Tuesday, October 27, 2015

From There to Here, From Here to There, Tricky Thoughts Are Everywhere

It starts innocently enough. But everything starts innocently enough, doesn't it? What I want to say is this: thinking is slippery. It won't stay put. Think a thing, and before too long you are thinking something you don't want to be thinking about, and what else to do at that point but take to bed?

This boy walks into my house. One or two years older than my son. I almost laugh at the knowledge that he is here to inspect our heating system. But inspect it he does. Afterward, shy but earnest, he approaches me. "Ma'am?" he begins. For the second time in an hour I suppress laughter. I will never get used to being anyone's 'ma'am.' "A part in your heat pump has rusted through. Here: I took pictures." He starts to pass me his smartphone. I demur. "I trust you," I say. "No need to show me photos. Not sure I'd know what I was seeing even if I were to look at them." How can I not trust this child? Perhaps he'd like to play with the Legos in our basement? He looks disappointed in me. "Would you like to show me the pictures?" I ask, understanding too late. He nods. "OK," I agree. I pay attention to his explanation of the part he shows me, although I can't for the life of me see what is wrong with it. He is happy that I am listening, or seeming to.

I remember to ask about the cost. "How much?" I inquire. "$87.11," he tells me, "and a discount if you pay now, by cash or check."

I cannot pay now. It is the end of the month. Silly boy, he does not know about this yet, the end-of-the-month problem. "Can you bill me instead?" I ask.

Again he looks downcast. I am turning down a 2% discount, and life has not taught him the reason why. "I guess so," he offers, after a time. Perhaps he is hoping that I will change my mind. I won't. I cannot.


Next week I turn forty-eight years old. I had thought once, when I was the technician's age, that I would long since be out of debt by the age of forty-eight. Instead the debt has only increased, and I am not even starting to pay for anyone's college education until next year. The numbers terrify me.

Everything terrifies me these days, the fault of that damn thinking that I cannot manage to secure in place.


The cats keep throwing up. Because they are both black, and because the kitten is nearly grown, the two of them look alike, at least from a distance. And they like to throw up in private, being tidy creatures by nature, so I never know which of them is the culprit, or the victim, more charitably. Oscar announces that he is going to throw up with a frantic, tell-tale meow. Kind of him, to spare me the clean-up of the carpet and allow me to move him to a hard floor before he gets sick. Hairballs, or something more? I put it down to hairballs, because I am afraid to move to the list of what else it could be, which would require me to consider vet costs and pet mortality, neither of which I am up to considering right now.


I am trying to reassure my high school senior that the college he goes to is not so important in the long view, that he will be happy at any number of colleges, that the college toughest to get into is not necessarily the place where he will thrive. "Look at me!" I exclaim. "All the education in the world, at top universities no less, and I am working at an eleven-dollar-an-hour job. I like my work, but you just never know what your life's path will be." "That's true," he acknowledges, drawing out the second word, and then pauses. Maybe he is waiting for more from me. Is there more that I can say, something that won't take me down the rabbit hole?

I stay silent. I don't - I can't - continue. Here's something else I can't continue: to accompany my son on his college visits and wonder, as we tour campus after campus, "How would I have fared here? What could I have done differently in school, or after?" It is not about me, not now.

The list of things to think about is so much shorter than the list of things not to think about. Is this a problem peculiar to middle age?

Luckily there is no shortage of cat vomit to clean, no thinking required.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fear of Flying

The boy was only four. His heart on display for everyone to see, for anyone to rend. He thought he could fly. Like Spiderman, or Superman. And when he visited his grandmother’s ninth floor apartment in New York City, and looked out the windows in his mother’s old bedroom, he found, to his astonishment, a stage custom made for a boy who wanted nothing more than to soar. Buildings as far as he could see, cars so tiny they could be his Matchbox cars. He pressed his face into the grimy windowpane and dreamed.

His mother found him there and knelt beside him. She wanted to see what he saw. And she did, she did, though she had to squint to make it so, to bring into focus what it was to have been a child in this room. Together they admired the vastness of the city before them. When she stood she issued a mild admonition. The windows stay locked, she said. That’s Grandma’s rule, and my rule, and it’s one of those rules for keeping you safe. The boy nodded. Yes?, his mother repeated. Yes, he murmured, before turning back to where he could fly, down 74th Street and north up 3rd Avenue. He had placed his superhero figures just so, on the windowsill.

When it was time for lunch, his grandmother called him into the kitchen. What have you been doing?, she asked, anxiety lifting her voice into an unfamiliar register, reedy and high. She’d wanted her grandson to visit up to and until the moment he arrived, when she realized that he was now old enough to get into things, to cause disarray. (It may be that she preferred to study photographs of the boy, which overwhelmed every available surface in her home, than to have him, nose persistently running, hair sticking up every which way, before her. It may well be.)

Flying, he answered. Simple and true, the reply.

A mocking noise escaped his grandmother then, out her nose and mouth along with the smoke from her cigarette. Her daughter understood that this was a warning and stopped slicing her son’s banana. Waited. And soon enough:

You DO know that you can’t fly, silly boy. That Superman and Spiderman are made-up characters in comic books? People can’t fly. If you, or Spiderman, were to jump out this window — here the grandmother gestured to the small frosted kitchen window closest to her — you’d end up on the sidewalk. Dead, or nearly so.

The boy stood stock still in front of his grandmother. He’d gone pale, and his mother considered whether he might faint. In her head she was running through the symptoms of shock when her child blurred past her as he fled the kitchen. She found him in the dining room. He was sitting on a hard-backed chair, a chair so formal, so forbiddingly tall that she feared it might swallow him whole at any moment. He was looking straight ahead, not moving. Turned to stone, she thought. She hugged his body to her, and in the safety of her embrace he started to shake and shudder and finally let loose great heaving sobs. I CAN fly, Mommy, he cried. I know you can, baby, she soothed, and stroked his still baby-fine hair.


Back in the kitchen her mother sat, arms crossed, a detestably smug smile on her face. How could you?, wailed the daughter, as she swiped ineffectually at her tear-dampened shirt. Oh, come now, replied her mother. You know as well as I do that he had to find out sometime. And I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the child trying to jump out of the window. Not in my house.

He is FOUR!, shouted the daughter, but she knew she’d lost. Lost so many years ago, in fact, when she was herself a child, and her mother couldn’t bear to be around a person, even a little person, with hopes and dreams and… joy. Yes, that was it. Joy. Her mother had never known joy, and damned if she was going to let anyone else know it. Not if she could help it.


The boy took the loss of his dream with uncharacteristic stoicism. But his mother noticed that not long after they returned from their visit to New York the boy put away his superheroes and moved on, to dinosaurs. Sighing as she lifted the bin of superheroes onto a high shelf in the boy’s closet, she supposed that dinosaurs were a safer bet. They had lived, they had died, they had left evidence of themselves. Their existence indisputable, even on cross-examination.

She thought that once her mother must have believed she could fly, too. Don’t we all? Wondered what crushing blow must have been administered sometime between then and now, a blow that would cause a woman to smother her own grandson’s wonder as carelessly as she extinguished the stub of a cigarette with her shoe.

It must have been an event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs: sudden. Catastrophic. Shattering. Otherwise… Well. There could be no otherwise, could there?

The boy never again brought his superheroes down from where they lay high up in his closet —

At night did those superheroes dream of flying out of their box and around the house? When you are built to fly but find yourself unable to, what then? 

— which may have been just as well. Even a child would find it difficult to imagine a world where dinosaurs and superheroes might coexist.

written in 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Days After Another Shooting (Or Life Goes On, Until It Doesn't)

"Mom, why are you yelling at me?" he asks.
"I don't know. Why are you yelling at me?" I return.
"I'm not," he sulks.
"I'm not, either," I snap.

We are both lying, and we know it.


I have never missed my mother more than I do right now.


This is how it's supposed to go, they say. You and your child fight so that it's easier to separate when the time comes. I thought I would buck this particular trend.

It's dreary to be so predictable, and so often.


Meanwhile, my friends, online and off, squabble about the issues of the day. This week: Gun control. I am for it. Full stop. Those that do not participate in the squabbling are facing serious life crises - psychological, physical, what have you. The downside to my having made so many friends through blogging is that there are always some struggling, and I tend to take on others' pain, which is not a healthy characteristic, but in forty-seven years I haven't been able to change it, so let's face it: the outsized empathy, it's here to stay.


My college alumni magazine arrives, and I flip first to the obituaries. Today I asked my husband whether he knew of any people in his college class who have died, not from accidents but from middle-aged maladies like heart attack or stroke. "No," he shrugged, and then smiled. "Maybe I'll be the first?" We joke like that, he and I.


I am not supposed to write posts like this, scattered. It's out of fashion, lazy, in bad form. I ask: What if my thoughts are exactly as scattered as my form?


I am tired. I would talk a walk in the woods, but it's raining, and the rain is not supposed to let up anytime soon. Instead I eat until my stomach hurts. I can't seem to hear the satiety signal through all this noise.


Don't worry about me. If you do I will react with anger, the reaction you least expect and deserve. Worry about the people who have good reason to be hurting. Me? I am one of the lucky ones.