I’m killing time while the installer from Drees Electric is here wrestling with my new dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plenty of butt crack on display, but I avert my eyes. For the first half hour he was here, I assembled one of my new steel “retro shell back” lawn chairs. It felt oddly companionable, the two of us grunting over our respective tasks. When he came back up from the basement at one point, I was sitting in the chair, and he laughed. “You finished your project!” I felt so butch.
I got up at 7:00 (having gone to bed at 3:30) to be sure I was ready when the installer came. There were lots of cars outside, and I saw that the people across the street were having a garage sale. Around here, garage (aka rummage) sales start at the crack of dawn and end before lunch. The woman who lived there died recently, and the house has already been sold. I’m waiting on pins and needles to see who’s going to move in. I’m officially an old fuddy-duddy now, hoping for quiet neighbors with no children… or motorcycles…. or beat-up cars…. or Kid Rock records…. well, I’ll just have to wait and see. [Update: I’ve spotted a baby and a young blonde woman, and neither of them looks like a Kid Rock fan.]
My official status as an old fuddy duddy was conferred on me by a young woman at Curry’s IGA the other day. She’s checking out my groceries and wants to know, “Are you a senior citizen?” “NO—NOT YET!” I exclaim, all flustered. Then I think for a few seconds. “How old do you have to be?” “55.” “Oh, OK then, I guess I am” (mumble mumble).” I didn’t even check to see how much being old had saved me.
Spring has almost sprung, and a senior citizen’s fancy turns to thoughts of… “Hmmm, I won’t be able to use the garage as a second refrigerator much longer.”
The ice in the bay has finally melted, the snow has long since receded, and the birds are flinging themselves to and fro, filling the sky with their rich cacophony. The grass is growing, but the trees are just barely budding. I’m looking forward to longer days, open windows, and the sweet, earthy smell of spring (if they still have that). I’ve often thought that people who proclaim their love for “the seasons” are just making lemonade out of ice-cold lemons. But of course now that I’m walking a mile in their moccasins, I can understand the sense of antici….
pation. The snow melts, the brown lawn looks forward to new green growth, and suddenly the future’s so bright I have to wear shades.
(I’ll have to be patient, though. My sister Barb informed me that it snowed on her birthday one year—May 16.)
Our mild winter was a piece o’ cake for me—except for the icing on the cake, if you get my drift. I ended up buying “snow chains” for my boots but lost one of them in a snow bank the first time I wore them.
One of the things I love about being here is having kids in my life—though they’re more of a delicacy than a main course since I moved out of Barb’s house. That didn’t come out right. I don’t get to see them as much, is what I mean. I do get to hear all the stories. One day 9-year-old Summer, 5-year-old Sarina, and 50-year-old Grandma Barb were playing “airplane.” As the self-appointed flight attendant, Sarina asks Barb what she wants to eat. Barb says, “Bacon and eggs.” So Sarina goes off and comes back moments later with her “bacon and eggs.” Then she asks Summer what she wants to eat. Summer starts to say, “Bacon….” and Sarina cuts her off: “We’re all out of bacon.” The kid’s a quirky genius, I tell you what.
I may have mentioned this before, but I love watching the birds and the squirrels. I don’t know why people expend so much time and effort to keep squirrels from eating. This morning one of my regulars, whom I’ll call Hurly, came running through the yard and spooked a flock of blackbirds, who lifted up en masse into the branches of the nearest tree. This freaked Hurly out, and he plastered himself against the tree with his back to it. It reminded me of that Far Side cartoon where the deer is standing upright behind a tree as a hunter prowls around in the background. The deer is thinking, “What have I ever done to this guy? Think, think!” Hurly stayed there until the coast was clear and then went about foraging for sunflower seeds. Then a garbage truck drove by, and Hurly scrambled to the top of a nearby utility pole. I worried he would fry himself on the high voltage wires, but he just clung to the pole like a squirrel chameleon. When I looked again, he was gone.
One day I saw Hurly (or Burly, I can’t tell them apart) scrounging for seeds under the bird feeder. Then I looked about 10 feet over and saw a chickadee trying to get at the peanuts in the squirrel feeder. Hmmm…. Isn’t nature supposed to be smarter than that?
Now I glance out the window and see a big ol’ robin in the bird bath…. fluttering this, fluttering that, stopping to take a sip of bathwater now and then. I expect it to start washing under its “arms” like a Disney cartoon bird. I change the water in my two bird baths every day—that’s just the kind of nature lover I am. I take an absurd pride in attracting a large, diverse population of birds—robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, bright yellow finches, blue jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and some I can’t identify. I’m even mildly offended when some of them start grazing in the neighbors’ yards. What have they got that I haven’t got?
Just this morning, I saw that a robin is building a nest on my back porch. I’m excited to be a birdparent-to-be.
The gulls can be a pain. They swoop down on the garbage bags that get put out every Friday (we’re not allowed to use cans) and can cover a wide swath of road and yard with orange peels, coffee grounds, and fluttering store receipts and sandwich wrappings. I don’t get mad, I get Glad. (That gives me an idea. Product placement in the mary‘zine? Have your people call my people.)
On the first day of daylight saving time, I became aware that the din from outside was deafening—the raucous cries and sweet melodies of large and small birds filling the sky. So I went outside and sat in the sunny chill, my jacket wrapped around me, trying to remain still so that the birds who had been flying in and out of the yard would forget I was there. I imagined them gathering in a tree across the street to assess the situation. “Have you noticed that big thing over by the fence? Has it always been there? Have you seen it move? I could have sworn it did. Could it be one of those lifelike sculptures by what’s-his-name, the artist who makes those “people” sitting on park benches? Oh heck, let’s go for it. I’m starving.”
Naturally, Pookie loves watching the birds as much as I do. His motives may be less pure, but he’s harmless. The few times I’ve let him outside, he spends most of his time under the back porch, sniffing the dirt for God knows what. And of course the birds, having the advantage of flight, make themselves scarce until we go back in the house.
Pookie seems to like his new home, but it’s hard to tell. He has the advantage of long-term, short-term, and middle-term memory loss so is not demonstrably grateful for having a permanent, spacious home after last summer’s uprootedness and cramped quarters. He has his own mysterious routines. He’ll be sleeping in the little sitting room downstairs when I come down to the kitchen to make something to eat. Within a minute or two, without fail, I’ll hear the click-click of his toenails as he plods across the kitchen floor toward the stairs, not even turning his head to look at me. Hi, Pookie! Bye, Pookie! The only time he seeks me out is after he’s done his toi-o-lette. If I’m sitting at my desk, he’ll come to me and insist on being picked up. If I ignore him, he’ll try to climb the desk chair, and the poignant urgency in his big green eyes makes him impossible to refuse. Unfortunately, his recent activities are evident in his wet nose, water dripping off his chin, stray bits of cat food in his whiskers, and some suspicious moistness down below. I haul him up onto my lap and try to continue working (or playing) while he proceeds to groom himself and either fall fast asleep, numbing my legs under his considerable weight, or toss and turn and dig his claws into my thighs, and gaze up at me accusingly, as if I should know what’s bothering him. At some unknown signal, he starts hoisting himself up for real and I know it’s time to put him down on the floor. I try to remember to say, “Want to get down?” rather than “Want me to put you down?” because you never know what they can understand.
Being as how I’m getting up there in age and might not be able to climb the stairs at some point, my sisters have pointed out that the staircase is wide enough that I could have a lift installed, like the one Tony Soprano’s mother creaked up and down on. Pookie is no spring chicken either, so I’m envisioning a smaller lift for him opposite mine. Then, when he hears me get in my lift and start moving down, he can hop into his lift and go up, ignoring me completely as we pass each other in our respective quasi-invalid apparati.
Speaking of getting old (do old people speak of anything else?), Barb and K and I reference the following joke often.
Three elderly sisters live together. One sister goes upstairs to draw herself a bath but calls down to say she doesn’t remember if she was getting into the tub or out of it. The second sister starts up to help her but realizes halfway up the stairs that she doesn’t remember if she was going up or coming down. The third sister scoffs at both of them. “I hope my memory never gets that bad,” she says, knocking on wood. “I’ll be right up as soon as I see who’s at the door.”
So when any of us has a “senior moment” (even though I’m the only one who gets money off for being old), we’ll say, “I have to see who’s at the door.”
I first heard that joke after Skip’s funeral when several of his old-guy relatives were sitting around Barb’s kitchen table. One of the guys was telling the joke, but I wasn’t paying attention—I was making myself a ham sandwich. (Food always trumps conversation.) When he got to the part where the third sister knocks on wood, he rapped sharply on the table. Hearing that, I went to the door to see who was there. I couldn’t understand why everyone howled at that. Life imitates art, I tell you what.
So it’s been eight months since I moved back to my hometown, and almost exactly a year since P and I (and Pookie) set out from San Rafael to start this grand adventure. I have written about the wonderful discoveries, the synchronicities, the house falling into my lap in the nick of time, the three road trips, the settling in, the beauty of this very different but familiar landscape, the ritual eating of fried fish with my peeps every Friday, and the sense of being home in all possible meanings of the word. (However, I must get the obligatory food criticism off my chest. Dear Midwesterners: mixing macaroni with mayo, cheese, and bacon—even if you add broccoli and call it “broccoli salad”—IS NOT SALAD.) Now I sense that the next phase is beginning, and I don’t mean the birds and the green buds of spring. In some ways, the initial thrill—the delirious speculation about what this big change is going to mean—is gone. You just can’t sustain the sense of novelty, the inevitable illusion that your new life will be so different and so wonderful that you will become, basically, a different person. The illusion that a change of place equals a change of self is common, I suppose—all those Westward ho! pioneers, those back-to-the-land hippies, those frozen retirees relocating to Florida or Arizona…. Same for getting a new job, a new partner. Starting over—it’s the American illusion, I mean dream.
But illusion is a paper ship on a very deep ocean. When “the thrill is gone,” we think we’ve failed. Miscalculated. Been tricked. “That person I was so in love with has changed!” “I’m having the same problems here as I did back there!” We don’t have much social support for seeing what lies beyond the illusion of a new beginning. My favorite image of this is the women’s magazines’ fantasy of the housewife greeting her husband at the door naked, wrapped in Saran Wrap, hoping to put some spice back in their marriage. As if novelty—a continual rekindling of the illusion phase—is the only way to renew: a paper ship in a wading pool. But I think it’s not an accident that relationships begin with that honeymoon attraction that seems all-pervasive yet is only the barely scratched surface of real connection. Illusion is a way to get us moving in a direction we might otherwise not attempt. And once we’re at our destination—that ill-thought-out, happily-ever-after “ending”—that’s when the new seeds and weeds start to sprout.
Much of this insight is due to a dream work session I had by phone with Jeremy Taylor, a teacher, counselor, and minister whose brilliance is surpassed only by his compassion. Two of the three dreams I told him had the theme of my being aware of something behind me that I wasn’t quite able to see. (Something unconscious this way comes.) In one of these dreams,
I’m sitting on a roof with my legs hanging over the side. Higher up on the roof lies a placid-looking tiger who looks like he stepped right out of one of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. But then I become aware that another tiger has come up behind me and is so close he could touch the back of my neck. I fear I will be eaten, or thrown over the side. But he doesn’t touch me.
To Jeremy, these images signify a new phase to come. He’s been right so many times in the past that I have to believe there’s something to it. I don’t know what the new challenges, the next phase, will be about, but it seems unlikely that the ramifications of moving back to the place of my difficult childhood would be limited to the surface pleasures of carefree adulthood: the fish fry? the nice park? birds and squirrels in my yard?
I had another “can’t quite see what’s behind” dream the other night.
I’m in a painting class, and I have to keep asking the teacher (a man) to come look at my painting. Finally, he does, and he seems to approve. But he leaves before I can turn the painting over and show him the painting I did on the other side. I keep asking and asking, getting more and more depressed, but I wake up before he comes back.
I’m intrigued by all these dream-teases. I’m enjoying my peaceable kingdom—more about that later—but I’m curious to see what’s next.
What I’m trying to convey here is not that I’m dis-illusioned, or that “the honeymoon is over boo-hoo,” or that I’m sitting here with family but no friends wondering, “What was I thinking?” I’m trying to explore the fault line between imagining the future and then arriving there. Tomorrow inevitably feels different from today. Tomorrow = I’m going to paint a mural on the walls and ceilings of my attic “cave.” Today = I think I’ll play another game of Alchemy. I’m trying to be honest about the sometime mix of blessings in any new venture.
Recently I received an e-mail from A, an old painting (and dancing) friend. She had enjoyed the tale of my move and shared her own synchronistic trail that had taken her to Paris, where she now lives for a third of the year, does some teaching, and has lots of friends. She went on to say that her son graduated with a master’s degree in literature from Stanford and is in a touring rock band. Suddenly, my little adventure seemed tame indeed. I wrote her back, “…man oh man, you really put my little U.P. life to shame. Paris! A literate son in a rock band! I know we each have our own path, but STILL…”
For a brief moment it felt so unfair. Why does she get Paris, and I get a little town no one’s ever heard of? Well, I wouldn’t actually be suited to her life, and that’s the point, n’est-ce pas? But it was disconcerting to have that moment of raw envy, as if what’s right for me isn’t good enough if I spot something more alluring over there. But that’s illusion again, a siren song trying to distract me from the real. A few people have written to say how happy they are for me—and I believe them—but the word “envy” does come up sometimes. “I’m slightly envious of your relationship with your family,” etc. But wishing for someone else’s good fortune is meaningless. If only I were a people person! And could speak French! And liked to travel! It’s a good reminder to see that fantasizing about someone else’s life—based on assumptions and wishful thinking—is different from actually living that life—as is fantasizing about your own. But at least with your own, you’re proceeding on your own path, clearing the brush in real time. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone; I can see obstacles in my way….”
By moving here I escaped from certain aspects of my life in the Bay Area—the crime and noise in my neighborhood, most notably—just as I escaped from Menominee a long time ago. And now here I am again. Which is the frying pan, and which is the fire? So far, being here is more like being in the top half of a double boiler… warmly melting into chocolate. Mmmmm….. chocolate. Once again, I’ll just have to wait and see.
When I was staying with Barb last summer, I marveled at my heretofore unknown adaptability. I actually liked people dropping by and kids poking me with questions. I liked the sense of being ready for anything—working on a dining room table amid layers of clutter, with a TV on in the background… sleeping in a room without a door… not able to cook and barely able to find space to make a sandwich in a kitchen in which every surface, including much of the floor, was piled high with stuff—some in transit, some seemingly in permanent residence. In certain respects, my sisters and I are sharply divided between the “Larsen side” and the “McKenney side.” Barb and I resemble each other in looks, but K looks more like our McKenney aunts. And Barb and I do not have the gene that would cause us discomfort if we noticed that the juice box and half-eaten cookie that one of the kids left on the fireplace ledge three days ago was still there.
Conversely, sister K, as a teenager, vacuumed out the coal bin in the basement with Mom’s good vacuum cleaner. Neat freak from day 1. I’m just sayin’.
One day Barb asked her son Brian to haul away an old recliner, because she had bought a new one. He moved it out to the kitchen and said he’d take it to the dump “this weekend” (it was Monday). The recliner sat there in the dead center of the kitchen floor for the rest of the week, and we not only lived around it, we made it into an “art space”: One day I propped a frog planter (a planter in the shape of a frog, not a planter in which to plant frogs) in the chair, put sunglasses on it, and stuck a small American flag in the crook of its elbow. Barb picked up on the game immediately, and we had fun with it all week. One night before we went out, I noticed a full bottle of Zima in the hands of the frog, and I duly chuckled as I went out the door. When we got back, the bottle was empty. (Barb had switched them at the last minute, ho ho.) When Brian saw this strange tableau, he said simply, “I don’t get it.” But here’s what’s strange. Brian took the chair away on Saturday, and when Barb and I got home that night, we walked in the back door right into the kitchen, put our bags and purses down, and didn’t notice that the chair was gone. Being oblivious to one’s surroundings has its advantages.
Anyway…. while I was thinking that I had changed, because I enjoyed the people interruptions and was able to handle the household chaos, it really only meant that I had learned to cope and adapt—which is no small thing, but not the same as “Now I want people around me all the time so I can go with the freakin’ flow.” So when the movers arrived from California and I was able to physically move into my house, it was as if I was letting out a breath I’d been holding for months. I had done it. I was here. My life was my own. And when Barb called a couple days later, waking me up from a nap and wondering if she should come over right after school so we could go out for an early supper, I snapped. Like a twig. NOW THAT I HAVE MY OWN SPACE I NEED TO BE ALONE FOR A WHILE, I announced. I was probably as shocked as she was at this sudden reversal. I had been keeping it together, and I was now in a state of collapse—mental and physical exhaustion. In addition to unpacking and getting my rooms arranged and making to-do lists as long as my arm, I had to reorient myself, mentally incorporate the rest of my being into this new situation. All last summer I had been visiting—on a vacation doubling as a fact-finding tour, a trial living situation. At Barb’s I had been a guest. I did my best to fit into her schedule, but it wasn’t my schedule. I had brought part of my life with me, but most of it was still back in the Bay Area. I was dealing. It wasn’t real.
When I was finally here, safe within my own four (×10) walls, I could no longer be a houseguest in Barb’s life. I had to start erecting movable fences, establishing boundaries. Call before you come over! No, don’t call, I could be napping! Clearly, I’m not the only one who has had to adjust. Barb is a people person. I, on the other hand, can barely deal with one snooty cat. We’re working it out…. but there’s more….
on the fault line
Jerry Falwell is in the hospital. His condition has been upgraded from “critical” to “judgmental.”
—joke heard on the radio
Barb and I are apples that fell off the same tree, and not very far from it. Mom could be both tactlessly critical and punishingly silent. Unsurprisingly, some of that has rubbed off on us. The main difference is that I can talk to Barb about it and get a considered response from her rather than anger or the silent treatment. (In therapy a few years ago, I was pissed at J one day and wouldn’t talk about it. I started to leave without saying good-bye—that would show her! J said, “Why don’t you just be angry at me? It would be less hurtful.” I replied, “This is anger where I come from.” I have to commend J for sticking by me through 12 years of that kind of thing.)
When I first moved here, I announced that I would try to refrain from correcting anyone’s English. (I like to think of myself as hugely tolerant. Where I got that idea, I don’t know.) But of course I couldn’t stick with my good intentions. I’m shocked by some of the accepted usage around here: “Me and my girlfriend went shopping.” “Him and her don’t get along.” “Do youse know what you want to order?” So, yes, I admit it…. I’ve been known to offer an alternative pronunciation or word choice now and then. I always think that the valuable information I’m imparting makes up for any temporary offense I might cause. Yeah, right. My sad excuse is that I’m critical for a living. (I’m judgmental on my own time.)
For her part, Barb does not always notice that she’s treating her perfectly capable adult sisters like the 7th graders she has to deal with all day long. With her teacher voice and sense of God-given authority, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She takes me to Menard’s in her truck to buy a ladder, because it won’t fit in the Jeep. As I haul the ladder first through the parking lot and later into my garage, she can’t resist telling me, oh, four or five times, the right way to carry it. As with her students, she thinks she has to keep repeating an instruction until the person “gets it right.” And like me, she doesn’t always question whether her help is needed or appreciated.
K, on the other hand, is so afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings that she tries to keep the peace at all costs. Here’s a trivial example. We all keep each other’s favorite soft drinks on hand. It’s almost ritualistic. You walk into someone’s house, and the first order of business is, “Want something to drink?” For years, Barb thought that K liked Dr. Pepper, but I found out that she preferred Coke. She had never said anything to Barb because Barb never had Coke in the house. But Barb was specifically buying Dr. Pepper because that’s what K would drink when she was over there. It’s a little bit like “Gift of the Magi,” don’t you think? OK, not so much. But K is such a sweetheart that it’s hard to know what’s really going on with her. With Barb and me, our faces tell the story even if our words don’t.
We all enjoy telling our respective horror stories about Mom’s insensitivity, but it’s harder to see what we ourselves have internalized or are reacting to. The good news is that we have an opportunity to become more emotionally real with each other—to the extent that we each want to, of course—a lesson Mom was not able to teach us.
in the mix
While anticipating the unknown future hinted at in my dreams, I’m enjoying the heck out of my peaceable kingdom, my old people’s neighborhood, my huge house (just right for one person and her catty companion), the physical safety I’ve never felt in a sustained way before, the leisure of being semi-retired (I work when work is sent to me, but I no longer go looking for it), the long quiet nights when I read, play Alchemy on the computer, listen to “Loveline” from a radio station in Seattle, or pull matted clumps of hair out of Pookie’s back. But when the spirit moves, I can also bust out the jams in my jammies… turn up the speakers and dance to the delirious, pounding music of the Chemical Brothers at 2:30 a.m. in my blue-and-green-lit loft.
Now that I can afford high-speed Internet, a monthly subscription to audible.com, and 99 cent songs from iTunes, I am hugely enjoying my media palace. I am tuned in and turned on to a degree I never knew before. I’ve discovered whole genres of music—some with no label other than “alternative” (to what?)—more than 400 songs on my laptop and easy transfer of music and books to an iPod shuffle or an Otis media player. I started building my electronic library with favorite artists from my college days—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Mimi and Richard Farina, Tim Hardin)—the familiar and comforting tunes of my youth. But then I branched out musically in all directions, thanks to iTunes, Salon.com (free downloads), KCRW (musically eclectic public radio station in Santa Monica—I’m now supporting three public radio stations: two in California, one in Wisconsin) and other sources, and now I have a musical accompaniment to any mood. I’ve discovered Thievery Corporation, Bloc Party, French Kicks, Gang Gang Dance, Supreme Beings of Leisure (hey, that’s me!), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Shivaree, to name but a few.
Somehow I got turned on to dancerecords.com and discovered endless subgenres of dance music: Deep, House, Sexy, Funky, Chunky, Jazzy, Techy, Tech, Techno, Tribal, Tech Step, Hard Step, Deep Tech, Neuro Funky, Deep House, Acid House, Chunky House, Funky House, Chunky Tribal, Tribal Techno, Tribal Tech House, Funky Deep House, Electro House, [inhale!] Electro Tech House, Progressive, Progressive House, Progressive Tech House, Progressive Breaks, Techy Progressive House, Deep Ethereal Progressive, Deep Progressive Trance, Peak Hour Progressive House, Rockin’ Teck-Step, Hardsteppin’ Bounce, Smoothed-Out Teck-Steppin’ Funk, Funky Peak Hour Beats, and the ever-popular Liquidly Funkin’ Drum & Bass Beats.
I swear I did not make any of those names up.
I had heard a song (oh excuse me, a track) by “DJ T” (remix by “Random Factor”) (I have no idea who these people are, assuming they are people) that I liked. I didn’t realize until after I’d ordered the “album” that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting—CD? LP? MP3? ABC? 1-2-3? you and me? I had become accustomed to downloading—acquiring substance/essence without the bother of storing a physical object. But what arrived was a record in a plain black cover sleeve. Then I realized, oh yeah—that deep chunky funky stuff is played in clubs by hip-hop DJs. Here I was, a civilian—and a “senior” one at that—buying the beats beloved of large crowds of stoned-out youth. I liked the thought of the Bay Area hipsters at dancerecords.com seeing the address on my order and speculating, “D’ya suppose there’s a happening turntablist scene in—what’s the name of that place?—Menominee?”
I suppose “senior citizens” through the ages have resented the assumptions made about them by the young-who-believe-it-will-never-happen-to-them. But it seems worse now, since my generation is the first to have the luxury of indulging our youthful interests far into our dotage. Many of us, of course, are still getting stoned and listening to Crosby Stills Nash Young and Increasingly Decrepit. But I got tired of the ‘60s music scene decades ago and prefer the punk and new wave of the early ‘80s and, more recently, electronica, hip-hop, and “alternative” (Iron and Wine, Milosh, Nick Drake, the whole “Garden State” soundtrack—good movie, by the way).
One of the sad things for me about leaving the Bay Area was losing the ability to listen to the Saturday night marathon on Live105 known as Subsonic—all electronic and hip-hop and mash-ups and remixes until 4 a.m. One Saturday night before I left, I called the Subsonic DJ to find out the name of a song I had just heard (“Callin’ Out” by Lyrics Born). Impulsively—feeling all girlish and shy—I told him that I loved the show. On further, ill-considered impulse, I told him I was 57. His reaction was predictably condescending. “Oh, so you’re one of those ‘rockin’ grandmas’!” Uh, well, I suppose—I’ve never reproduced, but yes I am of that older generation. But “rockin’ grandma”? Is it possible for me to feel any less like a rockin’ grandma? Subsonic’s producer, another child, was also on the line, and he pipes up, “We don’t care who listens!” Then the DJ says, “I hope I still dig new music when I’m 57!” (thinking to himself, “I’ll never get out of my 20s alive”).
And yet, how can I be offended when I was known, back in the day, to utter the cliché, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”? It’s laughable now (my godchild is 30), but I understand the impulse to reject the old folks, the so-not-with-it, the irrelevant—move along to your ice floe, gram and gramps, it’s our turn now, we scoff at your moldy oldies, we resent your great booming numbers while we’re stuck with single-letter generational names… X, Y… Z? and then what? the alphabet and the world both come to an end?
Part of what you do in the illusion phase of a life change is to think that every little thing that happens is significant. Because the events leading to my move had been so dramatic while seeming precariously coincidental, I started expecting that every ripple from a stone thrown in my little pond was going to lead to something big. Sometimes the stone just plops down, no discernable ripples at all.
I’ll give you a few examples. One night last fall, after the peeps’ weekly fish fry, I stopped at Angeli’s on the way home to pick up some groceries. I was wearing my Cody’s Bookstore (Berkeley) t-shirt. As I was leaving, a man came up to me and said, “If you’ve been to that bookstore, what are you doing here?” So I explained that I had recently moved back from the Bay Area, and we stood in the parking lot and talked for several minutes—of course I had to ask what he was doing here, too. Turns out he’s a playwright and theatre director at the UW-Marinette campus. He had interviewed at Sonoma State but eventually wound up here. It was from his time at Sonoma State that he “recognized” me (i.e., my type) from the “t-shirt and the haircut” (code for Big Dyke).
I asked him where the nearest bookstore was, and he said, “Madison.” I thought he was joking—Madison is 150 miles away—but apparently not. He said he had gone to an estate sale just that morning that had an unusually large collection of books. He told me where it was, we said good night, and that was that.
The next morning I went over to the estate sale and there were indeed lots of books. I called Barb and she came over, too. We started talking to the two sisters who were clearing out their father’s house after his death. One was a lawyer and the other was a psychiatrist. I said to the shrink, “Oh, I’m looking for a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacological management [to prescribe my Zoloft].” She says, “That’s what I do!” Perfect! She gave me her card, which announced that the focus of her practice was on women and children. Was this synchronicity or what? The only problem was that she was based in Racine, which is even farther than Madison. But she said she was thinking about coming up to Marinette to see patients a couple days a week. The four of us chatted away, all mutually intrigued by each other’s professions and getting along famously.
I bought an armload of books, Barb bought an armload of books plus some chests of drawers, and the lawyer promised to have another grouping of books ready for next week’s sale; she said she would save any old Hardy Boys’ books she found for me. The following Saturday we showed up for the second installment of the estate sale. The lawyer met us at the door and said they hadn’t had a chance to get the books sorted. Barb picked up the chests she had bought, and the lawyer promised to call one of us when they were ready to sell more things. We never heard from her. I tried to find the psychiatrist in Racine, but she had moved from the address on her business card.
It’s not as if we had been deliberately misled. Things happen. These were ordinary interactions, pumped up by my insistence on thinking “everything happens for a reason.” Those linked episodes with the playwright, the lawyer, and the psychiatrist (they sound like characters in a play by Sartre—or a joke about 3 people walking into a bar) were apparently self-contained, a pool of possibilities that, for whatever reason, never turned into a stream or a rippling pond. (I have since found a psychiatrist—in Oshkosh, 100 miles away. Fortunately, I like him.)
Similarly, my supposed burgeoning friendships with the bank manager and the city tax assessor—both smart, engaging women—never came to pass. The tax assessor never called me back after I contacted her a couple times, even going to the extent of sending her the issue of the ‘zine that included my story of meeting her. I’ve noticed that people can get really weird about what’s said about them in print, so maybe it was horribly inappropriate of me to identify her by name blah blah blah.
I did have lunch with the bank manager, but it was soon obvious that we weren’t on the same page, friendshipwise, despite having had some interesting conversations and lots of laughs in her office. It seemed more like a customer service gesture on her part—the bank paid for lunch. (Yes, that would be the first clue.) I gave her a copy of that same ‘zine. When I asked her later what she thought, she said my writing was “interesting.” End of story. So what did I expect? I expect the universe to present its sunny face to me at all times, why do you ask?
Years ago, when I had chronic back pain after my mother died, I found a wonderful chiropractor/healer and, through her, my therapist J, after a series of “coincidences”—recommendations acted upon or not, scheduled and canceled appointments, and a frosty-sounding psychologist who was too busy to see me. Looking back, it all seems “meant to be.” That’s fine for looking back, but I always want to know, what do I do now? Life’s combination of “lack of ultimate control” and “necessity to act despite that fact” is frustrating, if not downright diabolical.
Here I am, already over my usual page limit, and I haven’t described the most jarring note in my hometown hit parade. Read on.
Back in the #15 issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about desire, illusion, intimacy, and passion. One of my examples of illusion was BA, a friend from 5th grade through junior high. She never went to college, never got married, doesn’t even drive. She’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The only time I’d seen her as an adult was at my mother’s wake, when I wondered why she hovered around me way past the usual two-minute paying of respects. To me, we had grown apart even before high school. So why did she keep bugging my sisters to get me to come home for high school and grade school reunions? After one of the reunions, she sent me pictures of the aging ex-fifth graders and our fossilized teacher in a greeting card with a teabag enclosed, saying she “missed” me. I never responded. Besides feeling no personal attraction to her, I saw her as the embodiment of everything I had left town to escape. I’ve always been afraid of getting sucked back into poverty, as if my pretence of middle-class living would turn out to be a temporary reprieve and I would wake up like a Cinderella who’s only dreamed she went to the ball. So BA was kind of my doppelganger—the alter ego of my underprivileged, small-town self, my “there but for the grace of God went I” if I hadn’t gotten scholarships to college.
BA was much on my mind as I made plans to move back here. This town wasn’t going to be big enough for the both of us! It’s relatively easy to reject a would-be suitor, but how do you tell someone you don’t want to be their friend? I had hoped to escape detection for as long as possible, but before I even got here, BA had heard about my move from my aunt, who works with K. BA tried to confirm the rumor by calling up my bro-in-law MP: “I heard Mary’s moving back here, is that true?” “News to me,” says MP with a straight face. Then one day K runs smack into her at Angeli’s supermarket, and BA again asks if the news is true—K admits it is—and in that case, “Where is she living?” My loyal-to-the-end sister says, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.” She explains that I’m “lying low,” am “kind of a hermit.” BA acknowledges that “after all those years in California, it’s understandable”—whatever that means.
So time goes by, and the new phone book comes out but too soon to have my name and number in it. Then the inevitable happens. I walk into Stephenson’s Bakery (which shares a small building with the Michigan DMV; there are lots of odd pairings like that around here), and there she is, talking to the counter person. As Barbara Havers—a working class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels—would say, “Sod bloody all on a toasted tea cake.”
As she turns to see who came in, I have that panicky moment of thinking it’s not too late to turn around and run out. Instead, I say, “B—?” “Yeah.” “Mary.” She is flabbergasted and thrilled. We sit down at a table to talk because I can’t bring myself to make an excuse to leave. She comments that I “don’t look that different” except for “putting on a few pounds.” (Thanks! I hadn’t noticed!) She speculates that I must live nearby. She’s still trying to ferret out my home base. I finally tell her, “I live out on M-35”—which, believe me, covers a lot of territory.
Then she launches the boat of conversation into Lake Memory. She reminds me that I was editor of the school paper in 5th grade. She still has a copy; do I want to see it? (Part of me is sorely tempted. Is this how Jesus felt with Satan in the wilderness?) BA rattles off several other facts, events, and conversations. But I don’t remember even one of the memories she is excitedly recounting. It’s truly a lesson in “eye of the beholder.” To me, she was a minor player in my life from ages 10 to 13 or so. To her, I was apparently some kind of touchstone. She keeps saying, “I’m just glad to know you’re really real!” In our dream work session, Jeremy suggested that she’s a lesbian who has been in love with me since the 5th grade. [insert “Jaws” music here] She clearly thinks synchronicity is working for her in this situation—that I’ve come back into her life for a reason.
After our excursion through the lake of stagnant memories, I offer her a ride home. Why? I don’t know. I think I’m a little intrigued in spite of myself. The old asphalt-shingled, hardly-any-windowed house she rents the bottom of looks like a contemporary of the shack of a house she lived in with her family across from the grade school. I think about my big, beautiful house by the water and the park. Damn, why do I feel so guilty?
She rattles on about how the house used to belong to a classmate who was a football star. Two other classmates I would never think of as an item—one of them is distantly related to me—live down the street. My aunt—who, in one of life’s little ironies, gave me the brushoff when I asked for her e-mail address—lives right around the corner. As BA gets out of the Jeep, I tell her I’ll call her sometime. It feels like a mistake as soon as I say the words. But what else could I say: “Have a nice life”? (Am I being the architect of my own downfall here?)
I know I’m not responsible for BA’s being born into an extremely poor family, without the resources (or the smarts or the will) to go to college or to make friends easily. Back in junior high, I clung to any other girl who was willing to hang out with me. She did too. And then I went and changed, moved on, found people to love and be loved by, and situations where I could thrive. And yet—if my high school English teacher Ruth ever moved back here, I would be delirious with hope and expectation. I don’t like to think about that. I’m different. I’ve seen the world. I don’t have to cling to childhood relationships. Do I?
A few days later, BA is walking by the middle school and sees Barb coming out. She yells to Barb to wait up and then tells her about seeing me. Here’s her assessment of our little chat in the bakery: “I think she’s lost and is searching for her childhood.”
Barb reminds her that I have my own business and that I edit scientific manuscripts from all over the world.
BA says, “Yeah, she mentioned that.”
Then she tells Barb I gave her a ride home: “I’m not from California—I don’t care who sees where I live.” She adds, hopefully: “She said she’d call.”
So what now? I’ll just have to wait and see what’s on the other side of my painting, what the tiger at my back has in mind, and whether BA—strange link between my then and my now—is successful at finding me and either convinces me to attend the next school reunion or murders me in my bed. Life is a mystery.