May 3, Houston: The big one -- the Inprint reading -- occurs at the Alley Theatre on Monday, May 3. Do not miss it or you'll be sorry. I'm not kidding -- I'm going to say the craziest, most intellectual yet hilarious stuff I can think of, and I'll be sharing the stage with the ultra sexy Oscar Casares, too.
June 24, Houston: I'm one of the peeps scheduled to read at Poison Pen, at Houston's famous Poison Girl bar. Besides me, everyone there will be ultra, *super* sexy. Come see me and drink!
June 26, Washington, DC: I'll be reading at the American Library Association conference. Come on down.
My other blog: Go read my the Houston Chronicle parenting blog (or my ChronMomBlog, as I like to call it) and make sure my kids won't resent me more than other kids resent their own parents.
Buy my new novel, Lone Star Legend. Already did? Well, buy a few more for your friends, then. :)
Friday, June 19, 2009Fear cleanses.
Dat (my husband) said there was no way I was reading the TripAdvisor description correctly. There was no way that a scuba diving excursion would be designed for “first-timers.” I had said scuba, but must have meant snorkeling.
“No,” I told him. “it says they can show you how to scuba dive. First-timers. No experience necessary.”
Granted, it wasn’t the scuba diving excursion outfit itself that claimed this; it was a few TripAdvisor readers. But that was all we needed to sign up for the trip. Dat really, really wanted to do some sort of underwater fishy thing. I was really, really secretly scared to try it, but the positive reviews convinced me to give it a shot.
Our hosts, our co-divers, the boat and the ocean were all very nice. Captain Joe played classic rock on his radio, turning the best songs up loud as we sped away from the marina. The sun and breeze made love to my skin as I shoehorned myself into a wet suit. On our way out to the unseasonably choppy midseas, Eric and Jeff showed us how to work the masks and the respirators. “When you start going down the line…” they’d say, over and over in explanation. I didn’t know what line they meant, but decided I’d figure it all out eventually.
I was a little bit nervous. The wet plastic of the mask pressed unevenly against my nostrils, and the respirator didn’t seem to like my inhalations. “Clamp down with your teeth,” Dat said. “Make a tight seal with your lips,” Jeff said. That, plus refraining from snorting the water, plus trying to look like I wasn’t afraid. It was a lot to multi-task.
They said not to get nervous and I said I wasn’t nervous and they said they knew I wasn’t nervous and that was good because the worst thing you could do was get nervous. The best thing you could do was not be nervous. I wasn’t, I said. Because I was forcing myself to breathe nice and slow, like non-nervous people do. I was not clenching anything, except for my teeth when I needed to suck some more air through the freaking respirator because I needed oxygen to live. See? Everything was fine. A. O. K. Under rigid control.
We were the only first-timers on board. The other people were very nice. Two of them were from France. They didn’t speak much English. I told them one of the two French sentences I remember: “Je ne parle pas de francais.” They seemed to know what I meant. (My other French sentence is “Ou est le w.c.?” but I decided to save that one for later.)
The non-first-timers jumped off the boat all haphazard. They came back awed and agog. The French diver said a lot of French words to her mother about the things she’d seen under the sea. It seemed really exciting. For her. I imagined being her and being excited, in a wetsuit I’d purchased myself that fit my bikini’d form like a glove. Being the kind of woman who wore bikinis with no makeup and bought serious sports equipment and traveled across oceans to partake in the oceans themselves. Bringing my mom along to photograph my exploits and enjoy the sun. I admired her.
I admired the dolphins. They seemed happy, just like most dogs do, but they were also tricksters. They knew how our boat and our cameras worked, and they made sure to do flips and spins only when our boat and cameras were facing the wrong way. “Mahalo, bitches!” they’d call as they flipped and spun. “Awww…! O-o-o-oh!” we sighed.
It was first-timer time, then. They asked who wanted to go first, me or Dat.
“Dat’s going first,” I said. They laughed, I can’t remember why. They said something about “guinea pig.” But I just remember thinking that if I watched him do it, I could do it right after him. And not be nervous. Because I was not nervous.
Dat jumped directly into the water, his head going right under, then bobbing up again, then steadily sinking down as he went along the line, which turned out to be a blue rope and not the white rope that I’d spent the last half hour watching.
As soon as he went under the water all the way, my heart started banging against the inside of my wet suit. Then Eric came to get me.
I spit out my respirator. I pulled off my mask. “I can’t go,” I said. Whispered, actually, because no one heard me and I had to say it louder.
Eric sat and tried to figure out what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, as long as I didn’t go into the water like Dat had just done. Everything was fine, as long as I stayed sitting right here.
“Are you sure?” Eric asked. He was a nice man with a very nice face, but it flashed through my mind like a savage bloody vision that I wasn’t going to let him put me into the water. His hands were at his sides. It was okay. “I’m sure,” I said.
Jeff came up – having left Dat below the surface – to pick me up. Eric had to tell him I wasn’t going. I made a joke about it, saying that I’d planned it that way all along.
Jeff went back under and Eric went up front with the others and I was left there alone with my abashedness and the people who mostly spoke French.
The woman I admired smiled sympathetically at me and said, very slowly and carefully, “The first time… my first time… I was… terrified.” It sounds beautiful when French people say words with Rs in them, but I understood that she really meant it. I also understood that she’d overcome her terror that first time, and now felt that it’d been worth it.
Dat came back early. He’d gotten some water in his respirator and asked to be pulled up. Was he okay? Yes, he was okay. “What happened to you?” he asked me. “I got too scared,” I said. “Yeah,” he told me. “When I got down there, I was thinking, ‘There’s no way Gwen could do this.’” The boat started up and pulled away. The dolphins had gone out of sight.
I felt more and more embarrassed – more like a bailing sissy failure. Jeff sat by me again and I asked him questions. “How many people end up bailing altogether, like I did?” I asked. He said maybe one of ten. He reiterated his and Eric’s belief that, if those people would just try it, they’d probably overcome the fear and enjoy it.
Because I hate the way failure tastes, I thought hard and fast and realized that the part that was actually scaring me was the suddenness of the being underwater. What if, I asked Jeff, there was a way that I could go in gradually?
Jeff’s face brightened. It was the easiest thing in the world. I didn’t have to jump in at all. I could slide in. Of course I could! They really wanted me to try it and like it and be glad that I’d done so.
“Hold up! Gwen’s going to try it!” They knew all our names, and they said my name all over the boat. Gwen’s gonna try! Gwen’s gonna do it! Gwen is brave! Gwen is not a failure!
Lickety-split, I got suited back up. Mask, respirator, flippers, vest, weights, tank. Blasting Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” the boat skidded to a halt on the choppy/happy friendly glinting waves.
Jeff jumped in to wait as Eric led me to the plank like… no, not like a pirate leading a prisoner to the gangplank. It was like… something fun. Something good. Something peaceful. Something calm. Something not nervous. I am not nervous. I am breathing slowly because I am calm. In. Out. In, dammit, with my teeth. Slowly. Out, slowly, again.
I sat on the edge of the plank. This is good, I thought. I can do this, I said in my mind. I took a moment to clear my mind. Then I slid into the water. I sank under the water.
And something went wrong.
You know what went wrong? I was under the water, and I had plastic pressing against my nose, and a big hunk of plastic clogging my mouth, and weights all over my body, and crap strapped to my feet. And that was all wrong. And so I had to get out of that situation.
You know how, in those old movies, they’d show a stable burning down and somebody having to go and save the horses? And the horses are always completely freaking out, and they don’t want to do what the person’s trying to get them to do? The person’s trying to get the rope around them and lead them out to safety, and they’re all neighing and jumping up and kicking at the person and completely having horsey mental breakdowns? And you’re thinking, “Why doesn’t that dumb-ass horse just follow the guy out?” But it can’t, because it's too scared and rife with animal instinct.
That was me, there in the water. And poor Jeff was the guy trying to save me. And Eric was calling from the boat at both of us. “Gwen, let go of the line!” they told me. And I held the line in a death grip, because I didn’t want to sink down again. “Gwen, stop kicking your legs!” they said. And I kicked like there was no tomorrow, because I wanted to propel myself out of the water. “Gwen, keep breathing in the respirator!” I spit that respirator out of my mouth and then fought to keep my mouth above the choppy-ass waves that were higher than they’d looked from the boat, now that I was down in them, grasping and kicking and gulping salty air. Poor Jeff treaded water around me, trying to do I-don’t-know-what. I understood later that he was trying to inflate my vest so I’d float, trying to remove my flippers so I could climb the ladder. But at that moment, I only knew with my horse-brain that I had to breathe and I had to get free and I would have to rear up and kick if anyone tried to stop me. “Grab the last rung of the ladder!” they kept saying. But that rung was under the water and they obviously couldn’t see that I was dying and so I could only rely on myself and I had to save myself and I kicked and struggled and gulped and kicked and fought and grabbed….
Eventually Jeff herded me to a position where he could yank off one of my flippers and Eric could reach over the edge of the boat and rip off my stupid mask, now useless without the respirator. That did the trick, turned me human again. “Thank you!” I sobbed, finally able to breathe right. I stopped kicking and Jeff took off the other flipper, and then it was perfectly easy to climb up to safety.
I was alive.
Back at our seats, Dat comforted me by putting his arms around me and sighing, “I knew you shouldn’t have gone in. But you were brave to try. I’m proud of you, baby.”
He told me then what’d actually happened to him under the water. He’d gotten some water in his respirator, yes, I already knew that part. But then, he’d panicked. His number one instinct was to spit out the respirator and take a big breath of air. Of course there was no air outside the respirator and if he did that, he’d die.
I cringed in vicarious fear as he explained how he’d fought to overcome the urge. He’d signaled Jeff and, slowly to keep the pressure steady, made his way back up the line, breathing long and full around the water that he felt gathering near his mouth. Silently, he’d fought like hell to stay calm.
I felt like crying, imagining Dat having to go through that. I thanked God he’d had the presence of mind not to spit out his respirator. Then I felt so horrible when he said that, all the way up, he was worried about me - worried that I was coming down and that I might get scared and not be able to stay calm.
We sat with our arms around each other and smiled at the water rushing by. We were happy to be alive, proud to have survived what we now knew were survivable ordeals. Dat had learned something about himself that day: He was strong and wouldn’t crack under pressure in life-or-death situations. And I’d learned something about myself, too. It was that… um… No one would get close enough to steal my wallet if I were drowning. Yeah!
Everyone else on the boat – the hosts, the captain, four other passengers - was quiet. They were all downcast. Or maybe something other than downcast – it was hard to tell because they all avoided my gaze. Maybe they were angry and hated me for ruining the boat trip.
Jesus, I felt so horrible then. I had ruined the whole freaking boat trip. The beautiful scenery, the dolphins, everyone else’s awesome dives – they were all overshadowed now by the humiliating spectacle of my EPIC SCUBA FAIL.
Seriously, no one would even look at me. How could they? I asked myself. They’d just witnessed me acting like a wild animal or tantrum-y child. Then, as for Eric and Jeff… when I caught their eyes, they looked almost sad. I knew they were annoyed with me and maybe even stressing over the possibility of me being the kind of litigious a-hole who would sue them.
The only thing that’d stayed happy was the music. I listened to it and laughed aloud, despite everything. Because, hey -- I was alive. I turned to the French maman, who regarded me with distant maternal concern. With short words and an elaborate pantomime, I told her that I was regretful and wished everyone would be happy again. She pantomimed that everyone was fine and I shouldn’t worry about it. It was no biggie.
The next time Eric and Jeff walked by, I flagged them down and apologized profusely, and thanked them for saving me from the horrible fate that everyone else on the boat had been able to handle. They said no apology or thanks were necessary. Everything was okay.
The French woman and the couple from Bulgaria by way of Boston stayed busy with their gear, so I left them alone. I stood at the rail and listened to the music that Capt. Joe had turned loud again. I thought about approaching his section of the boat and asking how often he saw people fail so spectacularly at diving. Or maybe I’d compliment his taste in music. But Capt. Joe seemed married to the sea, by the way he kept scanning the water and ignoring the rest of us, so I left him alone, too.
I looked out at the water and sang along quietly with The Who and Steve Miller. I was alive. I giggled quietly to myself. Dat came up and put his arm around me and we absorbed the awesomeness of our surroundings.
After a few songs, I saw that we were actually waiting for one of the other divers to return. He’d been gone for a long time. Capt. Joe was scanning the water for this guy, revving the engine for this guy to hear. Selfishly relieved that we were all focused on someone else now, I scanned the water like hungry seagull. When Casey finally came up (wetsuit-less, his gear over nothing but swim trunks and chest hair), he was sheepish about having kept us waiting so long. He’d had some kind of issue with something or other, but now he was okay. Eric and Jeff helped him put away his tank, and then Capt. Joe drove us away.
“Check this out.” Casey sat by me and showed me the video he’d taken of manta rays and giant fish at the bottom of the sea. It was totally awesome. Afterwards I told him, “Hey, you missed it… I tried to dive and totally failed. I had a major panic attack in the water and everyone was freaking out. It was hilarious.”
“Really? Aw, man.” He frowned. So did I. Casey had moved to Oahu from Colorado two years before and took this diving trip as often as he could. He and I had bonded, earlier, over our shared affinity for classic rock. He was a cool guy, and I’d been willing to sacrifice my dignity to get a laugh out of him and cheer everyone up. But instead, he looked disappointed.
“It’s okay!” I told him. “I’m alive. It’s all good now. I just feel shitty because Eric and Jeff are sad.”
“Naw, they’re fine,” he said. “They just wanted you to have a good time. Did you have a good time, at least, before that happened?”
“Yeah! I’m still having a good time now!” I couldn’t explain it, but I was having a very good time. Maybe it was my newfound pride in my survival instincts, or maybe it purely the post-panic adrenaline rush, but I was so happy at that moment. Who wouldn’t be happy, out on a boat at beautiful sea, with dolphins and music all around?
The next day, Eric emailed us the underwater pictures they’d taken of Dat, of fish, of a sunken ship or car or something, and thankfully none of me flailing like a rabid walrus. Eric said in his email that he hoped we wouldn’t give up on diving, and that the next time we came to Oahu, he would take us out again for free.
I would gladly pay to take his trip again – even the exact same trip, with the dolphins and the French and the Bulgarians by way of Boston, my new friend Casey and taciturn Capt. Joe – with everything except me trying to dive. The trip was worth the money with no diving at all.
And it finally came to me, then, why Eric had looked so sad.
I thought back on his face. It’d reminded me of another trauma – the faces of my old Physical Education teachers. Particularly, the faces they made every time I struck out or got hit in the face with a volleyball or collapsed on the track in sweaty near-tears. At the time, I’d thought that my gym teachers hated me for being such an eff-up. They hated my weakness, and they made me try again and again because they wanted to torture me.
And then I went to college and saw the people my age who went in for their P.E. teacher certifications. Saw that they really liked this physical stuff and wanted to do it for a living.
And now I see that they wanted more than that. They wanted to show little kids the joy of sports and running and doing stuff outside. And I would not see the joy in it. And they couldn’t understand that. And it hurt.
The look on Eric’s face was the same look I get on my face when I meet someone who doesn’t like to read, and I say, “Well, you just haven’t found the right book yet,” and I find what I think is the right book for them, and they try to read it, and it just doesn’t work. And I’m upset. And they think it’s because I hate them for not being like me. But it’s not. I’m just sad that they can’t feel what I feel when I do something that makes me so happy.
I don’t see myself diving again any time in the near future. But I will always be grateful to Eric for taking the time to try to show me how awesome it is. I did see the awesomeness of it in everyone else’s faces. And I was happy just watching them be happy.
It's good to fail sometimes. It's good to feel fear and then overcome it, one way or another.
Maybe next year we will go back and I’ll try snorkeling.... 6:40 PM # (12) comments
Wednesday, March 04, 2009The Laminator
Two jobs ago, I worked at the Houston branch of a big ol’ global insurance corporation, nestled in the top floors of the second-highest skyscraper in our downtown. Within the very center of that organization, we had a laminating machine.
The laminating machine was easy to use. You tucked a piece of paper – letter or legal size – into the correspondingly sized clear plastic folder (that was a little longer and wider than the paper), then fed the plastic/paper sandwich into the machine. And it would melt the plastic around the paper, coating and sealing it to form an un-rip-able, un-water-damage-able document.
I’m not talking about the kind of item you could buy at Hobby Lobby or Michael’s, though. This machine was industrial strength – all metal. You could burn your fingers on it, if you weren’t careful. I mean, it cost more than $49.95, for sure.
The laminator was on a counter in the corner of a break room, accessible to anyone. Above it, in a cabinet, there was a seemingly bottomless supply of laminating plastic. I don’t know whose job it was to order that plastic. Maybe it was done by angels.
I don’t remember ever having one work-related document that needed laminating, and I don’t remember seeing anyone else need to laminate something for work. Unless you counted the wallet-sized cards one of the department heads had her assistant make, with the cell numbers of everyone in their department printed on them in painstaking WordPerfect table format. And yet, we used that laminator like there was no tomorrow.
The woman who trained me at that company showed me the laminator on my first day and confided that she’d used it to make her daughter place mats and flashcards, all with Tweety Bird motifs. Because her daughter liked Tweety Bird, you see. One of my friends at that company, the best Exec Assis they ever had, used it to make decorations for her department. Along with the GBC binder, the laminator helped her make activity books for the children of all her friends, too. My fiance (who I met at that company, but who I hadn’t met yet, at this point in the story,) tells me that he and his coworkers laminated everything they had, just for the hell of it. Just because it was fun to use the machine. The melting plastic had a particular smell, like chemical grilled cheese. When your document came out, there was a short window of time during which the OCD-inclined could press at the plastic with improvised squeegees or the backs of their fingernails, to press out any air bubbles lingering under the clear lava. Watch it turn from matte to shiny. Then it dries, shiny to matte.
One slow work day, I used PowerPoint to create a restaurant menu on a legal-sized sheet of paper. It was for a fictional café, named after my son, that served easy-to-pronounce dishes at easy-to-add-and-subtract prices. I modified a piece of livestock clip art to give Rory’s Café a down-home, yet contemporary logo, and did the menu front and back in coordinating color scheme and font set. I made four menus – one for each member of our family – then laminated them. It only took an hour or two, altogether. As I fed the menus to the laminator, coworkers passing the break room waved at me. One or two came in to see what I was laminating, to be impressed and make note of the idea as a future project for their own kids. Something to do on a slow work day, maybe with grapevine or fish clip art, an Italian or seafood restaurant, Taylor’s Bistro or Zachary’s Fish Shack...
I took my menus home and presented them to my youngest son, then five (who was fascinated with restaurants from an early age and is only more so now, six years later). He was rendered speechless. See, they weren’t just pretend menus. They were laminated, and that pretty much made them real.
For the rest of that evening and week, we played restaurant, with my youngest son serving as waiter, host, chef and owner of Rory’s Cafe. It was gratifying to see him play this way, with such confidence and authority. And reading and math skills! (He’d been so shy since the events surrounding the separation.) One of my best friends at the time said, about the changes I’d noted in my son, “Well, he’s the proprietor of a small business now. That gives a man confidence.”
Because of the laminator, you see. Laminating documents makes an impact.
Back to the point I’d intended to make when starting this story: I didn’t know, at the time, why the corporation kept the laminator around and kept it so well stocked with supplies. As I said, there was nothing work-related, really, that needed coating in plastic.
But now, looking back, I like to imagine that the management there saw what people were doing with the machine, and had enough snap to see how happy it made us. The laminator was our toy/tool for exercising creativity. Someone with power realized that, thought it was a good thing, and gave the order to keep it in the budget.
To whoever that person was, if you existed: thanks. 8:47 PM # (4) comments
Tuesday, July 29, 2008bus story 1
It’s always cold on the bus. For that reason, I kind of hate riding it in the mornings, especially when I’m wearing a skirt without hose or tights or leg warmers, as is sometimes mandated by fashion in the summer time. But everyone has their crosses to bear, right?
This morning I got on the bus without hose or tights or legwarmers, and it was very cold. I put my iPod (my Sony Walkman iPod) into my ears and hugged myself into as compact a shape as possible.
The bus starts filling up, and this guy gets on. He’s a small guy, ethnic origin somewhere on the Eastern Hemisphere. He sits by me, and I take care not to sigh or jut out my elbow or even look at him, because I hate it when I’m forced to sit by someone else on the bus, and that someone else makes it clear that they’re annoyed and that they’d been wishing that their $3 fare would have somehow paid for two seats. I mean, I get annoyed when strangers sit next to me, too, and I wish my $3 bought me a force shield from strangers, too. But that’s not the way Metro works, is it?
So I’m sitting there, trying to be polite and only feeling a little bit sorry for myself, when I realize that the guy sitting next to me is hot. Not attractive-hot, but temperature hot. He’s radiating heat like a furnace. I peeked at him as much as manners would allow, but he didn’t seem to be feverish or on fire. He was just radiating heat, somehow. Like, from the inside.
I decided, then, that he must have been a demon. Either that or an elemental, but most likely a demon, because I don’t imagine elementals looking like people or wanting to ride the bus. I glanced again and saw that he was reading a text full of arcane-sounding words. (Cold fusion? HP 3200?) That seemed to confirm his supernatural nature.
I turned my face away from the demon man and, for a split second, felt uncomfortable. Then, I felt good. I felt warm. I’d been cold before, but this demon dude was literally generating enough heat to make up for the fact that I had no pantyhose on under my sandals and knee-length skirt. It felt nice, like a cozy fire.
I wondered, then, what it meant to take comfort from a demon. Was it safe? Was I unintentionally giving away my soul?
Really, there was nothing to fear. In every story I’ve ever heard on the subject, demons can’t possess your soul unless you give them verbal permission. And you have to invite them onto your premises, in the first place. Right? I’d invited this demon nowhere, as we were sitting in a public place. I hadn’t said anything to him at all. As long as I kept my Sony Walkman iPod in my ears and minded my own business, I could warm myself with the demon fire and keep my soul and its first serial rights. He wasn’t even a big demon, anyway. I didn’t think he could carry me if he wanted to.
The warmth made me sleepy and I drifted through dreams as pawn shops and Adult Video Stores sped by. “Is this,” I wondered, “how it starts? Can people get possessed in their sleep? Is demon heat a roofie?”
But we made it downtown okay. Someone rang the bell and, like zombies awoken, several of the passengers stood up and stumbled out into the sunlight as filtered by skyscrapers. The demon got up to let me pass and didn’t even spare me a glance.
I didn’t realize why until now, after typing all this. I’ve already been marked by someone else. My soul is the property of Corporate America.
intro to bus stories 2, 3, and 4
So I recently bought myself an MP3 player as a reward for a job well done. (What job is that, you ask? The job that is being myself.) And, now that I have one, I see that there's a secret world I've been missing out on but am now a part of.
Before I had an MP3 player, I didn't want to know anything about them, because I hate window shopping. You know? I don't want to hear about stuff I can't afford, in general. But then they got cheap, so I decided to get one, so I did my research and picked the one with the most battery life.
(Also, I waited to get one because I just had no use for one before. But now that I have a job where we're allowed to listen to them (and where our laptops have no soundcards), and now that I ride the bus instead of driving my van and listening to my own CDs...)
Before I had an MP3 player, I ignored people who had them. I purposely spaced out when people talked about them. But not anymore.
Now, when I ride the bus, I notice who's listening to music and who's not. And I notice that other people notice it, too.
bus story 2
The other day, I was on the bus and I busted out my [Sony Walkman] iPod (which I will call an ipod from now on, because screw Corporate America and their branding. kleenexes! xeroxing!! orange and lemon cokes!!!).
I turned on my music and went to the place where I go to when my music's on. It's a place in my mind, and it's a combination night club, costume party, trip abroad, and Houston's Galleria mall.
So I was there, and I don't know if it showed on my face or what, but the guy sitting across from me smiled at me.
Not in a creepy way, but in a sort of empathetic yet wistful way. Like he could tell that I was happy, and he was glad for me, and yet he maybe wished he had an ipod, too.
He seemed like a nice guy, actually. But I didn't smile back. I just blinked at him and then looked away.
I don't smile at strange men. Especially not on the bus.
bus story 3
Right after that, the angry-looking man next to the nice-looking man gave us both a glare. Really, he just gave a long, long glare that encompassed us, all the other passengers, and everything else on earth.
Then, the angry-looking man looked at my ear buds. Then, he took some earbuds out of his pocket and attached them to his phone.
I don't know if y'all know this, but a lot of newer phones are also ipods now. Seriously. They are.
The angry-looking guy turned on his phone ipod, and then he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. I hoped that his music made him feel better. I wondered what song he was listening to, but there was no way I could ask.
bus story 4
Today I rode the bus home and I listened to my ipod. Of course. Across from me, an older woman sat there with white ear buds in her own ears. And she kept glancing at me.
"What is this woman looking at?" I thought. But that question didn't make me as angry as it used to, because I had my ipod on and it's hard to get angry when I'm in my music place.
The woman glanced and glanced, and then, when I had to adjust my volume, I pulled my ipod out of my bra, out of the neck of my shirt, and did so. And then the woman kept looking, but her look became very thoughtful. I thought that maybe she was noting my clever idea of going hands-free with the use of my bra. She was maybe thinking, "Wow. It fits in there so well. I wouldn't have even guessed she had an ipod in her bra."
Then, the woman lifted her own ipod from her lap. It was a real iPod, and it had a leather case with an apple on it and everything. When she lifted it and opened the case, she glanced at me again.
I couldn't help but suspect that she wanted me to notice her. I suspected that she'd just gotten that new ipod, maybe for a gift or maybe she went right into the apple store and bought it for herself, for a job well done.
She flicked at the buttons and I wondered how many songs she had. I wondered which ones were her favorites.
She glanced at me again. I smiled at her and then I closed my eyes.
moral of the story
If we were in Japan, our ipods would send out signals to each other, and we'd know when we were near another person who likes the same songs that we do.
But we're not in Japan. So all we can do is imagine, and then empathize.
Right? 7:22 PM # (11) comments
Saturday, September 01, 2007Five Quick Stories Involving Alice V.
When I was young - thirteen, fourteen - I used to sing. I walked down the streets of our neighborhood, amongst the stray dogs and blooming cannas, singing Blondie's "Heart of Glass." In the grocery store, I'd use the Muzak as my own personal karaoke machine. In the parking lot of St. Joseph Church, while waiting for Youth Group to start, I'd raise my hands, spin like Stephen Tyler, and sing Ozzie Osborne or Janis Joplin or whatever came to mind.
To encourage my love of singing, the youth group staff sent me to see Alice V. Or maybe they did it to punish me, I don't know. But either way, they sent me on a Thursday afternoon, across the church parking lot to a tiny orange house done up with a mural of the Virgin Mary. "Go," they said, pointing. "She's waiting for you there."
Skipping up the steps and through the door, humming a merry classic rock tune, I followed the scent of smoke. In the half light, made by dusty windows covered over with photographs and drums, maracas, bells, I saw her. Alice. At the piano bench, in an oaken haze of seriousness. Like a monument on a cliff —- no, like a dragon on a mountain. Unblinking, unsmiling, she waited for me.
I went to her, silently, the hum dead in my throat.
On the well worn piano, she played a scale of five notes, up and down. “Sing that.”
I coughed. My throat had run dry.
“Sing ah,” she said. “with the music.”
She raised her hand to play the scale again, and I knew she meant business, so I opened my mouth and squeaked, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, AH, ah, ah, ah-ah!”
Alice shook her head, then reached over and pressed my body with her left hand, right on my t-shirt and jeans. “Push with your stomach. Sing loud,” she said.
Shocked by her boldness, and totally afraid now, I pushed with my stomach and gave birth to the notes that she played on the keys. She played another scale, higher. And another, and another. And I sang through them all, trembling, but loud and on tune.
“Good,” she said. “Come back on Sunday morning.” I finally saw her eyes. They weren’t mean, like I expected. They were tired, and cynical, and bored, and amused, all at once. But not mean.
I walked out of the little house elated. Glad to be leaving, but also looking forward to coming back.
Sunday morning, back at the orange house across the church parking lot, I met with a motley crew of sopranos, altos, and tenors, all adults, all from completely different walks of life. They were the church choir, and what they had in common was that Alice talked to them all the same way she’d talked to me. For an hour we sang church songs, and she barked commands at us. Louder! Higher! Less vibrato! Take the harmony!
Everyone focused on the music, and I had no time to be shy. All too soon, the hour was up, and the other singers left to prepare for Mass. I found Alice smoking behind the sacristy, and I thanked her for the lesson.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “Mass is about to start. Go into the church. Tell them to get you a microphone.”
“But,” I stammered, “this was my first practice ever, and I don’t even go to church. I can’t just go in there and sing!”
Alice blew smoke from her lungs slowly, then said her favorite thing—something I would hear her say many more times in the future. “Baptism by fire. It’s the best way to learn.”
For 30 years now, Alice V. has run a non-profit arts organization near downtown. She gets local poor kids and puts paintbrushes, violins, or microphones in their hands. She writes to local Oil & Gas corporations and demands that they should give these kids money. If she can, she forces these kids to go to college. That’s what she chose to do with her life, and she does it all day long.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was one of those kids and Alice V. let me work at her organization after school, as an assistant assistant, so that I could have money to buy clothes. My main duties were organizing the sheet music room, and removing the yellowed leaves from Alice V.’s plants.
The main secretary was Yvonne. I was sixteen, and Yvonne was seventeen, but Yvonne was a whole lot older than me because she was six months pregnant, and I’d never even had a boyfriend yet.
One day, Alice V. needed us to drive her station wagon somewhere. Some kind of emergency—someone needed help. Alice had to drive someone else’s car to the next neighborhood over, and someone had to bring along the station wagon behind her.
“Not me,” said Yvonne. “I can’t drive.”
I quickly added, “I can’t drive, either.”
We were the only ones there. Alice looked at us with the cool glare that, by now, Yvonne was used to, but that still scared me a little bit. She turned it on Yvonne first.
“You’re going to have a baby, but you can’t drive a car?”
Yvonne giggled and shook her head again.
Alice turned to me. I was very afraid to drive the car, but more afraid of pissing her off. She handed me the keys and told me what I’d have to do.
“Come on,” she said. “Baptism by fire.”
The one-mile trip was uneventful, except for when I followed Alice under the Houston Avenue train bridge. Down in its darkness, Yvonne, my copilot, shrieked like a banshee. So I shrieked, too. It was cathartic and helped me focus. We kept it up, screeching like teakettles all the way to our destination, three blocks away. I stepped on the brake. Alice came over and told me to turn off the key. Yvonne and I fell back onto the bench seat, laughing with hysterical relief.
That’s how baptism by fire feels. Scary and thrilling, and then you’re grateful at the end.
People said that Alice never laughed, but they were wrong. One time I said something silly, and accidentally made her laugh. She had a deep, smoky chuckle that came out like a cough, as if she, herself, was surprised to hear it. Then she’d shake her head, as if chuckling was frivolous, and it was time to get back to her mission of saving local poor kids.
After that, I was addicted. I followed her all around like a personal court jester, cracking jokes a mile a minute. Usually, she didn’t laugh. Usually, she just gave me food and told me what to do.
One evening, Alice called me and her other personal jester, Tania R. “I’m going to a party,” she said. “Do you want to go with me? There’ll be food.” Yes, we did want to go.
Tania’s parents owned a corner store in First Ward, the next neighborhood over from mine. I walked to her house and together, we picked through the pile of clothes that her mother sold to people in Mexico. We found things that were slinky or sparkly enough for a party. When Alice came to pick us up, we were waiting outside with the chickens and liquor crates, very excited.
The party was at a mall. Although the mall was closed for the night, its doors had been unlocked for this event. Black tie. Invitation only.
I looked at the other guests just long enough to see that they were rich, and we were underdressed. Even Alice was. She had on the same kind of skirt and blouse as always, with comfortable shoes.
So I avoided the guests and looked at the food. There were tables and tables of it. Giant shrimp on fancy skewers. Pyramids of the most expensive fruit. Mini quiches. Cheesecakes and brownies with delicate, intricate decorations.
I was in awe. What world was this, where they gave away giant shrimp for free? A world where I would never live, except for brief moments, through flukes like this.
The party had a mime. Tania and I engaged him—mimed with him and danced with him for hours. Meanwhile, Alice did what she’d come to do. One by one, she went around to every rich person there and hit them up for money. Guilt-tripped them into pledging funds. Pointed out me and Tania, happy in our used clothes, and made those people write checks.
At the end, Tania and I rode home in Alice’s station wagon, our faces flushed with pleasure and our purses filled with cheesecake and shrimp. Alice was relaxed now, and I realized that she hadn’t enjoyed the party at all. She’d done what she had to do, and fed a couple of poor kids in the process.
I remember the day I left Alice’s non-profit for poor kids.
It was a Saturday morning, and I was riding in a borrowed pick-up truck, with Alice on one side of me, and my dad on the other. In the bed of the truck was everything I’d ever owned. We were driving to Austin in silence.
I’d been angry with her all week. We’d argued.
My argument had been, “I want to move in to my friend’s apartment and get a job at Dairy Queen.”
Her argument had been, “No.”
She had spent the last four years putting microphones, paintbrushes, food, and paychecks into my hands. She’d convinced a Rice professor to tutor me, to keep me from failing Calculus. She’d convinced a rich board member to pay my fee to take the SATs. She’d convinced everyone she knew to pull strings with everyone they knew, to let me apply to colleges way past the deadline. And I’d been accepted by UT. So she’d called a Representative at the State Capitol and forced him to give me a clerk job. And she’d had him badger his staff to find me a place, for free. And she’d dredged up some grant funding and called it a scholarship, and given it to me keep me afloat until my real, full scholarship came through from the University.
And so, there we were, in the borrowed pick-up truck, on the way to Austin. Alice sitting next to me, driving, silent. And I was so, so angry with her.
The worst part was that I knew, even before we left the city limits, that my anger was wrong. This was another of those situations where, in the future, I’d be laughing about how Alice was stubborn, and annoying, but right. Always right.
By the time we reached La Grange, the palms of my hands soaked the bench seat, and I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t anger I was feeling. It was fear.
It was too late to tell her, too late to apologize. I looked at her, and Alice just sat there silent, driving.
There was only one thing left to say, then, and I’d have to say it to myself, in my mind. “Baptism by fire.”
I said it all the way to Austin. And Alice was right; it was the best way to learn.
That was a true story.
On September 14th, Alice's non-profit for poor kids will celebrate its 30th anniversary. I'm going to the party, and they want me to speak in front of the mayor and everybody about the necessity of community arts organizations and their continued funding.
Although I've read this story for important people before, Alice won't let me read it for the mayor. She says, "MECA's not really just about me, Gwen. A lot of people work really hard to make this place [etc., excessive modesty, etc.]"
If you'd like to help Alice with her mission, click here. 2:28 AM # (6) comments
Monday, July 23, 2007Ominous?
Today my horoscope says, "You hard-working Capricorns are faced with a dilemma this midsummer. The Sun is now moving through your mysterious 8th House, encouraging you to delve into the mysteries of the occult, death and sex. Although these are deliciously juicy issues, it's summer and the beautiful outside beckons. Strike a balance now between the inner and the outer worlds you wish to explore."
At first, that freaked me out. The occult? Death? What in the world was supposed to happen to me today?
Then, I realized what it actually meant. See, this evening, I'll be torn between going outside and enjoying the break from the rain, and staying inside to finish reading Harry Potter.
The balance will be achieved if I take a walk to get the mail, first. Or maybe I can finish the book in the car, in the sun, as my boyfriend drives us around.
"I wish," I told my boyfriend, Tad, "we could have some kind of adventure this weekend."
That was Thursday night. The weekend before, we'd gone into the heart of Houston's New Chinatown (aka Bellaire) and tried a new banh mi place that was straight out of Saigon. And that was exciting. This weekend, since we can't afford to travel outside of Texas, I thought we might again find something new within our own town. "Okay," said Tad. "We'll go somewhere new."
Friday night, Tad's brother-in-law called to invite us to a very impromptu celebration of his birthday. He picked a nightclub out in the satellite town of Katy, Texas, so as to make the party accessible to multiple suburbanite friends.
I'm going to call the club Bikini Bottom, because it did have the word bikini in it, and I can't remember the rest. Why did it have the word bikini in it? Because the female servers wore bikini tops, and there were girls in bikinis dancing atop the bars. The decor was darkness, disco lights, and plastic palm trees. Old (not old school, but just old and stale) hip hop blared from every corner. Upon being ushered in, we joined Tad's sister and b-i-l, their neighbor, and our friends Mike and Claudia in an alcove, where we hurried to catch up to their blood-alchohol levels while surveying the scene.
The first bikini'd girl, just inside the entrance, danced on a table near a giant bucket of beers. Her job was to dance, sell the bottles, and periodically squat down to rubber-band the ones in her register. This girl was rather attractive. At least, she seemed to be under all her makeup, there in the dim light. Every man who walked into the club stopped in front of her station to ogle. Some of them bought beers, and some just gave her dollar bills for nothing. They put them into a cut-open milk jug at her feet, and in return got... a smile. No extra movement, no chance to touch. But the men seemed okay with that, because they were in love with her. It was obvious, from the looks in their eyes and the clumsy way they tried to initiate small talk that she couldn't hear. She danced like a stripper. I wondered if she was trying to work her way back into more legitimate means of tip-garnering. Maybe she'd move up (down?) from go-go dancer to cocktail waitress, then to diner waitress, then to executive assistant, then Avon saleswoman, then animal shelter volunteer, then old lady arranging flowers at the local Baptist church.
The other go-go dancers, deeper inside the bowels of the club, had nothing but their youth to recommend them. Their youth, their lower-back tattoos, and occasional bouts of Sapphic display. While we waited for a bartender to take our order (and then admit that she didn't know what a kamikaze shot was), a tiny, roped-off stage lit up inside the bar. An emcee appeared there and called up two doughy teens in sagging, dully colored bikinis. "Shanna and Allison, are you ready for the showers?!?" he bellowed into the mike. Yes, they were. They were so ready, they shimmied against each other and kissed each other's lips. The emcee pulled the cord that activated the shower head above them. (He himself was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and jeans.) The girls got wet, did more shimmying, then shook their lank hair at the crowd. Water splatted across my face as I took my apple-pucker-flavored kamikaze from the bartender. Somehow, it didn't feel as sexy as they seemed to intend it.
The doorman hadn't hassled us at all on the way in. He wasn't hassling anybody -- an ID and five bucks got you in, and that was that. The crowd at Bikini Bottom looked like a complete cross-section of Katy, Texas, itself. There were twenty-somethings in a range of demographics, from the Ford F250 drivers, to the Camaro drivers, to the pimped-out Scion crews. There were older men in Hawaiian shirts, and older women in lacy black suits. As our friend Mike put it, "This is like Wal-Mart with hip hop." (That was before we knew that one out of every ten songs would be Latin music.)
It was Spank's birthday, and not that many of the gang had shown up with such short notice, so those of us there did our duty. We drank, and we danced. Well, Susan and Claudia danced, while the rest of us drank. That's how our set rolls sometimes -- the women dance and the men watch.
I don't like to dance when it's only women, so much, because I'm the tallest one by far and it always makes me feel kind of weird, like I'm a substitute boy. You know -- like I'm the one who has to do all the humping once everyone gets drunk enough to do the silly hump dances. Sometimes I don't want to hump, you know? Sometimes I want to be humped, dammit. But, eventually, Susan and Claudia dragged me out onto the floor and made me form a hump sandwich with them. Okay, fine, I thought, putting my hand in the air. Hump, hump, hump.
Like a magnet, a man who was not my type slid up to our threesome. "Hello," he said. Claudia said hi and turned away, Susan ignored him completely, and I did a polite but dismissive not-smile. He hovered around us for a while, air-humping but not infiltrating our boundaries. Then he went away.
I tried to disengage from the dance then, but only got a sip of beer and an ice cube stolen from the stripper's cooler before the other women dragged me back out. "Come ON, Gwen!" Hump, hump, hump. Woo!
Like a migratory bird, the stranger guy came back. "Ladies, my friend over there in the white shirt thinks y'all are fine." He pointed out his friend, who gave us a cool nod and a beer-bottle salute.
"Our boyfriends are right there," said Claudia, pointing to Mike with her drink. Susan said nothing, just shook her hair. I don't think she even saw the guy -- she was in her own little flashdance world.
"And where's yours?" he said to me. "I didn't see you with anybody." Annoyed that I had to prove my eligibility for love, I pointed out Tad, who was sitting at a little table, leaning back and drinking a Corona as if it were a nice day on the beach. He didn't even wave to me. Our interloper looked skeptical, as if I had randomly pointed out this bespectacled Asian man, shorter than me (horrors!), in order to play hard to get. He walked away to confer with his friends. I grimaced at Tad, who only laughed.
Claudia whispered in my ear, "Girl, that man wants you! He wants your healthy booty!"
"I am," I thought, "too old for this."
I was about to leave the floor again, when the guy came back again. He tapped my shoulder. I turned around and said "what" or "huh" or "uh," don't remember what, exactly. Something in my face, though, scared him away. (My natural expression, at rest, is quite bitchy.) "Okay, fine," he said. "Golly." He looked very hurt and backed away. I felt kind of bad, but not bad enough to call him back.
"God," I said to Tad, who'd never once moved from his chair. "What was up with that?"
"That guy's been watching you all night," he told me. "The minute you started dancing, he ran up."
"What?" I said. "Why didn't you do something, then?"
"Because," Tad said, "that shit was hilarious."
Two hours and one "booty-shaking" contest later (Susan and Claudia entered but I refused, as I was still just sober enough to deduce that it was rigged), Spank said he'd had enough festivities and it was time to go. And so, we bid Bikini Bottom farewell.
As Tad and I crossed the muddy embankment and the Whataburger parking lot on the way to our car, the hip hop faded behind us. A block away, in another parking lot, a group of high school kids passed us. One boy noted our clasped hands and called out, "Are y'all gonna have sex tonight?"
"Maybe," I said. Tad nodded. Disarmed by our candor, he moved on, and we whispered shared hopes for his future, and for the future of all Katy youth.
As Ford trucks zoomed around us like fireflies, we finally made it to the tranquility of Tad's car.
"Well, that was an adventure, wasn't it?" I said.
"Yes," said Tad. And then we went home. 6:52 AM # (10) comments
Friday, July 20, 2007There's this really weird book. You should totally check it out.
The other day my friend Ashley and I went to Texas Art Supply, which is one of the most awesome stores in Houston, partially because it contains all the Dover coloring books and copyright-free image books.
Whenever I go there, I have to look at every single new coloring book so that I can purchase at least one of them, then take it home and put it in a drawer in my vanity, next to my unused box of Prismacolors. That is my habit. That is my way. Right now, I have the following Dover coloring books in that drawer:
Old-Time Children's Fashions Coloring Book
Gods of Ancient Egypt
Classic Cars of the Fifties
I'm very picky about them. I can't just buy any coloring book and then take it home and never color in it. The ones I pick must have particular characteristics as far as facial expressions, line thickness, and color variety potential are concerned.
So, like I said, I was very carefully going through the new coloring books, trying to decide between medieval fashions and fairies, and Ashley was keeping me company. She'd found a book of illustrations of scenes from the Bible and was entertaining me greatly by commenting on it aloud.
"I love the Old Testament," she said. I don't love it, myself, particularly, but I appreciated her enthusiasm.
"Oh, God," she said. "Look what they did to Jacob. This is horrible." I think Jacob was the name of the guy who had to wrestle the angel. It was, as Ashley pointed out, a very lackluster illustration. Jacob looked tired and more like he was hanging on the angel, begging for lenience, than wrestling him. Ashley said this was an injustice, since Jacob (or whoever) had actually put up a pretty good fight until the very end.
At that point, I noticed a man walk near us. On the back of his calf, he had a tattoo of a red, winged devil woman. She was nude and had large, red, devil breasts. I whispered for Ashley to look at the tattoo. She said it was awesome. We went back to the Bible.
"This one's my favorite," said Ashley. She showed me a picture of Lot, his wife, and his daughters fleeing Sodom. "Did you know that, after they left and Lot's wife looked back and turned to salt, Lot and his daughters went to a cave, and his daughters got him drunk and..."
"Had sex with him?" I said. "So they'd get pregnant?"
"Yes!" said Ashley. "Isn't that awesome, that out of the four people in Sodom who weren't sinners, three of them ended up performing incest?" We looked for a picture of the incest, but there wasn't one.
The guy with the devil woman tattoo had a wife. Or a girlfriend. She was pushing a stroller, and the child in it let out a cry. The guy went to join them. He and his woman talked inaudibly, into each other's ear.
I had a thought. "Find the one," I told Ashley, "where the guy has sex with his handmaid, while the wife watches."
"Ooh. Is that... Abraham?" She found Abraham and Rebecca, and then a grown-up Ishmael, but no actual illustrations of handmaid-impregnating menages a troix.
"Did you know," I said, "that people think Cho Seung-Hui identified with Ishmael, and that's why he wrote Ismail Ax on his arm? And, like, in Muslim culture, the story's opposite -- Ishmael's the one who inherited, and Isaac didn't?"
The tattooed guy and his family were still within earshot, I noticed. They seemed to be moving in a semi-circle around us, close enough to hear us but not close enough for me to hear their whispering. They looked annoyed. I saw the woman roll her eyes.
"I think those people want to look at the coloring books," I said. They're waiting for us to get out of the way."
"Screw them," said Ashley.
"I know," I said. "Why don't they just come up and look at them? It's not like there isn't room."
"Okay, who the hell is this?" Ashley exclaimed, showing me a picture of the Garden of Eden. It contained Adam and Eve, obviously, but also a giant, forlorn man who looked like Rodin's Thinker or maybe the Jolly Green Giant. "Who is this guy?"
"I don't know. The giant guy that David fought? The devil?"
"No... I think it's supposed to be Gabriel," said Ashley, pointing to the winged Gabriel on the previous page. "And he took on the form of man... but why does he look so ridiculous?"
"Maybe he smelled the apple and morphed into the Jolly Green Giant. Because... you know... vegetables." Really, I know the New Testament way better than I know the Old one, because they never read the Old Testament at church when I was singing in the choir. How did Ashley know so much about it, I suddenly wondered. Had she actually read the Bible? Knowing her crazy ways, she probably did. She's artsy like that. She only works part time, then does art and/or reads obscure texts all the rest of the day. Or photographs her friends partially clothed near the bayou. Or takes the bus to Whole Foods and buys herself a coconut. She's a bohemian. That's why she fascinates me, I think. I would never, ever be a bohemian (because I grew up poor), but it's fun sometimes to watch her be one.
By now, the tattooed guy and his lady were openly sneering at us. Was it because they wanted unfettered access to the coloring books? Was it because we were speaking of the Biblical art in a less-than-respectful tone? Was it because we were ignorant of Gabriel's giant phase and too obviously dense for them to explain it to us? I wondered if maybe I should read the Old Testament. But then I decided that, no, I'm probably too delicate for it.
I ended up getting the coloring book with fairy tales scenes that related to flowers. And fairies. There was a gothic alphabet coloring book, and it turned out that Ashley knew the author. But I didn't get that one because I didn't like its lines. Sorry, Heather.
I also got a pencil sharpener, so I can sharpen my Prismacolors, now that Ashley's shown me how to properly open their box. Who knows -- I might actually color a fairy this week. 6:13 AM # (5) comments
Monday, June 25, 2007Expensive Flea Bags
My youngest son and I enjoy driving down to the nearest big-box pet stores each weekend and seeing the caged animals up for adoption. Particularly, we like the kittens.
Every time we go, my son asks if we can get a cat. I ask how much the adoption fee is, and it's invariably $85 or more.
This past weekend, they wanted $85, and the kittens had mucus-y eyes and visible fleas on their kitten-stomachs. Give me a break. The county shelter is selling cats two-for-$55 right now. I know what's up with these little non-profits showing up at Petco and PetsMart. They're just old women who like cats, and they're running 501c3s that will let them write off the cat food while "fostering" any old flea-ridden, stanky, meow-box they can find. The cats cost so much because these cat ladies don't want to get rid of them.
And I don't blame them. When I get older and my kids have all moved away, I'm totally opening a "no-kill shelter" called Miss Kitty's Pitter Paws Sanctuary Haven, and that'll be my excuse to pet mangy cats all day long. (Because I like cats. Get it? I'm being sarcastic, but not really.)
Can't we all just get along? While flapping our hands?
(Some of you may remember that one of my children was recently, formally diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of autism.)
So I don't know what the hell I was thinking, trying to hook up with the "autism community" online. No, wait -- I do know. I was thinking, "Oh, hey, maybe I can meet local parents of kids with Asperger's, and my son Dallas can meet another 12-year-old Aspergers kid who also likes video games, Roombas, and energy-efficient vehicles. And they can hang out on weekends without anyone telling them they act weird or talk weird. Yay!"
But I was completely delusional on that front, because that's not what the online autism community is about. Nope. It's not really a community at all, but a bunch of splintered factions, each of which pursues its own cause. Here are the separate causes, as far as I've been able to gather:
1. The curebies. Curebies are people who believe that autism has some environmental cause, often one (such as vaccinations or the mercury in our tuna) that might lead to a huge, class-action lawsuit. They get online and talk about all the stuff they're spending money on to cure their kids, and how they're getting other people to pay for it.
2. The anti-curebies hate the curebies, and they're very vigilant about it. Like, if you go on their forum and say, "Oh, hi, you guys. Y'all seem cool. I'm looking for a playmate for my son, who is really good at math and likes Roombas," they might say something like, "Oh my god! How dare you insinuate that non-savant ASD kids aren't as GOOD as your kid, and need to be chelated into what passes for normalcy among you stupid, rude, hypocritical NTs!!!!! Leave our forum immediately, curebie! We're trying to talk about American Idol!"
3. Embittered adults with autism. These are the people who make me want to say, "Dude, I'm sorry that your parents were ashamed of you and made you undergo chelation and biofeedback... but could you please not call me a stupid, rude, hypocritical NT? At least not where I can read you saying it? You don't even know me. I'm here trying to get help for my kid." The worst is when they're abusive to NTs, then say they can't help it because they have autism. Hello -- if I can teach my son not to call people names, I think your mom should've taught you, too.
4. There are the "autism parents," who wage daily battles to force everyone in the world to treat their children with respect. Or, if not actual respect, then with special consideration born of fear of lawsuits, maybe. Some of these autism parents have kids with more than just autism, though. "Hi. My name's AspieMommy, and I'm mommy to Darren, 14, who is ASD, OCD, BpD, and Tourettes; Shelly, 8, who is PDD, OCD, OPP, and GGG; and little Wendell, 1 and a half, ASD, PCP, TNT, and EGBDF!" A lot of times, I notice people identifying themselves this way and then asking forum strangers for help. "Can I get a ride to the support group? Anyone want to form a playgroup and/or babysit? Can I bum a cigarrette?" I have to wonder if some of them are real. What's the acronym for Munchausen?
A subset of the autism parents are the autism parents who also have autism, themselves. I can't compete with that, I guess. I mean, they make that fact pretty clear.
5. The biggest factions of all? The political ones. The "movement" people. Every autism organization in America, it seems, hates every other autism organization in America. Every member of Factions 1 through 4 above seems invested in a giant competition for the leadership of "the movement." For instance, the adults with autism think they should run their own movement. Which makes sense to me... until they start hating on the parents of kids with autism, saying those parents can't really advocate for their own children, since they themselves don't have autism. They all have blogs, and they all complain about what's fair, and which blog should be the leader, and how unworthy blogs shouldn't have as many readers, and blah blah blah popularity contest disguised as real discourse.
6. Then we have the celebrity autism parents, and then the celebrities who've played autistic characters, and they're throwing in their two cents for this organization or the other. And then the celebrites who don't want to admit their kids have autism, because Scientology thinks that's a sin...
And, oh my God. Can I please just meet someone whose autistic kid might want to play with mine, without all the bullshit?
No, apparently not. What was I expecting from the freaking Internets, huh? Okay, fine. We'll be at home, playing video games and reading articles about the High Wire, the car of the future, which my son happens to know all about, if anybody out there is interested.
Good Books I Wish You Would Read
First of all, please, please read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Thom Haddon. If you've already read it, press it on others. Not only will it help you to understand what some autistic peeps go through on a daily basis, it's also a damned good book. Seriously. It made me cry, it was so awesome. And it's on a lot of high-school reading lists, so get your kids to read it, too.
The other book I recently read and enjoyed was Things You Should Know, a story collection by A.M. Homes. Yes, I know that I've told some of you that A.M. Homes scares me, and I'll never read stuff by her again. But this one's safe. It contains almost nothing about child abuse. You can read it at night without worrying about monsters coming to kill you. And the price of the book is worth it for the very last story alone. Teaser: It's about Nancy Reagan, and you will both laugh and cry.
That's all for this section. Besides those two, I've been reading a lot of non-fiction, which isn't worth linking to unless you, like me, are weirdly obsessed with bead crocheting or Christmas crafts. Also, I tried to read a novel that was highly recommended by a lot of book-bloggers, but I couldn't get past the first two chapters. I won't name it, because there's no need to be mean. I'll just say that, by the end of Chapter 2, I was like, "I get it! You're drunk, and you like to drink, and you black out all the time because you drink so much! I don't care!" 'Cause, seriously, I didn't.
Someone turned us on to a local gelato place.
And my life will never be the same.
An All-New Way Not to Care What Others Think
Back to the Asperger's thing. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my son is experiencing an intensifying of his symptoms, now that he's embarked on the magical journey that is puberty. One of his more noticeable symptoms is the tic'ing. (Ticking? Ticcing? He has tics.)
When he was very tiny, he flapped his hands, which is a very common tic for autistic peoples. He flapped for years, until people in his family made enough jokes about it to persuade him to stop.
Then, he started clearing his throat, instead. And, I wish to God I could go back in a time machine and realize that the throat-clearing was an actualy tic, and not just a bad habit, like boys spitting out the windows of their cars. Because I have to say that I'm probably the one that made him stop the throat-clearing, with my constant nagging, because hearing it was driving me crazy.
So, now, he doesn't flap or clear his throat. He does something silent, but very noticeable, involving his head, his face, and his hands. Sometimes his arms in their entirety. I've been struggling really hard with the compulsion to control his tic. Other people tell me, "Dallas is doing that thing again. It's getting worse." And I whisper, "Shh. Just let him." But it kills me. I admit it - sometimes I really want to say, "Dallas, could you maybe flap your hands, instead?" No... let's be very honest, here. I have said that to him. But he can't flap his hands instead, and he can't go back to clearing his throat. The tics are involuntary. He can't not do them. And, it's not like they bother me, on their own. But I imagine him doing it at school, or out in public, and that people will stare or even make fun of him. And it kills me. I worry for him. I can't help it.
And that's not all... Lately, he seems to get upset more easily, and therefore he prefers to spend more and more time alone. That's not always possible, though. Social obligations do oblige us all sometimes. For instance, over the weekend, we went to a family dinner at a local restaurant. It was a belated Father's Day celebration, with my dad and my youngest brother and his family. Normally Dallas passes on family dinners, but this time he had no choice.
As always, I prepped all three of my kids ahead of time. I explained what we'd do, with whom, and how they'd be expected to act at each stage of the game. Dallas was worried about the restaurant we'd chosen, because he's a little particular about his food. My boyfriend Tad and I assured him that this restaurant had the pasta and pasta sauce he preferred. He nodded his head. He was ready to roll then, ready to do as duty required.
When we got to the restaurant, all my preparations came undone. There was no preferred pasta. Instead of the regular menu, they had brunch. All different foods, nothing like we'd described. Dallas stared at the menu and became visibly upset.
It's not that he's so spoiled that he can't eat something new. It's that he has a hard time with unexpected change, and with plans being derailed. (My boyfriend would argue that's probably a trait that he inherited from me, not a symptom of autism at all.) Add to that the stress of forced social interaction in a crowded, noisy, public place, and maybe some of you easily imagine how upset Dallas became.
I invited him to take a walk with me outside. He accepted. Away from the restaurant's windows, he said, "I don't want to cry, but I can't stop myself."
"That's okay. Cry," I said. "Sometimes I have to cry, too. Go on ahead."
He cried until he was done. Then we stood under a tree and talked about the menu options, Italian restaurants in general, and the custom of Sunday brunch with bottomless belinis. As we walked back to rejoin the family, Dallas thought of something new to worry about.
"Everyone in the restaurant is going to wonder what we were doing. They're going to look at us and know that I was crying."
"No, they won't," I said. "Everyone in there is dressed up nice, and they're drinking. All the women are worried about how they look, and all the men are worried about hooking up with the women. All people think about themselves more than anything else. They won't even notice us."
And they didn't. And Dallas ordered the pizza, and the rest of the brunch/lunch went off without a hitch.
And, afterwards, I realized that most people are too self-involved to worry about my son's tics. If they see him tic'ing and want to know why, we can tell them why. But, hopefully, most people will probably be too polite to ask or to stare. If they want to go home and talk about Dallas's tics behind our backs, there's nothing I can do about it, so screw them. It doesn't matter. Our lives are filled with family, family lunches, good times, video games, gelato. Movies, school work, work-work, housework. Internets and books and flea-ridden-kitten sightings.
I realize, then, that I really don't have time to worry about what people think, about anything at all. And the best "cure" I can give Dallas? Is to teach him to fill his life with good stuff and not worry, either. 6:41 PM # (21) comments
Tuesday, June 12, 2007All my meters are incorrect.
I'm still doing the magical eat-less-exercise-more diet that I started at the beginning of May. I try to eat 1600 calories or less each day, and I try to exercise as much as I can without feeling sorry for myself. And I think I've lost some weight. It looks like I have. But I bought a cheap scale, just to be sure.
According to my book (can't lose weight without a book), 1600 per day will make me lose 8 pounds per month.
According to my scale, I lost 7 pounds in May. Then, I gained 5 pounds during the first week of June. Then, I gained another pound before the second week of June was even half done. Then, apparently, I lost 5 pounds yesterday. Oh, and sometimes I weigh nothing.
It's too late to return the scale. Even though I'm pretty sure it's broken now, I keep weighing myself on it. I don't know why.
Meanwhile, I'm home sick today. I have the same illness I get over and over, in which my body has chills and fever, my stomach feels blech-y, and my muscles are weak. This morning I decided to take my temperature, so I'd have a hard fact to give my coworkers when they ask me, tomorrow, exactly how sick I was.
My temperature was 95.5. I think that means I actually died, on Saturday, and now I'm secretly a zombie, unbeknownst to anyone.
I almost died on Saturday.
We went to the beach town known as Surfside, Texas, and immersed ourselves in the filthy water. Normally, my height and buoyancy keep me safe in the deep waves. Normally, I love the deep waves. But this time, a huge wave overcame me and almost took my life.
My boyfriend was standing a few feet away. He said, afterwards, that a smaller wave had just knocked the white Nike visor from his head. It was bobbing a few feet in front of him, and he was reaching forward to grab it, when the big, almost-lethal wave overtook us.
First, the big wave hit me. "Yay!" I squealed, right before being knocked underwater. I landed partially on my left knee, which scraped hard against the ocean floor, but mostly on my boyfriend. "Garba glubba blubba!" I told him, as, like crabs in some kind of crab porn movie, we tangled limbs in the brine. I couldn't get loose. Couldn't get my face out of the ocean.
One long minute and two liters of inhaled salt water later, I was finally free. Standing on my own two sea legs again. My boyfriend was standing, too, safe. But his visor? Lost. Lost to the wrath of Neptune and/or Calypso.
"I have to find my visor!" he kept saying, throughout the afternoon. He went into the water with his glasses, then without his glasses. The kids went with him, sometimes. But they never found it. "Your visor's in France now," I told him, but he didn't listen. "I'm sorry," I said, but he said it wasn't my fault.
I stayed in the beach chair, under the beach umbrella, while everyone else searched and swam and conquered the waves. I'd had enough of the beach to last me all year, already.
My children are giant monster locusts.
Four years ago, when my boyfriend first met my three small sons, he said, "Three boys. Those kids are gonna eat tons of groceries."
"No," I told him. "You're wrong. My children are very polite."
Today, two of my kids are taller than my boyfriend. Taller than me, even. They wear giant shoes - sizes 13 and 12 and 10 - and their feet get bigger every school year. Faster, actually. I make them wear their shoes until three out of five toes are emerging on either side. Only then do I buy them new shoes. Again.
And, so, yeah, they eat a lot. It's frightening. I'll bring home groceries. Make them take the bags out of the van and pile them on the kitchen counters. "Put these groceries away," I say, and then run to my bathroom for, like, twenty seconds, to empty the bladder that has been rendered weak and worthless by the birth of three kids. When I come back, all the groceries are put away, all right. Into my children's stomachs. All the stuff is gone. There's like, one can of Campbell's Won Ton Soup left, and the kids are punching each other in the heads to see who gets it. They're knocking each other over, into the louvered doors that hide the washer and dryer, and those doors are broken again. They're dragging each other up to the roof of the house, then taking turns pushing each other off. When one falls, old, broken toys fall out of his pockets, all over the back yard and the patio furniture. Then one falls on the patio furniture, breaking it. Then, suddenly, all the furniture in the house is broken. The couch has giant holes in the cushions, and in each cushion is a stash of Nutrigrain bars or mini carrots or bizarre Asian candy or Campbell's clam chowder, hidden there by a seemingly starving child.
"Goddammit," I say. "Quit that!"
"Sorry, Mom," they mumble.
Then I have to go back to the grocery store for more. Again. Every minute of every day. It's the only reason I work anymore - to buy my children groceries. 1:02 PM # (11) comments
Friday, May 25, 2007This is my week to come clean, apparently.subtitled The Asperger's Post
When stressful things occur in my life, I like to take a week or month or year to process them before discussing them with anyone else. I think it's a superstitious thing -- I can't risk having things "jinxed" while they're still freshly occurring. Or else maybe they're like paint -- not safe to touch when freshly applied.
Hence, I'm just now telling y'all about stuff that's been on my mind for months now. I think it's a good sign that I can talk about these things on the blog now. It means I have them a little more under control. That said, I'm gonna talk briefly about one of my kids now, and what's been going on with us.
My middle son, now 12, was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which basically means "touch of autism." This didn't come as a big surprise to me, because I noticed shortly after his birth that he had some autistic-esque symptoms. I'd never bothered to have him formally diagnosed, however, because he's very bright and had managed to get along well enough through his younger years.
Until now. Now, in middle school, he's been having a lot of problems. Or, maybe I should say that people around him have been having problems with his behavior. At first I defensively blamed our new school district, branding their staff as intolerant, but it was bound to happen, I suppose. In elementary school, everyone was used to Dallas's slightly un-typical ways. No matter what middle school he went to, I suppose it was inevitable that people would notice and react to his differences in a bigger way.
So, we started the formal diagnosis process back in November or December. I was really, really reluctant to have my child labeled, but by then, it had become the lesser of two evils. My son's behavior was being misconstrued in a way that affected his grades.
Common Misconceptions Surrounding People with Aspergers
1. People with Aspergers often find it uncomfortable to make or maintain eye contact. That discomfort can be misconstrued as disinterest or disrespect.
2. People with Aspergers often cope best with situations in which the rules and expectations are logical and clearly explained. Questions about rules can be misconstrued as disrespect for authority.
3. People with Aspergers, although often extremely intelligent, sometimes cope with stress by doing things that "typical" people don't. Like verbal tics. Or repetitive movement (rocking, hand flapping). Or focusing on inanimate objects. Or seemingly disengaging mentally.
Add to that the fact that people with Aspergers are frustrated by things that don't necessarily frustrate neurotypical people. Like certain noises, or prolonged eye contact, or seemingly illogical occurrences, or flickering lights, or being touched on the head, or being touched at all. So... someone reacting atypically to something a neurotypical teacher would not find stressful can be misconstrued as willfull misbehavior. Or horseplay. Or constant lollygagging. Or disrespect. Or mental retardation. Or Tourette's. Or a condition that, although unidentified, would surely be improved by a little Ritalin. Or stupidity. Or simply something "weird," that needs no investigation or empathy, but only for this weird kid to be removed from your class. From your sight. From your mind.
4. People with Aspergers don't learn social skills in the same way that neurotypical people do. Whereas most people make eye contact with their mothers and caregivers instinctively, from birth, people with Aspergers might not make eye contact unless they are explicit told to do so on a regular basis. And, even then, they might not make it "correctly." Whereas you or I might grow up with a general instinct about eye contact -- when it's appropriate and when it's creepy -- a person with Aspergers might need to have every detail of that knowledge explained.
And how do you explain knowledge you were born with, or knowledge you picked up on instinctively? If a person can't make sense of the rules of eye contact, the first building block of social interaction, on his own, how will he make sense of the intricacies of small talk, or making friends, or finding romance? Will he be able to detect dishonesty, insincerity, or malice? If people are threatening him, bullying him, taking advantage of him?
(The answer to that last: Maybe he will learn these things if he concentrates very, very hard on understanding them. Like Mr. Spock struggling to understand Captain Kirk and Dr. Bones. Or maybe he will learn these things if he's taught them by very patient, very empathetic people.)
Back to my story... the story of an overly stoic mom...
So, like I said, I feared having my son formally labeled. Why bother, I thought, when he gets along just fine at school? And when there's no cure for Aspergers or autism, anyway? What's the point? Why go through the hassle? Let him keep passing as a neurotypical person.
I wasn't in denial, exactly, but I do admit that the idea of identifying my child as "disabled" had some strong conotations for me, personally. For instance: I was raised to believe that going to the doctor is only for emergencies. That asking for help is only for emergencies. That highlighting one's own differences is at best a cry for attention and, at worst, a cry for pity.
I would take care of it by myself, I decided. I researched and read everything I could. I coached Dallas on my own. I talked to his teachers frequently and diplomatically and smoothed over the few incidents that occurred. (It helped that his teachers, on the whole, were very empathetic people. For that I thank God.)
Y'all might remember that I was very disappointed last year when Dallas didn't get into any of the middle schools that we applied for. I'd had my heart set on staying in Houston's Inner Loop, but it seemed apparent that the Inner Loop had its heart set on ejecting us and replacing us with someone richer.
Y'all might remember that I was equal parts happy and apprehensive about buying a house in the suburbs. Although people have been thriving in the suburbs since caveman times, almost, it was new and alien to me, and I feared massive culture clash and change.
So now we live in the neighborhood that I will call Farfield, and my kids go to school in Farfield ISD. And, as I mentioned above, people at Dallas's new school noticed right off the bat that he was not typical. And, so, it came to pass that diagnosing his atypical-ness was what I had to do, if I wanted it construed as what it was, and not as disrespect, retardation, stupidity, or a disability requiring medication.
And now that that's all been done, I'm glad. Farfield ISD turns out to have some extremely awesome, competent educational professionals. And they have what promises to be an awesome program to help kids with Aspergers learn the things that they can't learn instinctively.
So, in a hokey, superstitious way, I've come to believe that the circumstances that led us there did not take place by chance. Inner Loop gentrification and housing inflation, Dallas's bad middle school application luck, our apartment's sudden rat infestation -- it all led to Dallas traveling to a place where he'd get help.
Which is good, because people need all the help they can get, I realize. Even me.
This is going up unedited now. More on this later. Much more, way later. Thanks for reading, y'all. 6:09 AM # (28) comments
Wednesday, February 14, 2007Down and Dirty Mothering
Yesterday, after work, I had to brave the grocery store to get last-minute Valentine's Day supplies for my kids. I wanted to get a surprise gift for my boyfriend, as well, but nothing at Kroger looked good, so I decided I'd wait until this morning and try somewhere else.
I stopped on the way home from the grocery store and bought my kids a nutritious dinner from Whataburger.
I came home, force-fed the burgers and chicken strips, nagged everyone about homework and chores, and then started my work. My other work, I mean. Not my day job, but my writing. While I worked, I kept in touch with my kids' activities via frequent hollering.
I worked my brians out. I tore it up. I finished what I'd set out to do so many weeks before, thank God. And then, two of my children screamed. "Mom! Dallas threw up!"
I ran into one of the bedrooms just in time to see Dallas projectile vomit all over the floor, the bed, and his music stand. Quick as a mom, though, I took care of the situation. Within half an hour, all was purged and everything detoxed.
Dallas asked to lie on the couch and watch TV while his brothers finished up their chores and pre-bedtime rituals. I said okay. I went back to work (there's always more work to do) and watched him out of the corner of my eye. He fell asleep on the couch. His brothers fell asleep in the other bedroom, the one that had clean sheets.
Dallas woke up suddenly and puked into the bowl I'd left on the floor at his side. I jumped up and helped him, then detoxed again. I realized I would have to put Dallas in my bed for the night, since he obviously had a virus or else seriously bad Whataburger poisoning.
So, then, Dallas and I went to bed, whereupon we entered a twilit hell. From 9 PM until 6:30 AM, we never slept for more than a half-hour stretch. I won't go into extreme detail, but I will say that, during the night, I queued up a lot of emergency laundry, including two sets of bed sheets, two blankets, three pillows, two towels, four washclothes, one set of woman-sized pajamas and three pairs of boy-sized boxers.
In the morning, my other two sons got themselves dressed and went to the schoolbus stop. I supervised this via hollering from my bed, or from the bathroom as I held Dallas' head, as the moment required.
I went ahead and called in sick to work. (Because I also had diarrhea today, hence it was a real sick day, hence anyone reading this who may have the power to dock my pay for today will know not to do so. Ahem.) Dallas and I managed to sleep from 7 to 10 AM. Then I got up and showered and ran back to the grocery store to replenish our supplies of Immodium, toilet paper, Gaterade, and soup. I didn't get my boyfriend anything for Valentine's day, after all. Instead, I texted him and told him not to come over for dinner, after all. He was going to cook for us, but I didn't want him to end up sick.
It was funny that I got an impromptu day off today, because I'd already finished the writing I had to do, so I didn't have much to do at all but look after my kid. And laundry. And cooking dinner. (And I did write a little, anyway, of course, while Dallas slept. There's always stuff you can write, if you're trying to make extra money.) Whatever he had, passed. Thank God.
It was weird: Watching your kid be sick is such a sucky feeling. You feel so effing helpless. But, at the same time, you know how to deal with it, even if you haven't had to deal with so much of it in years. I was glad I could be there for Dallas and take care of him. More than that, though, I'm glad he's not puking anymore.
Happy Valentine's Day, y'all. 9:23 PM # (12) comments
Saturday, January 27, 2007Rainy Saturday
I feel virtuous this morning because I started on my taxes. Mostly, that means I skipped through TurboTax steps while making notes of information I need to find in the pile of papers on and in my file cabinet. But I'm pretty sure I'll be paying this year. Either that, or just barely breaking even.
The other day a guy showed up to edge my lawn, because my homeowner's association sent me a pissy letter about the edging, and I did buy a weed whacker but it hasn't been enough to battle the edges left by the former owners. So I'm waiting for this guy to show up, and he's late, and I go down the street to get the mail, and I see other guys working on another lawn. I have a long talk with them. (In Spanish, so it took a lot of thought and effort on my part. How do you say hedges in Spanish?) They give me their number for future lawn service consideration. They were hard-working, normal-looking guys.
So then I'm back home and this guy shows up to edge my lawn. (See first sentence of paragraph above.) His appearance surprised me. He'd told me, on the phone, in perfect English, that he would be there himself. (He was a co-owner, not an employee.) So I don't know what I was expecting. But it wasn't the guy who showed up. He was styled sort of like a younger, straighter Raymundo Baltazar. But cuter than that. He had red highlights in his gelled hair, and the cutest short-sleeved western shirt over his gray cotton thermal.
The way he spoke to me gave me the impression that he was used to being forgiven by women, whether for postponing their lawn service or sleeping with their friends. It was funny. He wasn't my type, but he amused me, so I let him do the lawn. And then I paid him the price we'd agreed upon, even though he didn't bring the tools to trim the hedges. When he left, he smiled over his shoulder and said, "Maybe you can write a review for our company." I guess he'd noticed me typing away while he worked.
I'm thinking I'll call the normal-looking guys next time. I wouldn't want this cute guy working on my lawn more than once or twice a year.
The grass is still wet outside. I like that I can see my back yard while I'm typing. We have one squirrel and one tiny wren who forage here every day. All the leaves on my pear tree are suddenly red and gold. There's a pile of tangled windchimes on a broken patio chair. I need to hang them up for good feng shui. But I'm not in a hurry. I'll type a little more, first.
Labels: stories11:02 AM # (7) comments
Friday, December 01, 2006Christmas Gift Expectations and Inadequacy
I have this friend. Let's call her Trudy. (Trudy, you're going to know I'm talking about you when you read this. But no one else will know unless you tell them. Don't be sad. I love you. This is a story about our love.) Trudy and I have known each other since 5th Grade.
No, wait. That's not how I should start this. Let's start again.
As longtime readers know, I grew up pretty poor. Actually, I was born rich, in the most beautiful neighborhood in Houston, but then, over the years, Corporate America and Cruel Circumstance shifted in such a way as to watch my family turn poor. Very, very poor. As poor as you can be while still having a house to live in.
So I was 15, 16, 17 years old, and very poor. And yet Christmas still occurred, every year, like it always does.
You know how easy it is for non-poor adults to get caught up in feelings of guilt and inadequacy when it comes to giving gifts. And you know how teenagers' lives are often just long strings of shame and melodramatic humiliation. So, I'm sure you can imagine how crappy it felt for me, as a teenaged girl, to be poor and unable to buy nice gifts for the people I loved.
So, I got creative. Often, right at the last minute - right before the party or the dinner or the choir rehearsal, I would run around our big, drafty house and grab all the materials I could - anything sparkly or expendable - and make my friends gifts. Often, the gifts would be comprised of completely nonsensical things. Or pilfered things. Or things I'd completely invented from found objects and scraps of paper.
Usually, they included writing. It wasn't enough, I knew, to give someone a pair of safety goggles that I'd borrowed from our high school's biology lab. But, if I wrote a story to go along with it - like, say, a story about the goggles having magic that would enable the wearer to view their football-playing crush's underwear - then it was passable. It was funny - a personalized gag gift.
Like I said, I would create these gifts at the last possible minute, and wrap them in comics or aluminum foil or discarded ribbons, and give them to my friends quickly, and swallow down the lumps of shame while I tried to graciously accept their beautiful gifts in return. And, as soon as Christmas was over, I'd breathe the pure relief, and go back to being normal-poor instead of Christmas-poor.
And then I got older, and I got a scholarship, and I went away, and I got married, and I got credit cards, and I wasn't poor anymore. And, thank God, and on the Christmasses that came then, I would by my friends completely normal gifts and feel so freaking good about it. And, once in a while, one of my friends would say, "Remember that year you gave me a whole box of stuff with a list of clues, and one of the gifts was safety goggles you stole from Ms. Alexander's class, and you said they were x-ray goggles and I could use them to see Elias's underwear?"
No, I'd say. Jesus, no, I don't remember that. Thank God. How embarrassing.
I have this friend named Trudy. She's been my friend since fifth grade. Like me, she grew up poor. Like me, thank God, she's doing well now, and I'm so happy for her.
Even though we've lived far away from each other for the last fifteen years, Trudy still always wanted to exchange gifts. Even though we sometimes didn't get a change to do it until January. Part of our ritual has always been exchanging wish lists, first. Sometimes the wish lists contain funny items. Trudy's, I noticed, often contained small things that sounded like groceries. "She must be worried that I can't afford anything better than that," I'd think. A lot of times, I'd ignore her list and buy her something nice, instead.
Last year, I told her, "Trudy, I love you to death, but it's getting to be a massive pain in the ass for us to do our gift exchange. Do you mind if we don't do it this year? Can we just try to get together some time for lunch, instead?"
I hate that we hardly see each other in real life anymore. When we do see each other, one or both of us always has to drag kids/husbands/boyfriends along, because God forbid two women with families should be allowed a single day on their own, right? Y'all mommies out there know what I'm saying. So, I kind of hated getting all involved with the gift/list exchange, then hoping for a chance to see each other in December or January. It was stressing me out. Plus, Trudy kept putting weird stuff on her wish list, and I kept stressing over what to actually buy her. Surely, she didn't just want socks and candy bars and shampoo. But how was I supposed to know what to buy?
A few weeks ago, Trudy called me and, among other things, said, "Hey, I know we said last year that we weren't going to do a gift exchange, but is there any way you'd want to do it this year? It'll only be you and me - we won't buy stuff for the kids or the men."
"Um..." I said. She wasn't the only person I'd skipped last year. A couple of my other friends sent out anti-consumerist emails stating that they didn't want to exchange gifts - they'd wanted to have dinner or lunch, instead. And it had worked out well. Gift buying really stresses me out. I was glad to cut my list short last year - why would I backslide this year?
"I know this is dumb," Trudy said, "but I really miss our gift exchange. Remember, back when we were kids, how we used to give each other candy and painted pennies and rocks and stuff? And we'd write each other letters, and draw cartoons? Seriously, Gwen, those were some of the best gifts I ever got. I know it's corny, but I kind of miss that."
When she said that... I know this is kind of corny, but it almost made me cry.
I didn't even remember, until she said it, that we used to give each other pennies that we'd decorated with nail polish. I barely remember any Christmas-specific letters or cartoons, but, thinking back now, I can imagine what they must have contained. Expressions of loyalty. Laughter over our hardships. Uninformed jokes about sex. Fantasies of what we'd be when we got older. All closed with SYBF - Signed Your Best Friend.
So then, all of a sudden, I knew what she'd meant for the last fifteen years. She'd never wanted "normal" gifts, or "nice" things. She wanted what we used to exchange - the tangible expressions of our love.
All that sounds completely cheesy and homosexual, I know. But I'm not playing Charlie Brown theme music in the background here, and I'm not about to launch into a story about us having a pillow fight in lingerie.
I'm just saying. For the first time in a long time, I'm excited about giving gifts this year. 9:07 AM # (9) comments