Saturday, February 28, 2015

On hearing of the untimely death of a colleague on Valentine's Day; or, losing love

Last night, over drinks I learned a former colleague of mine had died on Valentine's Day. My heart just ached for his widow; it is always hard to lose someone, but to lose someone on a day that celebrates love, that seems impossibly cruel. He kissed her goodbye and headed out for a pre-dawn hike, promising to make it home for an early Valentine's brunch, instead, out walking alone, he had a heart attack on the hiking trail and he never made it home. She knew something was wrong when he missed brunch, because he had never been a man to keep her waiting. 

She is just as heartbroken as you would imagine she should be. I am not sure how you recover from that. As, my friends and I were talking about how you recover from such a loss, I thought about a boy I hadn't thought of for years. 

The first boy I ever kissed was killed in a motorcycle accident before he was old enough to be considered a man. I was 12 when we kissed and 15 when he died. He a mere year and a half older. Twelve seems too young for kissing, and 15 far too young for mourning. But, at twelve my body was older than I was, with new breasts and a budding sexuality that was too new for me to know how to control it. Even at that early age it was obvious that childhood was in my rearview mirror. 

Then, I had little knowledge of the fragility of hearts, and I knew even less about the danger of getting soaked by rain, and nothing of the unavoidable connection between hearts and pain. Innocence and ignorance are the alibis of children, but even now, all these years later, with a thorough knowledge of kissing in the rain, and after living in this body for nearly three more decades, I may still be too young to understand how to mourn. 

I do not remember everything from the day of that kiss, but I do know that it was raining, and I was wet. There is something about the rain, it is a siren song for sensuality. I have not ever been able to resist the seduction of the rain. Perhaps, it is because of this first rainy day so long ago. At my junior high, on rainy days, when it was impossible to play outside, my school offered alternate indoor activities for recesses. There was an inherently awkward dance in the gym, several classrooms with board games, and of course, there was always a darkened classroom showing movies. Without meaning to they were enacting an allegory of love, or at least lust: dances, games, and darkness.

My ultra conservative christian, but well-meaning, parents did not allow me to attend dances: those thrown together at the last minute because of the rain, or those organized by well-meaning adults hoping to usher us (well-chaperoned) into the world of grown up romance. The dances being forbidden, I usually found other things to do. If my parents knew what would happen that day, they'd probably have let me dance.

On that rainy day, he and I were running from classroom to classroom sampling each activity in a restless swirl of unnamed energy. There was no reason to be outside exposed to the rain. The way to and fro was sheltered; there were enough hallways, awnings, and coverings so that a careful child could navigate the sea of classrooms without feeling a drop. But, we chose to walk in the rain without care. But we were not interested in careful, not that day, we alternated between childhood and something older, at times running and recklessly splashing, and then strolling staid and controlled hand-in-hand, exchanging coy glances. 

When we ducked into the darkened classroom showing a movie about wolves and he led me to a sheltered seat in the back of the room, I did not know of his intention. In the flickering darkness, his childish caresses felt more grown up than I was. Now, I know that the difference of 12 and 13 and half in the world of sexual awakening is vast. But then, all I really knew was that all my previous experience with sham "truth or dared" kisses exchanged during pre-adolescent games were but counterfeit kisses, a chaste pressing of lips that was simply a game played by a girl in her mother's shoes. In that classroom, wet from the rain, we kissed with a passion beyond our years. Tapping into something ancient and primal. Our hearts pounding from the danger of being caught, from each other's clumsy touches, and something more.  After that day in the rain, everything was different, I was different.

Years later, on a day too sunny to make death seem real, when I heard that he had died, I felt a sadness that I could not begin to understand. I remember thinking even then, that it should be raining, even if only so that I could have something to blame for my tears. By then, it had been over a year since he had moved away. I had heard whispers of rumors about his becoming a bit of troubled kid, drugs, petty theft and maybe more, enough that I was even grateful that he had moved away, so that I did not have to see his decline. I didn't know enough then, I don't know enough now, and I don't that I will ever know how to feel about this loss, but I do know that I have always felt like I lost something important. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Drowning; or, when farewells are actually goodbye

It was while walking home, running our conversation over in my mind, yet again that I felt my heart break. It was a slow realization as your words washed over me. There was something I could not put my finger on. Something off about your goodbye. I replayed it, like a child who cannot stop thrusting her tongue into the socket of a newly lost tooth: surprised the tooth is gone, fascinated by the empty socket, and secretly enjoying the little stab of pain. As I walked, the day grew darker and darker and it began to rain. I stared up into the gray sky and let the light rain sprinkle onto my face.  I was pleased by the sudden darkening sky and the deluge of winter rains in the middle of what had been a string of lovely days.  I always like it when the weather matches how I feel; this rain made me feel that I was not alone. Even though, I knew that I had never been more so.

I once watched a PBS documentary about rain in which they cataloged the types of rain. I don't remember any names, or even if they had them, but I remember they ranked the types of rain according to their "levels of danger" and their "ability for destruction." They had a graph to measure these things. It was a quantification of destruction from water. It struck me as odd. The narrator, I think it may have been Tim Robbins, said that when you think of destruction your first instinct is to think of the hard pounding rains, the kind with huge drops, that comes in too hard, too black, and too dark, quickly soaking everything, tearing fragile flowers and leaves in a fury. He said that you might think that sort of rain is the most dangerous kind: But you would be wrong. That rain kicks up a fuss but passes quickly and only tears up the ground a bit. It makes a big impression, but aside from some stirred up dirt and crushed flowers it doesn't do much damage, it is the proverbial loud bark with very little bite.

Oh no, the narrator said, the kind of rain that kills you is the steady mist. Deceptive small drops that just keep coming. The kind of rain that lulls you into thinking that you do not need an umbrella or windshield wipers. The kind that makes you think that it is going to stop any second now, and yet never does. The misty rain that comes and comes until it has slowly soaked everything through. It does not feel dangerous. These misty drops. There is no reason to protect yourself or to seek shelter; but, without knowing or realizing it, is has seeped inside you, into your cracks and nooks destroying you from the inside. This rain lasts for far too long, leaving everything damp and moldy. Filling and soaking until finally it cracks the ground, roads, sidewalks, and people. It is this rain that fills the ground until it cannot hold one more drop, not one more, and then finally we look around surprised as the water rises and backs up and seeps from an overly saturated earth to overfill us; the world a flood of puddles, streams, rivers-- water surfeiting the earth, until dams cannot hold, and the water surges to the surface drowning everything in its path.

It was precisely this kind of rain that fell as I walked home. As I walked, I thought about the danger of a light rain and of other things. The most dangerous kind of rain settled softly on my hair slowly soaking through to my scalp and running slightly down into my damp face drowning any tears before I could know they were there. A murder of crows flew overhead; their dark forms momentarily blocking out the gray and shielding me from the rain. I stopped and let them fly over me as I stood still listening to the dark flapping of their collective wings like the sound of the shuffling of a deck of cards, a roulette wheel, the disordered hands of time. After the initial flock had passed over me and I could again see the sky, I stood still my heart pounding in rhythm with their wings, watching the few stragglers flying after, trickling in groups of five, and then three, and then alone. 

Crows are omens of bad luck: Julius Caesar, Cassandra, and so on, beware the Ides of March, Wallace Stevens... oh, but his are blackbirds and I don't remember if they have the same literary symbolic value as crows. I know that it is crows that are harbingers, prescient warnings of destruction, of Death.  And these, above me, were crows. I found the literary symbolism of the startling of crows on a day dark enough to match my mood while walking in the world's most dangerous rain to be a bit much.  But I am trained to make metaphors of everything, and so it was, that I stood there thinking of Wallace Stevens and equipage with a small smile. Still able to revel in the literary setting even as I felt my heart dying in my chest. Even as I knew these signs were for me. I watched the last of them go, staring until they were black specks, and finally nothing, until even the sounds of the last wing's flap was finally absorbed into the grayness of day and the rain, my mind was filled with images of portent and omens, and I remembered the way your farewell sounded like a goodbye, and your suddenly awkward wave, and the way your back looked as you walked away and I turned to run after you. I ran for about a hundred steps and then stopped. Gasping to breathe, to catch hold of my breath, anything, and finding only air, I thought, oh it's too late, it was always too late.

Friday, February 20, 2015

It's a Nerd World; or, Leaving the Door Open

Last night, or maybe yesterday afternoon, I was talking with a friend of mine and as is so often the case these days I was talking about Doctor Who and how I have noticed that it is a "Nerd's World" right now. I confessed that I had once written an essay called "I Hate Space" and then I had to find it, because well, memory is my thing. I had a bit of an existential crises last year when I fell so hard for Doctor Who. I had always placed what I called "Space Fiction" (not its real name, sorry) Science Fiction and Fantasy in a "yeah, not for me" pile. For the most part, it was true. I genuinely did not enjoy my forays into those genres. I remember half-jokingly saying that I don't even know who I am anymore. But people change. I can't say that now I am ready to join a colony on Nerd World, but for once I have left the door open a bit. Anyway, I found the essay and reprinted it below.

I hate space (3 possible reasons why)

I am not all that into space, I'm not really impressed by stargazing, eclipses, or the idea of moon landings, and colonizing Mars.  I hate Star Wars, Star Trek (TNG or otherwise), Space Camp, Shuttle launches, comets, black holes, and rockets; I even hate those little glow-in-the-dark planet/star ceiling decals.  Until I recently found out that if we didn't have a space program there wouldn't be any satellites and I wouldn't be able to watch the Yankees on TV, I was against NASA.  However, I am sad to report, this is a minority opinion. Most people actually think space is cool... okay, I don't get it.  Perhaps, these childhood rememberings of space may help to explain why. 

The space shuttle Challenger exploded on live television.  Like many American school children I was watching, in a classroom. Because Challenger had schoolteacher Christa MCauliffe on board, the first space shuttle disaster hit a lot of teachers hard. It hit my teacher, Mr. Schroeder, right in the gut.  Mr. Schroeder had applied for the opportunity to be in MCauliffe’s unfortunate shoes that day. In fact, he had made it pretty far along in the process and had even had a phone interview by a NASA official.  So, not only was my class completely shocked by what we had just seen, but then we also watched our teacher face his own mortality, and frankly, kind of lose it. I was far too young to grasp what had happened...and that day was not the first time I saw a grown man cry, but it was one of the most awkward. Let's just say that the principal taught our class for the rest of the day. 

In my elementary school, like most elementary schools, there were THOSE guys. You know the ones that were hopelessly dorky, knew everything about science and technology, wore glasses, and had gigantic crushes on Princess Leia. In my hometown, those two boys were James Turk and Jimmy McConnell. I am not completely sure that Jimmy was not the inspiration for Napoleon Dynamite, because he looked and talked just like him. So, nothing against Napoleon, but Jimmy was not my type. James, on the other hand was kinda hot.  Nerd hot, but still: hot.  One day, I had just come from one of those peer-counseling-togetherness-propaganda meetings about being nice to everyone, when my secret and oh-so-shameful attraction to James prompted me to extend myself and I offered to hang out with them. In the middle of the elementary school was a ring of tires suspended by chains attached to cement pylons.  I am not sure what the main idea of this contraption was supposed to be, but to space dorks like Jimmy and James, it became a spaceship. They played there everyday for 9 years Kindergarten through the 8th grade. So, on this day, full of democratic kindness, I sauntered over and asked them if I could play. After a very awkward pause, Jimmy says, "yeah."  I can still see that gleam in his eye as he told me that I could play "Princess Gwan." A character that I imagine that up until that moment had only been a fantasy, and that, now, to this day, in his mind she looks like me at 12. Now, I imagine that Jimmy is still a major dork, but that he has tons of money earned in the days, but that sometimes, late at night, he still jacks off to that image of his Princess Gwan. Anyway, for my part in this game, I had to stand next to the cement pole and act like I was tied up. J & J put me in a position that basically had me standing spreadeagled, with my chest jutting out, while I writhed around a bit, and, of course, every once in a while they would prompt me to cry out in distress. All the while, they flew their ship around through dangerous meteorites and other space dangers. It was so boring I thought I would shoot myself in the face. It was the first time in all my days of recesses that I couldn't wait for the bell to ring and send me back to my classroom. Jimmy and James talked space commander gibberish and mimed different space commander actions all the while ogling my junior high rack. Worst recess ever. Every day for the next two months Jimmy would send James over to ask me if I wanted to play again, but I politely declined, and said, "I needed to play basketball, ‘cause season was starting soon, and my jump shot was really rusty."

Like many children, I watched Star Wars as a child. My brother and I watched together and neither of us was particularly enthralled. But then my Aunt Katherine (yes, I am named for her) sent us a lot of Star Wars toys.  There were light sabers (really just a flashlight with a yellow plastic tube attached), space ships, and action figures. She hadn't seen the movie and she didn't really understand the idea involved, so she sent us Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, and Darth Vader. My brother and I both had crushes on Han Solo, and of course, I wanted to be Princess Leia, so I was not pleased.  In the end, my brother, who was a bit of a jerk, (ask me sometime about "teddy bear boxing" and "Karate in the dark") decided that he wanted to be both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  So that left me to be Obi Wan. Now keep in mind, I was a CHILD. And Obi Wan was old, I mean he was played by Alec Guinness for god's sake; this was no Ewan McGregor Obi Wan. So, I played, but with very little gusto, and well, I had to LOSE all the time. I didn't watch Star Wars again until I was in my early 20s when I dated a guy who turned out to be a bit of a Star Wars fanatic, and NOT a baseball fan, as he led me to believe.  I still didn't like the film--turns out me at five and me at 22 shared similar tastes in film--and when I began to make fun of it Mystery Science 3000 style, we got into a nasty fight and actually broke up.

I can't say that any of that has anything to do with my instant visceral reaction to anything spacey, but, it might. Stranger things have been proven true

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Problem of Valentine's Day; or, love is kind, love is selfish, love is cruel, but lest we forget love is fun

Recently someone asked me I "liked Valentine's Day." To be honest, I had not really thought about that question. Not really. I know the problems with Valentine's Day and why this question exists, but my own answer was not one I had really considered. I am aware that it has a controversial reputation and that the answer to that question is often personal, temporal, and completely reliant on your relationship status. In love? It's a great day. Single? It's an unwelcome reminder. Brokenhearted? It's salt in raw wounds. I understand that, but, if Valentine's Day is about love then perhaps it can--should?--rise above our circumstances?  Love should be love. Romance, something else altogether, and V-Day should offer us a chance to be better, to love better, more broadly and deeply because  it is the people that matter, not the day.

4th Grade
The day before Valentines Day we would make envelopes out of colored paper and decorate them with hearts, flowers, and tiny cupid's arrows. We would tape them to the the front of the desk and wait for them to be filled at the next day's V-Day class party. The next day kids would wander around the class stuffing their cards, candy, and notes into the envelopes. The pretty girls and the cool kids' envelopes would grow fatter and fuller, surfeiting with the tokens of adoration and almost bursting and overflowing. Other kids, the ones who were different, shy, poor, less socially adept, or considered unattractive would remain thin, a flat and empty reminder of the dearth of affection. It was a ritual of public social sorting, One year, there was a girl who didn't get any. She sat in her desk reading a book, pretending not to notice. I watched her furtively wipe away a couple of tears, and even though I was too young to really know why, I just ached for her on her behalf. The next year, I made her three cards and signed other people's names on them. Unfortunately, I know now that some people will always have more than they need, and for others love will be maddeningly precious.

High School
I really, really liked him. I was the daughter of the football coach, the sister of the school jock, and welcome at any cafeteria table. He was not. He was different, For whatever reason my family didn't like him. The only thing he did wrong, I think, was to be less tough, less cool, and less athletic than my family wanted him to be. But, I thought he was perfect. It started with stares in the hallway, and progressed to the exchange of romantic and sexually charged notes, to late night phone calls, and quick clumsy make-out sessions at lunch. When the fullback on the football team found out that Coaches' daughter was making out with a "loser" they took action. The bullying and threats begin and he was told in no uncertain terms that I was "off-limits." I was afraid enough of losing my status that I upheld the ban.  I told him that I didn't want to see him anymore and walked away. That Valentine's Day a dozen roses were delivered to me at my desk in my homeroom. There was only an unsigned note in very familiar handwriting that simply said, "There is no greater sin than turning your back on love." As I read the note, I felt a wave of guilt and remorse. But, I didn't even look at him. I told everyone I didn't know who they were from and just walked away without a second glance. I still wonder how things would have been different if I had been braver.

I remember that it was raining, and I remember that we got soaked. And I remember that we didn't care. We were dressed to go out and there were dinner reservations at the appropriate dark corner table of the perfect restaurant that served those drinks that I loved. We were walking downtown when we were just absolutely soaked in a torrential downpour. It was every cliche of every cheesy love story that has ever been told. And I was dizzy with it. We stopped in the rain and kissed in the middle of the sidewalk as the rain soaked our hair, our clothes. I remember licking droplets that turned to rivulets at his throat. We arrived at the restaurant completely soaked through, wet to our souls. We made it through the drinks and appetizers before he caught my eye and we got up and ran home to bed.

Grad School
I had the kind of broken heart that makes everything hurt. He had hollowed me out and taken everything. It was such a thorough killing that he had left me with barely a shell to curl up in. He was a vampire dressed in professor's clothes and he completely devoured me. My dad drove two hours to pick me up on Valentine's Day and take me to dinner. I was so distraught I was wearing old jeans and an unwashed sweater. He took me to dinner. It wasn't fancy, I think it was a burger place. He bought me a drink and handed me a card, some flowers, and a box of chocolates. I cried the whole time. He just kept telling me that I would get better, things would get better. Every Valentine's since then, my dad has given me a small box of chocolates. I don't have the heart to tell him that I don't like them, because I love them so much.

There is a joy in meeting someone new. There is this contagion of possibility. Will this be a new friend? A new lover? Something permanent? Something just for today? The exchange of identities. the discovery of layer after layer of someone. It does not have to lead somewhere. It doesn't have to be anything. Because, sometimes it's just fun. Because, sometimes Valentine's Day is just fun, fun, fun.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Open Letter to Didi Gregorious; or, Just Play

Dear Sir Didi Gregorius,
I hear you are going to be playing shortstop for the New York Yankees in 2015. Wow, that must be exciting. You probably know a little about the guy who played there before you. Derek Jeter was pretty beloved around here. I imagine that as you gear up for Spring Training a lot of people are going to give you advice for how to replace Jeter. Some of it will be good, some bad, some terrible; hopefully, you will know better than to worry about replacing Jeter and instead focus on being a good shortstop. Playing shortstop at Yankee Stadium is going to difficult enough without constantly worrying about What Would Jeter Do (WWJD). But, filtering through the noise can be a challenging task, so let me, as a long-time fan of The Jeter and The Yankees do my best to help you out.
Some people are going to tell you to "be like" Jeter. Jeter was the Captain and team leader. He was the one everyone turned to, so it would be nice to be that guy. But, this is not good advice. There was only one Jeter. He was able to be affable and yet aloof, charming yet distant, he was a master of seizing the moment, and the fans and teammates adored him. Those are all good things, and it would be easy to want to try to do that, too. But, you don't have to start practicing jump throws or fist pumps to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. You don't have to hit clutch homeruns or somehow be positioned exactly in the right place at the right time to save errant throws and playoff dreams. You don't even have to dive into the stands to catch foul balls, although personally, I do enjoy that kind of hustle. Instead focus on fielding the ball and making good clean throws to first. In the words of Jeter, "don't bounce it, they'll boo ya." It's simple, play hard, play well. And if you want to date super models and Miss Universes, well that's a personal decision, but certainly not a job requirement.
There will be some who will tell you that the shoes you are stepping into are too big and that you need to grow larger feet. You need to be bigger and better than you are in order to compete with the still warm ghost of the oh-so recently retired icon. But, really, that is unfair. The only shoes you need are your own, and from what I hear your shoes are actually pretty cool ones. That you are an artist, and a Knight, and a shortstop with a pretty good glove and a lot of potential. So, when you step out onto Yankee Stadium to stand in the space where Jeter once stood, remember the fans said goodby to Jeter (a number of times, actually), and Jeter said goodbye to us. He even said goodbye to the ground where your own Sir Didi Gregorius-sized shoes will stand. So, get out there and be you. Be hard working. Be diligent and strong. Be better than Brendan Ryan and Stephen Drew, but, most of all be as good as you can be.
A Yankee Fan
What advice would you give Didi Gregorius? What advice would you tell him to listen to? Or to ignore?