare several more times that, yes, I actually did need help, and that, no, I wasn’t joking, she agreed to stop by on her way home.

I waited for Marty, her two mile drive an endless road trip, Are you hear yet? Are you close? Are you now?  Finally, a car pulled into the driveway.  In slow motion, footsteps approached the front door behind which I was standing, peering, wagging my tail in insufferable anticipation.   Marty’s smile was twisted on one side in skepticism until I whipped around to reveal the zipper that betrayed me and the tenacious hook that vexed me.  Her head dropped.  Quiet at first, she surveyed the situation and I thought she felt my suffering as I heard what sounded like soft crying.  With a massive breath it found it’s voice and released into the air in a crescendo of contagious cackles.  With the ease of an adult, she set me free and air flooded into my lungs, and in gratitude and relief, and a bit of disbelief, our laughter flew out and glided across the tightrope together.

I thought of Marty as I contemplated what to wear to an 80’s party the other night and stared fondly at the same dress, calling to me like a toxic crush.  Before I could recall Einstein’s definition of insanity, I found myself squeezing back into it with gasps and jumps, my husband navigating the zipper to meet my nemesis, the bionic clasp.  There was no panic this time as my ribs and organs rearranged themselves familiarly to accommodate what I was inexplicably determined to wear.  But, I was not alone this time.  I had someone to laugh at me, with me, strengthening my resolve and lending me the feeling of security that I had no business feeling.  I stepped into my pointy-toed black heels, grabbed my black clutch, and threw a white jean jacket over my shoulders in case the zipper failed me and I needed cover, and because nothing says 80’s like a white jean jacket.

So much effort and hair spray, so many formerly-estranged hot rollers, only to discover it wasn’t an 80’s party after all.  It was a retirement party for a band who had a few songs from the 80’s in their repertoire, which was primarily 60’s beach music.  I’m not quite sure how I mixed up those details, but there I was, walking into a familiar sea in my brightly colored floral dress.  And with a breath as deep as I could muster, and my date/friend/husband at my side, we worked our way to the dance floor and danced all night without incident.  I wasn’t uncomfortable, not as much as I deserved to be, but having walked this line a very long time ago, I knew that it was something I could navigate and survive to tell the tale.

Coloring Within the Lines

Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting.  I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so.  A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those!  I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.

My next most favorite angel of change is paint.  Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless.  When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint.  The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color.  The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean.  A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.

I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift.  I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it.  The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area.  I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.

Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover.  The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard.  I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him.  He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge.  A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.

As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me.  Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery.  After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish.  It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.

I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive.  My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming.  Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project.  The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky.  Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.

Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door.   Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash.  For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again.  Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.

By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor.  The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began.  They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves.  It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis.  Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go.  The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.

Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time.  He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below.  One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels.  By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch.  And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend.  I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time.  Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.

By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him.  He had painted everything:  the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops.  The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy.  In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea.  He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.

I had forgotten about Justin.  As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up.  Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence.  As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh.  The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations.  Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.

Out of Bounds

A good player does not necessarily make a good coach, just as a good coach does not necessarily make a good referee.  I played lacrosse in high school and college and currently coach a JVC team for a lovely and civilized private school just down the road, and we have a great time.  We work on skills, we learn drills, we perfect plays, we grudgingly condition, we tease one another, we laugh a lot, and we are undefeated.

I have a tendency to overcommit, in ability, time, energy, interest, whatever.  Things I enjoy seem easier and closer, whereas things that I do not seem to be the opposite, and reality does not always follow these seems of mine.  In fact, oftentimes, I find myself in situations that I’d much rather not be in, doing things that I have no business doing.  Which leads me back to last week where I was asked to help officiate an eighth grade girls lacrosse game, and I happily agreed to be a second referee in a match that turned out to be unexpectedly competitive.

Being an enforcer of rules is not exactly a natural position for me, as I am a firm believer that generally there are just too many rules, most of which do nothing but hassle good people who normally make responsible decisions.  Rules encourage people to explore beyond them, to look for loopholes, they become benchmarks to work around, something to keep attorneys busy (I may or may not be projecting here).  Those who think we are under-ruled are the same who constantly propose new ones, and who insist on enforcing obsolete ones, and these are the most annoying people on the planet, and the world would be a much happier place if they would all go away and live on an island together where they could boss one another around endlessly.

I was determined to defy my rebellious and opinionated nature and to be the best referee that I could possibly be.  Who knows?  Maybe this could be the beginning of a lifelong career, traveling all over the world as a black and white striped portable judge and jury with a monogrammed silver whistle and a closet full of pressed identical track suits.  Maybe I could become so good that I could predict offenses a split second before they happened, and my razor sharp eye would pick up every infraction no matter how far away down the field.  I’d just sit in a chair reclined on the sidelines with one eye open, emitting a varying crescendo of chirrups and doling out yellow cards, free shots and turnovers.  But as I researched this science of field policing, I began to realize that I just may have over-committed myself.

I sensed my limitations closing in on me.  The rules are complicated and there are a lot of them, and they are accompanied by various sounds and gestures, an animated shorthand that enables you to communicate wordlessly, but as a talker I found this daunting.  All of this is designed to keep the girls safe, or so the enforcers say, but players still occasionally get hurt and it frequently has nothing to do with a rule infraction or ill intentions.  Feeling overwhelmed, I narrowed down the five most important, or most frequently called offenses, and wrote them out on an index card that I studied and repeated, and at the game I clutched it in my hand to reference, just in case.  I tried to remember other referees and their demeanors that I could perhaps channel.  I confessed to the main referee that I was out of my element, and offered her a preemptive apology.

The game began without incident, and as it rolled along I sprinted dutifully up and down the field, clutching my index card, never taking my eye off the ball.  I remembered the girls names, I studied their styles, I winced when they slashed and gasped when they crashed their sticks and the real referee, Shorty, was a busy bee; thankfully, she didn’t need my help.  I fought the urge to cheer when the draw was won, when a great shot was taken, and when the goalies made a save.  I clutched my whistle tightly as I ran, never missing a beat, watching every ball roll out of bounds and brought back in by the faster player, and if Shorty didn’t call it, who was I to argue?  I was the supportive referee, new-age with a Tony Robbins flair, encouraging players to be their best and congratulating them when they were, instead of focusing on the negatives.  I saw the three seconds, the shooting spaces, the face cradles, the empty cross checks, the cross in the sphere, the out of bounds, the restraining and holding, and the pushing, but it just never seemed right to blow the whistle and stop such marvelous action, that was Shorty’s job, and if she didn’t call it, well I certainly wasn’t going to second guess the pro.

The heckling occurred in the second half with three minutes left and the score tied, 11 – 11.  A dad in the bleachers yelled, Out of bounds, ref!, as if I didn’t know that.  Of course I knew, I was standing right there, I’m not blind.  A blind ref would make even less sense than one with anarchic tendencies and authority issues.  Why stop a perfectly good run for accidentally stepping six inches beyond an arbitrary white line?  It didn’t make sense to me.  Shorty smiled and laughed continuously and blew her whistle with precision, but mine was just ornamental.  She was the professional enforcer, and if I had been half as zealous, we would have been there for hours;  I had to counter balance.

Lacrosse is a marvelous sport that is fast and graceful, and is a joy to watch when well-played.  The game ended in overtime and half the parents were pissed, the other half were elated.  I thanked Shorty for her hard work and dedication, I thanked the coaches and the told all the girls what a wonderful job they did on the field, and then I ran up the hill to the parking lot as quickly as I could.  Parents do crazy things, I know, because I am one, and I wasn’t convinced that something wouldn’t be thrown at me.  I waved casually to the remaining spectators as I raced across the track in the opposite direction of the bleachers.  I got in the car and locked the door, then sank into the seat as a wave of nausea rolled through me from head to toe.  I unclenched my hand and peeled from my palm the worthless and soggy sheet of rules that I had so carefully crafted and threw it on the floor.  Then I made a mental note to cross officiant off the list of potential mid-life careers for me, not that I needed this experience to come to that conclusion, but sometimes the not-so-subtle reminders of our limitations help to redirect us to more gratifying pastures.

Rabbit People

Growing up, everybody had a pet.  There were cat and dog people, reptile and fish people, bird people (an odd group), and some people had hamsters or guinea pigs.   We were also constantly out catching things, like turtles and salamanders and worm snakes, and making them cozy little nests that we would craft in shoeboxes and aquariums.  Sometimes our beloved pets would deliver us prizes, little half-alive things of one species or another that we would try in vain to resuscitate and nurse back to health, only to be dropped on the veterinarian’s counter the next morning, tears rolling down our cheeks, please please save our field mouse, Oscar, we love him so.  The vet would reassure us that he would indeed do his best and then would whisk the box into the back room and Oscar would never be seen again.  Only the dogs and cats seemed to have any sort of longevity; everything else was either buried in the back yard, flushed down the toilet, or dropped off at the vet for eternity.  And all the while, I never, ever met any rabbit people.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons why rabbits were not popular pets, I am acutely aware of some of them now, but I’m guessing that reason number one is that most of us grew up thinking that rabbits were not for companionship, they were for wearing: rabbit lined gloves, earmuffs, collars and cuffs and scarves, how warm and wonderful!  For Christmas one year my parents gave me a gray and white rabbit coat that was so luxuriously soft that I felt like a movie star when I wore it, and so I wore it year-round.  Oh, how I loved that coat.  It was the warmest, most marvelous thing I had ever set my sticky seven-year old hands on.  There were two round fur puff-balls attached to either end of a string that when pulled would tighten the hood around your face and made you look like a Pomeranian, or you could whack your sister in the back of the head with them when she rode in the front seat on the way home from school, and infuriate her.  There was a valuable degree of entertainment and whimsical justice attached to the memories of that coat which provided an early appreciation of rabbit.

My husband had read that rabbits were allergen-free, low maintenance, ahem, trainable, kid friendly and had medium lifespans, all of which made them a perfect match for us, and it was on one cold Easter morning that we joined the shadow ranks of the rabbit people.  They were hatched at a friendly farm not far away, and they were Holland Lops, sweet and luxurious little designer bunnies.  The girls’ love for these furry little things was immediate and they were petted and rubbed and held and fed and loved and dropped and dressed up, and not one peep ever was uttered in either protest or acceptance.  Not a sound they made, they just sat in your lap for hours twitching their noses and nothing else, like a toy, only warm.  And, they even lived outside in a cozy little hutch: the perfect pet.

For such timid animals, rabbits are freakishly strong and aggressive. And sneaky and fast. And very high maintenance.  No matter how well we secured the hutch, they frequently managed to escape.  They have bionic rabbit fingers that unfold from their paws at night and make them able to achieve unbelievable feats of lock picking and latch flipping.  Since we were not forewarned of this proclivity, we found their escapes incredibly vexing.  Making the situation worse, the bunnies would break out and cavort with the raggedy wild rabbits who eagerly shared their wood ticks and botfly larvae in the honeysuckle with them.  It became a routine occurrence to glance into the back yard and see two small black and white fur balls darting around  at dusk (a perilous time for a prey animal to go for a run) with two panicked girls in hot pursuit, screaming and crying and flailing their arms.  

Catching a rabbit is incredibly difficult and requires either one generic predator, or a team of patient, energetic and agile humans.  For the latter, it goes something like this:

You get close, but most of the time not close enough.  You try to reason with it but its brain is about the size of a bitten off pencil eraser, and it just watches you, warily, in that weird sideways rabbity way, munching grass and mocking you. You crouch low, two feet away, cooing, Here sweet bunny here sweet bunny bunny bunny, kissing at the air until your lips are numb and dry, presenting a bouquet of fresh parsley until your arm falls asleep, and you feel stupid, and you hate your husband for buying the damn bunnies, and you’re terrified you won’t catch them before the sun sets, and your children are crying. You reach out gently so the rabbit can sniff your hand and recognize you as the one who feeds it, not the one who feeds on it. And in an instant, you grab it, lightening fast, but the rabbit wriggles away, magically, leaving you with a silky haunting on your palms and fingertips that lets you know that for an instant you had held it, and then lost it, again. The rabbit watches from the other eye from a safer distance now, perhaps four feet away. This can go on for hours until you feel you just may go insane, or cry, and you can only hope that you’ve worn it out enough for someone else to get their hands on it.  And deep down, a deeply-conflicted part of you, sees them as part of a wonderful, luxuriously soft, winter coat.

It was a frequent scenario in the Hereford backyard and so became a chief source of exercise for our family and friends, but it was just a matter of time until those bunnies found themselves on the wrong side of the honeysuckle when the sun went down.

Losing a pet is heartbreaking, indeed; finding it’s bits and parts scattered about the yard is nothing less than traumatic, for most. For others, who shall remain nameless, those who are more opportunistic and have a unique ability to compartmentalize, may take the finding of a rabbit paw as a sign of fortuitousness, like stumbling across a four-leaf clover in a field, a totemistic discovery to be kept in the garage for good luck. As most of us cried over and mourned the violent demise of our sweet little bunnies, the lone socio-optimist was planning on researching local taxidermists with a specialty in key chains. Luckily, none were found before said opportunist was shamed into properly disposing of said paw before it could be discovered by a curious child.  And oddly enough, as the resident fur advocate, whose first material love was a rabbit coat, I was deeply saddened by the loss of those sweet little bunnies, and most definitely not the one with the foot.

I learned a lot in the world of rabbit people:  that they are stranger than bird people, firstly; that it is way more poop cleaning than I ever wanted or expected to be committed to, secondly;  and lastly, that maybe my parents were onto something when they gave me a coat instead of a pet those many years ago;  or maybe not.  That coat outlived the rabbits by years and provided inestimable comfort, sure.  It didn’t require any level of maintenance at all, and it didn’t have bugs or diseases or medical issues.  It didn’t run away; and it never left me.  It didn’t have to live in an apartment outside braving the elements, and it couldn’t be eaten by a predator (although our dog was highly intrigued by it).  No, it was hung reverently in the closet next to my mother’s coat cousins, who were also its betters, and whom I’m sure it admired, like a commoner sitting next to kings and queens.

But caring for these peculiar creatures reminded me that you can find love in unexpected places, that bonding with an animal is something so very special, that no matter what it is, rodent or perhaps reptile, that it can lead you to to experience a deep joy that just can’t be found in something without a heartbeat.  The memories are richer, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes hilarious or tragic, but there is a fragile balance in life that is simply not quite understood without a sense of inter-connectedness, and sometimes even loss.  Our pets teach us a lot about ourselves and about others, and although I wasn’t always excited about the botfly extractions, the cage cleaning, nail trimming, ear treating, gland clearing, pricey small-pet vet visiting, they were still absolutely perfect in a perfectly flawed kind of way.  Oh, yes, and luxuriously soft.

Looking for Inspiration

The first story I ever wrote was about a little boy whose parents were divorced. It was an odd subject choice, being a girl with married parents, but my teacher loved it and was curious as to my inspiration for the story.  I didn’t know, and I was embarrassed, did I even know what inspiration meant?  It popped into my head and I wrote it down and I turned it in, is what I was thinking, but instead I turned scarlet, shrugged my shoulders, and wished to melt into my chair and disappear.  My teacher gave me a proud pat on the shoulder, which was unusual, and dropped my paper on my desk with a big red A on it, and moved on.

I reread the story several times when I got home and wondered where on earth the idea for such a crazy, sad tale came from?  And I was accustomed to being asked questions that had right and wrong answers, and whose right answers were already known by all the grownups.   Usually, imagination wasn’t even talked about, and the kid day dreaming in the corner or doodling in his notebook got into trouble. Intentional exploration of the source of imagination was uncharted territory.

At that time, I was in the forth grade in a small classroom on the second floor of a sixteenth century Tudor manse that had been dismantled, stone and plank, in the English countryside, sailed across the Atlantic, and reconstructed in Richmond, Virginia. It was lovely and creepy and we were constantly recounting ghost stories, the library, basement and elevator all reputed to have aggressive spirits guarding their hidden treasures.

From our classroom at the end of the hall, there were two sides of small pane windows in diamond shapes held together with black lead.  They swung open easily by twisting the iron latch half way up the inside, and in the Spring we would clamor over one another to release the stagnant air from the room and replace it with a cool scented breeze from the gardens.

I will never forget this place:  the P.E./History teacher who threw erasers and chalk with startling accuracy at students who misbehaved; the teacher whose shoulders were always dusted in white flakes of skin, her hair piled high on her head in a Victorian bun, teaching children the elements of music and theatre with the patience of a saint; the mild-mannered Principle/English teacher who always seemed to enjoy my stories; the Math teacher who just didn’t understand why I just didn’t understand.  For many reasons this school was memorable, but the moment that I held magic in my small hand was by far the most, and it was an iris.

There were several colors to appreciate, but the particular one that I was drawn to was special, it was the most beautiful arrangement of colors I had ever seen. It was violet laced with white and yellow, brushstrokes of subtle hues of blue and purple, set against the purest white and soft as chalky silk.  The petals were long and curved like the panels of a gown, opened in vulnerability and invitation, the furls of ruffled pollen outstretched for all to behold.  I studied this iris: there is nothing more beautiful.  I inhaled its fragrance: there is nothing more lovely.  If I were a fairy, I thought, I would live here, in the iris, and at that moment, I believed that this place was indeed magical and that fairies whistled all about disguised as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

I picked it, oh sin.  In full bloom it was about the size of a child’s head, and I climbed tentatively into one of my favorite trees, the one with smooth black bark and low branches, careful not to crush my forbidden prize.  The  trees were draped in thick ancient vines that made climbing and hiding easy, and planted in a row alongside a mossy brick wall that disappeared into the foliage and followed the length of the lawn.  I settled in a well-worn crook that was out of sight and offered a perfect view of the green expanse, the roses that needed pruning, the boxwood maze that needed tending, and of the slated terrace with it’s scalloped staircase that led into this wondrous place.

Every day I climbed this tree by the hidden wall and memorized every shade and shape that revealed itself to me.  I sat in the back of the classroom and would catch glances at that mighty terrace below, wondering who could have created such a place?  From that moment, the intimidating halls and imposing paneled rooms, the secret staircases and empty closets, the basement and attic, none of it frightened me anymore.  There were stories about the crippled old man who was mean and cruel and who chased all of his children away.  And there was talk of hidden passageways and secret doors, of catacombs under the gardens.  Anyone responsible for that garden was no evil brigand or murderous father or merchant outlaw, that I knew for sure.

I continued to develop my lopsided education and dreamed of writing operas and painting canvases and singing duets, and longed to experience inspiration.  I needed to see it in the way grownups see right and wrong; I needed to know that it was the right answer and I wanted to understand it, to capture it, so that I could call upon it when I needed it.  I wonder if my meeting with the iris was a serendipitous one, one that provided an illustration of inspiration, one that showed me that some things do not fall into reason, that some things are unexpected and unconditional and unexplainable.  Perhaps it was a question answered, a resounding YES!  For, after all, what is inspiration but the planting of a seed?