Rare gems

When we meet at a formica table in that echoing hall, I do all the talking. He sits in silence, studying something in his lap, his hands neatly folded and out of trouble. I’ve known him only a week. He is an unexpected mid-year replacement. The last relationship spun far out of my reach; I wonder where this one will lead.

In spite of the sudden change, I find this new one’s demeanor soothing to my psyche, which is in recovery. How could the last one, who was such a charmer, have been so unreachable? That blinding white smile. That great booming laugh. Those linebacker shoulders and arms that pulled you in but never answered your questions. Not a one.

Minutes into our second meeting in the hall, the new guy begins fidgeting in his chair as if he’s sitting on something alive. Every noise, passing person, draws his eyes away from me. Last week’s silence was really a swollen reservoir on the brink of bursting. Today, the dam gives out, gushing thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions, and how much he likes robots. He really likes those robots.

Touching his hand lightly, I ask him to look at me. I ask him to listen.

Let’s make this work, I whisper. Let’s be a team.

He stops. His brown eyes lock with mine. 

Is this going to work? I ask myself. Will I be able to shine a bright light through the fog? 

I look away and count to 10, studying the beige ceramic tiles racing toward a vanishing point. I give him time to compose himself, to settle his hands and feet.

“I have something for you,” he says.

He leans to the side, digs into his navy blue pants pocket and pulls out a small, opalescent object. He sets it on the table.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s a gem. I found it on the gym floor. It’s for you.”

You know what? I’ve been at this for almost three years now, tutoring children who, if they had a chance and prayer, could work their way through the dense fog and shape something of their lives. I hope they do with all the hope in the world. I hope in spite of the  odds against them.

I pick up the gem, which is really a sweater button, but I’m not going to say anything to him about that, and tuck it in my pocket.

“Thank you.”

He nods.

“You know what?”

He shakes his head, brows lifting in anticipation.

“You are the gem. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Powered by the Dragon

English: Japanese dragon, colour engraving on ...

Image via Wikipedia

Happy Year of the Dragon.

This is my year. Are you a Dragon, too?

The Chinese astrological calendar runs in a 12-year cycle. I won’t have this chance again until I’m 60. I have to make 2012 a good one.

I have a few goals: putting together the memoir; figuring out my new career path; getting my bike tuned and riding on/off road all season; completing a 42-mile group bike ride the day before my Girl from the West graduates high school; spending a week camping in the Rockies while working on the Continental Divide Trail; completing the Warrior Dash; pitching our tent a few more times before the leaves turn; and getting Girl from the West off to college.

Which reminds me, last week we were at a Chinese New Year dinner at a neighbor’s house and one of the hosts grabbed the Chinese zodiac chart and asked who among the small group of parents is a Dragon. Three of us raised our hands. Then he made notes in the margins of the wheel, including our names, our Chinese child’s names,  and when we were born.

He worked his way around the room. When he came to me, he said; “OK, we know you’re a Dragon born in 1976 …”

That’s when my husband half-choked on his tea and began to raise his hand in protest.

I shot him the death stare.

“There is no need whatsoever to correct the man,” I said through gritted teeth.

This amused my husband for a good while. Why should I remind my kind host that rather than being born in ’76, I was on the edge of adolescence, proudly marching in my red, white and blue ensemble in our school’s bicentennial parade? (Were you around for the madness that gripped the United States during that period? I think we all bled red, white and blue.)

On a side note, a Dragon’s most suitable mate is a Monkey (my husband), so even though we are often on each other’s last good nerve, we cannot mess with ancient wisdom.

By the time we went home from the party I felt like I’d really pulled one over on those folks, making them think I was 12 years younger. I have news for you, I did not feel 12 years younger. Rather than go to the gym and run on the treadmill as planned, I slipped into my fleece p.js. and slid under the covers. I was feeling run down and achy.

While I managed to pull though with extra sleep and big doses of vitamins, a phone call a few days later threw me into a dark place. Yet another fellow fortysomething friend from the college days went to the doctor with stomach pains and learned he had liver cancer. I’m losing count now of the number of people in my life who’ve made the early exit. It’s too soon to know what will happen with this college friend, but it serves as a reminder to treasure each day ahead and be proud and grateful for the miles behind me.

All the more reason to embrace this year of the Dragon.


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What do you see?

First there is a mountain,
then there is no mountain,
then there is.

“There is a Mountain”
Donovan Leitch

Recently I searched for a picture of my father for an upcoming project.  It wasn’t easy. He’s 16 years gone. He didn’t like being photographed, so he often looked angry or bored in pictures. I’m no better, really. I usually have my mouth wide open or one eye closed. In our 30-year relationship, I found only two suitable pictures of us together, as in no other people were sitting or standing between us, and everyone was sober.

In one, I am an infant and we are standing in front of what I believe is a Cessna 172. My father had a personal pilot’s license for most of my early childhood so we were often at airports. The other shot is in South Dakota, sometime in the mid 1970s, and it is almost perfect except my pants are mid-calf, flapping in anticipation of rising waters.

I came upon these pictures after visiting my mother’s house and raiding her photo archives.  These pictures in all their Kodachrome brilliance represent more than the passage of time. They illustrate how we see what we want to see rather than what’s there. Over time the pictures, which do not change, shape shift through the lens of our selective eye, tell us different things about ourselves, our relationships with others, and how it all stacks up against the stories in our head.


  • I look upon my young adult self with a much kinder eye. I once had thin legs and good skin. All the other things I once nitpicked about? Forgotten and undetectable.
  • I look upon photos of my child self with a mix of horror and humor. Look under you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny and you’ll find my fifth-grade picture.
  • I look upon my mother with forgiveness. No matter what was going on behind closed doors, she always dressed nicely and smiled for the camera.
  • In spite of all their problems, my mother and father, who traveled the world, put on a pretty good show in a photographic sense.
  • It’s clear my brother won the good gene lottery. He is tall and lean and fit. He inherited the thick hair, narrow hips and long legs of my father’s family.  I had my moment in the sun (no doubt while slathered in tanning oil, a Marlboro Light burning in each hand) somewhere between 1982 and 2002, a good two-decade run, and then I morphed into a middle-aged pear with big eye bags and a tie-dyed scarf to distract your attention.
  • In spite of all the dysfunction, we were once a big, tight-knit family. The hell I perceived in the heated glory of those large Bacchanalia pales in the shadow of today’s drafty ghost gatherings. Could I have ever imagined what it would be like when the room emptied, the music stopped, the lights dimmed?

The older I get the more I see how I’m hurtling through time on my father’s trajectory. He waged an epic battle with inner demons. He bore the scars in his face, his hands, his body. A once-handsome man slowly destroying himself, a man who was once a husband and father, but became a shell going through the motions. He fought until he gave up and the earth swallowed him whole.  I may be doing a better job keeping the devils outside the gate, but they are rattling the bars.

I think we cling to the history we weave inside our heads, a mostly comforting if not scratchy in a few places blanket that we throw over the truth. When the truth reveals itself in all is bright and naked intensity, it is almost too much to bear. We look away, grab the blanket, and stick the thumb back in our mouth.

It’s how we make the mountain disappear.


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My books of choice are fiction. I love to let go and ride the currents of a good story. I crave the escape. Lately, however, I’ve come ashore, kicking around in the memoir/humor/social commentary shelves at the local library.

This is due entirely to an interest in writing a book. I’m getting some encouragement, and, frankly, everyone else is writing a book, why not me? When I signed up for NaNoWriMo in November, I asked for ideas on Facebook. One idea — made by a childhood friend (one who knows I have a story or two) –stood out from the rest:

“Write about yourself, same genre as David Sedaris. You would keep anyone entertained.”

I will not even pretend to be as funny or engaging as Mr. Sedaris, but wow, what if?

What if?

I picked up “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” and fell in love. I gorged myself on his special brand of sardonic wit.  I get him.

He had a pet spider (I did, too) that he named and took to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Unbeknownst to my mother, I smuggled my pet toad into a high-end gift shop and it got out of the box I had hidden in my backpack. Before I could stop it, Herbie hopped into one of those tall Ming dynasty-ish vases. It took some creative distraction of the store staff to topple that vase and coax that brown lump out. To this day, I get all hive-covered when I go into one of those Waterford Crystal type stores. I feel the guilt of a toad smuggler wash over me the minute I cross the threshold.)

He attracts all the town criminals and freaks to his yard (that’s my speciality), dug up all his dead pets to see how they were doing (did that), wanted to and did watch a real autopsy (did that, too,) and was a chain smoker (*cough*) who struggled to quit. I’ve done all these things. We are practically twins.

Then I read “Bossypants” by Tina Fey; the “Idiot Girls Guide“series by Laurie Notaro; and “I’m Really Sad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron. (Let me pause here to ask: is her name pronounced EE-frahn or eff-RAWN? Blame it on my late father, but I tend to go heavy on the Es, as he did. I say things such as “The days are long at the EEEEE-quayter,” instead of “The ehQUAYter is halfway between the two poles.”)

I can’t get enough. These lives, these wacky experiences couldn’t be anything less than the truth — the pathetic, funny and wonderful truth. I laughed until tears streamed down my face. I laughed and snorted and carried on until David Sedaris was officially banned from the bedroom night stand. Over and over I fell in love.

My husband is getting a little worried about all this unrequited love blurring my vision.

“What’s wrong with me? he asks. Do I gotta go gay on you, cross dress, write a rom-com? Get on NPR? What?

Most of all, these talented funny writers inspired me enough to give it a go. The hardest thing is letting go of fear, doubt, self-consciousness and laziness. My life may be nothing more than a series of stupid incidents, a handful of tragedies, a lot of mischief and mayhem, and a dark closet stuffed with bad decisions, but I’ve had a few turns of good luck and nice people who like me to keep things cheerful. So it’s balanced — enough.

Whenever I’m asked about writing a book, I always say I’ll wait until everyone in my immediate family is dead so they won’t kill me when they read it.  That family of mine? The ones who aren’t dead? They have that damn longevity gene. At this rate, if I don’t act now, I’ll be dictating to a ghost writer from my nursing home bed. No more.

If I can’t retire early on the spoils of my success, why not just write what really happened and buy a cup of coffee? Time is running out. Already I have a knee that sounds like a crinkling chip bag when I bend it, and an irrational fear of electricity, cameras, and overhead flourescent lighting.

So, I’ve set up an online site and the outline for this project. I’m compiling archived blog posts with fresh material to someday, with hope, publish something. I’m not in a rush but I do like the idea of having a goal.

It’s a first step. One that sounds like a crumpled chip bag.


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Lonely man

by daniMU via creative commons

I forget myself and walk by his house today, head down against the knife-sharp wind. Then I remember and furtively glance over at the trio of white lighted trees glowing in the front window, the weary plastic carolers leaning a little to the east, the sagging garland bearing the weight of seasonal duty. I look away in embarrassment.

I could have predicted he’d be the type to extend Christmas into January. It takes one sentimental to know another.

Did he do it for her? Was it she who delighted in all this twinkling, flashing ornamentation? Did he do it for himself, to fill in the empty spaces that surely must echo through that household of one?

“I lost my Irene this year,” he says to me, a stranger on the street, on that brisk fall morning when we first meet. As his eyes blur with tears, he wipes them away, and tells me of his wife. How he lived in this town all his life, how he and his Irene built this house. They were high school sweethearts, he says, back when the high school sat on the property that now holds the SuperMegaMart.

The two of us stand a foot apart on his corner driveway, amid the blowing leaves, a few footsteps from the bus stop. He in varsity jacket and skull cap. Me, obscured by dark glasses and hat pulled down low, on my way home from morning drop off. I listen and zip my jacket up to my chin.

He’s been watching me and my little girl, he says, and wants to know something.

Words like that don’t go down smoothly. They bounce around inside my head like a pinball, hitting various fear and panic buttons. I want to flee.

He’s lonely, of course, which explains his morning sentry in the front window, waving at passers-by, and his maybe-not-so-random offers for companionship.

“Coffee?” he says on a glowing September morning as I pass his yard. He leans out his kitchen window, hoisting a mug in one hand and pointing toward his back porch with the other.

“Good morning!” I say, waving as I keep walking, my face reddening. Does he really expect me to stop? Am I more embarrassed of my dishevelled state or his bold offer?

What he may not realize is that my morning trek really is an extended walk of shame. The hat, glasses and coat are a cover for a person who deems it acceptable to roll out of bed, slurp a cup of coffee, and race to the bus stop, child in tow, underwearless.

Two weeks later we meet again. This time on his driveway. He isn’t going to let me get away this time. Me? I’m still underwearless and sleepy-eyed. I wonder if he pities me.

“Do you like dolls?” he says.

Inspired by “Lars and the Real Girl” I imagine he has a high-quality blow up doll propped in a chair at the kitchen table, one made up to look like his late wife. She has a kind smile and wears a flowered apron. Maybe her cross stitching basket is nearby.


The rest of the story is that the cancer took Irene last summer. The kids are grown and gone. There are a few grandkids around but only boys. His wife collected dolls. He has a lot of dolls. He sees my little girl skipping by each day and wonders, naturally, if maybe she wants one or more of the dolls.

Across the space between us, the tendrils of despair reach out, twist around my ankles, work their way upward. I think of a man living alone in a house filled with the sound of ticking clocks and the stare of ornamental dolls. Hundreds of soulless eyes following your every movement. Hundreds of little hands reaching out in endless need. The dark blanket slips over my shoulders, wraps around my throat. I feel the weight and I don’t want to go into that dark house and look at those empty-eyed dolls. I want to run as far away from it as possible. 

I tell him I’ll think it over, that it is an extremely nice gesture, and I’ll get back with him. I continue walking home, knowing I am a liar. I hate those collector dolls. I want to hug that man and burn his dark blanket, watch the inferno fill every corner of his house with happy light.  I wish sad people would leave me alone.

The next week, Girl from the East suggests we take a new route to school and I oblige. She doesn’t know my reasons for being so agreeable but I know she wants to walk to the bus stop with the children who live on the next block.

The man and his dolls are forgotten.

Today, as I glance at the tired carolers and limp garland, I remember everything and I wonder:

Does the lonely man still wait at his front window for the dishevelled woman and her little girl to walk by? Does he wonder why he never saw them again? What did he say to all the waiting dolls? What story did he tell them of why the little girl never came to get them? What did he tell Irene?