Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Whenever Pat and I are having an economically depressed year, I expect to juggle bill payments.  I know that I will probably have some tense phone calls with doctors’ accountants. The boys’ hair will grow long because I will put off haircuts until they have to lift their bangs off of their foreheads to see their dinner.  I know to anticipate various belt-tightening measures like forgoing new clothes and dinners out. I can predict that Pat will start clipping coupons out of the Sunday paper and announce after every grocery shopping how much he saved and who, in the check-out line, was impressed with his coupon system.  But what surprises me every time is how much stuff breaks down and remains broken down because we can’t afford to fix it.  It’s the cosmic sucker punch –  just when we need our car, Internet, and cell phones the most, they will crap out on us and remain crapped out until our circumstances turn. 
 These days, the wipe board in our kitchen reads like a death toll of soldiers during wartime.
I bear most of the disrepair with patience.  However, when I have had to deal with several under-to-non-functioning items in a single day, I have been known to lose that patience. Recently, I spent one frustrating morning scotch-taping my reading glasses together so that I could work on our computer, which was so riddled with bugs and viruses that I could have composed and etched an entire poem in stone faster than I was managing to type one e-mail. That afternoon, I attempted to vacuum our wall-to-wall carpeting.  “Attempted” is an accurate word in this case, since our bag-less, four-level, super-model of vacuum, bought during a good year, has never done much more than suck up a couple of slivers of dried shredded cheese, a ball of cat hair, and a thin layer of sand before moaning and belching it all out the back end.  When this happens, I have to turn the vacuum around and endeavor to suck up the stuff the machine just spit out.  This endless process of moving dirt around the house is a Sisyphean nightmare on a good day.  On this particular day the vacuum bumped its game up a notch.  It caught on a loose string of a rug, squealed like a piglet being slaughtered, spit out sparks, and emitted a burning smell, before shutting down completely with a dull snarl and a puff of smoke. 
         “The vacuum cleaner died again,” I reported to Pat in the kitchen.  I reached up and wrote “NEW VACUME” on the wipe board.  Pat looked, wiped it off, and respelled, “VACUUM”. 
         “I don’t give a shit how it’s spelled,” I said.  “We need a new vacuum cleaner.”
         “It’s just the belt,” said Pat.  “I’ll get it repaired next week.”
         “No,” I said, shaking my head vigorously.  “We’re getting a new machine entirely.  This one has NEVER worked.  Never.  We need a new vacuum.  One that can actually suck up the filth this family creates on a daily basis.”
         “A new vacuum is going to cost at least a hundred and fifty dollars.”
“I don’t care.  This has got to be the fifth time we’ve taken it in.  A belt is what?  Five dollars?  We’ve already sunk twenty-five dollars into this piece of crap.  That’s a sixth of the price of a new machine.  This machine is a loser.  It’s worse than our toaster that only toasts on one side.  When a machine is a loser, it’s an irredeemable dud.  It’s not like a person who can want to get better and affect some massive change.  It’s a hard, cold fact that something is deeply, unalterably wrong with our vacuum cleaner.  And no amount of new belts is going to change that!”
“Look.  Don’t worry about it,” said Pat, calmly, “I’ll take care of it.  I’ll get the belt replaced and I’ll vacuum as soon as I bring it home.”
I wanted to scream, throw a bunch of stuff, and stomp around, except Murphy was in the next room and I wanted him to think of me as a tad further along than him on the maturity scale.  A year’s worth of unmitigated hatred for the machine that had held so much bag-less promise constricted my throat as I seethed in the middle of the kitchen. I spun around, grabbed my coat from its hook in the hallway, opened the door, walked out, and slammed it with as much force as I could summon. 
Breathing hard in the hallway, tears stinging my eyes, I paused because I didn’t know where to go.  And in that pause, a breath really, I saw myself – wrung out, trembling, unable to chart a course.  This was not the person I wanted to be, bested by broken eyeglasses, a slow computer, and a dud vacuum cleaner. Where was the fearless artist, devoted mother, and adventurous world traveler? 
Nowhere.  She was fiction. 
I leaned against our door and slid down.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tao of Knitting

I will be knitting in India. More specifically, I plan on knitting my niece, Zoe, a scarf that I can give to her at the end of the trip. The remarkable thing about my recent addiction to knitting is that I am not crafty at all. My inability to craft anything that looks better than a colorful turd cannot be exaggerated.  I cannot cook. I cannot scrapbook.  I cannot sew or paint or sand things.  I’m sure that my failure to learn not one craft competently has its roots in the fact that I simply don’t care to. Which is largely true. But it’s not that simple.  I also lack any natural talent.
             So why knitting?  A college friend of mine visited me this summer and knitted through her entire stay.  She and I went to a yarn store and I liked the pretty colors. Standing in the store, I thought that this was something I can handle. A scarf was something I could actually, conceivably, accomplish. And I’d had half a year of precious few accomplishments. In a semi-somnambulant daze, I found myself being led by my friend over to the needles.  And within minutes I was purchasing a ball of soft, pretty, light blue yarn with shy little flecks of gold and darker navy.
            My first scarf was wider in the middle than it was on both ends. Laid out on a bed, it looked sullen and insecure.  But subsequent scarves have been straighter, more confident.  Even bold.
I don’t ever plan on knitting anything other than scarves, because I have that down now and I don’t want to think too hard.  As soon as I finish one scarf, I start another. And when the day comes and I find that I have knitted a scarf for every one I know, I plan to keep on going. I’ll send scarves to the troops or to any other cold people on the planet who need warmth. I plan on knitting scarves until I die.
            Ever since I gave up smoking, I have not known what to do with my hands.  I tried ripping notebook paper into little squares and twisting straws and paperclips, but nothing brought me the same satisfaction as lacing a cigarette through my fingers over and over. Until knitting. It’s relatively cheap, my hands stay busy and, at the end I have something to give to people. In a year that has been jam-packed with anxiety and self-doubt, this feels awfully satisfying.
            And everyone likes a scarf. Or they say that they do. No one says, “That’s a crappy scarf, can you make me a different one?” Or, “Can I exchange this for a whole sweater?”  They don’t.  They don’t even point out the little holes or places where you screwed it up.  On the contrary, they light up when they get their scarf.  You see, they don’t simply see the scarf.  They see you choosing the yarn, thinking about them, and spending hours making a thing that will keep them warm.  I can’t even pearl (that’s knitting lingo) and I’m not sure I’ll ever need to learn.  Everyone’s digging the scarves just as they are.
            People talk to you when you’re knitting in a public place, say at your sons’ soccer games. For someone who has a hard time striking up conversations with strangers, this is a huge ancillary benefit. 
            These people say something along the lines of, “What’s that you’re knitting?”
            And you say, “I’m knitting a scarf.”
            Then they say, “Who are you knitting it for?”
            And you say, “I’m knitting it for my mother for Christmas.”
            Then they say, “Oh are you going home for Christmas?”
            And you say, “No we’re all going to India.”
            And, bingo, that’s one more person you’ve told about your trip to India!
             Yarn stores calm me down.  They’re full of calm people and I can only think that it’s because they have knit themselves into a state of wellbeing. They look and act like they’re on heroin.  Someday I’m going to be like them. Yarn stores are also full of soft, colorful wool that you can finger for hours and no one will bother you. If you knock down several skeins (knitting lingo again) of yarn, the woman behind the counter says, “That’s OK, we’ll pick it up later.” And the skeins simply lie there on the floor until I don’t know when, because I’m gone by then.  Also, yarn stores have a table that you can sit at and start knitting your scarf RIGHT THERE, RIGHT NOW.  The fix is immediate.  You can cast on (also knitting lingo) right there, in the store. You can get started and within minutes you have an inch of scarf that everyone will “ooh” over and want to touch.  There’s no place like a yarn store. Imagine buying a dress, putting it on in the store, and sitting in a comfy chair while everyone stops by to tell you how great it is--IN DETAIL.
Yarn stores have odd hours like 3pm until midnight. Sometimes they are closed when they say that they’re going to be open. That’s because knitters are so easy going that they simply close up the shop, when they feel like it, to walk to a local café to knit and have a hot cup of Earl Grey.
            People who work in yarn shops all knit themselves.  They’re like proprietors of medical marijuana stores.  They know every brand, every smell and texture, because they’ve tried each one and they’re probably using one now.
            I’ve noticed that the knitting demographic overlaps hugely with the demographic of crazy cat ladies.  Lots of lesbians knit for some reason. As do gay men. Is it a gay thing? I don’t know. The only straight men who knit are those who are very comfortable with their masculinity and have decent small motor control. Of course, straight women knit too but, again, they usually own at least one cat. Like me. Knitters tend to drink tea, not coffee. And not a whole lot of knitters wear make-up. This is where I splinter off a bit because whenever I appear in public, without make-up, people ask me what’s wrong.
            Knitting brings me the same kind of relaxation that traveling does. Both require surrender.  When I’m traveling, I cannot go through the tall stack of unread mail on my desk.  I cannot do anything about my career.  I can’t vacuum up the cat hair in the living room.  Heck, I can’t even feed my cat, because a neighbor is already doing that.  All I can do is be present and stay loose for the next big thing that I can’t even anticipate because I’m in a totally new place.
            While I’m knitting, I can’t do much else either. I can listen to a conversation or television, but that’s about it.  Knitting slows me down. And I find myself giving in, giving up my mental accounting of all the things I should be doing, because I AM doing. Sort of.  See this pretty scarf?

Brett's first scarf

Friday, November 26, 2010

Trips in Foreign Lands

Every week or so, I send a list of questions about our upcoming trip to Keir and Robyn.  Will I be able to plug in my hair dryer? Not always (although there are hairdryers and plugs aplenty in India, we will be on the shoestring, backpacking track so there's no telling).   Is there anything we can do to avoid Delhi Belly?  Not that much.  At the end of each of the e-mails conveying their patient answers, they write, “just keep your sense of humor, and everything will be fine.” Fortunately, growing up overseas and traveling quite a bit, I know exactly what they mean. 
My apologies to the tens of people who read this when it was published in Violet a few years ago, but it is a travel story close to my heart.  My middle brother, Erik, tells the story differently.  He says that it was the afternoon when we pulled away from the gas station. It wasn’t the morning, as I tell the story.  He remembers it being hot that morning (or afternoon), not chilly.  He says that we were in a car, not a truck.  Maybe I’m mixing up the stories, he always says.  It wasn’t, after all, the only time my family abandoned a broken down car in a foreign country.  My father always insisted on buying used beaters.  There was the maroon station wagon we walked away from in a snowstorm in Northern Germany and a blue VW bug that died in England.  And others, we know. 
Normally, I’d think that maybe Erik’s right.  Maybe it was the afternoon.  Maybe it was hot.  But the memory of us pulling away from the French gas station in a pick-up truck, our broken down red van bright like an artist’s mistake against the damp green morning is so clear, so immutable, that I know it’s true.  I know that I sat next to Erik in the back, huddling against him as we sat on top of some bundles.  I know that my mother and father and little brother, Keir, were crammed into the cab, next to a Frenchman who was to drive us to the train station.  I know these things, because it seemed important to me at the time.  It was my senior year of high school and I was going to be on my own soon.  I couldn’t have said it, but I was recording these family moments to bring with me – to hang on to as I lay on a bunk bed in a dorm room thousands of miles away.
The van had been our main family car for a good six years.   My father was a teacher on an Army Base in Germany, and he had bought the van from a GI for a thousand dollars.  I was a pretty naïve teenager, but even I knew that the van was a bedroom on wheels, designed for seduction.  My father saw it as a cheap way to move the family around.
            The van was red and industrial.  The GI told my father that it had been used to transport pretzels before he had worked his magic on it.  Inside, the GI had glued light blue shag carpeting to the walls, ceiling and floor.  He had built a huge double bed in the back.  Stereo speakers were mounted in all corners.  And there was a long thin mirror that was anchored somehow to the shag on one side of the bed.  My father thought it was beautiful.  He even had my mother take a movie of him showing off the inside of the van. 
            Of course, my father made some adjustments of his own.  In front of the bed, he added a huge navy bean bag on the floor.  And he had my mother whip up some matching pillows and curtains.
            My father showed the van to everyone.  After a party, he would take a group of giggling, swaying teachers out to the van, and show them the interior.
            From my bedroom I would hear my father in the driveway, “The carpet on the walls creates insulation, so the kids are warm when we camp.”  And, “You can hook this cable up to here, and plug it into an electricity source.  That way you can keep the red light going all through dinner.”  Then I would hear Mozart blaring.  My father was creating a mood.
            “Where do you eat?” a teacher would scream above the music.
            “We throw a plastic tarp on the bed and all sit Indian style.  We keep the dishes in here.” I’d hear my father open up a sliding door to the wooden cabinet under the bed. 
            My mother never came on these tours.  And it only just recently occurred to me that the van might have embarrassed her. 
            The only other person who loved the van was my brother Erik, who took it on dates. 
            So it was during Spring Break of that Senior Year that my family piled in the van and took off for Paris.  We found a little campsite on the edge of the city, and set up camp, attaching a crude tent to the side of the van.  After a day of sight seeing, we would come back to the van, throw a tarp on the bed, turn on Mozart and the red lights, and eat dinner.  After dinner, we would either take a walk or play bridge.
            What I remember most about our time in Paris was that Versailles was closed.  We still have pictures of us locked outside the famous palace.  The three kids climbing on the wrought iron gates, posing like thieves. Erik, his face barely visible beneath his tangled, curly hair.  Keir, seven years old, blonde and rosy like Cupid, pointing to Erik as he scales the gate.  And I’m wearing a pair of purple wrap around pants that balloon around my ankles as I pretend to give Erik a boost.
            At the end of the week, we took the tent addition down, rolled it up, packed up our two cots and started home.  An hour shy of the German border, the van lurched three times, sputtered, and came to a dead stop.  We all stared straight ahead and breathed a collective breath. Like the second before a race or a parachute jump, the stillness of this moment created in me laser-like concentration on the tiniest of details.  The curtains fluttered just slightly, my mother’s hand twitched before she brought it down on the armrest; Erik turned his head slowly to look at me.  We sat, paused in time, for a minute or two, maybe half an hour, who can tell?  I only know that we could have drifted like that for hours if my father hadn’t leaned over, turned off the Mozart and pulled the emergency brake with a scrape that sliced through the air, jerking us into consciousness and dread.  Erik and I shifted on the bed.  Keir got out of the beanbag, crawled up into the bed with us, burying himself deep into the covers.  We focused our attention on my father who expelled a Zeus sized sigh.   He looked ahead at the highway stretching ahead of us through the countryside, and said,  “Give me the book.”
The Idiot’s Guide to the Volkswagen was a dog-eared tome that was kept in the cupboard, under the bed.  I fished around for it, found it, and handed it to my father.  He stared at the cover for a moment, then opened the book.  He moved past the table of contents to Chapter One:  Finding Everything?  We watched as my father started to read.  He turned the first page of the 300-page book.  We looked at each other.  He turned the second page.  My mother rolled down her window.  He turned the third page, snapped the book shut and barked, “OK, everybody out!”  My mother swung open the passenger door and hopped out.  I reached over, slid open the side door and the kids spilled out onto the spiky brown grass.  My father walked around front of the van, and joined us on the side of the road. 
 “Stay here, “ he said.  “If I don’t return, flag someone down and have them take you to the nearest American Express.” 
For some reason, the American Express was the solver of all problems.  We nodded.  My father hugged us all and started to walk along the edge of the highway.  We watched him get small.  Then he stopped.  He stayed still for a moment, his black trench coat flapping in the wind.  He turned and looked out over the fields, like Wellington.  We watched him, motionless, waiting for the next thing.  He flapped for a while, then turned and walked back toward us.  His walk was slow and deliberate. 
When he reached us, he looked above our heads as he gave us our instructions.  “Brett and Mom will sit here and wait for help.  Try to flag down an American car that can take us to an American Express.  I will walk across the field and look for a town of some kind.  Erik and Keir will walk along the highway and search for high ground.”
            When Erik tells the story, he claims that he thought he was supposed to look for high ground in case it started raining and a flood threatened the van.  I thought it was clear that he was to look for high ground so that he could see if there was an American Express within walking distance. 
            I was pleased with my assignment.  Erik and Keir looked at each other, Keir raising his shoulders like, “I’m with you.”  My father cleared his throat, pivoted, and crossed the highway.  After watching him start to hack his way through a high wheat field with his hands, Erik turned to Keir and said, “Come on.”  They started out along the highway, Erik moving with energy and Keir following a sluggish 30 feet behind.  My mother and I sat down on the prickly grass and waited. 
            As sun started to throw amber light across the fields, we lay back on the ground and chatted.  I filled my mother in on my summer job search.  She talked about a favorite kid in class.  My hand pulled pieces of grass out of the dry dirt. 
            This is all I’ve ever really needed.  To feel grass poke through the fabric of my shirt, as I lie next to my mother talking about nothing in particular. 
            Clouds began to gather and we started to shiver, but made no move to get sweaters from the van.  It could have been half an hour, maybe two.  I know it was darker by the time we sat up and saw my father emerge from the wheat across the way.
            “I made a phone call,” he said, breathing heavily.  “And I think someone will be coming from a local gas station.  We will spend the night in the van on their lot.  Where are the boys?”  We looked down the long stretch of highway, and saw two figures making a shadowy approach. 
“Maybe they found an American Express,” said my father as he slid the van door open and climbed in, reemerging with a half-full jug of red wine, which he poured into a paper cup.  He sipped and watched my brothers take shape. The sky turned purple and a thin line of orange bled across the top of the wheat. 
              Eventually a tiny French car arrived and the family jammed into it as the tow truck pulled the van in front of us. 
            “Now I don’t think there’s an American Express near by,” said my father.  The Frenchman looked at my father and smiled a standard smile.  “We’re going to have to figure something out because I used up our francs at the last rest stop.  I don’t think they’re going to take Dollars or Marks in such a small town.”
            “We may just have to split up the olives and the salami that’s under the bed,” my mother said.
            Erik looked down.  “I ate the olives.”
            “Oh, honey,” said my mother.  “What about the salami?”
            “I think there’s a couple of slices left.”
Our driver followed the van as it pulled into a one-pump gas station.  We watched in silence as a couple of men in black jackets unhooked the van from the tow truck.  After a moment, my father said, “this is the last night we will spend in the pretzel van.  Make sure you collect anything of importance in the morning.  We will be driven to the train station at 6:00 AM.  So I suggest we sleep in our clothes.”  The little French driver nodded at my father, then looked back at us.
            “Audrey,” my father said to my mother, “ I think you should join me as I look for items to sell to these gentlemen,”
            “Of course,” she said. 
This is where Erik’s memory of it and mine sync up.  We both remember the gas lantern hung on the side of the van, shining a circle of light onto a patch of dirt.  We remember the carnie atmosphere, my father standing in the dim light like a barker, describing the items that we kids brought out of the van.  A modest crowd gathered.  How did they know?  Had someone from the garage run across the fields to the neighboring village, and yelled, “Come see?”
The first item was a thermos.  I brought it out of the van and handed it to my father who raised it above his head.
 “This is a thermos that I bought for a very good price at the American PX,” he said.  “It keeps hot things hot.  And cold things cold.”  He spoke entirely in English, and although the gathered folk surely did not understand him, neither he nor they seemed to care. 
He passed the thermos to a Frenchman who looked at it, shrugged, and passed it on.  The thermos made the rounds and ended up in Erik’s hands.  Erik placed it on the ground in front of my father. 
            “I had hoped to have this thermos for many years to come,” my father went on.  “But we cannot take it home.  So I will part with it for 10 francs.”
He looked at the audience.  They looked at each other, shuffled, and said nothing.  Letting the moment hang, my father reached into the van and retrieved his paper cup of wine.  He took a sip, looked into the French faces, and said, “I could go as low as seven francs.” 
A Frenchman raised his hand. 
“Yes,” my father said, pointing to the man who exhaled cigarette smoke and said, “duex francs.” 
My father paused, looked at my mother and asked, “two?” 
My mother nodded.
            “Two it is,” he said, his voice picking up energy. Erik picked up the thermos and carried it over to the man. My father leaned over to whisper something to Keir, who disappeared into the van.  We listened to rustling from inside while my father walked in a circle in the pool of light.  Red wine sloshed in the soggy cup.  After a moment, Keir emerged, dragging out a puffy sleeping bag, which he laid out flat in front of my father like a body.
“This is an American sleeping bag,” said my father, raising his cup, “ordered from the Sears Catalogue.  It is dark blue on the inside and light blue on the outside.  The zipper is broken.  But that can easily be fixed.  I would be willing to part with this for 20 francs.”
            The group shifted.  A man flicked a lit cigarette on the ground and walked away.  A woman knelt and touched the bag.  My father smiled down at her.  She turned over a corner of the fabric and ran her hand along the inside.
“Duex francs,” she said.
            My father’s face fell.  He sipped his wine and looked in the remaining faces. 
“Duex francs,” he nodded. 
            Erik and I remember most of the items going for two francs.  After an hour or so of selling and sharing his red wine, my father’s eyes sparkled like he’d found a part of himself that had been lost.  People drifted away and faded into the countryside, clutching coffee cups, pillows, flashlights, leaving two men sitting on the ground. 
             “And, now,” my father said to the men, “we have our last item.” He nodded to Keir who brought out two curtain rods with curtains on them.  “My wife made these curtains,” he continued, as he walked in a huge semi-circle in front of Keir.  “But the curtains are not made from any ordinary fabric.” He strolled up to Keir and took one of the rods, raising it above his head. “These curtains are made out of American pillow cases.   My wife found the pillowcases for a very good price at the American PX.  She then took them apart, and put them back together again, in the form that you see here.”  He handed the rod back to Keir.  “You cannot find curtains like this anywhere.  Because they’re really American pillowcases.”
            The two Frenchman said something to each other, turned to my father and shrugged.  My father stood in front of the curtains and said, “I am willing to part with these pillowcase curtains for a loaf of bread and some cheese.” The men shook their heads, rose and left.
            My father turned to my mother and me and said, “Time to find some dinner.” We collected our scarves, locked up the van, and followed my father across a huge field, walking toward what looked like a small village. 
“We have 26 Francs,” my father yelled back at us.  “I would have made more if the zipper on the sleeping bag worked.
My mother yelled up to him, “I don’t think anything’s going to be open, Fred.  It’s at least nine o’clock.  And besides,” she said, breaking into a jog.  ”I don’t think 26 francs is going to go very far.” 
 “We just have to be creative, that’s all,” said my father.
Erik caught my eye.  “Dad’s loving this,” he said.  “I had to talk him out of popping the lenses out of his glasses and selling the frames.”
“I’m so hungry I want to cry,” I said.  Cold air stung my lungs with every quick breath.           
“I can’t see how there’s going to be anything in that village,” Erik said.
“Come on,” my father bellowed, “I see something.”
We raced toward the edge of town and, finally, gathered in a clump around a heavy dark wooden door leading to a restaurant.  On the balcony above our heads, we could see a couple of empty, white table-clothed tables. My father looked at the menu in a glass box outside the door.
“Well, according to this,” he said, “we have enough for a filet with french-fries and a glass of house merlot.” 
            “I’m hungry,” I whined.
“I’m pretty sure there will be free bread on the table,” my father continued.  “Here’s what we’ll do.  It’ll look too obvious if the whole family just orders one meal and we all eat it.  So we’ll send your mother in.  She will sit at one of the tables on the balcony and throw bread over the side.  She will eat only a third of her meal.  Then she will complain of a stomach ache and ask to take the rest of the meal home.”
“Fred,” she said.
“What?  This is a good plan, Audrey.  You look normal. No one will question you.”
“Why would they question anything, Fred?”
“Audrey, we can’t just go into a restaurant like this and order one meal.  I’m not sure they’d even let us do that.”
My mother looked up at the balcony.  “Why wouldn’t they?” she asked.
“They’re French.  Audrey.  They’ve got their own rules about things.  Especially when it comes to food.  It’s best not to draw any attention to ourselves.”
“I’ll go in,” I said.   I wanted to eat a pile of bread.
“I don’t think you’re the best choice, Brett,” my father said.  “You’re a young woman, and the waiter may become interested in you.  If I go in, they’ll expect me to order more, because I’m a man.  Keir’s too young, and Erik will forget about us and just eat everything.”
Erik’s eyes widened as my mother cased the balcony.
“OK,” she said, “I will sit at the table on the end.” She tugged at the bottom of her jacket, ran her hand through her hair, and walked through the door.  My father lifted a finger to his lips and pointed to an area beneath the balcony.  We padded after him, across the springy, damp grass. As we stood with our backs against a scratchy wall, we heard my mother say, “Merci, Monsieur.  Un Merlot, sil vous plait.”  Footsteps retreated. 
My mother whispered loudly, “Are you there?”
My father coughed.  More footsteps.  My mother said, “merci.”  After a moment, a white bundle landed at our feet.  Erik grabbed it, untied the napkin and passed out rolls.
            Minutes later, my mother brought down a doggie bag of a very nice cordon bleu and a crepe. After each of us had a nibble, we traipsed back through the field towards the garage.  Me, behind my mother, the damp long grass sliding along my calves.  Stars sprayed across the sky.  I watched my father’s back as he moved with purpose, Erik skipping to keep up with him.  I looked back at Keir, poking through the grass, pulling it through his fists as he looked up at the Big Dipper.  The gas station glowed dimly ahead of us.  I felt like we were suspended in something ordinary and beautiful.
When we got to the gas station, we clamored into the van.  The light from the gas station came in through the rear window.  The curtains, tangled around their rod, lay across the front seats.
            “I don’t see any reason to put up the tent,” my father said, grabbing a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream from under the bed.  He poured it into a jar and passed it to my mother.  “We’ll just double up.  Keir with your mother and me on the bed.  Erik and Kris on the beanbag.  This was my plan all along.  The beanbag is useful, and I didn’t think it would fetch a fair price.  So we’ll use it tonight and carry it on the train tomorrow.”
            My mother sat on the bed and sipped her Bailey’s.  “That’s going to be a lot to take on the train, don’t you think?”  She said. 
            “Well that was my first thought,” my father said.  “But then I remembered the bungee chords.  We’ll bind the bedding and curtains together with a few of the bungees and you can carry it like a sack on your back.  Erik and I can carry the tent.  Brett will take the two suitcases, and Keir will take the beanbag.  I think he can even drag it behind him if we bungee the tarp around it.” We looked around the almost bare, shag blue interior of our van. “Now, let’s play a game of Bridge,” my father said.  “Keir and Mom will play like one person.  That way mom can coach him on his bidding.”
            We piled into the center of the bed. 
As my father dealt, he said, “Now work in your teams.  It’s all about remembering and anticipating.”   And he picked up his cards. 
Erik says that he doesn’t remember playing Bridge that night.  But I am sure I’m right.  We are fixed there in dim light.  My mother holding her jar of Bailey’s as she looks at Keir’s cards over his shoulder.  Erik’s knees pulled up, peeking at me from behind his cards.  And my father, flushed and twinkling, like a benign lord.  
Erik, Me, and Keir outside of Versailles

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not about the Tudors

The challenges of writing a blog on Thanksgiving are obvious.  If I write about all of the things I’m truly grateful for, it will be cliché. If I go the humorous route, it will seem flip. I briefly, for example, considered laying bare my very real life-long obsession with the wives of Henry VIII.  During this crappy year, I’ve been deeply grateful for the incredibly bad, soft-porn, and remarkably inaccurate Showtime series based on this Tudor chapter. The abject lunacy of casting hunky charmer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as the syphilitic, morbidly obese tyrant never got old.  Each episode distracted me from my woes for a full hour. It was like cinematic vicodin. 
In general, I am good at being grateful. It takes practice. And I learned how during the late eighties when I lost a lot of friends to AIDS.  I have never stopped feeling damned lucky that I have lived this long and that I have lived well.
Two of the newest things I’ve added to my mental gratitude journal are the high desert and knitting. Knitting deserves its own blog, but I’d love to share a little about my newfound love: the high desert. 
Two years ago, we wanted to get out of town for a for the boys’ spring break.  The snag was a familiar one to our family of four.  We had virtually no money in the bank.  Roughly a month before that spring break, in a preemptive attempt to stop our financial bleeding, Pat and I had voluntarily closed all but one of our credit cards at a substantially reduced APR.  So whatever we chose to do, we had to be able to cover in cash. Fiscally smarter people would have forgone the family adventure altogether.  But Pat and I have come by our challenging financial situation honestly.  We’ve earned it -- by consistently placing a higher value on fun and togetherness than economic security. I am aware that it’s possible to achieve both and this will be our mission after the ridiculously ill conceived, but totally awesome, trip to India.
Pat and I trolled the Internet, narrowing down our options for the couple of weeks leading up to spring break.  We asked friends for suggestions, all of which were too rich for our blood.  A spa at Ojai?  Not if we wanted to sign the kids up for soccer in the fall.  A couple of nights in downtown Santa Barbara?  Not if we wanted to replace the queen mattress that kept poking Pat and me in the ass every time we rolled over in our sleep.  Then Pat had a cheap and brilliant idea:  A national park.
Joshua Tree National Park is a couple of hours from our home in Los Angeles so our beater car could most likely survive the trek. Pat and I had been there before we had children, and had found it beautiful but we hadn’t explored it thoroughly (we probably explored the hotel Jacuzzi more). We thought that the boys would love climbing over the monolithic rock formations and looking out over the arid landscape inhabited by hundreds of freaky Dr. Seuss-like trees.  Not to mention jack rabbits. The campgrounds were full up, but Pat found a cheap rate at a joint called The Safari Motor Inn, and booked us for two nights. 
Then, nine-year-old Spencer loved categorizing pretty much anything. When he walked into our room at The Safari Motor Inn, he cheerfully declared it, “Definitely third class.”  The window faced a fence of corrugated tin, there were a couple of mustard packets left in the mini fridge, the bathroom faucet yielded only scalding hot water, and the thin walls did nothing to dull the sound of four migrant workers sharing a room and a couple of bottles of tequila next door. 
In other words, it was perfect. The room, and the fact that our transmission crapped out on the drive home, will become parts of the story that will be embellished and retold by all of us for years.  I know this because I grew up with such stories.  My parents were teachers overseas, intellectuals deeply suspicious of money, who thought nothing of holing up in a basement room of an ersatz hotel in Amsterdam (where were the other guests?) while spending our days visiting Anne Frank’s house, the red light district, and four star restaurants. 
            The room, the motel, and its environs were their own brand of incredible, but it was Joshua Tree, itself, that took our family’s collective breath away. I had loved camping in the Sahara when I traveled on my own to visit Keir a year earlier. At night, the sky endless, black, and sparkly -- making me feel completely safe and profoundly connected to millions of years of existence. Joshua Tree is more habitable, as evidenced by the plentiful animal life and tufted trees.  But it has its own majesty. The Sahara had made me feel small and perhaps that’s why I had felt safe. My existence, after all was puny and therefore unimportant to whatever punishing forces might be loose in the universe.  In contrast, Joshua Tree made me feel significant. A part of everything. I got strength from the rough terrain. Climbing the boulders and breathing the sharp, clear air, I felt capable.  Renewed.  And, yes, grateful. Now, I go there whenever I can. 
             There can be great literary jeopardy in attempting to explain what is essentially ineffable. So I will leave off rhapsodizing any further. I am foolish about many things, but when it comes to writing I know that my reach should not exceed my grasp. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

We are Adventurers...sort of

Spencer takes a bite of his pizza, scrunches his nose, and places it back on his plate.
            “OK,” says my six-year-old, Murphy, taking a card out of the ‘Chat Pack’ set and reading, “If you could build anything onto your house, what would it be?” The collection of question cards is supposed to stimulate conversation and the boys love to use it at dinner. Frankly, I prefer stimulating conversation the old fashioned way, through maternal interrogation about each boy’s respective day.  But they often prefer answering fantastical questions like this one (I mean, we don’t even have a house!) over recounting who they sat with at lunchtime.   
            “I’d build a humongous dining hall that could double as a basketball court,” answers Pat.
            “That’s what I would do too,” says Murphy, who often repeats the first answer he hears. This drives Spencer, who sees it as ‘copying’, wild. Frankly, I think that Murphy is often so taken by the first suggestion that he doesn’t feel the need to explore further. ‘Dining hall’/’basketball court’ – sounds great to him.
            “You can’t just repeat what Daddy said,” Spencer says to Murphy, with an edge of older brother authority.
            “I’m not,” says Murphy.  “That’s what I was going to say.  I want a basketball court.”
            “Then just say ‘basketball court’,” says Spencer.  “You don’t even know what a dining hall is.”
            “Yes, I do.”
            “Spencer,” Pat interjects sternly, “I’m sure Murphy knows what a dining hall is.”
            “OK, OK,” I say, “This argument isn’t going to go anywhere.  Let it go.  I would choose to build an arboretum. An indoor garden.”
            “Ooooh, That sounds good,” says Murphy.
            “You can’t change your answer, Murph,” says Spencer.
            I jump in quickly, “Spencer, what would you build?”
            “Hmmm,” he says, “I would build…I would build a huge slide that would go from this window all the way down to the backyard.”  Spencer and Murphy call the grassy area behind our apartment building, the ‘backyard’.  I’ve done nothing to disabuse them of the misnomer.  Every kid should have a yard.
            “A slide sounds…” says Murphy, tentatively.  Spencer fixes him with a steely gaze and Murphy decides to abandon his comment.
            “All right,” I say, “let’s finish dinner, shall we? Spencer, are you going to eat more of your pizza?”
            Spence screws his face up, “the first part of the pizza was really good, but the closer I get to the crust, the spicier it gets.”
            I exhale, “You’re kidding.”
            “No. It’s spicy, Mom.”
            “It’s not spicy,” says Pat, exasperated.
            “It’s the same stuff,” I say to Spencer.  “The same sauce was used all over the pizza.  It’s just a plain cheese pizza.  The package didn’t say ‘mild in the middle, spicier near the crust’.”
             “Dude, you love pizza. It’s pizza,” says Pat. “Eat it.” 
            Spencer stares down at his embattled slice, half-chewed and soggy, and lifts it to his mouth, reluctantly.  He takes a tiny nibble and quickly drops the slice down on the plate as if it suddenly came alive in his hands.
            “Come on, “ Pat snorts.
            “I think this pizza’s really good,” chirps Murphy, glad to have the upper hand for once. He lifts his slice and takes a huge bite, the cheese stretching out languidly.
            Pat leans back in his chair, “Spencer, what are you going to eat in India?”
            Spencer lifts up his slice again, like it might wriggle out of his hands. He takes another small bite and drops it, again, to his plate. He chews a bit, and then he says, “I’m going to eat apples and rice.”
            “You can’t live on just apples and rice the whole trip,” says Pat.
            But Spencer can.  He only eats about ten things and none of them can touch each other. Apples and rice are on that list and his Aunt Robyn has assured him that these can be found in India.  So he’s made up his mind. He’ll eat apples and rice for three weeks.
            Actually, in the touristy cities we should have access to western fare. I haven’t mentioned this to Spencer yet, because I had hoped that he would consider broadening his palate out of desperation.  So far, this has not happened.  It’s all my fault.  I don’t cook much and, early on, I believed that feeding the two of them fresh fruit and vegetables couldn’t be all bad (admittedly, the only vegetables on the list are broccoli and green beans). Murphy is slightly more adventurous than Spencer, because he will actually eat a raw carrot if it’s cold from the refrigerator.
            A few times in the last month, I have tried to imbue my children with a sense of adventure about our impending trip.  We should try new things, I tell them. Yes, the food will be different, but let’s dive in. It’s true that the way we travel will be different, but who ever gets to sit next to an actual cow on a bus?  Even the way everything looks and smells will be different.  Let’s embrace that, I say.  It’ll be exciting. We’ll be adventurers, eagerly trying new things and grabbing onto life! That’s who we are! We’re not couch-sitters, we’re doers! We’re not sideliners waiting to get in the game!  We’re already IN the game, I say! We don’t sit around all day waiting for the world to come to us!  We go out into the world!  We meet it!  We take a big bite out of the world! We chew it up and spit it right out!  Because we’re adventurers, right?!!!  We’re doers!  We get up and ‘do’...we’re the doing family, right?  We chew things…
            Every time I’ve launched into this speech (with slight modifications each time) the boys smile politely like they know that the part I’m auditioning for has already been cast.  I’m not getting the job.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Holding Up the Plane

Being a freelancer is analogous to playing emotional extreme sports. The high of scoring a book deal while your bank account is overdrawn is commensurate to the bungee chord snapping back from slamming your body into the side of a gorge.  The low of receiving rejections on twelve potentially life-changing projects in one week, is proportionate to falling short of your motorcycle jump, smashing into a pile of cars, and breaking thirty-two bones.  A friend once asked me what my least favorite phrase was and I didn’t hesitate.  It is, “We regret to inform you.” 
            I know that for every extreme high there is an extreme low.  But knowing this does not seem to mitigate my despair when the worst happens. The worst, by the way, is not always a rejection. In my case, it is often the fact that money I am due gets held up, lost, or substantially reduced by a clerical error or an accountant’s interpretation of tax law. 
            Earlier this year, Pat and I were completely tapped out.  He was still taking any small job he could get, but we were both counting on the $24,000.00 payment I was due for turning in a draft of a script. Once I paid commissions and taxes were removed, the check would actually be $12,000.00, but that would be enough to keep us from the street (or, more truthfully, out of my parent’s guestroom) for two whole months.  The night the check was supposed to be delivered, the children were asleep in their room, Pat was playing around on the computer, and I was pacing.  Finally, the check arrived and I ripped it open to find that my $24,000.00 payment had been taxed and commissioned down to less that $8,000.00. 
            My eyes blurred, I started to pant, and I yelled, “Noooooo.”
            Pat jumped up from his computer, “What? What, What is it?”
            “No. No. No. Not again. I can’t take it.”
            “What the hell is it?” Pat demanded. 
            “The check.  The damn check.  It’s only eight thousand,” I moaned, throwing myself on the couch and starting to whimper.
            Pat grabbed the check, “Brett.  It’s just a tax mistake.  It’s happened before.  They taxed you like you made all that money in one week.” 
            “I can't live like this any more,” I snuffled. 
            Pat sat on the edge of the couch.  “You’ll get a tax adjustment check like the last time,” he said reasonably. 
            “What if I don’t?” I whined.
            “You will. You probably will.  Just relax now.  There’s nothing we can do until the morning.”
            “I can’t relax.  I won’t be able to sleep,” I said.
            “You can’t keep doing this to yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to calm down.”
            “You’re not going to say the thing about being a fireman are you?”
            “I guess I am.  Apparently you need to hear it.” 
            “I know what it is and it doesn’t help.”
            “What is it?”
            “Come on, Pat.  Stop treating me like I’m a child.”
            “An artist complaining about the ups and downs of being a freelancer is like a fireman complaining that the fire is hot.  It’s never going to change. It’s part of the job. If you don’t like it…”  He let the end of the sentence dangle.  Because he knew that I couldn’t quit now.  What else could I do at my age? With my experience? My best bet -- my only bet -- was hanging in there.  All of which was beside the more salient point that I love what I do.  I’m passionate about writing.  
            Pat put his hand on my head and stroked my hair, “Go to bed.  We’ll fix it in the morning.”
            “I’ll never be able to sleep,” I said, rolling over to face him.
            “You know,” he said, gently, “you don’t have to hold the plane up.”
            “The fireman and the plane?  That’s two metaphors in one minute,” I pointed out, meanly.
            He was referring to my mother’s fear of flying.  Whenever I flew with her as a child, she would grip the hand rests with unrelenting tension, and stare pale-faced in the direction of the cockpit, through the entire flight.  When I asked her what she was doing, she would say, “I’m holding the plane up.”
            Like my mother, I believe that worry and tension will avert disaster. If I agonize enough, I reason, the worst won’t happen. Pat has been maintaining for years that psychological tension does not affect outcome.  My deeper, more soulful, self knows that this is true. But I’m not that self very often lately and I can’t afford to take any chances. 
            I sat up on the couch and pulled our wool throw around me.
            “OK,” I said. “You’re right. I’m going to bed.”
            I stood up and looked down at him. He wasn’t buying my act, but he looked too tired to continue.
            “Goodnight,” I said, leaning down to give him a peck on the top of his head.
            I wanted to go back to our bedroom so I could be alone with my worry and fear.  There I could indulge in it without any challenge from Pat. I scooted past him and trailed the throw into the hallway.  On the carpet, outside the boys’ bedroom I saw a crumpled up piece of notebook paper. Annoyed, I stopped to pick it up.  There was writing on it.  Spencer’s scrawl. It read, “Mom, here is ten dollars.”  I opened the paper and found ten single bills wadded together.
            Spencer must have heard the whole conversation and gotten his birthday money out of his desk drawer.  I opened the door to his bedroom and saw him lying on his back, eyes trained on the ceiling.  I padded over to his bed and sat on the edge. 
            Heart sinking.  No fear, now, only love.  Only the desire to fix.  To make better.  To protect.  I put my hand on his chest.  And we talked.  

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kamasutra 101

The e-mail from my brother Keir read, “There are supposed to be some really cool Kamasutra temples in Khajuraho. Robyn and I have always wanted to see them.  Would that be too much for the boys?”
            This was last March, when Pat’s and my financial world started caving in and India seemed way in the distant, who-can-think-that-far-ahead, future.  I’ve heard that extreme stress can cause a kind of splintering in the brain.  Some events can be put in a mental shoebox alongside, say, the time your joke about your thong misfired with your elderly boss, and stashed under the metaphoric bed in the bedroom of your mind.  This is what happened to the India trip. I answered e-mails from my brother, but India was under the bed.
            That’s why I replied to his e-mail, “Go ahead and book. It’ll be fine” without even googling Khajuraho, or ancient temples, or  “At what age is it appropriate to see hundreds of graphic Kamasutra penis sculptures hanging off of temples all over town?”
            In truth, I thought that there would only be a couple of temples, that the sculptures would be INSIDE, and that Keir and Robyn take the boys and their four-year-old daughter, Zoe, on a walk while Pat and I explored the ancient wonders INSIDE. I didn’t know that anywhere you spit in Khajuraho you hit a lingam or a yoni.
            I am now more relieved than ever that Pat took our eldest, Spencer, on a camping trip this summer to explain to him the nuts and bolts of nuts and bolts. When Pat first proposed the trip to me, I imagined the two of them on a nature walk, spying some animals, and Pat naturally segueing into “the talk”.  Not so. Apparently, Pat brought along a book and launched into his lecture as soon as the tent was staked. 
            “It turns out he knew almost everything but the main thing,” Pat told me when they returned.  He was in the kitchen unpacking the cooler.
            “Did he say anything while you were explaining it?”
            “Not really,” Pat said, putting soda cans into the refrigerator.  
“Was he uncomfortable?”
            “He definitely looked like he wanted to be someplace else.”
            “And when you were finished explaining everything, did he have any questions?” I asked, leaning against the doorframe.
            “He just looked at me for a second and said, ‘Insert?’”
            “I’m with Spence, the word you used was ‘insert’?”
            “What?  You prefer ‘thrust’?”
            “There’s got to be something in between ‘insert’ and ‘thrust’,” I countered.  “’Insert’ sounds so cold -- like you’re mailing a letter.”
            “’Push’, maybe?”  Pat shut the refrigerator door. 
            “You see, this is why I wanted to talk about terminology,” I said.  A couple of months before that, I had asked Pat what kind of language he was planning on using for “the talk”.  He shrugged, then, and said, “Um.  Language?  Let’s see…hmmm.  I’ll say, ‘Son, when your bitch git horny, you just smack that sweet ass down and git to woik.’” We both laughed so hard that we forgot to discuss terminology.
            Pat closed the lid of the cooler, “I could have said, ‘slot’, I guess.”
            “OK, never mind,” I said.  “It’s done.  We don’t have to rehash your choices.”
            “That’s big of you.”
            “So after you finished talking, did he have any questions?”
            “Um. Not really.  He just thought for a second and then asked me why I couldn’t have told him all of this at home.”
            Of course he did, I thought.  Spencer is the most reasonable child I’ve ever known.  I can already see the man inside the boy. Just recently, Murphy said to Spence, “If you give me one of your gumi bears, I’ll be your best friend.”  Spence barely skipped a beat in replying, “I already am your best friend.”
            I am not as reasonable as my son. I am impulsive and prone to making life-changing decisions with very little information. Going with my gut has almost always worked for me. When I travel, I’ve learned to say “yes” to everything. The food.  A local’s invitation. The stranger’s recommendation.  I’ve been burned a few times.  But, more often, “yes” has taken me farther than my dreams. It is what took me to the Sahara and the Ukraine. It is what got me onto a tiny prop plane, flying to a Panamanian island no bigger than a football field (later, my brother, Keir, admitted to me that those planes “go down all the time").  
           It’s true that I wasn’t entirely conscious when I e-mailed my brother that visiting the Kamasutra temples would be fine.  But I said “yes” out of a lifetime of habit.  Why would I want to miss anything?
            I don’t know how many of the sculptures the children will actually see in Khajuraho. If they do see a few, however, I hope that Murphy accepts them as depictions of people having a lot of fun, naked. And I hope that Spencer’s reasonableness will prevail and that he’ll simply store the information away for another day.  Barring that, he can always stash it under his bed.