28 June 2007

Dangerous Curve Ahead

I once got asked in a bar, "Hey, what's your sign?" Not kidding. I really did. I think he thought that it was so dorky it had to be cute, the same way pocket protectors were once in, or bell bottoms. (Why is that, anyway? I lived through the hideous dress code that was the 70s once; I have no desire to repeat it.)

Anyway, scarcely believing my ears, I stopped whatever I was writing, peered at him over the tops of my glasses, and said (with a completely straight face, mind you), "Do not enter."

Somewhere back behind the bar, there was a tremendous crash and a strangled yelp as my husband, who in a lull between tables was helping the bartender change a keg, tried not to bust a gut.

Other answers we came up with after hours, slinging back Yeunglings as fast as we could pour them, included U-Turn, Slow Children at Play, and (my husband's favourite), Speed Hump Ahead.

There is a plethora of amusing signage out there. Most DOT workers don't realise how funny they are (or maybe they do, and have just been waiting for someone to appreciate it). How about the two signs outside my local Whole Foods that share a signpost? The top one says "No Stopping or Standing." The bottom one says--you guessed it--"Stop." Or the sign in Peekskill that points right towards 202/35, right next to the One-Way arrow pointing left? Or the existentially helpful signs in parts of Iowa: "Gusty Winds May Exist." Yes, they may....but they may not.

Along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut are carefully spaced warning signs: Caution. Depressed Storm Drains. I guess they're afraid of the storm drains throwing themselves under the wheels of a passing automobile in their despair. Nearby, in Westchester County, is a sign that contradicts itself. "White Plains / No White Plains" it announces. Well, yes. Either it is, or it isn't. That's the way it is with most of the exits on that particular stretch of 287. If you turn one way off them, you get to White Plains (whether you want to or not). If you turn the other way, you don't. Actually, this isn't always true. Sometimes there's no avoiding White Plains, no matter how hard you try. And believe me, I've tried.

But perhaps the most ominous example of stupid signage I've encountered is near the Big Dig in Boston. It is meant to indicate an underground bypass tunnel to Boston's North End neighbourhood. Grossly underpunctuated, it states "Tunnel No End".

And they think I'm going to want to drive into that thing??

27 June 2007

Notes from the Fiver

1. 4:30 AM is not too early to get up to run in this heat. 7:30 AM is, however, too late.

2. Mile 1.0: two purple socks on the bridge, and a plastic Smurf head the size of a dinner plate. I can't be hallucinating already.

3. Hills, hills, hills.

4. 85 degrees is a lot, when coupled with that much humidity.

5. More hills.

6. There is no such thing as too slow.

7. Walking counts.

8. Look. A hill.

9. A shrub's worth of shade can make a world of difference on the ass end of Higginsville Road. Start planting trees at night.

10. Now I know I'm hallucinating. Because there's Jimmy Two Strokes, doing his Mile 22 Dance, like this:

11. She who does not start out a run like this without a wet bandana on her head is a dumbass.

12. ....mommy?

Fortunately, I was not hallucinating. It really was my mommy, leaving for work. Which meant that this was my house. Hello, house. Can I kiss you? Can I kiss the hose whot makes cool water run down my head and neck so that I can feel my feet again?

Recovery time was quick, which meant that I wasn't really going to die, it just felt like it. Which is good to know, in retrospect.

25 June 2007

The Ghost of Kittens Past

One-eyed Jenny Linsky, in a rare moment of whimsy, wreaths herself in sheer curtains on mom's daybed.

23 June 2007

On Running My First Ten-Miler

I am the mayor of this road's ass.
Thank you, and good afternoon.

21 June 2007

Notes from the Repository of Souls

This grew out of another great/impossible prompt from the folks at Sunday Scribblings. It's very raw, and unlike my usual need to overpolish and work to death, I actually want to post this one this way. I'm not sure why. I think of all the secrets we carry for others, and I know that some people hold the secrets of many.

Persephone's Dream

You come to me underground
where I hold all your black stones
your prayers in the thick night.

The lovers you shouldn't have kissed
in a churchyard full of secrets
our bodies, where we lay them, full of dreams.

Our lips suck the forbidden fruit
words that want to crawl back,
unspoken, into the caves of our mouths.

The children you couldn't carry
rest between my breasts:
this silence, the labour of my love.

One day I will carry your death
alone at the crossroads
the gun to your head.

And I Thought I Was Absent-Minded

Apparently, the good people of Chile have misplaced a lake. My guess is that it's not under the living-room sofa, but you never know.

19 June 2007

Like a Bat out of Paterson

Observation whilst driving east on Route 80 at 8:15 this morning: if you're driving like an asshole while drinking your coffee? And cutting in and out of traffic? You probably shouldn't be wearing your Roman collar.

18 June 2007

Still Measuring Horses' Asses

I have a story I tell my students about a pot roast, to help illustrate cause and effect to them. (This is as opposed to the meatloaf story, which teaches them about subtext.)

You will have to register for one of my classes to hear the pot roast story in action, but at this morning's outcomes assessment seminar for faculty development--which proved to be much more fascinating than it sounds--I heard a parallel story, one that illustrates critical thinking.

We were asked, "Does anyone know why American standard gauge railroad tracks are five feet four inches apart?"

Oddly, I knew this, being a veritable font of useless information (read: librarian), and answered, "Because that's how far apart Roman chariot wheels were." I got a lot of bewildered looks from my colleagues from various community colleges around the area, and a grin from the speaker. I was, of course, correct.

Then he wanted to know if I knew why. "Um, because I'm Caesar, and I decree it to be so?" (this was when I got accused of being a mom.) The ultra-short version of the reason behind this arcane bit of trivia is that most railroads in this country were designed and built by British engineers, and that's how far apart they made railroad tracks--because early railroad cars were made of old wagon parts, and wagons were that width to match the pre-existing ruts in the Roman roads....and that this is how far apart the chariot wheels were.

Which is, of course, how wide chariot axles have to be to accommodate two horses.

Duh, you're probably saying. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? (At least, that's what I was saying at this point, although anyone who's ever taken Roman history classes or lived with a Roman history scholar knows that my answer is just as likely a scenario.)

The speaker was trying to make the point that outcomes assessments in education are outdated. Why, he asked, are we still using the same sorts of assessment tools that we were in the 1950s?

It was at this point that some genius in the back corner (who shall remain, of course, nameless, but she now goes by the nickname of Caesar in the workshop) "Because we're still trying to measure things with the same horse's ass."

By the way, yes, my department chair was in this seminar and yes, I do still have a job.

17 June 2007

And Manna and Bagels Fell Down from Heaven

"Is lunch included at your seminars this week?"

"I don't know. With my luck, probably not. I'll pack a sandwich, just in case."

"Well then you'd better start praying for bread."

Offing a Brother

Last night our priest (who's also a very close friend) came to suppper, bringing with him a religious brother from Bayonne. Or the Philippines. I'm not quite sure which. A lovely man, quiet and gentle and affable....and when he pushed his chair back to use the bathroom, part of the porch floor collapsed, the part my dad's been meaning to fix for six months but hasn't. (Let me remind you how old our house is, and why there is still the occasional rotten floorboard on the back porch.)

In truth, it's not quite as scary as it sounds; only one wrought-iron leg went through, and Brother Jim didn't even lose his seat, nor did he go ass-over-teakettle through the screen behind him. But I damn near had a heart attack--being the one seated closest to him--and leapt from my chair to grab his arm with both hands. Because, you see, under that part of the porch is a sixty-foot brick-lined cistern. In fact, had the floor given way entirely, I might have jumped in after him rather than having to explain his mysterious disappearance to the bishop.

15 June 2007

A Poet Is Born, or at Least Incubated

By about the third day of eighth grade, I already knew I wanted to do everything possible to piss off my English teacher. In retrospect, it was relatively easy, starting with the fact that I was a better writer than she was. But that's not what this is about. This is about that whole fountain pen thing.

For some reason, I decided the most avant-garde thing I could do to tweak her nipples was to use green pen. I started with ballpoint; this was in the early days of roller-ball pens, in the late 80s, and it was only rarely my $3.25 minimum wage library job would allow me to purchase such abecedarian finery. (Even then I eschewed felt-tip pens as both too sloppy and too casual.) Incidentally, this was also right around the time of lapsang souchong, Howard Jones on vinyl, e. e. cummings-esque poems on my father's new electronic typewriter, and the infamous black felt bowler hat that was worn to the constant dismay of other students and barely-suppressed amusement of my beloved science teacher. (I wasn't good at science, mind you, I was just in the throes of adolescent crushdom.) Whenever possible, with baggy wide-wale cords, my father's ancient Harris tweed blazer with the sleeves rolled up, and anything resembling combat boots.

Then my mom gave me her old Esterbrook fountain pen, and the trouble started. For about five years, I wouldn't use anything but green fountain pens. As you can imagine, this was somewhat problematic, though I suspect it gave most college admissions offices a clearer picture of me than any essay. Also that year, I started keeping a consistent, if somewhat focusless, journal in those marble composition books. I used them for two reasons: the hardbacked writing surface was perfect no matter where I went, and my algebra teacher almost never suspected that I wasn't taking notes. Which just goes to show how much attention he was paying.

Twenty years later, I have a collection of close to fifty volumes, almost exclusively penned in varying shades of green ink, ranging from classic emerald (still my favourite, but increasingly hard to find since Shaeffer changed the formula a few years ago) to sticky Waterman bottle-green, to the occasional foray olive or verdant grass-green when I could still find them for my Diplomat. (or my Diplomat, for that matter; have I mentioned everything I own has been in storage for more than a year now?)

Somewhere in my sophomore year at NYU, I took a walk on the wild side and filled an entire journal in deep lilac, and there are more recently swaths of respectable English-schoolteacher blue, a few traces of brown, and--the summer I spent in Scotland--even a black gel rollerball. The chance of losing my beloved Shaeffer was too horrifying to risk it, never mind that they're utterly replaceable at $8.95.

Occasionally my journals will wander, too. My current one, though still the hard-backed composition style, is bright, cheery yellow, almost offensively so, with art-deco swirls. I've gone through riffs on the traditional marble-pattern in blue, red, violet, and (of course) green. I've even tried, without much consistent success, to keep a few other journals--mostly unlined--but I've found that it doesn't work unless I have a "regular" journal going at the same time, too. Also, I clearly recall the first time I actually used a paragraph. I was in college. Prior to that, I just wrote straight through. Compulsively.

I can't say that it successfully drove Miss Petro crazy, any more than constantly signing out to go to band practice or oboe lessons, but it certainly helped my status as class weirdo in my relatively small and entirely homogenous middle school, while everyone else was fluffing their big hair and drifting in and out of pinstripe jeans and fighting over which member of Duran Duran was the hottest.

My one regret is never having enough gumption to dye my hair green.

14 June 2007

See Exhibit WP-1

People are continually in awe of the fact that students today cannot speak or write fluent, coherent English. I have a theory, and it's once again borne out here. It's a little small, but see if you can make out the part where she acknowledges the receipt of my application for the on-year position. She is, it bears observing, the head of the English Department.

And I'm Fresh Out of Gummi Bears

What is it about ovulation that fills me with longing to perform household tasks such as scouring the undersides of the strainer baskets in the kitchen sink?

I never knew the undersides were the same silver as the tops. I always thought they were that dark brown.

13 June 2007

Yet Another Rainy Evening of White Trash Entertainment

It happened right around 8:00, just as I was washing down the last of my vanilla ice cream with the dregs of the red wine in my glass, and my parents were starting to contemplate the bottoms of theirs. A lot of hooping and hollering--whether animal, human, or avian, at this point we couldn't tell. The only thing we knew for certain was that it was heading our way.

Three things passed the kitchen window in relatively rapid succession: a bounding deer, tail-up and running into the trees; a streak of white that rapidly disappeared and became two ears poking out of the long grass beyond the paddock; some chick, bleach blond, dark eyeliner, thin as a rail. All traipsing through our backyard.

My dad and I immediately exchanged a look that said: this one's gonna be good. I picked up my wineglass and followed him out into the driveway, where we scanned the treeline to see who would emerge first out of the final turn. My bets were on the women--two others had followed, one tall and dumpy and the other short and sort of square, and none of the three struck me as particularly athletic or motivated to range after livestock. Depending on the dog, it can take anywhere from ten feet to several miles to realize that they are just never going to get that damned deer. (It took Juno 17 once; she came home only because she hit the Amawalk Reservoir and couldn't cross the highway to get around it.) And deer--well, we all know how that story goes.

If there'd been money on it, I'd have lost. It wasn't more than five minutes before the white thing reemerged, proving itself to be an albino pit bull with a choke collar but no leash (not very helpful, that combination) and a stupid doggie grin on its face. I had the strange pleasure of watching my dad call the dog over and get slurped enthusiastically and his feet sat on. I even went to the trouble of putting my wineglass down at one point to pet him while the blond chick--who on closer inspection was about fifteen--sat plump down in the wet dirt driveway and rained hysterical tears of relief on fido's fuzzy, spade-shaped head. While he just sat there, panting and grinning away as if to say, "Gee, wasn't that fun? Can we do it again tomorrow?" Five bucks says he put the deer up to the whole thing.

Final score: deer 1, dog 1, humans 0. And my dad now thinks his name is Atticus Finch.

12 June 2007

Exactly What I Was Hoping to Avoid

Ever get the feeling that you'd have been better off without the instructions?

10 June 2007

Sometimes Barnegat Bay Is All You'll Ever Need

Forty years ago today, on a day so hot that all the pats of butter melted, convincing the guests there would be lobster, and the bride wore inchworms in her veil, Jack and Mary Ellen ignored the advice of everyone older and wiser, and said "I do."

And they did.

Happy anniversary, mom and dad.

03 June 2007

House Mouse

Funny that you should ask that. Not only was I known as "Mouse" by my college boyfriend, who frequently made that same analogy when I travelled home from Greenwich Village on summer weekends, but my father and I had this exact conversation last Thursday--the day of the infamous baby pants conversation. Crossing 8th Avenue after narrowly avoiding death by student film crew, he asked me if I missed the city. My immediate answer was, "Yeah. Sort of like you miss a really bad rash." But it's a little more complicated than that.

I'm from Brooklyn. I was born and raised in rural New Jersey (which very much exists thank you) in a childhood oddly reminiscent of an Elizabeth Enright novel, but I am from Brooklyn because my father is from Brooklyn. I cannot explain this. Please do not ask me to. Growing up, I spent my summers riding bikes on dirt roads, catching frogs in coffee cans, and catching lightning bugs in the meadow--but I also came born with an inherent knowledge of what does and does not go on a pastrami sandwich, how to navigate the IRT, and that Potvin sucks. From the time I was in eighth grade it was simple fact that I was going to NYU. I don't even think I applied anywhere else.

Maybe it was every poet's dream. Maybe it was the desire to be a part of something bigger than myself. Maybe, later on when I discovered stage management and the thin dusty light of a theatre by skeleton bulb, that was part of it too. But I never saw it as bright lights, big city. I never saw it as running away to chase my dream. I just saw it as going home. The city was my birthright.
Imagine how betrayed I felt when I found out I hated it. Hated it and loved it. Loved the city and hated myself. I don't know. College was dark. Not only was I following the wrong course of study (which, apparently, everyone and their brother knew, but knew better than to tell the headstrong, eighteen-year-old version of me), but I was also, apparently, clinically depressed. And dating someone who attended school in Indiana. Which, you may have noticed, is very far away from New York City. In short, it was a dark and stormy first two years at NYU. (Thank god for K. And thank god for the Catholic Center. And thank god thank god thank god for Robin. Without these two men, and this community, I would surely be dead. And that is a fact, one that I hope adequately explains why I dragged approximately 150 people into an un-air-conditioned Washington Square church on a 90 degree day in September two years ago to have my wedding there.)

My last semester in the city, I fell in love. The homeless guy on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Marks who knew exactly one song on his amplified mountain dulcimer, which he played over and over and over (and over) for weeks until I lost it and put the stereo speakers in my bedroom window and blasted Carmina Burana at top volume. By the last movement, he was gone. Never saw him again. (Orff, orff. Works every time.) The hash dealers on St. Marks who used to call me "Goldie" and follow me home after rehearsal to make sure I was safe. Eric, who sold me a pair of huge, gypsy earrings on Broadway and later took me out for Indian food. K, home from Poland, stir-frying three different kinds of seaweed in our tiny kitchen and feeding it to me with chopsticks; K painting a mural on the dining room wall that had glow-in-the-dark fairies in it which he didn't tell me about, so that they scared the crap out of me when I got up to pee at 3 AM. Veselka, where you can get a borscht and latke fix at that hour, should you need. Eric (different one) who came over with a can of Raid and a gas mask borrowed from the costume shop when I had the cockroach emergency that afternoon. Richmond Owusu, my guardian angel cab driver, leg broken in two places in that terrible ice storm, bleeding all over my good pea coat while we waited for the ambulance, telling me about his son's football team to stay conscious and out of shock. Did you learn to walk again? Did you finish your master's? Was the new baby a girl? Your wife didn't believe you when you told her I stayed with you for two hours until the EMTs showed up, but that's the kind of city New York was that winter.

Despite that, when I left after Christmas, just before I turned 21, I could not shake the gritty subway dust off my feet fast enough, could not get far enough away. Moved to a farm in the Catskills, town population 12, 11 of whom were related to me, and then to a town in the Rocky Mountains for two years. Lost track of Robin for ten, thought I had made my peace with this impossible skyline I so loved and hated.

And then it happened. I won't talk about the towers, or the planes, or the fear in my heart when I realised that not only was I mortal, but so was New York, and so were we all. I will not talk tonight about digging in the rubble for body parts, both on and off the clock, for three months. I will not talk about the look on a fireman's face when you light a candle and sing "Silent Night" and he comes to join you, lights a candle from your shaking hand. I lost no one I knew that day, through some amazing miracle of random fate, but the blow to that city hit me like the city itself was a family member.

I didn't realise I was going to talk about 9/11. I had planned to talk about sitting on the front porch tonight with my parents, back in that childhood home that used to be dead in the country until the suburbs moved into our backyard; about the fact that I can still run on dirt roads and there are horses and a donkey across the driveway, and more trees in this township than houses--but the wound still runs deep, even this many years later. It always comes back to it. It's a love/hate relationship. (Much like the relationship with my dad when I was a teenager, come to think of it.) I am delirious to go, every time I see what's left of the skyline my heart both soars and breaks--but I am always on edge there. And terrorism has nothing to do with that. Some part of me is always relieved when I return home to the country.

But I will always be from Brooklyn.