Thursday, September 15, 2016

on neighbors & neighborhood

As I pulled into the alley behind my house last night I saw a shadowy figure approaching in the dark. For a split second I thought about various escape options—although my first thought was to protect my new bicycle, which I had been about to leave unattended to open the garage door. But then the figure called out hello. It was my neighbor, Al, coming from the house on the opposite corner.
“Woody died today.”
He’ll be buried on the twenty-third, the day his wife Fern died, one year ago.
We talked a few minutes. Al hasn’t always been very approachable or kind, but I know he was close to Woody and Fern, and to Audrey and Bud, who used to live across the street. They all moved into the neighborhood when it was built, in the 1950s. Al is a little younger than the rest, but he’s “on the top rung now, too,” and “next in line to go.”
I grew up in neighborhoods where no one talked to each other, big houses you entered through the garage door that opened for you automatically. And I never lived in any one of those places longer than a few years. When we bought this little cracker box half my life ago, I was very young, had a tiny fat baby, and felt shy and alone. Ross was better at meeting the neighbors, and they all seemed to like them.
Once, at a block party, Al introduced Ross to some other folks as if he were a celebrity. “Ross works at the university!” I worked there, too, but that signified nothing. Blank faces. Woody and Al seemed to live in a man’s world, and the womenfolk were separate.
About ten years ago I covered my front lawn in cardboard to kill the grass and make way for more garden space. One day Woody walked by when I was on my hands and knees. He put his hand up over his face and said, “I can’t look. I don’t even want to know what you’ve go going on there, Nicole.” He didn’t generally seem a hostile man, but there wasn’t much humor in his joke.
I remember Fern’s voice particularly, quavery. She was curled by severe arthritis, which must have been painful, but she was always kind.
I wonder what will happen with Woody and Fern’s quirky house now that they’re gone. The young couple who bought Audrey and Bud’s place seem sweet, and they have a gorgeous chunk baby. Although, I don’t see them very often. They leave every morning in separate cars at 7:50 on the dot and don’t return until late. I wonder what the house thinks of that that lifestyle, if it’s lonely without them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

the bicycle life: a view from the margins

On a cloudy and cool Saturday morning several weeks ago, I met with my friend Jane for breakfast and a stroll through the farmer's market. At the end of a pleasant morning, I went to fetch my bike, locked about a block away, intending to catch up with her as she was finishing her shopping.
I was walking the bicycle through the crowd when a much older gentleman, after a double-take, said, “Nice setup with the rack and baskets!”
We discussed the carrying capacity, and then he asked, “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
“I don’t mind, no.”
“You might want to wear something reflective on your back.”
I reassured him that I go full out with the reflective gear. Family motto: better dorky than dead. I showed him the Christmas lights attached to the rear baskets. And we agreed that many cyclists on the road aren’t visible, and that in this cloudy climate it’s especially difficult to see riders.
Then he told me about his cross-country bike trips “back in the day,” that he was a member of the local cycling club, and then he casually mentioned improvements in bicycles, generally, looking at mine, which still has some “old school” features. I suspect he was about eighty and that he’d been cycling since at least the 1960s.
When I mentioned this exchange to Jane, she said, “You’re much more patient with the mansplaining than I am.” I hadn’t really described the conversation very well, I guess, because it didn’t feel like mansplaining.
It felt like an old guy wanting to be useful, helpful. You know: visible.
A few years ago I read a terrific essay by Roger Angell, stepson of E.B. White, who, you’ll recall, wrote Charlotte’s Web. Angell is in his 90s now, and his essay is so lovely that I recommend reading it all. In one bit he he talks about invisibility:
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
For women, I think fifty is even a stretch, that we start to fade into the background sometime in our forties.
Of course, it’s possible that the farmer’s market guy was, indeed, mansplaining—he might be both experiencing the invisibility of age and an entitled ass. But it was too crowded and noisy to chat. If I hadn’t been so anxious about finding Jane (and anxious about the damn dogs—why so many dogs at the market?), I would have enjoyed hearing more.
I heard enough of his history to guess that he had been what I call a fancypants cyclist. I don’t tour, and, gods help me, I don’t do lycra. I ride to get around, and I am able to live without a car because everything I need is in close proximity to my home. That farmer’s market is about a mile and a half from my house, and I live exactly one mile from my work.
About half a mile the other direction from my place, there’s a little strip mall with a Goodwill and Harbor Freight, right next to each other. Last May I biked on over for some shopping. In addition to garden equipment, I also bought a floor-length black gown for an upcoming choir performance—$1.99! I was just getting organized to leave the store when a fella came screaming up on a bike.
“Thanks! Nothin’ like a new set of bungee cables to make a girl happy.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d mistaken this gentleman, obviously a pirate, for a homeless person. We had a laughing conversation, and then I went on my way. The rest of that day I kept wanting to call everyone SISTER!
This pirate was weather worn and tattooed, and his bike was a junker. I was not apprehensive or afraid of him, but something about that exchange loosed a memory from the old data bank. When I was a child, in the 70s, the fam was shopping for school clothes in the big city, New Haven. We were stopped at a traffic light, and my mother was at the wheel, staring straight ahead. Her jaw was clenched and her voice unnatural, panicked: “Roll up the windows. Don’t look, kids. Don’t look.” I looked: one man lying in the actual gutter, another on the sidewalk, another panhandling. It was my first glimpse of abject poverty.
Poverty, homelessness, age, skin color, gender—so many ways to be made invisible, to be disenfranchised. And in the last few weeks we have seen how dangerous and cruel the systems that support inequality and disenfranchisement actually are.
Of course you don’t have to ditch your car to meet people outside your little circle, but since giving up car ownership, curiously, my world has gotten bigger, not smaller.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

rules of engagement

I was just returning home from a run last week when I passed my neighbors outside setting up a garage sale. A laughing young woman with a baby called out, “Come buy our stuff!” She was doing the swaying baby jiggle, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, and she spoke in rhythm to the bounce.

I pointed to my house and said, “I’ll come back when I don’t smell so terrible!”

The young man said, “We have a baby! They don’t smell so good, either.”

“That’s their specialty!”

That particular house has been bought and sold many times, so it’s hard to keep track, but I am fairly certain that this lovely couple is not the same one whose fights would spill out into the driveway. The fighting was always robust, but one summer it reached a fevered pitch.

The saddest thing to me was that the fighters had so few basic tools in their communications toolbox, civility being the most fundamental.

One day we could hear the shouting from inside, windows closed. I casually mentioned to the boys, “You realize, right, that there are two things to keep in mind when you’re fighting? It’s a good idea to never use fuckin’ anything to describe your partner, to their face. And if you must use fuck, or any variation of fuck, use it in your ‘I-statements.’ For instance, ‘I’m so fuckin’ mad right now I can’t talk to you reasonably.’ But never, ‘You’re such a fuckin’ bitch,’ or ‘You fuckin’ moron.’”

*big eyes*

Mom said fuck.

It was hard for me to get over how unnecessary the abuse was. No one, it seems, had taught them how to use their words.

Every family has its own culture, and some families are more comfortable with shouting than others. We are not shouters, so the boys had never heard this level of verbal violence. I felt that if we didn’t acknowledged what was going on over there—because the line between mere venting and actual abuse had been crossed—we would be, somehow, weirdly, complicit, at best, or victimized, at worst.

I hope that, wherever they are, that couple is getting some help.

I didn’t make it back to chat with new owners, or buy their stuff, but that friendly exchange amused me because it was set against the backdrop of the place I’ve always called, in my head, the Shouting House.

Every few years there is a lull in the happier hollering, the sound of children playing. My children roamed the ‘hood in a pack, with the neighbor kids. Then they got big, went to college, and it was quiet for a while. Now there’s a new herd. On my way to work recently, I saw an enormous rhododendron shaking, the dead blossoms rustling and falling to the ground. A child came tearing around the corner and shouted at the shrubbery, “FOUND YOU!”

And there’s a baby in the Shouting House—I’ll have to come up with a new name for it. The house next door to that one was Audrey and Bud’s. They bought it in 1950, new, and raised two boys there. We bought ours in 1992, and also raised two boys. Woody and Fern’s house, on the corner, is for sale now, and they were also the original owners. Imagining our little postwar cracker boxes as homes somehow redeems their plain, thoughtless design. I have been here long enough to begin to see the neighborhood differently, to see this cycle, protecting and then launching our children into the world, hopefully as productive, happy, and whole adults. I am relieved that I don’t feel anxious passing the Shouting House anymore. And, maybe I’ve read too much Marie Kondo, but I like to think the house itself is happy to have a new family to shelter.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

animal anxieties

The day after Gilbert the Cat left this beautiful world, a baby bunny appeared in the garden. I could live with a baby bunny. But then on Thursday a tiny, wet, bedraggled opossum harassed the chicken, who likes to hang out on the back stoop watching me in the kitchen.

I went to the door to find out what seemed to be upsetting the hen, and there it was, climbing the steps. For a moment I feared it was a rat—but when I realized it was not, I resolved to shoo it away. When I opened the door it charged to get inside the house. It charged. Like I was inviting an old friend to come on in. “Oh, why thank you! Don’t mind if I do. It’s a bit damp out here.”

The chicken entirely lost its shit.

I don't blame her. Let me tell you, wet baby opossum is not cute baby opossum.

Good grief.

Then I worked today, all day, in the garden, and just as I was putting the tools away, I remembered to collect the eggs. I figured the hen must be broody, because I hadn’t seen or heard her even once. Opened the coop, no hen. Called for her. (“CHICKEN?!”) Not a peep.

So I resigned myself to searching for remains. Checked the way-back garden. Peered into the wilds under the apple trees. Looked down the road both ways.

I figured if there were no remains, then either she’d had enough with all the interlopers, the bunny and that terrifying baby opossum, and had decided to hit the road, or, she’d been cleanly dispatched. But both scenarios seemed unlikely. I assumed there would be remains.

I was just getting ready to compose her obituary when I heard that comforting choock-choock, and there she was, coming out from her tunnel all casual, like, “Oh, hey.”

It was almost-but-not-quite like that time I thought I’d lost baby Eli in the store and found him in the lingerie, one tiny hanger in each hand, switching the delicate unders up to his body, left-right. Not the same relief, of course, but the same variety of relief.

If only the chicken had presented herself trying out undergarments, like wee Eli. That would have been the perfect Beatrix Potter ending to a perfect day.

But fearing for that stupid hen got me to thinking about domesticated and wild animals. When I finally sat down to dinner, tired and sore, but satisfied with a productive day, I saw an article defending “glamping” — according to the headline. I didn’t read it. Our whole lives are a kind of glamping. Maybe it's time we get past our idea that the wild is Out There in preserved places. Wild is right outside the door.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

not mensa, but way past dumbsa

I love the Facebook “memories” feature. Mostly my status updates are not so much about status or updates but little records of amusing tableaux. I try to record as many details as I can remember. Details I later forget.

Two years ago, after Eli graduated from college, we made our epic road trip home, and then he only had three weeks to prepare for his departure to the Philippines, for his Peace Corps gig. Evidently on this day we took a break from doctor’s appointments and shopping trips to go to a movie. I have been waiting and waiting for this gem to pop up in my Facebook timeline, because I couldn’t remember the hilarity, only the horror. I made some edits for spelling and clarity:

22 June 2014

Today Eli and I went to see Chef, a light-hearted matinee, at our local cinema. I like supporting small businesses, but this place especially delights me because the previews aren’t terrifying and exploding-y. It was a nice little movie, good music, lots of cooking scenes, a cute kid, happy ending. Just what we needed.

Afterward, as we were unlocking our bikes, a fella approached us asking about our helmets. Evidently some sporting event had just ended—I later learned it was a very exciting World Cup game—and folks were spilling out of a nearby tavern.

This guy was in a spiffy outfit, athletic clothes, very expensive. He wasn’t dressed like a homeless person, seemed steady on his feet, and his words weren’t slurred, so I was confused when he started talking. And kept talking.

Apparently he knows “almost everything except Sanskrit, not Mensa material, but way past Dumbsa.” He explained that it’s been PROVEN BY SCIENCE that after a game that a man is particularly invested in, he has a drop in somethingorother and testosterone, so he was having a serious letdown and was going to go work out then have some oysters and “about ten almonds” and I forget what else. To recover.

The Mensa comment came just before he used the word “assuage” in a sentence, pronouncing it “ah-saghe.”

I still wish I had recorded his whole monologue.

Two hours later it dawned on me. “Eli, I just realized that if you hadn’t been with me, that guy would have tried to pick me up.”

Eli looked at me a long moment and then said, “That JUST dawned on you? I was aware of it the entire time.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

little book, big book—weighty matters

I live two and a half blocks from a high school. It’s just down a tiny hill, so I can't see it from my place. But they are building another jail-like monstrosity, so the scent of hot tar and the noise of big machinery reminds me that it's there. And several mornings each week I happen to see a teenager swoop past on his skateboard, alive and beautiful, one leg gracefully swinging like a pendulum as he sails by.

Last week, very early, I saw a fella, my age-ish, who looked like he had just rolled out of bed—baggy shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops, unshaved, baseball cap. He was carrying an enormous textbook and hustling toward the school, talking on a cellphone. On a mission, focused, but still pretty cheerful, he smiled and lifted his chin in greeting when he saw me.

He was obviously bringing a forgotten book to a student. Maybe he is an enabler, but I’d prefer to think of him as a great dad. But my first thought was about that book. Honestly! If our grandparents could get their learnin' from books that don't require a handcart to transport, there's no reason for our kids’ texts to be so gigantic.

(Unless, I thought, bitterly, the publishers are in league with chiropractors.)

I’ve been noticing this for some time, the absurdity. Once, at the Goodwill, I picked up a middle school science book, a teacher's edition, and, I'm not kidding, the first one hundred pages (100!) were advertising for National Geographic and supplementary materials.

During our homeschool days, I perused many, many textbooks, and on the whole found them physically and visually overwhelming. So many photos and graphs and sidebars— it was often, ironically, nearly impossible to find the narrative throughline in any given chapter.

When I was a little girl, my mother had an old McGuffy’s Reader, and, ohmygosh, I loved that book. I knew how to read, but it wasn’t the stories that captivated me, but the beauty. This was the 1970s, when illustrations of people were distorted and cartoon-like, colors psychedelic. That little reader was so different. I loved the font, the simple line drawings, the scent.

When I was maybe seven or eight I brought that McGuffy’s reader along on a trip, and left it behind on an airplane, the upstairs area of a 747—a detail I remember because, hoo-boy, everyone was unhappy about the loss. Much later, early in my adulthood, I found a copy of that same edition in a used bookstore and gave it to my mother for Christmas. She did not even remember the incident!

It was about at that time I started collecting vintage schoolbooks, my favorites being pre- WWII. The size, of course, is the first difference you see when you compare current textbooks with the oldies, which are tiny and light. And, both the subtle and overt racism in those bygone days of yore show up in the vintage texts—no surprise there. What did surprise me, though, was an image in an algebra book from 1936, young women playing “basket-ball.” In my tiny, haphazard collection, later schoolbooks, if they contain any images of women at all , depict them in domestic roles.

My grandmother was born in 1910, and based on her stories, and what I know about that time in our history, I imagine there was a brief period in the early 20th century, between suffrage and the Second World War, when women enjoyed a degree of freedom that their mothers and grandmothers did not, before the backlash against first wave feminism was in full swing. My grandmother never used the word “feminist” in my hearing, but she taught me what it was to be one.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked up that algebra book if it hadn’t been for those girls in action. I am usually more attracted to grammar and reading books. But it fit my criteria—pretty plus less expensive than a caramel macchiato. And that image evoked a particular time, a collection of stories from my grandmother, who was herself a math major in college and a math teacher later. So I bought it. And, later, casually chatting with friends, I learned that “basket-ball” was hugely popular with many of our foremothers.

If the messages and lessons that we take from a schoolbook have as much to do with the values of the writers, the political and historical context in which they were written, as they do with the intended instructional content, then what do our enormous, noisy textbooks say about us?

My sister is a schoolteacher, and listening to her and other friends who have children in school, it sure seems like electronic resources will be eclipsing those big books any second now. It reminds me of when folks are talking to someone who does not speak the same language, that inclination to get louder and louder, to be heard. You wonder if the textbook companies know the gig is up, so they're getting more flamboyant to capture attention.

Several dirty jokes about size and insecurity are coming to mind right now.

But I’ll leave it at this: In a world where we are faced with presidential candidates who make a mockery of the democratic process, where gun violence is epidemic, where climate change remains almost wholly unaddressed—there are plenty of weighty matters our children will inherit, and wouldn’t it be better if, right now, they weren't weighed down by unnecessarily massive texts?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

on father's day: crows & genetic memory

This fine crow made an exciting guest appearance in the concert hall
on the 4th of July a few years back, during a choir rehearsal. 
This morning out on my run I had to take detours several times to avoid dive-bombing crows protecting their fledglings. This whole area used to be an enormous orchard—the main drag two blocks down is Orchard Street—and one of my professors told me, years ago, that we had such a robust population of crows here because of the apples.

I don’t know if that’s true. But I like that story. I’ve since had this mental image of the ancestors of our crows establishing their little community, like pioneers settling down on a homestead with fine soil.

Today, the first two times I had to turn around to avoid attack, I didn’t mind so much. By the third time, it was starting to get hot, and I just wanted to get home. I was annoyed, and wondered why these damn birds hadn’t gotten the memo. “I thought you remembered faces, guys, and passed on that memory to the next generation?!”

I used to have a companion crow. I don’t know whether it was male or female, but I thought of it as an old codger. It would hang out on the grape arbor and make pleasing sounds while I worked in the garden. One day it followed me to work. I would walk a block, and it would fly ahead a bit, land on a wire, and wait. Repeat.

That was a while ago, but I feel like s/he should have passed along the word, that I wasn’t a threat to the babies.

Well. Not really. I was tired. But thinking about protective parents, thinking about genetic memory, on Father’s Day, after a several weeks of news stories about deeply traumatic, tragic events perpetrated by men—I felt grateful.

My own father was handsome, charming, and wealthy. And a narcissist. And, in his later years, sexually attracted to children—although I don’t know whether he acted on his impulses. My father could not forgive his own dad for abandoning him and his mother, but he himself abandoned three wives and many children. So. Not the best guy.

We know that trauma can have lasting effects, for generations. And all that science-y stuff doesn’t surprise most us, I think, because it’s so easy recognize at a basic level that patterns tend to repeat, children make the same mistakes as parents. Both my parents were broken, each with a long history of abuse, abandonment, trauma, and neglect.

My parents were able to protect and care for us right at the beginning, mostly—I remember my dad defending my mother’s heartbreaking abuse of my sister with an outburst: “She kept you babies clean! She changed diapers!” So that biological urge to protect kicked in, but only up to a point, when the brokenness and mental illness overwhelmed instinct.

So it’s a wonder to me that my own children are free of the burdens of that long legacy, that they aren’t just feminists, but they understand the dire need for a massive shift in our cultural understanding of masculinity and manhood. And they are kind.

Seth, the “baby,” just finished his first year of college, and that adjustment would have been challenging even without the cancer excitement. But the nest has been empty long enough for me to settle into a new rhythm, long enough to conquer the urge to continually catalogue and lament all our (many and real) parenting mistakes. Now I am able to simply enjoy the men my children have become. They are so fortunate to have been raised by a gently protective and loving dad—who is better than I am at dive-bombing potential threats as the boys have launched. But I’m pretty adequate at keeping a welcoming place available for them to come home to.

I’m grateful for all three of them.