Monday, January 24, 2011

Elementary School and Ambergris and Bituminous Coal and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately about elementary school and that led me to thinking about ambergris and bituminous coal and memory.
The whole process started when (as previously indicated), traveling by my ownself down one of memory’s lanes I got stuck thinking about elementary school and what a weird bunch of years it encompasses (not sure that’s the right word here but, if I don’t come up with a better one and remove all this stuff, you’ll get my drift). For me it was eight years (1st grade through 8th) in an overcrowded Roman Catholic grade school staffed primarily by nuns. Saint Holy-mackerel-what-a-boat-load-of-kids! (A non-church affiliated school would, in those over crowded times, simply have been called “Oh-shit-here-they-come! #14” but we went to mass EVERY DAY so, although surely they were thinking it, no one was saying it) got us when we had just turned six and spit us out at fourteen (or thereabouts).

What a span! Recently potty trained to raging hormones all in the same building. We didn’t have Middle School or Junior High. We had 1st Graders and 8th Graders. We had the big kids and the little kids. The big kids were the Safety Cadets (if they had good grades. This was St. Holy…! remember. The nun’s didn’t really have to be very PC back then. If you couldn’t spell you couldn’t be a Cadet – don’t argue) and the little kids rattled around the playground like a bag of kittens chasing marbles. It worked. We learned the Three Rs and a whole lot of religion and some values and to follow our conscience. On reflection I’m not sure how it worked (probably chalk it up to the nuns. Man, those ladies could organize and multitask and look like they were floating to boot. < I remember that there was a rumor when I was in some early grade or other that they didn't have ears under their white head wraps and that they were bald and took baths with their clothes on {as an adult I'm pretty sure they had ears}> Again, I digress) but it worked.

So, anyway, there I sat (humble, fat and small) thinking about grade school and suddenly I remembered AMBERGRIS. Really, ambergris (for those of you who did not have ambergris as part of you elementary school curriculum ambergris is something a whale produces that is a primary ingredient in perfume <that's all that I remember from the ambergris lesson and I'm not going to look anything else up. It's just too weird>  and it’s very expensive)!

Who decided that we needed to know about ambergris (imagine, if you will, the scenario: “Sister Phyllis have you taught the 3rd graders about ambergris  <3rd grade, that’s when we got geography books and I think I learned it in geography [I know, don’t ask]>?” “Why no, Sister Eduardo, I haven’t. Do you think they are ready for it?” “They can handle it Sister Phyllis. They’ll have to…one day.”) and why do I remember it? I don’t remember learning to read. I don’t remember learning how to spell ambergris. I don’t remember the teacher who taught us about ambergris (wow, I can’t say ambergris too many more times or I’ll get the giggles). I remember bituminous coal though. Bituminous coal stuck around! Again it was geography class and I had (yes, it’s true) a lay teacher (for the uninitiated that’s a non-nun) and (dah-duh-dah-duh-dum) she was single! I remember learning about bituminous coal in the context of the stuff produced or mined in some state (which state? That I don’t remember) and that it’s smoky when it burns. That’s it: the sum total of my bituminous coal knowledge. Why does this weird, goofy stuff stick? What a funny patchwork memory can be.

We go through our lives actively remembering to pack our lunch or our mother’s birthday or the poem we memorized for show and tell. We work at it. We engage our ability to remember and kick ourselves when we don’t. Some things we try equally hard to banish. Some pains we wish we could forget and don’t and some we treasure and hold near and dear and know we never shall. Sometimes we throw our arms wide and think to ourselves “I will never forget this moment” and we don’t even know we’ve forgotten it because it’s gone…and then there’s ambergris and bituminous coal.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Childhood and Growing Old and Somebody Drives the Zamboni and Dry Skin (coz that never goes away)

I’ve been thinking about childhood and growing old and driving the Zamboni and my inner world has filled up with virtual post-it thoughts and now it’s all turning phrases in the shower and I’ve decided to let them out, write it all down and see where I end up.
The dry skin section is the easy part. I often do my best thinking in the shower (maybe it’s the humidity) and then I need to get it writ down so I sit with my computer and get all pinchy for lack of moisturizer (also the heat’s on here in the north and WOW! I am thinking about dry skin and moisturizer really a lot, I mean I could use an attendant who just follows me around with shea butter but, I digress). This concludes the dry skin portion of our program.
“Note to self: focus.”
-The Tao of the Wonder Pets
I’m not even sure how the childhood and growing old and the Zamboni relate. Well, that’s not completey true, I know how they relate in the stew of post-its that is my thought process (even Arugula sandwiches fit in there- really) I’m just not sure that I can put it in words to paper (yeah, I still think in terms of paper even whilst I tap away at my lap top) in fewer than a squillion. (For the uninitiated squillion is a LOT of words.)
So, to childhood: recently we had a fairly lively discussion around the lunch table at work wherein various members spent no small amount of words and time mourning the passing of the ideal, urban-free, video game-less, safe and always secure, no crime, running through the trees, breathing only clean air, mom and dad at home, “ollie-ollie-oxen-free-oh!”, not worrying about the state of the planet childhood. The childhood they felt everyone should have and (most importantly) that they did, indeed, have. I found myself thinking: “wait-up here I think that a lovely childhood can be had in many different ways and  in many different times”. I also thought that maybe (just maybe) these people have their “hind-sight glasses” set to soft focus and their “what is this world coming to glasses” set to sharp focus.
This is not to say that these people did not have the wonderful childhood they recall and describe. I’m sure they did but that’s the point.  They were children and this was childhood and they are remembering the world in which they lived (and ran laughing and playing at break-neck speed) through the eyes of the children that they were. I’m also fairly certain that part of the wonder of childhood is that one does not really, clearly, see the adult world (in the moment or in memory- how could one? We were kids at the time.)
Thinking about the discussion (as I pondered my own run through the neighborhood, getting sun burnt, climbing trees, and sharing with 7 siblings childhood) I kept asking myself:  “Was life really safer back when? Were we really more secure, younger and carefree?”  I’m not so sure. I’m not saying we were not all those things I’m just not sure it was better. I think it was just, well what it was. We had uglier clothes and a little more space for sure but well was it so very better?
I know we worried. We didn’t worry about pollution (one of the lunch-roomers felt that today’s kids have been confronted with “being green and global warming” and that kids shouldn’t have to be faced with such large issues out of their control. He thought that maybe it robbed them of being kids…well, maybe but…). But maybe not… Us, well we worried about nuclear annihilation. WE DID! How could we not? We had drills in school. We ducked, we covered. We waited for the time the bomb would go off. (I remember wondering, even as a little kid, how the sweater pulled up over my head was gonna protect me if the boiler we were ducking next to blew up. Some kids were so scared that someone always threw up.) and yet we were still pretty carefree little kids coz the bomb was only really a problem during duck and cover. The generation of kids before us probably worried about world war and after us, well, I guess they got oil shortages and over population and these guys- they get global warming, the greenhouse effect and 911.
My point is: “t’was ever thus”.
I went to the census bureau site. Did you know that at the end of the 1920s there were 8.4 homicides per 100,000 people? At the end of the 1940s it was 6.4. In 1959: 4.9; 1969: 7.3; 1979: 9.7; 1989: 8.7, 1999: 5.7 and in 2008 it was 5.8. Did we really grow up in a safer world or do we just have our adult eyes on and read the paper (I don’t know about you but I didn’t much read the paper when was seven)? I guess you’d have to look at your own personal time and decide for your ownself.
So, here we are, at the bottom if not the end. We haven’t covered video games and TV and Orphan Annie on the radio but maybe we don’t need to. I guess (for me, my ownself) I’ve decided that the ideal childhood is not a finite or absolute set of carefree and out-of-doors with no electronics time but rather a combination being loved and taught and tickled and cherished. Whether it’s a woods, or beach or cornfield (poor Mr. Konnitzer, the hold out farmer in our post war suburban sprawl, he didn’t see his cornfield as the hide and seek playground that we did) or a city street or an urban hallway that one hurtles down and through with childish abandon well, that’s just the window dressing to what makes childhood ideal.
This (I’m sure you’ll agree) is way long enough. Aging and the Zamboni driver will just have to wait.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Soooo, I’m watching HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and crying like an idiot. I KNOW. I know... HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is a sitcom and it is (unlike many) funny. Why am I crying you ask? I’ll tell you why I’m crying.

They went and killed Marshall’s father and they did a really good job. I mean a really (really) good job. The Lilly character (Allyson something-or-other [see: Aging, Open Letter to]) does one of the best crumply-face-trying-to-speak-while-about-to-cry-filled-with-sadness expressions I have ever seen. Man, when she whipped that sucker out in the last episode I was gone. I’ll grant, I am an easy TV and movie crier. (What was it in STEEL MAGNOLIAS? “No one cries alone in my presence.” Well, that’s me. I don’t cry much at funerals in fact I’m a bit of stoic in real-life tragedy but if someone else starts or if something is really touching in non-real-life, I’m gone. There was this MacDonald’s commercial...but, I digress. <it’s one of my strengths - digression>) Anyway, last week they killed Marshall’s father and this week they had the funeral. More crumply Lilly face, sad angry Marshall and friends feeling sad and at a loss and me crying here on my bed in my house playing Words with Friends and sniffing.

The funeral (and the episode) progressed and the characters all found themselves talking about last words. Marshall’s other family members all had some all touch-feely moments with dad and some equally lovely last words. Marshall, on the other hand, had a discussion of Crocodile Dundee III and he was feeling kinda cheated. His friends followed with assurances that last words were random chance, not significant in terms of a lifetime. They said all the true things that friends would say and that might or might not bring any comfort to the listener and the episode ended (as it should) with Marshall finding out that he had a final voice mail from his dad. Marshall’s dad told him that he loved him and that he was out of foot fungus cream.

So, are they significant, last words I mean? I know what both of my parents last words to me were but I was with them as they died so we were (by virtue of the event) speaking about rather significant things. Beyond that circumstance though conversation is a fairly randomly woven thread. Should we speak always cognizant that these might be our last words? It might be kind of cool. Everyone trying to sound like Patrick Henry at the gallows every time they leave a room or click end on a phone conversation. I don’t see it catching on though.

My friend Mary may have the answer. Her daughter died unexpectedly and though she doesn’t regret the last conversation they had (it was a prosaic, every day conversation - mundane even) she regrets that the last thing she said wasn’t “I love you.” Mary makes certain now that the last thing she says in every conversation, chance encounter, e-mail or text with her son and daughter is “I love you.” They say it to her as well. It’s rather lovely coz it’s clear that they mean it- it has become ritual but is also true.

I’m more of ‘goes without saying’ kind of gal but I wonder if i should be...

Hey, My Boo: I love you.

Friday, January 14, 2011


A Determinist’s View of Miracles (and maybe faith)
I believe that I have the tools to shape my own destiny; that my life is in my own two hands and not bobbing on a sea of luck and chance and random events. I know that luck (good or ill) has nothing to do with how I came to be where I am. I am aware that mythical creatures are just that: mythical. I get it that refraction and droplets and angles and pollution and light (and other science stuff) coalesce to create a spectacular sunrise. I have never felt at the mercy of (or for that matter particularly comforted by) the will of a supreme being (and yet, in those desperate moments when even hope seems to have abandoned my own small self, I find my eyeballs rotated franticly upwards peering at the inside of my skull and hear my own tight thoughts saying “please, please, please! Let her, me, it, everything be all right.” and I haven’t a clue who [or what] I’m petitioning.)
Does anybody else remember the Burt Reynolds movie where he thinks he’s going to drown and as he swims for shore he’s promising God “if I make it Lord I’ll give 90% of everything I make to charity” and as he gets closer the percentage gets lower till he finally stumbles onto shore saying “10% Lord, like I said 10%”? I find myself thinking about Burt’s character often in those eyes rotated moments. Good ol’ Burt kind of keeps me honest.
I believe in Karma (well, I think I believe in the 1960’s “hey man it all comes back in the Karma…what goes around comes around” version of Karma. I’d have to do some research to find out how close that is to the actual, really Karma so for our purposes here we’ll call it Karma and I’ll do the research later) in that if you do good then good is created and (eventually) comes back. I believe that the infamous squished (or flighted) butterfly meeting its own destiny on a windshield (and here good ol’ physics comes into our story: Car at top speed meets said butterfly and well, squish; car parked outside Starbucks and butterfly impacts the world in a whole ‘nother way.) ) may truly be the unforeseen beginning of my own apparent luck (good or ill) but that it’s how I react to it that will matter.
Yup, these are the things I believe but what do I want?
I want miracles and magic and dragons and serendipity and, and, and I want know that yeast is all science-y but accept that bread is a little tiny miracle.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Open Letter to Aging

May 2010

Dear Aging,

I did know that (one day) you were coming to stay. I mean, you certainly made your intention very clear (I know… it’s not your fault- it’s in your contract). I just keep getting older each year. Five followed four as inexorably as fifty has followed forty and you, you just watched and waited. You didn’t leave much of a mark in those early years. Getting older didn’t equal aging back then. You let me roller skate and dance and have babies (and, in general, hop around like a crazy person) and I got a little complacent, unwary, even (dare I say it?) forgetful of your promise but you were there packing your bags; organizing your socks; planning to move in right from the beginning. You left more obvious calling cards as each decade passed. You even left your belongings lying about as you passed through while dropping off letters of intent.

I suspected it was you (you do lack subtlety you know) when, in my thirties, my left knee (you know the one I banged up in that bike accident) flared up more frequently and never really flared back down. I was pretty sure it was you in my forties banging around in all my joints and taking some of the pleasure out of Thai food and now, in my fifties- well, I know it’s you: all moved in and making house room.

I get it. You’re here. You reserved space years ago and you have settled in. I accept your presence in aching joints (those joints have done yeomen service- they get to complain) and graying hair (my love affair with Clairol- that’s your fault too). You even have a sense of humor (which I do appreciate). I mean, I know it was pretty hilarious when I penciled my eyebrows purple because I couldn’t read the label without my glasses and we can’t discuss hilarity without bringing up the toothpaste/Vagisil fiasco (take my advice here: DO NOT MAKE THAT MISTAKE). It’s also you that makes me say things like: “You know! That actress that was in that movie about that woman who did that thing… I know you know! It was adapted by that guy who wrote that book.”

I get it. I had my turn at the other stuff and now it’s my turn to entertain you. I do understand that part but answer me this: Who told you that you could redecorate? What kind of guest moves the furniture and hangs new curtains? It’s just plain rude.

Not a day goes by that, upon stepping out of the shower and seeing my unclothed self in the mirror (I actually don’t recommend this to the uninitiated or the faint of heart), I don’t wonder: “When did THAT happen?” and talk about hanging new curtains! Have you seen my- well, no, we won’t go there- I digress.

So, anyway Aging (old buddy, old pal) could we make a deal here? I’ll step up the Advil consumption for the knees and I’ll put reading glasses in every room in the house if you’ll lay off on the painting and wall papering and leave the larger items in place for just a little bit longer.



Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hedgerow Mazes and Other Burial Traditions

I guess I need to start to this off by saying that I know my family is odd. Well, maybe odd doesn’t quite cover the real scope of the family tale I’m about to unwind here because this is a large story and odd is a small word. I’m not saying we’re not odd. We are (odd). I’m not exaggerating when I say this tale is big. It is (big). I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I tell this story. I’ve seen their eyes go wide. I’ve seen listeners try to suppress facial tics. This is a big story and odd is (as I have said) a small word. I need a bigger word that still says ODD but in boldface with unexpressed but inherent exclamation marks.
Since I have not yet found a word that does these things adequately I’ll just ask you to remember (as you read on- wide eyed and slapping at the facial tic in your right cheek) that I told you at the beginning: I know we’re odd. I know this is an odd story. It might be odder still that we find this story hilarious but I don’t know about that coz I can’t see around the hilariousness of it to give an objective evaluation.

We start with my mother’s death when I was 28. Not an hilarious topic on the face of it I know but this is where we begin.

As a family we are not cemetery visitors. Well, that’s not exactly true. Most of us like cemeteries and headstones in an academic sense and do visit really old cemeteries and read epitaphs and track flu epidemics and the like but we do not visit the graves of our dearly departed and lay flowers and wreaths. We just don’t. Dead is, well, dead and the connection of the formerly living person to a grave site is pretty much lost on us. Also we don’t have that many dearly departeds actually in graves but I’ll get to that.

When my mother died no one, not her or my father or any one of her eight children, had given any thought to funeral or burial or even what to do on the day she died.

Let me back up.  My mother was hospitalized the summer she was to turn 60 and died two weeks later. She was the light and love of my father’s life. We, her children, took it in shifts to keep our own version of a vigil at her bedside (I say our own version coz it was…well…us). She was much loved, much mourned and after her death that long last day we all picked up our devastated selves and made as if to leave when we were stopped in our tracks by the hospital’s question of: “What did we want done with the body?”  Honestly not ONE of us had given it ANY thought. She was clearly done with it (the body) and we sort of thought that they (the hospital) just took care of that stuff.

To our somewhat belated credit my sister Ella and I did recover fairly quickly and called a priest my dad worked with and he set things in motion with a funeral home and even made an appointment for my dad to “make the arrangements”.

At the funeral home the next day with Ella and my ownself sort of running interference for my dad he arranged for cremation and held firm to his desire to have no wake, no viewing. no funeral and only a memorial service at the church school where he taught. Done and done. Home free- we thought. Then the funeral director (in a de ja vu moment for us) said: “…and what would like done with the remains?”

“Can’t you keep it?” replied my father.

I am here to tell you that the look on this poor man’s face was priceless as he tried to simultaneously process my dad’s response and explain that “no” he could not keep the remains of this obviously distraught and bereaved man's much beloved wife on shelf in the back. At this point Ella and I jumped in and assured all concerned that we would handle this part and that no one was to worry and would the funeral director please contact one of us in due course. We had no idea what we were going to do but we were going to do it come what may.

Several weeks later, after several phone calls and messages from the crematorium arm of the funeral home Ella took herself off to “COLLECT THE ASHES”. We had tried to do some research but were still a bit unclear as to what to expect and she was more than a little anxious at the prospect of picking up a box of mom.

This is where (for us anyway) the whole thing starts to get kind of hilarious. Here we are, in our twenties, with the ashes of our recently deceased mother in the trunk of the car and absolutely no where to go with them. Dad wanted nothing to do with it. We had said we’d take care of it and he left it there- with us. We didn’t want to bury them in the back yard to be dug up at some future random construction project and we were a bit freaked at the prospect of being caught scattering ashes at the botanical gardens so we kept mom in the trunk while we thought. (Come on! In spite of the facial tic you’re laughing a little, right?).

Then we hit on it. Well, Ella did (she’s a resourceful sort). We would find out where our grandfather (our mother’s father) was buried and we would plant a “memorial bush” at his head stone under which we would deposit mom. Easy peasy! Sacred ground with no chance of disturbance. The fact that we had no idea where the man was buried and that the whole plan was not really strictly “legal” was small potatoes compared to the distance we had already traveled and we really couldn’t keep mom in the trunk of the car forever.

After a few phone calls to the wrong cemeteries we located the correct one and the grave site and, one fine grave-visiting-type-Sunday, Ella and her long suffering husband (hoping not to draw attention by bringing a crowd) dressed in grave-visiting-type-clothes put a good size bush and a smallish shovel in the trunk with mom and headed off to the cemetery to plant a bush on a grave that had never been visited in all of it’s long tenure.  Again: easy peasy, right?

The hole was dug (shoulder deep) the container was emptied (no bony chunks- whew!) the bush was planted and escape was effected. Done and done. As far as we know the operation has remained a covert success and we did (for a while) harbor hopes of all eight of us safely ensconced there under our own bushes forming a hedgerow maze but the original bush died (we did check on it a year or so later) so that idea’s a bust.

Since that time we’ve unhappily suffered more deaths in our ranks. My brother Mick died in his late 30s and his ashes remain in my sister Lynn’s closet. They live(d) in California and Lynn had hoped to bring the ashes for the hedgerow but since 9/11 we aren’t quite sure about the protocol for flying. We did get him a big ol’ knit cap though- he was always cold. My brother Matt died several years later in his 40s. The day his wife picked up the ashes she stopped to see my dad and, upon leaving, said: “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve got Matt in the trunk.” (It’s kind of a family tradition.) I believe Matt is still hanging around at his oldest daughter’s. My dad died most recently. We got a little better at planning and discovered that he could be interred at the veteran’s cemetery. Dad was never in anyone’s trunk but not because we love him any less. We love them all we just don’t know quite where to go with them once they’re gone.

One might think we’d take a clue from all this but I don’t think any of us has. I know I got nothing in the works. I’ll be dead so it won’t matter to me. I’ve already signed the back of my driver’s license for scientific research so there’s that option and I could do worse than to have been much loved and end up in someone’s trunk.

Don’t worry…the tic goes away after a while.

Maybe I should make a better plan- meh…