Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fear of Flocks

I used to work in an old grain silo building in Portland. It had been converted to office space, and so behind my cubicle was a hallway to nowhere with rounded walls where the grain used to be stored. It was a place of great echoes, but no useful purpose. This is the kind of office space that technology companies pay extra to rent, and it's the kind of office space that makes working for a technology company slightly more palatable. Yeah, I'm a cubicle drone, and no one talks in my office, ever, but I work in that pretty old grain elevator off of the Broadway bridge. You know the old Albers Mill building.

Part of my commute every day, because I didn't have a car in Portland, involved walking up a giant red staircase to the pedestrian level of the bridge. I tell people that I'm afraid of birds. It's slightly inaccurate. I recognize that a single, nondescript LBJ (little brown job) isn't going to hurt me. If I see a first robin of spring bobbing along in the park, I don't detour around it or anything. Even a lonely pigeon isn't all that frightening to me, despite its unnecessarily large size. The thing about my daily commute up that giant red staircase, was that the Broadway Bridge was just covered in flocks and flocks of birds.

What was terrifying to me was the sheer number of those birds, perched on the bridge, covering it in their crap, and looking at me with their cocked heads as I climbed my endless red staircase to work. What made my heart skip a beat was when something (and it wasn't me, because they were far too jaded to be frightened by a lone human) set those birds off, and then, as one, the flock would rise from their perches on the bridge and swarm, as if instead of being a multitude of birds with separate hearts, brains, and bodies, they were a single organism stretching out to the edge of the flock, moving as one, out away from the bridge and then back again, before darting off again in some direction all together.

They never did anything to me, those birds. They just frightened me with their single-mindedness and their group-think and the sheer number of them. I was reminded of this near daily experience in Portland today on my evening run, because just as I arrived at Lake Nokomis at dusk, something set off the murder of crows that had hidden themselves in the branches of the trees, and as I ran, each tree came alive with caws and flapping of wings and a lifting of big, black bodies moving together towards nothing and away from something, with what must have been crow-logic, but which looked to me like a chaos of wings and claws and beaks and shrieks. Beautiful in a way, but only in the way that dark, frightening paintings can be beautiful.

It's like snakes. I can tolerate just one of just about any kind of snake. But when I see a whole mess of them slithering together, I just can't talk myself out of the shivers running down my back.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hate Mail

Dear February,

These are the days that try men's souls. I blame you, entirely, February, with your grinding cold, your soul-sucking dark, and your cruel joke of a snowstorm.

There are good times of day to snow, February. Midnight is a great time for snow, when we're tucked in our little beds. The alarm clock goes off in the morning and we wake up to a world transformed. It feels like Christmas when it snows at Midnight. What did Santa bring us in the night? A whole new world.

Midnight snow just isn't your style, though, is it February? Oh, no. Not you.

I'm not complaining that it snowed. We all knew it would snow again, and it will probably snow again and again all through next month. (All together now, Minnesotans. We know the drill. "March is the snowiest month.") So, yes, it would be nice to see green stuff and growth. It would nice to be able to run. But, it's not the snow that gets to me, it's the lousy, crappy timing. For crying out loud, February, you are just the kind of month who would dump that kind of pile on us when we're all trying to scramble home to our dogs and families. Rush hour snow. Thanks a lot, February.

This is why we don't give you any more days. You'd just use them to make us even more miserable. You're lucky we even let you have 28 days. It's more than you deserve.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

I Can't Figure Out How to Make This About Bacon

I have a friend, "Mimi" who has a knack for making me feel bad. She doesn't mean to, and it only happens every couple of years or so, which is why I continue to put up with her. Actually, to be honest, she loves me very much and really, genuinely wants to help. She just doesn't know how. For example, once when I was telling her about feeling lousy about being single and in my thirties and how there are so few men for every single woman and how maybe I should move away from Minneapolis because maybe the shyness of Minneapolis men is the problem, Mimi honed into a different problem: Me. She suggested that maybe I should get a sexy new haircut and wear more stylish clothes. Men, she said, are more driven by looks than women are. This is what she did, she said, before she met her husband.

Now, my friends in The Illiterati have said the same thing, but somehow when it came from them it felt more like an excuse to get together and go shopping and be the center of their attention for an afternoon. When it came from Mimi, it made me feel like a big awkward dolt.

Anyway, I should have run the other way when Mimi suggested that she set me up with a friend of hers. She's older than I am, and she said she couldn't tell whether this guy was too old for me or not. Did I have an upper age limit?

Well, you know, you want to be open. You want to accept love wherever it comes, but don't we all have an upper age limit? I have two. One is the one that I will say to people to prove how open I am. That one is 50. It's a total lie. My true upper age limit is 45. This is the upper age limit that I hold onto because I believe that I am hot. If I stop believing I'm hot, then before I accept that I should be with some old, crotchety geezer, I'll probably just decide to stop trying. Note that if you're over 50. I don't really think that over 50 is old. I just think that my age plus 15 will be old when I'm over 50.

And, so when I join dating sites, I tend to tell men over 45 that we are not a good match, without really bothering to find out more. Unless they are totally hot (which they haven't been), I even get a little bit offended that they think that they have a shot with me. Did I mention that I am hot? What would a hot woman in her 30s want with an old man who isn't hot? Especially if that's all I know about him?

You can only call me ageist if your partner is not hot and more than fifteen years older than you are.

I joined a dating site recently. My profile has generated no activity, except for one note from an old man telling me that he liked my profile, one note from a barely literate man who uses the user name "Shyman123" or something equally pathetic, and one note from a man in Malaysia who is in love with me. This is grim, grim, grim. It makes me feel a little bit lousy, but I try not dwell on it, because what's the point in dwelling? They don't know me. If they did know me, they'd know how hot and funny and sexy I am, and the number 35 would not be so frightening to them.

If they knew me, like Mimi does, they would know how great I am.

Mimi called me mid-week. The set-up wasn't going to work. He was bringing a date. Oh, well. Easy come, easy go. Still, I was invited to dinner. The dinner guests included Mimi, her husband, a well-established gay couple, my potential set-up and his date, and me.

The problem? The guy, even though we were no longer being set-up, was at least fifty-five. Easily. Complete with gray hair and a bald spot. I can choose not to take it personally when the Internet considers me over the hill as a woman, but how can I decide that it doesn't mean something when Mimi does it?

I sat at dinner, where I was easily twenty years younger than anyone else at the table, and until I recovered my composure and found my charm, I wanted to cry. I love the gay couple (or half of them anyway) and I love Mimi and her husband, but doesn't anyone else see how terrible it is to have to decide that men my own age are now considered, even by people who love me dearly, out of my league?


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saving your Bacon

One of the things I do for you every day, because I'm a little bit of a hero, is I check to see if this light is on. I'm really a one-woman (and one-dog) safety patrol. If that light is ever on when I walk by, and if I remember to have my cell phone with me on my walk, don't worry: I will call that number. I am poised and ready to dial.

Don't you feel better about the safety of your city already?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Want Some Bacon?

Click here. Presto! Bacon!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Saddest Valentine

Don't worry. I am so rarely dating anyone on Valentine's Day that it's not really a holiday I dwell upon. I think there may have been a total of five V-Days upon which I was hooked up. I'm pretty sure at least two of them didn't believe in the holiday. At the time, I pretended not care about it either, but, here's a tip, men, women would have to be pretty impervious to the insidious nature of our culture not to care at all about Valentine's Day. If you're lucky enough to have a woman in your life today, be nice to her, even if she says she doesn't care about the Hallmark Holiday.


On one particular Valentine's Day, I was hooked up. I was dating a guy who was completely out of character for me. Some of you remember this time in my life. He was categorically good-looking, not cute-in-an-unconventional-way, like most of my dates. He also had muscles, which was weird for me, because they reminded me of nothing so much breasts. Curvy breasts, growing out of his arms. Breasts on his chest. Funny how the manliest man I ever dated always made me think of breasts when he took off his shirt.

The One With All the N's just got excited because she will use this as proof that I am a lesbian.

"Manly" and I met through the print-media personals ads. I was ahead of my time. Internet dating before we used the Internet to do it. He charmed me first with his voice on the telephone, deep and soft, like a plush carpet. He had a self-depreciating sense of humor, and a charming smile. Some things about him when we first met struck me as unusual especially since I'm such a pinko Commie liberal. He described himself as politically indifferent. He didn't even vote in every election. (What? They let you vote and you didn't line up to exercise your power? I don't understand.) He also served in the Army Reserves. Not a big deal, he said. Every month he would have one weekend when he would be unavailable for dates. That part actually sounded OK. I like my space. I just thought he would disapprove of my pacifist upbringing. And, let's be honest, I sort of wanted to convert him to the Way of Peace. I definitely wanted to make sure he voted in every election (even though it was likely that we wouldn't be voting for the same candidates).

Despite these differences we got along unusually well. Manly was very into nature, and he taught me the difference between white oaks and red ones. On one of our first dates, we sat on a blanket and watched a meteor shower overhead. He lived in a cabin on Medicine Lake and he would get up early in the morning to start my car when I had to drive back to Minneapolis for work. I secretly enjoyed being taken care of. Some feminist I turned out to be.

It all changed when, in January of 2003, after we'd been together for three months, he got word that his reserve unit was activated and called to serve in Iraq. The seriousness of the situation added some seriousness to our relationship that we wouldn't have given it otherwise. What was I going to do? Dump him because he was going to war? Unthinkable. Marry him before he left? Equally so. Instead, I just held onto him a little bit tighter, trying to enjoy the time before he left as much as I could. He told me that he put my name on a list. It was the list of people to call if something happened to him. It was at once flattering and horrifying. Of course, I belonged on the list, but there was no way I belonged on such a list. We only knew each other for three months, and my name was on the same list as the names of other men's wives and mothers. It was spelled wrong (Alia), but it was on the list.

The day he left was February 14, 2003. We got up early, in his little cabin, which was packed up and ready for him to leave. He put on his uniform, and I drove him to his base. We stopped to get gas, and he cursed that the guy behind the counter didn't volunteer to give him a discount for being in uniform, for leaving me for war. I didn't cry when he left my car. I didn't cry when I returned home. I composed a letter, in my little apartment, telling him that I loved him and telling him that I would wait for him. Such things probably shouldn't come up for the first time in a letter, but we had too little time in person to say them out loud.

That afternoon, I drove to Fort Snelling, where I was allowed to drive past the guards because my name was on that dreadful list. I boarded a coach bus full of wives and mothers and children and American flag t-shirts and red, white, and blue earrings. We drove to the hangar where our friends and boyfriends and husbands and fathers and wives and mothers waited for us in uniform. I was afraid. Afraid that I would be spotted as a fraud ("Where is your flag?"). Afraid that I wouldn't recognize him in his uniform when he was surrounded by other men in uniform. Afraid that he would not want me to hand him a letter that said "I love you", right before he went to war. Afraid that he wouldn't want to say it back.

The army gave me a red carnation. The army gave me a flower. I clutched it tightly as if it could help me recognize Manly in the sea of uniformity.

I did recognize him. Even though I had seen him hours before, I already missed him. I already felt like he was a stranger. He had to prompt me to hold his warm, dry hand in my clammy one, as we listened to speeches sending our lovers off to war. "Are we glad to be here?" said the chaplain. I half-expected a patriotic yes from the crowd. "No," whispered the pacifist. "No," came the thunderous response of the crowd of flag-waving family members.

I gave him the flower and the letter. We kissed, even though we both felt awkward doing it in public. He held the letter up, and then he was gone, and I was back on the bus full of quiet, grieving strangers.

I got home to a giant bouquet of flowers and a note, with the kind of things that it's better to say for the first time in person, but we never had time.

That day was sad. The next day I marched to protest the war with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and I felt all alone, because I had been in a much different crowd the day before. The following day was my first day of student teaching. Those three days were almost the hardest of my life. So was every day after his unit left training and actually went to war, and I had to hear about dead soldiers on the news. The day the phone rang and it was for "Alia" was the most terrible day of all, even though the news that prompted the call was not tragic. I hear they come in person for the truly tragic news.

We survived the six months he was gone. We did not survive his return. In the end, we were too different, and the "I love you's" felt more real on paper.

In the context of all of that, it's so much easier to be alone on Valentine's Day. Don't you think?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

RIP Book Club...Welcome Something Else

About two years ago, I responded to a Craig's List post about a new book club. At the time, I was recovering from the hermit lifestyle I had led with an ex-boyfriend, and I was trying to meet men in organic ways by doing things that I enjoyed doing. I was only just discovering that the things I enjoy doing are mostly things that other women enjoy doing. And the poster on Craig's List neglected to mention in her post that she wanted to create an all-women's book club. She was a bit crazy, but that's a story for another day. At any rate, she turned away the two men who showed interest in the club, and instead we had a lively group of ten women attend the first meeting.

I enjoyed the first meeting enough to commit to attending the second one. By the third meeting our lively group of ten women had dwindled to five, and the original crazy Craig's List poster was gone. The five of us carried on meeting though, through several books, some of which we read, most of which we didn't. At one meeting, Jessica announced that now that the five of us had been meeting monthly for so many months, she had decided that we had become friends, and so she collected our birthdays, and now she organizes birthday outings for the group.

We began to do other things, but we continued to not-read the books we were assigned. We had conversations about boys. They took me shopping for sexy new clothes. We went to movies about books we hadn't read. We baked Christmas cookies. Through Kate, I joined a cooking club, and for a couple of months, we cooked giant potluck dinners together. We even advertized for more members on Craig's List, making sure to warn the new people that we didn't always complete our homework for book club.

The men in our lives have always mocked book club. Emily has a friend who calls us SBC, which is short for Shitty Book Club, because we don't discuss books very often or say very deep things about them when we do. Rachel's friends made fun of us for having a movie date for "Three Christmases", which wasn't even based on a book. Or was it four Christmases? It was a shitty movie, at any rate.

Yesterday, Jess called and asked if I minded if we stopped calling our book club a book club. It will be just the same, she assured me. We'll still get together and talk and do fun things. We can even talk about whatever books we're reading. But instead of not-reading a book that we were suppposed to read together, we wouldn't even plan to read a book together. It sounded perfect. It's all of the fun of getting together with five smart women, and none of the guilt of not having read the book.

And so our new club needs a name. I have suggested "The Illiterati" or "NBC (Non-Book Club)". If you have a good name for our group, let me know. I'll pass it along.

Oh, and I'm still reading "Cold Sassy Tree", in honor of the days when our group, whatever-it-is, used to read books.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Wanna Play a Game, Scarecrow?

Lisa from Lemon Gloria recently asked me a few questions as part of an interview game. If you want to be interviewed, too, all you have to do is comment on this post with the words "Interview me", and I'll email you five questions tailor-made for you. It's easy. You'll love it. I'll put more detailed rules at the end.

Here, then, are her questions and my answers.

1. If you had 48 hours free and unlimited cash, how would you spend the time?

Boy, oh, boy, did thinking about this question reveal my inner miser. My first thought was “Did she say ‘unlimited cash’? I’m calling a plumber to fix my leaky toilet.” Then I realized that with unlimited cash, as long as the plumber was there, he could also install the faucet I bought for the bathroom sink ages ago, and then I could ask him to put a real shower-to-bath faucet in my old cast iron tub, so I could sometimes take baths instead of showers. And only then did I stop myself and realize how petty my wishes were. Seriously, you hand me 48 hours and unlimited cash, and I call a plumber? I’m pathetic.

At that point, I decided that I was going to use my unlimited cash to buy a whole new house. Fuck it. I’ve had enough of pull-chain light fixtures and leaky toilets. I deserve a dishwasher. I can have central air. I can have insulation and new windows, so I can be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And, oh, wait! I could have my new house in a warm and lovely place. I can relocate to the beach, and I can have a new beach house where I can take a bath sometimes and not just a shower.

At about this time, I realized that you asked me how I would spend the time, not the money. And so I scrapped the house plan and decided to go hot-air ballooning instead on some early summer morning. My grandmother went ballooning for her eightieth birthday, and I was invited to join her, but I missed it because I was working at a summer camp that year and it was an hour further away than I thought it was, so I was late to the launch, and ever since then, I’ve had an empty place in the part of my heart that would be full if I ever got to go up in a hot-air balloon.

And then, after my hot-air balloon landed, I’ll spend the other 40 hours picking out and closing on my new beach house with a non-leaky toilet and solar panels and super-insulated walls.

2. Do you feel like working with math all the time and having a math mind colors your world in a particular way? I ask this as someone with no mathematical ability, who consistently struggled in math once it got beyond the basics, really. But I feel like being so focused on words, and having studied linguistics, I am constantly listening for how people phrase things, or appreciating alliteration, or whatever. Does this happen with numbers (or numerical patterns, or geometric planes, etc), if one's brain has that ability?

OK, so I don’t listen to music, ever. My friends who do listen to it sometimes give me CDs or tell me to listen to things, and I try, but after the CD or the song has been playing for a while, I forget it’s on and I go back to not-listening to it. I dated a musician once. He gave me copies of his own songs sometimes. I would listen, and at first I would feel enormously proud and slightly embarrassed that my boyfriend was singing and playing a song, and then even he would fade into the background, and I couldn’t even tell him what I thought of his music when he asked.

I think maybe that working a good math problem tickles the part of my brain that other people can tickle with music. I can get totally absorbed, in that time-stretching way, so that all of the rest of the world fades behind me, and all I can see is whatever problem I’m working on. I can fall asleep with a good problem on my brain and I can dream the solution, so that in the morning I see the problem with new clarity. I think of that line from a song actually (the Beatles being the one, notable exception to my inability to hear music) “There will be an answer. Let it be.”

Also, you should know that I suck at computation. I can’t add or subtract (especially subtract) without paper and a pencil. Higher math has very little to do with computational skill. We turn a lot of kids off to mathematics by making it so computationally focused in the early years.

Still, I don’t feel that I apply math to the real world all that often. I love it for its own sake. I’m not a physicist. I just like playing with symbols and manipulating algebra and seeing geometric connections on the page. I think of a math team t-shirt that I once saw. It had a famously beautiful equation on the front. On the back it said, “Yes, but when do you ever really use the Mona Lisa?” It’s more like art to me than it is like science.

I think I’d be a better teacher if I did use math in the real world. I was once seduced by a guy who used math. If seducing nerdy women counts as a real-world application of number theory, then I’m living proof that it works.

3. You are on an endless breakfast quest. How would you describe a perfect breakfast?

My family would be there. We’d all be alert and not hung-over. When my family is on, we are some of the wittiest people around. The laughter alone makes the food taste better. I’d definitely get something savory, because I’m not a big sweet breakfast person. There might be some goat cheese in my dish. I’d want some potatoes that were crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. I’d want a cup of really good coffee with lots of cream and sugar. I’d want the restaurant to have a clean and airy feel with sunlight streaming through the windows. I’d want the waiter or waitress to flirt with my family a little bit as we placed our order. Everything would have enough fat and salt in it to taste good and get properly brown, but nothing would be bogged down by grease. Finally, as we left the table none of us would feel so heavy and weighted down that we’d never want to eat again. We’d all just be comfortably full, with happy aftertastes of breakfast in our mouths to get us through to lunch.

4. If you were given the choice of being able to fly or breathe underwater, which superpower would you choose and why?

I’d fly. Flying is much more practical. How often is there even water around to breathe under?

5. If you had to choose a flavor of ice cream that most fits your personality, what kind do you think you would be? Feel free to make one up if necessary.

It’d be something dark and brooding, but with some bites that are so good they would make the occasional bitter overtones worth it. Double, dark chocolate with a hint of salty caramel, perhaps.

OK, now you know you want to play, here's how:
1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions. Be sure you link back to the original post.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.