Spidey Sense

When I was growing up, we had this book entitled, “Be Nice to Spiders.”  Its narrative suggested that taking a spider to the zoo was a compassionate alternative to smashing it.  Spiders kill and eat a lot of the truly nasty bugs that you don’t want in your house.  And can’t we all just get along?  

I had generally subscribed to this philosophy in the past, until I encountered three nasty spiders in two days.  The third, I smashed, within one minute of identifying it, with a tennis shoe, on my front door.  Three spiders in two days doesn’t inspire compassion.  I was afraid I might need to take out a restraining order, actually.

The first spider I ran into while I was preparing to do the dishes.  There I was, staunchly facing a domestic challenge, and under my dirty plates was a huge brown arachnid with legs long enough to choke me.  Of course I screamed and ran out of the room.

I happened to have ordered “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” from Netflix this day, so I soothed myself by putting it on, creating a nice wall of denial about the spider’s presence.  I hadn’t seen “Pee-Wee” since it was on television.  I wondered how it would strike me as an adult.  I liked Mr. Kite, all alone up there, ready to give warnings, and I remembered the sliding, winking sphinx.  (He doesn’t do anything.)  I like the genie, although he is scary-looking all turquoise tin man makeup.  I pondered the wisdom and prevalence of the deus ex machina scheme in a television show.  

Pee Wee popped out the kind of random, snappy ideas that adults find totally stupid unless they’ve been drinking heavily (“Let’s make ice cream soup!”  “Let’s dance!”  “Let’s put on my crazy glasses!”).  But it is perfect for kids, and my sisters and I liked it, back in the day.  It was part of our Saturday morning lineup, along with Gummi Bears and Muppet Babies.

After all that distraction, unfortunately Mr. Spider was still waiting for me in the sink.  He stayed in the sink, patiently waiting, while I left for a birthday party.  At this birthday party, I swear on the Genie, I was telling the story of Spider 1, my boyfriend was agreeing to come over and kill him, and immediately I turned around to see another spider on the wall behind me.  A little one this time, but still.  I left that spider alone, I mean, it wasn’t my house, or my spider to kill.  

My boyfriend bravely killed Spider 1 the next day.  He acted disoriented and didn’t even run away (the spider, not the boyfriend).  Squash.

Being a spiritual sort, and an artist, after I myself squashed Spider 3, I walked upstairs thinking, what do all these spiders represent?  What part of my nature?  What part of my experience?  And what could it all say to me about the human condition?  

I was stumped.  I now believe the three spiders were mid-century French spiders, who may or may not stand for anything.

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Death Becomes Him

The week before Michael Jackson died, I bought “Say Say Say” from iTunes.  To be honest, this was a coincidence:  I was in a cheesy-former-Beatles mood, and not on a Michael Jackson bender.  However, I have all my life felt obligated to turn Michael Jackson jokes around with, “Okay, but he made some great dance tunes.”  Sometimes I felt so obligated that I even said something aloud.  As I recall, before Michael Jackson was dead, he was a freak of nature, and it was open season on him.  He was a total joke.

Then he was dead, and I was listening to some early Jackson 5 tune I hadn’t heard before, blasting out of a lush cream Cadillac at Quik Trip.  On a lazy evening, I even watched a hastily prepared tribute on network television.  What a genius he was.  What an amazing dancer.  Fred Astaire loved him.

The Michael Jackson coverage reminded me of when I went to a funeral for a man no one liked.  It wasn’t that he was rough around the edges or grouchy.  For the whole time I knew him, he spent his life alternating between doing only two things: drinking a bottle of vodka, and sleeping it off so he could drink another.  His wife was only sometimes able to support the two of them on her salary.  They struggled from day to day, and people brought them stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods to keep them going.  Then he got cancer, and people gossiped, everyone secretly thought: good.

We went to his funeral six months later, and of course people talked about how he had turned to Jesus at the end, and what a good guy he was.   It was a strange thing to sit through, because all along, I was thinking, I wanted this guy to die.  I thought it would free him and everyone around him from a painful situation.  Then he was dead, and it seemed wrong to hate his addiction and the pain he’d caused his wife.

I have dead grandparents and living grandparents.  The dead ones, even the dead ones who were thoroughly challenging characters, at least remain static, and allow the wounds they inflicted to heal peacefully.  Live people have annoying needs like hunger and needing to get to a bathroom, and they have unbearable neurotic routines that they wrestle with acting out all day long.  Living relatives may harp at you about how you should or shouldn’t be like them, when you are not them, and might not ever be.

One of my great-grandfathers, in fact, was an undertaker by trade, and I think he would agree with me here.  He used to remark, when people expressed fear of his workplace, dead people won’t hurt you.  It’s the living ones you ought to be afraid of.  Dead people are easier to admire, easier to trust.

I imagine the next time I dance to “Billie Jean” at a wedding, no one will have to preemptively joke about what Michael Jackson was about.  We can just dance.

Borrowing the Car

When I was eighteen, I could already drive a stick shift. Definitely.  I had to learn to drive on a stick because that was the car my mom had.  It was drive a stick or don’t drive.  But I had never driven a European car– we had a Corolla.

So at eighteen, I sat alone in a yellow Volkswagen and tried to figure out how the hell to make it go backward.  There was an “R” on the lever there, but it wouldn’t go “R,” and although I suspected I could throw it in neutral, roll back into the street and peel out, it seemed unwise to rely on solely the forward gears for a journey of any distance.

That day I was planning to go to the beach, about an hour or two of driving from my uncle’s apartment complex.  Instead, after a good half hour of frustration, I returned inside and watched another one of the videotapes he happened to own.  “St. Elmo’s Fire,” perhaps, or “Days of Wine and Roses” or “Born on the Fourth of July.”  There were a lot of downers.

It was hard for me to believe that my uncle was letting me drive his car, especially since this was New Jersey.  I was not from New Jersey.  I didn’t know where I was going.  Clearly he didn’t understand how clueless I was.

I was about to begin college, in two weeks.  My uncle and aunt were putting me up on the east coast between my mom’s departure and the beginning of school.  (School started earlier for my sisters back home.)  I hadn’t absorbed the reality of leaving high school.  After waiting desperately for it to end, it was over so suddenly.

When he got home from work, my uncle showed me how to shove the stick down and over to get it into neutral.  Then again he unfolded a Garden State map on his shiny dining room table, and showed me the route.  He refolded it neatly, like the engineer he was.  Why did he think that I could handle this?  I could never have refolded that map.

The next morning I made the trip from New Brunswick to Ocean Grove.  Right before Ocean Grove, on the New Jersey coast, you have Asbury Park.  I had been warned that parts of Asbury Park were unsavory, and I managed to get a little turned around in a neighborhood where men were standing along the sidewalks looking like they didn’t have much to do except watch you get lost and frown.  But I calmly kept going, and just around the corner, Ocean Grove seemed about as safe as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

In fact, Ocean Grove is similar to a PBS show. It was founded by Methodists.  They have a lot of  huge old Victorian houses with porches and awnings, and three blocks of a main street.  They have lunch spots, an ice cream parlor, and a few gift shops with handmade signs.  I ate my peanut butter and jelly on the beach.  Read.  Walked down the main street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.  Went back to the sand and napped.

From a pay phone, I called my uncle and aunt to tell them I would be late, which gave me a strange feeling.  I was just calling to be polite, not to ask permission or anything.  I could have the car.  I could go.  They didn’t care when I returned.  Maybe I had graduated from high school, maybe I had gotten into college and put together the tuition, but why did my uncle think I could be trusted with a European car and the east coast?  It scared me, a little.  Because he seemed like a pretty smart guy.

Aside: I just looked up the town to check my memories of it.  Ocean Grove was founded as a dry town, and continues to be, oddly situated as it is on the party-time Jersey shore.  It also was the site of some big fight about whether or not a gay couple could hold a civil union ceremony on city/church property, which is totally lame– I love gay people getting married, or not getting married, or whatever they want to do.  Anyway, don’t ever go there, because I don’t want to see you while I’m trying to take a nap.

This is the Place

In two weeks, I am flying to Rome.  I’m going because if I died without seeing Rome, I’d be pissed.  I am also going because I am very legalistic and proper, and Rome is the third in the tier of European cities that are must-see.  And lastly, I am going because I am strongly identified with Western Civilization, and I am a Christian by heritage, tradition, and my own love and practice.  Rome is, both physically and psychologically, where Western Civilization and Christianity were baked.  You can frost it or garnish them a lot of different ways, but they are what they are.

More than seeing Great Masterpieces (although I love that), what has blown me away about visiting Europe is being in the same place as someone I love… someone I love who has been dead for a long time.  

In Paris, I visited Chopin’s grave and Hugo’s apartment.  As much as I may try, listening to Chopin’s music and reading Hugo’s books in humble Kansas City, it is hard to believe that Frederic and Victor were real people.  Just people.  People who like all people had beds and noses and then needed graves.  There are a bazillion other graves in the cemetery with Chopin.  I know this because I had a hard time finding his, and I walked past a lot of them.  People are still living in apartments on either side of where Hugo lived.  There was a car parked out front with a carseat  and a sign that said, “Bebe a bord.”

I went to the Globe mock-up in London.  I thought it would be interesting and kind of silly, like a Renaissance festival, but instead it nearly brought me to tears.  All these plays were written by a person, and he (whomever he was) ran around right here in this neighborhood, quite a while ago.  I was happy just standing on the ground that Shakespeare had stood on.  It made me proud to be a human, and relieved me of any worry or competitive angst as a writer.  I didn’t need to be Shakespeare, because Shakespeare had already done that!  And he had done it so well.  I could just be myself, a bad writer, or a sometimes good writer, or give up writing entirely, I mean, whatever I felt like doing was fine.  

So other than eating European food (somehow automatically superior to everything on our continent) and drinking red wine with every meal without looking either indulgent or alcoholic, I am going to Rome to be where St. Paul was stewing in prison, writing fervent letters.  To be where Martin Luther was climbing stairs on his knees and wondering if that kind of penance was necessary or useful.

I am going to be where Keats and Shelley were.  I am too old to love like Keats, and too coarse and cynical to write like Shelley, but there they were, in love and political and Keats sick and probably sweating a great deal.  And writing and writing material for generations of flakes and English majors to swoon over.

There are a lot of dead people to visit.  The good news is that they don’t care if you visit in 1500 or 1890 or 2009.  The bad news is that so many people have lived and died in Rome that I think I will be quite busy.

Shaking the Panda

In “Married Men” (a previous piece), I thought I was writing about how dangerously sexy I was, and how vigilantly moral I was, but as an astute reader pointed out, I was actually writing about loneliness.  I couldn’t put the loneliness right out there, because if there’s one thing that’s not sexy, it’s loneliness.  I would definitely like to be thought of as sexy, whether or not you find me moral.

In my sexy/moral piece, I wrote about drinking in bars, because drinking in bars can be sexy, and it provides opportunities to act morally.  Not stick-in-the-mud morally, but my favorite kind of morally, both relaxed and firm.

What I left out of the essay (among a million other things) was how depressed I was, trying to talk myself into going out, stuck in those hotel rooms.  Being in a hotel room alone is a great environment for depression.  Hotel rooms are the Chinese bamboo to the panda of depression.  It was hard to leave the room and go sit in a bar alone.  It required lipstick, a very good magazine, and my tallest shoes to escape that panda.

Yet I believe in being alone.  There’s an honesty to it.  I enjoy my own company a lot of the time.  I suspect people who can’t stand their own company are running away from something.  See how moral I am?

There was another evening in New York that I was alone:  I called my friend from the bottom of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.  Could he go to the theater that night?  No, he had to work late.  It was fine.  I bought a ticket to the theater anyway.  I took subway back uptown, put on a beautiful dress, went into an Italian restaurant and ate.  Decided to walk to the theater, save the subway fare.  I frequently blow all my money on entertainment and then walk the health out of my feet.

I would like to say it was all lovely, my favorite food and wine and dress and then a show I enjoyed very much.  I smiled and laughed through the play.  I went for a walk afterward, further downtown, and called my brother back home.  I sat on the steps in front of the public library lions and we ended up talking about my dad.  My brother’s adolescent struggle with our father is in progress, as my own fades into mythology.  I told my brother, you don’t know how I fought dad.  I fought him so hard.  And then I was grown up, and I could stop.

I walked around Manhattan for a while longer, through Herald Square, around the Empire State building.  Instead of getting a drink, I walked back to the hotel, walked the whole way.  This night was a peaceful kind of loneliness, with a little joy in that the city was so beautiful, dark and lit up, and the weather was so lovely, that you knew if someone else was with you, he might ruin it.  He might be in a bad mood, or want to go home, or be afraid to walk the city at night, or be bored, or want to go to a loud bar, the kind with music so loud you have to shout, as if the reason you went out was to primarily listen to canned music scream in your ear, rather than speak with the people you are sitting next to.  I walked from 34th Street all the way back up to 79th, and then went to bed.

The only reason I can use this anecdote in my exposure of loneliness is that I wasn’t really that lonely.  I was at a mild level of lonely that you won’t feel sorry for me or worry about me.  See, I have a brother.  And I am very concerned about him, and important to him, and he needs my wise counsel!  And I have a friend, I have plenty of friends, lots of friends!  It was just that my friend had to work late, see!

If I put in the real grind of loneliness, from another evening or another moment, I would have to wad it up and hide it in cavalier language or contrast it to the real me, which is of course very cheerful, someone who always has a pal around to buck her up, or doesn’t ever need one.  It would be less shameful for me to write about a drug habit, or a stint of crime, than to admit, simply, that I was lonely, and would have lunged at a morsel of conversation like a stray dog.  But it always arouses my attention when people tell the truth.  It happens so rarely.  Even among us highly moral folk.

Loss of Life

I was mostly asleep when I heard that George Tiller had been killed, so I thought it was a bad dream.  My dream self thought, that would be terrible if that happened.  Shot in the head in the lobby of his Lutheran church as he waited there like a good usher to guide people in. 

 The same day George Tiller lost his life, an airplane carrying two hundred people disappeared over the Atlantic.  Just disappeared.  President Sarkozy told the family, look, we’re probably not going to find anyone alive.  And they were so courageous, he said, although I don’t know what act of cowardice you could perform when confronted with tragic news.  What could you do—hide under your bed?  Punch the president in the nose? 

 I woke up completely at nine o’clock, and I heard the repetition in the top of the hour news, and I heard that George Tiller was dead, in this violent way, and they repeated, he thought he was doing the right thing.  He thought that what he was doing was right and necessary.  Performing medical procedures that might be morally blurry, but served his patients’ wishes. 

I don’t know how heavily or lightly he took his work.  Abortion is a grey area for me.  It’s certainly more serious than killing the spider in my kitchen sink.  I can’t believe it’s exactly the same as killing a healthy, born and breathing human, though.  I do believe that choosing to act, to try to do the right thing, even when the situation is horrible, when all paths are painful, is courageous.  I hope Mr. Tiller was courageously trying to do the right thing, as he saw it, even though it was morally ambiguous and painful for everyone involved.  But who knows, maybe he was a thoughtless rebellious nutcase.  Or maybe, like me, he was sometimes courageous and sometimes a thoughtless rebellious nutcase.

 The same day that Mr. Tiller and all those people flying from Brazil to France died, I got a week of my life back.  I went to a meeting about one of my summer jobs and the boss said, “Well, we have two weeks before class starts, so….”  In the bedtime story of my summer vacation, I had told myself I got two weeks off, free and clear, before I returned to teaching.  (I had a root canal and a vacation to pay for.)  I suddenly understood, at the meeting, that I had not counted the first week school was out in those free two weeks, since that week always gets polluted with grading final exams and cleaning out my classroom.  There were always four weeks in June, but the sensation of realizing I had left one out of my June conception of reality was better than winning a prize on a game show.

 I spent that afternoon at the swimming pool.  I found the water too cold to actually swim.  I just sat with my legs in.  I leaned back to see the clouds.  I watched two jets trace contrails.   I read a little.  Slept a little, under a big yellow shade.  When I looked at the clouds, or the fevery wobble of the chlorinated water, I thought of George Tiller and how his life had ended.  And those people on that airplane.  Gone.  How huge the world is, actually, and you’re still constantly sending people out into it, not knowing if you will ever see them again.  The first week after school ends, I hardly know what to do with myself.  I sleep twelve hours a night, and when I wake up, all that unstructured time is more unnerving than exciting.  I try to schedule lunches with people I ought to see, and usually they are unavailable.  This was the start of the second week, though, and my mind was untangling. I was feeling like myself again, like I wasn’t surprised to see myself in the mirror and words began to stand up for themselves instead of running by in a furious blur.

 All those people, there that Sunday morning.  It was Pentecost.  They might have been having their confirmations.  The altar linens were red.  The altar flowers were red carnations.  People were speaking in tongues in the lesson, and Jesus was saying in John how he would send an Advocate, and everything the disciples couldn’t understand was going to come out eventually.  And then somebody shot an usher in the head. 

 It’s very mysterious, me sitting in my swimsuit just to be half-naked in the open air and sunshine where it’s socially acceptable to be half-naked, and looking at clouds, in the same world where a doctor gets shot in the head at church.  Me deciding, capriciously, when I will drive home and make dinner.

Fear and Loathing at Splash Mountain

I didn’t ride a roller coaster until I was twenty-one.  My life was basically a disaster, as it should be when you are twenty-0ne.  I was submerged in a codependent romance.  I was annoyed that my first three years of freedom were not more fun than rebelling against my parents.

My misery led me to join my family on their vacation, and may have also inspired my epiphany.  Unlike some famous epiphanies, mine lacked a spotlight or an orchestral crecendo, but still startled me: rides at Disney World are not something to be afraid of.  Cancer and death are things to be afraid of, but Disney roller coasters… no. 

Epiphanies force you to do things you don’t want to do at all.  I did not want to line up for Splash Mountain.  I wanted to listen to the sanitized “Song of the South” tunes in the Winnie the Pooh gift shop and rock in their rocking chair, while maintaining a moderate heart rate and dry palms.  The rest of my family would return in a half hour, and then we would seek the mild, sing-songy pleasure of the raping and pillaging Pirates of the Caribbean.

But Splash Mountain wasn’t cancer, or death, or even dangerous, so I lined up.  One of my sisters held my hand as we snaked through the maze.  Another sister narrated the entire ride (“First you do a small hill, which really isn’t bad at all…”), and yet another sister repeated that I was going to be fine, that this was actually going to be fun. 

It clearly wasn’t going to be “fun.”  I thought I was GOING TO DIE, and I weighed by options: actually riding the ride versus the shame of ducking out at the last minute.  I wondered if they would stop the ride if I screamed something like, “I can’t do this!  Let me off!” as the train pulled away and I was all strapped in like a mental patient about to receive electroshock therapy. 

I rode every ride that year: Thunder Mountain (which is a baby ride, even for me), Splash Mountain (I don’t like that slippery-falling feeling!), Space Mountain (now my favorite), the Rock n’ Roller Coaster (upside down, no problem), and the Tower of Terror (falling is fun, but the suspense almost kills me). 

My new plan was to spend the rest of my twenties doing scary things so that I could relax.  The more things I could cross off my list of fears, the more relaxed I could become.  So I went to Europe alone.  When confronted by my infuriated boss, I refused to snitch on my coworkers.  And I taught high school freshmen– by far the scariest. 

Still, I’ve been disappointed by how fear returns.  It’s not like a cockroach you squash– it’s more like diabetes.  You have to be keeping an eye on it all the time, monitoring yourself, and it could flare up into a big crisis at any time. 

Just because I’ve vacationed alone doesn’t mean I’m not scared to do it again.  Just because I rode the Tower of Terror in 1999 didn’t mean I wasn’t scared shitless to ride Expedition Everest in 2009.   Everest was awesome, though, and I rode it twice, screaming the whole way.