Sunday, November 3, 2013

Better Be Friends with the Redneck

Vampire allure is understandable--the couched sexual desire, the sensuous hypnotism removing any trace of guilt from our ever more Victorian sensibilities, their worldliness, the implied financial well-being of each eternal creature--because even the least self-promoting vamp can make and keep some dough over the long run.
But zombies are puzzling. They are disgusting, move excruciatingly slowly, parts eventually rotting off, and while nobody's ever mentioned the smell, they must be identifiable a mile off.  A deft toddler with a lame hound dog should be safe from zombies. And they have no cash, no nice clothes, no houses, no 401k--we're superior to zombies in everything but hunger although a survey of the mall seems to argue that point. 
And it seems that while you aren't even safe from vampires in your house, all you have to do is get inside to be safe from the animated ravenous dead.
So why the fascination?
For one thing, it puts a premium on the other red meat. (Us.) We are reassuringly inherently valuable in a zombie society. And while society functions at a high level with vampires, as they depend upon social order to both feed and remain undetected, zombies are associated with a collapse of civilization. So it's nice to know that while every other value structure has been displaced, we still are individually worth something--to zombies. And of course to the other non-infected humans. Which brings up the human teamwork idea inherent to the zombie world. Vampires are a little more one-on-one, but zombies like an orgy. So it takes a lot of us humans to band together for safety.

Which brings me to the redneck.
But first, the Apocalypse Pantry.
I'm practical; I like to plan and have efficient, working systems in my house that make it easy for everybody to function optimally, allowing more free time and a sane, clean household (see previous post, "To Live in a Ship"). I have a well stocked pantry of food; not coincidentally, I'm part of the growing population of those prepping for the Bad Times. I buy whatever I normally buy, but one or two extra. It all sits on top of our cabinets. We have at least three weeks of water, and assuming I can evade those staggering after me, I could swipe some of Lake Michigan in about 15 minutes. All so we can hole up here safely, without starving, and watch the threat lurch by.
Which reveals the fallacy of the zombie. It's not a real threat; it's just the consequence of bad choices or luck, which is what creates bad situations in real life.
Back to the redneck. Every single zombie move has a redneck hero. This redneck knows how to shoot and kill things and is used to doing so. Rednecks understand the woods, where to hide, and know how to secure food. Rednecks are proud of living next to a collapsed civilization and gain status as useful beings in a zombie attack.
In Walking Dead, the hero redneck is good with a bow, which has an extra cache because you just know there's depth there--and a renewable weapon, besides (it's hard to make an arrow but way harder to make a bullet).Woody Harrelson's a good redneck to know in Zombieland. There are very few movies in which the appearance of a redneck with a weapon improves the situation. It's usually a portent. The bad kind.
But, you see, in zombie land, puny humans are aggrandized by the staggering and diminished by the redneck.
So better be pals with the redneck.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Dear Reader

When you relate a dream upon waking up, your memory is often expunged, but the listener remembers. So when I’ve become blissfully ignorant of my night’s work, my husband is sitting there hoping that good coffee will shake the taste of my disturbing dream out of his own head. 

It’s certainly no coincidence I’m ready to shed these memories like snake skin because it comes at a time when I’m ridding myself of most of my possessions—things I’ve carted around with me for thousands of miles, these things carefully organized and boxed and labeled. Such organization is my rationale for why I’m not of a hoarding mindset, which, of course, I am. 

This blog is a rumination of all things that have been stored in my head with a great amount of organization and attention and it’s time to let them go.

Like most of the hoarding mentality, I’ve imbued my often worthless things with a great amount of value, mostly sentimental. Consequently, my hapless nieces and nephews have had huge boxes of my childhood paraphernalia delivered to them, carefully sorted to account for their individual tastes (See previous post: To Live in a Ship). So the follow-up photo of my niece asleep, clutching the circa 1969 purple paisley umbrella, satisfied me like a fellow user complimenting me on my good junk. And really, I just passed the buck. Here you go, little girl.

The same is true of this blog: these are the things that I’ve carted around with me for years. The ideas bumping around my head. I’m just clearing house. Here you go, reader.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Dating Advice: Grow the Fuck Up & Act Like a Woman

N.B.#1: I'm posting this before I forget. It's been eight years since I dated.

N.B.#2: If you think searching for a man to marry is an abhorrent practice, perhaps a more sophisticated approach is to value the notion of wisely considering your methods for finding a life partner. Choose your terms.

When I was single and dating, I discovered that married friend advice was very different from single friend advice. So I considered the source and started listening to those whose choices led to something other than more dating. And it's true: now that I'm married I have a much different perspective on valuing men.

Following is my dating advice for women who would like, sooner rather than later, to get married: If you want to marry a grown-up, act like one.

1. Nobody can fake it longer than three months.
Most relationships fall apart around the fourth month because the Ideal Person gets tired and starts being the Real Person. Sometimes the people like this new person better and the relationship thrives. Most of the time, though, things get annoying.

2. If somebody has dated you longer than a year, but still needs more time to see, leave.
A year's worth of dating is enough. Either he's lazy, or simply and honestly just not ready for the huge demographic makeover that comes with marriage. OR (and more likely) he likes you just fine, but you are only the wait until girl--and you'll find him decisive enough once he meets somebody else and he's in the mood to be married.

3. If you are straight, go to a gay bar and notice how many men look you in the eye.
Almost none, right? Don't count the bartender--that's his job. Then, the same night, go to a straight bar. Notice how many men make eye contact. Remember, men are efficient; they do not waste even eye contact on somebody they are not interested in. If you are being looked at, that person is interested (at least somewhat) in you. Take advantage of this and know that all your whining about men not noticing you is an excuse. You just never knew what interest first looked like.

4. Men fall in love with women of all types, and they have sex with all types, too.
If you are using your own petty insecurities as a reason to not present yourself to society, blame only yourself. Men don't give a shit about the silly excuses women use to hobble themselves. Bad hair day? Bull. That's not even a real thing. Consider this: men fall in love with women with colostomy bags. I'd have to say carrying around your excrement externally has to feel like a pretty daunting social hurdle. But it's just another excuse. Grow up. Act like a woman.
That said, he might not find you loveable, but he might find you fuckable. Decide what you want. (See #11 & 12)

5. Get off your sofa. Go out.
Nobody is going to notice your sparkling personality, your tender heart, your searing wit, or your work ethic through two feet of concrete and up three floors as you sit in your jammies watching tv. Go out.

6. Give. And you will Get.
Specifically to charity benefits you believe in. Then go to that charity benefit. But for heaven's sake, don't pick one that is just going to attract all the other women out there. Give to a nature charity. Or one that teaches soccer to inner-city children. Something that attracts MEN.

7. Accept every invitation. Say YES.
Every single one. If you are invited by your elderly neighbor to the Dahlia Society, GO. Do you know how many nice old ladies are eager to set up their handsome grandson who works too hard as a neurologist to meet a nice girl like YOU? If you are invited to rollerderby, GO. If you are invited to a free tax seminar for optometrists in the VOFW, GO. You will be surprised at how the invitations multiply once you are saying YES.

8. Your next relationship will probably start by picking up the karma from how your last one ended. 
If you waited and whined and made him dump you after three months because he realized it wasn't a love match before you did, then you will probably be a passive ninny waiting for the next guy to see through your complaining passiveness. Good luck. You reap what you sow, you ho. Break up with a non-love match with kindness and dignity and honesty (as much as is kind) and you are on an open stage to meet somebody. Hanging on to somebody you don't love or even like is doing him no favors. Nor you.

9. Open your heart.
You heard me. It sounds hokey, but do it. No use employing any of these methods if your heart is closed, locked tight, bitter. Had your heart broken? Been lied to? Cheated on? Wah. Be a grown up. Stop whining. Get over it. Everybody has. You are not unique in having been screwed. So open your heart. Admit the scary thing: that you actually want love (and that you might not get it). The key is to admit it, because even if you don't admit you want it, when you don't get it, you'll be just as heartbroken, but it'll be more diffuse, of the crazy cat lady kind. So open your heart to yourself; admit what you want, to yourself. I promise, you'll smell different. Better.

10. The only goal of a first date is to see if you want a second date.
It's like a job interview: is the chemistry right? Is the person right for the job description?

11. Do not sleep with him on the first date.
-This header is negated if you only want to have sex with them.

-The previous sentence is negated by what I call the Brunch Choice. Even if a woman sleeps with a man she would indeed, upon morn's cruel light, cut her own hair off to avoid waking him, no matter how uninterested she might be in seeing him again, IF he wakes, deep down, she wants him to ask her to brunch. EVEN IF she'd say no, she wants the asking. Especially if she's convinced a one-night stand is "all she wants." Brunch is the confirmation that she's worth more than her fun holes to him.

12. Men are lazy.
 Just cause he went home with you and not your prettier friend doesn't mean he likes you better. He just liked your odds better.

13. Let him do the asking.
 If you ask him out, you have likely set yourself up for a relationship (if it turns into one) in which you are the one calling all the shots, making all the dates, appointments, reservations, etc., etc. Which loses its appeal fast. Because you know you can do all that stuff. Hell, you're single; that's all you do. Lay the groundwork for a relationship in which you share responsibilities. Let him start by proving he's up to the task.

14. If he tells you something about himself, such as "I don't want a relationship" or "My heart's been broken by my old girlfriend and I'm not ready for a serious relationship," believe him.
Wish him luck. But do not date him. The LAST thing a guy is going to say if he thinks you're fantastic is those words. He could still be wiping the tears off his face from a heartbreak and if he meets you and digs you, he'll smile and chat you up. But not with warnings of emotional unavailability. Such statements are not honesty but instead are strategic legalish-cowardly backpedaling, giving the man an escape clause when something better comes along--and giving you the best present he could.

15.  Men value what they've worked for. 
If you offer somebody a free Lamborghini within two hours of meeting them, I promise you, they will devalue that previously very wanted, very valuable gift they thought they had to pay for. Same with nookie. There may be gratitude and surprise, but there's a discount in there somewhere.

16. Just because he broke up with you doesn't mean he's a dick or did something wrong.
Why should women get so bent when somebody breaks up with them? That man was not in love with you. Or didn't like you enough--or at all. Or discovered your value system was incompatible with his. Does that mean he has some contractual obligation to keep dating you, regardless of how he feels about you? NO. He doesn't. He should, however, break up with you kindly, honestly (again, as honest as is both kind and convincing), and he should be timely about it--preferably soon after he comes to the realization that he does not want to keep dating you and preferably in enough time to let you find another date for your sister's wedding. You might feel like your heart is broken but face it: somebody who does not want to date you is not somebody you should be dating.

17. Men are not the bad guys.
I remember complaining to a woman I worked with that all men sucked, they're all lazy, liars, jerks, etc. A lot of vitriol. She listened then said, gently, "I disagree. My husband is a wonderful person. My two sons are 15 and 20, and they're really kind, smart guys." I had no response. Her retort was so calm, so measured, so genuine. I saw with shame that I was immaturely blaming everything on men, not seeing my part of the equation. I had the emotional maturity of a girl--not a woman, yet was expecting to date men? Of course I was ending up with boys.

So: be brave, be honest with yourself, be yourself. It will be alluring.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sometimes I Forget

Sometimes, I'll forget I have children.

Sometimes, at night, I'll be sitting alone and my world is just me--until the sound of a sleepy sigh, or this time, a yell, frantic and primal, a night terror calling out for help, not particularly for me, but particularly, it's for me, because I've just remembered: I'm a parent, I have a child, two of them--and from the shock of it, the world spins, taunting me with its width and depth, my world huge, but then hones in, pin-points my location, like a map: Mother.

So I walk down the hall, my world now as small as a child's room: one boy sleeps too still for my comfort and the other is wide-eyed with fear, grabbing my forearm in an awkward place, the need for help too urgent to select a more comforting hold; "Daddy!" he pleads (for Daddy is this child's favorite), then he gasps heavily and strangely until abruptly awake, my words, "Do you want to pee?" both a let-down and reassuring. "Yes," he answers, breathy, his brain forgetting the panic, his body still remembering what it just escaped.

And the danger he was in reminds me again how large this world is, how full of opportunity and fear, and that familiar vertigo spins me larger and larger until he returns from the bathroom, sleepy and fearless, safe in his little room with his Mother sitting on his bed, waiting for him.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Troll & the Three Billy Goats

A troll lives in the first floor of our building. Every day, many times, we pass by his lair.

And every day my sense of unease grows with each step closer--but my children are oblivious. My abrupt hushed warnings only confuse them, make them anxious. I'm ashamed of this.

They're just so loud. And loud makes the troll come out.

The boys are dragging huge sticks, nearly logs, downed by the recent blizzard, called widowmakers in another time and place in my life; there's a metal waterbottle clanking in a metal lunchbox as one child jogs down the courtyard; there are happy screeches and calls to each other--all charming in another context, but in this one, it's just annoying and I am suddenly as disapproving of my children as the creature I'm afraid we'll waken.

Trip trap, trip trap. TRIP TRAP TRIP TRAP!

At the beginning of the bridge, in front of the elevator, next to Its door: "Shhhhh! Shhhh! Quiet! Press three, please."

We live with a tiny dog in an early last-century building. It's beautiful, eight stories tall, nearly a skyscraper then but now just kind of tall. We all must walk down a garden courtyard to enter the foyer in the middle of the building. Then past the front windows, and I try to calm the activity of outdoors, try to open the door softly, both doors, the outer door with its squeak and the inner door with its slam, then stomp quietly past the shared wall, stage-whispering quiet, my furious parental eye squint warning: do not roll that Hotwheel along the wall, the troll's outer den wall; do not lean against, nor knock against, or fall against in your silliness, your heightened sense of fun and danger, the door of the troll.

For if you do, if you exhibit loud silliness, or heaven forbid, tragic child wailing, he will open his door and, crouching to your height, glare from behind his smudgy glasses, his neat beard, his rumpled clothes, his dark dwelling, and he will cast that pall of adult disapproval and judgment on you and your mother: Be quiet. Do not behave as children and then you all will feel slightly icky until the mood from the encounter is obscured by important things.

So I am torn between telling this man to Mind his own fucking business let my children have joy although it is apparently your kryptonite and hushing them, Shhh, shhh, he'll yell at us, me thrown back forty years to when it was I feeling that adult disapproval, that shame.

It was a hard concept: somebody just does not like them enough to forgive. Does not find their exuberance amusing or simply low-level irritating enough to ignore. Because we are graced by giving neighbors, people who have chosen to be indulgent with these children born in their building, the first children born here in years. Small presents: cookies, beautiful polished agates, water bottles, cloth monkeys, arrive on our doorstep, and my boys know again: somebody is loving them.

But not the Troll.

To establish the concept, to explain why their mother, who four minutes previous was delighted with their silliness, has once more transformed into a nasty mean lady shushing them in the small hallway outside the elevator/stairs/front-back door (any in/egress to where we live, we must pass this man), I called him Mr. Cranky and they got it, hushed giggling behind a smothering hand, we were united against him. And peace reigned in Condoland.

Until obscene tragedy struck when I refused to let my son ride his scooter into the courtyard: "Walk it."

Such grief, anger, disappointment welled up out of this small child, I was instantly regretful I'd cast such an imperious, arbitrary commandment. It wasn't necessary, even at three, he has enough control of the scooter to be relied upon. But I'd done it and now it was some kind of showdown, one in which my personality would be fine bending but the mandate of parenthood: there must be consequences, made me repeat: "Walk it."

His soul disappointed and his pride angered, he wailed, the sound echoing around the courtyard, rattling along every window of Mr. Cranky. TRIP TRAP! TRIP TRAP! The sounds of our steps waking him up, making him crawl out of his lair.

As a child I wondered why the three billy goats just didn't use another bridge. Now I know: there's only one way in. You have to go past the Troll.

My son sobbed loudly as I lifted him, now a long toddler, his heft approaching a child's weight, and dragging the scooter, my backpack and his, my long scarf mired in the sooty snow, I opened the first door (squeak!), the second (slam!), rounded the corner, watched as my oldest son took the chaotic opportunity to ride the scooter, creating a drum-like pounding over our lobby floor, stopping only by crashing into the elevator, the wailing  even louder in the small hall, bouncing off the steel doors of the elevator, Shhhhhhhhh!

So the door creaked open, and Mr. Cranky crouched there. The wails stopped instantly, betraying the sham of my son's anger in the face of a real threat: my little boy's shocked face turned to me in query, fear, delight, and mischief: "It's him!" he stage-whispered, "It's Mr. Cranky!"

The Troll looked us with anger and a significant brow frown, but he did not say a word, I think because I glared at him with my own (shared) elevated irritation and frustration but at the bottom of it all, an animal defensiveness of my children, my furious look indicating: Just fucking try to say one word to me, you bitter nasty shit. I only broke eye contact when the elevator door opened and we got on, silence all the way up the elevator shaft, silence all the way home.


The day after, we got groceries from across the street, a store that prides itself on global offerings. Pretty much anything you need for a recipe you will find there, so a bell curve outlier effect happens as you meet elderly Eastern European cooks grasping for the familiar and young elite cooks searching for the exotic. It's a pleasure to go there. But this time my oldest, a kindergartner, wouldn't stop touching all the food in the grocery store; it was kind of cute, if you had a particularly indulgent perspective, running his matchbox car up the yams (brummmmm), across the flat face of the long line of milk cartons (crash!), but I was annoyed, really irritated, can I go nowhere without behaving like a fishwife, the harried middle-aged mother from Central Casting, because nobody wants a child, a walking pathogen, touching food they might eat and on top of it I'd told him twice already to Stop! (loss of car imminent).

So when I turned around to see him with the tongs, individually squishing hard-boiled eggs in the salad bar--before I could get to him physically, I screeched, furious: What the hell are you doing?!  This was not cute it was . . .

And this ancient old German man also straight from Central Casting leans over and says in a scary old German man accent: "Your mother is right, little boy, she does not correct you now, ya, und you grow up, you become very bad man."

Though I appreciated the support, it also creeped me out, silenced me, opening the stage to my younger son who had watched this transaction, and squinting in concentration, he asked in that clear-voiced, piping tone of a very young child with perfect articulation, "ARE YOU VERY OLD?"

"Ya," he answered, nodding, "I am very old." Still in (apparently authentic) German accent. 

My son nodded, something confirmed for him, and piped, "YOU'RE GOING TO DIE SOON."

My mouth dropped open, some limbic response, a primitive reaction to a cultural shock, and I loosened the grip on my other son whose squished hard boileds were downright innocent by comparison.

Meanwhile, a handsome young man doubtless just off work from a global consulting firm (nice suit, medium starch shirt, trim but expensive haircut), a man old enough to be a man but young enough that if Mike's Hard Lemonade had existed when I was in college, could have been my son, laughed out loud and whispered, "Ohhh, here we go!" Then he took a step back, as if to better view what was unexpectedly unfolding in Produce, improving his stop for organic vine-ripened tomatoes, turmeric, and flash-dried nori.

It occurred to me, crouching there as I still clutched the shoulders of the egg squisher, his upset face teary, that if this were a (horror) movie, the entire audience would urge that old man to take special care crossing the street on his way home. I mean, really, that child voice saying something so ponderous, so knowledgeable, so contextually in/appropriate, has an eeriness that simultaneously memento mori-s and washes the shame of eggs right off.

"What?!" shouts the old man, yes, cupping an ear. He did not hear. He did not hear . . .

I shout, "Introduce yourself, honey!" seize bananas to justify my stay and bundle them off, small children, and I see them as the innocent freaks they are. They have to cross that bridge and there will be scariness. It's my job to be the biggest goat.

The handsome young spectator waits for us in line at checkout. He's smiling, laughing still: "That was awesome!" he shouts with masculine glee.

I had no words for him, but I should have said thank you. Thank you for seeing that was funny. Thank you for still being a boy, however handsome and grown-up in that suit.

Now I understand how to deal with the Troll. It's funny. And sad. He's funny. And sad.  It's funny that this cranky man chooses a building with a ground-floor apartment that is, daily, circled by every tenant in it, opening and closing doors, taking out the trash, talking in the hallways. It's funny that he hates children and bought into a building with an established child population. It's funny that he apparently only sleeps from two to seven pm, the most defensible time of the day to be up and around, making noise. It's funny but mostly sad that I'm creeping around, shushing my children like they're doing something wrong by being sad (so loudly). It's sad that the people this grown man chooses to stand up to are mothers and children. It's funny that the sound that most irritates him is children laughing.

Now he's no longer Mr. Cranky, but the Troll. And everybody knows how to deal with Trolls. Confront them. And think it's a little bit funny. You have to cross that bridge anyway.

Snip snap snout, this tale's told out.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Your, Your Infant, and Superstitious Consumerism: Part I

Ask a mother a specific question about her child's early days and most of the time she will enter a small fugue state, petit mal-esque, in which she'll turn to the side slightly, stare blankly, and murmur an apologetic, confused, or dismayed, "I don't know."

She'll follow up with a shake of the head, rooting her back in the here and now, with the guilty, sad, sheepish admission, "I don't remember." She'll then apologize. Because, you see, remembering is love. She just admitted she didn't love enough to remember.

That is, if you believe all of the modern "memory" capture devices you can buy. (For one thing, I resent the way we have completely bought into the idea that photographs are memories. How have companies co-opted rights to our memories? Memories are smell, feel, touch, emotion, sometimes sight. But not a photograph.)

I was pregnant with my first child and asked my sisters, both mothers, what were the top five things they used the most. They had nothing to say. Could not remember. A blank stare, searching. Silence on the phone, "hello? hello?"

Well, this sure does conflict with the lessons consumerism has to teach us about having a baby, because if you have all the right stuff, it will be easy. Or at least, easier. And you will remember.

And be safe. Safer. Don't forget that.

Lies, lies, lies.

Really, you need your breasts or a (literally) man-made substitute, and something to catch all that poop. That's it. The rest is pin-striping.

This idea that you can be prepared for the birth of a baby by buying things is so adorable and so naive and so fucking dangerous.

It's a belief system of consumerism--buy the right stuff and everything will be all right. It's superstitious capitalism at its worst and some of the most vulnerable people in America are at risk: the new mothers. The infants will be fine; they (literally) give a shit about all that stuff; they don't believe in it.

The mother does, for a while. Yet that new mother, suddenly alone with a tiny creature after Daddy goes back to work and her sister must go back to her own family, has only that monitor that detects every erratic grunt and gasp this twitchy mewling infant has to offer, every minute of every day and every night. She has the swinger the baby doesn't seem to like, the bottle dryer, the carrier that takes two people to safely put a baby inside, the thermometer, the strangely red medicine, the diaper holder, the  . . .

But nobody to help. Which is what all of those objects are replacements for.

She bought the right things, ate the right things, read the right books, and now lives in chaos, unbathed, with a creature that does not understand day or night, and is alone. Surrounded by stuff that cannot help.

She loves this baby and cares for it and probably needs it the same way you would if somebody took your kidney and put it in a cradle. Early mother love feels that connected, that ripped out.

And she's subtly enraged at the reneging of the unspoken contract of all the crap they bought to keep their baby safe, happy, smart, and has really just left her, caveat emptor, on her own.

She's been abandoned by her gods and is now a slave, in thrall and in love, her body both leaking and expanding, and the fantasies of her using strength to protect this precious charge are her only escape from the relentless needs that claw at her, including the nearly insane, obsessive desire to take a four-hour-long nap, alone.

She is in fucking crazy land. Know that.


Sunday, October 17, 2010


Why have teddy bears become so powerful? For grown women?

There's a reason Rosebud was a secret. He put away childish things.

Grow the fuck up.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Some Things I Think I Want My Children to Know About Me

1. I really, really want to be snowed in by a blizzard. I want to look out the window and see a wall of swirling white. Probably Laura Ingalls Wilder's influence.

2. My youngest son still has baby breath. It’s sweet, and elemental, and I feel like a mother vampire as I breathe it in.

3. At one point, my dog recognized my older son as human. She'd studiously ignored him until the day she greeted him as he woke up. He was delighted, and a little confused. She’d spent his entire life avoiding him. But he turned some corner and now he’s part of the pack. Youngest son remains a non-human, canine pariah.

4. Until I was 33, I believed I had a poker face. I had no idea. Until fairly recently I was also unaware that I am so tic-y.

5. I wish I’d had some warning I would love my husband and children so helplessly, so deeply, so meltingly, so violently. I wonder if other people have fantasies in which they perform some act of extremity to save their family. Almost certainly, for there's an entire film sub-genre in which parents save their children.

6. I suppose, as I age, I should be comforted by the fact that most of my hobbies are old lady hobbies.

7. I don’t so much hate sports as much as I am indifferent to them. It’s like muzak—I pay attention if the volume’s too high, but turn it down and I won’t even notice.

8. On the other hand, poker on TV fills me with a jittery rage.

9. According to what I’ve seen on television, if I am to believe it, I am friends with many Swingers (you know, in the lifestyle). Then again, most of those folks are a little older, demographically. Perhaps it was a Boomer thing. I hope so.

10. I loooove sleeping. I love taking naps. My bed is holy.

11. When I wake up, it’s an instant on. Apparently very annoying to roommates (and now Harlan) throughout the years. So in the off days when I wake up sleepy, my children ask me why I'm so quiet, so slow.

12. Until a child turns about three and a half, there is very little difference between raising boys and raising dogs.

13. In my lifetime, I’ve gone to bed without brushing my teeth probably only five or six times. I’ve fallen asleep without reading something even fewer.

14. The concept of The South is comforting to the rest of America because it makes them feel like they aren’t the racist ones.

15. I was genuinely confused by the heartbrokenness of fans about Babe Ruth’s gambling. I couldn’t imagine such hero worship. But I would feel gut-punched if I learned that Obama was doing something really under-handed. Or that Dorothy Parker was really mean to animals.

16. I have a theory that the reason we nearly kill ourselves protecting that post-it note we are carrying when we stumble and fall is because we used to not carry inherently useless things—it was food, a weapon, or a child. So the fractured clavicle we achieve from the careful landing of that sofa fabric sample hearkens back to a very different gatherer value system.

17. I propose dogs have a god, named Canis. Canis is the god of unexpected good things, which is how dogs live life. Whenever something unexpected and good happens (a sandwich falling off the counter, for example), all dogs mutter a short prayer of gratitude, “O thank you Canis for what we have received” before gobbling it up. Due to dogs’ general inability to plan well or project intent (a uniquely human habit), most things are unexpected. And due to their overall lack of entitlement, most things are good. Thank you, Canis.

18. I read Ayn Rand waaay too late to get her philosophy or take it seriously. So when I learned Greenspan’s fav author was Rand, I thought, wow, we ARE heading into the shet.

19. I still don’t know the times tables of anything above the fours. I also never learned about half of the cursive alphabet. Ditto the presidents and the states. We moved around a lot when I was a kid so I switched schools, often in the middle of a subject. The last thing I would do is pipe up with my ignorance, so I just muddled through. Many years later I bought a shower curtain with a map of America. Unfortunately, it read backwards as I showered, so awoI, and oihO, and erawaleD were of no help to my education.

20. This whole Facebook thing, with the collapsing of the worlds of a lifetime in a single spot, is a lot like the pre-funeral people fantasize about—where everybody you know from your life converges and meet—but before you’re dead. And you’re there to enjoy it. Party on!

21. This year’s resolution was to eliminate the unnecessary use of the word “like” from my speech. I believe it’s impossible; "like" is a generational verbal tic, embedded in my linguistic patterns. Like a flapper trying to describe something really great without reaching for flapper slang.

22. I believe I’ve seen every science-fiction movie of merit.

23. I am usually the person who breaks the polite-awkward hesitation at a party and steps up to be the first in the buffet line. Besides literal first pick of all the food, it makes me feel like I'm like the Pied Piper of the Buffet.

24. I am a housewife. That blows my mind.

25. I am completing a novel. One I’ve written.

26. For unclear reasons, I much prefer the use of the term "porn" rather than "porno."

27. I'm still sad about Ruffian.

28.  I peaked with this: Men are stupid; women are crazy.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is a Gregarious Introvert?

What is a gregarious introvert? Some of you have asked and the search term "gregarious introvert" is this blog's most frequent hit. This is my best answer:

A gregarious introvert loves people and is an open, curious, seemingly fearless person in public but is exhausted by the exposure and craves privacy to recharge.

Edith Wharton's quote from The House of Mirth helps explain the dichotomy: "She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making."

This journal organizes and documents the thinking that come from gregariously collected impressions and introverted solitude.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To Live in a Ship

My sister and sister-in-law had some cojones to recommend the Patrick O'Brian Master and Commander series. It is daunting: 21 novels, the last of which is incomplete, courtesy of the ultimate plotter, Death. The rest are novels that would read well individually, but really, it's a 6,528 page book, set (primarily) on battleships during the Napoleonic War.

For history fans such as Harlan, it's a bonus treat. For underachieving students who matriculated through the Florida Public School system (such as myself), it's a way to catch up. That said, it's a GREAT read. Addictive. With the exception of three infidelities (all airplane books, they meant nothing to me), I read only the Master & Commander series from March 2009 through March 2010. And I am still reading.  

If you share that curious sense of sadness and emptiness when you have finished a book you loved and do not have another lined up, M&C can move you instead into the gleeful anticipatory knowledge that another is there waiting for you.

It's important to note, from a former English Literature professor perspective (such as mine), that narratively, the books are all over the place. Scenes will significantly shift from paragraph to paragraph and characters will be introduced who disappear abruptly or serve no later purpose. It's a little disconcerting--in tightly narrated books, every character introduced is used; here, red herrings aren't even that. They are props and part of the scenery. Yet, the people of the novels are fascinating--charming and intelligent and quirky and richly developed over the decades in which they mature during the story line. The love stories and the friendships are believable and enviable and compelling.

The two main characters, Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin (pronounced MAT-rin) are the types of friends who cannot explain why they are so close, but the chemistry that draws them together is inescapable, perhaps because they, together, comprise a complete person. Aubrey is a man of action, bold and capable but sentimental, and Maturin is the intellectual, a maladroit at sea but with surprising international skills.

And you learn a lot. A lot. The least of which is that American English has been heavily influenced by naval speech: leeway, by the main, keelhaul, ship-shape, up to muster, swab the deck, overboard, etc. Also, you learn much about what it takes to run a ship at sea. Primarily, the cleaning. The swabbing. And the stowing.

I have taken it as a terrestrial home-maker's manual. (For I am now a homemaker, have been for three years. Abruptly laid off while seven months pregnant (a situation that allows no dignity: lunch-time downtown Chicago, waddling to the bus, sobbing, holding my box of office personals off to the side of my huge belly) with severance and a maternity leave that ended just as our American financial confidence did.)

So I became a full-time mother/part-time writer, managing the house supplies, finances, cleanliness, and schedule. Fortunately, I had Master & Commander to teach me how to run my ship.

And please don't think I'm straining the metaphor. Harlan & I made a deliberate effort to treat our apartment as just that: a ship, where everything must have a purpose, everything must be clean, and everything must be stowed.

(A long time ago, I made a big impression on a boyfriend because I revealed to him that I would love beyond measure to live on a houseboat. We were in beautiful, sparkling Sausalito at the time, so it seemed like an ordinary enough wish--wouldn't everybody like to do the same? He asked what was appealing about it; I answered: the simplicity, the tidiness, the independence, the confined space with limitless possibilities outside, the thought that I'd have enough money to make that all happen. Standing there on the dock, looking out over the beautiful boats with the sun glinting and wafts of that compelling fecund smell of the sea, I think he would have asked to marry me then and there, if we'd been in the type of love we wanted to be. But we were both just in extreme like, so he wisely left it silent. (I probably could have dragged every boyfriend out to the water and made him fall in love with me; I could have used the siren call to the sea to reach the heart of each man. (But that kind of statement is probably only made by a middle-aged woman investing magical powers to her youth.)))

Yet many years later, my new husband Harlan and I were in Amsterdam, longingly looking at the houseboats setting up for dinner along the canals. I asked my now long-lived sincere desire: "Wanna live in Amsterdam in the summer and winter in Italy and go through Sausalito at some point?" He looked like he'd won the wife lottery.

But to make this dream a reality, some serious changes would have to happen, mostly to all the things I had collected over the years. At that point, I had all of the furniture from my three-bedroom farmhouse and all the paperwork of graduate school and high-school notes, childhood stuffed animals, endless knickknacks, two fish tanks, dishes, dozens of grapefruit spoons, cow bones and horse teeth (see past post: Dental Arcade) and a lifetime of carefully filed bills, tax forms, and cancelled checks. Use your imagination--I had it. BUT it was all well organized, cared for. Which, in my mind, excluded me from the hoarders club. Harlan thought differently.

Regardless, it wouldn't fit in a boat. And other than a climate-controlled storage rental, there was no place for my stuff (See previous post: 1. Do we love it? 2. Can we afford it?). I clearly didn't need it if I could live two miles from it for three years.

When I decided I had to get rid of it, the process of clearing it out was surprisingly exhausting and overwhelming. It was not the physical work of it, though that was impressive; it was that each piece in there was a trigger for some neural pathway in my brain, sparking a memory long dormant. Everything I touched was an explosion of sense, of emotion, of responsibility for that thing as an exterior link to me, my past, who I was. But I slogged through getting rid of it all, asking: 1. Do I love it? 2. Do I need it?

The rest was given away to friends, neighbors, charity. Giant boxes of my childhood paraphernalia were mailed to my nieces. They got paper doll sets, a purple paisley umbrella, rock tumbling and candle-making kits, cereal-box toys, endless necklaces & bracelets. My siblings complied, opened up boxes of toys forty years old and  allowed them to be loved, as only three-and four-year old girls can love huge boxes of somebody else's stuff. So, having shuffled my beloved crap off onto the lives of my way more beloved nieces, I had only a condo to clear.

I needed some more rules.

That's where the novels come in (and this posting pulls together the narrative threads).

Think of that moment when you walk into your hotel room--there's a sense (if you're like me) of calmness, of cleanness, of focus of purpose. There are a finite amount of things you are expected to to do in there, and limitless things you don't have to: your laundry, reprogram your cable for a favorite show, pick up the mail, make the bed, clean the shower.

A cluttered home nags at you.

So I researched organizing, hoarding, de-cluttering. There are some basic rules, and they all stem from basic ship-shape thinking:

1. Take only what you need (or a very small thing you love)
2. Everything should have a distinct place (it must be stowable)
3. Each room/space should have a designated purpose (if a thing is not fulfilling that purpose, it must be stowed where it should be)
4. Supplies should be managed and realistic

With this ship-shape thinking, making the bed, doing the laundry, prepping the meals, swabbing the bathroom--it all takes on a different aspect. It makes the living space more of an organism and it makes me the Captain. It identifies the overage in your environment. It emphasizes the need for both the utility and beauty of everything in your home.

Because if these are the objects you are taking on your journey, you'd better choose them wisely, need them, and take good care of them. The rest is ballast.

P.S. Begin reading Master & Commander. You'll love it. And to get it, check out:
They recycle books from donations and libraries and donate money to literacy. An interesting company.
For the Master & Commander series:


Monday, August 30, 2010

But Now I See

I avoid begonias and African violets, but everything else thrives. I had beautiful plants.

  • Memory--in Virginia, eight years old, my first repotting: a spider plant, awkwardly but carefully parting its gnarled, root-bound strands, that beautiful soil smell, the good weight of a real clay pot--and then, the stance of the newly transplanted--a little bedraggled, but hopeful.
  • Memory--in Missouri, the look of delight on my now departed dear friend Pam's face as she gazed up at (and then asked for) my seven-foot banana tree, grown from a test-tube I bought in a New Orleans market.
  • Memory--in Paris, a dream of a seed, long buried beneath the concrete, awakening. Breaking through, it grew overnight until the entire city was colonized by all the plants trapped below it, the forests renewed, everything in flower.
Then we moved into this apartment.

Over six years, all but one plant has, after a long period of failure to thrive, slowly, slowly, slowly died. (And so you know, I did everything--proper soil, correct light exposures, individual waterings, strategic humidifiers. Even started a worm garden in my kitchen (see future post: Worms as Employees) so my plants got fertilizer alchemy: organic scraps transmuted into gold as they passed through my worms' guts.) Some of these plants I had for more than twenty years.

Why did nothing work?

I began to think something horrible had happened here. We were haunted. By a Ghost Plant.

My neighbor did not believe in my Ghost Plant.

Instead, he had knowledge. He knew that our windows were UV-resistant.


"You might as well have kept them in the closet," he said, kindly.

This was an astonishing bit of information.

Now I saw that my jade plant, in the direct sun of a southern exposure, was indeed straining towards the light. I had been perfectly ignorant, truly blind, to the invisible rays that my plants had needed so badly.

But this new knowledge shifted everything to me. The real culprit was simple: my ignorance and laziness, which is far less interesting, and less mature, than blaming something invisible. I needed an explanation and defaulted to the advanced monkey reflex: I created something supernatural.

My plant gulag was my fault. To my dismay, I kind of preferred blaming the Ghost Plant.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

French Women Really Are Different

We flew to Paris, without the boys. Being older, a little wiser, and with no children to relentlessly distract us from our surroundings, we could spend a lot of time looking around.

I was fascinated. How had I not noticed it before? French women really are different.

Primarily, they are women. Grown-ups.

Many years ago on another trip to Paris, I saw an adorable toddler on the flight over. She had soft, puffy hair framing her chubby pink face, a teddy-bear sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, pink ankle socks and sneakers. Her soft, plump body and childish tummy filled out her ensemble unsurprisingly, as she was two years old, her body still soft and childish. Imagine my surprise when her mother stood up and stretched, facing the entire rest of the plane, giving me enough time to realize she looked like this: soft, puffy hair framing her chubby pink face, an oversized teddy-bear sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. Undoubtedly there were pink sneakers. This grown woman in her thirties was dressed EXACTLY like a two-year old.

Less impressive was that she was dressed like her daughter. That could be written off as a sweet quirk. But the fact is that you see this get-up repeated across America, in every mall and parking lot, every grocery store, movie theatre, every intersection, everywhere.

Grown-up women in America have surrendered their secondary sex characteristics. You know, the things that develop during puberty: breasts, waist, hips. Also discovered during puberty: the exploration and adoption of adult-feminine, rather than girlish-child clothing.

We have given this all up. And I'm not sure what we've gotten in return, other than a false sense of safety and a consumer-fueled habit of indulgence. We have lost our femininity in a protective layer of fat that we have, in our shame, hidden inside drapey children's clothing of too-large t-shirts and sweatpants, baggy shorts and slouchy faux athletic-wear, sweaters with animals or holiday motifs.

The men have lost it, too. (All across Europe you can spot the American men because they look like giant toddlers in giant shorts, their soft guts pushing at their giant t-shirts, sucking on sugar water in their grown-up sippy-cups complete with straws and special tops that keep them from spilling.)

We've become babies, demanding endless amounts of child food: hamburgers, French fries, macaroni & cheese, cokes, mountain dews—all your brands of sugar water. It's acceptable for a grown man to state, "I don't like vegetables." It should not be acceptable for a five-year-old. Just take a look at the Kid's Menu at most every restaurant and our childhood obesity epidemic is less surprising: we are educating our children to eat huge portions of greasy, colorless, fried and processed food.  And as grown-ups we eat like children and our bodies look like it.

How is the French woman different?
Here's how we figured it:


1. Indifferent Confidence
No girly or sexual posturing, swaggering, slouching, or giggling; no desperate-for-attention antics or appropriated acts of male chauvinism: just an outward reveal of inner confidence BASED ON

2. Posture
Such bearing must be the result of training—of being nurtured, shaped into understanding that a woman expresses self-worth in her stance. Erect head, straight but lithe shoulders and back, even their steps are measured to fit the context—ladylike striding across even cement, a more careful tread across cobblestones BECAUSE SHE IS

3. Slender & Fit
These women cannot pinch an inch. They are slim, with the lithe muscles of holding themselves erect and walking everywhere. Women in their seventies have lovely calves and arms. These women have energy and health. BECAUSE SHE

4. Eats Real Food
Non-processed cheese, fresh vegetables, small portions, carefully cooked. The paradox of the French diet—with all of its supposed high-fat sauces, is explained by the freshness of the ingredients, the care in preparation, and the disciplined portions. Most important are the discrete meal times. Americans, as if terrified of hunger, snack endlessly—on worthless, expensive, food substitutes. Overprocessed, bagged, chemical-laden crap. For meals we expect huge portions, eat them, try to work it off at the gym, and hide it all in huge clothing. The French women WEAR

5. Tailored Clothing
Their clothes fit. Fit them. Nobody else. Demonstrating both taste and their own fitness.  BECAUSE THEY PAY

6. Attention to Style but Not Fashion
One woman we saw wore what was reminiscent of a 1983 sailor outfit. But instead of looking silly, she looked elegant. The top and jacket were perfectly made and tailored. There were no other themed accessories, such as large white sailor button earrings or a sailor belt. It came across that she liked the marine influence, but she was not wearing a costume. JUST SOME

7. Jewelry, quality and minimal
Or a notable single piece, highlighted against a modest clothing backdrop such the stunningly attractive elderly woman who wore a chunky silver necklace and a fitted linen sleeveless top over brown linen pants with a leather belt. PLUS

8. Purse & Shoes, quality and minimal
Matching or contrasting, but always understated. No begging for attention with overtly expensive, trendy, or sexual choices. AND SHE

9. Walks Alone
Or in pairs speaking quietly, not in giggling groups. No walking cell-phone use. Or if she gets a call, she steps to the side to complete the call quietly. (I remember my mother telling me that only hookers walked and smoked. To this day I'm not sure what was instructive about this. Did this mean I should only smoke sitting down? Or if I become a hooker, don't let on by smoking? Yet I've retained this prejudice—I wince at the double inelegance of a woman walking while smoking.) Predictably, French women do not walk and smoke. Or walk and drink. They simply walk. Efficiently without seeming to be in a hurry. There was a destination and they would get there.

As I said, I stared in fascination, envy. I was not anything like these women, but I would try to be.

Then we went to London.

"Ah," I thought in dismay, "These are my people. This is where I come from." Sturdy mesomorphs stalked the land with large clothes, loud voices, and lots of blond hair.

Oh, my. What I was asking of myself seemed more daunting. I will never be a tiny, tanned, slender French woman in Paris. But I didn't want to become a Parisian woman--I wanted to learn what she had that I didn't: confidence and discipline. What she knew about herself: that she was indeed, a woman. Which is what American women have lost in a forgotten barter.

The French woman is not perfect.

But she is a damn fine role model.

The Parisian French woman has demonstrated (in numbers 1-9 above) that we should not allow the dissonance of indulging in endless consumer choices like giant children and still expect to respect ourselves as women. In foregoing adult restraint, we have lost our confidence, our discipline, our strength, our entitlement to more than what we've settled for. There's sorrow in this loss, and our bodies feel it. We've confused the choices of consumerism with power in womanhood and neutered ourselves in the process. We've costumed ourselves as babies, as men, as teenagers. It's time for the next reveal in the evolution of feminism:  being a woman.

Women in America are hiding. Come out.

P.S. (This link was forwarded to me by my friend Louise after I told her, during breakfast, what I wrote in this blog, what I saw in these women: )

© A.H.Swank

Friday, May 28, 2010

Storm Arcade

A little time before dinner, before the first spring storm, and two small boys ran clumsily, happily, along the city street, a primal alertness in them provoking glances at the lowering sky.

Their mother beckoned and squatted to button the older boy's jacket, her knees creaking too loudly for a woman of her age.

"But it's spriii-iiinng," the boy protested, drawing out the syllables with the secure knowledge of a four-year-old.

"Yes, just a trick of the still air---it's winter yet. Feel how the air's heavy?" She pantomimed being crushed.

Eyeing the lightning behind her, the child remembered out loud, "But it doesn't thunder in winter."

"That's true, here," she reassured, thinking of her own southern girlhood with its heat lightning and the constant threat of sound. She put an arm around him, "But it's also spring, and there might be . . ."

Shoving his brother aside, the smaller boy, wise eyes in his fresh face, planted himself in front of his mother and held out a fist. She reached with mild tedium for the object he clutched. All last summer they played at the edges of the construction site, collecting treasures: coils of copper, shiny bolts, cement drips, bent nails.

She hesitated and then seized his prize, standing abruptly. The children craned their heads up to watch their mother rise up, an animated, looming stranger.

"You found a tooth," she whispered, looking around the Chicago street they lived on, herself and her children sudden specters in another time: milk cart rattling along cobblestones, carriages along Lake Michigan's natural coast, the rag and bone man and his broken-down horse.

"What kind of tooth, mommy?" the older boy asked, interested, envious.

"A horse tooth. A molar. From an old horse," she stated with dismay, running her thumb across the heavily worn ridges.

"Molar," he repeated, reaching for his own with a filthy hand.

"Incisors are pointier, and in front of the mouth. A lot like your front teeth but a horse uses them to tear grass."

He bit down on his finger, examining the dents it left behind.
"A fossil?"

"No, just old."

Before children, before husband, before knees that creaked, she spent some years on a horse farm, and walks in spring, like this one, revealed horse teeth, skulls, femurs, the winter and spring conflict pushing both the dead and rocks out of the ground. The caretaker would renew the fence from these rocks, the fruit of winter. She'd collected the teeth, kept a few, and out of all the things she had, they were what her new husband begged her to get rid of for their new life together. She couldn't understand his adamancy.

"They're from dead horses," he explained, wincing, and with sudden heaviness she saw them as he did. He threw them out.

The smaller boy grabbed it back, baring his own milk teeth against the yellowed relic, squinting against the dust from the coming storm.

"Let's go home," she sighed, pocketing the tooth. She gathered their hands and added, "There's a space between the incisors and molars, a gap, called the dental arcade. That space is where the bit of a halter goes. It's how a rider controls the horse."

"Where'd it come from?"

She felt briefly dizzy, the cement below her incapable of both holding her up and belching up this remnant. "Maybe dug up from the building site."

"Where's the rest of the horse?"

"I don't know." The tooth was enough.

She held up a hand to feel for rain, a silly, submissive human gesture. The boys mimicked her, tucking their heads against the heavy drops already coming down.

© A.H. Swank

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Chalk Avenger

I have a piece of chalk in my pocket. It is useful every day. 

I do not believe it is a function of my age that gives me the impression that the world is getting ruder. One of the most important rules I learned from living with many roommates (total count: 22) is to keep the common areas clean. Most roommate issues stem from common-area infractions, specifically the bathroom and the kitchen. As long as it wasn't too loud or smelly, you could start a sage kitten sausage empire in your room and most roommates wouldn't say a word.

Living in the city is a lot like having a lot of roommates. The common areas are very important, and you walk through them every day.

Which is why I get irate when people leave shit on the sidewalk. In addition, as a dog owner, I am impugned by their rudeness. To avoid this prejudice, I walk all the way around the block with my badge of merit: a bag of doggie doo (see future post: "Why the Dog Park is better than Seventh Grade").

Which is why it's satisfying to circle said dogshit and write my mild admonishment on the sidewalk, in chalk, in my best capital letters, "Neighbor, please clean up after your dog."

Or to draw an arrow pointing to the dozens of cigarette butts (spent cigarettes are litter) outside the slacker apartment complex and write, "Neighbor, please clean up after your smokes."

Sometimes, of course, my polite but firm admonishment/request is mitigated by the chalk sun/stars/flowers my sons draw as I'm occupied being the Chalk Avenger. 

Because it is occupying. It's a minor statement, but it feels strangely like a transgression itself. There's a benign, timid rush that comes from passively and anonymously addressing the incredibly annoying behaviors of my anonymous neighbors.

Who do I think I am?

The Chalk Avenger.

One of my favorite cartoons is from the now defunct National Lampoon, which had a disproportionate share of influence on my sense of humor—and justiceduring my childhood (because the two are linked, as all good satirists know). I distinctly remember fledgling feminist awakenings, most especially at the single page devoted to the cover story: "Special!: A Woman's View of Sex." It was a black & white photograph of a ceiling and a bare light bulb. This image stayed with me for years. I was eight, and knew only this of sex: it was supposed to be sexy, which even as an eight-year-old, I knew was supposed to be more interesting than that bare light bulb. There was an argument there, both mocking and crass and apathetically sympathetic, a single-page, throw-away joke that resonated with me for years.
(I'll add that my first publishing disappointment was when I never heard back from N.L. for my submission to their Foto Funnies: an ad from the Tampa Tribune inviting "talented, motivated women" to the "Explosive Skin & Hair Product Expo." I thought this was really, really funny.) 

So, in National Lampoon, there was a cartoon strip character, an anti-hero, named Politenessman. In response to tiny transgressions (often overlooking the egregious), he whipped, with deadly accuracy, a steel hankie at the violators. They were maimed or killed, with a lot of blood. And/or they had to redress the impoliteness. His insistence on good behavior at the expense of lives was, of course, hilarious. And kind of  vicariously satisfying. Even at eight, when Politenessman was arguably the first I'd heard of the finer points of etiquette. (Likewise, a future degree in feminism could have had its roots in that light bulb.)

It makes me happy that Politenessman's writer, Ron Barrett, is the man behind the children's book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (1978). (Note that the book does not kill off the mother, but the father, so grandpa steps in to tell the story (see past post: "All Men Want to Live in Mayberry: Part I" for a discussion of the dead mother in children's media).

As the Chalk Avenger, the transgressions I address are ephemeral, like the chalk I use. One good rainstorm and both are gone. But they're not tiny. However debated, the Broken Windows idea has taken root in me; it says: I'm watching you. In my neighborhood, I want to make this implied observation both more obvious and more consequent. These people need instruction. The Chalk Avenger provides an opportunity.

Of course, two minute's thought will roil up histories of cultures marking its members for infractions: shaved heads, disfigurements, scarlet letters (really must look up if that happened in real life), specific uniforms, steel hankies in heads, etc. However, I am not marking the person, but the transgression. 

There is an ordinance in Chicago that forbids the sale of spray paint (graffiti) and, for reasons unclear to me, CO2 canisters, used in paintball. I suppose if the gentle spraying of paint is forbidden, the blasting of such is, likewise. The former is not an issue for me because of my chalk. 

And while it's hugely satisfying to call out with, chalk is not the medium for larger social concerns. Hell, I'm raising my children on this street . . .


Sunday, May 2, 2010

All Men Want to Live in Mayberry (Part I)

I got married late and I wanted to be married so I went on a lot of first and second dates. A strange coincidence kept happening until I realized it wasn't a coincidence; it was knowledge. Or at least a source of understanding something about men.

All men want to live in Mayberry. Or at least consider it an ideal.

Ask a man how he feels about Mayberry and he'll instantly tap into some deep well of feelings.

Feelings about fathers, theirs or another's. Feelings about going fishing with your dad, even if you never did. Or feelings about absent mothers (or the wish for one). Or kindly but meddlesome aunts who cheerfully demonstrate the fallibility of humans. Or the ability to have a problem that gets resolved within 39 minutes. Feelings about a pastoral America they have the vague determination they should be in. Or incompetent authority figures that allow a child to feel superior and competent and inflate daddy's importance. Or perfectly charming and controllable crime—two spinster ladies making . . . moonshine. Grand plans to hijack a gold shipment. Feelings about a longed-for life of mild peril; a life made interesting but not threatening. Mild peril is the term used to indicate danger palatable enough for a G rating.

There's a deep dramatization of sentimentality in this show that speaks to men, moves them, soothes them, entertains them. This is perhaps reinforced by the fact that the show lost significant popularity once it moved to color. Color memories are something from a week ago ("Yes, I did pick up that blue shirt from the dry-cleaner"), or last season ("Yes, the yellow tulips bloomed before the red."). Black & White Memories, well, they're something profound, far-away, the Deep Time of Memory which in fact is no memory at all but a collective desirable unconscious place we mortal men can't return to because we've never been there. And forget about women—they never even watch the show.

Depending on the man's station in life, identification is either with Opie (these men have not yet grown up and are the type I encountered consistently on dates) or with the father (these are the kinds of men I meet now—grown-ups such as my husband and brother-in-law, who identify with the grown-up Andy, a man who has the kind of problems they envy).

I remember The Andy Griffith Show as a monstrously boring or silly black & white show (See future post: "Ok fine, I am prejudiced against all black & whites with the notable exception of To Kill a Mockingbird" (see below)). The Griffith show was watchable only in that it extended those last minutes of the marathon Saturday morning cartoons. My parents would, distracted, generously tolerate it (much like a jaded judge on Law & Order sighs "I'll allow it") because it was so wholesome (read: boring) and, already because of this characteristic, old--even though at that time it was relatively recent. What's the harm?

Lots, I tell you.

For one thing, the mother is dead. Of course. It's a standard trope to kill the mother off—and I understood it intellectually before I myself reproduced. As a mother, I am the character who keeps my children's plot line predictable. If you remove the mother, the child can provide a more interesting story. Every movie we've watched has killed her off: Jungle Book, Bambie, Finding Nemo, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We saw Kick Ass last night (I loved it) and the situations the young are in are so dangerous, ALL the mothers are killed off (with the exception of one whose presence was neutralized into passivity by her evil husband. Her interference in her son's life is negligible). Even Wall-e, where the abandoned aloneness of the character prompted my two-year-old to ask, "Where's his mommy?" Somehow explaining that Wall-e never had a mother was worse than her being dead. Sheesh.

I'm beginning to think that the consistent death of the mother in children's stories is cautionary not for the children but for the mother. I should be more careful . . .

So anyway, when my boys ask me in sad confusion, "Where's his mommy?" I tell them "Honey, if she were alive none of the events that are to entertain you for the next 70 minutes would happen." I know it's not a satisfying answer, but there is truth to it.  In real life, my sons have much more fun, and more (dangerous) kinds of fun, with their father than with me.

So, The Andy Griffith Show. Mayberry, despite (perhaps because of) the missing mother, is a satisfying place, an alluring place. Mayberry is a man's world. A boy's world. There's lots of fishing, together, just you and dad. Plus there's a lot of impressive whistling. In  Mayberry, Griffith is the straight man, meaning dad is a grown up. A noble grown up, even Lincolnesque (at least according to Wikipedia). Even with the weight of the town on his shoulders, a single parent, Griffith gets irritated or annoyed, but in a calm way. He becomes exasperated. But not angry. He seems perfectly content and competent and his calmness is reassuring. Specifically to Opie, who never has to worry about his father. This calmness and competence without the risk is apparently also reassuring to real men. I would find it calming, too if it weren't such a yawn as well.

I read a draft of this to my husband, who liked it but was dismayed it wasn't the Esquire article "All Men Want to Live in Mayberry" he wanted me to write.

"How's that different from this one?" I asked.

"Well, for one thing, don't be harshing on Opie. And you leave Andy Taylor alone."

I had nothing to say, my brain scrambling for an apology for insulting a TV show over 40 years old. For insulting him.

Meanwhile, he paused to think about a more constructive criticism, "You have to write a gentle poking fun of but nevertheless supportive description of men's attraction to Mayberry---not peel back the layers of male delusion. Not point out we're praying to false gods. Not talk about dead mothers."

I answered, "So, simply pointing out that Mayberry is an ideal is almost enough?"

"Yes," he answered definitively. Then, "Kind of."

At this point our remarkably adult conversation was interrupted by a developmental milestone of our oldest: tattling. He understands just enough of injustice to complain about it and go to higher authorities but not enough to know it's ineffective. In Mayberry, he'd find justice, the satisfying kind.

There's unsatisfying justice in Maycomb, the town in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mayberry is the Maycomb you'd want to live in, if you're male. (But that's my problem--I don't want to live in Mayberry. There's nothing for me there.)

Andy's a lawman, a laid-back Atticus Finch, his child also motherless, in a small southern town. Mayberry has the kind of crime men can live with. Instead of poverty, incest, and murderous racism there is bumbling bigotry and sexism; instead of a noble housekeeper, a silly aunt; instead of sociopathic Boo there's the socially retarded auto mechanic, Gomer. The deputy in Maycomb is competent (but not a comic genius, Harlan wants me to add); in Mayberry, less so. But justice in Mayberry is simple, and just, while in Maycomb it's compromised and tragic. In Mayberry, Andy's potential disappointment in his son is sure to be short-lived. But the disappointment of Atticus, well, that might kill a boy. There's real peril in Maycomb.

I'm becoming certain the similarities (but more importantly the differences) are deliberate:

Briscoe Darling: Dud, did you tell Ernest T. Bass the Sheriff wanted to see him?
Dud Wash: I couldn't find him, Mr. Darlin'. His cousin said he went into the woods to kill a mockingbird.
Andy Taylor: He doesn't sound like a very nice person.
Briscoe Darling: One of the worst we got. (source: Andy Griffith quotes)

But I do now see the allure. It's a simpler time, on a completely different wavelength.

It's a fantasy, yet the memories men have of Mayberry feel like real memories.

In Mayberry, men and boy's needs are paramount, and women only step onstage once something best performed by a female is required (all those pies!). It's a town of mild peril: there's excitement, but with meaning and closure--just what good memories are made of. Freeing up Andy and Opie to go fishing, together.

 © A.H. Swank