Monday, March 29, 2010

Where I work

Today I'm offering you a lazy post; I'm busy with taxes and spring cleaning. My wish for you is if you have to file taxes and clean for spring you've already finished. I love that feeling when I sit down and look around and feel proud of my work. Not: How does this place get so dusty? What's that on the floor? These windows are filty!

So I will show you where I work. I love my job, and I love the campus. I feel so fortunate to like what I do and where I do it.

P.S. Do you like what you do?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Family curses

My dad said the usual classic cuss words: damn, hell, and shit. When my mama used them--usually for some kitchen calamity--she whispered them or just said the first part of the word: shhhhhhhhh! It had been clear to us since we learned to talk that those were grown-up words and we weren't allowed to use them.

Sister never said bad words. She was afraid of anything that powerful. I loved them.

But our parents used a lot of words that weren't quite polite, and they didn't alert us to that fact. Piss, pee, bitch, and pecker were pretty regularly used, and no one batted an eye. So who was to know that some people frowned on it?

I was ten and a half when Mama went to the hospital to deliver Second Sister. Our aunt Hootie stayed with us at our house. Dad worked second shift, 3 to 11 p.m., and after he left for work, Aunt Hootie made us some dinner and agreed to play a game. We chose Scrabble, which was always fun at our house because my parents knew so many more words than we did, and they made some up too.

The game was moving along fine until about my sister's third turn. She already had her word ready, and she was excited to put her four letters on the board. Snick snick snick snick went the tiles as she snapped them down like Mama did. B-I-C-H.

"Bitch," she said. She sat back and sighed. We always said the word after we'd put it down. It was part of the pleasure of the game.

Instead of scoring the word, Aunt Hootie grew pink and a lot larger. It seemed as if the breath she was inhaling was going to suck in the whole room including the curtains. She grabbed the board and dumped the tiles into the box. "The game is over," she told us. "If you're going to use words like that."

We looked at each other. WTF? Bitch is a bad word? My dad said it daily. In our house, it was a verb that meant the same thing as "complain." We tried not to roll our eyes at each other, because grown-ups had no tolerance for that.

Sister burst out crying.

"Time for bed," Aunt Hootie said. She flapped her hands at us. "Go on."

We started shuffling toward the staircase as if we were disappointed, even though we loved being sent to our rooms; Mama never did that. If you got in trouble with her, she'd give you a shitty chore.

As we started up the stairs, Aunt Hootie called, "You didn't even spell it right!"

I could always make Mama laugh with that story later. I probably still could. Are you laughing, Mama?

The word fuck never entered our house. I heard it at school. And the meaning? I knew that it meant the same as doing it, but exactly what doing it entailed was a mystery. I never used it until I went to college and learned how to smoke and write poetry and be cool.

Fuck is like a grenade for a short red-haired woman. I keep one in my pocket.

Saying the word to Mama would have been as bad as saying it to the preacher. It would have never entered my mind to ask her about it. Kids have an unexplained sense about what you must never ask adults. But I said it in front of her one time.

After I was grown, I was driving in downtown Mattoon when a car cut right in front of me, forcing me to stand on the brakes. "Oh, fuck!" I shouted as Mama grabbed the dash with both hands and braced herself.

No crash. My heart was beating hard enough that I could hear it in my ears. We both let out a big sigh.

"Oh, Mama, I'm sorry," I said.

"That's okay," she answered. "I was thinking the same thing!"

P.S. If you're into random acts of kindness, as I am, check out the new button at the top left. It starts with us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Red cartoon birds of love

I am an excellent marketer. Not only can I get someone to eat bird poop, but I can make them beg to do so. It's nothing to be proud of. It's something you'd do if were secretly full of rage and mistrust but so cowed by your parents that you'd bring them an implement to hit you with. Something you'd do if you came from a family with generations of insanity genes.

As you know from reading my previous complaints, my parents birthed and raised me until the age of eight in a tropical paradise. Then they shipped our whole existence to the middle of Illinois in the middle of the winter in the middle of the school year, and I got a bad attitude. Who wouldn't?

I didn't even know I belonged to this big mean family of pranksters until we arrived. I knew my mama's side: my sweet porcelain grandma and my two giggly aunts, a couple of uncles and some cousins. But the other side: a bunch of loud uncles who looked just like my dad, a sour mean granny who made noodles wrong, and a gaggle of aunts who yelled or cried when they were the butt of some joke. Let's not even talk about the cousins.

This situation did not improve my mood.

The more tricks that were pulled on me, the meaner I got. My best trick was to do absolutely nothing. No matter if one of the loud uncles picked me up by my ears, or somebody decided that one of the boy cousins should kiss me for the movie camera, or my dad told me to take a real big drag off his cigarette if I thought I wanted to smoke. Nothing. Wet willie, wedgie, or Dutch rub. Nothing. These giant children did not understand my lack of reaction. But they also quickly learned to bother someone else, someone who screamed or cried or got mad to their satisfaction. So, along with the toenails and the artistic bent and the fair skin and the hatefulness and the red-brown hair and the insanity, I inherited from the big ugly family the most natural poker face in the world. I love that poker face, the most versatile tool I own.

These people liked things in an uproar. I did not. The granny, who looked like the George Washington from the dollar, kept alluding to some monsters at the top of the stairs and swearing that if we went up there Old Scratch would surely get us. Add to that the fact that I'd never before been in a house with radiated heat that singed your skin if you stepped too close to the stove. I thought I was in hell. And this hell made me what my mama called "the hatefullest child in the universe." Fuckin' A.

So... with all these cackling tormentors, who was I to torment? Because you know that's how it goes: Dad pisses Mama off, Mama slaps me in the head, and I look around for someone smaller and more innocent to take it out on. I was a kid. I'm not taking responsibility for the way I was then; someone else created that mess, which I still haven't cleaned up completely. Mostly I played my tricks on Sister, and if they were real good I took them on the road and used them at school.

This particular day, I was old enough to know better, and Sister was four years younger. Mama told us to get in the car and wait for her. She was slapping on some lipstick for a quick trip to the store. Something distracted Mama and she didn't come right out like she said she would. Even though the Valiant was always parked in the drive under the big oak, it was going to be hot in there. I opened the doors but didn't get in.

Sister always jumped into the driver's seat and pretended to drive. I stood outside the open door and encouraged her. She was not supposed to pretend to drive, and she had been smacked a million and two times for it, but she jerked the wheel left then right then left, made a little puttttpututt noise, enchanted by her fantasy.

I forgot all about tattling when I saw on the roof of the car what looked like a single layer of Cheerios as far as the arm could reach. Well, actually, I guess my thought would have been a single layer of Oatey Ohs, because we always bought the cheap cereal. Cheap everything. That's another story.

So for some reason I'll never understand, this magical day the birds pooped little bitty rings that had hardened into something that closely resembled breakfast.

I reached out my hand and scooped up a whole fist of bird-shit Oatey Ohs. Yes, I did. I wasn't sure yet what I was going to do with them. I got in the back seat and thought for a moment. I was almost sure my first idea would not work, but I went with it for lack of anything else.

I quietly smacked my lips.

We were always hungry for snacks, which we never had, and with her dog-ears Sister immediately noticed. Someone's eating something.

I kept my fist closed and pinched two fingers down in it, tipped my head back and pretended to drop in something delicious. I fake chewed. Fake swallowed. Smacked my lips a little more.

"WHAT ARE YOU EATING?" said Sister.

"Nothing," said me.

I made her ask a few more times before I stuck out my fist and opened it. "These," I said.

She snatched a few birdy-ohs and tossed them in her mouth. She chewed three times before her nostrils flared and her mouth slowly opened. She stuck out her tongue and let the poop drop off of it into the floorboard.

"You're gonna get smacked for that," I told her.

She pawed at her mouth and then squeezed her neck like she wanted to strangle herself.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Bird crap," I answered. Dad said crap, so I did too--out of Mama's hearing.


"Oh, yeah," I told her.

Sister began to cry. That face is still frozen on a slide in my brain. Her skin flushed and little tears popped out of the corners of her eyes. I think it was the first time I stepped into someone else's shoes, and what I felt was not so good. Sister put out her hands, her face a mask of tragedy, and our souls clinked together like champagne glasses. Little red cartoon birds rushed out of my heart in a noisy cloud and made me see: This is the person I love. Not Mama. Not Dad. Sister. She's such a pitiful thing, but she's all I have. You know how a moment like that can lodge itself inside you.

Mama got in the car, and Sister jumped up on the hump and hung over the front seat. "Nanny made me eat bird poop," she tattled.

Mama smacked her right across the head and said, "Don't you know better than to eat anything your sister tells you to?"

My parents were a couple of screwed up kids. I don't think they meant any harm.

P.S. Tomorrow I'll tell you about a surreal couple of days we spent with my aunt while Mama went to the hospital to have a baby.

And let me tell you briefly about Rose. She was my writer's block angel these past months when life punched me in the guts and I was trying to get my breath back. I couldn't write. I couldn't even keep up with other blogs. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I'd get a little message from Rose reminding me ... of me, and letting me know that someone likes to hear what I have to say and laughs at the way I say it. It was a kindness I didn't expect. Thank you.

Have you ever had your own personal angel? If you have, pass it on because it can make a real difference to someone.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The fixer

My sister is very sick, and I am very far away. She says she doesn't need anything right now, but when anything in the past has been dangerous, frightening, or overwhelming, she has always turned to me. Growing up, she needed me for everything; she was always so fragile and so afraid.

When we were kids, I thought of her as a small twin growing out of my ribcage. She was born with absolutely no protective covering. I kept her safe from the dark and the evil. I rescued her from panic. I taught her to cross streets and read and do psychic Kreskin tricks, and braid hair. For years, I had anxiety dreams in which, in a variety of heinous situations, I lost my sister to some vampire or pervert or car. She cried a lot: when our parents were yelling, when we had to go to bed while the other kids were still playing on the street, when Mama said something mean about her looks or the friends she brought home.

I made up stories for her. Brave girls with super powers and no parents. Curious girls who saved a town or worked their magic for good or were not fooled for a moment by the divine in disguise or came into their own when they learned that they were royalty or rich. The world was a dangerous place, and I'll bet you money that Sister still thinks of those stories I told her and holds her suspicions about the nature of the world in front of her like a shield. But now she is able to assert herself, at least with me. And although I have told her all of her life to do just that, I can't say that I like it because I don't want her to do anything hard all alone.

When my mama was pregnant with Sister, she also had a tumor in her uterus. By the time the growth was removed, it was larger than the baby. Add to that the fact that Mama was given thalidomide for morning sickness, and my sister was born a little stunted. Not slow, just... unformed somehow. The way a baby bird is so vulnerable and needy. And Mama just wasn't a comforting, warm mama. So it was Sister and me. And I'm not saying I was a great mentor, either, only that I was all she had available.

After our parents took us from paradise to the frozen tundra, we were sick all the time. They fed us cod liver oil and penicillan pills the size of Brach's mints and Vicks Vaporub down the throat and up the nose. We spent so much time wrapped up in historical quilts and navy blankets, drinking warm whiskey with lemon and honey, and making up songs about people we hated at school. Mama was an excellent nurse, and was sometimes known to let us come downstairs to watch her stories with her; she was so nice when we were sick that we had no reason to get well soon.
uring one of our bouts of tonsilitis, we were sitting in the doctor's outer room waiting to be called in for more pills in tiny paper envelopes, and Sister asked me to read a word from a brochure she'd found on the coffee table. "Cancer," I said. I didn't even like saying the word out loud. "OH!" Sister said. "I had cancer once when I was a big man, and Dr. Diphold cured it."

Mama was embarrassed that such a non-Christian statement came out of her six-year-old, and she told my sister loudly enough that the rest of the people in the waiting room would know that she didn't approve. If only we had dear Dr. Diphold now when we need him.

Sister and I slept in the same bed for so many years that I still can't sleep alone. We curled together like spoons and always turned in our sleep at the same time. When we moved to the god-forsaken prairie, my parents tried to excite us about having separate rooms, but we weren't having any of it. Until I left home and found someone else to sleep with, one or the other of us crept into the other's room every night as soon as Mama stopped bitching--I mean tucking us in--and went downstairs.

The last time I saw my dad, he told me to take care of my sister. He knew he was going to die (and that is another story), and he took my promise that I would keep an eye on her. We always believed she needed that. Now she won't let me, Dad.

This time she says she doesn't need anything. That she is too tired to think. That I need to be patient. That she doesn't plan on dying. This is little comfort to me. I'm not patient. I want to DO things. I'm the big sister. I make things right. I've talked her through bad marriages, and kept her from making what Dad always called "idjut" decisions, and settled her down when her dreams carry her off on the wind, as they do sometimes. She'd have been married as many times as I have if it weren't for me.

We once saw a TV program with a man who claimed to be cured of cancer by laughing. After that we used to say, "We'll never get cancer because we laugh too much." Not true. Not true.

But just in case, I'm going to stir around in my story bag and pull out those old moldy tales that always make my sister laugh. Because even if laughter isn't the best medicine, it's the only thing I can do.

Tomorrow I'll hit a lighter note.

Until then,
P.S. My friend Rose should continue to call me Sugar.