jungleWe breathed the thick air of the jungle of Omaha, the day after Grandma’s funeral.

There were fuzzy gibbons, one of them with a baby hooked to her, and we looked hard at the two of them, my mother, my sisters, me, us four.

We walked through the butterfly house, watching our feet to not crush anyone.  We stepped through sliding doors into the butterfly check room, where there were mirrors, and a woman in a wheelchair told us to look ourselves over, check our pockets for butterflies.

I read Ecclesiastes, as I had at Grandpa’s funeral, same podium, same passage, me twice as old.  My hair is shorter, blonder, I have wrinkles that stay between my eyebrows and my forehead, and you can see now on my jaw, where it will sag.

I spent the mass looking mostly at unpainted wooden St. Joseph, just as I did twenty years before, because their Jesus there looks too pained, St. Joseph with his carpentry square, useless old St. Joseph, there to teach Jesus nothing he needs to know.

My reading included cryptic bit: “Every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God. I know that, whatever God does, it will be for ever.”  I emphasized the drink.  What the rest of it meant, who knew?

I experienced the pleasure of, for two solid days, having the circus of my extended family around me, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, great-aunt, second cousins, cousins removed, everyone someone to talk to, one baby to kiss, two toddlers to chase, one wore a cape. “You can’t catch me!”  We could, we didn’t.

Just the four of us saw her at the mortuary in her casket.  I touched the dead her, just a bit, to say hi, not much, you know you can mess the body up, there is makeup on her hands.

I was once criticized for wishing aloud death was more real, less made up.  And now I like makeup for dead people, why not?  At the grave, though, we did not stay to see it lowered, a stranger, a man, stayed alone, not that we wouldn’t have, but it was snowing and so cold we were pressed as tight as New Yorkers under the green tent while the priest zipped through what should be said, my sister was next to me and her legs spasmed from the cold, our breath hurt to take in.

We got back into the cars and Grandma went down on her own, not that she needed us.

Back at the wacky hotel, where all the rooms were named after U.S. presidents, my family took over the breakfast room with beer and tequila and whiskey and our traditional trivia competition, louder than it’s ever been.  I was very wrong about one question, one of my cousins correctly answered first man in space, my sister was robbed of who invented the television.

The butterflies sat on trays, on browned bananas and slices of fruit.  The macaws in the jungle picked pieces of fruit off of wires hung for them.  We had lunch in a room overlooking the jungle exhibits, I ate a yellow banana, two tacos, and burned Spanish rice.  The gibbons were still swinging and pausing and looking back at us.

Where I’m From

They took things too seriously.  They were probably the kind of people who refused the marijuana cigarette on the deck of the Mayflower because marijuana, as everyone knows, is a gateway drug.  My ancestors came over to America when New Amsterdam was New Amsterdam, and settled down as farmers in New Rochelle, New York.  In the late 1700s, when the colonial shit started to hit the fan, a lot of their neighbors heard about soldiers and Rush Limbaugh types printing up pamphlets, and they responded by shrugging their shoulders like, Whatever, and boiling the beef for dinner as usual.  My people,on the other hand, were thinking, This isn’t right.  This is our king they’re talking about! And they quietly packed up their things and moved to Canada.

This certainly doesn’t make them unAmerican.  What is more American than earnestness flowing slightly out of proportion?  That, in fact, is exactly how Europeans identify us in airports.  Americans look stressed out about doing the right thing, while Europeans are just really, really relieved to have gone sixty years without starting another embarrassing World War.

And maybe this is why I spend so much time concerned about what I am doing, and if it is the right thing, and what it all means.  Without which, I guess, I wouldn’t have much to write about.  Unfortunately, it also means that I worry that buying a car with an automatic transmission will affect my whole being.  It may mean I have given up on youth and sensuality.  Maybe my ancestors are the reason I am consumed by questions about how to structure the English curriculum.  Not so consumed that I’m grading essays right now.  Small tasks are not as fun as deep, terrible consideration of the big picture.

The healthy thing, I think, is to take things very seriously, and then go have dinner and wine and get a good night’s sleep.  To examine when it’s time to examine, and then to stare dumbly for a while, to shrug and remind yourself that if you haven’t started a World War, you’re probably not such a bad person.

I spend the school year examining and grabbing at various tactics and wrestling a thousand tasks to the ground.  Now it’s time to ease up.  When all the leaves are out, fully grown, I know it’s time to start opening the palms.  The students will squirm away.  Too much examining digs your crow’s feet prematurely deep.  Summer isn’t serious, and it’s almost here.

*Note: this writing reflects nothing on actual, true-life relatives, and their actual “issues,” as I solely lay claim to said “issues,” and they are wonderful people who have generously tolerated both my serious and my flippant remarks for 33 years.  All genealogical information is based on my sloppy and cursory clicking through Ancestry.com.  These ancestors certainly did not come over on the Mayflower– they came from Amsterdam some time later.  It is true that many of us remain in Canada, while I am descended from those who returned to America, either because they realized how awesome the colonies turned out to be, or (more likely) because they were not laid back enough to make it as Canadians.

The Whistle

I’m going to take a couple of risks here: ranting about how other people should raise their children (bearing in mind that I have no children, to make it even juicier), and writing about a rerun on television.  Today Oprah’s show reran a feature on a 7-year-old girl who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  This time I got to see the whole thing, which riled me up even more than when it originally aired.

This little girl gets violent and sometimes has to be hospitalized.  What I couldn’t understand was why she is not always hospitalized.  We have facilities where people with all kinds of dangerous and/or high-maintenance disabilities can be tended by professionals in a highly structured environment.  Sheltering people who dangerous to others is one of their primary missions.  I’ve actually heard some positive things about these places. Just like all homes, I suspect, some are happier than others.

The little girl’s parents trade off days with her, living in separate apartments.  They never get to be alone together.  One parent is always with their other child, in that other apartment.  The girl is too dangerous to be allowed to live in the same dwelling with her own brother.

The parents say that they have to constantly engage the girl in conversation to keep her voices at bay, to keep evaluating her for danger.  The dad said he had gotten so overwhelmed and depressed by his situation that he tried to commit suicide.  The whole story made me furious.

Why should the possible happiness of one girl trump the possible happiness of two adults and their other child? And why are they so insistent that living at home with them, exhausted and depressed as they are, is better than growing up in a hospital with caretakers who are (comparatively) rested?  It’s not true that only biological parents can love and nurture a child.  And how about their other child being raised by parents who are exhausted and depressed?  Is it right to sacrifice his needs for hers?

But the main thing I realized was that watching tired people makes me mad.  Not just mad for them, but mad for myself.  I watched that dad talk about his suicide attempt, how he didn’t even go to the hospital to get his stomach pumped because he had to stay with the kids, I thought, give yourself a break!  Let someone give you a break!  It is too hard for you!  Admit it!  Take a break!

This is almost impossible for me to do.  I can talk the Italian vacation talk, but I am still a worker American.  I struggled today merely to admit that I could not get all my students’ projects graded over the weekend.  Sorry, guys, I said.  I had to have some time off.  I can’t always get the job done.  Sometimes I just crap out.

So for that dad, especially, I will not feel guilty about spending a couple of hours on the couch tonight, drawing and playing iTouch Skee-ball and eating popcorn.  I don’t have a desperately needy child, but I was very tired from my migraine yesterday.  And tired people should do their damndest to find time to rest: tired dads, tired girls with schizophrenia, and tired teachers with only nine days left in the semester, not that I am counting.

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.

Teachers and Undertakers

I was not invited to the economic meltdown.  I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security.  (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression.  I’m the former.) 

Even worse: I didn’t invest.  My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund.  I own my car, and I rent my apartment. 

I’m not throwing this out to brag.  It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.

The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion.  I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years.  During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.

Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.” 

Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty.  Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral.  They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.

But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case.  Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality.  And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.

Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help.  I have a huge family.  I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless.  I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch.  But I don’t know.

One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net.  This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop.  We have to become more like the Europeans.  Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable. 

She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably.  This is not about emotional concern for the poor.  It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.

Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange.  What would that be like?  What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health?  What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market? 

What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back?  What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves?  Could we make that happen?  I guess we’re about to find out.

Vacation in 10 Sentences.

1. Stared across Missouri and radiated disbelief.

2. I hand my brother a book, and he reads the whole thing in two hours straight.

3. I chatter pathetically as I approach the scary roller coaster, and later attempt to photograph some ducks who had been making love in the bushes.

4. With both of us wearing plastic ponchos, I look at my sister as the young European man unbuckles his seatbelt gleefully, and think, not only does he want to get wet, he wants to die on the Popeye ride.

5. Eating another veggie-ful veggie burger, I silently concur with my middle school French teacher: corn is animal feed, not people feed.

6. I wait for my latte to cool, sitting on a fake New York City stoop, my thighs twitch from pushing my stepmom’s wheelchair uphill, and I know that my dad is enjoying the hell out of those fake Blues Brothers.

7. To satisfy my desire for a Mickey bar, three siblings ask six EPCOT employees, walk across six countries twice, causing me to bend double, reach out my arms, and cry, “GO ON WITHOUT ME!”  (Note: Freddie the American funnel cake man owes us a funnel cake… bastard.)

8.  Yes (gulp) I lost a Space Mountain Fast Pass.

9. As the delirious family begins to question the wisdom of dining at the Kentucky catfish restaurant, I insist, “We should just eat here!  We’re all starving!” ; consequently, I enjoy those hushpuppies tremendously.

10. After apologies for the obligatory family dispute, I eat Taco Bell’s edible rice and styrofoam tortilla chips, and gush at the unexpected forsythia and tulips in Kansas City.