Found Story: The Box

16 Mar

 

The box of bowls was purchased at Universe All in Iasi, Romania. There is no clue as to where they were made, or more important, where the box was made. There are no other languages on the box, only English. One pasted-on sticker in Romanian tells the content of the box, its weight, and that it was distributed by a company in Romania. Parenthetical directions are mine. All spelling, punctuation, capitalization and words belong to the box. Not one was changed. The mistranslation and non-English grammar were not what drew me to this box so much as the sometimes commanding/sometimes pleading voice of the writer.  Note that bad things will happen to the consumer who fails to follow instructions. They are not likely or possible but predetermined.

(Front of box)

Multi-function

Cooking Bowl

Frozen

Cold storage

Microwave oven

“cooking is the world of discovery. After all the necessary materials gather, the taste depends on your skill only. It’s pleasure to see what dishes will appear.”

(Pictures)

(Left)

Microwave oven OK!

(Middle)

Suitable to contain food

(Right)

The food can be frozen without using special food membrance.

(Back of box)

Cooking bowl

Heat-resisting glass product 5 pcs/Set

[the attention to operation]

glass part.

  • Please make clear if there are any crack and breach etc. In glass before using. if any, do not use. For the lass will be broken easily.
  • The glass is fragile, please be more careful when cleaning & using.
  • Do not beat & scrape the glass with hard object such as spoon etc.
  • Before cooking, please wipe the water drops off from the outside of bowl. If more water needed during heating, do not use cold water. Do not clean the bowl with wet cloth and do not put the bowl in damp place when the glass is still heated.
  • Do not be heated when nothing in bowl.
  • Neither corrodent, detergent or metal brush can be used for cleaning.
  • Avoid the bowl to be dropped from high position. Avoid the gowl to be dashed against other objects.

Attention

The bowl can only be heated through microwave oven, any other way, especially direct heated on fire is forbidden.

Lid part

  • If there is much oil in food, please take the lid off from the bowl.
  • There will be colors and smell adhered to the lid, because of some pigment and smell in food.
  • The lid must be sterilizred with boiling water.
  • Do not wash the glass with washing machine.

Attention

Do no carry the bowl only with the lid, for it will be dropped down to ground and to be broken.

Frozen storage

  • When the food is frozen in bowl, the volume will be enlarged, tension force will let the glass be broken, so please pay attention to the followings:
  • Do not freeze liquid such as extracting juice and fruit juice etc.
  • Liquid food can not be put into bowl for freezing. For rice, it can only be dumpled, then put into the bowl.
  • The liquid such as curry, Jam etc., Should be up to 80% of the bowl volume.

The attention in using in microwave oven

  • Before using, please read the instruction manual of microwave oven carefully.
  • The bowl can not be overheated & there must be something in bowl when heating.
  • After heated, do not touch the bowl with naked hand, when moving is needed, please move the whole bowl. Do not put the heated bowl on the nylon tablecloth which easily burned.
  • Do not wipe the bowl with wet cloth and do not put the bowl in damp place whenthe glass is still heating. For being sudden cold, the glass will be broken.
  • When the glass have some cracks, do not put the bowl in microwave oven, this will cause the glass to be broken and microwave oven will be destroyed.

[Maintenance]

Attention

  • Please clean glass with soft sponge & neutral cleaning agent.
  • Do not clean with nylon brush, metal brush &rough detergent etc. for the glass easily broken and scraped.

Romanian Holidays 2004-2005

24 Dec

There are two ways to ride a train.

Facing forward, your eyes flick from the distance, which blurs as soon as it enters your conscious vision, to the periphery, then back into the distance. Before you can focus on what is ahead, it is past and gone.

The other way is to face the direction from which you have come, a slower, sweeter experience, with time for eyes to linger on the shape of the landscape and the tracks unwinding like ribbon from a spool.

At the station in Iasi, a city on the eastern border of Romania, nearly touching the Republic of Moldova, and our home for the past four months, last-minute shoppers crowd into kiosks to buy bottles of wine or liquor, fancy cookies and candies, small toys and chocolate Santas for nieces and nephews.

Some clutch fir trees under their arms, their hands busy with shopping bags. Some of the trees are four, five, six feet tall, tied into just-manageable spear-shaped packages. These travelers will board the personal trains, slow commuter trains, the dingiest and oldest. On the personal train, no one (well, maybe one or two) will scowl at them for taking up extra room.
We board the Inter-city train, the Blue Arrow, shiny and bullet-shaped, a high-tech beauty.

Scraps of snow appear as we rise, the altitude softening the impact of noise ¬— boys in the seat behind throwing dice onto a hard surface, the beeping of mobile phones, the piped-in pop-disco music.

Outside, the past dissolves into the landscape, disappears behind hills and gets tangled in copses of black trees, their gnarled fingers reaching for the watery winter sun.

At each end of the journey is a flurry of movement, laundry and packing, arrangements of lodging and rides, gifts to buy, things to remember, like paying the Internet bill and buying a good bottle of scotch for the Fulbright driver, who will pick us up at 9:30 p.m. Christmas eve eve.

We will ride for five hours and fifteen minutes, putting more than 300 miles between ourselves and Iasi. We will start counting, and lose track of, the seven stops in between Iasi and our holiday destination, Bucharest, with names like Vaslui, Barlad, Focsani.
Once in that city of more than 2 million, now brighter than it was when we were here five years ago, we will stay in the apartment of a fellow Fulbrighter and friend from that other time, while she spends her holiday in the states.

We will visit other friends, drink champagne and watch the sky fill with fireworks and smoke on New Year’s Eve, walk around Herestrau Lake at dusk when the light becomes soft and misty, photograph the blue and white strands of snowflake-shaped lights strung all down the Bulevardul Magheru. We will buy the International Herald Tribune and read it in a noisy café, and, as we do at home, watch “A Christmas Carol” with Alistair Sim (the copy Gary ordered will be waiting for us at the Fulbright office).

Before earthquakes and tidal waves tear Asia apart, before carolers knock at the apartment door hoping to sing for sweets and money, before we get pelted with strange winter rain, or tour Ceaucescu’s despised Palace of Parliament—the monstrous government building erected to massage his monstrous ego—before we spend evenings drinking the strong brandy called “palinca” or eating Indian food with friends, before a single trip on the stuffy, efficient metro, we spend time on this train.

Outside, just before the light disappears, we pass a grazing herd of dingy sheep, tan and dirty white, scattered like a pile of crumpled papers in the burned-black field, while further down the line a simple wooden carriage pulled by two brown horses waits at the crossing, the driver watching us watch him.

On Crosswords

26 Sep

I am a happy crossword geek. Witness: It made me geekily gleeful the other week when I went to the café in our campus library for my usual (refill, half decaf/half dark, plenty of room for cream) and saw that the students behind the counter were doing crosswords from the campus paper in their downtime. They’d started a contest to see who’d finish first and then business picked up. It made me happy just to know that college students do puzzles. That something so low-tech could hold their attention. And: I feel a bit bereft when I miss the puzzle on Weekend Edition Sunday, with Puzzle Master Will Shortz.

I toyed with an electronic version, an iPhone app, so I wouldn’t have to pack a puzzle book to Europe, but found a keystroke to be no substitute for the tactile satisfaction of pen in hand, filling in those tiny squares with capital letters. Yes, in ink. As Weeza says in Six Degrees of Separation (I paraphrase): “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t do it in ink.” “It” being the granddaddy of all puzzles, the New York Times Sunday puzzle.

Yes, in ink. In ink, though far, far from perfect. My puzzles are full of ink-overs, hard scribbles to X out whatever dumb thing I put in there while not thinking hard enough, or not looking ahead. I don’t seem to get much better, either. Forget doing the Sunday puzzle, except for those rare times when the trick behind the long clues just hits me (so satisfying). The Saturday puzzles usually stump me too, and the Friday ones. I’m more of a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday type of puzzler. The used-up crossword books stacked up on my bathroom shelf have pictures of bubble baths, kittens, flowers, and cafes on their covers. Their titles say “easy,” “coffee break,” “mild,” and “tension-taming.” Nearly all are NYT puzzles edited by Mr. Shortz. A couple are from the 1980s, edited by Eugene Maleska. I find those almost as impenetrable as the Sunday ones. I get the recent ones better, get their humor, their word play. Like this one where the long answers are lobsterpots, backstop, sunspot, newyorkpost: the second words are all anagrams! (Well, duh, you say.) Or this one, where “assorted hydroxides?” is “packoflyes,” and “always use the term ‘coloring agent’?” is “neversaydye.” Oh, to be so clever! Since I can’t be Oscar Wilde, maybe at least I could create cool puzzles?

One of my favorite pieces of family lore is this: that my Greek immigrant grandfather learned English by doing crosswords. Of course, he had to know enough English to begin filling in those little squares, to even understand the synonym clues, much less the more clever, punny or cryptic ones. Rather, I suspect, it was the way he acquired a large vocabulary, and a deep understanding of the syntax and playfulness of his adopted language.

Puzzles have gotten me through a lot of crap. They protected me from leering men on buses in Huntington Beach and Long Beach, back when I was young and cute and just wanted to get to work and back. They’ve since occupied my mind and hands during scary takeoffs or bumpy flights. They’ve kept me from getting bored or nervous in waiting rooms and lines. They probably feed some obsessive need in me (yes, I do wrap the poles with imaginary string while riding in a car). Too serious. Too rhapsodic. Mostly, they are just freaking fun. Play with words and expressions, play discovering the theme, play fitting letters together on a grid, play with order and symmetry.

When did I start saying “awesome”?

23 Jun

My friend Chris, English by birth, Romanian by circumstance and love, and an editor/writer/educator (etc.) by trade, once exhorted me (no, no. That’s too strong a word. He encouraged me) to cut back on my use of gratuitous exclamation points. I had already brought this problem up about myself, so it wasn’t unasked-for advice. It was good advice. I knew in my writing (informal writing, on Facebook, for example) that I was coming across like a giddy teenager rather than a mature (ahem) person who takes writing seriously, who, in fact, teaches others to do the same. Because Chris is as serious about language as I am, I take his suggestions seriously. They are always well thought out, always correct, always meant to make me a better writer. The exclamation point, we would agree, has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. It should be added sparingly to those sentences where it truly belongs, where one is truly stating something exciting or outrageous or uncanny or amazing (or, okay, when one is sending birthday greetings).

I like the deadpan style of exclamationmarkless written speech. I like words, expressions and punctuation marks to adhere to their original meaning. No, I don’t mean that. I like American English because it is such a linguistic stew. I do not believe in keeping American English “pure” (which is hardly possible anyway, considering its origins and development). I like the way American English picks up bits of immigrant and foreign speech. I like the regional differences that reflect history. The thing is, I like English. I like it. I like the combination of smooth and guttural sounds. Like all living languages English is adaptive. It mutates. It evolves. But as it evolves it seems to be getting muddier and grubbier, rather than more clear and precise (and isn’t communication the point?). Sometimes now I come across written stuff I cannot comprehend, not because it’s difficult subject matter, but because it’s written in some sort of code known only to the writer, some combination of punctuation marks, symbols, upper and lower case letters thrown together helter-skelter. I’m not even talking about text-writing here. Extreme brevity has its place, especially when the writer is being charged by the character. But in most forums for regular written English, notes and signs and adverts and status updates and email, blogs and online news stories and essays, the writer should have enough time and leisure to make it right, to write the right thing, even to write the elegant thing.

That was a digression, I see. I set out to compare the overuse of exclamation points with the overuse of “awesome.” Both have been stripped, through sheer ubiquity, of their power. While watching a home show the other day (my guiltiest pleasure), I counted more than 20 incidents of “awesome” in half an hour. It began to grate on my ears, much like “like” or “uh.” Or, do you remember “not”? It was a trend (thankfully dead now) to make a statement with which you did not believe, and add “not” to the end. I still shudder.

What is an exclamation mark for? To show astonishment, wonderment, awe. Oh, there’s the connection (here I’m tempted to add an exclamation mark, especially since this is an actual exclamation, but I’d feel sheepish doing so). Are you really astonished that someone bought new shoes or got a “B” on a test? Really? Do you usually live in a cave with no human interaction? Okay, then. You might well be astonished by anything your fellow humans do.

F. Scott Fitzgerald advised (no, that’s not strong enough. He exhorted): “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

The exclamation mark and the word “awe” are similar. They have specific purposes, to indicate some thing, or quality, or experience that is exceptional.

Dictionary.com defines “awe” as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”

The key word here is “overwhelming.” Awe is the kind of experience you have that leaves your knees weak and watery, maybe after coming face to face with a Great White Shark that decides not to have you for dinner. It’s not a “nice” feeling. It’s not benign or small or cute. A bit of décor cannot actually be awesome. Really. It’s not “grand, sublime,” or “extremely powerful.”  It’s a chair. It might be sleek or lovely or well-made or shabby or of a pleasing color. But it’s a chair. What power could it possibly have over you? Why would it inspire dread? Wait, you have a phobia of chairs? Okay. But you are an exception.

Maybe “awe” has lost its power because we have lost our power to be awed. Maybe nothing, now that our idols (political, artistic, athletic, musical, etc.) have all been knocked down to earth, now that we have instant access to information about the universe, now that we can watch a revolution happening before our eyes or a volcano spewing, now that we can easily get the “back story” of practically anyone in moments, nothing is really capable of filling us with feelings of wonder, of reverence, of dread. When I stand on the edge of a precipice, looking down, often looking out at the woods below, and I think “I could fall, I could be swallowed up into that vastness,” I remember as a student reading about the “sublime prospect,” the capital-R Romantic idea of nature’s power (think of a raging river or a tremendous storm or the view from a steep canyon), that inspired dread and reverence.

http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_1/burke.htm

Then again, maybe it’s just another example of laziness, of growing linguistic vagueness. It’s not English’s fault. The words are there. But it’s easier to use a catch-all word than to find the more precise one.

I don’t know the answer to my question. I don’t remember when I started saying “awesome” to describe quite ordinary things. I like to think I have some tiny effect on keeping language from becoming a meaningless blob of gobbledegoop. I like to think that as I hold out I can inspire others to come over to my way of seeing, to start caring, to start a whole new generation of great English users. But it seems the other side has grabbed me—Graboid style—instead. At least I can do this: just stop already.

Pause

29 May

Pause

This is my original joke. (You should imagine it said in Paula Poundstone’s deadpan style.) Why do they call it menopause? What’s it going to do? Take a little break and then start up again?

I can’t really say this in a nice way. If you don’t care about, or believe in, menopause, you should stop reading right now. If you are female and young (I’m sure I didn’t believe then), it will come to you, so enjoy your relatively steady hormone levels while you can. If you are female and mid-life like me, I commiserate with you, my sisters. If you are a man with a partner in this stage, trust that it won’t last forever. You will get her back. Just be patient, a little more patient than usual. Same with you young guys who will eventually partner up with a woman who will go through this. Prepare to be patient.

And what does this have to do with language? Stay tuned.

Some women breeze through menopause. My mom doesn’t even remember hers. Sigh. We can’t really relate on this. Edith Bunker had a hard time with hers, but it didn’t seem to last very long. We women can have all kinds of levels of “symptoms” (so they’re called, even though they have nothing to do with sickness). Some get hit in the emotions more than the body, like Edith. Some get it in the body, and bad. I can’t say which is worse, only describe my own experience. My worst symptom is this: my heart feels like it’s pounding out of my chest. It is a constant, almost adrenaline-like feeling (at least you’d expect weight loss as a result, but that is as hard as ever), that during the day I am usually too busy to pay much attention to, while at night it rocks me in my bed and often keeps me awake. It was disturbing enough last year to send me on a quest to figure out what was happening to my heart. I wore a Holter Monitor for 24 hours, that thingy with the probes stuck on your chest, a portable EKG. I saw two cardiologists and a sleep doctor, as well as my own physician, a very understanding certified nurse practitioner. I had numerous EKGs. My blood pressure was up too, and my cholesterol (cripes, never happened before, ever: they were always normal and healthy), more side effects of menopause. I even had a stress echocardiogram: more probes, then some amount of time on a treadmill, with incline and rate increasing, followed by an ultrasound of the heart.

I passed every test. My heart is strong and healthy, but sometimes slow. Slow. That’s bradycardia, a resting heart rate that dips below 50 beats per minute. Seems counterintuitive, but that’s what the tests showed, along with some skips. Nothing to worry about, they say. So here it’s the next year, I’m off hormone therapy (which seemed to help with sleep at first, but then stopped helping at all, so became pointless) and just letting nature take its course. My doc recommended magnesium to help with sleep. I take it daily now, and at first, for a few days, it seemed to help me sleep more deeply, but not anymore.  The trick is to override the pounding so my brain can shut down, and very little works.

The hot flashes are back too, and mad. I get them all the time, any time, except while I’m actively exercising. I get them in the morning, afternoon and evening. I get them at night, sometimes when I’m trying to sleep. I get them whether I’m drinking wine or tea or cold water, whether I’m eating or doing housework or trying to write. Worst, by far, I get them when I’m teaching. Now, I never heard anyone discuss this specifically, but for me, when a hot flash hits my brain stops. Language stops. Nothing I can do but wait to recover. The hot hits, my face gets red, and in the middle of a sentence I completely forget what I’m saying. And even when I haven’t actually forgotten what I’m saying, my speech becomes halting, loses its fluidity. Writing is so much more forgiving.

I have this word (see post: “Lethologica”) that I tell my students is useful to keep on hand for times when you forget what you’re saying. It sounds impressive, and gives you time to recover while your listeners are shaking their heads in wonderment at your fab vocabulary. (Imagine my delight when encountering this word on the last page of a student’s rough draft as she trailed off, struggling to find an ending!) It’s a useful word, but can only do so much.

Anyone who teaches knows that it’s performance. We are up there, in front of a group of people who may or may not (and since I teach required writing classes for freshmen and juniors who are NOT English majors, you can imagine) want to be there. Some are afraid of writing. Some hate to read. Some only want to write about subjects they choose. Some hate doing research. Some hate using sources. This is what we always potentially face: a hostile audience. So teaching is a performance. We are on stage every class. We work to engage them in wanting to do this work. We have tricks and methods and are attentive to the mood of the class. We have to give a little, and we have to be strict most of the time. We have to set rules and penalties for not following them, and like good parents, we have to follow through. We have to talk, a lot, and set ourselves as examples. We have to speak well, but we try not to be dry. We often want to express our own love of language, to convey the sheer joy that can be found in words and composition and reading and learning. This is what teaching writing is really about. Not following some drab curriculum but an attempt to change minds, to bring students over to our side, while still giving them the knowledge they need: how to form transitions, how to evaluate sources, how to choose and integrate quotes, how to use apostrophes, how to do deep reading, how to form an argument that appeals to emotion and logic, so many things.

When you have a good class, one that seems like a cohesive group, that laughs at your jokes, that has some fun but also respects deadlines and tries hard to do well, it’s easier to lose your words in the middle of a sentence. It’s less damaging, anyway. You make a joke of it, and go on. How annoying, though, to be an articulate person and sometimes, through some stupid quirk of biology, lose your language. Language is my trade, my skill, my profession, my passion. And to lose it seems like an especially mean cosmic joke.

Between the sleep-stealing heart pounding and the mental/verbal assault of the hot flash, hell. I’m sort of a mess. But holding myself together as well as possible, looking forward to the end of this. And it will end, right?

On 50,038 Words

11 Feb

Poor, neglected blog. Life has been all words lately, with none to spare for you.

Mainly, it was the National Novel Writing Month, fondly NaNoWriMo. I did it! I won! I never win anything. But I won that. Winning means that I completed the challenge, 50,000 words in one month, the month of November, which was a busy month, what with holiday dinner and parties and final-essay grading. The glow lasted a while, several weeks at least. I did it! I wrote 50,038 words in one month, 158 pages, all original, all mine. That does not mean the beast I ended up with was a novel. Or only by a huge stretch of imagination. Maybe a series of stories, some linked, some not. I do not care. NaNoWriMo has a space for rebels. Next year I will claim my place among them. What I ended up with was mostly crap. Throwaway, or maybe hold on to the idea for some better means of execution some day. Most of that throwaway junk was stories taken from personal experience. I can’t seem to step away, even from childhood, enough to write with humor and interest about my life, except the recent bits. It always comes out tawdry. Tobias Wolff can do that, write with unfiltered honesty and humor about people and experiences from his life. He is a master. He also signed two books for me. He is my hero, and what I strive for. But turning outward seems to work best for me.

I am not a disciplined person. But I am also (something I noticed as the finish line loomed) not a quitter. Me. I never realized. A good lesson to learn about oneself. As an undisciplined person, I often got stuck and fell behind. Okay. The average daily word count to finish on time is 50,000 words divided by 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. I started strong, with a couple of good days over 2,000. Then, oh, a 1,300 word day, and a completely skipped day. It happens easily. You get stuck for ideas, you falter, you slip, you stare at the paper or screen, you go back and read what you’ve written, which, frankly, isn’t great. You are uninspired. But, I am not a quitter. I determined to do this thing, no matter what I ended up with.

Suddenly you have a 4,000-5,000 word day staring you in the face, the enormous number you need to catch up. Just write something. Something. Anything. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s original. As long as it’s you writing it, now.  Even if it says “I am writing complete crap, I have nothing to say, this is pointless, this is stupid, I hate this, come on brain, come up with something!” A few times I resorted to what I tell my students to do, just keep pen on paper/fingers on keyboard, keep going.  NaNoWriMo is a community, though I mostly lurked at the edges of it. I didn’t want to meet real live other NaNoWriMos in my lovely town. I didn’t want the pressure, and, frankly, I didn’t want to spend time going out to a coffee house rather than scribbling away. But I did read tips, inspirations, fun ways to procrastinate. One tip was about being stuck. I think it said “bring in a Ninja, bring in a ghost” or vampire, or other improbable creature. I don’t care about Ninjas or ghosts, and vampires have been done to everlasting death. So I thought a bit, not long, a few minutes tops, and a rhinoceros appeared in my head, just appeared.

Back in the inconceivably ancient past, the 1980s, in Long Beach, my now husband of many years, Gary, his roommate and our close friend, Tony, and I used to sit around Tony’s rented house with Larry the dog as our audience, reading from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist plays. At the Doolittle Theatre in 1988 we saw a production of The Bald Soprano and other works read by, among others, Rene Auberjonois, Patty Duke, and Tom Waits. The Tom Waits. The playwright himself was to have been there, but was aged and ailing in Paris. I love Ionesco. And years and years after loving his plays I lived for two non-consecutive years in his birth country of Romania. So, a rhinoceros it was, as a tribute or allusion, but without the theme of fascism. Oh, didn’t I say? In 1959 he wrote a play titled Rhinoceros.

I didn’t know where my rhinoceros would lead. I just started with an adolescent girl seeing an improbable animal outside her typical American suburban home on a bright spring Saturday. From there it rolled. This was something I’d heard of (and like allergies, before I experienced them myself, didn’t really believe in). I took an idea and sat down with my laptop and let my fingers go clickety click, tappety tap, and let the words come through them. Just flow. They came like water from a tap, so easily. Never has that happened to me before. I was happy with what came out. I was excited. I didn’t want to stop, but had to sleep, and then to work, and then to get back to it the next day. It seemed longer, days and days, because of the intensity of the writing project. In two days I had a story, with a beginning, middle and end, of 6,457 words, 19 pages double spaced. And it wasn’t crap at all. This is embarrassing to say, but I have to be honest: when I read the finished story I choked up. It seemed like something much larger than I’d started with, than I’d thought. Something about what we see and miss, and what we have to give up, and how we have to keep moving along with our lives.

The whole month went that way: slow and plodding and grueling, then quick, fluid, delightful. Sometimes I made myself laugh. It seemed kind of schizo, but there it was. My favorite thing to do was to write for a while, then do a word count, reenter my word count into the NaNoWriMo site, hit refresh, and see my improved progress chart, my words remaining diminishing, words per day to finish on time shrinking.  During this month we ate a lot of pasta, or I’d make big pots of chili or soup to eat for days. Or easy casseroles. Usually I’m more focused on cooking, planning menus, flipping through foodie magazines and cookbooks, searching cooking websites. It’s obsessive, and it was good to switch over to a different obsession for a change.

Still, even after a triumph, like the rhinoceros story, I’d get stuck. Once I pushed through the block by deciding to write one sentence. Back in grad school we literature majors all had to take pedagogy classes, as teaching was part of our education (and the way we earned our tuition waivers). I remember the idea in one such class of having students write a “labyrinthine sentence,” a single sentence that is just one long string of clauses, lists, parenthetical asides. I began a sentence that became a list and continued till 1,808 words, 6 pages later, about death, the big joke.  I was having fun! Playing with words. Just playing, like a kid, having given myself permission, because I am not a quitter, to just keep writing and if that entailed playing, so be it!

There are other parts I like. A story about Gus, a despondent sign twirler who tries not to be noticed, and one about bare teenage feet in summer, and one about how kids don’t believe in cold.  Maybe half is worth keeping, and that isn’t bad.

So I spent November in wordsmithery, broken up by bouts of proofreading, my other job (can you spell f-r-u-c-t-o-o-l-i-g-o-s-a-c-c-h-a-r-i-d-e-s?). Then came the holidays, travel, parties attended and thrown, no time for writing. Time for not writing, in fact, a break from writing. And now, a new quarter with two freshman writing classes. I’d love to make them care like I do. Questions of how to pass this caring on. How to help them feel it like playing sometimes. How to break them out of the ruts they were placed in in high school, the 5-paragraph essay, the topic sentence, the inverted pyramid.

I’ll keep working on that as long as I teach. It’s always an experiment. And I’ll keep writing till I can’t anymore. I’ve had my break, almost two months now. Back to the beautiful grind.

On Silence

7 Oct

This blog has nothing to do with language. Or, rather, it is all to do with language, the excess of language, people’s inability to shut up.

I think I know what it is. Technology has changed our brains. Anyone over 40: in your 20s, could you even conceive of people walking about talking loudly to the sidewalk and window and shrub about their stds or (to be fair, it’s not just the young) incontinence? No. You couldn’t. I know that. But as we all know, we gave up privacy. I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know I had. But it’s gone. We can be tracked in any number of ways, our bodies scanned, our movements recorded by some Big Brother eye hidden in streetlamps, social networks make it easy for people we do not like to find us. There is no place in the electronic world to hide. And it’s invaded every nook and cranny of the public world as well: have you been in a nice restaurant lately that did not have a TV on? Have you been to a chic outdoor mall lately that did not have someone’s crappy taste in pop music piped onto the street? (Okay, that’s a reference to a specific place, in Ohio, but you know what I mean.) It’s in our ears, our heads, our mouths, on our clothes. It’s in our DNA.

This is my theory. People are really, really different now than when I was a kid, a kid of 20+ or 30+. They are made different.

Recently my husband and I went to a show. It was a show about Miles Davis, great musicians playing drums and sax and bass and piano and of course trumpet, mixed in with images and recordings of Davis speaking and poems and short pieces read really well by a live narrator. I used to think it was just bad luck (bad luck those yahoos sat next to us/in front of us/behind us in the movie theater/playhouse/concert hall), but now I see that it doesn’t matter where we are. They are all around us, all ages, all backgrounds. Well, no, most of them around us are college educated or educators, professionals, students, undergrad and grad. Most of the events we go to are movies at the indie theater and performances on campus. So they’re not from all social strata. They’re from ours.

I don’t go out to listen to yahoos (unless I’m seeing a play of Gulliver, I suppose, but then it would be upper case). I go out to hear the words and/or music of the performers. I pay for the privilege of seeing/hearing them. I go for the experience. We were talking about why this twittering (not that kind, the word that came before the technology, that meant the sound of little birds: bssbssbss) gets to us so much, and I know for me it’s because I get deep into something. I feel the music creeping up my legs and arms, snaking around me. I feel the words falling on my skin and inside my head. I envision what I hear. I imagine. I let myself be with the characters, up there, in an unreal place. I want to let myself be there, wherever it is, a real or imagined place. Then wham. Bssbssbss.  Chatter chatter chatter. I’m out of the experience of the performance, and in the experience of sharing a theater and a world with people who can’t keep their mouths shut, not for two hours, not for an hour, not for half an hour.

I want to turn and ask them why they paid good money, like the rest of us, to come to a performance in order to spend it chattering away and missing it, and whether they might just want to continue their conversation outside. Actually, I want to sock them. Hard. I want to yell and jump over my seat and attack them with teeth and nails and elbows and fists and feet in heavy boots. But I fancy myself a civilized person, not drunk enough to do that, so I might, at most, whisper “shhhh” while feeling my blood pressure rise.  Then I will do my best to lean away from them, and sometimes cup my ears to block them out a little more.

Before you pooh-pooh my tirade for being that of an old Luddite. I’m not. I love my laptop. I love my Nano (RIP Steve Jobs). I love watching new movies at home before they are in theaters. I love my coffee maker (I could bow down before that coffee maker that brews the coffee so that it’s hot and fresh when I drag myself out of bed early in the a.m.). I love all of the appliances that beep at me, or play annoying little tunes: dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, cell phone. I also love trees, but that doesn’t make me a Luddite. What I don’t love, or like, what I actually hate, is that I fear a future will come where people like me, like us, just stay home rather than ever venture out to a movie/play/concert. Or maybe, as Andre Gregory imagines after his version of the fall of civilization, underground organizations will spring up where those of us who crave an experience, in a room full of silent, silent, entranced perhaps, strangers, can get what we want, for a price.

Today I thank the improbable pair of Tessie and Ralph for settling down together and having their second son

6 Jul

I don’t dare question the mystery of our meeting, or demean it by calling it “fate” or some like term. I was 22. We were in an English class together, a large one. I believe Gary could mainly see my back. That’s why I thought it was my back that first attracted him. It was a nice back in those days, very strong. We had a mutual friend, Robert, who reluctantly introduced us at the Cal State Long Beach bar. I was drifting then. With my best friend Kathleen Alva, I had sworn off men. We had no further use for them. We’d had enough of arrogant, self-centered, childish, disrespectful, mean, stupid, bastards. We loved each other. We loved going to Spatz and dancing till closing, then to the diner on PCH to share a huge omelet at 3 a.m.

I say I was drifting. I had no concept of future. I didn’t believe in it, actually. I only believed in each day. I played at the idea of school, taking classes that sounded good to me. I don’t even think I was an English major. Education probably, something practical. But I hated those classes. I was a loner, too. I lived in a ratty little apartment with a single room, murphy bed and roaches. It was my first place alone, with no roommate. To this day, the smell of Raid slams me back to that room. Though I was drifting, I did have a job that I clung to like a lifeboat, in a department store called Mervyn’s. I moved from sales floor to stock clerk. I was incredibly strong. I worked there for 8 years. The thought of quitting filled me with fear. I didn’t believe in the future, but I knew I needed money to pay rent and eat, and go to shows and buy beer and cigarettes.

Gary met me. He wanted to meet me. Why, well, I won’t say. It probably wasn’t my sparkling wit or intellect. Pure physical attraction, I think.

I was small, strong, and wild. I thought of myself as a poet. What a larf! I wore mostly black and dark green clothes, and stuff I got from thrift stores. I had a favorite pair of green jeans and some green Vans, a long black skirt with buckles all the way up, black ballet flats. I wore berets a lot. My hair was sometimes unruly curls and bright red, sometimes bleached blond and cropped short like a boy’s. I always wore black liner all around my eyes and dark polish on my long nails. Gary came up to me in the bar. He wore a brown wool blazer and had a large red beard. Robert said our names, and Gary grinned at me. He sat down and started talking, not just talking but asking questions. I can’t even remember if I had any thoughts then. It seems like my mind was full of useless stuff, in no particular order. I was full of energy and quite a lot of rage. Gary had a lot of friends, who much later became my friends. He was a tutor. He wrote and drew and played guitar. He listened to old music, jazz and blues, and old rock, the Beatles and Stones. I knew only the music I’d abandoned (happily, all that big hair long solo crap, all that arrogant bastard crap), and the punk music I’d embraced. Gary liked The Clash, but wasn’t really into punk. I don’t know if he’d have liked the shows at Fender’s where I always emerged hot and bruised and happy. I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know how. Later he’d start liking more of it. It took some sort of articulation, but then I was all feeling, no reason. I learned from him that I didn’t need to exclude music that was equally real and unproduced just because it was old or wasn’t punk. There were old blues guys who were raw. And the voice of Tom Waits.

Our first date, the historic date. Gary asked what I was doing this Friday or Saturday night (I forget which, but it was a regular date night). I told him with some arrogance that I was going to a poetry reading at the LaFayette Hotel, where one of my friends was on the schedule. Gary was going too. Actually, his name was on the flier, in big letters. Hah! I didn’t know. I was suddenly impressed. He didn’t talk about himself, I guess. He didn’t think it was that big a deal. Did I blush? I was hard and cool. I must have swallowed my surprise. But it was fixed. We’d meet there.

The LaFayette Hotel was a city block on, was it First Street? Fourth Street? It was downtown. It was a compound, so multiple streets. On one side was Fender’s, where I spent most Friday nights. On one side was a bar. There was a maze of ballrooms inside (Fender’s was Fender’s Ballroom), there were venues for weddings and, apparently, for poetry readings. I don’t think this was a regular spot though. I suppose people lived in that building too.

The reading was good. Gary’s poems were funny, witty. Not all angst (actually, no angst). They were observations, mainly, clear-eyed, unpretentious, real. My friend’s stuff, on the other hand, was pretty self-indulgent. I didn’t know. I was learning though.

We moved from the venue to the bar. It was jammed with people. I won’t tell the story of the woman I came with, who kept rubbing against Gary when she passed him to get a drink. I just remember thinking it was odd. Gary brought me a drink, more than one. There were yelled introductions to some of his friends. Joey in particular, I remember. I don’t recall if Robert was there. Probably. My romantic memory was this: I had to go pee. The restroom was hard to find. At least, it seemed like it. The directions were very complicated. Gary escorted me. We went down hallways, past nooks and glass walls, wending our way. I was undoubtedly a bit drunk, which might have contributed to its seeming such a maze.

He took me there, and on the way back pushed open a door to an empty, dark ballroom. It must have had chandeliers. He danced me around. Did he sing some appropriate tune? He had and has a wonderful voice, sweet, lean, lithe.

I was about to abandon my pact with Kathy. No men. But since I didn’t believe in the future, it was probably going to be only for a short time. All relationships were like that. You found out who the other person really was, a psycho, a selfish bastard, a manipulative brute, or, worst, a dullard. You left.

We went back to Gary’s apartment with a few other people. Soon I was on Gary’s lap, his guitar laid across mine, and he was playing Beatles’ songs. I stayed there for days. I remember it this way: we never left the room. But that’s impossible. I had to work, and even go to classes on occasion. Gary had to work and actually go to classes. I had to have clothes to wear. He was on a bland diet for his stomach. He cooked me poached fish, poached eggs. It was good food, and more real food than I was used to having at home. At most I’d throw some fish sticks into my disgusting oven.

Gary told me he was going to leave in about six months. He had it all planned, a year in Spain. He’d graduate and then go off to live in Barcelona with its romantic place in history and literature. He’d set money aside, a little. He was going to get a job teaching English. He’d said he was going. I learned that he meant what he said, that he made plans and followed them.

So, that was the end, I was sure. I went back to being mostly solitary. I had no phone, so it was hard to find me. It was okay, because I was stubbornly independent. I hated people doing things for me. I never asked for help (well, the occasional bit of credit at the corner market to get to the next paycheck, but that’s it). I’d walk miles and miles rather than accept the offer of a ride. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t want to owe anyone anything. Anyway, I liked my lone-wolf life. I could do what I wanted. And I could always stay with Kathy in Huntington Beach when I got stranded at work (usually by public transport: oh yeah, I had no car), and get some social interaction that way. I had a few neighborhood friends, gay couple, crazy old vet. I think I took classes less and less, then not at all.

Gary wrote letters from Spain. Many beautiful letters. They were detailed, sometimes lonely. I wasn’t a good correspondent. I didn’t know where this was going to go, if anywhere. The future wasn’t really part of my plans. Ha! I had no plans, except to keep living, working, going to shows, reading, and scribbling bad poetry.

Then he came back. And wanted to be with me. And I gave in. And our lives changed. He took me places, he made me go back to school, he made me do everything that was good for me. The years of Tony and us began, Larry the dog, the detached room over the garage, the black and white floor, Tony’s piano, movies, our historic trip through Mexico and Guatemala, happy hour martinis at The Paradise Cafe, Alison, Susan, Millie, Roy, Joey, Murray, Penny, Steve, Bob, Jim, Locklin and Zepeda and The Reno Room. But that’s another chapter.

On “Back in the Day”

6 May

I’m not an old crank. Really. But last blog about my mom was nice, clearing space for a bit of bitchiness. Top on my current list of things people need to quit saying: “back in the day.” Like other meaningless or vague newish utterances, it seemed to appear everywhere at once, freshly sprung from some anti-literate collective brain. Its irritation quotient for me must be similar to that of the vexing “they” of my childhood to my parents, and all adults. “Where did you hear that?” my parents/other adults would ask.  “They said so,” I/other children would reply. “Who are ‘they?’” “I don’t know. The ones who said it.”

“They” made all kinds of presumably factual and historical pronouncements. “They said so” was the lazy person’s answer to the question, “where did you get that ridiculous idea?”

Because I was a tot, or, really, a preteen, I was lazy. I had no use for newspapers, magazines (other than Seventeen), encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, or any other textual sources of information and knowledge. Don’t misunderstand me. I read, and I read real books (Wuthering Heights, Huckleberry Finn, plays, collections of short fiction). But I couldn’t be bothered to look things up. I didn’t really want to know how to find information in an encyclopedia. I had zero interest in tables of content and indexes.  Generally, I’d meet suggestions that there was anything beyond my puny world view worth considering with a shrug or a “huh?”

This created additional family strife, for we older kids were given the task each week to find out some piece of information (note “given the task,” which is grammatical, simple, and fine, not “tasked,” which is ugly, wrong and lazy), such as the name of one of our state senators, or the governor. I never knew the answer.  Yelling at the dinner table would always result from my not knowing. Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I look it up? “HOW DO YOU LOOK THINGS UP?!” my inner voice would yell back. I didn’t even know what that meant, other than using the card catalog at the library. And I didn’t live in a library. Besides, I had many more important things to do during the week than look things up, such as daydream about a boy with long, shiny black hair named Joe.

I’m cutting myself some slack, though, because I was a kid. Kids can get away with being mentally lazy. So much growing and changing is going on in their lives. And as you noticed, when I was a kid it took quite a lot of effort to find information. (Pre-Internet, heck, pre-computers!) I had to go to a place and then figure out how to find the right source of the information, and I was ridiculously shy about talking to strange adults, so asking a librarian was most likely out of the question.

No literate human being in a technologically advanced country with any access to said technology today has any excuse for “back in the day” though. Are you talking about the 1960s? The Eighteenth Century? Your childhood? A decade ago? Before your divorce? Before your marriage? Before the invention of sliced bread? During the time of the big flood?  During your wild years?  Your college days?  Before you ever heard Tom Waits? Before your first kiss? Back when you wore plaid pants with checkered shirts? Since we all live in time and space, there has to be a time frame for your reference, unless it’s all made up. In that case, make one up to go with.

Die, “back in the day.” Give me “the good old days,” those good days before the creation of whatever vexes you now, like the widespread use of meaningless verbalisms caused by mental laziness. Oh yeah, the good old days.

UPDATE

One single day after posting this, I was in the car listening to “Prairie Home Companion.” Twice during a sketch or narrative (he made me forget) Garrison said “back in the days when,” which is fine, a perfectly good expression. But I felt a sinking. I knew what was coming. Yes. He did it. He uttered the dreaded “back in the day.” Right there for all of his admiring listeners to hear and thereby get license to emulate. (Are you reading my blog and then mocking me, oh mighty creator of POEM, the “Professional Organization of English Majors?” I think not. No one much reads my blog, and certainly not you, oh great one.) I’ll get over it (really, life is overflowing with more pressing concerns), but for the moment, I feel like the holdout, the last one who believes and cares, Kevin McCarthy trying desperately, futilely, not to be turned into a pod. Sigh.

To My Mom, on her Daughter Turning 50

15 Mar

From the first year I was conscious – age 1? age 2? – this day in mid-March belonged to me alone, centered around me, my wants, my memories, my identity. This year for the first time I thought of this: there in the snapshot, on a porch in Kearney Nebraska, is my beautiful mother, dark flashing eyes, sculpted cheeks, short dark hair swept up and back, wearing a tomato-red wool turtleneck sweater. She is smiling, but maybe there’s a tint of fear back there. After all, she is young, only 24, and this is all new. This baby in her arms that has and will continue to change her life in ways impossible to predict.

I took that sweater, though I don’t remember when, or if I asked permission. I’ve worn it over the years like a charm, an inanimate thing that binds us together through time. Like I took Grandma’s red lipstick in the gold-tone cylinder after her funeral. It smelled and tasted like her kisses. I didn’t want anything else of hers, just that memory. I’ve worn her lipstick too, or did, back when I could pull off that deep red. Now it’s become hard and waxy anyway, and taken on the earthy smell of decaying minerals.

This is my 50th birthday. Our culture measures life this way, marking decades as milestones. It doesn’t feel that way, though. Does anyone feel a new age? Other than those that mean some change in status: draft age, drinking age, retirement age, too old to have children, whatever age that is. When I think of myself, my life, I see it all at once, all overlapping, not a moment but all moments. When I think of you my mother, I think of all times of you, of you making cakes that looked like Easter eggs or shamrocks, of you singing (performing) Tom Lehrer songs for us, of you watching me, worrying over me, feeling mortified while I did or said some foolish thing, threw a tantrum in a theater lobby, or scolded the wrong little boy on a train, or refused to dress quickly to rush to the hospital with my little brother, scalded by coffee. Of you crying once because I forgot your birthday. Of you taking care of shelter cats and sheltering a homeless woman. Of you visiting a boy we knew after he went to prison. Of you folk dancing, disco dancing, Western swing dancing, ballroom dancing. Of you making baklava for Christmas, of you sleeping well unlike most of us, of you reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses, of you holding strangers’ hands on an airplane, of you wrapping hotdogs in foil to take to the drive-in movie, of you making care packages for women in shelters, of you tinting your hair a lighter color, of you shopping for your daughters, of you on the boat, pretty in a swimsuit, of you crocheting at the public pool with the other mothers, of you in your red and purple outfits, of you reading presidential biographies and mysteries, of you unpacking clothes so neatly folded in your suitcase, of you driving because you hate to fly, of you eating sandwiches on the floor of the vacant house we were cleaning, of you in our new house, of you in all times and places.

This year, for the first time, my imagination on my birthday stretched out beyond the self contained in this skin, to you, not for having borne me, for the biological act that is no different for any woman, but for all the years of actual life, to acknowledge this shared moment, the day your oldest child turns 50.

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