Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why We'll Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

Recently, I took my boys out for exercise in the neighborhood. They rode their bicycles, I ran next to them. They're 5 and 7 years old, so for now my legs and their wheels go about the same pace. I enjoy it while I can.

We bicycled home, twilight impending and the dew starting to settle on fields around us. My younger son, irritated with his bicycle as he tried to ride without training wheels, uttered a mewl of frustration as he came to a sudden stop. "Ugh!" he cried. "If I don't go faster on my bike, the zombies will get me!"

How to Get Small Children Awake, Fed, Dressed, and Out the Door for School in Less than 20 Minutes without Yelling or Freaking Out

I have no flipping idea.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

To My Sister on the Eve of Her 29th Birthday

I don't specifically remember bringing my newborn sister home from the hospital. But, I remember how life was different afterward.

My dad took me to the local drug store the night she was born. "Pick any toy you want," he said, "as long as it's under five dollars." I picked up a Barbie, the first brand new one I'd ever touched before. Her legs didn't bend at the knees and she was shoeless, but her hair was nylon fiber smooth and her pink dress was simple and lovely. "Can I have this one?" I asked. Dad nodded. This was the only Barbie I'd ever own and it was all thanks to her being born.

I remember loving this mewling, wrinkly thing bundled in cotton onesies who came home some slightly chilled Phoenix autumn evening. I loved her not because she was oh-so-adorably like my dolls but because she needed me. Mother was in college, Dad slept all day and burned the midnight oil. I gave her bottles of glucose water when Mother was gone, I changed her diapers. When Mother vacuumed it made my sister scream because it hurt her fragile eardrums so I rocked her and sang "Stille Nacht" until she calmed down.

Her needing me when we were little is what made being around her possible even when she got more of our mother's time, when she was preferred by our grandmother, when she so clearly was a prettier chid. During countless roadtrips, I would entertain her in the backseat of the car, manufacturing an invisible friend named "Middle" who would make her laugh. When she'd get spanked for crying (which was often), I would plead with our father on her behalf, furious at the injustice of punishing a child for crying because she was being punished. And I needed her, too. I authored many a stage play that needed pint-sized actors. Without her, I would've had to be content with only dolls.

When we were younger and I would try to emphasize the difference between us and my greater maturity, I would say that we're 'almost five years apart.' She would correct me with, 'no, we're almost four years apart.' Now that she's on the cusp of 29, our positions are reversed as I try to point out close I am to her age. She's still quick to correct me, this time pointing out that we're almost five years apart, making her that much younger. Such are the competitive vanities of sisters.

About 12 years ago, she wrote me a letter when she was 17 and had just been initiated into the same sorority. I was too embarrassed to read it all the way through then and I am now, too. Not because any part of it is inappropriate but because my then-17-year-old sister reveals her effusive, bare emotions with her "Anne of Green Gables" melodramatic style. Her letter reminds me too much of my 17-year-old self and how much I used to care (or let people see that I cared) before I wrapped myself in my own little shell.

The 20s are a rough time. It's when the childhood rubber hits the road of adulthood, when you have to actually put into action all those things you dreamed about doing and hope they yield the expected results. Sometimes they don't. Turning 29 is when a person may reasonably look back on their 'youth' and reflect on what one has or has not accomplished. It can be sobering. Competitiveness aside, I feel like I can relate, a few years ago having written about going through a little taste of something similar when I turned 30.

The last few years have been hard on my sister for reasons we share, the last 12 months particularly so. My guess is that this makes turning 29 into a certain indignity for her, insult added to injury. But, I refuse to offer her pity (it's beneath both her dignity and mine) and compassion makes it sound like I'm giving her my blessing to compromise on her goals, which is the last thing I would want for her. Getting older doesn't require compromise, but it does demand acceptance.

Over the years, I've seen my little sister become very much like me -- or at least the me I might've been except for a couple key differences in our life paths. There's nothing wrong with that and I defend all of her choices. But just like parents hope for their children to have better lives than they had, I wish I could help give her a more uplifting outlook. After all, depending on how you reckon the passage of time, I'm either almost five or just over four years older than she is and I have a certain perspective to offer.

So here's what I've learned in the last few years since I turned 29:
You don't stop feeling lonely or out of place. You just realize that it's how life will be for you and you become okay with that.

Right now at this moment you are the best looking you will ever be. Delight in that.

The only ones with you from the very beginning who will be able to relate to you in the end are your siblings, for better or for worse. Keep in touch with all of them.

Smile more. It's the only sure-fire way to look younger.

Worry less. Whatever it is you're going through now, next year it will matter less. Five years from now, it won't matter at all.

Call home. They need you, even if they don't say it. You need them, even if you won't admit it. I promise you that someday you'll wish you'd connected with them more.

Let it go (whatever 'it' is for you at any given moment).

I won't promise your 30s will be easy. But I do think they will be easier. Trust your big sister on this one.

Also, don't forget to call me in 10 years. I'll give you a preview of your 40s.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Crushes of the Well-Read Mind

It's time I admit it. In spite of my (tenuous) claim on adulthood, I nearly always am crushing in a way that could make a 13-year-old slap her forehead in shame. I'm a woman who rarely gives a hug except under duress. Yet dignity, marriage, professionalism, famed reservedness, and ice queen demeanor is regularly thrown out the window for the objects of my fascination.

The fact is, I crush on philosophers the way your neighbor's pre-teen daughter crushes on Justin Bieber. No, wait. I crush on philosophers the way your neighbor's pre-teen daughter crushes on Justin Bieber if Bieber were also the hot high school star quarterback.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing about C.S. Lewis' chrome dome that turns me on (I save that for Jason Statham or Edward Norton from "American History X" sans tattoos). Voltaire is a bit old for me (although I have nothing against old, providing they're living). Ayn Rand is a woman (nominally, by the looks of her photographs, but I still don't swing that way, desert island scenario notwithstanding). But I have a sometimes passion for these thought-leaders that approaches a Texan politician's love for Jesus. (Speaking of Jesus, he had some good ideas going for him, too...)

Going back a couple decades, there was my flush-faced love for the Greeks. Sadly, even if I had been interested in deceased early Mediterranean philosophers romantically, I would've been the wrong gender anyway (minus Sappho, a poetess who doesn't count). But none of this kept me from reading many of the treatises, plays, analytics, and rhetoric authored by Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and Socrates.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with reading it. But there's everything wrong with a 14-year-old entering into a conversation like this:

Person A: So I saw Joe last night with Danielle. Does he know you two don't get along?
Person B: What the fuck?? That pig! He oughtta know that I hate her!
Me: Maybe Joe was just being nice. You know, Socrates would probably advocate for assuming positive intent. He believed no one would knowingly do bad things.
[cricket] [silence]

I'd like to think in the intervening 20-some years I've learned, but really, I haven't. Which is why I met a sorority sister for (liquid) dinner a couple weeks ago and we had this conversation:
Her: I think it's safe to say we're fairly liberal Catholics.
Me: What does that mean?
Her: Well, we don't necessarily believe in a literal heaven or hell or that souls exist in the way a lot of very spiritual people may believe they exist.
Me: Oh, I totally get you! In fact, I was reading this book by Julian Barnes a few months ago who I think has some similarities to Kirkegaard in how he writes about the possibility of an afterlife.
Fortunately, this sister has a nerd beacon that'd be as bright as mine if she didn't have a bubbly personality and years on dance team to mask it. She gets me. But that's just luck. Normally this would be an opportunity for my guest to gesture to the server, "more drink, please! And fast!" On the other hand, maybe she had prearranged a more discreet signal and I just didn't notice it.

Most recently I have been all about Chuck Klosterman. Okay, even die-hard fans of Cee-Kay must admit that he falls a far cry shy of being a philosopher. Let's go with "pop culture analyst with a specialized following." Klosterman (whose entire bibliography I've read save one) expounds on my generation's pop culture with references that require me to keep Google open nearby. This is all material I should know but I don't because playing Michael Jackson or acknowledging existence of the Smurfs in my parents' house was a capital offense. Klosterman synthesizes a couple decades of music and pop culture with a certain baldly gritty anti-savoir faire that is deeply appealing to me.

But the real gift that Klosterman brings to my literary table is that he's so fricking normal. I can parrot his opinions and it's immediate connection with another. Death, life, soul, morality, existence, principles of reality - those are limited appeal niches that won't get me invited back to any cocktail parties unless they're attended by Mr. Peanut and Rich Uncle Pennybags. But Klosterman and low culture (hey, that's what *he* calls it so it must be okay!) allow me to capture a little of the cool kid appeal. It's allowed me to instead have conversations like this:

Person A: Did you catch what happened in "Glee" last night? I can't believe it!
Person B: Oh, I know. Pretty heavy-handed, don't you think? When did TV become like that?
Me: I was reading Chuck Klosterman's essay about "Saved by the Bell," remember that? He addressed how the purpose of TV shows is to re-state the preferred moral reality so viewers can feel reassured.
See how I did that? I'm still irritating, but I'm relatable. There are lots of places the conversation can go from here: Was Mark-Paul Gosselaar or Mario Lopez cuter? Can you believe how Elizabeth Berkeley destroyed her career? What current show is closest to Saved by the Bell? But, everyone will have something to offer. No need to fear silence.

Now, I don't totally fool myself. Quoting writers I'm crushing on, however contemporary they may be, isn't exactly 'school-moms-drinking-wine-over-pedicures' conversation. But it's a whole lot closer than where I was. Moving from existentialism to Bon Jovi lyrics is a huge improvement.

I'm not dating Justin Bieber the quarterback by any stretch. But maybe Klosterman at least helps me be the quirky cute little sister of the almost-popular wide receiver.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Park on the Top Deck

While I'm a person of many words, I don't have many that even approach wisdom to share except these:

"Park on the top deck."

I'm writing about a multi-tiered parking garage, and I urge you to park on the top deck. This definitely goes against common practice. Whether due to laziness, impatience, habit, or convenience, we routinely scout for the closest parking spot on the lowest level.

How many people realize how much is missed in doing so?

I've never much liked the saying, "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes," but I think it's appropriate here. Park on the lower level and you always see the same thing. Your car is, and, by extension, you are, just one more hunk of mobile metal among dozens of others. You leave your car to walk over a pre-determined path to a stairwell or elevator which takes you to a pre-determined sidewalk that will almost invariably take you in a predictably boring straight line to your destination. If you work in Cubeville, like I, you'll then likely spend your day walking along other pre-determined aisles of cubes and hallways that are fabric and metal on one side and drywall with boring art on the other. You'll probably spend 7-10 hours of your day in a pre-determined space of 6x6 or 8x8 or 10x1o. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that almost everything about the typical carpet dweller's workspace is pre-determined, bland, and in straight lines, yet employees are expected to think creatively? Trite though the saying now is, all managers want employees who can "think outside the box." Maybe if we were elevated six feet above our cubes, we'd be more successful at achieving that.

Most religions/mythologies claim that the greatest gift granted to humankind was free will. I find that ironic, too, since although we can exercise our free will by choosing to walk zig-zags over sidewalks and jaywalk over roads, we'll likely be ticketed or killed if we do.

So, the safest advice I can give you is to park on the top deck, where you can walk relatively safely in a crooked line or swirls or ellipticals around the floor before you go to your pre-determined path down the elevator shaft and onto the sidewalks. While you meander, you have the opportunity to see your environment in the way all those other lower-level cars do not: the sky, the top 15 levels of buildings, and even the un-curtained bedroom window of a condo where an impressively overweight and balding-yet-hairy man was dancing wildly...and naked.

How often do you see that when you're parked on one of the lower floors?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

On the "I Wish I'd..." List

Like any fledgling creative, there's a long list of "I wish I'd..." Everyone has a wish list like this in some form or other - perhaps the "I wish I'd said..." or the "I wish I'd done..." list. Some lists may read more like the "I could've done that!" (as in "What a stupid idea! I could've thought of a protective banana case, too!") Mine consists of things I wish I'd created, that I feel I should've created because they completely capture my humor or philosophy. This ever-growing list doesn't normally include novels, art, or musical compositions. Because I'm only a fledgling creative and not being particularly well-endowed with patience, I recognize my lack of staying power to follow through on creating a work that substantial. For those who can set their brush to canvas, their pencil to the staff, or their fingers to typing long enough to finish a true opus, I hold only admiration, never envy.

This list normally consists of the blog post or article and the occasional turn-of-phrase. It's the pith, the thought that can be communicated in approximately 140 characters (give or take 500). It's the book title or the haiku.

Behold, a few items from my "I wish I'd..." list:
* The Solitude of Prime Numbers. A beautiful title for a book I've yet to read (it's in the stack) - but the title alone is what grabs. A prime number can only be divided by itself and one. There must be loneliness in this story, and I'm hoping for a sense of positive closure at the end. I don't demand happily-ever-after endings but it's sure nice to find a well-written one.

* "Me, on Shuffle" by Chuck Klosterman. I wish I'd written this entire article which is a genius post about one's relationship with fractions and phrases of music (an emotional connection doesn't take an entire song).

* The Book of Lost Things. This could be the title of my daily diary with my list of things to do and those left undone. Admittedly, I'm biased because I've read the book (a fairy tale intended for young adult readers) and adored it, but the adoration began with the title.

* Limbo: And Other Places I Have Lived. Another one in the stacks with a beautiful title.

* Ceci n'est pas un pipe. Although I said I don't tend to envy art, this is an exception. It's simple, it's droll, it's witty and it was conceived about 50 years before I even manifested as my dad's ocular twinkle.

* "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think," by Dorothy Parker. Just one of many Dorothy Parker witticisms to which I wish I could lay my own claim. Change "Dorothy Parker" to "Ogden Nash" and there's another sub-list in its own right.

* "On Turning Eighty" by Henry Miller. I had thought to begin by saying "I wrote similar thoughts in a blog post about turning 30," but quickly realized that's akin to claiming the ant colony had the Burj Khalifa in mind when building its nest. Miller revels in the youth of his age and unashamedly eschews certain conventions. I wish I could be Miller's 80 in my 30s but perhaps that kind of appreciation takes another half century to cultivate.

Beauty, simplicity, and monumental value packed into every word -- so representative of an aspect of "me" that it leaves me feeling that these individuals somehow delved into my brain and picked them out before they entered my consciousness. Of course, to think that I could come up with such morsels of delight is a manifestation of my ego-based envy. But it's also encouraging because to make it onto the "I wish I'd..." list requires a certain similarity of thinking, a certain oneness. It's like finding friends, even if the friendship is based on only a single shared moment.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

An Etiquette Lesson [Writing Exercise]

Prompt: Describe a recently renewed friendship.

She could see him in the periphery. They had been circling the room all evening, delighting the guests at the cocktail party in their subtle but distinct ways yet never in the same place at the same time. First with one person, then another, she added sparkle with her pale presence. He made the rounds as well, sometimes preceding her, generally following while adding his own slightly sharper perspective. He was not appreciated by some whereas she was liked by almost all.

It was understood that they were a package deal, although there was always the occasional thoughtless person who forgot to keep them together in spite of all good manners to the contrary. They made a wonderful couple - everyone said so - albeit an unequal one. She was more popular, passing from person to person lightly, casually, freely. Often he was left behind, stoic in a corner, perhaps resting nearby a pile of dirty dishes or smudged wine glasses while she continued to make the rounds. It was just such an experience that had divided them this last time.

Yet in spite of their many separations, they always gravitated toward each other. They had too much in common, too many shared experiences. Both were global travelers with expensive tastes. They were of a similar age, amazingly ageless yet with old souls that made it seem like they had existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They were occasionally misunderstood, villianized. Most amazingly, they had been blamed for causing ill-health by some and yet bringing good health to others. They had both been used, in their own ways. Occasionally they were threatened by outsiders who attempted to capture their popularity by traveling in the same circles, hopping on their coattails. Those outsiders never lasted though. He and she were a forever couple, at times near lookalikes, her stark paleness complemented by his subtle grey and black.

She rested on the edge of a buffet, surveying the room with detachment. A brush of warmth from someone's hand grazed her sculpted shoulder. It was just as quickly gone - yet she knew he was now there.

She sighed, softly glittering in the room's muted light.

He shuddered slightly, struggling to be level at seeing her once more.

She felt transparent, like he could see her half-emptiness - the feeling she always had near the end of an event like this. Yet with him nearby she knew she could be more than she'd been before. He was her complement, her perfect help-mate. She sidled closer, her smooth sides barely touching his sharp angles.

Warily, he looked at her from under his low-placed silver-tinted cap. Would she be taken away by yet another guest, abandoning him to his solitude again?

Her lip curled slightly in a semi-smile as she tilted closer to him, bobbing encouragingly, trying to show with her smooth chill body how she liked his black and grey prickliness.

A guest grabbed them both around their necks, using a single hand to do so. Both she and he felt the slight rise of panic as their insides shifted with fear they would be separated again, quite against their will. They were lifted, their bases leaving the ground, higher, higher, thrust into a shallow space together, the door closed behind them. A thin sliver of light remaining, no more.

They shook themselves slightly, becoming calm, then content, now happy. At peace. Salt and Pepper kept together.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What I Like about Running [Random Nothing]

This has the potential to be a very brief post. I don't love running. I've been known to mutter expletives under my breath at passing mile markers. I enjoy running about as much as I enjoy boiled Brussels sprouts and medical examinations: I tolerate it because I don't know of any other way to achieve the same healthy result.

But this isn't about the many reasons I don't care for running (however therapeutic such a post may be). This is my attempt to leverage cognitive dissonance: if I tell myself often enough that there are things I like about running, perhaps I will indeed like it. So what do I like about running?

1. Health: The obvious reason is still the best reason. Every time my sneakers come in contact with the ground and my body is jarred, I'm reminded that every run will hopefully stave off the onset of osteoporosis or some other condition. This doesn't make me like running really, but it does make me feel pretty virtuous for doing it.

2. You See Cool Things on the Ground. During one run (okay, it was today), there was a tube of uncapped lip gloss on the ground. In a last-minute change in navigation fitting of Magellan, I steered myself over such that my foot would come down on the bottom part of the tube, making hot pink glittery lip gloss squirt out on the springtime weeds poking through the concrete. The 5-yr-old in me that still finds gross things cool thought this whole episode was pretty darn awesome.

3. Old-Fashioned Pleasures. My current running route takes me by a chain-link and several wood slatted fences over creeks and wetlands. With a stick or key fob in hand, I enjoy striking it against the fences and hearing the rhythmic "slap slap slap" syncopated against my breathing and the pulse of my feet against the ground. What's good enough for Tom Sawyer is good enough for me, too.

4. You Never Know Who You'll Meet. Recently, a stray cat crossed my path (it wasn't black so it was okay) and ran next to me for most of a block, stretching its furry haunches and going at a good clip. Now, I don't enjoy much running with others but having that grey-and-cream tabby keep me company was good for a mile's worth of spiritual buoyancy. (Given my running pace, a mile's worth of smiles is a goodly amount of time.)

5. Imagined Endings. I don't often run when it's dark out but when I do, I like peering into the homes of others (from a safe distance on the sidewalk, running with a very non-stalker-like pace) and seeing what other families are doing. Most of the time, they're watching TV which makes me feel smug and self-righteous. Occasionally they're doing something interesting and I can make a story around it. The people who are painting, the woman who was throwing laundry on the floor, the child wielding a guitar like a light-saber, the man doing woodworking in his garage building a cradle or crib. They all have stories. I don't know what they are but I enjoy making up my own sub-titles.

6. School Zones. School zones are a drag. Being a "pedal to the metal" kind of person, I resent having my Adretti-like automotive groove interrupted by school zones. The great thing about running is that I run by the "you are going this speed" signs in school zones, in quasi Michael Scott fashion, never worrying that I'm exceeding the legal speed limit. That's partially because I tend to run on Saturdays when the speed limit doesn't apply. Perhaps on a weekday I'd be more concerned. (Likely not.)

7. Mind Games. I get bored when running - so very bored. Some have told me they run listening to audio-books (irritating), radio (super irritating), or their favorite tunes (fine until you hit a song with a beat that doesn't match the stride). I listen to bland synthpop (normally by FitPod) that at least gets me through but it doesn't quite cut it. So I create games to entertain my wandering mind: I repeat the alphabet or count to a hundred in German, French, or Spanish (about as much of those languages as I remember). I say my times-tables (normally in 4s, 6s, or 7s, my weakest numbers). Most recently, I've started trying to create anagrams from the letters in street signs (good practice for Scrabble). Never underestimate the bored mind's ability to find ridiculous ways to entertain itself.

8. Dryer Sheets. Well, not dryer sheets per se. But about one house per mile will be running its dryer when I jog by and the dryer vent will be facing the street. That puff of dryer sheet fragrance and brief burst of heat is an unexpected delight on a cold wet day with only dog excrement and grass clippings to smell for the rest of the run.

Eight things I like about running. That's more I thought I'd have when I started this, and we still haven't gotten to my favorite reason which is...

9. The Past Participle. My favorite thing about running? Being able to say "I already ran today."