river, river, river

not always about rivers, though

Bat boy

The day the student showed up at my office door armed with a baseball bat, I had been reading about multiculturalism in the classroom and ruminating on the fact that I taught at one of the whitest, ruralest, most inland universities in the U.S. Diversity was more of an idea than a fact here.

But this student, who had made it clear that discussing the hegemony of whiteness was an eye-rolling concept, appeared at my office door, wielding a bat. He stood in the doorway, not knocking.

This was the same student who, in our crammed, sixty-year-old classroom, just the other day had lifted his legs one army boot-clad foot at a time and rested them on my desk as I was speaking. We were talking about Michael Vick and the dogfighting ring, and there had been a heated discussion between one of the only two black students and a couple white students about whether dogfighting was animal cruelty or a cultural tradition in the black community. “Could it be both?”  I had asked, “and does that make it okay?” I said as the boy with the boots stared at me and rested his feet on my desk inches from where I leaned against it.

The room grew quiet. I looked at his feet, then at him, and said, “What are you trying to communicate? Should we unpack the rhetoric of your boots?” There was a smattering of laughter. “Let’s unpack that,” I’d always say to students. I maintained eye contact with him until his feet thudded back to the asbestos-laden vinyl on which all our chairs rested. I looked away first.

“Anyway,” I said.

And so here he was at my door a few days later, wearing black from head to toe if you count his hair and beard (skin so pale behind it, you’d think he lived in a cave), tapping a baseball bat menacingly against his other palm.

In the future, I would spend years teaching at a men’s state penitentiary. I had students with teardrop tattoos and students who flashed gang signs and lots of students with skull tats that came and went depending on how recently they’d shaved their heads and a student who brazenly drew an illustration of a naked woman who bore some small resemblance to me (but with much larger breasts), and I had more than one student with a swastika permanently etched on his freckled white skin. None of them fazed me as much as this 220-pound specimen experimenting with the power that comes with being 18 and white and male in America.

“Are you coming from or going to baseball practice?” I asked him brightly, ignoring the black cargo pants and unwashed waffle-knit shirt, hoping my voice would carry over the wall into a nearby cubicle where another harried grad student-cum-teaching assistant could hear.

He paused. “No,” he said, gruffly, looking at the floor. There must have been a bulk sale on that asbestos tile because it was here too in the English building, halfway across campus from our classroom.

“Well, you must like it then,” I said, “to carry around a baseball bat!”

He didn’t answer. The sound of papers shuffling across the wall stopped.

I watched him expectantly while I inventoried my desk of anything that I could use to defend myself. The large book I’d been reading, Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, seemed my best bet.

His real name was prophetic and biblical, as I recall. Isaiah or Nehemiah or Jedediah or some such -iah, so named by parents I imagined to have a pack of boys with similar rhyming biblical names. I pronounced his name clearly and carefully. “____-iah, won’t you sit down and tell me how I can help you?”

He stood in my doorway for a long second, and I had the sense he was testing himself more than me. He still held the bat in his left hand, resting it in his right (I hadn’t realized he was left-handed until now).

And then he sat. “You can put the bat in the corner, there,” I said, still enunciating precisely. “We won’t need it right now.” When he followed my direction, I said, “Thanks!”

Papers began to shuffle again one cube over.

He hadn’t taken off his backpack and was perched, obviously uncomfortably, toward the front of his chair. Neither had he spoken, aside from the singular “No”.

I put a finger in my Cross-Talk book as if marking my place, in order to have a hand on it, should I need to pick it up suddenly, and then I looked at ___-iah and waited.

He turned pink, suddenly. “I, uh. Hm. Forgot what I wanted to talk to you about,” he mumbled.

“That’s okay,” I said. “You can come back later. Or–” I seized on this idea with more energy than necessary– “email me! I try to answer as soon as possible.”

“Right,” he said, standing to leave. “I will.”

“Okay!” I said. “Have a great day!”

He’d forgotten the bat in the corner. I picked it up gingerly and set it outside my door, then closed my door and locked it. Turned out the lights. Put my head down in my arms and sobbed silently on top of Cross-Talk. When I left my office later that night, the bat was gone.

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But sometimes about rivers

Before my eyes went bad at the spongey age of 36, I jumped at the chance to attend a writer’s conference in Montana, to drive 370 miles along rivers, by myself: no troubleshooting ipads, dispensing trail mix, monitoring the water consumption for children with an overactive, undersized bladder. Yes, please. It’s at a resort? Don’t mind if I do book a room there instead of the Motel 6 in a nearby town. This is my reward.

Then there was a death, and a funeral, and a familiar face–a jawline I hadn’t traced in fifteen years, lips, a body: fingers that had closed around mine as we staked the tent in the sand as the wind drifted upriver ….

Brief, perfunctory words. My children? Two. Home with my husband. You do what. How do you like. It is nice to see.

After the funeral, he lingered long after his body left to be with other long-unseen, better-loved friends. He lingered on the drive home and in the box on the shelf where I had stashed his letters

(my children, what will you do without letters, how will you know)

once my husband came along. He lingered in my dreams and on the riverbanks when I fished. He came unbidden when I was naked, slipped between me and the man I chose to marry instead.

There was no why in our parting, just an upheaval of circumstances: reasons as empty as those words.

One hundred and ninety-five miles toward Montana, I turned right, up the river where we had camped that one night so long ago, his letters beside me, constant company, disturbingly tangible. The river road quickly disintegrated to gravel, then dust, and I flicked my working eyes between the road and the river, the sandbar a memory

(an outcrop of rock jutting into the water above us, a deep eddy yawning in front of where we stood nestled into each other against the spring breeze; alone, prepared, ready)

I couldn’t conjure. Nineteen miles of road that was unchanged, a river still carving these same canyon walls, and yet no sandbar met the specifications, no outcrop headed the eddy where we had swum afterward.

It was June then; now late July. Different year, month snowpack cubic feet per second. We’d been solitary that night, but for the owls; now, people scattered the shore. A dead fish floated in the eddy where I finally stopped, finally got out, finally recognized that I couldn’t purge my memory, faulty though it was.

I read the letters a last time, packed them back in my suitcase, put them back in the box on the shelf when I returned. Maybe my children will read them someday and wonder what it was like to analyze every stroke of the pen for traces of love.

I catch glimpses of him now and again, when my eyes are good. I still see our sandbar, the rocks, the eddy, the green-black bank of trees who stood witness that night, who burned in a fire the month my eyes went bad.

If I wrote horror stories

I had a dream recently, and cutting through the non sequitur parts, it was essentially this:

My preschool-age child and I are watching a movie that soon turns into a horror story. A tall, thin, mad-eyed man is violently killing everyone in our house, and the only way to not fall victim is to keep watching. I turn the movie off anyway so my young child will not see it, but then I have to live out the horror story in real time: I try to find and prevent the madman from killing anyone, but in doing so, I risk my child being killed. At one point I turn the movie back on to save our lives, and my child and I have to watch people we loved being killed. We can’t look away, or else the movie stops and we have to fight again….

I don’t read or watch horror stories, so it was an unpleasant dream experience. Though there was one part that was both horrifying and funny: The police came and arrested a man with an indeterminate object stuck on his head (think a cat with its head caught in a tin can) and we all thought the horror was over, but that turned out to be a decoy and the real madman was still free.

tl;dr: this would be an interesting plot and also I may need therapy

More microfiction

Feminist microfiction

Avery
Shamed, she succeeded anyway — but they grow weary of her power.

Sevan
When she washes through town, everyone is drenched.

Annie
Creations rise and fall from her thin hands, her burdened shoulders.

Hope
She saw something in that meathead — a selfish means to her own ends.

Lucille
Body burled by her mother’s laudanum, then calcified in the logging camps, she thrived.

Hailey
Body broken by water, she drifted on land.

Lolo
A successful escape led only to a subsistence existence.

Farfar (revised)

Store Guben Hesten
Tommeltott, Grandpa. I remember
You naming my fingers: “Like Tom Thumb.”
Slikkepott “(licks the pot)” — and the rhyme echoes
faintly resonant as I touch your bones.

They say metacarpal and phalanges in science, not Norwegian.
They say “the bird” or worse in slang instead of langemann.
But these thinned hands that helped birth stuck lambs
never made a bird, never hurt a man.

Gullebrand for the finger with a gold ring that, post-war,
in your modesty, and poverty, you never wore.
Tomorrow, lille Petter spellemann will stop his fiddle-playing
and your warmth will finally fade.

It was your father whose farm-hardened fingers strummed a violin;
but, immigrant child, you chose the diatonic accordion
embracing its bellowing optimism. These stilled fingers once flew,
these quiet bones squeezed the very air, and we danced to its tune.

I remember your warm, gentle pinches on my toes:
Lilleto, tottil, tillerot, megelfru,
and the “big horse toe” whose Norse name in my memory
is the sound of your smile and my laugh.

###

I asked my mom how she remembers the pronunciation. Here’s the spelling I found followed by a transliteration of her memory:

big toe: store-gubbe-hesten/kubenhest,
second toe: megelfru/ebenfru,
middle toe: tillerot/tillerose,
fourth toe: tottil/tortil,
little toe: tittil/lilletoe

And the fingers:
Thumb: Tommeltott/(same)
Forefinger: Slikkepott/slakepott
Middle finger: langemann/longetom,
Ring finger: gullebrand/tingaling or lingating
Pinkie: lille petter spellemann/lilliting

###

I am, legit, TERRIBLE at poetry. But it is a fun ear exercise for when I don’t feel like writing anything else.

Microfiction

10-word short story:

Breaking
Overcast skies masked the asphalt’s icy sheen. Brakes, shuddering.

88-word short story:

Collyer apartment
The cigarette butt, wind-driven over the balcony and through the window two stories’ below, smoldered through three decades’ paper news before consuming enough space for oxygen to trickle in, feeding its burgeoning appetite. Then flames devoured the mummified cat, licked up the sides of three pianos, melted garbage bags of joyless clothing on its fiery tongue, singeing cloth simultaneously incinerating and insulating the walls so that the neighbors’ kitchen wallpaper bubbled, browned, began to peel.

And then, flash point.

What I learned

I’ve always wanted to design assignments for students who have trouble discerning subtleties: Sometimes I want to say, go research the difference between “nonfiction” and “memoir” and tell me what you find. You want to talk politics? First tell me the difference between “communist” and “socialist.” Or, the one that tripped me up memorably, the difference between “flora” and “fauna” on a living roof (turns out you want to grow grass, not deer, up there). There are differences between “green” and “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable,” between “environmentalist” and “conservationist” and “hippie” (and “hippy”).

But I’m not teaching right now. So I think I’m going to start documenting when I learn the difference between two things that I’ve never noticed or that I’ve taken for granted.

Yes, this is going to make me look stupid; a lot of what I’m going to research is common knowledge to many folks. But we haven’t all lived the same experiences, and I’m trying to not be embarrassed about mine. And what I am embarrassed about, I can try to rectify.

So, today, I learned the difference between “iron” and “steel.” Metals aren’t something I’ve spent a lot (okay, any) time reading up on, until today. Voilà. Iron is the element; steel is an alloy is derived from iron. Add chromium to the alloy and you get stainless steel, etc.

Cool. I can be more precise if I write about metallurgy.

On writing about parenting

One of my friends asked if I have plans to write essays or a book about parenting.

Oh hell no.

The moment the world sees a pregnant woman belly-out in the world, it feels the need to judge the mother.

And if one is a writer, one voluntarily opens oneself to criticism (although criticizing one’s choice to write in omniscient, genderless third person is a fairly valid criticism, one thinks).

So writing about parenting entails the judging of your parenting abilities and the criticism of your professional capabilities in one tidy bundle. To quote Lego Batman, “No. No. No. No. No no no no no no no no. No.”

Questions about buying nothing in 2018

In follow-up to how poorly thought out my idea is, I have come up with these questions an hour after deciding to Buy Nothing in 2018:

  • If we objectively need something, can we buy it? For example, if the hot water heater were to explode (again!), we’d buy a new one. What about slightly less important things?
  • Should we make anything we would ordinarily buy? Such as a rack to hang the kids’ backpacks and coats on, which we really need….
  • What about home improvement projects that are unfinished: the siding where we took out the wall A/C, the unfinished floor trim, the doors and trim that need to be painted….
  • Does selling this house and buying a new one count? I suppose as long as we’re downsizing, it’s okay — right?

On buying nothing in 2018

A friend posted Ann Patchett’s essay, My Year of No Shopping, and I admit I am intrigued. I walk around my house dodging piles of absolute crap every day: crap that was lovingly gifted to our boys, crap that I’ve lazily shoved into stacks to be dealt with at some later date that never materializes, crap that my heterosexual life partner has stealthily acquired (therefore depriving me of ever giving him a meaningful present).

So…the idea is appealing. Of course, “no shopping” doesn’t mean “no groceries” and it doesn’t include depriving my children of clothing or school supplies. And, like Patchett, I’m not trying to deprive our economy of my paltry stimulus. What I’d like to do is quit having stuff for the sake of having something “new” or “better.” I want to make do, and I want to do. Like I tell my kids at Christmas, “stuff” isn’t happiness; it’s what you do with it that brings memories. So rather than buying stuff in 2018, I want to spend my money on experiences: going places, doing things with my kids. Hiking, camping, exploring; even reading books and sleeping out in the backyard.

Based on the contents of my closet and dresser, I don’t need more clothes. I used a Christmas gift card to buy winter boots and hiking boots, the shoes my closet was lacking, so I don’t need more shoes. I don’t need books, as I have a library card. I don’t need decorations because I have children and therefore not shortage of craft and art projects. I don’t need gear for camping or hiking. I don’t need jewelry or makeup.

I will probably need some plants for the garden beds, socks for hiking, gas for the car. We’re still going to eat out occasionally. That’s just good mental healthcare.

As for subscriptions…this is where I am unsure. We don’t need basic cable, Netflix, or HBO, but I would miss them — especially PBS. I subscribe to the New Yorker and would miss that too. Should we cancel them?

And as for perseverance, how long can I keep this up? All of 2018? I’d like to, but I’m sure there are many things I haven’t thought of. So I’m going to aim for January. Start small. See how it goes.