Friday, February 25, 2011

"Is That An Anus?"

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite authors. She’s written a bunch of novels and a couple of books of essays, but she’s probably most well known for her book about writing, Bird By Bird. In it, she talks about how daunting it can be to make up characters and then have them go do things. There’s so much that goes into creating a fictional world that the whole process can become overwhelming. It’s tempting to say, “I don’t know what the hell these people are supposed to do,” and then just drop the project and go eat chocolate. So what she does to combat this, is she keeps a tiny, 2”x2” frame on her writing desk – an empty frame – and this trinket is there to remind her that all she needs to write, at any given moment, is whatever she can “see” in that 2x2” frame.

I could expound a bit on what she means by that, except this post isn’t about writing. It’s about frames. So I’ve already said all that needs to be said about Frames on Desks. Which is that, basically, they can be there simply as reminders.

In a past post, I’ve discussed The Stealing Game that I play with my neighbors. Everyone brings a wrapped white elephant gift – a gift that they themselves have received that they have no use for – and each person gets to pick a present from the pile and, essentially, take home someone else’s rejects.

There is stealing involved, but this, too, is not germane to the story.

Each year, after the holidays, my tennis group also gets together for a White Elephant Exchange. This year the gifts were all displayed in front of the fireplace, and we sat around Shelley’s living room, drinking wine and acting civilized. There isn’t the same cut-throat tension in the room when my tennis group plays this game. The real “entertainment” isn’t so much in the stealing, it’s more about what people wrap up to give away.

Shelley and Ann sat next to each other, close to the gift pile. Shelley picked up a gift bag when it was her turn and started pulling things out of it. I can’t remember all that was in it. One thing may have been a special light that screws onto your faucet and makes your water look bright blue. The last thing she pulled out was a picture frame. It was a small oval with an opening about 2 x 2.5.” It was the kind you’d put a tiny portrait in, but this frame came with a photograph already in it: a pink daisy with a black pistil (center). The photograph was cropped close and tight; mostly what you could see was the pistil, a dark organic looking center surrounded by bits of delicate pink membrane.

Ann craned her head around to look at it. “Hey, is that an anus?” she asked.

Ann is like a 40-something version of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blond. Pink is their signature color and each of them is informed by a cheerfulness that is unfaltering, even on their darkest days.

“It’s a daisy,” someone corrected.

“Really?” said Ann. She went on to explain that she has a chocolate lab and from a certain vantage point, the photo looks a lot like the dog’s anus.

We speculated a bit, as a group, what sort of marketing strategy might lead a frame manufacturer to fill its frames with photos of anuses. (It’s not “ani” – I checked.) And soon, once Ann herself could see photograph as a daisy rather than an anus, we moved on to finish the game.

I ended up with the framed daisy/anus. I didn’t steal it; Shelley offered it to me and I accepted. I don’t usually like coming home with anything from these events, committed as I am to getting rid of things. But there was something about this photograph that I needed.

The great irony is that Ann is a woman who would normally look at a photograph of an anus and ask if it was a daisy. That’s just how she looks at the world. It’s usually me who would make the mistake that she had.

So I keep the frame on my desk, with the daisy/anus staring right at me. It reminds me that we always have a choice about how we perceive things. And that sometimes it only takes a tiny shift to move from seeing something as an anus to seeing it as a big, fresh, vibrant daisy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Defense of Hothouse Flowers

I am a delicate Hothouse Flower. I don’t mean to be, I just am. All us Hothouse Flowers are like that. We are born, not made.

I would typically not write about my Hothouse Flower-ness, except I had a troubling exchange with a friend the other day and realized she was under the mistaken impression that we are delicate by choice. And so I am writing on behalf of all Hothouse Flowers so that the rest of you buck-up-and-deal-with-it Tumbleweeds have a better understanding of what’s involved.

The topic came up because my friend’s husband is also a Hothouse Flower. He’d recently had general anesthesia for surgery and passed out a day and a half later at a restaurant. She was empathetic in retelling the story, but you just knew that if it had been she who’d had anesthesia, there would have been no fainting going on.

Most of my friends are Tumbleweeds. Maybe all of them. Perhaps Hothouse Flowers are not drawn to other Hothouse Flowers, for reasons only Darwin could explain.

It always surprises me how sensitive I am compared to others. For a long time, I thought everyone felt like I did. I don’t like getting pedicures because the feeling of someone handling my foot is both too ticklish and too intense. Same for massage. It takes me literally a month to recuperate from a dental cleaning. I’d actually considered not having children, ever, because I didn’t think I could hack the delivery.

My friend spoke about her husband as if he had something to do with his own sensitivity. “He’ll tell me ‘I feel something coming on,’” she said (I’ll call her Blond Tumbleweed), touching the glands in her neck to demonstrate. “Do you ‘feel things coming on?’” she asked me.

I nodded emphatically, Yes, yes, I always feel things coming on. And I begin my arsenal of preventative measures so I won’t get sick.

Blond Tumbleweed rolled her eyes and snorted at the mere idea of ‘something coming on.’ “Call me when you’re on your death bed,” she said. “I don’t need to hear about it before.”

Another friend, Curly Tumbleweed, was with us and she chimed in as well. “It has to do with how you’re raised,” she said. “When I was a kid, if I threw up in the morning my mother would say ‘Ok, can you go to school now?’”

I once played in a tennis match with Curly Tumbleweed and thought I’d broken my finger trying to catch a ball. “It’s not broken,” she said, “it’s just jammed. Come here, I’ll pop it out for you.” And with that she grabbed and pulled until I saw stars.

I’m pretty sure every woman I play tennis with is a Tumbleweed. They all show up to play with sinus infections and IBS. They wrap an ace bandage around injuries that I would be in traction for. Years ago, Blond Tumbleweed showed up on the court achy and stiff. “I can barely move my legs,” she uncharacteristically complained. Later, I found out that she’d gone to the doctor and was diagnosed with Fifth Disease (a.k.a. Parvovirus) – a relatively mild illness in children, but one that in adults presents with a rash as well as joint pain and swelling. I too had had Fifth Disease six months earlier and didn’t leave my bed for days. At one point I was in such agony my husband suggested I go to the hospital. “No, I can’t. It will be too bright there. I’d rather just die here in my bed.”

I’m not proud to be a Hothouse Flower, but neither am I ashamed. I disagree with Curly Tumbleweed – I don’t think it’s nurture at all. My brother is a Tumbleweed. He carries on with walking pneumonia and gout. Being a Hothouse Flower is just the hand you’re dealt.

I tried to explain that to Blond Tumbleweed this morning when she was scoffing about me and my “feeling something coming on.”

“You think it’s easy to be a Hothouse Flower, Blond Tumbleweed, but it’s not,” I said. She smiled to humor me, and then left me in her dust.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's Fun To Have Fun But You Have To Know How

There are two main reasons I never go anywhere. One is social anxiety. The other is I never have the right shoes.

Both those things nearly kept me from the Girl Talk show last week, as well as a third: It was not a show at which I belonged.

There’s a good chance that you’re not familiar with Girl Talk. This is understandable. Especially if you’re on the north side of 40. For the uninitiated, Girl Talk is a deejay (aka Greg Gillis) who creates club mixes that seem to be one long fusion of hip-hop samples mashed up with almost every classic rock song riff you’ve ever heard. Prince, U2, Simon and Garfunkel with Ludacris, Jay-Z , and Usher. It’s loud and frenetic with a backbeat that makes the room shake.

This is not music I would naturally come across, except that it ended up as the staple soundtrack for my Sunday morning spin class last month. I found the mixes so infectious, I downloaded the album and have been listening to it all day, every day for weeks.

Before I even wrote this column I had a name for it: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. That sure does sound fatalistic, I thought. So I decided to try and reserve judgment until after I’d actually seen the show. What Happens When A Neurotic Middle Aged Woman Ends Up In A Mosh Pit was another possibility that kept popping into my head. Stop it. Just find some shoes and go.

My maiden voyage with Girl Talk existed under the most ideal circumstances imaginable. A music business friend was able to get tickets to the sold out show. He also got us VIP access. The theater is a mile from my house. We scored a free parking spot, right across the street. It was raining, so I had a built in excuse to wear my Timberlands. And the show started at 9 PM, well over an hour before my bedtime. Still, I worried.

My 16-year-old asked me if I was excited to be going. “I’m nervous,” I told him. “I don’t know what to wear.”

“Yeah. Everyone is going to be judging you,” he said, reminding me I would be effectively invisible. Which I was – not only invisible, but removed. Our VIP status allowed us access to a small gated area that stood about four feet above the dance floor. We could easily see the stage over the heads of the floor crowd and were not packed shoulder-to-shoulder with what appeared to be every 18-24 year-old in the tri-state area. It wasn’t like a “box seat” at the opera – it was just a cordoned off slab of concrete. I called it my Safe Haven.

Overlooking the dance floor we had a perfect view of those individuals being lifted overhead and redeposited within the crowd, the confetti and balloon mayhem, the sweatband boys and the girls dressed for drama.

This kind of show is probably not for everybody, and I’m pretty certain that includes me. I was never a club girl, even in my heyday. And I wear more on the beach than most of the girls were wearing that evening. But the deejay is masterful. There was a long piece about him in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago and the description of his exactitude made me think of things I’d read about Ira Glass. Standing in my Safe Haven, it occurred to me that, aside from my companion, I might be the only one in the whole theater who has ever even heard of Ira Glass.

I thought that life with a teenager and my constant exposure to the Girl Talk album would provide all the preparation I needed for a night like this one. But what prepared me most was an electronic exchange with a friend, hours before the show:

Me: I’m having second thoughts about Girl Talk.

Him: Be not afraid. It is fun, and fun is good.

Me: Sometimes I’m not so good with fun.

Him: Even if you don’t like it, I guarantee there will be plenty to write about. For example, there’s usually a guy whose only job is to reload and fire the toilet paper gun all night.

Me: Toilet paper gun?

Oh, and don’t forget some earplugs. Fun can get really loud.

My sensible shoes and I ended up leaving the show a little early, in part because my senses had reached full saturation, but also because I didn’t really want to know what this crowd would be like once the music shut down.

I woke the next day at 7:00 for an early morning spin class in which I found unexpected delight in the instructor’s nine-minute ELO mash-up, as well as his butt jokes. The music was loud, but there I didn’t need earplugs. Who says I don’t know how to have fun?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Woman in RED

I’ve stopped writing about my gecko because a while ago something happened that I wanted to write about but I wasn’t really sure how. What happened with the gecko was this:

I had been on a year-long tear trying to get rid of him. (Spot is his name.) And I chronicled that effort here, in a series of posts called The Gecko Chronicles. After trying to pawn him off on the Science teacher, I decided to take a new approach. I made a commitment to talk to anyone I saw at the pet store cricket counter and ask if they would be interested in adopting my gecko.

The first woman I tried this out on ended up being the last. She was about my age and wore one of those red Gap T-shirts with the word RED written on it. She had a shopping cart full of pet supplies and when I saw the cricket guy hand her a bag of crickets I asked her what kind of lizard she had. She, too, had a leopard gecko – two actually – and when I asked if she’d be interested in a third she said she’d be happy to take him.

That seemed so easy, right? And it was. I can’t remember how we got from that painless, positive exchange to her crying and telling me that her son was going to die and it was all her fault, but I’ll tell you this: it happened in a moment. In the blink of an eye. One minute she’d agreed to take my gecko and the next she had tears running down her face.

I didn’t know what to do or what to say, so I just nodded in an understanding way and muttered something like, “I’m so sorry,” and then we both made our way up to the register to pay for our items.

While she was checking out, she wrote out her address and phone number on a small slip of paper she took from her purse. I could call her, she said, or I could just bring the gecko to her home and leave him on her porch. She’d take good care of him, she assured me. He’d be no trouble; she had to buy crickets anyway.

I put her number in my pocket, paid for my crickets and made my way out to the parking lot after her. She was walking just ahead of me and as I got close to her I watched myself reach out and tap her shoulder. I didn’t really want to be tapping her shoulder, but I’d been recently thinking a lot about how we (and when I say we, I guess I mean I) don’t really connect with each other anymore. How all of our interactions are electronic and perfunctory and lacking in real caring for our fellow human beings. So it was that thought that impelled me to tap her, and then when she turned, for me to ask outright a question that was none of my business, which was, “Is your son ok?”

Obviously a son who is “dying” is not ok. But the mother said it was all her fault and it is just not in me to walk away from a statement like that. I would literally spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how this woman could have been killing her son. So I had to ask. And there in the parking lot, in the bright midday sun, she told me.

I am not going to tell you what she was doing to kill her son, in part because I don’t remember exactly her son’s problem, but mostly because I’m pretty sure he was not actually dying. He had some bad reaction once, years ago, to some behavioral medication she had given him and he had some residual physiological problems as a result. It became clear almost immediately that her son’s death was not imminent or even likely, but rather that she was having a very bad day.

I understand those days. I have wept in front of strangers. The big difference between me and the woman in RED is that unlike me, she does not feel the need to disappear once that weeping has taken place. So she told me more things.

She told me about all of her kids, all of their psychological issues, all of the medication they were on (names and dosage) and even the names of some of their mental health professionals. She shared with me some of her own diagnoses, her meds, her docs. She told me where her kids went to school, what schools they’d been kicked out of, what infractions had caused their dismissals. She told me a bit about her husband, including what he did for a living and how much money he’d made last year. Maybe she even told me a few other things that have faded over time.

After an hour, I excused myself. I left her with an empathetic pat on the shoulder and a wish for “good luck.” I drove home with my crickets. My back ached from standing for so long. I told my husband about her and he said, “There is no way we’re giving her the gecko.”

My husband is not definitive about much, but I could tell by the look on his face that this was not negotiable.

So I ripped up her number and fed Spot his crickets and wondered how I would explain my change of heart to her if I ever ran into her again.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Tragic Loss"

There is never a time when it makes sense to be anything other than happy. Being unhappy never improves the situation.
- Lama Sumati Marut

That’s what I posted on my Facebook status yesterday around noon.

A little past 12:30, I received an email with the subject line: Tragic Loss. It was from the high school. A boy had died. A senior. I didn’t know him. I didn’t even recognize his name. Still, everything shifted.

I had posted my status line in response to the weather. Lots of people seemed to be depressed about the impending storm (another in a long line of storms this year) and the quote I posted always inspires me, when I get wrapped up in little things – little, uncontrollable, inevitable things – to notice that I have a choice about how I feel in the presence of those things. That those circumstances – snowstorms, traffic, stomach flus, fender benders – constitute the “small stuff.” That sometimes, most times, and if you’re a lama, maybe even all times, most of us can train ourselves to see brightness, to understand that most of the events in our lives have no inherent goodness or badness, that it is our minds that make them so. The lamas would say this is true of all events.

That’s a hard pill to swallow when a boy has died.

I panicked when I read that email. I thought my Lama Marut quote would be taken as being unfeeling, uncaring. Disrespectful. That it was like a dare to the universe to “bring it.” I went back on Facebook to remove it and I read it again. Then with tears in my eyes, I read it again. I was unhappy. And, no, it was not improving the situation.

I did a google search on the boy and turned up a Facebook Fan Page he’d created about himself that read:

On July 6th, 1993, a legend was born.

Whether you call him Mitch, Mitchell, Clifford (?), Gimpy, or Gimpsy, you can't deny this boy's sheer awesomeness.

He won our hearts in New Orleans.
He charmed us with his wit, wisdom, and sexiness.

If you're a fan of this 4'10" bundle of amazingness, (and who wouldn't be?), you are morally obligated to join this group.

Right then and there I fell a little bit in love.

In the past, I would have spent the entire day looking up information about this young man – who was he? how did he die? – and propel myself into a deep, inexorable funk. Yesterday, I wafted in and out of obsessing and funkdom, but I didn’t dwell there. In between, I made my family its favorite dinner. I took time from my work to watch The Office with my son. I charged my Kindle for the impending ice storm. I left the Lama Marut quote up.

I didn’t know this boy. And my sadness is not improving anything. But I remain unenlightened: It’s making me feel better to cry.