Lack of Water

The world is on fire and there is no quenching the thirst. I see my fellow suburbanites acting out all the rituals of weather-weary farmers: incessant checking of the radar on their smart phones, casual excuses to wander outside and watch the sky, excitement over a possibly laden cloud formation, a mad rush to the windows when the long-forgotten sound of precipitation hits their ears.

I smile to myself as I remain at my work desk. There is no breaking this historic drought except by a sea of soaking. And there is nothing for it but to continue on, tending a tiny flicker of hope that I protect from the all-powerful orb in the sky. The lushness of summer has already passed into the premature decay of autumn.

You see, I’ve been through it all before. In the 1970s, I and the rest of my farm family sat in dwindling shade and watched all my dad’s income for the year wither in the fields and crumble to dust in the federal offices of disaster relief, his compliance to government red tape callously rewarded with humiliation and docking of paychecks at the grain elevators.

For months, we had prostrated ourselves in the unraveling string hammock of our desiccated summer lawn, lamenting storm after storm that skirted the 200 heavily mortgaged acres of our grain farm. The rains only came to freshen the sky-high stands of emerald corn flaunted by wealthier estates to the west. A kind of drought dome formed above our domain that drove away any lingering gain for a self-made man establishing a foothold as a farmer without the birthright.

It was as good as gambling. And it didn’t pay off. Within a couple of years, even after installing irrigation as insurance against another disastrous season, my father moved on to other kinds of agricultural livelihood. The farm was sold, along with the crummy weather pattern that plagued its land.

But I never forgot that sense of doom nagging around our daily chores like horseflies, or my father’s barely controlled anger at the weather gods under a merciless azure sky day after day. At night, without the luxury of air conditioning, I would dream of the cool ocean only an hour away, its salty moisture useless for our needs. In the stifling afternoons, I turned the brittle pages of variety magazines from the Great Depression that I’d found in the attic rafters of our old farmhouse, ingesting serial installments of dust bowl tales that mirrored our own meteorological soap opera.

One winter there was a mini dust bowl in my own county. Insistent silt found every crevice and gathered like fine brown sugar on all the window sills, but the grit tasted bitter between my teeth. Windstorms full of loosened dirt funneled over miles of open field to form disconsolate curtains across our paths, allowing no sight of the roads ahead.

Today as I wipe off my dusty windshield a month into a mandatory water ban, I wonder whether I can see far enough to move on, or even recognize the potholes still to come, while the dust bowls of change swirl around me.

*The heading for this post courtesy of The Why Store’s song by the same title. (I’ve been playing it a lot lately.)

Winds of Reunion

It is windy but warm. We are gathered at an ocean-aqua picnic table by the river, eating Maryland blue crab in all its forms:  steamed and baked and cradled in sauce, the nip of Old Bay still bringing me home. I gaze down the line at the faces of my life — college friends who haven’t collected in this way for twenty years, my husband harboring the new life I’ve built far away, and the daughter who was born near this slow water but whisked away before she could fall under its murky spell.

The conversation blows in all directions, no one directs it, no one shuts the door. We overlook the marina under a cloudless sky, pushing back the looming front of responsibility, loosely moored to our timeless love for one another, knowing that after this banquet of the past and present, we must untie the memories and sail off into choppy waters.

To all of you, have a memorable holiday weekend.

Westbound

We’ve traveled this road many times, he and I. It is on automatic, an urge, a duty, a need, a love. We do it for family, friends and the call from home. We take it first as a couple, and then I look back and there is a puppy strapped into the seatbelt, a toddler grasping her juice bottle, a girl with stuffed animals and smudgy art bag, closely followed by a teenager off in the remote lands of iPod.

Now the backseat is empty, waiting to be piled high with souvenirs of an honorable age. We will find his school pictures and vacation slides, beloved toys and sick-bed trinkets, ancestral war medals and a grandmother’s silver, the letter sweaters and sorority pins worn by parents gone to rest, collections of yellowed pages inscribed with a familiar hand, other ordinary pieces of past that still hold the scent of childhood.

And when we have let the sunset burn into our skin like memory, we will turn back east. Head toward the dawn.

How to Live or Die by the Outcome of the Game

  1. Position yourself as far away from the TV as possible.
  2. As an alternative, you can dominate the viewing selection by turning up the volume on repulsive shows like Hoarders, thus forcing fans to flee into another part of the house.
  3. Stock up on perishables to sustain you, since no one else will be eating until the final score, and maybe for several hours after depending on the injustice of the sports gods.
  4. Keep earplugs nearby in case of excessive screaming over a bad call by a vision-impaired referee.
  5. Become engrossed in a good book set in a land devoid of all competitive activities but that still offers a compelling plot line. (No Hunger Games, in other words)
  6. Sneak in a nap during halftime while fans are mumbling about strategy behind closed doors.
  7. Above all (and this is most important) always remove yourself from the premises during the last “five” minutes of the game, which could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
  8. Return for happy hour or unhappy hour, depending on the fates.
  9. Next Saturday: Do it all over again.

Big Foot’s Got Some Brand New Vans

To me, these vessels are works of art, a masterpiece. I have wanted shoes like this forever. They speak to me of tomboys, denim and badass poets, classic footwear hovering on the verge of preppy. But not quite. Eventually, with worn heels and holes, they will smell of grunge band, fast times and flannel. There is something infinitely satisfying about wearing this symbol on the sidewalks of suburbia.

I have never been in style. Grocery shopping with my mom at our local A & P comes to mind, as I stared at the Dr. Scholl’s display in the same aisle with the hairnets and Legg’s eggs. I was 16 and lusting after those sandals with smooth leather straps (in three different colors!) and a neat center buckle. It seemed like everyone wore them, wooden soles clattering down the high school hallways and clacking nervously under classroom desks. I could only stand by as spectator, fascinated by how the teenage fashionistas kept those clog-like wonders on.

My mother caught me salivating and dismissed my dreams of finally becoming cool despite my bottle-bottom eye glasses and overall nerd status.

“They’ll hurt your feet,” she warned me and that was that. This from a woman whose toes were molded into torpedo points by those hellish heels of the 50s, a style providing countless numbers of foot surgeons with lifelong job security.

“But they are supposed to be good for your feet. They EXERCISE them,” I argued, reading from the box.

“They’re made out of lumber and a tiny piece of leather. You can’t wear those — your feet are too thin.”

And long. Size 10, to be exact. That’s all well and good for a 6’2” runway model, but my 5’8” frame only allowed me to be cast as the family’s personal Bigfoot (a term my father affectionately used for me).

Unfortunately, I possess the trifecta of podiatric woes: narrow, long and flat as a pancake. While my archless-ness might keep me out of a wartime draft, I would gladly endure boot camp than suffer the humiliations of a footwear gauntlet (otherwise known as the shoe store).

Ah yes, the dreaded yearly trip to the small-town shoe shop, where I would gaze sadly at a limited assortment of beautiful styles I could not wear. Right off the bat, my mother ruled out anything remotely cute or trendy, nothing with heels, absolutely no flimsiness or slip-ons allowed.

That left a few sturdy crepe-soled lace ups in geriatric browns and tans. If Velcro shoes had been popular then, I’m sure they would have come in a close second (nothing with flashing lights or wheels in the heels, however). Come to think of it, Velcro would have made the torment go a whole lot faster if not easier, as I sat tensely through the everlasting lacing procedure at the knee of the store owner, who had realized by this point there wasn’t one shoe in the entire store that fit me.

Yes, that’s right. While sitting amongst the piles of tissue paper and lidless cardboard boxes, after countless trips to the back, with me futilely pacing around like a caged animal while my mother pinched my toes, I always heard the inevitable proclamation of my shame:

We’ll just have to “special” order them.

I hate the word special. After what seemed like years, we returned to the scene of the crime for the prize I didn’t want. And the “specially” ordered size 10s wouldn’t fit much better than the store’s one pair of 9 1/2s, except that my toes weren’t as crowded (obviously my mother’s worst nightmare) and I could easily walk out of my new giant boats of leather without untying any laces, thanks to the narrow heels blessed to me by my grandmother.

Now, flash forward to the brand-new Vans, the cool ones here in black and white.

The ones I bought in record time after waltzing into the shoe section of a regular department store, zeroing in on the display model, quickly searching through the well-marked boxes, and finding just the right size (already pre-laced).

I tried them on by myself, no exhausted sales clerk hoping against hope that this trial of patience would soon be over, no mother following me around with her toe-seeking fingers at the ready, and no customer service associate painfully filling out an order form for my mythical pair of perfect shoes.

And the best part? They are a size 9 1/2. Either I have shrunk or American shoe standards have grown large. Oh joyous day, this means there are plenty of other big-footed gals out in the fashion wilderness. I am not alone.

And yes, Mom, I have plenty of room in the toes.

The Empty Room

A member of my household moved back to college a couple of weeks ago. But this time, instead of the claustrophobic closet of a dorm room, there is a big apartment to furnish.

Off the walls come the autographed mementos of childhood heroes, yellowing banners of former school victories, the dry-erase board that is still active after all these years, vintage music posters and personalized signs establishing territory.

The dirty clothes have vanished with their hamper, scattered footwear marched off toward winding campus trails or retired to the darkest, forgotten shelves. Chairs, drawing table and lamps have all been whisked away to find new productive lives.

The perpetually unmade bed has left dimples in the carpet to remember it by.

I wander around aimlessly in this small room, suddenly vast and hollow as a canyon, its cloudless blue walls and sand-colored floor containing my desert in parenthood.

Before the empty echoes of the U-Haul fade, another family would find younger siblings lined up to stake their claims, the winds of seniority shifting down the hall to find a new balance.

But at my house, there is nothing to redistribute. Everything has found its place. There is no mid-life hobby busting its seams, or exercise equipment for the middle-aged chaffing at the bit to spread its wings.

And even though I have an unobstructed path, there’s no incentive to vacuum away the traces of childhood.

Maybe tomorrow.

The State of My Union

Uh oh. Is that yellow snow I see?

This one’s personal, not political. I got to thinking earlier this week about the benefits of reviewing “the messes I get myself into,” otherwise known as my path. I believe it is prudent to be accountable every so often, to see whether life as I know it still works. For me and everyone else.

The Castle. Also called the Hair Palace. We’re down to a cat and a dog as our four-legged companions. (For the well-meaning — no, we do not want any more roommates right now, thank you.) With all my spare time and lovely empty space, you’d think the place would be spotless. Fail. I blame it on excessive shedding: mine, pets, and squirrels. Unfortunately, daily schedules don’t work for me. Only complete vacuum anarchy imposed by my spouse.

Mother Nature. Where others see only unemployment and stagnation, I’m digging the chance to stay home and watch the cold beauty of winter from my (relatively) warm kitchen. As long as I overlook all the yellow snow in the backyard. From the dog. (Why am I still hearing Zappa in my head?)

Art. Okay, those who know me, please don’t tell my mother. Yet. My mom and I have had a lifelong struggle over the making of art, to create or not to create. To keep or not to keep. She was an oil painter, I was a jack-of-all-trades, and guess what, my daughter lives and breathes art, starting from the moment she could hold a crayon. These days, I can only “do” art when it pleases me. And as long as I don’t become the pack mule of art supplies that I used to be, I’m happy to give it room on my plate. It may or may not appear on this blog in the future.

Hobbies. Dare I say it? A simpler life is opening the door to old pastimes. The new twist is that I can commit and be held accountable to online communities who encourage delicious projects in knitting, photography, writing and journaling. Maybe even cooking, but I could be pushing my luck there. Again, as long as I don’t rush out and buy the latest crafty gadget or gizmo, I can still be a minimalist and a hobbyist, mostly with what I already own. More on these in upcoming posts.

Facebook. It seems there’s been a lot of deleting and deactivating going on in the blogosphere. I’m keeping my account because a) it is private and b) less than 100 friends. And I know all of them, from one part of my life or another. I don’t chat. I don’t play games. (Sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?) I keep my wall posts down to one or less a day. And I’ve shut off most email notifications to control my clicking addiction.

Facebook (Again). For me, this social scene is worth every annoying privacy breach blocked, if only for the connections I’ve made with old friends who have been missing in action over the years. In some cases, we’ve reunited right before a major event in our lives, when we need each other the most. There will be follow-ups through phone calls, greeting cards and visits, but I can’t ignore the online synchronicities.

Astrology. I know, everybody’s been asking. If this is some astronomer’s idea of a joke, then I think they better revisit the whole Pluto debacle, too. My answer is that the shift in the constellations has been known since the first century and the old zodiac won’t work with 13 signs. I’m just amazed at how many folks who don’t believe in this stuff get all riled up when they aren’t Scorpios or other signs anymore. Maybe if Ophiuchus was the “football-bearer” instead of messing about with snakes, he would be better received.

That’s probably enough from my state of mind. If you’ve hung on this long, I thank you and promise fermented libations when you next see me. For those lost along the way, I can only hope they gleaned something useful and took it back to their own lives and communities.

Just remember: we’re all in this together.

Don’t Be Afraid of Mercury Retrograde

Warning: This post contains “woo woo.” But before all of you scientific, left-brained types depart, let me just say that regardless of the astrological packaging, the motivation behind this frustrating period of communication breakdown can be useful to all, skeptics and would-be wizards alike.

Okay, a little background first. I come by the paranormal genetically, at least that’s my excuse. (Have you noticed that I blame most of my foibles on my ancestral line?)

After feeling like the family freak for many years with my new age interests, I am informed well into my forties that the grandmother I never knew (from the old country) was extremely “superstitious.”

And, by the way, she read tea leaves. So did my great-grandmother. Seems they were pretty good at it.

Oh REALLY? Thanks for waiting so long to tell me. Left to my own devices with that bit of genealogy, I tried seeing pictures in my tea cup and could only come up with disturbing rorschach impressions of my personal neuroses. Same with the coffee grounds.

And don’t even get me started on palm reading my own hand. Not so good. Either I’m already dead, will have 14 husbands, or I need to use a lot more moisturizer.

After all that, astrology seems like a piece of cake. I make more sense out of natal charts than I can navigating a street map. (Heavens help me.) And my little quirk comes in handy at parties, because even if I can’t remember your name, by golly I can recall your birth sign the way the rest of my family reminisces according to the stats of their favorite sports teams.

So, it goes without saying that I study the transits of the planets while my husband and daughter consult their college basketball lineups for the same reason: a glimpse into the future.

2010’s astrological forecast included a whopping four Mercury retrograde periods. What is a retrograde you ask? This cosmic phenomenon was concocted by ancients who observed planets going backward through the nightly zodiac for periods of time, due to an optical illusion with the earth’s orbital rotation. The planets weren’t really going backward, but hey, try telling that to civilizations who were already freaked out by solar eclipses.

And you say, excuse me — how does this matter to the modern suburbanite? So what if Mercury looks like it’s going backward, big deal.

Ah, but in astrology this little planet controls all types of communication, technology, travel and the way your mind works. (I was born during a Mercury retrograde which may explain why I take the long way when coming to the same conclusion as everyone else.)

When Mercury retrogrades, all of the cool stuff under the messenger’s watchful eye goes haywire. There are computer malfunctions, missed appointments, strep throat and/or laryngitis, worldwide hacking, car breakdowns, best-laid plans gone awry, whiteouts over half the country, metrodome cave-ins, and flight delays.

Alright, so the airline industry is in permanent Mercury retrograde, but it’s WORSE, if that’s possible.

Have I got your attention yet? Any of this strike a chord with those of you waiting on your train/dentist/snowplow/cable guy/mechanic/geek friend/voodoo priestess to rescue you from solitary confinement? Or is it merely coincidence?

Let me see, so far this retrograde my Internet has gone out four times in a week (once including phone service), our car stopped dead in an intersection after just getting a new battery (in futile retrograde preparation), and some friends and I had to abort in the middle of a holiday outing due to more snow accumulation than expected (thank you weather forecasters).

Which leads me FINALLY to the gist of this post. The antidote to all the dropped calls, lost emails, botched up contracts, road slide-offs and website crashes is TO SLOW DOWN. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are forced to abandon our routines as human doings and embrace the joys of lounging. You may sit in bus terminals or the pull-out couch of a neighbor, but this is still an opportunity to be inert and retrospective on the year.

If nothing else, it is a good time to cheat a little at board games by candlelight because the power is out. It is the gift of yourself when you can’t get to the stores to buy electronic gadgets that will be busted by New Year’s Eve anyway. It’s the chance to finally lay to rest an old family grudge because you’re all stuck in the house together without the usual distractions.

Yep, even the winged messenger to the Roman gods has to take a breather sometimes. (Although the florists do try to keep him busy.)

By the way, this particular Mercury retrograde we’re in lasts from December 10th through the 30th. Even if you don’t believe in all the hocus-pocus, you have my permission to use the retrograde bit as a pass when life becomes too much during the next couple of weeks.

Go ahead — hit pause to enjoy the holidays. Take your time.

A Minimalist Moment: The Tannenbaum Tango

Our tree in its younger days.

What did you do on Black Friday? Were you hunkered down in lines outside superstores during the wee hours? Driving from mall to mall to check for any lingering unbelievable steals? Sleeping in because you blacked out on tryptophan? Or were you up in the attic untangling a mass of Christmas lights?

At my house, the day after Thanksgiving was spent setting up our ten-year-old artificial Christmas tree before my daughter went back to school. After growing up in a family nursery where cut evergreens provided a major source of winter income, and years of loyally spending big bucks on tree farms and garden centers in the midwest, I went rogue and bought our one (and probably only) artificial tree in 2000.

The purchase would be viewed as sacrilege by environmentalists and extended family alike, but I figured that since we were going the fake route, why not take it all the way with a decidedly unnatural but beautiful white tree full of gold, silver and purple ornaments with beaded garland. For nine years, this work of art has sparkled in front of our living room window, adding to the decorations outside (strings of blue LED lights).

This year, however, when we pulled out the pre-lit tiers of branches with color codes matching the center pole (no easy hinges on this baby), my husband, daughter and I could no longer deny that the formerly pristine “needles” had browned to a dingy gold. And so, after this Christmas, our one artificial guilty pleasure will be retired.

Which leads to the question of its replacement. Or not. In the quest to conquer clutter in my life, all but the Christmas stash has been ransacked. And now, I have to address the white elephant, or should I say snowman, in the room. (And yes, it includes the Frosty collection that has snowballed over the years.)

This past Friday, already on a roll from decorating the tree, we decided to go ahead and put up all the decorations. And, there was simply not enough room at the inn for snow people, or snow globes, or even the manger. My diligence in purging furniture has led to a holiday housing shortfall. Too many festive guests, so somebody will have to move on to the Island of Misfit Toys (or Goodwill).

Picking out who goes will be difficult, kind of like choosing your favorite puppy from an adorable litter. The stockings will never leave, nor the little wire tabletop tree with blinking lights that my daughter named “Timmy” one year for some reason. Ornaments sporting the big orange T’s of my husband’s favorite team won’t be heading out any time soon, despite a less than stellar football season. The herd of tiny plastic reindeer, with nearly all its fake fur loved off, has already made the trip back to the dorm.

As for our largest symbol of the holidays, both ancient and modern, I’m thinking of taking a sneaky detour from the whole fake vs. real dilemma. I’ve got my eye on one of those old-fashioned feather trees for next year. Made out of genuine wood and fowl and not some cheap plastic imitation, it is still the antique version of an artificial Christmas tree. I’ll think of it as a piece of seasonal furniture that you can take apart and put away after the big twelve days.

Or, I can probably turn it into a handy stool for the rest of the year.

Playing Hooky From My Life

I’ll admit there are times when the urge washes over me. I’m (supposedly) a mature adult with greying hair, a mortgage and too many dependents both inside and outside the home, counting the squirrels. Lately, there’s also a lot of stress and loss and big decisions looming on the horizon.

All the more reason to run away with no plan or destination. Let me count the ways:

  1. Sand. I have primordial memories of hunkering down inside the pansy hotbeds of my family’s nursery. These were, from my toddler point of view, enormous concrete bunkers with sand in them that I would disappear into and play with my pail and scoop. It is said that my great-grandfather passed away while working in these beds. They found him lying peacefully in the pansies. What a way to go, should I be so lucky.
  2. Haystack. When I was older, my brother and I had a bank barn to horse around in. But we only found cows, and hay condensed into those square bales neatly stacked until needed over the winter. One year, by some lucky accident there was a beautiful skyscraper of bales that rose a good two stories high, perfectly positioned under an old rope hanging from the ridge beam. We’d clamber to the top, swing out like a trapeze into the dark cathedral of space, let go at the last minute and drop into a soft nest of dried timothy that had escaped its twine. I’d lie there for a long time, enjoying the thrill of daring release followed by a reassuring hug from summer’s bounty.
  3. Heavy Metal. The teen years were not kind to me. Isolated at the edge of the world and the county, there was not enough room for teenage angst in the cramped modular home I shared with the rest of the family. My version of cranking up the volume to relieve tension was to walk out back to the metal grain silo my father installed to hold the soybean crop until the price was more than laughable. Empty, it was the best amplifier I’ve ever heard. A whisper turned into a roar, and a laugh ricocheted into a cacophony.
  4. Water. When I couldn’t take it anymore in college, I’d go jump in the river. There were lazy summer afternoons drip-drying on the dock, rocking parties on stony beaches and slow midnight sails in the utter darkness that felt like a womb.
  5. Auto-mobile. Between studies and teaching and socializing in grad school, I didn’t have time to shave my legs much less grade a pile of freshman themes I kept shuffling around like playing cards (I still have dreams about ungraded papers). When the wind was blowing right, I’d bolt out the door to my VW Bug that was as old as I was, and start driving with no destination in mind. That’s assuming no one had turned on the mute AM radio out of curiosity and drained the battery. (I learned to always park on a hill.)
  6. Timeout. As a young mother, I’d be literally waiting at the door for my husband to arrive home from work, whereupon I’d thrust our baby into his arms and head out to wander aimlessly through the local discount store. Since money was tight, I never bought anything. Rather, it was a form of walking meditation to the smell of cheap plastic and the sound of muzak, after a long day of nursing, diapering, washing and spitting (the baby, not me).

So, how do you play hooky in the suburbs? Can you run away when no one’s left in the neighborhood to miss you? They’re all at work, or shopping, or carpooling the kids. I could lay out in the backyard and taunt the Great Danes next door. It would sound a little like standing in that silo of my youth. Or I might jump in my car and start driving, only to end up stuck in one of the many road construction jams surrounding my town. My daughter’s sandbox is long gone, and I think I’m allergic to the off-gassing produced by mass quantities of flame-retardant discount clothing. Finding water to jump in would require a major time commitment or the complete dismantling of the fire hydrant outside my house, neither of which prompts spontaneity.

I know. I’ll just sit in my suburban dwelling with the TV off, the Internet disconnected, the stereo silent and the mail uncollected. The dirty dishes fester in the sink, with beds unmade and laundry heaped on the floor. I’ll sit and watch the cat nap and the dog stretch into the yoga pose named after it.

I won’t do a darned thing. Take that, modern life.