Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Movies for the End Times

Martin Freeman as Bilbo, puzzling things out.
My husband and I went to see The Hobbit on Friday, opening day, a few hours after I combed through the major online news sites looking for some reason to believe that accounts of what was happening in Newtown, Connecticut were wildly exaggerated. Instead, the news grew worse, and better verified, by the minute.

I'm sorry to tell you that, unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, which I have watched at least ten times each, The Hobbit is long, boring, stupid, and bone-crushingly violent. It is saved only by Martin Freeman, whose lovely face registers Bilbo's moral education step by step, although director Peter Jackson gives this process very little screen time. The film's homicidal mayhem, cheesy as it was, hit me hard on a day when I was already reeling.

The Tolkien books mean a lot to me (as they do to so many) because Victor, 27, my younger son, middle child of the family, fell in love with them when he was seven. I’ve had many excellent days in my nearly sixty years, but those I spent reading these books aloud to him were among the best, because I was reading them for the first time myself, and because I caught a glimpse of who Victor would become as he made sense of the characters and events in Tolkien’s stories. These books helped me raise him. They made the point, although imperfectly--consider the cheap lives of orcs--that we all count, that the choices we make all count.

But that’s not what I want to say here. I’m having trouble getting to the point.

When we go to the movies, my husband and I play a game with the previews. We count how many we have to sit through before the feature begins and then later try to remember which films were previewed. We rarely can. The movies are so forgettable, so indistinguishable, that their titles and elevator pitches fall right out of our heads. I can reconstruct the preview line-up from yesterday, however, without strain, not because the films were more distinct from one another, but because they all seemed to answer the same fear. Here are the previews that preceded The Hobbit in Bellingham, Washington, my home town.

Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. The tagline for this sci-fi film is "Earth is a memory worth fighting for," meaning, apparently, that earth has been abandoned but hope is not dead. Drone repairman Tom Cruise, while tinkering with old machinery on now uninhabitable Earth, discovers something. Note the word "memory," implying loss, just not total loss.

Idris Elba--Wowsers!--in Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim, starring Idris Elba, the handsomest man alive, who screams during the trailer, "We’re canceling the apocalypse!"--this because the human race has rallied to create giant robots capable of battling the dinosaur-like creatures who have crawled through an undersea wormhole from another dimension (I'm not joking).

After Earth, starring Will Smith and directed by M. Knight Shyamalan. Smith's character and his son's get stranded on  Earth 1000 years after it has been abandoned. Every single decision you make, Smith tells his son, is life or death.
Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies, starring no one I've ever heard of and John Malkovich. One still-living non-zombie girl teaches a planet full of zombies that love can bring them back to life. At least this is how I understood the preview.

Beautiful Creatures, based on a popular young adult book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Dark magic on what was formerly a slave-holding plantation. The old plantation is as close as we get to a dead earth in this film, unless you count the fact that Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons agreed to star in it.

Aliens attacking earth is a hoary tradition in Hollywood, as are dystopian films like the Mad Max series, Bladerunner, and The Road. But four movies about the looming or already total end of human life as we know it and of the earth as a habitable planet? Surely this is significant. These four films all include a loophole, a chance that our species will continue either here, via what amounts to a miracle, or elsewhere, because when the shit starts coming down, a few people have the good sense to gas up the rocket ship.

And these previews, don't forget, were followed by the transforming of a beloved, light-hearted children's story into image after image of wholesale slaughter.

All of which means to me that, as hard as many are trying to ignore rapidly accelerating climate change,* the message is seeping into our subconscious minds, and Hollywood is answering the need to deal with it obliquely, by offering films in which all is lost, but not quite.

*If you have missed the news that a temperature increase of 4-6 degrees Celsius, which would mean the slow or fast extinction of our species, is possible, even likely, if we do nothing, and maybe even if we act, by 2100, or sooner, if feedback loops kick in . . . you might for a start read this report from ABC News: The braver among us might watch a presentation by Guy McPherson at

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Introvert's History of Telephone Use

I am terrible on the telephone, by which I mean that I have trouble conducting a conversation longer than ten seconds. I can convey information, period. It's impossible for me to communicate important feelings like enthusiasm or love. I make small talk over a telephone wire about as well as I do at parties. I just want to hang the hell up.

The following are a few highlights of my checkered history of using the HI (horrific instrument):

Children didn't talk on the phone in my house unless a relative was calling from a great distance, as my brother once did from a German army base. I interpreted the static on the line as the roar of the Atlantic Ocean. I told my brother this, and he laughed. I was eight years old, I hadn't seen him for months, I took the occasion very seriously, and he laughed. My brother is a good guy now, of course, but then? Sororocide by telephone.

I started using the HI in earnest in my teenage years, to do homework with my best friend, Christine. We'd do our math problems separately, then compare answers via our parents' kitchen telephones.

In our sophomore year in high school, for example, our math homework usually consisted of geometry proofs: side angle side, angle side angle, you remember. If our individual efforts resulted in different answers, we'd work through the problem together step by step until one of us found a mistake. That way we both received high homework scores, and since there's no better way to prepare for tests than poring over homework, high test scores as well. Christine is a doctor now, and I'm . . . well, it worked for her.

We were among the smartest girls in our sophomore class—and the least visible. Unless they needed help with their homework, boys looked right through us. But even eggheads fall in love, and introverted eggheads often turn to the telephone, thinking it must be easier to make initial contact if one's face is not involved. This belief is erroneous.

Christine was a sensible person, but somehow I persuaded her to let me call her crush, Tom, a dreamy senior basketball player and watercolorist, in order to make idle conversation, bring up the subject of her, and pass along her phone number. I made a list of possible topics Tom might be interested in, including basketball, which I knew nothing about. The next time Christine and I were together after school--it was essential that she hear at least one end of this conversation--I looked Tom's number up in the phone book--remember the phone book?--and dialed it.

When Tom's mother answered, I asked politely if I could speak to him. She said he wasn't there and did I want to leave a message.  No! I said, one or two tones higher than usual. Christine nearly had heart failure listening to this much, so it's probably just as well that Tom wasn't available.

We tried this again another afternoon, and once more Tom's mother answered. No Tom. In retrospect, this seems suspicious. "Didn't you call before?" his mother said. "Who is this?" It was time to hang up. I dropped the receiver. I can still hear it banging against Christine's kitchen wall. Sadly, this is the end of the story.

Those old phones didn't have redial or caller ID, so short of a police investigation Tom's mother had no way to discover who had the temerity to try flirting with her son. On the other hand, there was no way to leave a private message. And unless you were lucky enough to have an extension in your bedroom, your parents and siblings had as much control over who reached you and the impression you made on him as you did.  It was a dark time for teenagers. For girls, who were expected to talk on the telephone to boys only if the boys called them, it was the darkest of times.

Why did I think a phone conversation was easier than a face-to-face encounter? With a boy in front of me, I might have made use of tangible clues. He might be carrying a textbook: "How do you like civics?" His goggles might be hanging around his neck: "When's the next swim meet?" He might be walking with a girl. Veer sharply to the right. If I'd been able to look a boy in the eye and use these clever opening lines, getting a date would have been a miracle. But on the phone, with only vague ideas about what constituted cross-gender conversation, it was not going to happen. And remember, I was still trying to get a date for someone else.

Here's how I solved my problem. I wrote letters--to a senior who got interested in me only toward the end of sophomore year, then shipped out to Stanford. For two years we corresponded. This meant I could avoid learning further social skills during my junior and senior years in high school. After that I followed my epistolary boyfriend to Stanford, where face-to-face encounters put a speedy end to our romance. In my defense, this man is now a Jesuit priest. The odds were never in my favor.

I lasted two years at Stanford. Imagine me there, a working class girl wearing polyester dresses my mother made and cleaning Palo Alto houses for extra money. After Stanford, I went to Berkeley, where it was easy to hide in used bookstores and crumbling movie theaters. Now I worked in offices, and offices in 1975 meant phones with multiple lines.

I learned the lingo quickly enough, and I appreciated knowing exactly what to say: May I put you on hold? Sorry to keep you waiting! Who can I get for you? Please hold, I'm transferring. No answer? I'll ask Mr. Hopkins to call you back. Where can you be reached? That reduced some of the pressure, but introverts tend to get rattled.  With several calls going, I inevitably transferred one to the wrong number, hung up on another, and muddled the script. "Yes, I'll have Mr. Hopkins call you," I might say, and a senior secretary would overhear and correct me: "Never ever use those words. Who do you think you are, Mr. Hopkins' boss?"

Before long, someone figured out that I could not only type but spell, and my receptionist duties were passed on to someone with a cooler head. I don't remember ever being fired.

And then . . . the answering machine. If this contraption had never been invented, I would be a better human being today. It trained up the mean girl in me. Later, email fully empowered her.

Knowing there would be an answering machine on the other end of the line, I could prepare, sometimes in writing, a withering or snide message, practice it, and sometimes deliver it intact. By the late 70s I had no trouble getting dates. It was relationships that defeated me, and I helped that process along by leaving recorded messages that started something like this: So, roses, again? Really? How many times do you think you can talk to me like that and make the hurt go away with roses?

I would never have said this in person, with the roses nearby. In person, I'd have been forced to begin with a thank you, and that kind of thing sets a rude person back.

You might recognize a pattern of insecurity here.

One swell thing about the answering machine was that I knew for sure if a guy was trying to reach me.  None of this I-tried-to-call-you stuff. And I could filter calls, or claim that I didn't receive a message because my machine was selectively malfunctioning--which it often was. They didn't last long, those early models.

By the time my children were growing up, the cordless phone had arrived. I could talk while watching a kid in the bathtub or looking out the window at an argument developing in the backyard. I could carry the phone outside to a kid with muddy feet. I could call the advice nurse with one hand and wipe up vomit with the other. I used the telephone for IMPORTANT MOTHERING BUSINESS and still hung up as soon as possible.

The cell phone. A black, black day. For the first few years, I rarely understood what the person on the other end was saying, which made we wonder why I was bothering to listen. Sound quality at least has improved.

In theory, I am now reachable 100 percent of the time, wherever I am. Everyone with anything to say to me can leave me a message and feel quite confident that, unless I'm a total moron, I'll be able to retrieve it. Or, they can send me words that beep their urgency at me. I can filter cell phone calls, too, of course, but now we have a culture in which we celebrate opportunities to talk, friend, twitter, text. I am supposed to answer every call with a cheerful voice, a cheerful attitude.

My kids do not admire my telephone skills. My oldest has all but given up on me. I announce my primary message, and he says, "Okay. Thanks for calling, Mom." My youngest claims that I always sound a little panicky on the phone. She's afraid bad news is on the way. I have tried to explain that being on the phone is what makes me panicky, but that is so far outside her experience that she can't take it in.

Mercifully, my middle kid is as awkward on the telephone as I am. We  agree to get our business out of the way and wait for a time when we can be together in person--which we always enjoy.

My husband? Calls he's made while traveling on business have called our compatibility into question. Once he called me at 11:30 my time from Milan, at the end of a long night when all three kids were sick, to tell me he missed me. I suggested that he go out and see what Milan had to offer.

The smart phone--I don't want one. I don't want to know every possible factoid that might possibly affect the way I might possibly spend the next ten minutes. No, thank you. My head is crowded enough. I spend my days trying to make sense of what's already in there.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Girl's Thoughts

In July, I began a yearlong workshop with writer Kim Stafford, sponsored by Fishtrap, a writing center in Eastern Oregon. I'm the only fiction writer in a group of nine students--the others are writing memoir or natural history or both--but I was sure that Kim could help me see my stories in a new light. I haven't been disappointed.

Kim's newest book, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared (Trinity University Press), is a memoir about his older brother, Bret Stafford, who committed suicide in 1988. I read it because I wanted to journey a little deeper into the Stafford family story after reading Early Morning, Kim's hypnotic biography of his father, poet William Stafford. I read it as well because Kim described its genesis to us at Fishtrap last summer, and I wanted to see if his structure worked. I didn't expect to learn quite so much from it about maleness.

Kim takes his title from a book Bret loved as a child. The book suggested, for example, that a boy might successfully yank a tablecloth out from under tableware. Bret tried this and broke a crystal glass.

Kim wrote a table of contents first, a list of nearly 100 incidents, to be loosely framed as tricks, from his childhood with Bret, their adolescence and college years together, their increasingly separate lives as young men, and, obliquely, about Bret's death when Kim was 39. He organized the titles under four phrases he and Bret said together as kids before sleep: good night, God bless you, have sweet dreams, and see you tomorrow. It is fascinating to ponder, after reading each episode--the longest is nine pages--how the section where Kim placed it illuminates its meaning. Kim's structure also allowed him to avoid a chronological telling of Bret's life.

"It is possible . . . to write in a series of short bursts," Kim says in his 2003 book, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening an Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, "and let the engine of the book's idea do the work of collecting these pieces into a whole book."

I loved the motif of the trick. It hints at so much that is fine in this book. Many of Bret's pursuits are just as tricky as the tablecloth and glass, but more serious--terribly serious. As a junior in high school, he organizes a mass planting of cherry trees. He leads Kim across a glacier repeatedly testing its safety by throwing a boulder ahead of them to see if the ice will hold. During the Vietnam War, he qualifies after long effort for C.O. status, but moves with his family to Canada anyway because he doesn't want to live in a country that would fight such a war.

Kim and Bret are close in age, and inseparable as children, but gradually their differences emerge. Kim reveals a great deal about himself in this book, particularly his struggles to please parents who give him a lot of freedom but seem to expect him to use it well, to do the right thing. Kim wanders his neighborhood at night while his parents sleep, climbs a hill and takes shelter under a tree during a lightning storm, and tries to break into his boyhood church to play his clarinet for God. He marries young and tolerates years of unhappiness before divorcing, teaches at the same college his father does, although in a different way, wanders and writes and wanders some more. He both conforms to and resists his parents' hopes and society's standards.

"After my brother died," Kim writes, "I asked our father why I had survived."

"'Bret was a saint,' he said. 'You're not. That's good.'"

Readers will wish this message had been delivered earlier and more effectively--to both boys, but especially to Bret.

I read memoir to live other lives. My own life, a girl's, most of it lived indoors, postponing many risks until after I'd raised my children, has little in common with Kim's. My father was quiet and remote like Kim's dad, but for different reasons, and since my father had to leave school in the fourth grade, his legacy to me didn't include writing. My mother loved children as Kim's mother did, but my mom kept an eye on us always, told us, whenever possible, how to handle every situation, wasted no time herself and expected us to waste none. In my family, no one wandered.

What I learned from this book is that growing into manhood in this country in the second half of the twentieth century was tricky indeed. Sexual relations, from a young man's perspective--very, very tricky. Finding a career path, making a living, supporting a family while also trying to be a member of it, all tricky. You were liable to lose the best part of yourself. I knew this, but now I know it.

"Can I say it now, my brother?" Kim writes. "Maybe I can say it for you: There is something inside a boy, not yet man, that has almost no chance. To show this thing would be taken wrong, surely, cause pain, steel your resolve for utter reticence. This wordless treasure could not come forth as it is felt within. When I looked down naked on our town, when I walked the midnight rails, when I climbed the vine, and finally tried to play my heart, I was apart from the trials to come---sex, money, resume, family, and all the rest. By some language of pure light, I and the moon could send the best of the boy in safety beyond the man." 

Friday, July 27, 2012

I'll Only Be Writing

A pin oak.  They're lovely trees.

I’d rather be writing. . . I’d rather be teaching . . . As it turns out, I’ll only be writing.  On June 6, minutes after my last class ended, with only grading left to do, I dropped in on the dean and resigned, packed up my office, and drove away. (If you’re an adjunct, you’ll know I didn’t have much to pack. I desk-surfed this year and learned fast not to accumulate.) I’m sitting in my office at home in Bellingham now, looking out at the pin oaks planted in the green strip that divides Broadway, and feeling a little shell-shocked.

I don’t regret my most recent experiences in the classroom. In four quarters, I learned, again, from 200 students that what matters in life doesn’t have much to do with how to list dates in MLA format. 

Here is a sampling of remarks I heard from fellow English Dept. faculty this year:

I don’t want to know anything about my students.

What do you mean they should read good books?  Do you mean classics?

We should probably assign at least one book per quarter.

This may look like a five-paragraph essay, but it’s not.  I tell them not to write five-paragraph essays.

I don’t even want to be in the same room as that guy (a vet).  He’s the most judgmental person I’ve ever known.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up with a gun and shot me. 

Well, in my 101, that paper would get a D.

My husband, who will have to work more hours to pay for private health insurance again, has been, as usual, very kind.  I know most adjuncts can’t afford to quit.  I know.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

C words--but not THAT one

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate
Say you live in a family or work in an institution.  That accounts for most of us.  Within that family or institution certain people are in charge—either because they are paid to be; or they birthed and reared you and expect a little consideration; or they have shown (or until recently concealed) a proclivity for control.  You may not have objected so far. The risk of conflict may have been too great, or up until now you’ve been able to circumvent the person or persons in question. Maybe you're the kind who, before you nod off at night, thinks, What the hell. Surely we can all get along.

If you’re suddenly worried, if one day not too long ago you noticed that you’ve become dangerously passive, how do you know that you’re not overreacting? How do you know that a tiny bit of paranoia isn’t surfacing that has more to do with you than with the person or persons in charge? You can assess your situation by listening for the following words across the kitchen table or in a meeting:

Condone—as in I can’t condone that kind of behavior, often used by a parent pre-emptively in reference to another child.  What the parent means is, don’t ever do that, or you won’t like the consequences.

Comply—often used by physicians: Have you complied with your treatment plan? That is, have you taken your meds today? But equally effective in other situations.

Cooperate—the mother of that lovely sixties noun cooperative. The verb and adjective aren’t as friendly: we trust you will cooperate in this endeavor, and if we all could be just a little more cooperative . . . Now that I think of it, wasn’t there always one person in those sixties food and babysitting coops who managed to squeeze out a little more free time or save a little more money than everyone else?

Concur—This one isn’t used much outside Congressional hearings. But if you hear it—Do you concur?—the apparent dignity with which  you are being addressed may seduce you into betraying a conviction.

Calculate—If your boss plans to calculate the cost of a program you’ve proposed, or your parents suggest that you calculate the true cost of something you need, you can be pretty sure that the numbers aren’t going to work in your favor.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of Vocabulary C, clarify your thoughts, seek counsel (but beware of therapeutic types, who are sometimes in bed with Angela Lansbury), and communicate.  Communicate is a word that can be used for good or evil.  Use it for good.  Be transparent, let go of your anger as soon as you’ve spent it, and don’t conspire to be in charge yourself.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s latest book, Some Assembly Required, about her new grandson and his 20-year-old father. I’d share an excerpt, but that seems unfair when the book tour is still in progress.  So I’ll borrow some advice from an earlier book, Operating Instructions. Surely her publisher won’t mind that. 

Strive to be “a very gentle person”--as Lamott says she tries and often fails to be but has endeavored to teach her son and readers--and be “militantly on [your] own side.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Through the Window

I  took a nap yesterday, and a bath, and watched a 1933 William Powell movie on TV called The Kennel Murder Case, which made very little sense but involved dogs. At the muddy end of winter quarter, my mind is almost empty.

Emptiness would be an opportunity, I know, if I could keep myself from racing to fill it with anything more complicated than this forsythia, blooming outside our kitchen window.

I've been reading Bob Ekblad's Reading the Bible with the Damned and remembering what took me to El Salvador so many years ago--the drive to understand how people in desperate circumstances come to believe that they're safe, that neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers (and so on) can separate them from the love of God. In order to grasp this, I--who never worry about where my next meal is coming from or whether I'll die before I can eat it--apparently need to encounter people who do worry about these things, either in the Global South, or right next door, where making connections seems much harder. Ekblad labors in both fields--in Honduras and with the locally desperate. His hermeneutics, as I once learned to call the bias one brings to interpreting the Bible, ring truer than most, but that hoary book resists all efforts to clean it up or systematize it.  Ekblad's is just one more. It's the struggling people in the book, the ones in jail, or coming off drugs, or bending over to pick berries, that offer instruction. I owe them something for it, and I need to find a way to pay my bill.

This choice of reading has something to do with emptiness, but it's way more complicated than forsythia, so I'm putting it down. When the rain finally stops in Bellingham, there's no place more beautiful.  Have I mentioned this?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ordinary Time

Our reading on Sunday, Feb. 12, went  fine. We were glad to read in a queue of eighteen other couples, many of whom had written original poems for the occasion.  We weren't that brave.  I read "Carry" by Billy Collins, "Kissing," by Marie Howe, and "The Shirt," by Jane Kenyon.  Warren read two E. E. Cummings poems, one of which made me cry. Our daughter told us later that the Michael Caine character in Hannah and Her Sisters read this same poem to the Barbara Hershey character, and adultery ensued.

The couples ranged widely in age, young enough to have infant children, old enough to have tremors. Every marriage trajectory, insofar as the listener could intuit it, was different.  A very cool evening.  Thanks to Sky and Lynn for coming.  A former student showed up, too--with his girlfriend!  That was thrilling.

Last week and weekend, we had a series of sunny and sparkling, but not freezing, days.  A few things about the place I now work jumped out at me. There's no place to go if you're sick, to get an aspirin from someone who may or may not be qualified to give it to you.  There is no place even to lie down.  There are no department offices, or secretaries.  The waiting area for the financial aid office is out in the open, along one of the main corridors of the student center.

I've been so glad to be employed as a teacher and so desperate to keep up with planning and grading that I was on campus six months before I noticed these things. When the governor of our state says that K-12 shouldn't be funded at the expense of higher education, she may recently have taken a tour of a community college campus.

On Sunday I was grateful for the couple that read some lines from the Song of Solomon: "...for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come..." May that be so for institutions serving people.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Husband and I Read Poetry

If you're in the Bellingham area, consider attending this event on the Sunday before Valentine's Day. Warren and I are one of at least 15 couples reading poetry, both original and published by others.  Adults only!

For us, reading poetry together in public may turn out to be like dancing--a little awkward. We need some moral support!

7-9 PM at the Amadeus Project, 1209 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham.

Admission by voluntary donation to the Amadeus Project. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Writing and Teaching

I’d rather be writing.
I’d rather be teaching.
Even if I believed that the way I spend my waking hours, my one and only life, could be reduced to a bumper sticker, neither of these would describe what I want.
In my community college basic writing class, one of three courses I’m teaching winter quarter, I assigned as content a few works, mostly short, about the Puget Sound area where my students and I live—or the Salish Sea, the native name we’re learning to use. I’ve begun with native myths about salmon, the buffalo of the Lummi, Snohomish, Pullayup and other coastal tribes, because that seemed natural, the best place to start. “Native” tribes are immigrants just like the rest of us, but their pedigree is older. Their forebears crossed the now submerged land bridge across the Bering Strait twenty to fifty thousand years ago, whereas other ancestral communities didn’t unpack their bags for good until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The problem is that I don’t altogether understand these native myths.  If I did, I wouldn’t have assigned them. I know from past experience that the light will go on for me about ten minutes into the first class discussion of this material, and it will be a student who throws the switch.  I love the suspense of this process and its collegiality. Now that I’m teaching again, I don’t think I can live without it.  Still, it wears me out.
If you know the Myers Briggs Type Indicators, I’m an INFJ—an intuitive (N), feeling (F) and judging (J) introvert (I).  (My under-developed capacities are thinking, sensing, perceiving, and extraversion.) I like Myers-Briggs, based on Carl Jung’s psychological types, because all the traits are given a positive spin. I am imaginative, compassionate, planful, and reflective—rather than illogical, unrealistic, unspontaneous, and antisocial. You could make a case that INFJs make good teachers as well as good writers.  I seriously doubt, though, that doing both makes much sense for them, for me.  We’re pretty high-strung folks, disinclined to spread ourselves thin.
Over the last week and a half I’ve met 80 new people, and because I’m “intimate’ (an aspect of introversion), I’ve learned about 70 of their names. I ran into several students from last quarter, which made me unaccountably happy. I signed lots of paperwork for financial aid and tutoring help without knowing much about the particular needs these services are filling. I listened to a vet explain PTSD in relation to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a connection that never occurred to me. Because I’m teaching Business English for the first time, I went to the counseling center to ask some probably stupid questions about who my students are and what they’re up against. The answer to that last part—what they’re up against—is a lot.
When I’m teaching I write about two pages a week. I have a pile of stories in my drawer, most of which haven’t been published, and new voices in my head--characters buying ferry tickets and begging each other not to jump into the Salish Sea.
Teaching slows writing down to a trickle. And writing, if you let it, can squeeze out everything else, rendering an introvert like me agoraphobic and mute. What I want to avoid more than anything else is spending my numbered days wishing I were doing whatever I’m not. That would be a real shame.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Rescue Me"

I've been working on an essay today about introversion, pulling some of my old blogs together and reflecting on them.  I have three stories that need rewrites, but I felt like starting something (sort of) new. I can't figure out where to start blogging in 2012, so here's an old story about two introverts who find each other, published obscurely in print in 1999. I think I still like it.

Rescue Me

Raymond's next-door neighbor, Brigit, stands in his driveway.  He lowers the window of his car, extends his arm, and tries to shoo her out of the way: "Move, Brigit, OK?"   When she doesn't, he drives around her and parks diagonally in the garage of his condo.
"I went to the community college, like you told me," she shouts as soon as he opens the car door.  "They sent me to some center."   
"The Center for the Learning Disabled," he says in a level voice as he walks toward her.  She needs to be reminded to keep her voice down.  She has trouble with volume control.    
"How did you know that?" she whispers.  Her blue eyes blink in slow motion, and she slumps a little.  A head injury she received about two years ago has confused her thinking, and it depresses her when other people understand and remember easily.  Raymond has spoken to her doctor and knows that her prognosis is uncertain.  She may remain as she is, or she may get better, even much better.  When she told him that her ex-husband left her days after she came home from the hospital, Raymond was outraged.  In sickness and in health may be too big a promise for some people to keep, but at least her husband might have stuck around to find out which it was going to be.    
"I called ahead to the Student Placement Office, remember?"  he says.  "That's how I knew about the center."  He called the center, too, earlier this afternoon, to talk to the counselor who met with Brigit.  Recently Raymond has involved himself--just a little--in Brigit's affairs.  He has encouraged her to believe that she has some control over her condition, that she can work at getting better.  He hopes he is right to have done this.
"Yes," she says, "Right.  The man at the center talked to me for a long time and made me an . . . appointment."
Brigit is aware that people she meets for the first time assume she's always been stupid, or crazy.  Raymond believes she's better off knowing this, because in addition to seeming either slow-witted or unbalanced, Brigit is simply beautiful, the most beautiful woman Raymond has ever met.   She looks like the blonde Charlie's Angel, the second, small and neat one, not the first one with all the curly hair.  Raymond watched reruns of this show, dubbed in Spanish, as a kid, when his parents were missionaries in Caracas.  Unfolding in another language, the plots seemed complicated, but the mixture of lust and malice on the crooks' faces came across plainly enough. Brigit isn't up to springing any brilliant surprise plans as the Angels did.  She isn't going to outsmart anyone, not now, maybe never.  Over the last year and a half, since they have been neighbors, Raymond has come to care for her, but even he has dreams in which her limitations are--is there any other way to put it?--convenient. 
"I've got a slip of paper here somewhere with the day and time on it," Brigit says.  "The appointment's for a test or something.  Where is that damn paper?"  She reaches into each pocket of her jeans once, twice, three times.  "Did you know there would be a test when you told me to go?  I can't find it."  She grabs Raymond's wrists, panicked.  She tends to do this, touch him like this.  Does she do it with other people?  That, all by itself, could get her into trouble.  Or does she do it just with him? 
"Stop saying I told you to go, Brigit.  I suggested  that you go, that's all."  He doesn't want her to become too dependent on him. So far he's acted responsibly. When she's standing right next to him, when he can smell her, he has a hard time remembering they aren't on a level playing field. He would like to believe he's a decent person. 
"Here," he says, reaching into the pocket of her pink cotton shirt.  "The paper is pink, and your shirt is pink.  Here."     
Why did he do that?  Brigit's eyes have lit up.  She is radiant. 
"The test is on Monday.  Today's . . .Friday," she says.  "It's OK about the test, Raymond.  I don't mind taking it.  If you think I should.  I trust you." 
 That night they sit in the living room of Brigit's condo, on a floral sofa.  They've had pizza delivered.  Its grease-stained box sits empty on Brigit's coffee table.  Raymond is past 30.  He's eaten plenty of meals with plenty of women and slept with some of them afterward, teachers, mainly, from the school district where he works networking computers and explaining how to use them.  These women have drifted away, or he has.  He can think of one or two who would say that he has.  He has heard that his name buzzes around the teachers' lounges, that women warn each other about him. 
His sister, Caroline, who lives with her family across town, finds the idea that Raymond is some sort of Don Juan among the laser printers--thin and freckled as he is, never married--ridiculous.  He doesn't see himself that way either, of course, but he resents Caroline's tone.  He doesn't care for her tendency to make summary judgments and is afraid that he resists making important decisions in his own life because he doesn't want to be like her.
"It doesn't matter how you do on this test," he says to Brigit.  "It's only so the people at the center will know how to help you." 
She wants him to spend the weekend helping her get ready for the test.  He could.  The math teacher he's been dating is out of town.  His only plans are to have dinner with his sister, at her insistence, Saturday night.  
"The test does  matter, Raymond.  I don't want them to put me in a bunch of bonehead classes.  I don't have that much time. I got another letter from the lawyer." 
Brigit and her husband were married only four years.  In view of her condition, she was awarded three years of support in the divorce settlement.  She has not quite two years' left.   Before Raymond suggested the community college, she experimented with part-time jobs.  Several months ago, for example, she worked in a bookstore, at the register.  Every evening she got off the bus that stops on their corner looking more haggard, more used up.  In fact, the first time she and Raymond had a personal conversation, he was out in front washing his car when he saw her stumble down the steps of the bus and fall onto the boulevard strip.  He ran over to help her up, but she needed to talk first, to lie back in his arms and tell him what had happened.  A woman had run into the store with a sick baby, Brigit said, and she had given the woman the wrong directions to the hospital.  
Maybe you need a job where you don't have to work with people, Raymond suggested.  And Brigit replied, I love  people, but maybe you're right.  Really, though, said Raymond, it's just as likely that I'm wrong.   Brigit had looked up into his face then.  He wondered what she saw there.
"What's on this test anyway?" says Brigit.
"I'm not sure."  Raymond didn't ask.  The counselor he spoke to today did say, however, that based on his interview with Brigit, he might suggest the court recording program.  She wouldn't do well at work that required thinking about several things at once, or setting priorities, but her small motor skills appeared to be intact and fairly good.  And it looked as if, when she wanted to, she could concentrate. 
"I'm not dyslexic," Brigit says.  "The hospital people figured that much out.  And I can read fine.  Try me.  Go ahead." 
He doesn't really know how to help with the test.  He might confuse her, make her do worse on it than she would have done without him.   She puts her arm around him.
"All right," he says.  He pulls away a little, opens the newspaper, points at random to an article.  "Read that sentence to me."
"'A Chinese real estate and gambling mogul linked to laundered campaign money visited the White House at least 10 times from 1994 to 1996.'"  Brigit doesn't stumble over a single word.
"Very nice.  So if I asked you a question about that, could you answer it?"
"Maybe.  I don't know."  She puts her fingers in his hair.  "Probably not."  She looks unhappy.
"Well, tell me what you do understand."
"It's about the President and some laundry money." 
"Laundered  money," says Raymond.
She looks hard at him.  He can guess what she's thinking.  "And there's something about a Chinese mogul," she says.  "That's not the kind of mogul you ski around, I'm sure of that.  My husband and I used to ski, you know.   All the time.  I'm a good skier.  What is  this article about?"
"How the president may have raised the money he needed to get elected."
"Oh.  Laundered money."
"Right."  Raymond hopes she doesn't ask him to explain how money is laundered, because he doesn't know.
"So will you help me, Raymond?"  She pokes him in the stomach.  Her hair brushes against his face.
He'll have to be careful, that's all.  He'll have to be very clear and direct.  "I'll try," he says.
He and Brigit spend Saturday morning taking books off the shelf in his bedroom, most of them from his childhood.  They take the books into the living room--he insists on that--and read a paragraph or two together, talk about it, move on to the next, or to a more complicated book.  They progress from The Red Fairy Book  to Where the Red Fern Grows  to The Scarlet Pimpernel.    He makes lunch, but afterward says he's tired. 
She knocks on his door again at 5:00.  "Feel rested?"
"We'll do more in the morning, Brigit.  I'm busy tonight."
Her eyes brim with tears.  He feels as if two very large hands are closing around his throat.  This is how Brigit's tears register, as life threatening.
"It's my sister," he rushes to explain.  "I'm meeting her for dinner."  He adds, irrelevantly, "She's older than I am." 
"Why can't I go along?" asks Brigit. 
He wants to say, because Caroline will see right away that you are the kind of person who would ask that question.  "You wouldn't like my sister."
"Why not?  We'll get along great.  You'll see."
"Brigit, please keep your hands to yourself during dinner," he says as they walk into the Chinese restaurant that Caroline has chosen.  "My sister won't know what to think if you touch me all the time.  And watch your voice.  People don't normally shout in restaurants." 
"I bet the guy who owns this place is a mogul," Brigit shoots back. 
He's nervous, and that's dangerous around Brigit.  He might say the wrong thing, feel the wrong thing.  And Caroline will notice. 
His sister raises her eyebrows when she sees Brigit coming but says only, "Pleased to meet you."  Caroline is wearing canary shoes, a dress that's green and purple, jungle-printed.  Like Raymond, she is fair-skinned and small-boned, but somehow she is equal to this outfit.  She threw over their mother's churchy taste as soon as she left home.    
They order dinner, Brigit with some difficulty since Caroline is busily updating Raymond on her catalogue business in children's clothing. 
"I rented warehouse space and hired a guy to fill orders," she says.  "And I finally caved in and hired professional models."  She turns to Brigit.  "I used to use my own kids as models." 
Brigit says, "Oh, I love kids.  Someday I'm going to have lots of kids.  I'll have to get married again, naturally." 
"Naturally!" says Caroline, cocking her head to one side.   
Raymond thinks, maybe this is going to turn out OK after all.  Caroline likes honesty, and no one is more honest than Brigit.  Dishonesty was his sister's charge against their missionary parents.  "Why don't you just give these people a list of everything they're supposed to think and do?"  She meant their father's Venezuelan congregation, and the neighborhood women as well, to whom their mother was always giving advice on hygiene.  "Control and coercion--that's what missionary work amounts to.  Why not be up front about it?"
The waitress serves their hot and sour soup.
Raymond feels disoriented.  Having Brigit there with Caroline has confused the past and the present.  "Brigit's going back to school," he says hopefully.      
"Oh?  What are you going to study?" Caroline asks.
"Well, you know, I'm not quite sure.  It depends.  Whatever seems . . . interesting."  Brigit examines her fingernails.  
"Surely you must have some idea about what you want to study," Caroline says.  "I mean, why go back to school if you don't have a plan?" 
Raymond sees he has inadvertently raised one of Caroline's red flags. 
"I was in a car accident, and then I had surgery," Brigit says.  She pats at the hair that covers her scar.  "It wasn't completely successful."  She is beginning to look agitated.   
Raymond hurries to explain that he's arranged for a test to be given to Brigit, for career counseling, tutoring. 
Caroline's face darkens.  He knows that look.  She gives her own kind of test, and he just failed it.  "I think I understand," she says.  
"What?" says Raymond, more loudly than he intended.  "What  do you understand?"  Caroline is a weight on his chest.  He would like to throw it off.  From the time we were little and crammed together, sweating, in those front pews, he would like to tell her, I have never liked you.
"You see," Caroline says to Brigit, "our family has a certain tendency toward . . . missions."
"Bullshit," says Raymond, hissing.  "Maybe you want to tell people how to live, but I don't.  Maybe you think--"
Brigit casts a fretful beam of something, possibly love, in his direction.  He feels it on his face. 
Caroline is looking hard at both of them now.  "Forgive me," she says to Brigit.  "I see that I've been . . . mistaken about your relationship with my brother." 
Something worse is on the way.  Raymond knows it.  Caroline turns to him.  "My God, Raymond, this woman is injured.   Is your conscience on vacation?"   
"You don't know anything  about Brigit and me!  Nothing!"  He's shouting now.  People in the restaurant turn to look.  
Brigit stands up, lays her hand on his shoulder.  He's not sure what she wants, but he pushes his chair back.  She sits down in his lap. 
"Don't be upset, Ray," says Brigit.  "Everything's fine.  I like Caroline.  And she likes me.  Don't you, Caroline?"
"Well, yes," says his sister.  "Of course I like you, but--"
"See, Ray?"  Brigit hides her face in his neck and whispers, "Everything is just fine!" 

On the way home, Raymond can't stop coughing.  There's a piece of food stuck in his windpipe.  Brigit inserts her hand between his back and the car seat and tries to slap him.  The car swerves. 
"Stop that, Brigit!"
She settles for unbuckling her seat belt, scooting over next to him.   Her upper arm presses against his.
"Think of nice things," she says.  "Think of Disneyland.  Did you go to Disneyland when you were a kid?"
"Yes."  His parents had taken Caroline and him once, the summer he was nine.   
"Think of the electrical parade," says Brigit.  "Think of the teacups."
Disneyland had disturbed him.  He wanted so much to relax and enjoy himself, to be a regular American kid.  The park, so bright, perfect, flamboyantly fake, cried out for a holiday mood, a foolishness that his family never practiced but ought to be able to manage this once if they would only try.   And he supposed they did try, his mother and father and sister, but they were lousy actors, and after a while Raymond just wanted to get the whole thing over with.  
"I'm not a kid anymore, Brigit." 
"Then think of something else then.  Think of . . . kissing."
Kissing.  She clearly said kissing.  But her feelings may be as short-lived, as unreal, as a visit to Disneyland.  He doesn't know who she used to be, or who she will become.  It's not her problem that he's fallen in love with the person she is right now. 
"Ray!" Brigit says.  "You're not sick, are you?" 
He's cold now, and damp.
"You can't be sick.  We have to study tomorrow."
They pull into his driveway.  He's asking too much of himself, that he help her without touching her, without helping himself to  her.  She's  asking too much.
"You could be a little less . . . demanding, Brigit.  I mean, I gave you most of my Saturday.  You could at least say thank you."
She moves away, then reaches up and feels around for the overhead light.   She's steely eyed, but trembling.  "Never mind about the test, Ray," she whispers.  "I don't need help.  You said yourself the test doesn't matter."  She opens the car door.
He grabs her hand.  She has to understand that he didn't mean what he just said, that all along he has meant well.  "Don't think badly of me, Brigit," he begins, then something else comes out.  "Come inside with me, Brigit.  Spend the night with me." 
He jumps out of the car, runs around to the other side. 
"Let's go in, Brigit.  Please, honey.  Let's go now."
He sits up in bed, his back to her, trying to think of what her skin feels like, to fix a phrase in his mind, so he won't forget.  Like the sky, if you could touch it.  Like an eyelid.    
"Ray," Brigit says, "Did I ever tell you about my mother?"
"No, honey."   He wants to make love again, right away.  He wants the whole length of her body stretched out against his.  He inhales slowly, shakily, tries to calm down.
"She wasn't pretty, not like me.  When I got to be about twelve, and she was maybe 40, she always looked, I don't know, kind of swollen up, red and  blotchy.   After a while she looked OK again.  I'll show you my wedding pictures.  She looked nice that day.  But by then my dad was gone.
"I used to watch her in the mirror when she brushed my hair.   She'd stop and hold a handful of it or touch the skin on my face.  She said I'd never have the same kind of trouble she had.  No one would ever leave me." 
How hard Brigit's life has been.  "I won't leave you," he says.
"You might.  I have to be realistic.  I need to be able to take care of myself."
"I know you do.  You need a good job," he says, "a career.  I'll help you."  Will you leave me?  he wants to ask.  "Tomorrow, we'll study."
"Thank you, Ray.  You're a good person.  I knew that right from the start."
Raymond lies back down beside her, breathing more easily now, more smoothly, as if suddenly, somehow, he is entitled.