March 31, 2008

Friends in Unlikely Places

A dozen years ago there was a movie called Stargate. It starred Kurt Russell as the man of action who finds his heart and James Spader as the geek who finds his courage. James Spader’s character explains, in a slightly bumbling manner, to a room full of generals that is order to chart a course to any point in a three dimensional space one must have seven symbols, representing six coordinates for a destination and a point of origin.

I had one symbol, the Hostelling International logo, my point of origin, but I was setting out on a course with far more confidence than Spader’s hesitant archeologist. Of course, I was just travelling through the streets of a modern American city, not mysterious portals to distant planets. In any unfamiliar territory, the point of origin is always most critical. I had found my hostel for that evening and from there I was quite confident I could head off in any direction without getting lost.

I chose to walk up Geary Street, away from Union Square, into unfamiliar territory. I was mildly hungry and somewhat tired, but still excited. San Francisco is very different from the Midwest. The building are tall, but not skyscrapers, and old, but alive. Historic preservation hasn’t run amok, freezing buildings in time and sucking out the life and vibrancy that comes with decay, patchwork, additions, renovation, repurposing, reuse, a dozen coats of differing paint, gaudy signs, and now rundown renovations. Each tall old building had a magnificent metal fire escape on the front, clearly late additions to otherwise carefully composed facades. Ladders hung just out of reach above the sidewalks. Potted plants, blooming flowers, patio chairs, and laundry decorated otherwise utilitarian steelwork.

“How much does it take for a girl to find a coffee shop?” I thought to myself. Expecting one on every street corner, but instead finding old fashioned diners and burger joints, sea food shops, little clothing boutiques, sports bars, Korean and Chinese Restaurants, and Laundromats. One sign advertised “Joey’s Ice Cream Espresso Sausage Wash & Dry”. Finally, several blocks from Mason Street and my hostel, I found a little blue coffee shop on the corner. A few people sat out on the busy sidewalk at little silver café tables, chatting and enjoying the sun.

I was greeted with a warm hello from a smiling young man in an apron. What I found inside was a delight – cheesecakes and pastries, cookies and brownies – enough to keep me undecided for decades. Or at least until I rounded the corner and found all kinds of more filling fare, including the flaky spinach and onion tart-like triangle I finally settled on. A beaded doorway lead to a back room which looked like my great-aunt’s living room, complete with my great-aunt, a tiny, dark-haired lady, who stood in the doorway and watched everything. An older gentleman with a Mediterranean accent heated my spinach pastry while the young man, who had a resemblance but no discernable accent, whipped up a my mocha. When the older gentleman didn’t respond quickly enough to the dinging microwave, my great-aunt bustled behind the counter and fished it out while the gentleman, who I imagined to be her husband, rung me up and the young man, who I imaged to be their son, measured chocolate into my cup.

While I sat in the window of the tiny shop, I studied the people passing by. There were young women in skirts and boots with grocery bags, couples hand in hand, ladies in business suites, guys in jogging shoes, and older unkempt men who might as easily been bums or college professors. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Signs advertised businesses on the first floor of the surrounding buildings, while unobtrusive side doors opened directly into stairwells leading to the apartments above. It was a beautiful day and many windows were open. I didn’t see a single air conditioner hanging like a tumor from any of the window sills.

While I sat, I played voice mail tag with my friend Wendy. We agreed to meet at Powell Street Station at around four. Equipped with a better map from the hostel, I was certain I could find it in good time. Wendy had finished her PhD at Lincoln that spring and stopped to see me in Colorado during the summer on her way across country to take a teaching position at San Jose State. I have always liked Wendy, though we never had the chance to become close friends since meeting at the little sangha in Lincoln a year or so before.

I finished my snack and returned the dishes with a smile. I took the cross street, leaving Geary behind and heading more or less west along the twisted grid of streets. After a bit I entered a new district, with important looking buildings in grey and white stone. A marker identified it as UN Plaza. A grand white building with an elaborate dome sat at one end, with a suitably broad promenade leading towards it, providing an suitably grand view. The plaza was lined with peddlers stalls and pigeons fought with seagulls over spilled popcorn. A dog ran free on a small patch of grass, a yellow tennis ball in his teach. I snapped the photos of a few early St. Patrick’s Day revelers as they struck a pose and threw a smile my way.

There were prayer flags. Two tall poles held the vertical flags, rising from a bit of grass on top of a retaining wall. Strung between was a single line of little flags, tattered and old, in the colors of the Windom Energies, or Buddha Families, red, white, blue, green, and yellow. I smiled to see the familiar sight, here in the government center. My heart lifted a little to know someone had cared enough to plant them here and to know that they had been left to spread their prayers on the wind for as long as it had taken them to become so faded and frayed. Seeing prayer flags is like finding dear friends long missed in the most unlikely of places.

Finally, I swung around and headed back towards Geary, along a different street. I noted the street names I had passed on my way down and made a right onto O’Farrell, heading back towards Powell. I noted a church in the other direction, tall and stately and extremely modern in comparison to the other gothic towers I had seen doting the skyline. “Later,” I promised myself.

I found Powell and headed towards the station, where a line or tourists formed at the trolley stop. I realized why I hadn’t found Powell Street the first time. It stops a block before it reaches the intersection show on the map, opening into a large pedestrian mall instead. The small station I had come up from, was almost a block further beyond on Stockton Street. I hadn’t even seen this large plaza, at least half of which was taken up with the sunken main entrance to the station. Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and a dozen other stores far too fancy for Nebraska ringed the plaza. I made a full circuit and then took up station near the street band performing in the center of the plaza. They were good and had drawn a crowd. Street performers are a great indicator of the health of an urban area. I wondered how I was going to find Wendy and idly snapped a picture of a hanging basket of flowers.

When I lowered the camera, she was there, bright smile and dark hair shot through with wonderful new shades of blue.

March 26, 2008

Finding Mason Street

I followed the crowds flowing beneath exit signs, only momentarily fluxomed by the turnstile. Up one stair, then another, then I was on the surface. A bold green building caught my eye. It is as though for the last months I had eaten nothing but potatoes and here was chocolate cake standing bold and beautiful before me. I tried not to rubberneck like a yokel. I didn’t want the people bustling about all around me to realize I was a tourist, though I don’t think it should matter so much. Somehow it did, so I took only a moment to peer at the tiny map in my guidebook and then set off, before I really got my bearings.

As a result, I wandered a circuitous route through the maze of buildings, searching for Union Square and furtively glancing at my guidebook while dodging crowds and snapping photos. How anyone could not have labeled me a tourist, I’ll never know, but it was still very much on my mind not to give myself away. Eventually I found what I thought was Union Square, an open plaza with palm trees and a café surrounded by fancy retail shops, but I was still unable to locate Mason Street. I knew it was one block off the square, but which way? Not all the streets in my guidebook were named. Maybe I should ask someone?

“Want to save the forests?”

I turned. A young man with a clip board was working the corner I had just crossed to. Here was the helpful soul I had been looking for.

“Want to help the Greenpeace campaign to get Kleenex to stop clear-cutting old growth forests?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do, but can you also tell me where Mason Street is?”

“Sure. I’ll take you there.”

So we meandered together across Union Square, beneath the tall pillar and statue of Commodore Dewey and the waiving palms and the open sky, across the grey flagstone, past people lounging on the spare patches of grass, stone steps, and little café chairs, to the opposite corner of the square. The tails of my long suede coat caught the breeze, but my hair was tucked up snuggly in my hat. Mike told me about the fortune five-hundred companies and major universities who were already on board the Kleenex boycott and offered a Greenpeace membership for a low monthly fee. When we came to the corner, he took my poor student regrets with genial good grace and gladly accepted my email for their mailing address before pointing me down Geary Street. I waved goodbye and sure enough, one block later, I found Mason.

The hostel had a bright entry with big storefront windows, brightly colored couches, a giant bean bag chair, and rotating photo projection on the wall. They were busy, with three young people working the desk, at least as many waiting patiently for their turn, and an older couple sitting on the couch. I checked in and paid for my room, accepted my key and my sheets, folded neatly into the pillowcase.

The elevator was an ancient machine which would only accept one floor direction at a time and burbled and wobbled as it slowly made its way to the fifth floor. My room was simple and spare, with four white metal bunk beds labeled A through D, two windows looking onto two alleys, and one wall containing the door, closet, door to the bath, and sink all in a row. The only outlet was also the light switch by the sink. The bathroom was a tub/shower and single toilet, with a connecting door to the room beyond and a sign warning users to knock. It was old, with cracked tiles and dingy paint, but otherwise clean. The tiny closet contained four simple lockers, one of which I promptly secured with my shiny new padlock, just purchased at the front desk for four dollars.

The necessary accomplished, I wove my way back downstairs, following the staircase which wrapped the ancient elevator and discovering on my way the kitchen, lounge, and other communal spaces. I passed young men and women, middle aged folks, and a couple of middle-school aged kids, then I was out again into the fresh air and the shadowed canyons. People moved briskly and cars rushed by, casually ignoring the painted lane marks. Signs and awnings and fire escapes cluttered the streetscape, and pigeons darted from ledge to ledge. Already I had seen at least a half a dozen homeless people and half as many cops in deep blue uniforms and hundreds of St. Patrick’s Day revelers already on the move. I set off in search of coffee and cake.

I was on my own in San Francisco.

March 25, 2008

Arriving In San Francisco

My mother opened my door, allowing light to spill in from the hallway. “Time to get up!” she called out.

“Nneoow,” Isis complained from her nest in the pillows beside my head, glaring at me with slitted yellow eyes. She echoed my own thoughts, but as I reached over the rub her ears she inevitably began to purr. I waited a few more moments and then heaved myself out of bed and into my jeans.

The shower was running as I wandered downstairs to make my coffee. I brushed my teeth and pulled the tangles out of my hair as I waited for the water to heat. I am ignoring the television when my mother comes down and bustles about in the kitchen. I sip my coffee. When I hear the dishwasher door open, I get up to put my boots on. It is still dark as the garage door goes up.

My mother listens to KFAB, the local talk radio station.

“This week in congress, Democrats blocked the government’s ability to get wiretaps on terrorists!” I don’t know who was speaking, but he certainly spoke with enough anger and disdain to make me long for gangster rap. It was scary, the things he was saying and the way he was saying it. Even though I know exactly what he was talking about and stood firmly on the other side. I always wondered how GW got elected the second time, and now I know. Whoever the commentator was, I hope he doesn’t give himself an ulcer. I know I couldn’t live with that much seething vitriol in my tummy.

It was becoming lighter as we passed the stubby downtown towers, the gleaming lantern of the First National Tower, and the solid box of the Woodman Tower. At the airport, I kissed my Mom and gathered up my bag and wandered into the unhurried flow of early morning travelers. The Omaha airport is small and quiet, comparatively. Only one terminal, not a single moving walkway in sight.

My connecting flight at Denver had been cancelled. I stood patiently while the check-in lady diligently typed on her keypad to find a flight without too much additional delay. I was out of Omaha on time, on a little three by three seat puddle jumper, and into Denver before I was even hungry enough for breakfast.

Denver is a big airport. People are either hurrying madly or sitting still. It seems to be one endless row of gates after another, all connect by the smoothly flowing walkways and bright glassy atriums, with shopping malls in between. I was sixth on the stand by list. I didn’t think anyone could butcher my name, simple as it is, but I was wrong. Still, I hurried up to the desk when I thought I heard it called and was swiftly on my way to San Francisco on a big Boeing 757 – or, as I measure planes, a three by five by three. Of course, I was in the middle of the middle, without a view of the mountains I had never crossed, but I took the opportunity to read.

The San Francisco airport was much like the Denver airport, but with more levels – down to baggage claim, back up to the air-train, back down to the subway. Travelling in such places is somewhat like navigating a maze, one of my favorite childhood games, and I take a foolish pride in my ability to do it well. The train was the in station when I made it to the subway, or the BART as it is called. I settled into my seat and a few moments later learned I had guessed wrong. The train swiftly headed north and I found myself facing south, having chosen the wrong direction seat, not terribly comfortable, though not unbearable. There was a woman a few seats ahead of me, chatting amicably with the man in front of her. I eavesdropped.

The young man explained how California is so liberal, but it can be intollerant and sanctimoneous. If you don't recycle or do other things for the environment they think you're lazy or stupid or just not as enlightened as them, he explained, when it may be that where you come from you just might not have the opportunity. But for the most part people were very laid back because of all the pot, he added with a smile.

“That should be me,” I thought. The breezy and beautiful girl from the Midwest who strikes up an impromptu conversation from the gregarious San Francisco musician just returning home from a gig. The one who makes an immediate friend and gets the scoop on a great band at a great club. But no, I just sat and listened and looked out the window as the train pulled away from the airport on an elevated track.

The trees were different. That was the first thing I noticed. And the foothills are right there, dotted with houses, almost mountains in their own right, but not quite. The sky is blue and they have Jack In the Box and In N Out Burger joints. Soon the train dipped underground. Mom would hate the subway. It was loud and she would have to take out her hearing aids. She hadn’t wanted me to go to San Francisco. “It’s full of weirdoes!” she told me. I had laughed at her.

A big crowd got on at the Civic Center Station. I made room on the seat beside me for a young woman about my age with a medical textbook. A man and a woman, both dressed in suites and trench coats, entered through different doors and rushed for the empty seat which was between them. The man made it into the double seat, and the woman promptly sat down in the outer of the two seats. The man didn’t sit. He asked the woman to move, I don’t know why. It wasn’t safe, he told her. He was quite upset, even threatened to sue her. She simply sat, head turned away from him, and neither moved nor answered. Finally he warned her he was going to touch her. He warned her three times and then pushed his way past her and back out into the open space near the door, were he could stand and hold onto a rail, muttering about crazy people. I found both their behavior passing strange.

“Well, what do you know,” I thought, “there are weirdoes here.”

March 24, 2008

Four Thousand

Today they announced the four-thousandth death since the beginning of the Iraq war. Four soldiers were killed by an I.E.D. The government tells us it’s just a number. “It’s not a lottery. Each and every death is a tragedy.” They are right.

I’ve known bright young men and women who’ve put on the uniform and crossed the ocean. Most young officers are commissioned through the Reserve Officer Training Corp. Very few actually enjoy the Hollywood romance and prestige of West Point. These young officers graduate from college with bachelor degrees in history, psychology, criminal justice, art, or literature. They hold a ceremony in one of the large conference rooms in the student union, or sometimes just in the classroom of the Military & Naval Science building. Family and friends come. They raise their right hand and recite the oath and a single gold bar is pinned on their green dress uniform.

Sometimes a new lieutenant has time before they are shipped off to officer training, so they help around the Military Science office. They usually work for the recruiting officer, helping enroll young freshmen into the program. They are called “Goldbars.”

The first Goldbar who worked in the office after I became the secretary there was Brett, a nice young man, with blond hair and blue eyes. A year or so later we got the word that his Humvee had been hit by an I.E.D. Some of his unit were killed, but he survived. He was airlifted to Germany and then the a VA hospital in Texas. His wounds had to be kept open and surgically cleaned. His legs were pinned back together with metal screws and nails. We went to see him when he was back at his parents’ house in Lincoln, still in a wheel chair. I’ve never seen wounds like that. A few months later, he came to visit us at the office. I was so happy to see him mobile, even hobbling around on crutches. He wasn’t shy. When the cadets he had known stopped into the office, he pushed himself up out of the chair and twisted to show the massive scars on his legs, pealed up his shirt to show the skin grafts on his ribs. I ached for him.

Brett was lucky. About a year after that, after I had left the Military Science department, they called to say Kevin had been killed. Kevin had been a senior the year I began. He was the Cadet Battalion Commander. He was kind, with a square jaw and an easy smile and the tight jeans of a country boy. He would sit in the office and chat. His family lost him.

Others went and came back. The sergeants who worked as instructors, the officers too, and the cadets cum lieutenants. Some are still over there, in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wonder at the purpose of it all and hope, perhaps in vain, that some good has come from it. I know so many of the men and women in uniform believed with all their hearts that they were (and still are) doing some good, no matter what those still at home believe.

How can we weight what has been and what is against the lives that might have been lost had our nation done nothing? Diplomacy would not have stopped the Taliban. I wonder what other paths we might have pursued with Iraq. Those bridges have been crossed, and I am left with no answers, like so many other people. How can we weigh American lives against Iraqi lives, now that the prospect of pulling out is before us? How can we pledge to want an end to violence if pulling out means more violence, just not for us?

How can we measure four-thousand?

March 12, 2008

Writing 101 - Composting

In the chapter “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg relates an anecdote about Hemmingway, who wrote “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

Perhaps I know Nebraska too well. Or perhaps I cannot see it clearly while I am here. Forrest, trees, etc. I have been trying to write a bit about my history – to understand the causes and conditions of my present circumstance. I have been writing about Nebraska, my family, my childhood. I had the fairly rare experience of writing and rewriting and rewriting. I drew upon previous short essays and pulled in new stories, memories, anecdotes. I usually don’t struggle so, but I must have tossed the metaphorical wadded up paper into the metaphorical trash can (which, of course, I hit every time because of my superb aim) half a dozen times by now.

I was composting, working the detritus, creating good soil in which something could grow. The final results are the preceding post, Being Nebraska: My Heritage and My Contrary Nature. Several items I have touched on here before.

I don’t know what prompted me to write this reflection now. Perhaps it was my Grandmother’s worsening condition. I began it before we went up to see her last month and finished it just before she died. Perhaps it is the recent angst and loneliness I have experienced since returning to Nebraska at the end of the summer. I came “home” from someplace that feels more like home than anywhere I have ever been. Perhaps it is all the recent t travel, Colorado, Western Nebraska, Toronto, Milwaukee, and next week San Francisco. I don’t know.

I think it came at a good time though. After we had returned home on Sunday, as my Mom was heading up to bed she stopped for a rare moment of seriousness. She told me she was glad I came with them to see Grandma in February, glad I came to the funeral, that she really was proud of me and she loved me. Then she went up to bed, knowing she would be gone off to work before I was up the next morning. That morning, I wandered down as my Dad was preparing to leave. He looked at me, demanded his hug, and said much the same thing.

We had spent the previous four days surrounded by family. Great-aunts and great-uncles and every type of cousin imaginable. There were people I haven’t seen for ten years, but they all think they know me. I think we all saw how different I was from them. They are all of a piece. I can get along, but I have never exactly fit in.

We went to see my Great-grandma Peterson, my mother’s mother’s mother. She has a strong grip and a sharp wit for a ninety-four year old lady. She says God is calling her and she is ready to go. She seems entirely delighted by the prospect.

“Dayle [my mother], I remember when they brought you home from the hospital. You were my little doll. I remember our little Monica. She would never let us hold her or sit on my lap. She didn’t want to be loved. She just wanted to do her own thing, always running around. Now I love to get your letters and read about all the exciting stuff you’re doing,” she told us.

My parents took the time to reassure me that even though I hadn’t turned out as expected, or necessarily even as they had wanted, they loved me and are proud of me.

That’s what family is.

Being Nebraska

My Heritage and My Contrary Nature.

The Sand Hills of Nebraska are vast, wild, and above all, free. It is a place where the ocean forgot itself and sank beneath the dunes of what was once a great inland sea. It remembers every now and then, when the great spring thunderstorms wake it and it bubbles up into wet meadows, marshes, and springs. The grass lives there, and tames the restless nature of the sand, which always wants to follow where the wind blows. It waves in homage to the rhythmic patterns of water, long since gone. The rain comes in the spring and turns it bright green. The sun comes in the summer and burnishes it to a sharp, golden gloss. The snow comes in the winter and protects it under a thick white blanket. And all year round the cattle roam much as the buffalo once did.

To others, what seems to represent emptiness, loneliness, and hopelessness, to me represents infinite possibilities, limitless beauty, and all-encompassing freedom. Standing out on those wind-kissed hills, listening to the grasses speak in their rustling language. I would envision the blue mountains to the west, far beyond my sight, the hot deserts to the south, and the endless plains of Canada to the north. To the east was my family’s home, among the rolling fields of eastern Nebraska and the great sprawling cities which nestle up to the Missouri River’s banks.

The Sand Hills are not home for me, but they are my heritage. My mother and father both grew up there, among the ranches and small towns. My grandparents dwelled there, while they lived, and numberless kith and kin. My mother’s family is stoic and steady, ranchers who don’t believe in making a fuss. My father’s family is loud and fractious, they believe in making a fuss just for the fun of it, but rarely any other reason. I was shipped off for weeks each summer to stay with alternating relatives.

The Sand Hills were my summer playground, where I could walk just over the rise of the hill, down the next vale, and be totally and completely alone. No sound but the wind. No sight but the grass. No companions but the birds and prairie dogs. I would imagine a person lost here could wander endlessly and die of thirst never knowing a ranch or town or lake lay just beyond the next rise. The prospect never frightened me.

Now I make my home amidst towers of brick, stone, and mortar in the heart of downtown Lincoln, our capitol city. The Sand Hills are hundreds of miles to the northwest. My lawn in the capitol lawn just beyond my west windows. My streetlamp is the great tower capped by a shining dome and ringed in thunderbirds.

In the morning, the sun rises slowly, touching the golden dome first. I can step outside and walk surreal streets still in shadow, wide boulevards empty and quiet. The capitol alone glows golden in the light, the color of prairie grasses in late summer. From the four hundred foot apex, that was all that could be seen in 1927. At that time, an ingenious city planner planted hundreds of oak trees. Now there are at least three squirrels for each of those giant, patient trees. They talk to me as I pass by. I listen and smile. Squirrels are the comic relief of the animal kingdom, here to put us in our place.

The trees grew as the state grew, with love and care, reaching ever higher and deeply rooted. Nebraskans exhibit a simple wisdom and enshrined a simple government – one governor, one court, and one house, non-partisan and open to public and press alike at all times.

“The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen,” they inscribed above the great iron doors which lead into great mosaic halls. Navajo hymns, Pawnee songs, and Sioux sayings are carved into the stone beside the words of Aristotle, Plato, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. I read them as I pass, heading west, always west.

The stage of my waking life predates even the capitol building. Architecture Hall remains the oldest building on the campus of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, built in 1890. My mother and father met while attending that university. My father studied business in preparation for running one of his own. My mother studied archeology, but did not graduate, choosing instead to follow my father back to the Sand Hills, choosing marriage and children, namely me and my older brother Brandon.

Brandon, like the unbroken generations before him, was born in a small Nebraska town, Valentine, where my father had grown up. Valentine is the metropolis of Cherry County, where today the population density is still less than one person per square mile. In nighttime satellite photos of the United States, when the cities shine like the stars in the sky, you can see a dark spot in the center of the country, just a little north of the middle. That is Cherry County. A small string of cities sits along it’s north border, just miles from South Dakota, along the paved asphalt run of Highway 20. They range from Sparks, population five, to Valentine itself, population twenty-five hundred. Ironically, both towns have rodeo arenas.

Valentine is the town by which I judge all other Nebraska towns. Its main street is lined with brick storefronts. The street signs are red with little hearts on them. Quilt stores, antique stores, insurance agents, florists, the JCP catalog shop, photographers, dentists, Nelson’s Furniture run by my father’s first cousin, hardware stores, the fire station, city hall, and the public library all sit on main street. The First National Bank has a stunning brick frieze of buffalo and wagon trains. We still buy the hard to find jeans for my brother and cousins, tall and thin like cowboys of old, at Young’s Western Wear. Every year, my grandmother would go in and request gifts for her sons and grandsons and Young’s would box them up without even asking the sizes. They know.

Highway 83 runs south out of Valentine for seventy-five miles without another town. It runs through the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, an area where the sand sits particularly thin atop the great Ogallala Aquifer. The marshes and little lakes are perfect for thousands, millions, of nesting birds. The mighty dunes which run between still provide adequate forage for cattle and the newly returned pronghorns and elk.

Before entering the town, Highway 83 joins Highway 20 and crossed the beautiful Niobrara river. I have canoed that river, and tubed down it, floating the day away on the inner-tube of a tractor tire stretched over with canvas. I have swum in it and stopped to wander up the dozens of little feeder creeks, finding hidden waterfalls throwing rainbows like stained glass in leafy cathedrals.

We took my sister-in-law there, when she was new to the family. We showed her the buffalo and prairie dogs at Fort Wildlife Refuge. Then we took her to Smith Falls, seventy-five feet of ethereal, cascading glory. Shoes off, we waded in the crystal water, cleansed to perfect purity by the largest sand filter on earth. Only when she stood smiling under the pounding chill of the falls did we concede “Now, you’re family!”

I dragged my best friend Melissa up to Valentine a few years ago. She was city born and bread, never having seen the greater part of the state. I took her to Snake Falls, a wide and thundering fall. It is on the Snake River just after it is released from Merritt Reservoir, the lake my family vacationed on throughout my childhood, gathering the clan every August. Snake Falls is on private land, unlike the manicured boardwalks of Smith Falls State Park. There is a little restaurant there, set back off several miles of dirt road. It is a place you only find if you know where it is. When you order French fries, they peal the potato. We signed the guest book and traipsed down the worn trail.

Melissa was a little taken aback by the weathered wood sign warning us of rattlesnakes, but I managed to coax her along. It was a wonderfully sunny day and any snakes were long since hidden in their cool dens. Despite her fear of snakes and heights, I managed to lead her down the ragged sandstone bluffs in order to get closer to the falls. She cursed at me the entire way. The bluffs require some work, but it is an easy climb, with plenty of foot and hand holds. Sand stone weathers quickly, geologically speaking, wind and water carving out many niches and pockets with rough surfaces perfect for gripping. At last we stood before that roaring curtain of white and grinned at each other. It was worth it. Even with the climb back up.

These things I remember from visits only. Before my birth twenty-two months after my brother’s, my parents moved to South Dakota to start their own business. I was born there instead of Nebraska. That should have been a tip-off. We lived in the small town of Trip only until I was four years old, yet I remember much from that time. I remember the big, old house with the crab apple tree in the back yard. I remember the grouchy old lady who lived next door. My brother and I loved her without reservation and gleefully basked in her cantankerous nature. I remember the elementary school across the street where my brother got to go, but I did not. That simple experience embedded in me forever a demand for equal treatment, much to the despair of my parents. They saw differences, in age, gender, status, where I saw only people.

I remember once sitting with my mother. Our shaggy, white dog Andy was gnawing on a rawhide bone. When I reached out to grab it from him in a fit of toddler mischief, he growled and gnawed on me instead. When I pitifully cried to my mother that Andy had “bitten” me, cradling the smooth, white, unblemished skin my tiny hand, she calmly inquired “Well, what did you do to him?” From her I learned everything I ever needed to know about animals, everything that would enable me to learn from them in the future. I learned to respect fur-people as persons in their own right.

When I was four, we returned to Nebraska. Like so many families before us, we moved to the city in search of work. I was raised in the suburbs. I attended public schools. I ran wild in the backyards and wide residential streets. I went to church on Sunday with my family and 4-H club on Saturday with my brother. Both parents worked. My mother eventually got a degree in accounting by taking night classes. My father played basketball and watched football. My brother liked the Dukes of Hazard and computers. My life was unremarkable in every aspect save one – me. That may sound vain, but in truth in advertising. My parents followed the instructions on the box and instead of a cake got a hedgehog.

Recently my Dad dragged out all of his father’s slides, photographs, and negatives. For more than a year, he relentlessly scanned them into his computer. He came upon one of Brandon and I. Here we were, Brandon a sandy-haired four year old, already looking like my father with is wild hair and my mother with her cheekbones, and me, a flaxen-haired waif of a thing with big blue eyes, a plastic ray gun almost too large for my hand, a smug on my cheek, and my cap on sideways. It was always sideways, never straight forward, never straight backward, always sideways. The story of my life.

I sat in chairs upside down. I did things which people told me not to do, not because I wanted to spite them, but because I wanted to figure out why they had told me not to do it. I suspect there was a time when my grandmothers were pleased to have a granddaughter, I being the only one for both sides. I do recall a few outfits lovingly made with lace and ruffles. They were soon disabused of those notions, however. I never wore shoes and I climbed every tree I could manage. I was often told I would cut my foot or fall, but I never have.

I hated school from the moment I set foot in the door. I never failed a grade, despite never getting a passing one either. I found myself in the gifted program and bringing home report cards full of F’s and pointed comments from my teachers. When I was in third grade, I didn’t like the plot of the book I was reading, so for the report I just made up my own story. My dislike for school extended to Sunday school, but my mother came to the rescue and soon had me helping teach the younger children. I liked that very much. I liked feeling useful.

My parents shifted me to a different school district when I started junior high. In eighth grade, I spent two weeks on in-house suspension, sitting in a little office behind the secretaries. Again, it was over a book report. I hadn’t cared for the book that much the first time I read it, and I certainly wasn’t willing to read it again simply to write out chapter summaries. In my opinion, if the teacher was that interested in the plot, she could read it herself. The vice principle was not so inclined to follow my suggestion. When I graduated that was still a record at my school, along with the record for longest consecutive detentions (two years.

By the time high school rolled around, I had managed to get out of detention. In tenth grade, I wrote my term paper for The Scarlet Letter on “The Stupidity of Puritans.” I got a B, as I recall. I parlayed the reputation of loser and outcast into eccentric, intelligent, and not to be troubled with lightly. On academic decathlon my junior year I simultaneously had the lowest grade point average and highest test scores on the team. I finally got straight A’s on my first report card of senior year, despite having missed enough classes to merit an academic warning. If I was finally meeting my family’s education standards, I was beginning to disappoint in other ways.

It was all of a piece, as it were. I always questioned too much, never took anyone’s word for anything. “Because I said so,” was a reason which had never worked for my mother. I couldn’t stand that Brandon was allowed to stay up later than me or get a bigger allowance than me or anything else just because he was older. It caused a lot of tension when we were children. We fought constantly. Once, I was walking home from elementary school in the days when children still walked home from school. It was about a half a mile down quiet suburban streets. Two older boys were picking on me, calling me names and pushing me around. I probably didn’t weigh half as much as either of them. Brandon came over and tried to protect me, despite being a gangly twig of a thing barely able to protect himself. I did a horrible thing. I yelled at him. I told him to go away. I could protect myself. He never tried again. I think I must have also scared the bullies, because they went away too.

When Brandon was ten and I was eight, he told me how sex worked. I didn’t believe him so I looked it up in the encyclopedia. (Yup, it’s in there.) I think our parents would have reconsidered that investment had they known the use to which we would put it over the years. Despite our antagonism, we did present a united front to our parents. Mutual blackmail can do that. We got away with a lot which to this day I doubt they have an inkling of.

As a child I loved the movie Dirty Dancing, but my mother didn’t think it was appropriate. It took me all of ten minutes to find where she had hidden it on the top shelf of the closet under the stairs. I must have watched it a dozen times trying to figure out what she thought was “inappropriate.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized it depicted sex, unplanned pregnancy, and abortion. I never had understood that scene with the bed and Patrick Swayze in his underpants, but the dancing sure was the stuff of legend.

The most common image I have of my mother or my father involves a book in their hands. As soon as my mother came home in the evening, she would settle on the blue couch in the living room and read straight through the newspaper. I knew better than to bother her. After dinner, my father would head for a recliner in the basement. The Packers might be playing on Monday night football, but it was Meredith Zimmer-Bradley he had propped up on his chest. Even Brandon read, zipping through Tom Clancy before he was even in high school.

I read Nancy Drew, The Black Stallion, and the Hardy Boys books for years until they finally all started sounding the same. None of us could live without books, it was one thing our parents had never begrudge us. After moving to the city when I was little, my father had been out of work for a while. He and my mother sold enough books at a nickel and quarter a piece to make the rent. Sometimes they lament that. “We used to have….It’s the third in the series but now it’s out of print.” Thank goodness for the internet and used book sellers.

When I outgrew teen novels, it was to my mother I went. She took me downstairs, to our finished basement which took advantage of the walls unbroken by windows for bookshelves. She handed me Anne McCaffrey’s first novel about the dragon riders of Pern. She should have known better. I swiftly flew through all of McCaffrey’s works and moved on to Tolkien then McKiernan then Feist then Clark then Weber.

Denis McKiernan especially made me think. He wrote the books Tolkien would have written, had Tolkien been a professional author and not a professor of dead languages. In each book, no matter the fantastic setting, he introduced a philosophic concept, which the characters would debate throughout their long, exciting journeys. What is the nature of good? What is the nature of reality? Or what Brandon and I called the “brains in vats” theory, predating the Matrix, going all the way back to Socrates himself.

Over time his questions became my questions. Each book I read became another question. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, it didn’t make any difference. Each book I read lead to the same question. How can I judge the truth of any book? Even “The Book”?

I had tried all my life to be a good Christian. It was probably the one thing my parents had asked of me at which I really, earnestly tried. We belonged to the United Methodist church, which is fairly laid back as far as churches go. They only had one important criteria – to believe in God and love The Lord Jesus Christ. They told us that if we loved God and sincerely asked the Holy Spirit to come into our heart that we would feel the presence of Jesus Christ’s love.

I lay in bed at night, silently crying, because when I said my nightly prayers and asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart, I felt…nothing. I felt not a single ounce of divine presence. For years, I assumed the fault was mine, as children are wont to do. I assumed there was flaw in my heart, some hidden reservation or doubt. So I focused my efforts on being a good Christian and following the word of God.

But the seed was there, and it never went away. In time, the very word “faith” choked in my throat. In the end I decided this was not the faith God, if there was a god, had intended for me to have. I was a “doubting Thomas” and if faith was the all or nothing proposition I had been lead to believe, then for me it was nothing. I was fifteen.

I had a knock down, drag out, yelling, screaming, door slamming fight with my mother, of course. My father, the wonderful teddy bear that he is, took it more calmly. Soon after they stopped being able to force me to attend church, my brother stopped going as well. One thing my mother is not, is a hypocrite.

Of course, this was all the gossip at school. “You’re an atheist? How can you be an atheist? Well, who do you think made the world?” I didn’t mind the questions, even though I didn’t have all the answers. The more they asked, the more I tried to find the truth for myself. Their challenges served a purpose. Once in a debate on capitol punishment, I cited Biblical passages.

“You don’t even believe in the Bible!” my opponent cried.

“No, but you do,” I countered. “They do,” I said, gesturing to the rest of our class.

My mouth has probably gotten me in an out of more trouble over the years than anything else. My mother had always told me, if I ignored the boys who teased me, eventually they would go away. Parents, never tell your children this. They knew I was a loner and Ricky used to tease me every single time I walked into ninth grade history.

“Hey, baby. You and me. After school. My house,” he would say.

One day I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Sure, baby. You bring the whipped cream. I’ll bring the handcuffs.” He turned bright red and never bothered me again. Soon my sharp tongue was feared the school over. I never fired the first shot, but I usually fired the last. With my school mates at least, I had been sharpening my skills elsewhere for years before then.

My mother and brother got the worst of it. I think got most of my teenage angst out of my system by the time I was ten. Since then I only recall two major tiffs, one over religion as mentioned, and one over smoking. Although, I did kick a hole in the wall of my bedroom after a particularly dreadful fight with our Ukrainian exchange student, Lena. Who knew drywall was so flimsy? Mom didn’t find out about that one until years later. By the time I was in high school I we were more or less getting along, even my brother and I. Today, Brandon and I are close, and any exercise of sharp wit is done in the name of fun and keeping our skills honed, which is a certain improvement.

Once, when I was about thirteen, I had really been chewing on my mother’s last nerve. Finally she lashed out. My mother, who never got angry, who never raised her voice, revealed where I had gotten my smart mouth from. It wasn’t those dratted Hoffman’s on my father’s side like she had always claimed, either.

“Just because you’re a smart mouth doesn’t mean you’re smart!” she flung at me.

“Well, you don’t hear stupid people saying this stuff,” I quipped back. She was not amused.

It wasn’t just that I was a smart mouth. I lied. All the time. About everything. At first, I did it to avoid things. To get out of doing homework. To keep my parents from being disappointed when I got in trouble for not doing my homework. For attention. Mostly, I lied about school. When school started getting better, I realized I had a problem. I was lying about things that wouldn’t have gotten me into trouble in the first place. Sometimes my lies were even worse than the truth. I resolved to change that.

So much in my life has pivoted on my resolve. I resolved to stop lying, and I did, mostly. I was scared to death of jumping head first off the diving board, until one day resolved not to be. It’s not that I resolved to do it despite my fear, I just resolved not to fear it. After years of driving my mother nuts (notice the trend?) by biting my nails, I resolved to stop.

I watched the popular kids in high school. I noticed they were all outgoing, talkative, and genuinely seemed to care what other people thought of them. (The ultimate refuge of the outcast is the false claim: “I don’t care what other people think of me.”) I resolved to become an extrovert. That hasn’t worked out quite as planned, but I have learned to fake it well enough to satisfy the intended goal.

My ability to look someone in the eye and hold a casual conversation were part and parcel of a larger change. Sometimes, I think my parents raised me too well. They wanted an intelligent, driven, independent daughter. I don’t suppose they bargained on that being synonymous with a free-thinking, liberal, tree-hugging, vegetarian Buddhist. In the spirit of familial love and the tradition of not making a fuss, they have gotten over it, or at least become resigned to it. “That’s Monica.”

Oh well, I shrug. At least I live up to the most important family tradition of all, that which is epitomized by my ninety-four year old great-uncle Lavern who will in the same breath yell at you to get out of his house and invite you in for breakfast. I am contrary. And I have it in me to be just as ornery as the rest of that misbegotten clan!

March 05, 2008

Writing 101 - Writing Practice

At this very moment, I am sitting in a meeting of the university’s Electoral Commission. I am not on the commission. The meeting is taking place in the circle of semi-comfy chairs in the student government offices. I just happened to be here when the meeting was called to discuss a complaint lodged against one of the parties for improper use of an email listserv. Luckily, in Nebraska we have these things called open meeting laws. These laws have a long and glorious history and have become part and parcel of our political culture. No one even considered asking me to leave. So here I sit, happily typing away on my laptop, while the commission debates back and forth around me.

It is election day for student government. Tonight is our last senate meeting. So far as I can tell, the most contentious issue on the agenda is a reorganization of the student section at the football stadium by the Athletic Department administration. Which is a nice change from the past three weeks or so of four hour plus meetings full of contentious (and oh, so lovely!) debate.

“What does the word ‘official’ mean?”

“What was the original purpose of this rule?”

“How should we restrict student communications?”

“How should we protect students from unsolicited email?”

These questions bounce around until it finally settles, a vote is taken, and they move on to the next issue. I never, in any dream, would have pictured myself in such governmental meetings. I was never the slightest bit interested in politics. Election day would roll around. The week before, I would go online, check out the platforms, try to find some objective opinions (I know, I know) and then check the box beside the name. That was all the more involved I ever thought I would be in politics or law. Now I sit here and listen to good people, conscientious people, talk about “burdens of proof.” I especially never thought I would be genuinely interested in the discussion.

Natalie Goldberg tells us to practice. To write every day (or however often we feel practical), just like an athlete would train for a marathon. Such an athlete would run several times a week, but only complete a marathon every few weeks or months. We can’t sit down and expect to write the marathon, that race of races, right away. Of course, it’s not about length, but rather quality in this case, but the principle is the same. Practice. Don’t be afraid to write crap. (Don’t be afraid to publish crap, which is what blogs are for after all.)

Natalie’s first instruction, “Beginner’s Mind,” scared me frankly. It called for letting go, cutting loose, no censoring. Just sitting down to write for ten minutes and going, not stopping, just pushing straight through, capture the thought stream, no second thoughts, no editing, whatever is on the top of your mind. I took me time after reading that chapter to work up the courage to execute, because I knew what was on the top of my mind. Maybe if that had been any other week, it wouldn’t have scared me so, but I think it couldn’t have come at a better time. I need to learn to work with the scary, to work it through.

Today, I read in the Shambhala Sun about dying. “To be alive is to have a terminal illness.” Norman Fischer wrote. Ruth Ozeki wrote about “The Art of Losing.” Death seems to be a reoccurring thing in this issue, but then it is a reoccurring thing in life, so that seems fitting.

Ruth Ozeki believe that the very act of creation, whether through art, photography, carpentry, or writing, is a way of dealing with death. We create in order to cope with loss. And not merely to cope, but to somehow validate. We are not necessarily seeking to validate our lives, but perhaps to validate our deaths, or perhaps our existence in both states, all together.

It made me wonder, what might it be like to create nothing? What might it be like to intentionally go through our lives with the goal of leaving no trace – not a single written word, not a scrap of any possessions, not a name recorded in any book, on any stone. Perhaps we might yet be remembered, but in time even that would pass as those people inevitably followed us into death. Is that scary? Why?

Is that why we complicate our lives so? Why we create elaborate cultures, economies, laws, systems of government. We are constantly creating, and we don’t seem to particularly care what it is we are creating. And in the end we come up with elaborate rules to govern a process which was originally as simple as asking a question. Could we honestly say that death was what compelled us, as a species and a society, to create even this? What then compels us to preserve this, a system of government often attributed to the ancient Greeks? What compels us to maintain this system? Is it perhaps a belief that if we preserve what was created by those long dead, that someday what we create may be likewise preserved? Or is it the merit of the thing itself?

I, as a budding architect (and possibly writer) would hope for the later. I would hope that after my death, be it near or far, that which I have created might be preserved only if it hold some merit intrinsic to itself, and not merely because of an attachment to my person or a forlorn home that the act of conservation has some greater meaning.

In the meantime, it’s off to the senate meeting for me, to help create (or not) some new bit or legislation which will be recorded for posterity in the annals of student government.

Writing 101 - Beginner's Mind

I’m all tangled inside. I just don’t wanna. I don’t wanna think about it. I don’t wanna be about it. I just wanna go on with my life like it’s not there. Let the wind blow through the stands of my heart. Let time comb its fingers through. Let gravity untangle until they hand down long and straight. Wait for the wind to slow, to cool, to chime.

I don’t wanna deal with it. I just wanna let it lie. Lie to myself. Tell myself it’s not there. Tell myself it’ll go away. Tell myself it’s not a big deal. It’s not different from anyone else. Sometime tell myself it’s okay. Tell myself it’s okay to feel tangled and sad. But not okay to show it.

Go about business like usual. Smile and laugh and make small talk. So much to do. Don’t have time to be tangled. Nobody wants to see the knots inside. They want to see smooth and polished outside. They want to see what they expect to see. So I give them what they expect to see.

“My grandma died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. She was 87.” Try to put a brave face on it. Make them know I’m okay. Hide the knots which they don’t want to see anyway. They can’t untangle them.

“Only 87?”

Who are you to make sarcastic comments about the death of my loved one? Who are you to try to turn this into a tragedy? Moron. Idiot. Asshole. I’d like to staple your mouth shut.

Don’t say anything though. Walk away unsettled. Who are you to try to question my attempts to minimize? To comfort? To pass off?

That’s my job. I do it quite well all by myself. I minimize. I comfort. I pass off. I close the door on the room full of tangled knots. I walk away and go on with my life, the one that’s still being lived. I go to my classes, my jobs, my interviews, my meetings, my commitments. Can’t be helped anyway. What else is there to do? Say la vie.

I start to think about the tangles and they start to twist up. My fingers fly faster. My leg jiggles. Feel the tension in my shoulder. Feel the tight stomach muscles. Feel the hunching forward, curving of the spine, aching of the eyes, like my hair is pulled to tight.

That’s not helping anybody. Not making me feel better. No bringing back the dead. No relieving grief or loss or sadness. Not helping my family or my classmates or anyone. I don’t believe in catharsis.

Time heals. Time untangles the knots. Tears tie them tighter. Tears I fight and in the struggle tie the tangles tighter. Should I stop fighting. I don’t know. Not in my nature to stop fighting. Not in my nature to be who I am.

Not in my nature to grieve out loud for what cannot be changed.

DN Article - Marketting Killing Architecture

Most recent op ed for the Daily Nebraskan.