The Last Frontier

On a day like today, I think about Going To Alaska.  I escaped work by trudging over to the gas station on the corner.  Slowly.  Slowly.  Keeping the snow below the edge of my sneakers, and keeping my feet under me.  I drive a stick.  I live upstairs.  I can’t be breaking my ankle.  It was cold, but I was bundled up well.  I stepped in someone else’s footprints, down the sidewalk.

One of my favorite wintertime games in elementary school followed this agenda: walk in large circles, following a pretend route on a pretend map, and speak solemnly of our preparation, progress, and hope for Going to Alaska.

My friend Eric was a valued member of our expedition.  I still see him occasionally, and he is probably also imagining himself Going to Alaska today.

In those days, children were sent outside for recess every day.  There was some windchill rule (which I never remember being enforced), and if you did not have snowpants and boots, you were not allowed out in the field on certain days, but everybody went outside.  It kept you healthy, all that fresh air.  No one was allergic to snow.  No one had asthma.  The athletic among us played soccer and softball, and nerds like Eric and me, we went to Alaska.

We learned a lot of valuable lessons on these days.  We learned to make our own meaning.  We learned to pretend like we knew where we were going.  We practiced complaining.  These are critical adult skills, whether you are Going To Alaska or Going to Buy a Snickers, as I was today.

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Today’s Good News

We need good news at the beginning of January.

Several items today in New York Times pleased me.  First of all, I smiled at the article describing the ad campaign put up by atheists in Britain.  I have a soft spot for atheists.  It’s a very reasonable position, often taken up by smart, sensitive people who just can’t swallow that any God would let the shit go down that goes down.  I admire that, although I usually believe in God.  The ad, featured on London’s city busses, says, ” There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  Which also made me smile.  It really makes no sense.  Whether or not you believe in God, you could worry like crazy.  Worry that if there is no God, you are totally responsible for making the best of things.  Worry that if there is a God, you can’t figure God out.  And if there is no God, that doesn’t naturally lead to enjoying life.  Maybe the thought of no God is so depressing that you can’t enjoy anything.  Regardless, I love that atheists are getting their message out there.  Especially British atheists.  All those Europeans think Americans are nutty for being religious.  God bless them.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/world/europe/07london.html?em

Also, hey, we can copy our iTunes.  I believe in paying for music, and I faithfully and regularly pay for music, but I was always annoyed that iTunes kept me on such a short leash.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/technology/companies/07apple.html?em

Finally, some guy wants to open a “civilian service academy,” where you “pay” in five years of community service.  I don’t know who works for the government, but I do know that lots of us here at my urban public high school had to bury ourselves in outrageous debt in order to teach.  It’s one thing to sacrifice salary for public service.  When you have to pay back student loans on that salary, it’s an additional burden, and it keeps a lot of people from working in urban schools, as public defenders, or in other low-paid government position.  It hasn’t always been this way– people in my parents’ generation didn’t take on this kind of college debt.  That’s another complaint about lack of state funding for education…. And I mean this as good news.  Maybe his civilian academy won’t work, but it seems like it might be worth a try.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/us/07academy.html?ref=todayspaper

Nuclear Football

I enjoyed several bits of “SNL” last weekend.  There was a bit with a family that shoots off into grudges and attacks and fury without any provocation– specifics of the conflict were left out completely, all that remained were the common elements of neurosis, which, in a vaccuum, are quite recognizable and horrifyingly funny.

And then they did a bit about the Illinois governor on “Weekend Update” that was not as funny as it could have been, considering the fact that my fetish newspaper, The New York Times, has this to say of him:

…Mr. Blagojevich, 52, rarely turns up for work at his official state office in Chicago…is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain…for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush. He calls the brush “the football,” an allusion to the “nuclear football,” or the bomb codes never to be out of reach of a president.

Then again, is must be challenging to satirize a man whose behavior is this absurd. 

I immediately recalled my old friend Jo-Megan (that was her name, and it’s not as odd as the governor’s).  Jo-Megan had a Paul Mitchell brush that she loved, too, and I remember her at one of my slumber parties, holding that brush up in the air after she ran it through her long brown locks, quipping, “Paul Mitchell Systems,” just like the commercial.  The thing is, Jo-Megan was ten years old at the time. 

The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/15/us/politics/15blagojevich.html?_r=1&hp

Dancing

I went straight from a Midwestern Baptist-style funeral to summer-steamed New Orleans. One minute I was singing a hymn in a pew, and hours later I was on a bus staring at the rehabbed Superdome, seeing the ghosts of the abandoned along the clean sidewalk.

I had to say some firm, abbreviated goodbyes to get out of the church and to the airport on time.  Once I was installed behind the security lines, I disciplined myself to read the newspaper, as if it were a normal day.

I was woozy with exhaustion when I finally got to the New Orleans airport.  I just had to get a ride to the hotel.  Then I could let go and sleep.  But the van was the cheapest way, and the van was a while in coming.  The van drove us by the Superdome.  That was the first I saw of New Orleans.

People had told me, It’s like Europe, and as I looked out the dotted side window, I thought, This isn’t like anything else.  The darkness of it, the narrowness that suggests age, and the patina that proves a city values history—it was strange to me.  There was nothing out those windows that said America.  Americans prefer to tear down a building just when it is getting interesting.  Americans need things opened wide.  There could be aliens or time travelers hidden in this city.  I looked for ghosts.  I saw empty lots.

I was a ghost by the time we got to my hotel.  It was the very last stop on the van’s ring-around-the rosy drop off pattern.  It was also, blessedly, in the French Quarter, in an ancient building, and not part of the dull convention center zone.  I had time for only a few hours’ sleep before my convention began the next morning.

I stumbled through the next day’s work fueled with Styrofoam cups of coffee.  Since this was a business trip, I wasn’t sure that I would partake of New Orleans’ pleasures at the end of the day.  I had a one-drink-with-the-boss limit that I’ve always strictly observed.

However, once we were installed in a piano bar, the drinks began to flow, and almost all of them were gifted to me by other members of our party, and I counted slowly: wine, wine, sazarac, sazarac…. The waiters circulated, jacketed in neat red uniforms.  The cellar walls of the bar ringed us with darkness. The man next to me slashed song titles on a napkin with ballpoint pen, checked them with me, sent them up to the performers.  And I was gleefully tipsy, while safely less drunk than my colleagues, who were singing into their straws and swordfighting with their cocktail swords.

Back at the hotel, I looked at myself in the garish glare of the mirror.  I thought of the good Christian crowd at the funeral.  Boy, if they could see me now.  I drank four cups of water, glugged them down like a trouper, and lay down to try to sleep.  It would be another night of not enough sleep, and another long day of conference sessions in frigid, plain rooms.

My last night in New Orleans, I danced in a blues bar on Bourbon Street.  It was almost empty—a slow night. They sometimes have time during the funeral when people can stand up and say something about the dead person.  I had said something about Grandma.  I told a story about her dancing, although the room was full of dancephobic conservatives.  The story might have been awkward for the crowd, but I thought it did Grandma justice.

Contradictory Desires

 

I have the desire to plow out into the world and explore like crazy.  Go places I don’t belong.  Find countries outside and inside myself. 

 

Also me: I move into a new apartment.  Every day when I come home, I am seized with revulsion.  This is not my home.  My home is the way-too-small apartment I just left.  That’s where I live.  That’s where I’m refreshingly miserable.

 

You can ask me to run off to a foreign country and I will say yes.  This has happened three times.  Once an acquaintance said, hey, you want to go to Juarez Mexico and build a house in four days?  Okay, actually, this happened twice, but the second time it was a stranger who asked and said, hey, I hear you’ve been to Juarez Mexico and we want to build another house.  Another time my cousin emails, hey, you want to visit me in Qatar?  I’ll fly you over.  I say yes. 

 

Although I have eaten some Kraft macaroni and cheese in my new apartment, overindulgence in carbohydrates has its limits as a coping strategy.  Although twice in the last two weeks it seemed like a good idea for me to have three drinks in the course of one evening, raising my blood-alcohol level produces mixed results, too.  The first time, my exhaustion caught me with a snap and I almost fell asleep in the car on the way home.  (I wasn’t driving.)  The second time, I fell asleep on the couch.  When I woke up, my anxieties gushed back. 

 

I can act with such I’m-not-shitting-you power at times.  Only this afternoon I walked into a group of teenagers, gave them a relatively mild version of The Look, and they dispersed demurely.  The problem with such power is just like the alcohol problem.  Unpredictable results, inconsistent successes.

 

I can’t tell you how lovely the new place is.  It’s my favorite of all the places I have ever lived.  If only I could feel like it was real.  I was waiting for the first bath or the first dinner or the first weekend or cry or nap or floor-sweeping.  Now I’ve been through all those.  It’s so cute here, too.  Cute windows.  Walls painted my favorite colors.  Plenty of room to spread out.  Not so much room that it looms around.  Amazing lines.  I read about architecture while I’m here, and I’m like, yep, somebody designed this 104-year-old structure.  And I know the guy’s name.

 

I’m concerned.  What happened to Poor Lonely Liz She Lives in Poverty?  True: I still hear gunfire.  True: paint is peeling, windows do not shut properly.  But from some perspective, it seems I have to live with the fact that maybe I have a great, affordable place to live.  I miss Poor Lonely Liz.  I knew what she was about.  She was weak, tired, abandoned by everyone, easily freaked out.  She wasn’t going to score career coups like going to three all-expense-paid professional conferences in a year.  She wasn’t going to nourish her writerly ambitions by attending two retreats packed with supportive colleagues.

 

The trouble is, I guess, that I haven’t just moved geographically in the last year.  I wrestled with writing issues and relationship issues and career issues last year, ready to make some giant changes.  Although I tried to manipulate and force these changes, they actually crept up on me through the back door.  I threw myself at my old boyfriend in August, not really expecting anything.  But we kept spending time together.  I stuck with the yeses, and ended up thrown into another retreat, a new summer job, and a conference opportunity.  I’ve gone to present at another national conference, and am, titularly at least, the English Department Head.

 

When there is this much change, I’m like the Cowardly Lion.  Everything, no matter how good, makes me want to hide under the bed.  Everything seems scary, regardless of the fact that I was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place.  I see my career going zoom through high school English teacher ambitions, and I wonder, do I even want to keep doing this high school English teacher thing?  How much responsibility will I take on as a Master English Teacher?  Will my comfort and knowledge catch up to the expectations of my coworkers and boss?  And once that happens, won’t I be thrown back into a fit of boat-rocking again?  Once I felt comfortable at my old job, I moved on.  I needed more challenge. 

 

I need challenge.  I like to feel like I can bite my teeth into my job, bare my canines to show the task is impossible and I know it, then squeeze down my jaw on the task.  Shake it side to side.  Today I took the essays I needed to grade out to a coffeehouse.  Once I had read through them, I wanted to kill myself.  I was supposed to be getting these kids ready for college, and they are writing like Sarah Palin drunk on Ebonics.  Seriously.  What the hell was I supposed to do about that?  Not only do I not know, actually no one on planet Earth knows how to get kids who are at the bottom of the pecking order writing clearly and firmly.  I wanted to run away.  I went by the grocery store on the way back to work and bought a piece of pecan pie, to return to carbohydrate overload again. 

 

At least when I find a place to live, I know how to be comfortable.  That’s good news.  If I can just be patient and adjust to the new place, I won’t have the same itchy ambition about moving that I have in my creative life, my love life, my career.  When I find a spot to rest my head that feels like home, I’ll stick with that like nobody’s business.  Last time it was a mostly-sweet eight years. 

 

 

Mother Courage

Setting: An oral surgeon’s office in the second-wealthiest county in the United States.  On one wall are paintings of pitchers and bottles.  On another, a huge ugly abstract painting with a black frame.  In front of the black-framed picture sits a woman, 32, with blonde hair and dark roots, and dirty black patent-leather shoes.  She leans back, hitting her head on the black frame, then slouches forward.  Every so often, she does this again, as if she has forgotten.   A receptionist sits behind a counter, doing paperwork.  In the corner, an old man wearing a giant birthday cake hat sits grinning.  He is wearing turquoise pants.

Enter: A businessman in a trenchcoat with two teenage daughters.  The daughters wear Catholic-school uniforms.

Businessman: Hi, we’re here from Dr. Hobnob’s office to make an appointment with Dr. Soandso. 

Receptionist: Ah, yes.

The younger of the daughters eyes the woman.  The older of the daughters gives the receptionist an intense stare.  The younger daughter decides the woman has no children, is completely free.

Older daughter: They can put me to sleep, right?

Receptionist: Yes, dear, if that’s what you want.

Businessman: But they don’t, usually, do they? 

Receptionist: They can give her a local, too.  Whichever she prefers.

Businessman: We’d like something in December, if you have it, so she can get her braces on over Christmas break.

The woman smiles knowingly.  She had four teeth pulled before getting braces.  Younger daughter continues to look at the woman wistfully.  Then she notices old man with birthday hat.

Younger daughter: Is it your birthday?

Old man: It is.  I’m ninety-two today.

Businessman: Ninety-two?  Wow.  Good for you!

Old man: I tell you what the trick is.  I’ve been exercising all my life.

The woman smiles again.

Businessman: Is that so?  Wow.  Good for you.

Enter another man, about forty.  He wears blonde shoes, khaki pants.  He goes to the receptionist.

Khaki man: I’m here from Dr. Whoever’s office.  My dad is out in the car waiting for me because my car just broke down, and he’s lending me the money to get this done.  It’s so embarassing.

Receptionist (clearly not interested in his bizzare story): Okay, hon, just fill these out, please.

Khaki man sits down.

Receptionist: The fifteenth?  At two-thirty?

Businessman: That’ll work. 

Younger daughter: That’s my birthday!

Older daughter: Well, what does it matter if it’s your birthday?

Younger daughter shrugs.

Businessman: Thank you very much.  We’ll see you on the fifteenth.

Receptionist: Okay, then.

The old man, woman, and khaki man sit quietly for a moment.  Then the old man catches the woman’s eye.

Old man: You know I have all my own teeth?

Woman (half charmed and half annoyed): Really?

Old man: Yep.  My dentist– he’s gone now– he told me the secret, and I’ve told my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.  You wanna know?

Woman: Sure.

Old man: You brush your gums.  When you’re done brushing your teeth, you just brush your gums.

Woman (smiling with teeth full of fillings, and an abscess, despite her brushing and flossing and fluoride rinses): I’ll have to remember that.

Enter an older woman, rushing in the door and seeming slightly flustered.  She wears black pants, a sweater, and delicate earrings.

Older woman: Honey, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your first message.

Woman (smiling with secret relief): That’s okay.  I would’ve been fine by myself.  It’s no big deal.  It should be just like when I got my other teeth pulled, you know, it’s a wisdom tooth, but it’s all the way out so they can grab it.  It’s not a surgical thing.

Older woman: That’s good.

Enter a short man, in his sixties, wearing a plaid shirt tucked into his jeans.

Short man (to woman): Well, hello again.

Woman: Hello.  (To older woman) We were both at Dr. Jibberjabber’s office today earlier. 

Short man: Yeah.  I’m his dad.  (He indicates khaki man, who smiles miserably.)  Let me ask you something.  (He sits.)  Do you think people should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? 

Woman: Well, if I know someone doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’ll say, “Happy holidays,” but I also think if I tell them “Merry Christmas” I’m just trying to be nice, so they really shouldn’t be offended.

Short man (to older woman): What do you think?

Older woman: Well, I don’t know.  It’s not a big deal to me.

Short man: I think they should be able to say, “Merry Christmas.”  If they don’t, that’s taking away from our heritage.  I mean, I’m an agnostic, so I don’t care, but… (Snorts to himself)  See, this is what I do all day, go around to dentist’s offices and ask people questions to get their minds off their troubles.

Woman and older woman laugh politely.

Receptionist: Elizabeth?

Woman (stands up): Yes?

Receptionist: It’s time for you to go back.

Older woman takes hand of younger woman, they approach desk to exit scene.

Short man: Good luck!

Woman: Thanks.

END SCENE.