Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ghost of Christmas Stop Telling Me I Look Like Your Dead Relative, Because it Really Freaks Me Out

I am the ghost that haunts the Midwest. I apparently look like a lot of people, as their relatives tend to tell me. Maybe my blank stare is a blank slate onto which they can easily project the images of their loved ones, many of them dead. Maybe I'm just sort of generically Eastern European in my build and gait. Sometimes I think I was engineered for the bearing of children and the digging up of potatoes.

Anyway, I walked through the doors of this building today, shuddering from the cold and stomping the snow off my feet and generally making enough of a commotion to drown out the majority of what a woman said to me as she sat in a wheelchair in the entryway. All I caught was, "Sister."

At first I thought she was expressing some sort of kindred womanly greeting. I'd already pulled open one of the second set of glass doors and was halfway through. "I'm sorry, what?" I said.

"You look just like my sister," the woman replied. She was waiting for her ride, with her chair angled to look out the glass doors. As she spoke, I noticed the gaping spaces where most of her teeth had been in her youth. Now she sat hunched in her chair, her elbows propped up on the armrests and her hands clenched together and held tight to her chest.

I wasn't sure how to take this as I imagined how much younger and more attractive her sister could possibly be, and I was just about to say, "Oh, that's nice." But I only got as far as, "Oh," before she continued.

"She died from leukemia when she was 39."

"That's--"

"You look just like her when she was young."

I was somewhat at a loss and finally said, "Oh...well, I'm sorry."

Then this hunched and toothless woman turned her face from the ghost of her long-dead sister and stared out the door into the winter damp. As I continued through the door, she quietly ended our awkward little talk. "Sorry to have to tell you."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Snowsabers

video
(I'd turn down the sound before playing the video. It's significantly less magical with the roaring motors and me shouting.)

When I was a little girl, these things seriously scared me. Seriously. Mattress sales and grand openings of grocery stores were a constant threat as my hometown expanded. I still remember the pit in my stomach when Food 4 Less opened in Kenosha, WI. Thriller was on the radio, the lights were in the sky, and I was huddled in the backseat with my eyes shut tight. "Shut tight against what?" you ask? The aliens, of course. I don't know why, but of all the things to be afraid of, aliens were my thing. My fear was twofold: first, that the beams of the searchlight would actually find something in the sky, namely something saucer-shaped and flown by beings intent on brain-sucking world domination...or, at the very least, hiding in the attic that opened into my bedroom. And if intelligent beings had come millions of light years to squat in my attic, I certainly didn't want some giant, swinging beam of light to advertise my location.
We'll call it a mark of maturity, then, that rather than shutting my eyes and screaming when I caught sight of this searchlight on Saturday, I Jessica Fletchered the source of the light and drove right up to it. My courage was rewarded with a quietly stunning display of glittering snow in fast-moving beams of hypnotically swinging light.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reflections on Metal

Two full years ago, I made a sort of rash decision to get braces. While my friends get married and have kids, move to far-flung cities, get masters degrees, start careers, my two years of having a mouth full of metal is the longest running consequence of a decision in my adult life. And tomorrow, they’re coming off.

I had braces once before when I was a kid. When they came off, I was left with a permanent retainer that ended up doing more harm than good. By the time 2005 rolled around, I had a pretty gnarly snaggletooth right in the front of my mouth. Now, I never measured with a protractor, but I’d say it jutted out of my mouth at a degree roughly parallel to the ground. This had the effect of giving the usually wrong impression that I was snarling, as my upper lip would sometimes hang out on my tooth ledge. Couple that with the faraway gaze that is my standard facial expression, and I’m surprised anyone ever talked to this apparently bored and snarling girl.

As my teeth have been slowly moving in my skull, I’ve been casually observing a dental trend that I find quite shocking: whitening. I spent years smiling with my lips closed, demurely covering my mouth with my hand so as not to alarm anyone who, by virtue of engaging me in conversation, might find themselves staring down the barrel of my snaggletooth. Meanwhile, public figures (and more and more private ones, it seems) have no qualms about exposing others to what has to be a harmful degree of UV light shining off their whitened teeth. Around the time I had my first set of braces, a local Milwaukee weatherman, John Malan, came to my elementary school to terrify me with pictures of tornado-producing clouds that were, to my untrained eye, exactly like the ones in the sky outside the classroom window. But I also remember him talking about something called albedo, which is apparently the degree to which light reflects off stuff. In John Malan’s example, it was snow. He talked about snow’s albedo being great enough to cause momentary blindness when you look right at it. You can now experience the same phenomenon by accidentally looking directly at the teeth of your favorite celebrity or politician or hairdresser. I’m always grossed out by this unnatural whiteness, and, further cementing my place in the ranks of ueber-nerds, will sometimes throw my hand up as the local news anchors smile at me from the TV or from billboards along the freeway, shouting, “Albedo! Ahhh…ahhh….ah-ah.”

I know other people are put off by this trend, because they flat-out say it when they ask about my braces. “Your teeth look fine,” they’ll say. “Why did you think you needed to get braces? Everybody thinks they have to have perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth these days.” And I have to stop myself from saying, “Oh, yeah? You don’t know how lucky you are right now. You could be locking eyes with Ol’ Snaggle right now. And believe me, he’s trying to get at you. You’d better be glad these metal bars are keepin’ him back, ‘cause he’s got your scent now.” I may have just cross a line by giving my tooth eyes and a nose, but watch me soldier on, because I have a point.

See, as much as I have been dreaming of this day—well, the day that comes after this one, Friday, the day I get my braces off—the looming event has created a bit of very deep anxiety about my identity. When I got these dental shackles, I was two years less removed from college and that phase of your life when you’re supposed to be finding yourself. Now I’m in that part of my 20s that can’t even be rounded down to “mid.” And for these two years, I’ve had a very physically apparent cue that I’m a “work in progress.” There’s been a freakin’ scaffold on my face. At some level, I could always laugh off an awkward social encounter, my inability to cook, my hundreds of dollars in parking tickets; I could just dust off my ass after literally falling down, smile a broad, metallic smile, shrug and say, “Still under construction.” But when the scaffolding comes off tomorrow, for all anyone knows, I’m done. This is the way I intend to be.

And I’m reminded of a very modern-looking church just built near where I went to high school. They were working on it for months, and it was another few months before anyone realized it was actually done, that all those different colored walls were meant to be that way. It was January when I realized the scaffolding was down and it was a finished building. There was a thick blanket of snow on the field around the church, and I had just flung my hand up and was about to shout, “Albedo!” when I noticed parishioners walking into the fully functioning church. I slowly lowered my hand and squinted through the light reflecting off the snow. “Huh. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, I guess.” I squinted a little bit harder at the church’s red and brown and gray and white walls and its odd angles and small windows, and I thought, “Seriously?”

Friday, November 2, 2007

Okay, I get it!

I am attracting some bad, bad enviro-mojo with my shitty car. I took it in for an oil change the other day, something I had been putting off for a while because my car's "check submarine" light has come on again, and I really didn't want to know the reason this time. Turns out, it's the same old reason: the catalytic converter isn't converting anything, certainly not horrible pollutants to less-harmful ones. The last project I did at work today was about alternative energy, so Mother Earth was already on my mind. Plus, the leaves are all multicolored and falling and swirling, and I was all, "Whoa, beautiful Nature, with a capital N."

And then Mother Nature screamed at me, "Oh, you like nature, do you? That's rich!" And she fucking threw someone's recycle bins at my car! A gentle breeze hypnotically swirled these many-colored leaves before my eyes, and then, just when I was lulled into a dreamy complacency (hey, my eyes were still on the road), that breeze suddenly turned into a gust of admonishing wind and smashed these two blue recycle bins into the driver's side door.

Jeesh. Get a grip, Nature.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Aha!

If you were to venture to Oprah.com, you could find a collection of celebrity accounts of their “aha moments.” Invariably, they are tales of experiences wherein your favorite female star realized she's not as eco-conscious as she could be (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), that she hasn’t properly introduced her deceased mother to her children (Oprah’s BFF, Gayle King), or that she is both black and beautiful (Alfre Woodard).

This one’s for you, Oprah.

This past weekend, I had a real-life “aha” moment. I felt the universe tugging on my skirt (yeah, I was wearing a skirt), all, “Psst. Jess. Hey. Psst.” I was occupying my place as the third leg in the generational relay race through time that had gathered around my mother’s kitchen counter. My grandmother and I had just returned from the dedication ceremony for my friends’ new baby. I had told my mom about all the delicious food my friend had made for the lunch reception afterwards and was just about to marvel at the vast differences between my life and my friend’s when I remembered to ask what she had done all day. Turns out, she was pretty exhausted, what with all the burning of the Bibles.

“Psst. Jess.”

“Shut up, Universe! Mom, you did what?”

When I left that morning, I knew my mother would probably spend the day cleaning, as she’s preparing to sell her home. In a house where six people once lived and various people have stayed over the last ten years, it’s now down to her, my grandma, my little brother, and all the shit we deserters left behind. And so the task of gutting the house has largely fallen to my mom. Sure, she makes piles for Goodwill and “do you want this?” stacks for me to look at when I visit, but lately, it would seem, she’s taken to burning stuff she doesn’t want to take with her when she moves.

“How many Bibles did you burn?” I asked, a little astonished.

“I don’t know. Maybe five.”

“You found five Bibles here? Whose were they?”

She couldn’t say for sure.

“What else do you burn?”

“Oh, just shit I find. You know, some papers, a big map, some clothes.”

Some Bibles.

No wonder I’d been nervous about going to church to see my friends’ baby dedicated. I’ve always felt a little silly sitting in congregations where I clearly do not belong…which is to say, all of them. When I do find myself in church for the inevitable procession of marriages of friends and baptisms of their babies that comes with being 20-something, I’m usually able to sit quietly, sing inaudibly, and maybe even give the impression of deep understanding with my patented faraway, could-be-thoughtful gaze.

My grandma had met these friends of mine at the wedding that was my left knee’s undoing. She’d developed quite a crush on their little family, and so when I got the invitation to the dedication of their third child, I thought it was the perfect chance for her to ogle my friend’s husband (only peripherally, thanks to macular degeneration) and coo over their truly lovely and ever-growing family.

And so I sat with my grandma in church on a Sunday morning for the first time I can remember. The congregation was very young and friendly, with people constantly catching my eye and smiling right at me. They were different from my usual crowd, but I managed to smile back after a few initial suspicious glances proved to be pretty clearly not the appropriate response. People shook my hand and welcomed me; their hearts seemed warmed by the sight of me in my skirt, leading my mostly blind grandma to the restroom.

I was almost out. With a few nods to people I recognized from the service and a loud declaration to my grandma that, “it really was a thought-provoking sermon,” we were in the parking lot and the home stretch. There was only one church member between my slow-moving grandma and our parked car. It was an older gentleman with a gray beard and a large motorcycle. He was putting on a leather vest that was truly riddled with various buttons along the alternating themes of patriotism, motorcycles, and Jesus.

And then something fluttered in the corner of my grandma’s eye. Universe! Why did it have to be the corner? That’s the only part where she can see!

There were two flags waving on the back of his motorcycle: one was the stars and stripes; the other was black with the POW/MIA insignia. The man told us a touching story of how the Lord had returned his POW/MIA flag when it had been dislodged by enemy wind on his way home one night. He hadn’t realized it was gone until he got home, but just as he was vowing to never give up on his missing flag, his wife pulled into the driveway and held it out to him, saying, “You missing something?”

Come on! But I kept my mouth shut. I smiled and said, “That’s amazing. Well, have a great ride home.” And I turned to continue toward the car. As soon as my grandma spoke, I knew.

“Well, you better watch out with your American flag,” my grandmother said to this very patriotic man. She pointed vaguely to where she knew I stood. “She’ll run right over it if you give her the chance.”

He was a large man, and he turned like a bear to face me. Somewhere in the cackling, nervous laughter, I managed to form the words “Canada,” “motorcycle,” “flag,” and “it was an accident.” The bear seemed placated, if not wholly amused. I held out my hand to my grandma and politely begged her to come along. She was shouting over her shoulder, “And it was on the Fourth of July,” when we finally reached the car.

“Well, that was a nice service,” she said from the passenger’s seat.

At my friends’ house, my grandma found a woman roughly her own age to talk to, the grandmother of my friend’s husband. They shared family stories over plates of cheesy potatoes and meatballs. Collected in the house were four generations of this particular family, with this woman’s great-grandchildren shouting playfully in the other room and her daughter sitting with us, sharing doting observations of the little ones.

I told my grandma her best chance at great-grandchildren was probably my younger brother, but even that chance seemed slim at the moment. “You should have taken this woman’s lead,” I joked, with a big gesture so she could see I was indicating her new friend. “You should have just had more kids to begin with and increased your chances.”

We all chuckled.

“Oh, I think I had enough.” My grandmother laughed.

We all laughed.

“And I think I’m safe now,” she said with a nudge of camaraderie to her new friend.

I laughed a little nervously.

“You’re safe, aren’t you?” she asked the woman.

“Oh, yes, I should think so,” the woman replied with a laugh.

“G—“ I started.

“Well, you never know,” she continued. “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there isn't fire in the furnace.”

Later, in my mother’s kitchen, the Universe tugs at my costume of a skirt. “Pst. Hey.”

How could my friend and I—roughly the same age, having grown up in the same area, gone to the same college—lead such vastly different lives now? I’d seen members of all the generations of her family earlier that day, and here were all three generations of mine, all sharing what we’d done that day.

“Psst.”

Aha! And I realized that probably at the same moment my grandmother had been joking about postmenopausal sexuality, my mother had been poking at a pile of burning Bibles, smiling through the smoke with a real sense of accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pony Up

Like that creative writing teacher in high school, Blog Action Day has provided me with a prompt today: “The environment. You have till midnight, the end of Blog Action Day. Go!"

It is with pangs of guilt that I write about the environment. Not only am I currently driving by myself to and from work every day, but I am doing it in a car that is more liberally spewing pollutants into the air than other cars on the road. I am, in fact, a hypocritical ass.

I recently made a huge life decision: that I would get rid of my car and try to, like, save the Earth and stuff by personally accounting for less pollution than I usually do. As soon as the idea entered my mind, it just felt right. Not only would it help out the aforementioned Earth, but it would make me feel better about myself, and that’s really what ultimately matters.

My plan hit a snag, however, when a little light depicting a submarine and the word “check” flashed on my car’s dashboard. I took the car to a mechanic, who informed me that there was in fact no submarine to check and also that the drawing was of an automobile engine. After checking the engine, he told me that the catalytic converter in my car was no good.

The mechanic now put my two options before me. One: I could fix the catalytic converter for an absolutely obscene amount of money and dismiss all hope of even breaking even on the sale of this car. Two: I could just have him turn off the submarine light, because Minnesota doesn’t have emissions standards. With what I’m assuming would be a flick of his wrist, he could make my little submarine problem disappear.

I looked up the catalytic converter and its function when I got home. If I’m understanding the internet diagrams correctly, the catalytic converter is like a magical pony attached to your car’s undercarriage whose favorite food is pollutants. She could eat that stuff all day. Sure, some gets by her, but she eats what she can, and the air is better for it.

Oh, Universe! Why do you got to make shit so difficult? The price of a new pony was truly atrocious, and, so very soon after making my resolve to get rid of my car and be less of an asshole to the planet, the Universe was like, “Hey, asshole, why don’t you just go home and watch some TV instead?”

So, sadly, that’s what I did. What difference would it make anyway? I’m just one person with one car, and it looks like I’ll be keeping it for now.

If I believed in fate, I’d think it was a sign that "The Day After Tomorrow" was on television the day I decided to sell my car and take up the carless lifestyle. In this film, mankind has puffed so much pollution into the air that the weather gets apocalyptic and ushers in a new ice age. Cities are laid to waste by massive tornadoes, and golf-cart sized hail squishes unsuspecting Asian people. The entire Northern hemisphere is plunged into frozen chaos, all resulting in poor, lovely Jake Gyllenhaal being trapped in the New York Public Library with a killer superstorm fast approaching. That is how bad shit can get, people.

And if I had any hope that there was a deus to ex-machina our asses out of the trouble mankind is in, none of this stuff would seem scary. But the cards are stacked against hope for children of the ‘80s. Ours was one of the first generations to be sat down and told in firm tones by reliable authority figures that the environment was in trouble. Furry creatures were endangered. Exxon was a dirty word. There was a hole—a giant freakin’ hole—in the protective ozone barrier between us and the careening asteroids. Had we been allowed to swear, our collective cry would have been, “Holy fucking shit!”

And the world seems to have stalled in that moment, if pop culture—which is really the only culture, if you ask me—is any indicator. All the end-of-the world references have me scared out of my mind. According to my exhaustive research, mankind’s destruction by global war, pandemic zombie infection, asteroid collision or robot uprising seems a foregone conclusion. Sometime after that “holy shit” moment in middle school and all these glimpses into the dismal, dismal future, me and many of my generation seem to have lost all hope that we as a species might actually pull this one out of the fire.

But wait; it gets worse. Having gathered a great deal of evidence in watching a great many of these scenarios unfold on TV and in movies, I must conclude that I’m not pretty enough to survive the apocalypse. While I enjoy the stories of the ragtag group of survivors eking out an existence after the decimation of their cultures by war or by superstorms or asteroids or cylons, I know that were it to come to that now, I’d be among those cautionary tales the good-looking ragtag survivors would tell.

“You’ve got to pull yourself together, Chloe! Sure, food is scarce, human skeletons are lying everywhere, and all the wild animals that were in zoos are now roaming the deserted streets of ruined cities with enormous chips on each of their four furry shoulders, but you’re a survivor. You don’t want to end up like those people who gathered their most precious seasons of TV on DVD and wandered around for weeks, finally succumbing to the ravages of hunger and disease on the plains of South Dakota? Do you? Huh?” Man, if the apocalypse hits, I just know I’m going to end up in South Dakota.

The problem seems too big. What we need, children of the ‘80s, is a sledgehammer of hope to break it down! South Dakota looms large, but it seems the first step, the only step we can take is to believe that what we do makes a difference. In my case, that will allow for possible future steps: a new pony for my car, carpooling, getting rid of my car altogether. Who knows? It’s easier on my conscience and my wallet to ignore the submarine light, but Jake Gyllenhaal is counting on me not to be a jerk to the environment. Just say no to superstorms!

So while my point is vague at best, as if seen through a veil of smog (See? It's an intentionally hazy blog entry.), and I don’t seem to be taking any immediate action myself, damned if my blog can’t be active on Blog Action Day. Just you wait. On Crotchety Girl Action Day, I’ll be all kinds of motivated and specific. It’ll be sweet.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Take Back the Knight: How Baby Got Back in the Saddle

I have lived in the shadow of defeat for the past year. Sure, I’ve gone to work, socialized with friends, even made a few new ones. I’ve laughed and joked and gone about my life, but it has all been under the pall of tainted honor. For one year ago, I met a knight who proved my better. I fell to the swift sword of his infectious beat. One year ago, I fell to the notorious Sir Mix-A-Lot.

I won’t soon forget the challenge Mix-A-Lot issued to the assembled revelers at my good friends’ wedding reception. Sure, I had a couple chocolate martinis in me…and some rum from a thermos a friend had spirited into the building, but I felt ready to meet Sir Mix-A-Lot on the level ground of the makeshift dance floor covering the marble of the Minnesota Historical Society. His words said all the wrong things, objectifying women, reducing their worth to the circumference of their backsides; but the beat of the song said something else. The rhythm pounding through the rented sound system said, “I dare you not to dance to this.”

Well, this knight had picked the wrong day to make assumptions about my reluctance to dance due to moral and political reservations about a song’s lyrics. As a woman who sometimes forgets to brush her hair, I was feeling special in my plum-colored bridesmaid dress, neatly curled hair, and professionally applied makeup. And I had an advantage over Mix-A-Lot: he didn’t know of my family’s wedding dancing legacy. He couldn’t know that my father is none other than “The Dancing Machine” of southeastern Wisconsin.

Ah, but as fate would have it, my father’s legacy is a cruelly ironic one. For as I bore the mantle of The Dancing Machine, little did I know that my knees were quaking under the weight of it. I had inherited my father’s weak knees, and they were about to prove my very public undoing.

Just as I was answering Mix-A-Lot’s call to shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt, there was an ear-splitting POP, and I found myself flat on the very moneymaker I’d been shaking mere moments before. At first, I was at a loss as to what had happened. My mind raced for the answer, quickly weighing the little evidence I had. There was the loud POP and the fact that I was on the floor. “Am I shot?” I wondered. But before I could remember if Sir Mix-A-Lot was from the East or West Coast, I caught sight of a foot to my left. It was wearing my shoe and appeared to be attached to a leg in my skirt, but the angle was all wrong; it couldn’t be attached to me.

As my friends formed a supportive circle of laughter around me, I was horrified to discover that the foot and the awkwardly bent leg were indeed mine. Unable to stand on my own and finding all my friends’ hands occupied in the act of pointing at me, I exited the dance floor by the only means left to me: this baby scooted backwards out of the flashing lights and into the darkness of a shame that has haunted me for a year.

The scooting may have managed to jostle my wayward joint back into place, but I limped through the world for a good two months. And when the swelling in my knee and foot finally went down, I carried the scars of my encounter with Sir Mix-A-Lot on the inside. My confidence was shaken; my ability to continue my family’s proud wedding dancing legacy was in doubt. I thought about Mix-A-Lot often, thought of a rematch. I knew how to find him; he had brazenly shouted his number, 1-900-MIX-ALOT, as I struggled to remove my fancy shoe from my rapidly swelling foot. But I couldn’t bring myself to meet him again…

…That is, not until a wedding I attended last weekend. It was in a small town in Wisconsin, and there were far more people at the bar than on the dance floor. This was my comeback dance, and I had eased back into it with the twist and some flailing to Love Shack. Along with the bride, I was one of about six women on the dance floor when the DJ announced a special request from one local man to another. The bride and her local friends froze as the DJ continued, “I don’t really want to know what this is all about, but here we go.”

“We got to get out of here,” the bride said as she joined the exodus from the dance floor. I was almost back to my table when I heard that unmistakable beat and that whiny woman’s voice urging Becky to look at another woman’s impossibly big butt, and I knew in an instant why everyone had run. This whiny woman is but the herald to the dark knight who commands feet and legs to dance and, yes, knees to bend unnaturally before him. As the local women scattered, I couldn’t blame them for their fear. The last time I’d faced Sir Mix-A-Lot, I’d ended up missing two days of work and riding the electric shopping cart at Target.

“I like big butts, and I cannot lie,” came his voice through the darkened dance hall. I spun on my heels and looked back at the deserted dance floor. Lights flickered on empty parquet flooring. Not a soul, it seemed, was brave enough to face Mix-A-Lot in that arena. I looked to my friend Sarah, who had been witness (pointing, laughing witness) to my fall one year ago. She looked to the dance floor and back at me then nodded slowly; I knew would not face him alone. I persuaded the bride to come back to the dance floor with us, and several women reluctantly followed her.

Our little mass of flailing femininity moved toward the dance floor, and I steeled myself with quiet resolve: I would not kneel before Sir Mix-A-Lot…mostly because I can’t really kneel anymore without shooting pains in my leg. But as I took those first tentative steps back into the flickering lights, that familiar beat pounding through the autumn air, I was surrounded by women shaking their butts in solidarity, and I knew I had already won.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Moon Men and Earth Mothers: a Tale of Endless Love…and Hate…and Love…

“And, love,
I’ll be that fool for you,
I’m sure.
You know I don’t mind.
Oh, you know I don’t mind.
And, yes, you’ll be the only one,
‘cause no one can deny
this love I have inside.
And I’ll give it all to you,
my love, my love, my love,
my endless love.”

--Lionel Richie and Diana Ross



I’m standing in the self-checkout lane at Cub. Because this is the Cub on University Avenue in St. Paul, two of the registers are covered with quickly written magic marker signs that read “Out of Order.” This leaves two open registers. At one, of course, a man is having trouble entering the weight of the produce he’s buying. At the other, a woman is fidgeting with a large stack of coupons. Clearly, it would have been much faster for these people to just go through the express lane and let the professionals handle the registers.

But there’s something appealing to a certain group of people, of whom I am one, about the self-check-out lane at Cub. Here you can buy whatever you want without all the hassle of human interaction. In some small way, you are making a statement about your fierce independence. So self-reliant are you that you’ve taken on the responsibilities usually reserved for someone with a nametag and extensive knowledge of the price per pound of produce. “See?” you tell yourself once you’ve quieted the electronic voice telling you to remove that “unexpected item” from the bagging area. “I can do this myself. I don’t need anyone else.”

But even as I stood waiting for my turn to prove my independence, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross crooned over the store’s loudspeaker, professing their eternal devotion, their deep and abiding need for one another, their endless love. And all at once, the epic story of man and woman—of humankind—crushed in on me. It had been screaming at me since I left the house, but until now, I hadn’t really heard.

I had decided to bring my roommate’s dog with me for a late-night run the store. Before getting in the car, I walked her down to the end of the block. As we approached the corner, a car parked on St. Clair pulled a U-ey in what I would call a pretty urgent manner. There were no other cars on the street, so I wasn’t sure what the woman driver’s hurry was until a man’s voice shouted from a window in one of the upper stories of the apartment building across the street, “Fuck you, bitch!”

His voice was so angry, so loud; it absolutely shattered the calm night air. As a pickup truck loaded with what was probably the woman’s share of the household furniture followed after her speeding car, I scanned the lighted windows of the apartment building for the heartbroken man’s silhouette. Also, I scanned for the silhouette of the heartbroken man’s gun. Finding neither, I quickly moved from my hiding place behind an annoyingly small tree and double-timed it to my car down the block.

The man’s wrathful cry was still ringing in my ears as I waited for oncoming traffic to slow so I could turn left onto University Avenue. The light changed, and a white pickup truck that now had the green light moved impatiently into the intersection and made as if to hit my car. For the second time in five minutes, a man’s voice rang angrily through the night, but this time, the intended targets were my own delicate female ears. “Asshole!” he yelled.

I don’t know if I was more surprised to be thus treated or to have the wrongly gendered “asshole” applied to me. I wanted to set the record straight, to let him hear my woman’s voice and alert him of his faux pas. To my frustration, all that came to me was, “Shut up!” Too late, I thought to add a more gender-appropriate curse than his and shouted, “Bastard!” but he was gone, already speeding off in the opposite direction.

“What is wrong with the men in this city tonight?” I wondered aloud to the dog in the backseat. She looked back at me blankly, perplexed and utterly without an answer.

I had an odd list of things to pick up at Cub: cookie dough, a barrette for my increasingly unruly hair, and bread. I made for the health-and-beauty section of the store and found it nearly deserted. There was only one other person within a five-aisle radius, and it was a man. At first, I’d been surprised to see a guy in this section, but any uneasiness I might have felt at entering this secluded corner of the store at night was quelled when I saw that he was examining the nail-care products. “Phew,” I said to myself. “It’s just a harmless metrosexual.”

I found the aisle with hair accessories and noticed out of the corner of my eye that the man was walking slowly towards me. I got in my defensive stance and prepared to scurry around the end cap if he got any closer. I was especially concerned to realize that he seemed to be whispering to himself. I grabbed my barrettes and glanced up to plan my escape route. It was then I noticed a cord trailing from his ear to his pocket. He was not talking to himself about the various brands of lady shavers but to someone on the other end of the phone. His voice was soft and appeasing: “They’ve got a three-pack on sale, baby.” The marionette string that was his phone cord twitched, and his arms moved for nail polish remover, for conditioner and razors not of is own volition but in direct response to the whispered commands of a woman he loved.

My heart was softened a bit by the scene of a man running unmanly errands for his special lady. I had nearly forgotten all the shouting and swearing I’d heard tonight as I picked up the cookie dough and made for the bread aisle. I snagged a loaf of the cheapest wheat and noticed a small piece of cardboard on the nearly empty shelf. On one side was an ink drawing depicting the familiar pattern of a skull and crossbones, but where the skull should have been, the artist had drawn a heart with eyes that were crying. A similar figure appeared on the back of the cardboard, perhaps an earlier draft of the emblem, along with a crude drawing of a cloud and several lightning bolts.

“Hmm,” I thought as I headed toward the self-checkout lanes.

Several minutes later, still waiting for the man with his produce and the woman with her coupons to figure out the machines, I took a deep breath to avoid strangling them. In my newly calm state, I became aware of the music playing over the store’s sound system.

Lionel Richie sings, “My love, there’s only you in my life, the only thing that’s bright,” and I think of the moon. Tonight it’s low and waning. As I was parking my car in the grocery store’s lot, I’d noticed its pale form hanging dejectedly over Herberger’s. It’s two nights since the moon was full, and now it looks like someone took a lady shaver to its right side. The Man in the Moon will lose more and more of his light to the black of the night sky, and he seems to know it.

Diana Ross’ voice seems placating to me now, offering assurances of her love in irresistibly sweet tones, singing over Lionel’s lines with a soft urgency. Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, reassures her man: “You’re every breath that I take. You’re every step I make.”

I thought of the woman speeding away from the apartment building on my street, the end of romance breaking the night with a disembodied curse from above. Was it the waning moon shouting after her from its low perch in the sky? “Go on, leave! And take that sliver of light off my right side with you! Fuck you, bitch!”

The squeal of tires, and my mind morphs her dark hatchback into a white pickup speeding off into the night. Had the man heard me shout my lame “Shut up…bastard”? Did he feel bad about calling me an asshole? Probably not. Had he wished he called me a bitch? Maybe.

And I wonder to myself if the man in the health-and-beauty section has moved on to the feminine hygiene products yet. Is there a pillow-soft voice whispering directly into his ear about a preferred brand of tampons?

Love is a treacherous thing, it seems to me. The mystery bread-aisle artist had captured the sentiment so simply, so eloquently in the skull-and-crying-heart drawing.

“And your eyes, your eyes, your eyes, tell me how much you care.” Lionel and Diana are working their way to the song’s climactic declaration of endless love, and all the events of the night press upon me in a fleeting glimpse and only marginal understanding of the epic struggle, the eternally rocky relationship between men and women. And suddenly I think of the lightning in the heart-and-crossbones drawing, the violence with which the sky seeks electrical balance with the earth.

There is something in the air tonight between the men and women of St. Paul, all toiling under the waning moon. I know I must do something on behalf of my sex, a small gesture at reconciliation. Some human interaction might be required. For this moment in time, I will have to abandon my independence and the self-checkout lane. I see that there are two express lanes open, one with a female cashier, one with a male. I make for the lane with the man at the register.

He rings up my three items, and I slide my credit card through the machine. A sign above the man reads that credit card transactions for purchases below $25 don’t require a signature. But this might be my only chance to communicate the apologies of my sex for our role in the lunacy of the evening, to reassure this man that, like Diana, we all “can’t resist your charms.” So I pick up the fake pen attached to the credit card machine and pretend to get ready to sign.

“Oh, you don’t have to sign,” the cashier says as if he’s doing me a huge favor. I look him straight in the eye and channel Diana Ross for my one word reply that contains the whole of human interaction: “Awesome.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Let My People* Go

*and by "people," I mean "teeth"

Woe = me.
No, make that "woe is less than or equal to me." I had thought I might be getting my braces off on Friday, but alas, no. Here they are, cemented still to my teeth. Oh, my teeth! Would I recognize them if I saw them today? It has been so long since they have felt the sun on their enamel. For nigh on two years have their metal shackles kept them from the sweet freedom of certain sweets.

I think they're starting to drive me a little crazy. I feel an odd claustrophobia of the mouth that is really unsettling at times. And on Thursday night, it actually crossed my mind that my orthodontia was receiving communications from other-worldly beings. The phone rang, and when I answered, a disjointed, somewhat androgynous electronic voice spoke, "This IS the UNIVersity OF MinnESOTA ORTHodontic CLINIC CALLING to reMIND you of YOUR APPOINTment tomorROW, FRIDAY, August 24th at 4 o'clock PM."
The voice informed me of a custom of its home world similar to our Earth RSVP, and I politely relayed my intention of attending this meeting by pressing 1 on my phone's number pad.

The faculty adviser to my manly orthodontic student dentist seems to think my teeth could be just a little straighter, and so I must bear this bondage a little longer, the impressions of these metal brackets and wires sinking deeper and deeper into the soft tissue of my mouth. They have to come off one day, right? Right? Until then, I'll keep my teeth to the sky and my ears open for messages from the universe at large. At this point, I wouldn't care so much if they came in peace, just as long as they brought futuristic tooth-straightening devices. Or they could even just knock out all the teeth on Earth so that no one--namely me--is covetous of another's straight teeth EVER AGAIN.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Heights of Joy

(a companion blog entry to Depths of Despair)

Holy crap! Breaking news!

I was just walking my roommate's dog down St. Clair Avenue. The wind is sort of high in St. Paul today, and it's rush hour, so there were a lot of cars on the street. With all the wind and the cars rushing, I didn't notice any shouting when I left the building. But on the way back, over the traffic and the fine summer breeze, I heard a resounding "THREE!"

The Tourettes Baller just made it to three!

This is seriously the first time I've ever heard him get that high, and I've been listening to his counting and his curses for over a year. I haven't heard any shouting since, so I have to wonder if he's just reached his life-long goal and decided to go out while he was on top--you know, like Seinfeld.

Oh, I wish I could have seen it, but the basketball court is sunken. And I have to admit, the mystery associated with the Baller is a large part of his appeal to my imagination. If I had just charged over there, I would have been like a little girl hearing a commotion on Christmas Eve and running downstairs to congratulate Santa on finding her house: I don't want to risk the shattering of any illusions; nor do I want to have to pretend not to know the truth for the benefit of the other kids in the neighborhood.

Plus, I'm not sure the Tourettes Baller is entirely aware of how far his voice carries or how many people are invested in his progress on the basketball court. I wouldn't want him to have the added pressure of knowing he had a far-reaching audience. It might also be--I don't know--disconcerting to him if a strange woman with crazy wind-blown hair and a bag of dog shit hurried over to him shouting, "Way to go, Baller! I knew you could do it."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Writing on the Walls of History

Oh, my god! I just totally saw the president's decoy helicopter leaving Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. I rolled out of bed around 11:00 this morning and turned on the TV to the sounds of a reporter on the second-to-worst local news apologizing for causing confusion as to whether or not Marine One had just landed at the airport after the president's visit to Minneapolis. "No, this one. It's this one. Here it comes. Yeah, this one is definitely Marine One." I got the feeling her in-studio counterparts had reason to doubt her assertions. "No, the other ones didn't have the white top, but this one does. Yeah, this is the president's helicopter."

The airport is just south of my apartment, and I could hear helicopter blades whirring ;) outside. So, keen for a chance to shake my fist at something presidential, I hurried to my front windows and caught sight of a single black helicopter in the distance. I aimed my fist pump in the direction of the airport and shouted, "Yeah, you better leave!" And then I watched George Bush oblige on TV.

I view my fist-shaking from St. Paul as a continuation of the traditions upon which this city was founded. Like a baby who narrowly escapes being named after crazy Uncle No Nose, St. Paul is lucky to have such a respectable, even holy, moniker, considering it was basically founded by a one-eyed fur trader turned moonshiner known for his "intemperate and licentious" behavior. Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant set up his still in what is now downtown St. Paul only after being kicked out of the area around Fort Snelling. Seems the respectable military types in charge of bringing civilization to the upper Midwest didn't approve of the squatters' camp around the fort, and especially of Pierre and his whiskey.

So Pierre packed up his still, popped in his false eye, and moved up the river to a place called Fountain Cave. But it apparently wasn't far enough away from the outpost. The officers perched up in their fort on the cliffs of the Mississippi didn't want the blemish of Pig's Eye within their sight. Pierre was forced even farther upriver, and St. Paul's skyline now rises from the place where some ragtag squatters blindly followed a one-eyed coot and his whiskey still. And for a long time, the area was named for crazy Uncle Pig's Eye.

Curious about the origins of this city, I visited historic Fort Snelling on Memorial Day this year. There was to be a flag raising ceremony and historical reenactments throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, I am a vegetarian who loves The Deadliest Catch. Well, I'm also a pacifist who likes war stories. And although Fort Snelling never saw any kind of action, it's chock full of military history, and the promise of reenactors tromping around, using words like "musket" and "nigh on" in conversation was irresistible to me. I made my little brother go with me, you know, for his historical edification. Really, I needed a young boy to point to if I was called upon to say, "No, I'm not here alone. You know boys and guns. He just loves this stuff."

We arrived just as they were raising the new flag on its recently relocated pole, now in its original 19th-century position. A man dressed in a uniform and holding a spear welcomed us through the sally port gate. I turned to my little brother. "Here's your gate, Sally."

Already resentful at being dragged here, he didn't look at me. "Shut up," he said, his eyes on the sidewalk leading to the fort.

The uniformed man began, "They're about to fire a"-- BOOM! Cannon fire split the still May morning, my heart jumped, and my arms flailed. I looked down at my little brother, who regarded my expression with the look of a prisoner suddenly resigned to his sentence of death by boredom.

So this was the outpost of civilization on the upper Mississippi? It's an impressive collection of neatly ordered brick buildings high above the river. The area surrounding it, where the squatters once sang their drunken songs up to the disapproving fort, is now a state park with bike paths and hiking trails. Airplanes fly low and loud on their approach to the airport, which is about three miles away.

My brother and I made our way from building to building, watching demonstrations by washerwomen and blacksmiths. A man who said he was Josiah Snelling and produced as proof a bicorn hat gave a demonstration of 19th-century manners for a roomful of children and their nerdy parents. His house was the most well-appointed building in the fort, and I imagined the other soldiers in their barracks casting the occasional jealous eye at their colonel's fancy window panes and personal waste buckets.

Colonel Snelling had all sorts of rules regarding interaction between men and women: how to address one's wife, how to lead one's wife by the arm, how to walk up and down stairs in a manner most likely to avoid impaling one's wife on one's sword.

The signs on the walls of historic Fort Snelling are also telling of a period in history governed by a strict adherence to social rules, even in the remotest areas of untamed Minnesota. One framed sheet of paper in the hospital building bears a warning in Old English: "No person fhall fpit on the floor or walls of the hofpital, but fhall endeavor to keep the ward as clean as poffible." I was imagining the self-hating lisper who wrote this message when my little brother's voice came through the centuries.

"Can we go now?"

We made our way back to the sally port gate and arrived in time to hear the guard chastising a bicyclist. "No bikes on the sidewalk!" he shouted. The bicyclist eyed the man's spear and decided it wasn't worth the fight. He slung his bike over his shoulder and walked down the gravel path toward the state park's bike trails.

I like to think he continued down the trail that runs along the river, all the way past Fountain Cave and to Lowertown St. Paul. He stops in the shadow of Galtier Plaza, in the city once known as Pig's Eye, spots the planes circling the airport, and shakes his fist in the direction of Fort Snelling.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Hypocritical Mass

I don't eat meat because I have no desire to chew and digest anything that would hold it against me. And while I'm not a militant vegetarian, I am human and American and am therefore comforted by news items that validate my choices: vegetarians are more likely to be more intelligent, says one story. "Clearly," I say. I don't eat particularly well, and so I find little to interest me in stories about the ill effects of meat on the heart; I pretty much fill the "ill effects" gap with baked goods. But I've always been able to feel a certain superiority of character whenever I hear about the treatment of livestock in megafarms and the, well, slaughter of living things perpetrated at slaughterhouses.

Once again, however, television has found a way to knock me off my high horse. It's held a pixelated mirror up to my face and said, "See? You're not so great. You think that high horse wants you on its back, especially after all those baked goods? And you say you care about animals. Ha!" For though I hate the thought of animals slaughtered for consumption, though I believe whole-heartedly in their ability to think and feel in a way completely on a par with human beings, though I will surely go to the special hell reserved for puppy kickers and Ann Coulter, I must admit, I love The Deadliest Catch.

The Deadliest Catch
is a brilliant show that follows six fishing boats locked in a deadly showdown with the merciless Bering Sea for the potential riches of crab fishing. There is an absolute ton of money to be made: a deckhand on a successful ship like, say, The Cornelia Marie could make more than $30,000 in a few weeks fishing. That's if you've got a good captain like Phil. I'm sure there are plenty of vessels out there that are not doing so great. It all depends on where the captain strings the pots, huge metal cages that sink down to the black and freezing ocean floor. The fishermen bait the cages, let the pots "soak" for a few days, and then come back and pull them up.

And this is where this shit gets awesome. These fishermen have their whole livelihood riding on what's in the pots when they go back and get them. They've only got so much time to catch their crab. The Discovery Channel's helpful computer-generated crab reenactments show the complex workings of the ocean floor. Giant herds of crab rove along the seabed, crawling over each other in an enormous rolling mass in search of food. The captains of the crabbing ships have to try to predict where their quarry will go next and then string their pots in the path of the crustacean stampede. It's awesome.

Over the course of a crab-fishing season, you get to know the ships, their captains, and crews. And if you, say, watch a marathon on the Discovery Channel while your roommate is away for the weekend, you might even end up peppering your speech with ill-used lingo of the Bering Sea. "That pot's coming up empty," you might say when you see someone trying to parallel park their SUV on a crowded city street. Or when giving directions, you might tell someone to take a starboard turn on Victoria Street. The king crab season ends, and the opilio season begins. You watch it all, rooting for the underdog Time Bandit but secretly reveling in the predictable dominance of the Northwestern.

Watching this show, I am reminded of a harrowing experience from my youth. My brother and I were camping with our dad at a park on the Mississippi River. A big part of the camping experience for them was fishing. For me, that meant sitting on the cooler in the middle of the canoe and reading a Nancy Drew mystery.

On one such outing, we came across a log apparently floating upstream. Further investigation revealed fishing line tangled around the driftwood. Something was dragging that log upstream. My dad caught hold of the log and started to pull in the line. There was something big, something powerful on the other end of that line, and after a few minutes of tugging, my dad gave up, to my enormous relief. I had watched, clutching the handles of the cooler on which I was perched, absolutely terrified of what could be on the other end of that line, lurking in the depths of that ancient river...and how pissed off it would be to find itself dragged to the surface. I imagined its eyes breaking the surface and darting from the line caught in its fish lips to the line strung on our fishing poles. It would do the math and squint angrily at me as it launched itself out of the water on prehistoric fins and snatched me right off the Igloo, dragging me to my murky end on the riverbed.

If you find yourself tossed into the Bering Sea, your only hope is in a survival suit. Even then, if you're not rescued within an hour, your chances of getting out of the water alive aren't great. While I'm sure any number of sea creatures would dub the season they're fished as "the deadliest," the crab fishing season claims the most human lives of any. And that is why this show is epic. That is why I can't take my eyes off it. The producers are banking on the audience's willingness--perhaps even desire--to see horrible things happen to animals and humans alike. People die all the freaking time to bring crab to the dinner tables of the world.

And so Deadliest Catch covers all the major epic struggles of literature and lore...
Man vs. Man: which boat will bring in the greatest share of the crabbing riches? Man vs. Nature: can the captains outmaneuver Poseidon as he blasts them with arctic gales and tosses their ships on 30-foot waves? Man vs. Shellfish: can the crabbers stay one step ahead of their elusive, ever-moving prize, or will the crafty crabs sidestep the sunken pots and force the men home with empty hulls and empty pockets?

I watch with hungry eyes, if not a hungry stomach. With every pot that's winched up from the ocean floor, my heart races: will it be full of crab, empty, or will some other creature wait between the bars of the cage? The monster I envision is twisted in on itself by guilt, a tortured soul that wants to do right but is weak in the face of great entertainment. I'm on the edge of my seat, which has come to feel oddly like an Igloo cooler.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hurry While Supplies Last

As a citizen of these fine United States, I feel compelled to bring to light a looming danger of which, sadly, only those who cannot sleep but rather watch the Sci-Fi channel in the wee hours of the morning are aware. It is called the MXZ saw, and it will surely be our end.

Seriously, people, $19.95 is all that stands between countless nerds sprawled on their couches, lazy but also bent on world domination, and the total annihilation of our civilization. I've seen it's power. It can cut through bricks, steel piping, coffee mugs, and drywall! If the wrong people get their hands on this weapon, no number of cinder blocks, no amount of plumbing-grade rubber tubing will stop them.

But wait; there's more! If we don't act now--and I mean within the next five minutes--these would-be evildoers will have within their grasp a saw that will win the hearts and minds of all who behold it. For while it is brutal, ruthless even, toward formidable enemies like ceramic tile and garden hoses, it is gentle and, if you can believe it, will not harm the one who wields it. That's right, folks: its edge is serrated but knowing, sharp and cunning. Its teeth will not pierce the flesh of the one who sends check or money order and thereby commands its mighty strength. I've seen it glide harmlessly over a man's outstretched hand mere moments after laying waste to metal sheeting!

Even I, who have no designs on power and influence, found myself tempted by the prospect of mastering such a blade. Scanning my living room in the flickering light from the television, I saw at least 14 things I could easily have cut straight through with the MXZ saw. And as I imagined the uneven legs of the dining room table, the slashed bookcase, the gore of stuffing spilling from the couch, I glimpsed the corrupting power of the blade.

We must hurry. We have only that small window "while supplies last" to avert disaster. It might just be time for an epic quest to rid the world of this powerful and affordable menace. Or it might be time for a rerun of the X-Files. Oh, yeah, this is a good one. Never mind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The End

--No spoilers for Harry Potter follow. None.--

Oh, man. I've been so busy lately with all this...um...math. I've been doing math...and other grown-up things. I've been, you know, paying bills and taking meetings.

Oh, I can't lie to you, blog. I've been reading Harry Potter. I read most of the seventh and final book over the weekend and then spent an agonizing day at work on Monday while 250 pages of the last of the unread Harry sat at home, all its secrets and revelations practically shaking its binding with the effort of remaining undiscovered--or at least that's how I imagined the book while I tried to concentrate on working.

I was like a hawk--no, the opposite of a hawk--all day. I strove to have the senses and world perspective of a mole. I avoided any internet sites I didn't absolutely have to visit for work, and I didn't even read the news. I needed groceries, but the fear of some loud-mouthed preteen at the store yapping on their cell phone about the ending of the series drove me straight home after work.

The bittersweet moment came, I turned the last of those pages, and now it is done. And I have to say I'm glad. Those damn books made a tool of me, and frankly, I've had it. Upon the release of book six, I sat on one chair in my mom's otherwise empty house, reading for two days. And that's what Harry has done for me: revealed who I am when no one's looking. When there isn't anyone there to cast a look as they pass your completely immobile body at all hours of the day; when there isn't anyone to see the stains on your clothes from food you finally forced yourself to eat, evidence of failed attempts to balance a 700-page book and a plate of macaroni and cheese; when no one is around to watch the shower go unused or to finally ask, "What's that smell coming from that chair?" then, I say, you meet your true self.

So I think that, like people who discovered these books much earlier in their lives, I, too, can say I've grown up with Harry. It took real maturity to turn out the light on Sunday night, set the alarm, go to work Monday.

And now it is time to get on with my life...

...and, I have to admit, most likely find some other series of books for adolescents. But you know, until they label a section at the bookstore "Old Adult Fiction with Whimsy," I'll just have to remain a young adult at heart...and in posture.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Booblog

Warning: the following is rated PG-13 and may not be suitable for some audiences. Parental discretion is advised.

Recently I realized that, were my life a movie, it would be rated PG-13 for language and possibly "intense situations." I wouldn't get an R rating; that's for sure. I don't swear much, and the naughtiest thing that's happened to me lately was being felt up by a two-year-old at a tea party on my front lawn.

The invitation to tea had been extended to my roommate and I by our ten-year-old downstairs neighbor. She and her mom and little sister have become something like a surrogate family to each of us, inviting us to birthday parties and piano recitals, borrowing kitchen items, and sending up portions of whatever they bake. The oldest girl is taking a summer finishing class--you know, where little ladies learn real manners--and had some sort of a test the next day.

So it was that we all came to be sitting on a blanket on the front lawn of our apartment building, a plastic tea set and plateful of cookies spread before us.

"Do tell us about finishing school, won't you? It's ever so interesting." I prompted, pinkie up as I sipped carbonated juice from a plastic teacup. We learned about how to properly hold your saucer and cup and how to signal when you shan't have any more tea (lay your upside-down spoon across the top of your cup, of course).

At one point, the middle-aged woman who lives in the other downstairs apartment came home and walked past our little spread. "Oh, a tea party, huh?" She was holding a styrofoam container of leftovers and told us there were buffalo wings inside. "I just love the hot stuff," she explained.

It's hard for me to look at this woman without thinking of a recent incident in which she answered the door, plastered and pants-less, after an evening of drunken shouting at no one. I'd finally knocked on her door sometime around midnight when the banging on the wall started to worry me.

"Are you okay in there?" I'd asked. "Do you think you could stop the banging? Because I have to get up for work in--"

"Honey," she'd slurred, flinging one hand out while the other struggled to pinch together the strained edges of a very small towel she'd wrapped around her waist, "I don't care what time you have to get up in the morning."

Now she cast a wary eye on her leftovers. "Sure doesn't help with my hot flashes, though. And we'll just see how much I love the hot stuff in the morning."

My young neighbor stirred her plastic spoon in her make-believe tea and searched for a ladylike response to talk of menopause and bowel movements. "Well, have a pleasant evening, won't you?"

"Sure."

As she walked into the building, I felt glad to be on the blanket with the family, an observer of crass behavior rather than a practitioner. A few months after we moved in, I scandalized the ten-year-old by saying "crap." Scandal has since proven to have a sliding scale, and it's slid quite a bit.

One Saturday, after working a few hours of overtime, I came home to a note from my roommate: "Margaritas in the freezer. Help yourself!" Perfect. I ate dinner and sipped--
Whoa, tequila! The ice and citrus flavor were footnotes to the liquor in this stuff, and who reads footnotes anyway? The dog watched as I sat alone at the table, each sip bringing a shudder and a puckered, cartoonish expression to my face.

"Bleh!" I said to the dog. "That's a strong drink!" I hadn't even drank 1/3 of the large glass I'd poured before I started feeling a little buzz. I sipped about half of the concoction and then, in what I considered a very wise and responsible move, poured the rest down the sink. It was one thing to have a little drink after work on a Saturday, but it was quite another to get boozed by myself at 4:00 in the afternoon.

What I needed was some fresh air, and what the dog needed was a walk. I put two and two together and congratulated myself at how unimpaired were my powers of reasoning as I fumbled for the dog's leash and a poop bag.

"Poop bag," I snickered.

The dog looked at me like I'd just stumbled out of a bar, pulled my keys out of my pocket, and said, "I'll take you home. My car's just over here." In the end, though, she was more interested in going outside than she was in judging me. She let me clasp the leash to her collar, and we headed down the stairs and outside.

My little neighbors were in the front yard and greeted me with their usual enthusiasm. "Let's play a game!" the oldest one said. By this time, I was a little drunk, and I readily agreed to a fairly straightforward game called "tell a funny story." I regarded my audience and decided bathroom humor was the way to go--and, man, was I right. They loved this stuff! I regaled them with my entire potty-story repertoire, the finale being a cautionary tale about the wrong way for a girl to pee in the woods.

"See?" I thought, congratulating myself on being fun and informative. "They can use this."

The buzz had started to wear off by the time their mother came to check on the girls. We were all rolling with laughter, and the toddler looked up and said, "Jess pants were down, and then she fell."

Somehow my camping story seemed less funny as I quickly repeated it for an adult audience--less funny, less educational, less appropriate for children. I resolved to watch my tongue around the little ones.

And I did. I was being really good for a long time, but there, where I least expected it, at a tea party emphasizing manners, my resolve to be proper was sorely tested. The youngest girl suddenly decided she wanted to sit on my lap, and I obliged, extending a polite invitation for her to take a seat on my knee.

Without so much as a "how do you do," the toddler dramatically hit my left boob and exclaimed "What is this?" I laughed a little and looked around at the other tea party attendants. Only her mother had an inkling of all the good manners about to be smashed to pieces. The little girl turned her attention to the right boob and tapped that one. "What are these?"

So great was her horror at her discovery that no one could ignore her screams this time. It was as if she had just stumbled upon a spaceship on her front lawn. "WHAT IS THIS?" she yelled tapping and hitting and genuinely astounded.

And we all laughed. Teacups were forgotten, half-chewed cookies spit out. Her mother shouted her apologies through her laughter.

"What are these?" A string of euphemisms went through my mind: boobs, tatas, knockers, hooters. None of them seemed to have the right shade of meaning for a 2 1/2 year old girl. "Ask your mom," I finally said. Somewhat at a loss over the scene she'd created, the little girl soon gave up her crass line of questioning and moved on to exploring the ant hills on the sidewalk.

My niche in this place seems clear to me now. I just have to find the right towel to keep by the door.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Depths of Despair

St. Paul begins its slope down to the Mississippi River just across the street from my apartment building. From my second-story window, I can't see the river, but I can make out the trees on its opposite shore. This is the Mighty Mississippi, on which riverboat sailors once called out the depths as their ships glided south--of course, south.

Two fathoms of navigable water? "Mark twain!"

Today a man's voice booms into my living room through the windows I've opened to let the summer air in. "ONE!" His voice is an angry bark, as if he's spotted that good-for-nothing One who took all his money and knocked up his sister, kicked his dog, and left town months ago. Ah, but now he's got him in his sights. Don't you walk away from him, One! He sees you. "ONE!"

"TWO!" he bellows. His voice bounces sharply off the concrete retaining wall that sinks the community center's basketball court down into the hillside. I can't see the court from my window, but this time I notice the metallic thump of a basketball hitting the rim of the hoop, followed by several soft, quick bounces on concrete. I stop what I am doing and admire the man's courage. He's decided to better his game and to bravely announce his progress to the world.

Thump. Bounce.

"GOD DAMN FUCKING SHIT-FUCK!"

Oh, dear.

There is a moment of silence.

"ONE!"

I ask about him the next time I go to the community center gym and discover that he is actually "a very nice man" whose Tourette syndrome unfortunately prevents him from exaggerating his abilities on the court. Day after day, the Tourettes Baller, as I've come to call him, strives to improve his game, but his curses ring through the neighborhood, stopping mothers in their tracks, their trailing toddlers running into the backs of their suddenly immobile legs. Middle-aged middle-class fathers hover around the court, rehearsing their speeches to him about how much they'd appreciate it, man, if he'd watch his language around all these kids.

But no one ever really confronts him. The twangs of his ball bouncing off the metal hoop reverberate down the street, and he never gets past twain.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Moving Target

It's an odd thing to stand behind someone in line at Super Target. There, spread before you on a conveyor belt, are items that will soon be tucked away from public view in medicine cabinets and cupboards beneath bathroom sinks, in closets and underwear drawers. You get to know a lot about a stranger while pretending not to notice their creams and powders and pills and candies. Coupled with the collection of stuff strewn out in front of you, the way a person acts in a check-out line is, I think, very telling of their general character.

Take the family in line before me at Super Target yesterday night. This little nuclear treasure consisted of a mother, a father, and their grown daughter. Mom stood at the pay station while the daughter was posted at the end of the aisle, moving bags from the counter to their cart. It was Dad's role in life, from what I gather, to circle the scene like some hyperactive satellite, keeping his eyes peeled for a chance at what I'm sure he'd describe as hijinks.

To find the exact opposite of this family, one needed to look no further than the cashier handling their soon-to-be possessions. These pasty, pair-shaped gasbags were defined in opposition to the stoic African cashier. She was movie-star pretty, possibly even model-who-dreams-of-acting beautiful, and she barely said a word as she worked--no small feat, considering the odds her silence was up against.

The mother marveled at the cashier's bagging abilities. "You really organize all that stuff before you put it in the bags, don't you? You're probably the best bagger we've ever had. Do they train you how to do that?"

The clerk shook her head in a silent "no."

"Wait a minute," declared Dad. "I gotta get my cold coffee drink." He bounced quickly over to the cooler in the next aisle and grabbed a Frapuccino. "I know. I know. I'm bad. But I just love cold coffee."

"Dad, you're so weird," said his daughter, turning to the cashier. "Isn't he the weirdest guy you ever saw?"

Coffee? Cold? That is wacky! Did this fella escape from the loony bin, or what?

Mom picked up her daughter's thought and reassured the clerk. "It's okay to say he's weird. You can't get in trouble for telling the truth."

Get in trouble? Did this woman imagine that the cashier had a history of falsely pronouncing men to be "the weirdest guy she ever saw"? Had Target management reprimanded her for not telling the truth? I imagined a managerial type's response to one of the clerk's submissions for the title of weirdest guy. "The weirdest? Really? That guy over there with the tattoos? Does he even drink cold coffee? Why don't you just go back to your register and let us know when you've got a real contender in your line?"

The clerk silently picked up a frozen pizza and slid it into a bag of frozen foods.

"She is just amazing," exclaimed the daughter. "Isn't she great? You know, one time, we had this guy who put so much stuff in every bag that they ripped when we were carrying them into the house."

Still the clerk said nothing.

The woman continued. "And I said, 'Damn it, Kevin,' 'cause that was his name, Kevin."

There was not a flicker of recognition in the cashier's face for either Kevin or this absurd creature talking to her.

I had started out hating this family as representatives of my race and my country, but I had slowly come to loath them as people. The Target logo was everywhere, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to imagine the red bull's-eye floating over their hateful faces.

They reminded me of my years in retail and that class of customer who views the $9.74 they hand over to you as a direct payment of your bills, the only means by which you will be able to put vittles on the table tonight. And even after you've wished them a great day and good health and sufficient prosperity to allow them to come again, they linger like they're waiting for a curtsy.

I told myself that when it came my turn at the register, I'd make amends for these people. I wouldn't say a word. I'd just slide my credit card through the machine, collect my things, and go. By completely ignoring her, my brilliant logic went, I'd show this woman behind the register real manners.

But when I was face-to-face with this woman, I wanted nothing more than to strike up a conversation with her. She was quiet, but she had an open face and a kind smile. I thought of things to say to her. Wasn't it busy in here tonight? Was it always like this on Sundays? "No," I told myself. "You had a plan. Now stick to it."

By the end of our silent exchange, I just felt rude. I packed my things into my cart as the elderly lady behind me chatted to the clerk about how tired she was. "Ugh," she groaned, "I don't even care if you use paper or plastic. That's just how tired I am."

Feeling like nothing so much as a cog in a machine of blinking lights and conveyor belts and credit card scanners, I started to wheel my plastic cart away.

"Ma'am," the cashier called to me. I turned back, perhaps a little too eagerly. Here was my last chance to be nice to this woman. She held out a 12-pack of toilet paper I'd just bought. She was silent, of course, but her eyes said, "You forgot this."

I gushed as if she'd just stopped me from stepping out in front of a moving bus. "Oh, thank you! I didn't see it there."

The clerk just turned back to the tired woman, who was going on about how busy it was for a Sunday night. I threw my toilet paper into the cart and made for the door, intensely aware of the bull's-eye on my back.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastille Day

I am happy to report that I didn't run over anything on Bastille Day. Specifically, I did not run over any French prisons. This might not seem like cause for relief. There must be cause for concern before there can be cause for relief, and really, what does a French prison have to be concerned about? Answer: nothing...364 days out of the year, that is. But on that one remaining day, Bastille Day, there is one thing that should make its stony foundation quiver with fear: me behind the wheel of a car. For I have the most obscure and useless super power: I run over the symbols of holidays ON the holiday they represent.

The first display of my "ability" came a few years ago when I was driving home from a holiday shift at the video store. I always worked holidays because they paid time and a half. This day was Easter.

The family had gathered at my mom's house for Easter dinner, and I was turning left into her driveway when a rabbit bolted out in front of my Toyota Camry. I didn't even have time to swerve. I stopped in the driveway and tilted my mirror down until I could see the lifeless body of the poor animal lying on the side of the road. It only took a few seconds to confirm that there would be no Resurrection this Easter. That bunny was dead.

I didn't tell anyone about the incident, afraid I'd be shunned from normal society because of my newfound power. No, I'd go on about my life as usual, speaking of this to no one and just trying to lead an ordinary life. And for a long time, it seemed like I had managed to suppress my ability. Maybe I got too comfortable. I let my guard down.

My dark secret came violently into the open earlier this month when, on the Fourth of July, that most hallowed of American patriotic holidays, I ran over the flag of the United States of America with my friend Sarah's Buick LaSabre.

We had gone to Canada to see the White Stripes play in Thunder Bay on July 3rd, and we had decided to symbolically reenter the United States, declaring our independence from Canada on the 4th. We awoke in Thunder Bay on the 4th, a Wednesday, to find everyone going about their Canadian business. Banks were open, and people were going to work. With no one else taking notice of the birth of our nation, Sarah and I made do with what we had and celebrated America by going to Wal-Mart and eating breakfast at McDonalds (two things I NEVER do in the States). As we made for the border, we joked about getting out from under the heel of the oppressive Canadian number system. This country didn't take into account our beliefs in denominations like miles and inches, and that was something we just couldn't live with. No, we'd flee to America, where numbers really meant something. There we'd find acceptance.

Once over the border, we headed down the two-lane highway to Duluth, taking in the grandeur of America and Minnesota's North Shore. We went a steady 55 American miles per hour, slowing down for the occasional town.

We came to one town where the line of cars slowed considerably. Up ahead, there was a pickup truck towing a flatbed trailer that was decorated with sparkling streamers and a sign extolling the virtue of "sticking together" or something. A few townspeople were standing in the bed of the truck, practicing their parade waves for the people walking on either side of the road to and from a classic car show. Behind the truck was a motorcycle with several flags sticking out of the saddlebags.

The parade truck turned left, and I was just trying to read its sign when a fateful gust of un-American wind dislodged one of the flags from the motorcycle. Old Glory fluttered lightly to the pavement in front of Sarah's car. I had only a few seconds to decide whether to stop, risking being rear-ended by the line of cars behind me, swerve into the other lane of the highway, or embrace my destiny.

Time moved slowly. To my left, the sun glinted off the sparkling float decorations. The motorcyclist had pulled over and was running back along the right shoulder of the road toward his fallen flag. Sarah had seen it all from the passenger's seat and seemed to also see the inevitable future as well. The look of horror on her face was a silent testimony; I, on the other hand, screamed as I accelerated. "I'm running over the flag on the Fourth of July!"

All of our windows were open, and what had simply been a loud statement of tragic irony must have seemed like an impromptu protest cry to anyone outside the car. The motorcyclist threw his arms up in disgust as the star-spangled banner yet waved under the Buick's tires. Sarah was pinned to her seat in horror, and my knuckles were white on the wheel as I sped up on the road out of town, checking my mirror nervously for motorcycles and the angry fists of a small-town mob.

People always fear what they can't understand, and so I must learn to look over my shoulder, remain vigilant against a world that might be, say, offended by my actions. Maybe one day I can harness my ability and use it for good. I could become a an anti-colonialism champion on Columbus Day or provide hungry families with roadkill turkey on Thanksgiving. I didn't ask for this power, but I must learn to live with it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Manhandled

I started a fight in my family once when I got fed up with my younger brother always calling my littlest brother "a girl" when he wanted to really zing him, hit him with a verbal punch that was almost below the belt...you know where it would really hurt a guy.
"You throw like a girl."
"What are you gonna do, cry, like a girl?"
"You're such a girl, Sally."
And although I feel like I'm losing the war--to this day, my littlest brother is Sally--I won a battle that day when my mom sided with me.
"Well, you know," she hemmed and hawed in her most placating tone, "she does have a point."
The menfolk wouldn't allow that there was anything inherently sexist in their use of "girl" as a derogatory term; we were surrounded, but at least I knew my Mom and I were in it together.

When I signed up to get braces through the University of Minnesota orthodontics program, I guess, without even realizing it, I assumed my doctor would be a man. But she wasn't. She was a woman about my age, but there the similarities stopped. She was petite, blonde, and didn't run into things. Plus, when people addressed her, they said "doctor" before her name without laughing. I wondered at the vast differences in what we each had to show for roughly the same amount of time spent on the planet. She used words like
"malocclusion," "infradentale," and "radiographic imaging." I used words like "dude." She wore a lab coat, surgical mask, and latex gloves to work. I barely wear shoes anymore. She was pleasant and talked about her husband and dogs like I might talk about my extensive collection of TV on DVD; sure, they took up a lot of time she should have spent reading, but they were happy together.

Well, my lady doctor graduated this month, and today was my first appointment with my new would-be orthodontist, a young man who wouldn't be at all out of place on the sales floor of a car dealership. His ultra-firm handshake should have been a red flag. "I'm not as gentle as your last doctor," he warned. "Oh, that's all right," I joked, "do your worst."
And he did. My wisp of a lady dentist had flitted about her work like a hummingbird, her thin and nimble fingers barely pressing against my teeth. This guy made me feel like one of those people who try to break the record for most hot dogs shoved in a mouth at once. At one point, grunting as he leaned into his effort to ram the metal wire into one of the brackets on my teeth, he said without much concern, "I don't know how this is going to work."

My torturer was singing along with the piped-in music ("I can't drive 55") when I recognized the voice of a friend from work in the next cubicle over. Pinned to the dentist's chair, the mirrored light shining bright in my eyes, a mouth full of manhands, I felt like I was in a war movie--you know that scene where the good guy has gone in search of his captured friend, but he's been captured himself, and now the bad guys with sinister accents have strapped him down in the interrogation room.
"I'd be careful if I were you, my American friend. I'm not as gentle as your last torturer."
"That's okay," our hero says. "Do your worst."
They smack him around a little, but, of course, he doesn't talk. In the end, the baddies decide to give him time to think about what he's going to say when they come back, and then they leave him alone in the room. He hears a voice in the next room, faint and feeble but familiar.
Our hero calls to the next cell. "Murphy! Murphy, is that you? I've been looking for you."
Murphy rasps, "Get out of here, man. You got to get out while you can."
"I'm not leaving without you."

When Dr. Manly McManning had finished, I took a tongue tally and accounted for all my teeth. Despite his best efforts to jar them from my head, they were still there. I left through the next cubicle, stopping at the chair where those bastards had my friend.
"Aw, Murph, what have they done to you?"
We joked about how we were supposed to be at work and how we'd both be eating pudding tonight. But our laughter was hollow, our jokes a ruse to throw our captors off the scent of our fear and woe.

I looked down at my friend, reclined in the dentist's chair. "Come on," I said, "We gotta get out of here." But his doctor wasn't done with him yet.

"No, you go on without me. Ladies first."

I cringed against the sounds of whirring dental machinery as I walked away, and I thought about my gentle female dentist of yore. The highest compliment for any of these dental students, I thought, would be to say they practiced orthodontics like a girl.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Is this thing on?

So this is a blog.
Nice. Spacious. Black. Like outer space. Look at all those sentence fragments! They're just sitting there, verbless and unending. Like outer space.
Now what? I bet that's what most people who go into space say when they get there.

Today I must report a newfound kinship with people who use the word "kin." I slipped on my sandals this morning on the way out the door, only to find my roommate's dog had apparently spent the better part of her morning helpfully applying a layer of saliva to the soles of my shoes. I winced with each squishy step to the car and then into work. But once my feet were safely under my desk and free from the prying eyes of the world, I slipped off the spitshoes and felt a freedom I never thought possible. The stale office air moved freely across the bare bottoms of my feet, a soft whisper of freedom in the workaday world. I felt secretly rebellious and kind of naughty.
Like all rebels, however, I soon became complacent in my disregard for societal norms. The next step, of course, was to spread the revolution. When a coworker called me across the room to her desk, I didn't slip on my shoes but rather marched over with my naked feet. And as I stood there, hair all messy because I woke up too late to take a shower, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, completely devoid of footwear, the final phase of my devolution flashed before my eyes. Take me in my current state exactly, stick me on a dusty porch, and just you try to come onto my land!