Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Incredible Edible Guilt

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord, tell me what to eat. If I should die before I wake, I blame that Big Mac, fries, and shake.

In case you haven’t noticed by now Reader, I loved the ‘70s. The movies, music, TV shows, the sharp edged toys that left you giddy with pain, the clothes, the objectification of my sex and the insensitivity to anyone different from me, but what I loved the most was the way we ate.

Bread was a Wonder and sandwich spread a Miracle, while Whip was a Cool or a Dream. Pops Rocked, Pepsi-Cola hit the spot, but if you wanted a smile, have a Coke. A sandwich was a sandwich but a Manwich was a meal. Hamburger had a Helper and Cheese was a Whiz, though nothing melted better than Velveeta. TV dinners were from Libbyland unless you were a Hungry Man, and margarine fooled Mother Nature. Choosy Moms chose Jif unless they were friends with Skippy or Peter Pan. Cereal was Life and Lucky if you were Charmed. Trix were for kids and Loops were Fruity. Steak-Umms was where the beef was, or was it? And Chicken was Kentucky Fried, "finger lickin’ good," so said the Colonel that crispy cool angel in white. Kool-Aid Chased Your Thirst Away but astronauts got the Tang in the end. The Jolly Green Giant had a farm in a can and a Happy Meal made your day. We couldn’t pronounce anything on the ingredients list, but did that really matter? Of course not, like French, we thought they were just made up words anyway. If candy cigarettes, bubble gum cigars, and Veal on a Stick were wrong, nobody told us.

Until they did.

“Watch Food Inc.!” the chorus in my head sang week after week. I wanted to, but I was told it would turn my stomach, and unless that was going to firm my abs, I wanted no part of it. I was already scared of food. I packed heavy, armed with my lists of the dirtiest produce and the deadliest chemicals every time I went grocery shopping. I suspected every box to be a bandit, every can to be a con, and in every package a pirate. I tried to stay in the green zone where the real food was stationed, but sometimes I had to breach the perimeter for a can of beans or a bag of rice. I ran through those middle aisles where the most offensive products lay in wait yelling, “Cover me!” to my fellow shoppers.

And when I finally rolled my cart out of the suck and into the sun, my stealth mission accomplished, do you think I could remember where I parked my car? No. Not once.

I decided if I were going to watch Food Inc. I’d make it part of a double feature and pair it with something even scarier. I considered Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but ultimately decided on 1973’s Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson . It's a cautionary tale of industrialized food production at its worst. The year is 2022 and the food supply has been reduced to nutritionally complete squares called Soylent Green. They look like toxic Triscuits and according to Edward G. Robinson’s character Sol, they are “tasteless, odorless, crud.”

In fact, “Soylent Green is….!” No, I’m not going to tell you Reader just in case you’re still trying to catch up on your 1970s sci fi movies like I am, but if you happen to try it and you find an earring or a tooth in your Soylent Green, don’t fret. At least you’re getting your protein!

In this version of twelve years from now, Soylent Green is necessary because there are no more crops, forests, or animals. Even the Hamburglar has retired. The world is a soulless nowhere that can’t nurture even the humblest seed. A little far fetched maybe, but when Moses and Rico from Little Caesar are telling you you’re doomed, it’s hard not to whimper, “Please save me” a little bit.

As soon as I threw away every box of crackers in my house, I turned my attention to Food Inc. This will be nothing compared to the horror I just watched. It was a bigger horror and no Charlton Heston to hand down the answer, no Edward G. Robinson to shoot us out of this mess.

Cows standing ankle deep in manure (side of E. coli anyone?), live hogs crushed in what look like runaway elevator shafts, chickens never seeing the light of day, and working conditions morbidly derisory. Beautiful. If Upton Sinclair could see how meat production has devolved, he’d write a sequel to The Jungle. One sentence: “I thought we went over this already, Dumbasses.”

I hear the future of the Fisher Price “See ‘n Say Farmer Says.” When you pull the string chickens don’t cluck, pigs don’t oink, cows don’t moo, and turkeys don’t gobble: all you hear is, “Help.”

Early in the film, the following statement appears on the screen: “After the decline of tobacco, many farmers in the south turned to chicken farming.” Honestly, after stealing a peek of how chickens are now “farmed” I think I’d rather go back to saying, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Poultry pumped full of chemicals may look pretty on a plate and even taste ok, but how much are we willing to sacrifice for aesthetics? Is a nation that dresses its dogs like people really willing to do this to another animal?

The old philosophical brain tumbler, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” doesn’t seem to matter anymore when we have to ask, “What is a chicken and what is an egg?”

I’m of two minds about this whole antibiotics in beef thing. See, I think we can make this work for us. If the smarties can make a phone that does my taxes, then why can’t we cure a simple respiratory infection with an amoxicillin burger? Can’t we perfect this love affair between grease and antibiotic? I want to live in a world where I go to the doctor hacking and coughing and walk out with a prescription for a double bacon cheese burger (hold the ammonia) twice a day for two weeks. Now that’s agribusiness I can get behind. Excuse me, what? The antibiotics in food are only going to make us sicker in the long run? Never mind.

Reader, you might wonder why my righteous indignation about animals doesn’t translate to vegetarianism. Well, I’ll tell you. I like meat. All of us, every day, rationalize and justify our decisions until we come up with a way to sleep at night. For me it comes to this: I don’t know if an animal has any conscious understanding of the length of its life, but surely, even the dumbest beast on the block must be somewhat aware of the quality of its life. Does it intellectualize it and compare itself to the pampered dog or cat? No, but I believe it feels pain and it suffers. My husband Graham and I decided that the least we could do was continue to buy organic and extend our attempt to eat well by buying meat raised in humane conditions. Ha. Easier said than done.

My first crack at being the Saint Francis of grocery getting took me to four different stores where I had to choose between Farm Fresh, Family Farmed, Farm Raised, Free Range, Cage Free, Omega 3+, Pasture Raised, Sustainably Farmed, Amish Farmed, Vegetarian Fed, Grass Fed, Naturally Fed, Organic, and Mostly Organic food. I needed help. "Oprah! Yoda! Where the hell are you?” I exclaimed in the meat department of Kowalski’s. Not only was my mind reeling but also the adding machine in my head. I would have to stick half this stuff down my dress just to be able to afford the week’s food. We did it though. For the last month we’ve eaten little that we didn’t have to feel guilty about. (I’m not apologizing for my Mongolian Beef from Pei Wei last night. I’m just not.) The problem is when it’s so much cheaper to eat poorly, you can’t sustain the perfect diet unless you have unlimited funds and the fortitude to go searching for the "right" food through store after store.

At the end of the month I sat Graham down and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news and good news. The good news is we’ve eaten better in the last month than we ever have. The bad news is it’s so expensive to eat perfectly that I’ve spent two months of the grocery budget and next month we have to eat the dogs. More good news though! They are semi cage free, omega 3+ because of all that fish oil I’ve been feeding Gizmo, they eat an organic diet, and are humanely raised if you don’t count the times I’ve tried to put Halloween costumes on them."

Don’t worry Reader, Sidney and Gizmo are safe, but I did realize that it’s not as easy to put your money where your food is, or your mouth where your expensive food should go or…oh you know what I mean. We have to make the best decisions we can for our health and conscience sake. At the end of the day when we’re scraping what remains of our processed, genetically modified dinner from our plates we have to ask ourselves, are we OK with what we're eating?

We need to think about the fact that if we're walking through the frozen section of the market and we look back at a bag of Wanchai Ferry we'll probably turn into a pillar of salt. We need to think about the fact that no matter what the mom holding the plastic jug of toxic blue sugar water says in the commercial, there is something different about high fructose corn syrup and we need to learn more about it. Its suspicious ubiquity makes products like Throwback Pepsi, made with actual sugar, seem like health food.

Is it really just coincidence that when high fructose corn syrup shows up in everything from bread to tomato sauce to pop, that one in three people born in the US after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes, one in two among minorities? It seems diabetes is the new black. That’s not funny.

I’m not pressuring anybody to buy organic or cry over the animals. That’s my bag and you don’t have to buy it. I am suggesting that health care reform start at our own tables with an honest assessment of what we eat. Otherwise we might as well stop screaming about who’s paying for health insurance and invest in life insurance. Our kids will need it for their own medical bills.

Since I watched Soylent Green, these throwaway lines keep running through my head.

“Most people like to live.”
“If you say so.”

Could it be that silly '70s movie saw our future a little too clearly?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lost Weekend

Three o’clock on Saturday morning I awakened from an episode of Freudian wish fulfillment. I dreamed I was throwing all the vials of the IVF hormones I would begin injecting in a few hours down the sink. I flipped the switch on the garbage disposal but instead of a crunchy growl it started crying hysterically and spouting paranoid nonsense: “Thank God, Buffy and Jody had Uncle Bill. I mean, what would have happened to them? You have to outlive me Graham because I don’t have an Uncle Bill or even a Mr. French. All I have is an old Mrs. Beasley!”

I’m afraid this dream was a harbinger of the next two days. Soon I would be filling myself full of fertility drugs and busting the springs off the bonkers scale. On the bright side, I hear I'll also be able to throw a baseball really really far.

It was six thirty when Graham left the house on a covert mission. What was open that early in the morning? I couldn't think of anything I’d want from the gas station, the gym, or the emergency room. I don’t know how he swung it, but he returned with Eggs Benedict: my favorite breakfast and my last meal before I faced quasi-lethal injection. “Crazy girl walking,” I announced marching into the kitchen. I lingered over that pool of hollandaise as long as I could until the clock struck the sticking hour and Graham handed me my syringe full of Frankincense and Myrrh. Their real names are Menopur and Bravelle, but those remind me of menopause and figure skating respectively, so I changed them to something that makes me think of Christmas. I hummed a little “Deck the Halls,” stuck the needle in my stomach and pushed the plunger. I chased the shot with my pills. It may take urban sprawl to raise a child, but in our house it takes a pharmacopoeia just to have one. “Fa la la la laaa, la la, la laaa.”

Noon time. So far, so sane. My Doxycycline nausea was wearing off and my appetite was turning on. A sandwich seemed like a reasonable idea. As I grabbed the knob on the sliding lid of our vintage aluminum breadbox I felt all reason leaving me. It wouldn't go up. It wouldn't move. It was holding my bread hostage. How DARE it? I felt something burn through my body. This was it. The coven arrived: Lizzie Borden, Madame Defarge, and Samantha Stevens in a really bad mood (which is what she was when she played Lizzie Borden in a Movie of the Week, so that's weird, right?). It was time to direct Graham to the strength of a higher power. He was going to need it.

“Graham, heed the words of the prophet Rob Thomas and his apostles the Matchbox 20. You’re about to see something you don’t want to see. Open your hymnal to the album More Than You Think You Are, track 4, verse 1: 'I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell/I know, right now you can’t tell/But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see/A different side of me.' And boy did he ever.

It was at precisely that moment that I decided nothing was going to keep me from making that sandwich, so I turned and slammed my fist through the breadbox. Satisfied, I said to Graham, “This is broken. Would you take it out to the trash please? We no longer have a breadbox problem.” As I was getting an ice pack for my hand I heard him mumble, “We no longer have a breadbox either.” How DARE he?

This is how it works. To you, the female Reader, I ask you to imagine a time when your lady hormones have caused you to want to pick up a rock and throw it at a chipmunk or pick up a rock and throw it at yourself just to see how it feels. Take that sensation, multiply by 7,000 and you’re half way to your state of mind during the first few days on IVF stimulation drugs. The slightest stimulus will cause you to huff and puff and blow down the mortar and bricks of domestic tranquility. The worst part is you’re not really a huge bitch, so after these episodes the remorse is debilitating. I plead my case with the following scene.

It was seven o’clock Saturday night when my mother called to ask what channel Lawrence Welk was on in Elk Rapids, MI. I yelled, “Why are you bothering me with this? You’ve seen every episode a hundred times. Why don’t you watch something else? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you find Murder She Wrote? How DARE you!” and I hung up.

At five past seven I called back. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s on your PBS station channel six. I’m so sorry. I’m crazy.”

“I know,” she replied.

Oh, no....

“What do you mean you know? You don’t know? No one knows!” and I hung up again.

At nine past seven I called back. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m only crazy this weekend. It’ll get better soon.”

“If you say so,” my mother answered her voice thick with doubt.

I handed the phone to Graham before I had a chance to bellow something else at her for which I'd have to call back and apologize. That could go on all night. By then I was curled into a ball on the cold tile of the kitchen floor sobbing. Sidney, my Yorkie, walked over and looked me in the eye and then turned away clearly disappointed in his person. Sidney doesn’t suffer fools. Gizmo, my Pomeranian, crept up and laid down beside me because Gizmo actually is a fool.

At eight o’clock I ended the night early in preparation for the next day. It was the sanest decision I’d made in thirteen hours. Looking at my box of Unisom, I figured 7 or 8 should do the trick. I took a half of one and fell blissfully asleep. There was quiet rejoicing throughout my home.

Sunday morning showed no promise of improvement. I went downstairs for my shot, but the only Christmas song I could think of to accompany it was “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” Graham asked me if I felt like eating something. “No thanks, I’m having water weight for breakfast.”

I fell onto the sofa and decided to watch home movies. Oh what horrible ideas we have when we’re under the influence. I watched myself running along the beach, smiling, pretending I didn’t want the camera on me. "Come here and look at my long hair,” I called to Graham. "Look at my unlined skin; look at my body and my carefree manner! Why didn’t I have kids then?”

“What year is that you’re watching?” Graham asked.


“You were eleven.”

“Yeah, you make a good point.”

The home movies whetted my appetite for more nostalgia. I needed something relaxing, comforting, and soothing. Naturally, that was Little House on the Prairie.

“Will you get me some Half-Pint?” I asked Graham.

“You're not drinking on those meds!” he reprimanded me.

“No, not a half-pint. Some Half-Pint. You know, Little House? I’m up to season eight. That’s the one I need.”

We live three hours from the actual Walnut Grove, yet there was not a set of Little House season eight to be had in Minnesota. What did I have to do? Drive 160 miles to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and act the whole thing out myself? (My secret dream.) Normally, I’d order it and wait, but these were not normal days. These were more like the "end of days." When Graham told me there would be no Tragic Mary or Insipid Carrie, no Stoic Ma and Strangely Sexy Pa, no Almanzo with his pageboy haircut, I flipped. I walked into the living room and swiped my “silver” Boston Terrier statue, Bruno, right off the coffee table. I picked it up and noticed the “silver” had chipped away. The woman I bought it from said it was real silver-plated!  How DARE she? “I’ve been had! Call the fuzz!” I screamed and threw Bruno across the room. Not only was it paint, it was hollow, and it smashed into a million pieces. Now I had to go stomp on a cat statue just to restore balance in the universe.

That was the nadir of the weekend. Graham and I were both exhausted: me from the drugs and him from the minefield he’d been bouncing around in for two days. We knew why we were doing this. We knew the discomfort was temporary. We knew that someday we’d get to the good part, but at that moment we both felt as broken as Bruno.

Graham tried one last time to console me. “Do you really want the Little House season eight anyway? Season eight ‘jumped the shark.’ Nobody bought that Nancy character. She was no Nellie Olsen.” I began to remind him that I don’t like any expression that reflects negatively on The Fonz when I was struck by epiphany. We were sitting on the floor picking up pieces of hollow dog. “Graham," I explained, "today I killed this dog statue and yesterday I beat the crap out of a breadbox. You’re canvassing the state looking for Little House On the Prairie DVDs, bribing the Suncoast Video guy with a hundred bucks if he can lay his hands on a set in Wisconsin. I don’t even know if Sidney still lives here, he's so pissed. And I’m sticking needles in my gut and calling it Christmas. Don't you get it? You and I, the two of us, we have jumped the shark!” There it was, and man did I need to find it: the funny. After two punishing days I finally found some funny. And we sat on the floor and laughed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ten Things To Do When Your Husband Runs Off To Central America

As one half of a married whole, I understand that sometimes the best thing you can do for your relationship is, once in a while, apply the separate but equal model to vacation time. Vail skiing, Pebble Beach golfing, or even those missionary trips to Las Vegas I’ve heard about like Operation Dollar Bill (All proceeds go to help those nice girls get through school.) are appealing choices. Why then, does my husband Graham approach me every couple of years holding the globe and pointing to Central America? Nicaragua! Honduras! Guatemala! I snatch the world from him and point to the same cozy coastline I always point to, “How about Belize?” I give it my best shot, “You can lie on the beach. You can play cricket! Wouldn’t you love to say, ‘That’s a bit of a sticky wicket’ and finally understand what it means? Belize used to belong to the Queen you know. Nice, safe, touristy Belize, that’s where you should go, yes?” No. This year it’s Guatemala.

Since the temptation of decadence didn't work I try scare tactics. “Aren’t you afraid of the band…the band…bando…help me out here.”

“Band On the Run? Band of Brothers? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home?”

“ NO, the Bandoleros!! Like in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You remember, the ones who didn’t need no stinkin’ badges. Why? Because they had big stinkin’ guns!”

Graham explains again how movies are not real life. What? He says Central America is the best place for Spanish language immersion trips and that these days it’s perfectly safe if you “travel smart.” I travel smart, but I’m not sure what that has to do with fighting off a gang of highwaymen. What am I supposed to do, distract them with the sequins on my extra dinner dress and hit them over the head with my trusty mini-iron? If he thinks he can ply me with this backward logic he’s clearly forgotten to whom he is married. I soldier on and make my case.

“You don’t need to leave the country to be immersed. This is America! We’ll drive twenty minutes into St. Paul. I’ll drop you off in front of El Burrito Mercado on Cesar Chavez Street and Sha-Zam! You are immersed in not only the Spanish language but an excellent dining experience. Best of all, you don’t need no stinkin’ passport!”

He pinches out that argument countering that no matter how bona fide our Hispanic neighborhood is, it’s just not total immersion when you know you’re within spitting distance of Garrison Keillor. He has a point. 

This insistence on fully integrating himself with the culture is highly suspicious. It’s time he knows exactly who he’s dealing with, so I crank it up a notch. “¿Cuál es tu plan secreto?” I demand suddenly. My dexterity with Google Translate threatens his calm exterior. I strike while he still looks confused or maybe amused, can’t tell. “Are you trying to jump on the margin of a coup? Are you planning to put on a Che Beret and run around the jungle yelling "¡Viva la Revolución!'? Because if you are, allow me to remind you that you’re a pacifist, borderline liberal from Bloomfield Hills. I don’t think you’re their guy, Honey.”
Reader, by now you may have the idea that I’m no fan of adventure travel, but you’re wrong. Who ran around snapping pictures during a lightning storm in the Badlands while everyone else cowered in the car? Who dove off the cliff in Jamaica even though I knew there was no way I would stay one with my bikini? Who smuggled all that wine and vodka through customs on the way home from Russia with nothing more than a little midwestern small talk as a diversion? Who led the trek through the Mexican jungle from Verana to Yelapa until we were nearly stampeded by wild pigs in an abandoned graveyard? To be honest, the pigs looked pretty docile lounging among the headstones, but we were this close! All we had to do was breath heavy and we’d have gotten trichinosis. Now that’s adventure. The “who” in all these questions is me, that’s who. The difference was we were together on those trips, and I was employing the Golden Rule of marriage: If I go down, I’m taking you with me. For that I expect a little in the way of reciprocity. Graham should only risk his life when he can put mine in peril as well. That is the secret to a happy marriage: equal mortal danger at all times.

With my arguments exhausted and Graham’s questionable travel clothing packed, I asked for one concession, that he at least texts me every night so I know he’s safe. Within that text he must include a code word that we will agree on ahead of time so I know it’s him messaging me and not his captors. I ask if he thinks I should have a code word too in case someone makes off with the dogs and me while he’s away. “Anyone who abducts you and the dogs is going to drop all three of you off at our front door within ten minutes,” he assures me gently. I swoon a little, “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

And so Reader, he left with little more than a backpack and wanderlust. I waved from the porch while the theme to Out of Africa played in my head (a good all around soundtrack for most dramatic hellos and goodbyes). The following is a list I jotted down throughout the week for handy reference. Feel free to use it according to your own circumstances as advice, guidance, or cautionary tale.

1. Turn on CNN in the morning to make sure Graham is NOT on CNN.

2. Immediately switch to The Weather Channel to make sure Guatemala is still there.

3. Put the State Department Emergency Assistance to American Citizens Abroad number into my phone. Call it with a mild yet plausible threat to Graham just to see how quickly they snap to action

4. Reminder: The State Department takes prank phone calls VERY SERIOUSLY. (Try to figure out how to get off the no fly list.)

5. Prepare a briefcase full of cash in case a ransom drop situation presents itself. BE SMART: Put the white Monopoly money on top.

6. Consider the arsenal of weapons in the house and wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have put one of the handguns in Graham’s backpack. If only it wasn’t lime green and it shot more than water.

7. Remember to turn off the security system every morning so the next door neighbors will stop turning their sprinklers on me and yelling, "You want something to really be afraid of???!!!" when I take the dogs out and set the alarm off. (Text Graham in Guatemala to get the code. Remember to use the special secret texting code word we agreed on. Call Graham first to find out what the code word was.)

8. Do NOT attempt to fix kitchen appliances myself. Do NOT attempt to pay the plumber with cans and bottles so Graham won’t find out how much worse I made it. Do NOT get cranky with the plumber, who showed up on a Sunday, when he tells me Minnesota has no deposit law and he wouldn’t take them even if it did. Jeez, guy can’t take a joke.

9. Try to remain calm when Graham sends me excited text about being close enough to the hell mouth of an active volcano to roast marshmallows. I text back, “You don’t like marshmallows so GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE VOLCANO.” Wonder if I would have seemed less hysterical if I’d added a smiley face icon.

10. Remember, that even though it’s possible I let my imagination run around the bend at times, even though I might have a tendency to make up stories in my head and believe them, and even though I have the plots of a few too many movies on instant recall, I am proud of Graham for taking these trips. I admire the way he goes into the world with zeal and enthusiasm for everything that is different and unfamiliar. But next year, we are totally going Belize together, and we won’t need no stinkin’ code words.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Monday Morning Quarterback Goes To The Oscars

When in Rome, do as the Americans do. My parents sent me to Rome when I was eighteen years old. It was important to them that I saw a bit of the world and broadened my cultural horizons, so I complied by giving my chaperones the slip whenever possible and chasing cute Italian boys. Upon my return, my dad excitedly asked me what I’d learned and what I’d chosen to bring home from The Eternal City. At this point I proudly pulled from my suitcase a five-foot tall inflatable Oscar statuette. Yes, in all of Rome, what I decided to haul back to Michigan was a symbol of Americana that ranked right up there with a World Series pennant or a Big Mac. I would have brought back one of those boys too but getting through customs would have been a nightmare.

I share this story with you Reader to illustrate the fascination I’ve always had with The Academy Awards. Growing up, there were three big nights for me: the annual airings of The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music and The Academy Awards. Now we can watch those movies whenever we want to, but The Oscars are one of the only programs that we still have to wait all year for, and even when they’re more insipid than exciting I love them.

Every year I watch the red carpet and wait for a glimpse of one of my favorite stars: either of the ladies Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Boyer, James Mason, or Grace Kelly. Every year I remember they’re all dead. So, I watch for the living legends, most of whom look like they hate taking that ruby stroll and for good reason. Is there anything more awkward and creepy than red carpet interviews? The usually so smooth he glistens George Clooney looks terribly uncomfortable standing next to his silent date who he claims doesn't speak English (I know he grows these women in a lab on his property at Lake Como and someday I'll prove it. I'll prove it!). On the other hand, Sherri Shepherd interviews an extremely affable Jeff Bridges. He either knows he’s got the Oscar in the bag, or The Dude is high. My favorite red carpet moment this year came from that seasoned broadcast journalist Kathy Ireland who, after assigning Miley Cyrus the status of “major movie star,” asked her, “How do you like drama?” Well, Miley is seventeen, so I’m assuming she really really likes it.

We should all go to (enter your chosen place of worship) on (enter your day of worship) and thank (enter your chosen deity) that ABC allowed for only a half hour of red carpet coverage.

Finally the show begins.

7:32 It's Doogie! When F. Scott Fitzgerald made that crack about there being no second acts in American life he never bargained on Neil Patrick Harris. The guy has flowed through the second stage of his career on a river of moxie and pluck. What’s not to love?

7:40 First Katherine Bigelow sighting. There are a lot of things to say about Katherine Bigelow, but I find myself straying toward the superficial. The woman is 58 years old. Fifty-eight! And her face seems plastic surgery resistant. Surely she has found the fountain of youth. Thank God, she’s no longer married to James Cameron or he’d probably buy it, hang a green screen around it and make a 3D movie about Ponce de Leon and the isle of Bimini starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo would float around in there hanging on to a piece of Ponce’s sinking ship getting younger and younger until he turned into a blossom from the Tree of Souls.

7:48 “That’s a Bingo!” Cristoph Waltz wins Best Supporting Actor for Inglorious Basterds. The guy is pure, articulate class. Humble, soft spoken, charming, not likely to star in a Twilight movie, it’s only a matter of time before an angry mob carries him to the top of the Hollywood sign and hurls him back to Austria with a giant sling shot.

7:50 The Blind Side is introduced. It’s the gooey great story of how Leanne Tuohy and family adopt future NFLer Michael Oher and all is made right with the world. I liked the movie. It’s got football, a wiseacre little kid, and lots of great movie lines like “I'm in a prayer group with the D.A., I'm a member of the NRA and I'm always packing” and “Who would've thought we'd have a black son before we met a Democrat?” Though after reading the book upon which it is based, the neat little package the movie wraps up and ties with a bow might be Tuohy good to be true. Hmm....

8:05 District 9 is introduced. This movie disturbed me more than Mama Mia, and I didn’t think that was possible. There have been a lot of films starring man’s inhumanity to everything, but this one was a kick in the head. If an alien ship ever parks over the Earth, I hope it’s over Minnesota because we’d be a lot nicer to them. We’d give them all a hot dish and a warm coat. We’d ask, “So where are you from?” and when they told us they were from a galaxy far far away, we’d be polite enough to respond, “I’ve heard it's really nice there. Do you know Han Solo?”

8:17 What is this? It’s Ferris Bueller and Sam from Sixteen Candles! This treat quickly turns somber when I realize the only reason Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald would be sharing the stage at The Oscars is to pay tribute to John Hughes. For my generation, watching the montage of Hughes’ films is like watching home movies. My whole adolescence passes before me. Then 7/10 of the Brat Pack fills the stage and it’s back to stark reality. Yikes. Life really does move pretty fast.

8:30 Why is the woman who won for Best Documentary Short wearing the parachute from elementary school gym class? Oh well. To each her own, but I bet it would be really fun to get under there and watch it billow. Maybe not.

8:43 Jeff Bridges introduces The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. If The Dude met the guy from A Serious Man, he’d probably say, “Hey, nice marmot!” (I know that makes no sense, but who doesn’t quote from The Big Lebowski when a chance falls right in your lap?)

8:54  Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall are introduced. They, along with John Calley and Gordon Willis received their Academy of Governors Awards at a ceremony held at an earlier date. This is the first year the honorary Oscars have not been handed out at the big show. So, if I’m understanding this correctly we're treated to ten minutes of interpretive dance, a salute to horror movies, and an hour and a half of commercials, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman only get to stand up for two seconds to some half-hearted applause. Shame on you Academy.

8:59 Mo’Nique wins best supporting actress for Precious. If you think Precious is a devastating tale then you didn’t see the very last Barbara Walters Oscar Special. It’s impossible for me to engage in Mo’Nique’s well deserved moment after her life secrets were revealed during her candid chat with Barbara. Reader, this may not be appropriate for children. Please send the kids to the kitchen for some high fructose corn syrup while we discuss this controversial revelation. Mo’Nique suffers from extreme hairiness, a condition that precludes her from putting razor to shin. It’s a cruel world that does this to an Oscar winner. Barbara’s cameras captured a shot of the poor woman’s downy gams. I turn away. It’s just not fair. Inside I’m screaming, “I can help you Mo’Nique! Mo’Nair! Mo’Nair!”

9:28 “Ladies and Gentlemen Elizabeth....Banks”? Jeez, from the swelling music and the enthusiastic announcing I expected Elizabeth Taylor or at least Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

9:38 In Memoriam. Is it just me Reader, or do you think it’s kind of ratty when some of the people in the memorial segment get a bigger hand than others? Everyone’s clapping like crazy for Michael Jackson who had very little to do with the film industry, but writer Larry Gelbert gets only a modest ovation and producer Simon Channing Williams gets nothing? Maybe the Academy should instruct the audience to stay silent until the end, or if some gesture of appreciation is really necessary, they could do the wave. It’s inclusive and quiet.

9:54 Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper are presenting together. The only thing I can think of that these two have in common is they’ve each shared about fifteen tabloid covers with Jennifer Aniston. Oh come on Reader, you stare at them in the checkout line too. Everyone does. What else are you going to look at? The batteries and chapstick?

9:58 The following statement was simply genius. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: Find out if history will be made tonight in the competition for Best Director. Will it be the first woman, or the first African-American? Or will one of you three white guys win and totally screw up our chance for a “moment”? Because we all know the best way to ease racial and gender tensions is to pit these groups against each other at a self aggrandizing Hollywood awards show. 

10:01 Oh Matt Damon, how I would love to stare at you longingly with lust in my heart if only you didn’t resemble my nephew Jesse so much. Gross. Moving on.

10:25 Best Actor! Come on Dude!!!!

What is going on here? We’ve got five people delivering what sound like eulogies. No wait. I think they’re introducing Nobel Prize winners. Nope, false alarm, just acting awards.

10:32 After five nominations starting with 1971’s The Last Picture Show, The Dude Finally Abides. Yes.

10:47 After five more eulogies of the female persuasion, Sandra Bullock wins for playing Erin Brokovich! I mean Leanne Tuohy in The Blind Side. Good speech Sandy, nice dress, very funny. Well done. It's getting late.

10:52 Now, you can sometimes tell that the Academy has a feeling about who’s going to win by who they pick to present a particular award. If they didn’t think Katherine Bigelow was going to win Best Director, they wouldn’t have trotted Barbra Streisand, who was totally snubbed for The Prince of Tides, out there to give it to her. Finally, a woman has won for Best Direction. I really want to say something profound right now, but looking at her, all 58 years of casually mussed hair and toned arms, all I can say is get Katherine Bigelow off the podium and into isolation. That woman’s genes must be coded for study. Stat!

10:58 Did Tom Hanks go rogue and neglect to announce the nominees for Best Picture or were they held for time? Who cares? The Hurt Locker wins!!!!

Pull curtain. Nights like these, I'm glad I watch in the central time zone.
Reader, it may sound like I’m a harsh critic of The Academy Awards, but next March nothing will keep me from watching them again and every year until I join my favorite stars in movie theater heaven. Why? Because I love the movies and if celebrating them means sitting through a sometimes silly ceremony every year, I'll gladly do it. I would spit shine the Oscar statuettes if they asked me to because since the first audience sat wide eyed in the Nickelodeon, movies have been a panacea for the broken heart, the empty pocket, or the unquiet mind, and I am grateful for them.

For a couple of hours we can let our troubles sleep while we sit in the dark with our dreams. We know the ruby slippers won’t take us home; we know leaving the gun and taking the cannoli is not the best idea; we board the Titanic even though we know it’s going to sink, and sometimes our breakfast at Tiffanys sticks in our throat, but we keep showing up outside that window. Maybe we won’t always have Paris, but when Bogie says we will we believe him, and even though we know Tara is but a facade, like Scarlet we eat the radishes at dawn hoping they’ll fill us with what we need.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life in Uniform: Second Tour of Duty

All names have been changed except for Gertie and God.

I felt two uncooked T-bone hands on my shoulders: meaty, bony, and clammy at once. They pushed me into a chair in the anteroom of the principal’s office and held my head back. My eyes, still trying to adjust from being dragged indoors out of the sun and snow, could barely make out the white halo Sister Pauline’s habit formed around her face. She was the only nun in school who wore the habit, and oddly that tradition made her seem eccentric. I tasted blood in my mouth and thought I would vomit but had enough wits about me to realize that I liked The Flying Nun’s habit better. Nothing in my imagination could make me believe that this nun looming over me with -- what was it, concern or boredom? -- had any qualities in common with Sister Bertrille breezing through Puerto Rican skies rendezvousing with beautiful Carlos for high jinks and flirtation hardly befitting a woman of her station. This was nothing like that. No laugh track, no handsome Puerto Rican.

I’d been playing on The Hill. The Hill was a mountain of snow that appeared each year thanks to the plows that cleared the parking lot of Bishop Baraga Central Grade School. The Hill was the best spot to play despite its turn from snowy benignity to icy menace during the schizophrenic thaws and freezes of an Upper Peninsula winter. The student body regularly sported bumps and bruises thanks to The Hill, but on this day I had taken a grave dive and broken the fall with my face.

There was blood from my nose to my moon boots, but Sister Pauline, astute as a spatter analyst, sussed out the problem in seconds and clamped two fingers on the bridge of my nose like a vise cranked too tight. “Better?” she asked. I sat there silent for a few minutes thinking, No, not really. “Better,” she announced and declared my convalescence complete. The whole time she only spoke two words to me, actually, the same word twice. She turned me loose and I attempted to balance my head on my neck. It was better, no bleeding, no pain. If you look carefully, you can see a slight difference in my nose in pictures pre and post fall. I’m convinced I broke my nose that day and Sister’s quick thinking, two-fingered rhinoplasty kept me from looking like the losing end of a bare-knuckled brawl.

Because she saved my face and because, as the years passed, I learned that her quiet ways and austere style were representative of a deep devotion to a spiritual life and an enviable discipline, I asked Sister Pauline to be my confirmation sponsor. I was eighteen and sorely lacking in discipline or devotion. I needed Sister Pauline to help me get “better” again. The day I asked if she would honor me with her sponsorship, she simply smiled and said, “Yes.” I loved her. She’s gone now, but I think she’s watching over me because during punishing times I can hear her ask, “Better?” and when I’ve worked to put myself back together again, there’s no mistaking the sound of her humble certainty: “Better.”

Sacraments are, to use the parlance of a Catholic education, a heck of a big huge deal. There’s baptism, first reconciliation, first communion, confirmation, marriage, and holy orders (Those two are mutually exclusive unless you want to participate in the informal sacrament of “raging scandal that will follow you forever, possibly straight to Hell.”) and the anointing of the sick, formerly known as last rites. Try to stay away from that final one Reader until it’s absolutely necessary.

Reconciliation and first communion were paired in the same school year. Before we could even think about receiving communion, lots of practice went into our virgin visits to the confessional. We learned our acts of contrition; we knew the protocol of who said what to whom; our transgressions were locked and loaded and ready to fire. The night our class filed into the cathedral we all took a seat in a single pew; we were a chain gang linked together by nervous complexions and sin. We had a choice; we could talk to the priest behind the confessional screen or face to face. I was wary of the whole scene, but when my number came up I decided the only way to do it was face to face. If this man was going to judge, absolve, and sentence me, he wasn’t going to do it from behind a screen. He was going to see my 2nd grade hands shaking and my pathetic trembling lower lip. The problem was I had nothing to say. Later years would tell another story, but at that time I was a pretty good kid. I didn’t really do anything worth confessing other than act like a brat once in a while. I didn’t think with all the planning and getting dressed up and everything, saying I was a brat was really worthy of the occasion. This was a big show and it deserved a grand finale.

I walked in and sat in the chair opposite Father Louis. He looked at me. I looked at him. He squinted a little my way. I raised an eyebrow. He lowered his head and stared up at me. I turned in my chair and gave him a little of the hairy eye. He folded his hands in front of him and blinked deliberately. I thrust out my chin and flared my nostrils. This wasn’t my first reconciliation; it was a Sergio Leone movie. Suddenly I started to speak in tongues. Whose tongue? I don't know. It wasn't my tongue. I told stories of rotten things that I never did. “I stole Gertie’s girdles and hid them under the insulation in the attic for a week. She’s still itching. Instead of putting my quarter in the collection basket I took two out so I could buy Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I spit in the water fountain. I cheat at Candy Land all the time. I cheat on spelling tests too even when I know the words. I just like to cheat. I’m a big cheater Father Louis. I hide my vegetables in my napkin and throw them in the garbage even though Mrs. Bessinger told us to give thanks for our food and pray for those poor kids in China with no rice. I pinched my nephew to see if he’d cry" (well that one’s true), on and on it went. Father Louis, who knew me well, in fact he was at our house for dinner three times a week, was wise to me. He let me go on for a while, probably for the sheer entertainment of it all. “Ali” he finally interrupted, as I was about to confess to murder, “take a breath and go say five Hail Marys.” I asked him if I should still say my Act of Contrition. “Might as well.” So I did and went back to the pew to beg forgiveness for all my imaginary misdeeds. Later I found out that I had stayed in the confessional longer than anyone and subsequently developed a reputation for being a very sinful child.

On deck was first communion. It is a profoundly important sacrament, but kids rarely realize that until much later. For a little girl, the day is all about the dress. I had seen pictures of girls in their miniature wedding dresses at their first communion. A little creepy? Sure. But it was a chance to wear layers of lace and crinoline and maybe even a veil! I’d still like to know who had the swell idea of dressing us all as identical alter boys when it was my turn for first communion. All the pretty scenes in my head faded. I was foiled by uniforms again. In this case the cliché is solid: a picture says a thousand words. Witness, if you will, Reader the great joy I was feeling on that day.

By virtue of being a parochial school we had our religious education during the school day, but because the public schools were not full service stations, their Catholic kids came to our classrooms every Wednesday night for catechism. The third grade thug who sat in my chair repeatedly tested my willingness to share and my patience. After several Thursday mornings of finding the contents of my desk a maelstrom of loose papers, I decided, “let go and let God” wasn’t working. It was time to “fight dirty and finish it.” The following Wednesday as I packed my bag at the end of the day I sneaked a note in my desk that read: “If you touch my Trapperkeeper one more time I’ll put a curse on this desk and the next time you sit in it you’ll probably die. That’s the truth because they teach us that stuff here.”

Sister Celine was my teacher that year. She looked and acted like her holy orders came courtesy of Quantico. For no good reason, she terrified me, and to this day I suffer post traumatic stress when I try to do math. My note had found its way from my desk to hers, and I felt like I was going to find my way from where I stood to a spot in Baraga’s tomb down by the lunchroom.

Sister Celine asked, “Alex, what is this?” No one called me Alex. She waved the paper back and forth. I imagined death by a thousand paper cuts.
“Well, what Alex?” That name…
“That’s a note.”
“A note to whom?”
“To that jerk that uses my desk for catechism.”
“What kind of a note is it Alex?” Wow, she could really put an edge on that “x”.
Sister Kelly of the Divine Spelling Words had done wonders for my confidence two years earlier, and I replied only a little tremulously, “It’s the first warning” and jumped a couple of quick steps back.
I believe I saw Celine the marine stifle a laugh. “What kind of shape was your desk in this morning?”
“Pretty good.”
She crumpled the paper and dropped it in the wastebasket. “Well Alex, I guess it worked.”

Those nuns were loose cannons, wild cards, question marks. I never knew what to make of them. Just when I thought I had pushed one to the limit, she would come to my rescue. On the one hand they frightened me, but I also admired them so much it made me consider putting on a habit myself for a minute. Then one day I took a good long look at Patrick Jarvis. Nope, the habit wasn’t going to be my bag.

Sixth grade was my final year at Bishop Baraga and it was all about change. It’s not that I can’t handle change, I just feel the best way to approach it is to imagine it’s a porcupine perched on a cactus clutching a bouquet of poison ivy and maybe a loaded gun. I was all nerves and suspicion. Our class moved from the lower wing of the school to the upper wing where all middle school kids lived. We had to cross the hall TWICE to change classes, trade in our jumpers for skirts and vests, and play Sisyphean games of kickball on a slanted field where low man on the totem pole spent every recess chasing the ball downhill through half of South Marquette just to see it kicked back there when the next player was up. My junior ulcer was just starting to hint around my stomach when the flier for basketball was handed out with the lunch menu one day. I brushed it aside like a math assignment and thought no more about it until the coach called our house a few days later to inquire why I hadn’t signed up. Apparently they needed eleven girls to make a team and there were eleven girls in our class. That math problem I could do and the answer was, “Oh s***, I have to play basketball.”

I had just cut loose of my Brownie uniform after enduring the churning of butter at one meeting (a pointless activity when there's an A&P a block away) and being forced to bob for apples at another meeting (unsanitary, humiliating, and gross). Now, I was donning yet another uniform to play a sport for which I had only a rudimentary understanding. We were the Baraga Colts. I felt like an ass. I knew you had to get the ball in that basket, but beyond that I was lost and no one thought it prudent to whip out an English to Basketball dictionary and help me brush up my vocabulary. Practices were fun but games left me cold. I did get to ride on the bus to exotic locales in Michigan like Ishpeming, Escanaba, Gwinn, and Negaunee. My uniform never suffered a crease or a sweat ring as I became well acquainted with the benches in every school, but when I was called in for a minute or two at the end of a game I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. Every time a ref called a five second penalty I figured it had to be me even though I was nowhere near the ball. What was a five second penalty? I figured it meant I couldn’t play for five seconds, so I would stand perfectly still in whatever position I found myself in and count to five before I started aimlessly wandering the court again. I cannot imagine why a coach, ref, some parent, MY parents didn’t ask why I was out there playing freeze tag while the rest of the girls were playing basketball. The only time I ever got my mitts on that ball was in the team picture. I think the coach felt sorry for me and threw me a bone, which I of course dropped and had to chase across the gym.

As surprisingly as it began with uniforms laid out on a six year old girl’s bed, my Catholic School career ended when my parents decided to enroll me in public school for two years before high school. I had fought going to Bishop Baraga; six years later leaving was unthinkable, but again, the decision wasn’t mine. School became a building after that and never again felt like a home.

My years in Catholic School taught me to speak up and fight back. They taught me that if you yell “Animal killer!” when your third grade teacher steps on a bug she will walk out and a very unhappy nun principal will take over the class for the day, and that’s not fun for anybody. I found that walking by Bishop Baraga’s tomb on the way to lunch every day is only scary for a couple of years and then you get over it. I discovered what it was to be part of a team even if I felt like I was playing a different game. I realized I could take a fall, get bloodied, and get up again. And Reader, in case you’re wondering, I did learn something about my religion. I learned about compassion, social justice, forgiveness, mercy, and that good works matter as much as ritual, all the things so often overlooked in the critical observation of the dos, the do nots, and dogma.

By example, the nuns and priests that influenced my early education, both religious and academic, showed me that you don’t have to worry and wring your hands all the time, that contrary to popular belief, Catholicism doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of making its members feel like crap about themselves. I know everyone’s experience is different and I can only speak to mine, but I never understood the phenomenon called Catholic Guilt. I’ve never felt it in my life. Kloster Guilt? For sure. But none of my teachers ever talked about guilt. I was taught that if you feel bad about something: pray, think, figure it out, and make it right. I certainly was never ordered to wallow in it. Perhaps most importantly, I was encouraged to discover that conformity does not equal holiness; we may have all been in uniform but our teachers wanted us to realize how unique each soul and mind were and that striving to reveal our purpose for being in this world brings us nearer to God than anything. I think maybe the old snowshoe priest Bishop Baraga would be pretty happy we were taught to be our best and most authentic selves. Could be that’s what he had in mind for us all along.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Life in Uniform: First Tour of Duty

All names have been changed except for Gertie and God.

“I have to go where? And I have to wear a what?” There were two plaid uniforms laid out on my bed all crispy pleats and vomit green. My mother was standing next to them in a rapture like they’d just sprung from a burning bush or a parted sea. How could a charmed life go bad so fast? I cast a fleeting glimpse over at my closet full of various Healthtex and Oshkosh B’Gosh ensembles; I could hear them weeping. Could it be true? Were they already reduced to but a tragic reminder of the Old World before the Fall? My father appeared in the doorway and gestured toward the offending jumper and slacks/vest combinations. “What do you think of those, Ducky?” he asked with absurd enthusiasm.

Ohhhhhh, Conspiracy! That’s what I thought. When, I asked, had they decided to stage this coup to put me in a Peter Pan collar? When had they chosen to raze the street cred I had worked so hard building up in Public School Kindergarten? What kind of a long con were they playing on me? Don’t all Catholic parents yearn for one son to become a priest? They had no sons, so it was one youngest daughter to the nunnery. In my short six years I had developed a fairly seasoned temper, but this was a unique rage. I crossed the length of my bedroom in calm measured steps, leveled a dark glare at my mother, surely the mastermind of this black plot, shrieked “Forget it!”And slammed the door on the whole affair.

Two weeks later I was headed to Bishop Baraga Central Grade School (now called Father Marquette). I had one year of glorious normalcy, and now I was riding through the streets of town in a big yellow bus full of green plaid. We looked like a traveling Spanish omelet. Jesus was taking the wheel, but I dreamed of being a six-year-old hijacker.

After a rousing discussion one night about the Protestant Reformation or the Protestant Revolution as I fought for the right to call it, conversation inevitably wound its way around to Catholic School horror stories. After class I approached my professor’s desk. “Roy,” I asked, (we were on pretty casual terms since we sang in the same church choir and he knew my dad) “Am I the only person in the world who really liked Catholic School?”

He paused for a second. “Maybe you’re not the only one. Maybe you’re the only one who will admit it.”

“Well. That’s something. You know what I always say about you Roy? I’ve always said, ‘That Roy’s got all the big answers.’” He shook his head and rubbed his eyes underneath his glasses as he so often did while talking to me.

I collected my James Hogg from my desk (We were reading Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a title I thought was full of such pride and hilarity it made Roy rub his eyes under his glasses some more.) slung my bag around my neck and started out when he looked up, “Hey! Little girl. Stop with the petitions to end class early every time it starts snowing, and…don’t walk away…. stop sneaking out at break. You have a big mouth. You think I don’t know when it’s missing? Are you sure you went to Catholic School?” He always asked me that when he was unimpressed with my behavior. Little did he know I wouldn’t have had that mouth without Catholic School, but more about that later.

“Roy, it’s a three hour and fifty minute class…” He held up his hand in dismissal.
“Fine. Fine, fine, fine, I’ll stay,” I grumbled all the way down the hall and out into the snow.

“Fine. Fine, fine, fine, I’ll stay,” I grumbled all the way down the hall to the first grade classroom. Were those "Peter Paul and Mary" tunes I heard drifting from the record player in the corner? And was I crazy or did Miss Wyncoop smell of perfume and peach pie? So far this wasn’t a total disaster. After all, all old Mrs. Julius did last year was play "Skip to My Lou" on the piano for hours while we went round and round the room in a circle that I found nauseating and pointless.

After a brief meet and greet, we got down to the business of coloring pictures of what we thought Jesus might look like (sadly most of the rainbow of crayons stayed in the box). In music class, Mrs. Donen taught us a song called, “Hi God, How Do You Feel Today?” The beat wasn’t bad, but considering I was in God’s school and He was my host, shouldn't He be asking me how I'm feeling? It would be more polite for sure. In Art Class more pictures of Jesus only with paint and a very limited palette. At this rate I thought, by Halloween we’ll be out of crayons and paint to show how blue Jesus’ eyes were and how California blonde his hair was. It was a rather inauspicious beginning to what I would come to believe were the most valuable six years of my life. 

When my parents asked me how that first day went I’d like to think I answered something whip smart like, “Redundant, a little ethnocentric, and a touch xenophobic,” but I’m pretty sure I just said, “Fine,” and handed them my pictures of Surfer Jesus.

Obviously our religious education wasn’t terribly complex during those first years. We learned some prayers, some bible stories, that Jesus told us to love one another, and that he was "The King of the Jews," which I found fascinating since we were all called Catholics. What was going on with that? It was that last bit of  information that I wish had been explained to me in a little more depth. For it led to the most traumatic event of my life since the presentation of the uniforms: “The Dinner Table Incident.”

Reader, you’re going to get the wrong idea about “The Dinner Table Incident” unless I first provide you with some exposition about my grandmother Gertrude Belle Fenwick who lived with us from a time before I was born, until I was eighteen when she passed away at the enviable age of 94. Gertie was born in the corseted belly of the American Victorian Period. She kept a white knuckled grip on that era her entire life. She appeared every morning in full regalia: stockings (not pantyhose), heels, dress, jewels, perfectly coifed hair, the proper amount of rouge for a lady in the daytime, and fully powdered.

Two things she would never do in mixed company were, appear in her dressing gown or speak politics and religion. Tactless! Profanity never passed her lips. Tasteless! As my father like to joke, Gertie needed an engraved invitation to appear at the dinner table and only after she was served the requisite cocktail and hors d'oeuvres. She was never thrilled her only daughter converted to Catholicism. The only time she stepped foot in the Cathedral was for my sister’s wedding and then she suffered a “spell” from the incense. It may sound like she was intolerant and as stiff as the generation from which she came, but she just had her own ways about her. She was unbelievably artistic and kind, which is why I felt so bad when she found out how stupid I was.

At our dinner table children were invited to speak but mainly encouraged to listen, so it came as a bombshell to everyone one night when I, still chewing on the incredible information I’d learned that day about Jesus, tried to impress my grandmother by declaring, “So Gertie, you’re a Jew, huh?” Except for the sound of utensils falling to plates, there was silence. What had I said? I looked around and everyone was looking at Gertie who had a lock stare on me. Suddenly I remembered that Gertie didn’t talk about these things, especially while dining, and in mixed company. I wasn't sure what mixed company was, but I was pretty sure I was in it. I tried to explain that I knew we were Catholics and Gertie wasn’t one, so she must be Jewish because that’s all there was. Right?

Everyone gawked at my ignorance like they were going to either bust out laughing or they needed a drink. I’m half Russian on my dad’s side, so I was prepared start offering libations to escape my circumstances if necessary. I could open a bottle of Vodka and pour, directly into the mouth if no other receptacle like a shoe or a frozen glove was available. I’d heard a lot of stories about life in the Old Country.

Gertie sat up real strait. “I am a Protestant. In particular, my family is Presbyterian. We are neither Catholic nor are we Jewish. For that indeed is not all there is young lady and attending that school as you do, you should know that.” I mumbled something about learning that next year. I was embarrassed by everything I thought I knew but didn’t. Protestant? My head was bobbling off my neck. I leaned over to my mom and through tears whispered, “But that’s cheese!” My mom assured me I was thinking of Parmesan, and that I would learn that there were lots of fine different religions and not to worry about it right then.

Much later it dawned on me that Gertie was proud of her family, her religion, and everything about her life that had been absorbed and mostly forgotten by living with “The Klosters.” It wasn’t easy to live with us and be anyone but "one of us." I remember going to bed that night and giving some serious thought to religion. I wasn’t even really sure what a Catholic was, and I was one. How was I expected to know what Jews and Parmesans were? Maybe I should keep my mouth shut until I knew a thing or two about a thing or two.

If it weren't for my mouth I could have had such peace, but it got me into trouble at school as well. There were only four nuns and no priests teaching at Bishop Baraga when I was a student there. Not one of them ever hit me with a ruler, though the metric system did just about kill me and I’m still asking, for what? However I did clash with one nun in particular for a little while. Sister Kelly terrified me then, but now I wish I could find her and give her a big wet kiss on the mouth to which she would probably respond, “Skinny Jean! Get a grip on yourself!”

At home I never shut up, but in early elementary school I had no voice. I was shy, quiet, unassuming, and was plenty happy to blend into the cream-colored cement block walls. Sister Kelly would have none of this. She stuck me in the front row and demanded, no commanded, that I realize my right to be heard. She called everyone Toots or Curly Sue, or Skinny Jean or some nicknames of that ilk because I don’t think she had any idea what our actual names were. Did it matter? Her name wasn't really Sister Kelly. During the first several weeks of the school year, Sister would ask me to recite words out of our speller. She knew I hated this.

I’d start reading, swallowing my words and barely taking a breath, “alligator, panda, camera…”
“Louder Toots"
“alligator, panda, camera…
“alligator………pan….” My eyes were tearing up and I couldn’t see the words.
“CAN ANYONE HEAR HER?” Murmurs of “no” floated behind me.

It would go on that way until finally she’d call on someone else, but I knew the next day would bring the same burden of embarrassment and an anger that I was having more and more difficulty holding in.

“Alligator, Panda, Camera…” I was starting to hate all alligators, pandas, and cameras.
I tried harder. “ALLIGATOR…panda, camera…”

That was it.

The temper I had at home, the voice I had at home found its way to school like a dog on his master’s scent and it sniffed out that mean old nun and bit.

“ALLIGATOR! PANDA! CAMERA! CLEVER! EXTRA! FELLOW!” I shouted out all the spellings words on the list. “AND I HAVE A NAME SISTER KELLY AND IT’S NOT TOOTS! I screamed at her in class. Surely I’d be taking the walk of shame to the office to see Sister Pauline and Sister Carol Rene.

Those nuns, they're unpredictable. Sister Kelly just looked at me. Then without a word she walked to her desk and pulled out a whole sheet of gold stars from the drawer and stuck it inside the front cover of my speller and said very quietly, “Nice work, Skinny Jean." Then she winked! I'd never even seen her smile. I love that woman for pushing me when everyone else had let me slide by because I was small and shy. I’ve never been afraid to speak in public since. She made me hear my own voice, and I liked the sound of it. Maybe too much. She never did call me “Ali” once.

Next week: a smack in the head, first confession, death threats, first communion, enforced basketball, and two-fingered rhinoplasty. Make no mistake, these were heady times Reader. I couldn’t possibly go on without a short rest.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Princess at Five O'Clock

I think I might be ill: a bit of the fever, a smattering of the hives, a touch of the vertigo, a dash of the I have to buy a new phone today.

It’s the malady of the technologically panicked, and every time I think my convalescence is complete, another version, another generation of the iGerm infects me. Like any 21st century woman, I take to my bed. And you bet, if I had a fainting couch, I’d take to my fainting. Sadly eyeing my beige 1970s Princess rotary phone on my nightstand, I know what’s ahead of me. I have to do it. I have to storm the beach, head into the breach, get close enough to those cell phones to see the whites of their eyes.

This isn’t my first iBattle. My debut cell phone was an almost perfect fit for a slightly time warped girl like me. I’d compare it to two orange juice cans connected with a string; the sort we used to rig up around the neighborhood in the ‘70s so we could talk to each other in that clandestine way eight year olds do.

“Hi, what are you doing?”
“Nothing, what are you doing?”
“Kay, bye.”

When I'd whip out my Minute Maid/Virgin Mobile this century’s iMobs of eight year olds would point and stare. "What’s that?” they’d sneer. “It’s my phone. You wanna put up your dukes and talk about it like men?” I’d remind myself of the three decades I have on them and run away as fast as I could, peals of laughter in my wake. I’m sure they tweeted to the world (that’s what they do, right?) about the old lady talking into the orange juice can.

People look at my Princess phone like it’s an attraction in a freak show or a goiter. Their fingers get positively arthritic when they try to place a call. All their dexterity and muscle control has gone to their thumbs. “Get rid of it. It’s past its prime. It’s purely decoration.” Oh really? Would you say that to a guy tapping his toes to the engine roar of his Pontiac GTO? What kind of sad sack dance would that guy do if you made him take a trade for a minivan? Even if the minivan was also a digital recorder, sent texts and tweets (that still doesn’t sound right) and let you watch next day episodes of Lost?

There’s something about the Princess’ clumsy, tinny ring that's more an invitation than a command. It doesn’t ring often, but we do have a rendezvous every day at just about five o’clock. It’s a Princess subterfuge bamboozle. We perpetrate it on the newspaper salesman who wants my business in the worst way. He’s apparently the only one who got a hold of this unlisted royalty’s number. I know his ring by heart. It sounds like the past. I answer it and coo, “I couldn’t possibly make a decision until I speak with my husband. Won’t you call back tomorrow?”

“Of course Ms. Kloster.” And he does. Every day. On goes my siren song. 

I turn over in bed and on my other side sits my Blackberry. Yes, at some point I did graduate from oranges to berries. Cover your ears if they’re tender, but I hate that bitch. It’s been wicked since the day I got it. Do you know how many butter knives I’ve destroyed opening its trunk and switching out the battery just to make it run? All of them. Now where do I go to find a place that will sell me a phone and give me a free set of flatware? That’s right, 1978.

I remember the first time I even heard of a Blackberry. I was walking by the television during a Destiny’s Child interview, and I heard someone, either Destiny or Child, say she was addicted to her Blackberry. I swear by all that is rotary, I thought she was referring to lip-gloss. How nice I thought, that Destiny and her children still appreciate the simple things.

One foot in front of the other I make my way to the T-Mobile store. Why is that boy walking toward me so fast? He's practically galloping. I told Graham I should learn some Kung Fu or something living in these crazy times.

“Hi! I’m Shane!” he bellows at me coming precariously close to too close.
“Of course you are.”
“Well, you’ve got your thing there on your…” I point to his shirt.
“Oh, Ha! HA-HA!”

He laughs like Dane Cook just appeared with a mic. and a stool. I hate to tell you Shane, but it’s not going to be that much fun.

“What kind of phone are you in the market for today?”
“ohhhhhh…one that saves on butter knives."
“Are you looking for a smart phone?”
“What the hell?”
“Because we can get you online and we’ve got some great new apps.”
“What do you like in an..app”.
“I know. It’s weird, I get sleepy this time of year too.”
“No. APP”
 "I love calamari. Order it everywhere I go."
“Hey man, I just need a phone. I don't want to work here."

Apps, naps, and squid aside, I’m wondering if Shane’s over 18. If I kicked him in the shins, would it be child abuse or regular old assault? I'm not comfortable with all these questions I don’t know the answers to. I try to take the lead this time.

“Ok, this is what I want Shane. If I’m in the middle of the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.... No Shane, it does have two parts. No, it does. It does! See, look at my hands.”

“Ohhhh yeah, the mitten and the other thing. The mitten has more than one finger in the middle though, right? Or is that the peninsula you’re talking about?”

“Today, it’s just my finger Shane. Now what I want to know is will I have a strong enough signal to call my mom or a tow truck if I’m in the middle of the woods in Michigan or even Wisconsin? I’m aware you can get me a phone that will lure forest creatures from their hiding places and let me shoot deer without a license, but all I want to do is make a call if I have a flat tire, and I swear Shane, if you tell me my phone will change my tire…”

“Let me see what we have for you.” Shane hustles to the back of the store clearly faster than he needs to. Maybe he’s going for backup.

“Shane---Come Back! Shane!” I yell as he hurries away. He turns quizzically.

“Nothing. Just a joke.” Why am I tossing a 1953 Alan Ladd movie reference at this kid? I start to consider the possibility that my material needs an update before I realize I’m alone in this creepy place. Guess all the geniuses already have their smart phones because I’m the only dope in the joint. I look around. Everything is shiny and new. It’s all glass, plastic, and materials only my chemical engineer husband could identify.

I really need some dust and something made of wood to smell or touch or….eat. Is the only thing old around here me?! The lights are making my eyes twirl, and I’m positive all the smiling phones with faces attached to them are sending me subliminal signals. In preparation for this outing I had a vitamin and a Pepsi, but they have yet to take effect. I start to sway a little. “Ohhhh Jimmy Stewart..,,” is my last thought as the vertigo kicks in; the floor drops from under me and then smacks me in the face.

I come to with Shane standing over me.
“Lady? Ma’am?”

Whoa. Better than smelling salts.
“Ma’am! Lady? Shane, please not Ma’am or Lady. I’m no Ma’am. I’m no Lady. Miss or Ali is fine.”

Realizing Miss is not happening for me anymore, he kindly offers, “Let me help you up, Ollie.”

Convinced of my ambulatory status, Shane’s back to business, “Now what network is your mother on?”
“Usually MSNBC. She likes that cute Willie Geist.”
“No I mean...”
“I get it. Her phone is attached to the wall of our kitchen and it’s powered by a line that someone had to either hang high in the sky or bury deep in ground.”
“Well. Um, I still think you’d get a lot of satisfaction from the myTouch.”
“Ha! Now that's comedy."
“Did I say...? What did I…?”
“Satisfaction from the myTouch? Remember that song by the Divinyls? ‘I touch…’ No?”

I am ending this now.

“Shane, wrap it up buddy. You’ve paid your dues. Just wrap ‘er up.”
“How would you like to pay for this, uhhh, Lady, um, Ma’am, Miss, Ollie?”
“Lady Ma’am Miss Ollie? Well, apparently with my prize winning show dog money, Shane.”

I hand him a credit card the likes of which he won’t see for another ten years. What am I saying? He’ll have one more impressive than that in two years, and I’ll be living in a bucket clutching a rotary phone.

I look at my watch. 4:15pm. It’s time to go. I thank Shane for a hard day at the office and leap into my car. That soon to be sacrificed Blackberry starts to sing. A number flashes up I don’t recognize. I answer it. No lie, it’s my mother calling me from Florida on her new cell phone. “I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW WELL I CAN HEAR YOU! CAN YOU HEAR ME TOO? ALI? ALI?”




I’m driving home remembering the days when we’d wait until after five to call long distance and then spend three bucks remarking on how it sounded, “Like you’re right next door!” We weren’t hyper-efficient then. Who cares? We didn’t communicate instantly. Big deal. Text was in books, tweets were in birds, and pictures were in cameras. TV was on TV, movies were at theaters, appointments were in calendars, and if you were lucky, dates were in the back seat. Mail was in the mailbox, and facebook was in third grade when I cuffed Tracey Johnson with my math book just because she was pissing me off. I like everything we have now. I honestly do, but maybe, if we had just a little bit less of it.

Home. Taking the stairs two at a time. I hear the Princess. I lift the receiver gingerly, lovingly. “Hello? I’m sorry sir. You just missed my husband. I know he’s very interested in both a home subscription and an office subscription and possibly even one for the summer home (Please, we have no summer home). You will? You’ll call back tomorrow? Lovely. Have a wonderful evening.” I lie down. With my smart phone still in the bag next to me, I turn away from it and stare at the Princess. Only 23 hours and 45 minutes until the next call. The song remains the same.