Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Adventures with Me and Yoshi

I started talking to my car right after I bought it.

At six am, on the morning when I was to start teaching at a new school, I greeted him.

"Good Morning, Yoshi," I said.

Our talks continued. On the way to and from work, I talked to him about what was bugging me. When drivers cut me off, I bitched: "Omigod, Yosh. Can you believe that guy?" One night, I was pulling bags out of the trunk, when it came down suddenly, on my head. I yelled at him like a Dad: "Yoshi!"

In my family, it's tradition to name our cars. Currently, we have five. There's George the Geo, Cam the Camry, Holly the Honda, Vercingetorex the Voyager, and Yoshi the Yaris. Each name was carefully considered, alongside several options, and the personality and look of the car. At my house, we don't mess around.

It's hard not talk to a car after its been named. As with any pet, or child, once a name is given, a personality seems to follow, inexplicably. Yoshi has been no exception. He's just like a little boy. He likes to go fast. He growls whenever I hit the brakes. He's also very helpful. Sometimes he goes and gets gas while I'm at work. I'll climb into the driver's seat and find that I have more gas than I did when I left him.

"Thanks, Yosh," I say.

Oh, I know what you're thinking. Duh, Anney. You need to get your gas gauge checked, before you run out on the highway at two o'clock in the morning.

I say, me and Yosh, we got a bond. You don't even know.

Two weeks ago, the first snow of the season dusted down over southeastern PA. Most of the area got only flurries. There was a small area, just outside of Philly, that suffered a mild blizzard. KYW called it "the red belt." My commute took me straight through it.

At a quarter to eight, Yoshi and I were stopped on winding, snow-covered back roads. Cars were backed up everywhere. Because the snow had fallen during rush hour, it was packed into ice. Everyone was being extra careful, inching at a wheelchair's pace. Of course, there's no point in going slow on ice. Ice is ice. Wheels can't catch on it. Up and down route 352, people were coming out of their homes to help push cars that were stuck, wheels spinning aimlessly.

Yosh and I watched as the guy in front of us struggled to coast down a small hill. Every time he tried to go foward, his car slid sideways, an the embankment.

"What are we gonna do, Yosh?" I moaned.

The roads contributed to half of my nervousness. My tank was almost out of gas. Also, I had only a vague idea of where I was, having started teaching at a new school this fall.

Route 352 was our usual route home. Within moments, cars cleared it. I gazed at the hill ahead of us. It was winding and white, like a scene from an ABC Family Christmas special, just before the entrance of a jingling wintry sleigh from the evergreens. There was no way we'd make it up.

We turned around. Major highways passed by on the right and left. Route 3. Route 202. I imagined the mess that awaited us, if we took either one. In our area, the word "highway" means "drive really fast, no matter what the weather conditions are."

Finally, I settled on a road that I knew, vaguely. It took an hour, but I got us out of the red belt. When Yoshi's wheels hit dry pavement, I threw my fist into the air and cheered. We were safe.

I got home and told my sister Moira about my adventure.

"Yoshi did so great," I said. "I'm so proud of him."

She looked at me like I was crazy. Moira, the girl who started the naming of our cars. Moira, who talks to her coffee in the morning. Moira, who at three years old, wrote a song called, "Jacket, You're Lost." She looked at me like I was crazy.

Okay. So I am a little crazy.

This is the thing. My parents taught me to take care of my shit. Throughout my childhood, they yelled at me for eating in the living room, writing with permanent marker too close to the good couch, putting my sneakered feet on the bed, etc. As a kid, I thought they were insane. Like Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty," I yelled back, "It's just a couch!"

But the way you treat your possessions is often an indicator of how you treat yourself. When I take care of Yoshi, I'm taking care of myself. When I talk to him, I'm talking to myself. I'm keeping myself company.

That's kind of a good thing. You never know when you might be stuck somewhere, left alone to fend for yourself. It's kind of inevitable, isn't it?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Nanowrimo

This blog makes it look like I'm not writing. But since August, I've written about ten blogs... in my mind. On paper, I've been trying to finish my memoir. Nanowrimo is my last ditch, in hopes that I can soon move on to more fun and more violent literary adventures. If you wish to track my progress...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Doppelgangers

My story "Doppelgangers" has been published in the Kenyon Review. Read it here


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Do I Like You So Much?

It’s hard for me to feel truly comfortable in a place. Maybe it stems from being teased as a kid. Maybe it’s genetics, the hereditary hyper-sensitivity I garnered from my father’s side of the family. I think that it must be the latter, because at thirty years old, I’m still uncomfortable in most social situations. The older I get, I find it more and more difficult to relax and just “be myself.”

Does anybody have it figured out? I think my grandfather did.

“All I remember about your father is that he had a big bald head,” said my Aunt Mare to my mother, a few weeks ago at the shore. “He had a big bald head and big round eyes.”

He did have a big bald head and big round eyes. Also a big nose and saggy jowl, strong hands and bad knees.

He died this past Sunday night. Natural causes. He was ready to go; he’d been saying it for months. He could no longer walk, hold a pen to do crosswords, remember long enough to joke with people or enjoy music. For the last month or so, we’ve all been praying that he’d get to his rest soon. And he got it.

Still, my family is sad. He was a remarkable guy, the kind of personality that makes you mad that there’s this thing called death that has to happen to everybody. He was so good-natured, and it was catching. Even in the planning of the arrangements, flying the family down to Florida at the end of the week, we’ve been slightly jubilant.

“Six of us on a plane for two days?” said my twenty-seven year old brother. “This is gonna be awesome!”

Grandpop would appreciate the sentiment. Not to be ear-twistingly cliché, but it IS how he would have wanted us to be.

So many people say in mourning: “So-and-so wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.” Most of the time, I think it’s bullshit. I mean, who doesn’t want people to cry at their funeral? If I attended my funeral as a ghost and saw nobody crying, I’d be like: Well, thanks a lot. I want melodrama. A mire of people emotionally embarrassing themselves. Crying. Sobbing. Throwing themselves on my casket. Like the end of Godfather III.

That’s not my grandpop though. I know this because he made everyone’s happiness his priority. He often reminded me of Sinatra in that way; I saw him move around his house like I imagined Sinatra moved around the Sands, spending time talking to every single person in the place, making sure that he or she was happy, taken care of for the evening. He also mastered this inner calm, a feeling that spread through the room with his smile. If not cracking jokes, he’d remind us, incessantly, how much he loved us.

“Why do I like you so much?” he often asked.

My grandmother would cross from the family room to the kitchen, and in those few steps, he’d tell her that she was wonderful, and he loved her, at least four times. I’m not exaggerating. It wasn’t just lip service either. He wore that love on his face, in his eyes, in his smile, and the gentle way he spoke to her, and all of us.

Neither he nor my grandmother ever raised their voices. They never got cross with each other. They were quiet and patient. When they visited, Matthew and I woke early, ran to their bed and climbed right in. We stayed there for the early dawning hours, singing songs.

“Here we go,
Into the wild blue yonder…
CRASH!”

“You are the B-E-S-T
Best
Of all the R-E-S-T
Rest,
And I’ll L-O-V-E
Love you,
All the T-I-M-E
Time!”

“Be kind to your web-footed friends
‘Cos a duck may be somebody’s mother.
They live in the woods and the swamp,
Where the weather is cold and dahmp.
Now you may think that this is the end.
Well it is!”

For breakfast, he made us pancakes in the shapes of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty—a feat I’ve tried to replicate many times, and failed. (Seriously, try to make a pancake in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It’s impossible.)

Later on in the day, he’d get down on the floor with us to play, build castles with blocks. He taught us Checkers, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit. When we did well, he marveled at our smarts, bulging out his eyes, terrifically impressed.

As I got older, he taught me how to mix the chemicals for the right pH level in their pool. He let me help him with his crosswords. He taught me everything about Sinatra. Recently, I found a photo of him from the seventies, where he’s lying on the floor with his hands tucked under his head, right next to the speaker cabinet in his living room. The look on his face is pure joy. I felt like I was looking into a mirror; I was like: Yeah, music does that to me too.

The last time I saw him, we drank vodka tonics and joked and laughed. I stopped smiling only when he asked how writing was going. I replied, “Well I’m writing, but I haven’t been published yet.”

“You will,” he said.

This shut me up, not because it had to do with my career, but because of the way he said it. He replied so simply, like I’d said that I wanted to take out the trash, or do the dishes. To him, it was simple. There was no doubt in his mind.

You will.

My grandfather carried this unflinching optimism through his whole life. Who knows where he got it? He grew up in the Philly neighborhood of Tacony, so poor that he stole Christmas trees for his family. He could not afford college, so he went to war, flew planes in WWII. He went to college on the GI Bill. Like a classic old movie, he started working in the mailroom of an insurance company, and worked his way up until he was an executive. People liked him so much that they put him in charge of starting new branches all over the country. He inspired people to feel pride and love in their work. He worked hard, planned frugally, but always enjoyed life.

“You are number one,” he often said.

For years, I thought he meant simply that I should take care of myself, first and foremost. But now I see that he was trying to teach me his recipe for happiness. To be happy is to love yourself, truly, completely.

When you truly love yourself, you carry that unflinching optimism with you everywhere. You are confident. You glow. You spread those good feelings all around. You have a hard day at work, but so what? At the end of the day, you can lie on the living room floor with your head in the stereo cabinet, smiling. You can surround yourself with the people you love most.

I take a lot from my grandfather—his love of music, his big bulging eyes, his saggy jowl. Most important is this. His gushiness. His need to constantly remind everyone around him that he loved them.

It’s important. Not because it’s the nice thing to do or because you never know when they might be taken from you. Because love is how you survive in this world. Love helps you carry that unflinching optimism through every obstacle.

I think that this is why my grandfather was so adamant about saying, “I love you.” Those three words are like spells for love and happiness. They also make a place comfortable. They turn four walls into a home.


Howard Hoke Ireland, flying in WWII
my grandpop Howard Ireland flying in WWII

Ireland and grandchildren, 1988
look how despondent grandpop looks


Ireland and granddaughters, August 2007
mo, me and grandpop-from-florida

Saturday, August 9, 2008

memoir: prologue

I look asleep. But I’m not. Sure, my eyes are closed, my lashes are fluttering, and my breath is slight leavening in my chest. It means nothing.

Look closer. I’m a little nerd. Woody Allen in an eleven-year-old girl’s body. Coke bottle glasses. Buck teeth. Greasy braids. Chicken legs. My pj’s consist of an orange Flyers t-shirt and hole-y pale pink bottoms with the feet cut off.

The nightlight burns bright on the bedside table. Somewhere in the swells of blankets, there’s a book. I’ve fallen asleep with my glasses on. But I’m not really asleep.

Inside I feel awake. I can see my room around me, but I can’t move. I lie stuck inside a pocket, halted on the path to sleep. It’s as if I’m lying in a clear casket, cut to the exact perimeters of my body. The blue walls of my room look crinkly, as if awash with static from Channel four. The grainy air hums like a million little mouths. I get the feeling that I’m not alone. Something stirs in my bed.

I look down at my body. Many hands have sprouted from my sides. I look like a spider girl or the Hindu goddess Kali. Only I have no control over the hands. They don’t lie dormant or paralyzed with the rest of my body. They turn on me. They tickle me in my most secret places—behind my knees, the small of my back, the arches of my feet. They stroke the crooks of me, not in a way that makes me explode with laughter, but in a way that makes me squirm and wince. They pick at my torso, my belly, and my legs. They pluck me like a guitar.

The humming air begins to chuckle. It itches the insides of my ears. It feels like something is holding me down in my bed. If I struggle, it will smother me.

It’s not just a dream. It’s sleep paralysis and it’s been happening since I was four.

SP is a condition where a person, either falling asleep or waking, feels unable to move or speak. It happens when a sleeper moves through the stages of sleep too fast. The result is death-like paralysis, coupled with intense fear, and sometimes hallucinations.

I call the episodes, trances. I’ve never told anybody about the trances—partly because I don’t think they are that dangerous, just a little scary and weird, and partly because I don’t know what to tell, or who to tell.

Who will believe me? There’s so much about me that’s wrong. Each of the hands that sprout from my sides is another thing about me that I don’t like. My glasses. My smile that’s like a retard’s. My nose dripping snot. My throat making me cough until I puke. My head that’s so tired. My body that can’t sleep. My brain that won’t shut up. My mouth that always says the wrong things.

If my body is a garden from where these hands grow, then I’m the gardener, fertilizing it with hate. Self-hate, when done right, becomes part of everything I do and don’t do. This is why instead of telling my parents or a doctor what’s up with me, or researching sleep disorders, I stay quiet and still, suffering through the nights of my childhood.

There’s only one way to get out of sleep paralysis, and it’s painful. I have to wake myself up.

It’s like I’m in a little shell, with just enough room to wiggle. I start rocking forward. I tell myself: Wake up, wake up, wake up. I focus all of my energy on these words and where they are coming from, the very center of my forehead. I rock once, twice. I grit my teeth and wrench up, pulling through what feels like twelve feet of water.

I sit up. I feel like I’ve been pelted with bricks. If I stay in bed, I’ll conk out again, and slip right back into paralysis. The rest of the night will be a cycle of strangulation until dawn. I jump out of bed and go to the window.

It’s around four in the morning, I judge by the royal color of the sky. Not much longer until daytime. I place my hands on the windowsill, and rest my chin on my hands.

I live in God’s Country, the suburbs of Philadelphia. Behind our house is a rolling acre of grass and a farm. At this hour, not even the horses are awake. The silence is so loud that it bangs in my ears. The stillness wraps me like a blanket. I feel like I’m the only person alive on earth. And it’s lovely.

I stare at the line of trees at the edge of my backyard. The branches have grown in such a way that they look like a portrait. Their shadows make faces, kinda like how clouds look like different shapes and faces in the springtime. This morning, the trees look like Gone with the Wind, Rhett dipping Scarlett back for a kiss, saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I want so badly to fall into someone’s arms, and have someone fall in love with me.

I am eleven. I think that everything that happens to me means something. I think that this picture in the trees is a sign.

I sigh, wish into the screen: Someday, someone will take care of me.

The wind picks up. A bird lifts off Scarlett’s shoulder. It flaps into the dying sky. For a moment, I watch it fly. Its body catches the dawning light; its muscles throb and flex beneath its threadbare coat.

Flying is hard. Often, I’ve wondered: Do birds even enjoy it?

If not, what a shame. Although sometimes when the body is hardest at work, it feels the most calm, we feel the most alive. This is something I’ve yet to learn, that lying around, doing nothing, and waiting for change only makes a person go more insane.

I circle my room for a while. I flip through teen magazines. I organize my closet. I read my favorite Baby-sitter’s Club book for the 88 millionth time.

Two hours, and the sky begins to change. It turns a deep Navy Atlantic, and grows paler and paler until settling on a crisp salty blue.

Across the hall in my parents’ room, KYW news radio clacks on. Their bed creaks. Mom groans. Dad coughs. I turn and look to the alarm clock on my nightstand. Six. Time to get ready for school. I lay my forehead down on the windowsill and close my eyes. Suddenly, I feel so tired.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Batman!

I went at the best time. Lunchtime! There were five people in the theater, other than me and my sister. This meant that I could laugh uproariously and she could jump in the seat and pound her fists in the air whenever Christian Bale walked onscreen.

I refuse to repeat what everyone else has said about the movie. Instead, I'm going to point out the little pluses and minuses that nobody else noticed, or wrote on.

To quote my brother, it was a whole lot of movie. It was hard to know if I liked it or not. I wasn't sure I understood it, half the time.

One scene in particular left me scratching my head. How on earth did Rachel and Batman fall off a hundred-story building, land on a car, and not die? Meanwhile, the Joker is back upstairs at the fundraiser, looking for Harvey Dent. Instead of taking us back upstairs, the scene cuts out.

I asked Moira in the theater, "Sooo... what happened to the Joker?"

She said, "I guess the Joker got away."

"Just like the song!" I cried. And we busted up laughing.

If that was the joke, it wasn't funny. We were meant to assume that the Joker gave up, and left. Lame. Totally out of character. I hate when writers end scenes instead of finishing them.

Regardless, that was the only gripe I had about the movie. It was beautifully structured. The plot naturally unfolded out of itself. Whatever that means. It was funny too. Why has nobody mentioned this? Every character shared the same wry sense of humor, that comes only in the most dire situations. They were funny in a way that exhibited how scared they were for themselves.

Maggie G. was my favorite love interest of any movie, even though my brother says she's not pretty enough. Bah! She was flirty and badass. She should've been in the first one.

Oh yeah, and Heath. The whole drive home, I wracked my brain, trying to think of any movie where an actor did a better job than Heath did in this film. I got nothing.

Watching him was like watching art come alive. Yes, like everyone says, he was brilliant. But more importantly, he was entertaining. He was hilarious. Every time he walked off screen, I just wanted him to come back. That's intriguing, in my opinion. It's much much easier to create art than to entertain an audience. The art of entertaining is a mystery. It changes with the times. Our parents don't always find the same movies and music as entertaining as we do. Heath tapped into something timeless.

Still, it's important to remember that Heath didn't write the Joker's lines. He was fascinating, because the writers wrote him fascinating dialogue. There was a director too, coaching his movements. There was a makeup artist, scarring up his face. But Heath makes it so easy to forget that. He makes you forget that there's a writer, a director, a camera, a set. He makes you believe, for a short while, that it's all real.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Am I an Idiot?

I got a lot of stuff that's wrong with me. Allergies. Nearsightedness. Gingivitis. Chronic Prepatellar Bursitis. Insomnia. Anxiety Disorder. IBS. Lactose Intolerance. This week chalked another one onto the list. I think I may be gluten intolerant too.

I started researching on Wednesday. After reading up on it, I went for a run. The list of symptoms circled through my head.

That damn weird metal taste!

Dry skin? Is that why I'm itchy all the time?

Poor tooth enamel! I did think it odd that I've been drinking coffee since the age of fourteen, but I didn't get stains until last year.

Fatigue? Hell yes. I drink 5 cups of green tea every morning. (Having cut the coffee 'cos of the tooth stains).

Back pain? Hmmm... birthday blog?

IBS. Lactose Intolerance. Decreased appetite. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Depression. Don't get me started.

All the while I'm thinking this, I'm chugging up this hill I've chugged up a million times over the past year, feeling like I'm going to die.

POOR MUSCLE TONE AND INABILITY TO LOSE WEIGHT.

Oh. My. God. I stopped in my tracks.

Is that why I've been working out six days a week for the last three years, and barely shaved off five pounds?

So I decided to go gluten-free, just to see what would happen.

Now I know what you are thinking: Shouldn't you go to a doctor, Anney?

Wake up, people. This is America. I don't have health insurance.

For the past three years, I've self-diagnosed myself as a lot of things. Mostly all of these ailments could be fixed through diet. So I played with my diet. Then last year I went to a doctor, who certified that I had done good homework, that I was right with my assessments.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think I am fit to stand in for a doc. Lest I end up like Sylvia Plath's father, who mistakenly diagnosed his diabetes as cancer, and died of a gangrenous leg. I do plan to go to the doctor again. Once I finish my book. Once I get a job. Once I get insurance. Somehow. Somewhere. Someday.

I keep thinking though... Neither the doctor or I was able to correctly diagnose me, as I still have problems. It makes me wonder - is self-diagnosing valuable? Can we poor bastards use it to put off a costly visit, at least for a while? Or is it terribly dangerous and am I an idiot?

I'm going to have to wait and see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

30

My birthday reminded me of a pasta commercial. You know-Mom goes to market, cooks in the kitchen, presents food to family, who chatter and laugh around the table. Only for my birthday, it wasn't my mom cooking; it was me.

It's ironic. My lack of mommification definitely ruled as my biggest worry throughout my 29th year. While I'm not in any rush to get married or procreate, nor am I sure I want to, I still feel like I haven't grown up all the way. I haven't gone through any of the typical stages that denounces one an adult.

I mean, a month ago, I moved back in with my parents.

But it doesn't feel like I moved back in with my parents. Everyone works all the time. Everyone has his or her own agenda. Everyone's getting along. It's like we're... dare I say it... friends...?

Two minutes into my birthday dinner, we were cracking up laughing.

Moira's boyfriend became a cop last week. She thread her fingers into a gun and waved it around the table, telling us: "David's getting his weapons qualification! Then he has to take his gun with him EVERYWHERE."

"So he's going to have to bring his gun here?" I squeaked.

Matthew pretended to be Dave, sitting down at dinner and accidentally setting off his gun. "Oh no! Elmo!" he said.

Dad erupted with a barking laugh. He hates our cat, Elmo.

"I knew there was something I liked about that boy!" he roared.

Moira's eyes filled with tears and she cried, "Kitty!"

Which only made us laugh harder.

On our plates was a healthy version of our typical birthday menu. Vegan pizza. Vegan cake. No refined sugar. It went over surprisingly well.

Originally my mother said that she wasn't eating the pizza, freaked out by soy cheese. But she did and with a full mouth, garbled, "This is amazing!"

My dad remarked on how it left him satiated, but not uncomfortably so.

"I think you're onto something here," he said.

And that was the best present-to know that I'm slowly winning them over to healthier eating. Ha!

Next came the cake, or as Matthew called it, "colon cleanser." Can you imagine a cake without eggs? I couldn't. But it worked. Even if the icing was a little runny.

Everyone ate it and got chocolate everywhere. Unlike when we were kids, Mom didn't shriek about our clothes and the tablecloth, and Dad didn't growl about the furniture or the rug. The didn't have to. Us kids know the drill by now. Dab the stain with ice and water. No big deal.

As we stacked the plates and took them to the kitchen, I realized that I HAVE grown up, because WE have all grown up as a family. We've grown together, becoming more like a family, instead of separating like so many do. We've grown in a way that makes us get along better.

Mom's more sarcastic. Dad's less so. Matthew's happy. Cat saves her temper tantrums for a day that's not someone's birthday. Moira talks. I listen.

Together, we are a group of adults who enjoy each other's company. We ARE friends.

Realizing that made me feel thirty.

That, and waking up the next day to discover I'd thrown my back out from all that cooking.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ugly Naked Girl

One of the problems with moving back home is that you bump into your past all the time. It's never the people you'd like to see again. It's the ones you'd like to forget.

Last Wednesday, my BFF of twenty years, Plak, gave birth to her first daughter. I went to the hospital, and rocked my soon-to-be goddaughter in a rocking chair, while talking to Plak and her husband. Rain and thunder beat against the dark windows. All of us felt quite serene and amazed at the miracle of life.

Then Plak's mom, Miss Jen, came in.

"Anney, Mike Shaw is looking for you."

"What? Why?"

"He wants to apologize. He wants to take you out to coffee."

"Oh God." I rolled my eyes.

This guy, Mike Shaw (not his real name), is a nurse with Miss Jen at the hospital. Fifteen years ago, he and I were sophomores, flirting in the halls of our Catholic high school.

One weekend, we'd gotten together at his house while his parents were out. I'd sat on his bed, trying not to talk about my ex-boyfriend, who was also his best friend, and the whole reason I was there. Call it revenge. Call it a rebound. I just wanted to get the pains in my heart to stop.

But as we leaned in, drawing our faces closer together, I felt the air punch out of my stomach. You know how faces look different up close? That was Mike Shaw. From a kissing distance, he looked creepy, almost alien-like, with dripping desperate eyes and a tiny pointy chin. I pulled back. I couldn't do it.

He said it was okay.

Rejection is never okay to a fifteen year old boy. Next week in school, he told everyone that we'd almost hooked up-but that the sight of me sans clothing made him physically unable to take it "further." Not only did he lie about what happened, he also painted this portrait of me as an ugly naked girl, when I hadn't even taken my clothes off.

Now, fifteen years later, after the military, college, nursing school, Mike Shaw wants to apologize, officially.

Miss Jen said, "I think he's really changed. He's grown up."

I'm not so sure.

Supposedly, we grow up, get jobs, husbands, wives, kids, and we realize what's important. The old petty drama doesn't matter anymore. By asking me to coffee, Mike Shaw implies that it DOES still matter, that there IS a need for an apology. The slate is still dirty; the childish rumors and adolescent rejections stay with us. In that way, I see him as growing down.

Why would I take time out of my day, so he can get this off his chest, and feel better about the past? If consensus gives words their true definitions, then Mike wants the absolution that I'll never have. He goes down in high school history as a funny guy; I'm the ugly naked girl.

I'm not bitter. I just don't want to go to coffee and rehash all of that again.

So for the next two days, I came to visit my BFF and the baby, I moved through the hospital hallways, as stealth as a member of the A-Team. I took the stairs. Down the corridors, I crept, ducking behind nurse's stations and in doorways.

Not until I reached Plak's room, sat down in the rocking chair with my goddaughter, did I feel safe. I looked down into her big ponderous eyes and felt cradled by the clear, clean promise of the future.

Monday, May 5, 2008

I'm Falling For You

A little over a year ago, just after my apartment burned down, I fell while jogging. I tripped on some unleveled cobblestones, and went right down on them, ripping the skin off both of my knees. A few days later, I still couldn't walk. I went to the doctor and found out that I had bursitis.

Nobody understands why I have bursitis. It's called Housemaid's Knee. Usually maids get it from working on their knees too much. You can imagine the reactions I got when I explained to friends why I was limping.

"You're not a housemaid. What the hell have you been doing?" Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge.

Since then, it's been a never-ending battle to keep my bursitis down. If it flares up, I can be off my feet for a week. Then I miss working out. It takes longer and longer for me to burn off all the malt liquor that I drank into a giant beer gut in college.
The worst part of it? I keep falling. I keep hurting myself.

Last week, while grading papers in my office, I swiveled from the bookshelf to the desk to the computer and back again. Each time I came around, I smacked my bad knee into the side of the desk. I did this not once, not twice, but FOUR times. That night, I fell into bed, digging my knee into the springs. The next day, while writing at home, I turned around in my chair too fast and it flipped out from underneath me. I went down on my bad knee, and the chair flipped up, its legs knocking a stack of books off the bookshelf.

I drop stuff. I walk into walls. I can't tell you how many mornings my hand has missed the spoon and plunked straight into my cereal bowl, splashing soy milk all over the table.

I am a clumsy ox. I come from a family of clumsy oxen. At dinners together, we swap our clumsy escapades. There's the time that Catherine tripped up the family room step, fell into the basement door, which knocked the cat down the stairs. There's the time that Moira gave herself a concussion by hitting herself in the head with a hairdryer. There's the time Mom brought Matthew a glass of water before bedtime, and then tripped and spilled it all over him. Four-year-old Matthew replied, "Thanks for the water, Mom."

The rest of my family handles our clumsiness with comedy. I continue to feel mortified, mainly because the clumsiness extends into a lack of physicality that I've never been able to overcome. In grade school gym class, team captains always picked me last. In mosh pits, I was picked up and thrown. On two occasions, while dancing at some club, someone has pulled me aside and asked "Are you okay?"

Embarrassment is tough to swallow. It tastes like a dish rag. It makes my nose burn. It hurts. But like Dimetapp or Robitussin, I know I have to get it down, wince and deal with it, in order to make myself better.

Sometimes I ask myself: Am I really that goofy-looking, or is our culture too superficial?

Yes. I am that goofy-looking. Yes. Our culture is too superficial. And I contribute to the latter on a daily basis. I drop everything to watch Josh Beckett pitch for the Red Sox. I fall for bands with lead singers that dance around all cheesy. If the second Lord of the Rings is on TV, I have to stop and wait for the part where Legolas skateboards down the steps of Helms Deep on a shield, shooting arrows at Urk-hai the whole way down.

Athleticism is kinda hot. Clumsiness is not. So be it.

Then I lace up my sneakers and head out the door to go for a run. I hit the sidewalk and turn towards the Charles River, which is lined with smooth grey concrete, and not a cobblestone in sight.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

anthony's song

At this time every year, I think about moving back to PA. And every year, I walk around the amazing city of Boston and contemplate the trees and Fenway and think, "One more year." Well, not this year. I am officially moving back to PA, sometime next month.

I love Boston so much, that it took seven years for me to realize that I've been pretty lonely here. All of my grad school friends moved to New York and D.C. The SWiG girls are all married and have their own friends. Peter's moving to L.A. The jobs for adjunct English profs are dwindling, both in the individual institutions and across the armpit of the state. To accommodate the vast number of adjuncts, schools have been cutting class loads. I can't afford to stay here. There are actually more opportunities in Philly right now. And I want to go back to school anyway.

The writing continues to trip me up. I may lose my writer's group by leaving, and that will screw me. But I've been working so hard over the past seven years, choosing work over family and friends. It hasn't made my writing any better. It's only made me more stressed and depressed and uninspired. What do you write about when all you do is sit in your room and write? Stupid dreams. From that comes nothing. There has to be some kind of invention, craft to tell a good story. There has to be the spark of real spontaneous unscripted life. It can't be all personal fantasy; no one cares about that.

When I was in the UK this past March, I stopped in little crappy towns through England. I saw people going to work, living their lives. I wondered: Why do they stay in this little crappy town? Then I realized. Family. Friends. It's home. Why am I not home?

I don't feel like I ever really left.

Honestly? Let me cup my hand around my mouth and bring my voice to a whisper, so the Bostonians don't hear me. Boston is pretty. Boston has beautiful tree-lined streets and gay marriage and green coffeeshops and farmers markets and great recycling programs. But compared to Pennsylvania, Boston is kinda boring.

Now, if I could only deal with losing the Red Sox... sigh.

Friday, March 28, 2008

There and Back Again

The closer I bullet towards age thirty, the more I grow tired of America. Take my trip home this past Christmas. I drove through the suburbs of Philadelphia, frowning at the shopping centers and McMansions encroaching on the hills and farmland. I rolled down the window and yelled at the urban sprawl: "Thanks for bulldozing my childhood!"

I wanted to live somewhere untouched by man. So this spring break, instead of returning to Philly, I decided to check out the United Kingdom.

Friends and family were ecstatic. They gushed, "You are going to love it!" They imagined me, as I did, a lone writer, wandering through green lands of crags and castles and cute pale boys with whimsical accents. Together, we chanted the amenities of the UK. The museums! The trains! The architecture! The clothes! The Guinness! It was all talk. I had never been out of the country before.

So… did I love it? No. I didn't love it. On my last day in Edinburgh, I sat in a coffee shop with some Scottish guys and told them why.

"It's just like America," I said.

They gasped, groaned, and grabbed their stomachs.

"No offense," one said. "But we're used to thinking that we're better than America. I mean, the stereotypical American."

"What is the stereotype?" I asked.

"Loud. Obnoxious. Selfish."

This cracked me up. It was exactly why I had left the US, and exactly why I had no intention of staying in the UK. In my travels, I met many obnoxious people. Some were Americans. Some were not.

In London coffee shops, British girls screamed Avril Lavigne songs and left faucets running in the restrooms. On the street, Asian mothers banged strollers into my ankles. Little Indian boys escaped from their parents and knocked me over. German teens blew smoke in my face. Cars clipped my toes at the curb. I arrived at one B&B to find the proprietress not home, leaving me to sit on the front stoop in the blustery cold. On the train to Edinburgh, my seatmate, a three hundred pound Caribbean woman, ate three chocolate bars and passed out on me. Everywhere I went, I saw people acting like jerks.

But I met nice people too. I traveled alone, taking trains from town to town. Each time before boarding, I asked someone if I was headed in the right direction. When I got lost, passersby stopped to help. Many heard my accent and stopped me, wanting to know why I was in the country and what I thought of Barack Obama. Without their friendliness, I would have felt more alone than I was.

In one town, a group of Italian PhD students invited me to a party. In another, two Liverpudlian brothers warned me of tourist traps. A British Air Force pilot joined me for dinner, simply because I sat alone. A couple teachers invited me to their primary school graduation. Old Yorkshire men sat beside me on the train and told me the history of every town we passed by. Just outside of Edinburgh, I looked out the window at the cliffed coast to see two people walking their dog, and waving up to our train.

Even the Scottish guys were kind enough to put stereotypes aside. They hung out with me, and didn't hit me when I gave my thoughtless survey of their country. They let me explain myself.

"What I mean to say," I told them. "Is that we're all the same. We're not as different as we think we are. I mean it in a good way."

They nodded and agreed. One of the guys went, "Awww."

Still, I decided not to move to the UK. Being away made me realize how much I loved America. Traveling alone made everything look lonely. The castles and patchwork fields lost their romance, once they became part of the every day. I thought: Give me the Jersey shore, Valley Forge, and a Target any day.

Landscape has so little to do with what we call home. It's people that make a place. If people are the same everywhere, I'd rather surround myself with the ones that I know and love. I'd rather have a place to come home to, than a place to run away from.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Memoirs of a Vale Rat

I don't remember much from the summer of 1995. I spent it smoking blunts and drinking forties of malt liquor. Every day, that was the goal. I was sixteen.

One night, my friends and I drove around Phoenixville and couldn't find anything. Somebody said, "Hey, let's go to the Vale."

The Vale Rio diner was an electric pink dining car that had sat in the center of Phoenixville since 1943. As we pulled into the parking lot, I wondered why I'd never been there before. It was just the kind of place I'd want to hang out. I wasn't like my friends. When the they talked about moving to Long Beach, California, I smiled wistfully. I wanted to go to New York City or Ireland. I wanted to play my guitar, discuss philosophy and poetry with other intellectual wanderers. My friends wanted what rappers talked about in songs, "A little bit of gold and a pager." But for me, the greasy spoon of the Vale Rio was poetry.

We walked in. The Vale was packed. Kids filled the smoking section. There were band kids from our school, and some of the punks and goths from the Carrie Court apartments. My friends and I tentatively hung at the counter. In no time, the kids that we knew started hollering our names. They introduced us around. We were welcomed into the fold.

A couple punk guys invited me into their booth. Piercings covered their faces; tattoos covered their arms. They wore big ripped sweaters and smoked cheap cigarettes, just like me. They invited me to play Egyptian Ratscrew. When I told them I didn't know how to play, they taught me. We played, and told each other our life stories.

At the end of an hour, we were old friends. The boys admitted to me that they hung out at the Vale, because it kept them from drugs. At sixteen, seventeen, some of them had already been in rehab, psych wards, or Juvy. The Vale gave them a safe place where they could hang out and have a good time.

It came time to leave, and I didn't want to go. The very next night, as my friends and I drove around in search of forties and blunts, I suggested going back to the Vale. Nobody wanted to. It struck me as weird, because they'd had fun too.

The following weeks, I went through a transition. I started my senior year of high school. My summer boyfriend dumped me. By mid-October, I was hanging out at the Vale every night.

My old friends continued to drink and smoke every day after school. Like a bad after school special, they tried harder and harder drugs. Some dropped out of school. Some got stuck in the canticle of drug addiction-on and off sobriety, crime, jail time, homelessness. Some died.

The night before I left for college, I sat out on the corner of my neighborhood, talking to two of them while they snorted coke off a clear glass plate.

"Don't look down on me for this, Anne," one of them said, bending her head into a rolled up dollar bill.

"I don't," I said.

And I didn't. I looked down on our community instead.

We were outsiders. From the first day of school, teachers and school administration dubbed us as bad kids, because we weren't interested in sports, and our clothing and musical tastes skated off the norm. We couldn't relate to them, and we couldn't relate to our parents either. When unleashed from our homes, we wanted to get as far away from it all as we could.

Unfortunately, as of last week, that option doesn't exist anymore. The Vale closed last weekend. The owner sold the lot to the Walgreens corporation. There is talk that the diner will open somewhere else in town. Most townies are doubtful, too disenchanted with all the other recent renovations to Phoenixville. I don't live in Phoenixville anymore, so I don't have the right to say anything. I can only say goodbye.

A man has the right to do what he wants with his business. This is a right that I would fight for, before I'd fight to keep any diner alive.

But still, I wonder what is better for the community. I wonder where the kids are going to go.

The Vale
Photo by Kelly Neff
Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us


Me in the Vale, 1997
Photo by Gregg Oldstein
Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

Saturday, February 9, 2008

UN-becoming Ally McBeal

"Mom," I said. "I'm afraid of becoming Ally McBeal."

I was twenty-two, riding shotgun in her van to somewhere. She turned her head away from the road to frown at me.

"How many boyfriends do you have?" she replied.

"Two," I admitted.

"I rest my case."

Neither one of us had to elaborate on what I meant by "Becoming Ally McBeal." It was one of the first chick lit TV shows-Ally McBeal, successful anorexic lawyer, over thirty, struggles to find a man. Nearly every woman complained about the show when it first debuted on TV. Feminists said that it painted an unfair portrait of the typical woman who has everything, but it means nothing, because she's single.

I didn't give a shit about the politics. I loved the show. I loved the characters, John Cage especially, and I loved Ally. But I did not want to grow up to become her. I did not want to roam the world alone in my thirties. I thought that it would be a pathetic existence. I thought that if I was single at thirty, it would mean that there was something wrong with me.

Alas, here I am, thirty years old, and single. I don't even have a boyfriend. In fact, I live with my ex-boyfriend and his family. How's THAT for pathetic?

It happened like this. My apartment burned down. It burned down at this exact time last year. Ex and I had already broken up, but were waiting for the lease to expire. Still, his folks kindly took us in. After a few weeks, they invited me to stay, for dirt cheap. I could barely afford an apartment in Boston on adjunct pay. Now I could live in Cambridge, which is way prettier than any neighborhood in Boston, and I got to quit one of my jobs and work on writing part time. I was like, "Thanks, Fire!"

And you know what? It's working out okay.

It works in the same way our relationship didn't work. We're both too career-minded to pay attention to each other. Ex and I have our own rooms, having gracefully sailed into the land of best friendom, and his parents are nicer to me than my own. There's no drama. No big deal. I love where I am. I love it, until I walk out of the house and begin to converse with other human beings.

I'm the only single person I know.

It's a phenomenon that's occurred over the past five years. Nearly every one of my friends has gotten married, or had a kid. My unmarried friends are in relationships, wearing Claddagh rings, indicating that they are attached, but still coolly residing outside of "the system." If I sound sardonic, snide, it's because I am. I mean, come on, people! Do you expect me to believe that every single one of you magically found "the one" all at the exact same time? Please.

I'm not jealous. I'm Jo March. I'm lugging my guitar to sing and play at friends' weddings, while quietly skeptic in the flurry of white dresses and flowers and teary vows.

"Why is everyone getting married?" I bitch to my brother over the phone.

"It's the age," he replies.

The age? That makes me think of marriage like puberty. Like it's a biological change. Like losing wisdom teeth and sprouting hair on your privates, the late twenties to early thirties is "Meet Your Soulmate" time! And I'm the runt of the class, the freshman with no tits.

I try to make myself feel better about it. I tell myself that I had a compromised upbringing. My parents loved each other and loved me. Therefore, I don't feel the need to justify my existence by attaching it to another's. I remind myself that I've been in abusive relationships that screwed my head on backwards, causing me to make bad choices. I tell myself, It's not your fault! But no matter the excuse, I continue to feel like there's something wrong with me.

So what's wrong with me?

Exactly that question. I have a problem with the fact that I'm different. I'm all grown up, thirty years old, an English professor-and I still want to be like everybody else. THAT'S what's makes me Ally McBeal. Not because I "can't get a man," but because I am embarrassed for not having one. Ally McBeal is not the poster child for single women over thirty. She's the poster child for single women over thirty who are UNHAPPY ABOUT IT.

I didn't have to make the decision to be happy about my singledom, though. I didn't have to spend miserable years, hallucinating dancing babies, hiding in a co-ed bathrooms, Barry White bass thumping inside my head. SIngledom didn't torture me. One day, without trying, I got over it.

It hit me this last Christmas, on a random afternoon, shopping at the King of Prussia mall. I entered through the doors by Macy's, and came out into the mall right where kids were having their pictures taken with Santa. There was this long line-a mess of strollers and puffy coats and fallen mittens. Mothers dropped their purses, gabbed at each other, stopping only to yell at their children to behave, or else they'd march right out of the mall, and cancel Christmas.

Marriage, I thought, makes kids. At least, for me I know it will. Kids make lines. They make lines at Disney World, at toy stores, at the Easter Bunny, everywhere. Now I've made some dumb decisions in my life. But perhaps choosing a career over marriage was one of my best dumb decisions. If I had followed the crowd and gotten married, I'd be standing in that Santa line. I would not have been able to pass by, bullet toward my own agenda, ipod screaming in my ears. I would not have had the peace of mind, knowing I'm right, falling madly in love with myself for being right, and thanking God that I was not standing in that Santa line.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

King's Eve

It was a sunday at Vinny Testa's Restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston. I sat at a booth with fellow wait-staff, all of us enjoying our comp-ed shift meals and talking about what we were doing the next day. None of us had to work, and school was cancelled for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

"Back at home," I told them. "They had King's Eve, where everybody got together to drink forties and watch 'Boyz in da Hood' and 'Menace II Society.'"

Across the table, my boyfriend Peter gaped at me, horrified.

"That's not the proper way to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King!" he cried.

I shrank back in my seat, tried to laugh off my embarrassment. "So I guess that suggestion's out?"

A new topic of conversation billowed up-as it usually does when I say something stupid. And as usual, I agonized, replayed those words in my head, wishing I'd never said them. You're not in Phoenixville anymore, I admonished myself.

The damage had been done. From then on, Peter referred to me as his "racist girlfriend" and my friends back home were "your racist friends back home." Each time, I protested, "I'm not racist." Sometimes I even went as far as to say, "It's complicated. You're not from Phoenixville."

In Phoenixville, I explained, everyone makes fun of everything. Nothing is sacred. Irreverence, to us, is an art. I recalled late nights at the Vale Rio Diner, sitting around and trying to come up with jokes that offended or grossed out my friends. The point was to offend somebody. The object of the game was to shrug at the offensive remarks, to act like you're not offended.

And then, to further prove my argument, I referenced boys of the local Philly suburbs, gone famous-Jackass and the Bloodhound Gang. In the Jackass movie, the guys dressed up like pandas and skateboarded through Tokyo. It was supposed to be funny when they fell, weighed down in their costumes. It was also supposed to be funny because it's pandas in Tokyo, a stereotype shoved in your face. The point was to upset other people-because when people get upset, it's funny.

Or is it?

When we tell offensive jokes, we refuse to take responsibility for what we say. It's as if we are saying: Well, it's YOUR problem if you're offended. It's as if we shouldn't be expected to be conscientious or respectful of each other. It's as if it's okay to blur the line between humor and hurt. It's as if a good joke is worth another's feelings of self worth. Above all, it helps bad stereotypes prevail. You never know when an idiot is listening, thinking that it's okay to refer to female basketball players as "nappy headed-hos."

So often, we say: "It's okay, as long as nobody gets hurt." That's just not true when it comes to race.

We all know how well that rule holds up. How many people wrote letters to Comedy Central, complaining about the Dave Chappelle show? How many want to ban "Huck Finn" and remove "The Kite Runner" and "Nappy Hair" from school reading lists? Read the Letters-to-the-Editor in the paper this Sunday. Everyone's offended.

Perhaps it's because people are so damn touchy, the tradition of King's Eve lives on?

It's been seven years since I moved from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to Boston. When I lived there, I was in high school. But studies show that adolescents are more apt to say what is on everybody's mind. Is it a Phoenixville thing? Is it a teenage thing? Whatever is the cause, the effect of offensive jokes is always the same. It's not harmless.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

On Being a Weirdo

There's nothing that annoys me more than a person who refers to him or herself as "weird." "Nerd" and "dork" are also labels I hear thrown around a lot. Ironically, it's always fully functioning, khaki-pants wearing, pretty-faced people that claim to be "weird" "nerds" and "dorks."

Back when myspace first started, Drew Barrymore had a profile, and it was really her. In her "About Me" section, she described herself as a nerd. Lord only knows how I happened onto her page, but when I did, I struggled to not send her hatemail. Nerd?! Drew, let me ask you a question: Did you get the shit kicked out of you by boys in grade school for being too ugly? Ever have your mother give you allergy shots? Wear glasses thicker than a dictionary? Nope. While I was doing all that, you were hanging out in Hollywood clubs and screwing the Coreys and snorting coke. Sorry, I still envy you. Well, at least for the clubs and the coke.

It's more than obvious what's going on here. This is self-deprecation at its finest. If you call yourself a weirdo, and you are obviously not, you are in a roundabout way, trying to call attention to exactly how NOT weird you really are. It's the same as fat girls complaining that they are fat, because they want you to tell them that they aren't; and guys saying that they don't want to make out with you, because they really really really do. Backwards psychology, or whatever. Yeah, it works on children. That's about it. The rest of us are exchanging knowing little smirks, wiggling our eyebrows and thinking Groucho Marx-like thoughts.

Take it from a REAL weirdo. When there's something seriously socially wrong with you, you try to hide it. You try to hide it, and you do a shitbad job of it. Which makes you seem all the more weird.

On that note, I'd like to say that from this moment on, I am a person who can call herself weird and actually have it be true. Want proof? Here goes.


A few weird things about AEJR…

1. My mother was a nun before she had me. No, my father was not a priest. Nor did she run away from the convent and get married.

2. My father is a bald songwriting CPA who considers Ronald Reagan to be one of the best things that ever happened to this country. He's not racist, not homophobic, and definitely not religious (despite my mother). He doesn't own a gun. But he voted for Bush. Both of them. Twice.

3. My mother wanted to name me "Minon."

4. When I was little, I was afraid to go to the bathroom with the door closed.

5. I have had chronic sleep paralysis and insomnia since I was four.

6. I can't eat fruit. It makes me gag.

7. But I love mayonnaise sandwiches.

8. I'm synaesthetic. This means that I see letters and numbers in color and I taste shapes. Hence the reason why I can't eat fruit and why I love mayonnaise sandwiches.

9. I once received a letter addressed "Weird Annie." And it wasn't meant in a good way.

10. Most kids like to sing silly songs. I used to walk around our block in Philly, serenading neighbors with Air Supply and Phil Collins.

11. I sucked my thumb until I was nine.

12. I believed in Santa Claus until I was nine.

13. At my first and only Girl Scout troop meeting, the girl scouts beat me up.

14. I hate Disney World. I always have. As a kid, when my family would go, I stayed with my grandparents. I thought it was stupid.

15. I don't like animals. They get on my nerves. They annoy me worse than people who call themselves weird. But I'm vegan. I don't like them, and I don't eat them.

16. I always preferred Luke Skywalker to Han Solo.

17. When my grandfather died, it was because he'd fallen and couldn't get up. Just like the commercial, you know: "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" At thirteen, I thought this was the funniest thing and went around telling everyone and cracking up laughing. People were like: "I'm so sorry!" And I was like: "It's so great! Just like the commercial!"

18. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I used to get so bored with my life that I prayed that Saddam Hussein would blow up my school, or someone would die, or my parents would get divorced-just so SOMETHING would happen!

19. My favorite Catholic saint is St. Lucy because she had her eyes gouged out.

20. I have two middle names.

21. Growing up, my best friends and I called ourselves the Beaconfingers.

22. My junior year in high school, I had six boyfriends at once.

23. I have played in bands called The Honkeys, Burned at the Steak, and Run It In Dry.

24. While in those bands, I wrote a song called "Do You Wanna Get Slapped, Motherfucker?"

25. I have an obsession with Buster Brown shoes. I wish they made Buster Brown shoes for adults.

26. My favorite places to write include closets and empty bathtubs.

27. I started teaching English to high school and college students in 2001. Since then, I've cancelled class once because I had trouble getting dressed. Okay, twice.

28. I once got stuck in an escalator at Barnes and Noble.

29. When I was little, I believed that celebrity endorsements were for real. Like they did commercials for free, because they really believed in certain products.

30. My idea of a fun Friday night is hanging out at the library and reading incredibly convoluted literary criticism of Romantic and Victorian period literature.

31. I check my horoscope religiously because I have a really hard time making up my mind.

32. I'm obsessed with Robin Hood movies.

33. I have no desire to get married or have kids and I'm almost thirty.

34. I once spent thirty dollars on a jar of miracle honey.

35. I used to teach a literature class down the hall from a morgue.

36. I hate going out on New Year's Eve.

37. I nearly killed one of my students on a flight of stairs.

38. I'd rather date a fat guy than a skinny guy.

39. When I'm having a bad day, I watch Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. It's cheaper than therapy, and doesn't leave you with a hangover.

40. I wrote my weirdness in a blog and posted it on the internet for all to see.