Perhaps you’d enjoy my pithy book reviews on Shelfari, which will not allow me to post my bookshelf any other way.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
The last two summers of my elementary school years, I went to camp. The first time was pretty scary—I rarely had slept away from my parents. Although I was generally an independent sort, when there were sleepovers, friends slept at our house. We were the party house. I was worried about becoming homesick the way some people, in November, begin to worry about catching a cold. I might lose it. I might freak out.
This camp was in a tiny town in Mississippi. How tiny? A trip into “town” was a trip to Koscuisko, where Oprah Winfrey was raised. That place is no metropolis. They have a Wal-Mart, is all. The town where the camp was had a video rental place and a gas station. For a time, they had a tiny grocery store. And they had a church, of course. It was a town founded on religion.
The only activity in town revolved around bringing people to Jesus and keeping them firmly tethered there. Camp was one such program. The others were a Christian radio station and a boarding school.
I had been raised Lutheran: terribly average Protestant. We believed in Jesus, as a nice, clean, good man. Our sanctuary had a gold cross at the front. We had communion from small shot glasses, kneeling before that cross, two candles, and a 1960s textile backdrop that blended up from yellows and whites to deep blues near the ceiling. Other people might be going to hell if they didn’t believe what we believed. This was mentioned as an embarrassing aside. We were encouraged to bring friends to church, but, frankly, I didn’t buy the whole hell thing. It was so extreme. It didn’t make sense. I had grown up in this calm, orderly, pleasant suburb, and the idea of eternal damnation was way outside my reasonable middle-class mindset. I never saw my parents throw out Jesus like a life preserver to strangers. We did things like going door to door near Halloween asking for canned goods with my Sunday school class, and caroling at nursing homes. We followed rules and gave to the community in a neat, pleasant way.
In our cabin at camp, we read the same Bible stories that I had heard at church. I was a Sunday school whiz. I was down with these stories. When we raced to find books of the Bible, rather than memorize the order, I flipped through the upper-right corner, and usually won the glow-in-the-dark cross or the little wooden picture of Jesus the shepherd. I was a fast flipper and a fast reader. Beyond merely reading stories or running page-turning contests, though, the counselors at camp wanted us to memorize Bible verses. That was weird. I had never been asked to memorize anything but the multiplication tables. And, I mean, I got the gist of the book. Why cram it in my brain word for word?
A week of camp culminated in a theatrical reenactment of Jesus’ life, produced very simply, in the woods. We walked across to the other side of the lake on this important night, and sat on wooden benches. (One question I always have is: how are they going to fake the nails in the hands? At the camp production, someone just slipped his hands through ropes around each end of the cross’ crossbar.) At the end of the show, when all the bedsheet-clad counselors had left the stage, it was announced that if you had not yet “asked Jesus into your heart,” you could stay back and have someone assist you in praying this prayer.
I wasn’t sure if I was in the clear at this point, or not. Hadn’t I been raised properly Christian? Hadn’t I spent every Sunday of my life behaving properly in church? Wasn’t God cool with me like my parents were? If they didn’t reprimand, that meant things were cool. I wasn’t often reprimanded. I was a reasonably compliant kid.
I also couldn’t make a spectacle of myself by staying back. Wouldn’t my parents be shamed if their daughter, the daughter of the president of the congregation and the Sunday school teachers, needed remedial tutoring in God? I did not need special attention. I could certainly handle this myself.
Although I was not convinced it was necessary, I did innoculate myself against hell back in my bunk, mentally pressing out: Jesus, come into my heart. I want to be saved. Would that do it? Did Jesus know that I doubted the process, and would this make it all invalid? Wasn’t God smarter than I was? Maybe it a letter-of-the-law type of thing, like going to church every Sunday? God just needed a “t” crossed with the proper prayer? Did Jesus know that I understood why a lot of people could think his whole saving-the-world story made no sense? Did God know that I would hate Him if I thought he sent people to hell for something so dumb as not praying a one-time-only, kindergarten type of prayer? There’s no way I could work with that kind of God.
I’d like to say that the whole thing seems completely silly to me now. I secretly think, well, if the world is crazier than I thought… if I am wrong… then at least I have my Pascal wager inoculation from sixth grade. I often believe that there is divinity in the world, that it is mysterious and powerful, and, at its core, productive. I generally expect that death is the end. I plan for nothing afterward. If the mystery of me continues to exist somehow, I hope that will be as pleasant as the moments I’ve felt close to God in my mortal life. But I guess I’ll be covered either way.
I needed massages when I became a teacher. If you sit at a desk and type all day, you don’t need massages. You like them, your eyes roll up in your head, but you don’t need them. You need a massage if part of your job is telling people the same thing 6-100 times a day, and occasionally being called a bitch for not accepting late homework.
However, teaching didn’t provide me with the salary for frequent professional massages. That’ s an expensive habit. Other teachers advised me that cheaper options were available: you could go get the discount massage at the massage school in town.
Professional and twice a year had been white towels, fresh flowers. Once a month, student, half-price is ER-style curtains and uncertain direction. You sign in at a desk more medical than cosmotological. The student takes your clipboard and says, “Is there any particular reason you’re here? Just to relax?”
“My shoulders,” I say, following into the huge room. The masseuse-in-training leaves you to undress. I hang up my clothes. I slither under blanket, sheets.
There’s nothing unpleasant about being rubbed down by a well-intentioned healer. It’s always good to be warm and naked and touched—whether it’s personal or not. But these beginners, who charge half price, make you realize what can go wrong.
You can run out of lotion. Burn! You can rub nicely, without digging the creases out of a muscle. You can lean over and push your boobs onto somebody’s leg. Tucking those sheets in six different configurations to hide the gynecologists’ territory is not easy. It’s not that I’m so modest, it’s just that it can get chilly.
“I’m sorry,” says the sniffler. “I have allergies.” Don’t be alarmed that I’m rubbing my germ-infested hands all over you.
“You doing okay?” the talker interrupts, while I’m busy visualizing the light opening in my forehead.
“Is that good?” More experienced massage therapists ask this some other way, because the question elicits either an inappropriate, “Oh yeah!” or a grunt. You can’t really say, “No.”
The cushion thingy that’s supposed to go under your ankles can be under your feet instead. Your head can hang too low on the support, dropping your chin or lip on the metal bar underneath. Cold metal. Like getting braces, or lockjaw.
Whatever the misstep, I want to just shut up and take it. I didn’t come here to teach any more. I tolerate the metal under my chin, a little too slimy on the lotion. I’m breathing and sinking, to restore whatever has been eroded in the last few weeks.
Still, afterwards I will fill out the little survey. Drink my cool water. Give her a 3 out of 4 for sheet tucking. I can do that much.
Last night I celebrated our nation’s return to reason. I read the New York Times and listened to cello music on a scratchy record. I baked a cake, and I chatted with a gentleman caller, completely unchaperoned.
As Mr. Vonnegut would say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
…Every time I hear “President-elect Obama,” my blood pressure eases, my shoulders sink, and I lose the lines between my eyebrows.