Feb 12, 2013

Phoebe's Sunset Sentimentality

Phoebe’s Sunset Sentimentality
By Felice Austin

I found out later
That she was on the roof with Lily
While we were inside watching
The sunset through the beach house windows
As it sailed on its canoe, off the edge of the world
Turning the water gold,
The sky a veil of orange.

If you watch a sunset sitting down,
And then stand up, you can watch it again.
I demonstrated for our guests, standing on a chair.
Later, she told me about the view from the roof.

Very young children rarely notice sunsets.
Why would they,
When everything is new?
Why would it be any more bewitching
Or beautiful than a bird flying,
Or a boy riding by on a skateboard,
Or the mole on your belly?  

Now, she is six, my daughter,
Who is named after the sun.
She touches her heart as she speaks
“Mom. It was so beautiful.”

And I feel sorrow,
Like she is describing her own death.

Apr 13, 2012

Gopher Town

Gopher Town
“A gopher town can easily spread to take over large sections of prairie or mountain meadow and may have a population in the thousands.” - Wikipedia

Like a black hole at the center of the universe, the gopher holes had their own magnetic pull. As children, we were drawn to them like strange attractors. My mother was waging a personal war against the gophers, and we couldn’t get enough of the excitement. Family folklore tells of entire stalks of corn being dragged underground before our eyes, their silky green tops frantically waving like drowning victims. They were no match for the bucktoothed rodents, who ate the roots first, then had easy work.

No one else we knew had this problem. No on else we knew had a garden. We lived in a medium-sized city, north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara in the oil rich hills of Ventura. In my childhood the hills all along the coast highway were dotted with oil derricks, like bird beaks, rhythmically pecking the earth. A rhythm that hypnotized me on car trips. Most of the city was highly developed, but by some accident or zoning blip, our corner house backed up to a large piece of undeveloped land--a hill that was many acres square. The bulldozers and other earth movers that had once rumbled across it now lay silent and rusting.

My mother had made use of our large corner lot and planted several gardens. Carrots, strawberries and raspberries grew in planter boxes around the side yard. Zucchinis and other squash grew heavy and abundant in the back yard. And in the far garden beyond the avocado tree, bean stalks climbed wooden frames. There were also potatoes and other root vegetables. The root vegetables didn’t stand a chance.

The grating of the hill had displaced many creatures from their homes and like water, they flowed downward--to our house, and to my mother’s garden. The gophers were only one of many pests she battled. There were also the squirrels, mice, and stray cats. Of course, she may have also counted us, her four children, in that group of pests, but our intentions were pure, as was our hunger for her raspberries.

She experimented with many methods of pest elimination over several years, from yelling and banging pots, to a gadget that looked like a spacecraft. The flying saucer was purchased from a gardening catalog and must have been expensive, but my father agreed to buy it for her. The space ship was made of green plastic, about the size of a salad plate and a few inches thick, with a metal stake in the center. When the stake was pounded into the ground, it looked like a UFO hovering a few inches above the vegetables. Once they installed the batteries, the craft sent seismic waves down the post and into the ground around it, causing gopher sized earthquakes ten to fifteen feet outward from the epicenter. This seemed to be a success, and for several weeks my mother went about her gardening with a smile, an exultant twinkle in her green eyes.

I thought about the gophers often. I wondered about their underground route and their nighttime habits. I empathized with them to a degree. I also liked to sneak the fruits of my mother’s labor, but they crossed lines I would never dare. Their lack of regard for my mother’s position awed and baffled me.

Sometimes from the elementary school across the street, I would look up at recess and see my mother standing on the hill top. In my mind she is paused with her back to me, gardening gloves on, in dark blue jeans and reddish hair. At other times she had no hair, and the sun shone off her shaved head, or her light blue turban, because she didn’t like to wear wigs. And she seemed like a giant to me. Her hips looked sturdy and wide under the stretched blue denim. One would never know the extent of her internal ravaging.

Even though she never turned around, I always knew that she saw me looking at her. The gophers didn’t understand this. Her ability to see without looking, her largeness, or her quiet determination to win. So I was glad when the space shuttle arrived.

However, the win didn’t last long. Either the batteries died or the gophers became smarter. I imagined them coming out at night, their yellow front teeth leading, followed by their small eyes and ears, inching closer and closer till the smartest gopher finally rapped it with his curved claw, and said in chipmunk voice, “It’s plastic.” And they all sighed and chuckled and went back to their ravaging.

Nothing was said, but somehow the failure of the space craft was felt among the whole family. Perhaps we absorbed the resonance of her frustration in our meals.

Of all the pests, the gophers were the most mysterious to us, because we never saw them, only the evidence of them. So when my brother shouted that he had seen one of the rodents peek its head up and then retreat into a gopher hole in the back yard, we shrieked at our luck. We were hungry for gopher action.

Mom was inside, probably cooking or sewing or laying down. In an instant we decided that the hose was our best weapon. Forrest jammed it down the hole and I turned it on full blast. I grabbed a stick from the nearby woodpile and ran to the other hole at the end of the yard. The stick was for bonking the gopher when it would surely be flushed out any minute.

A few years earlier. Same back yard. Same hose.
Poised like a batter, I listened to the water run. Even as an eight year old, I was conscious about water. We were in a monumental drought and the way my parents made it sound, every drop of water cost a hundred dollars. Yet in that moment, I didn’t care. I had read the story of Noah and the flood and I knew that that much water could do damage. And we wanted to do damage. Ephraim was excited to get in on the gopher clubbing action too, and soon came running with a baseball bat.

We made eye contact occasionally, thrilled by the possibility of fighting a common enemy. The possibility of blood.

It felt like an hour before we finally gave up. An hour of water down the gopher hole. It did not flood out like I imagined, but rather seemed to disappear down an unseen well. Forrest took the hose out and put his eye to the hole, but could see nothing. He jumped up and down on the ground and screamed at them.


That’s when I realized that their underground tunnel system was more extensive than we knew. In my night-time imaginings of them, I began to add intricate gopher highway systems that ran for miles underneath the entire property and the denuded expanse of dirt that was the hill.

How does one make a map of the unknown?

The radiologists had made small blue tattoos on my mother’s body. Just a dot or two here and there to map where they had been or would go again. They too were fighting the unseen.

My father, perhaps because he couldn’t stand the unknown any longer, went after the more visible pests--the squirrels. Perhaps it was after breakfast one Saturday that he leapt from the table, grabbed a BB gun from his closet, and ran outside where he saw one scuttling away from her garden. He lifted the gun to his shoulder, aimed and fired in one swift movement. The squirrel ran and then fell with another round of BBs.

My brothers and I held our breath. We had never seen anything like it. His movements had been focused, intentional, powerful. Yet as the blast sound ricocheted around the yard and dissipated, he seemed to get smaller. He walked over to the dead squirrel and nudged it with his foot. What happened next shocked me to the core.

I had read about crucifixion, and crimes of war—mostly in the Bible. But now my father, who survived Vietnam, who read philosophy books and listened to Joni Mitchell and Elvis, was nailing the dead squirrel to a wooden steak.

We all quivered near the event horizon. My father’s head was bent over the purposeful sound of the hammer. The squirrel’s blood was red like mine, and its guts were spilling out. My mother turned away and went inside.

I didn’t know what my dad was thinking, I only knew that my mother’s garden was being eaten by rodents as her body was being eaten by cancer, and he had shot and crucified a squirrel. He then hammered the stake into the ground at the top of the hill on our property line. He said that it was to be a public example for any other creatures who thought about coming down the hill to eat her garden.

This made sense to me. I imagined one or two gophers coming out at night, seeing the carnage, and running back to tell the rest of the family that the man on the corner had lost it—was showing no mercy; no animal was safe. They would all quake at the tale.

Feb 27, 2011

My Permanent Condition

My mother died in July before I entered seventh grade, and afterward everything changed. I did not fully realize what it meant to be motherless, however, until later that fall. I sat in the back of the morning bus with Kristin, an eighth grader. I wore a pink sleeveless shirt that I adored, but that was too big for me. As I reached down into my backpack, Kristin saw through my gaping armholes.

“Oh-my-gosh,” she said, covering her mouth. She moved in close to me and whispered, still covering her mouth. “Um, I think you need to start wearing a bra.”

My eyes widened. “I do?”

She nodded.

“But….” I was about to object, but instead I pinned my arms to my sides like a penguin for the rest of the day. Later that night, in the privacy of the bathroom, I stood on top of the toilet to look in the medicine cabinet mirror. I was positive that an incident with a soccer ball several weeks before was what had made my left nipple bruised and swollen. I remembered joking with another girl at the bus stop that if only the other one would swell up I’d have something. A few days before, however, without explanation, my right nipple also became tender. Looking in the mirror, I saw the small pink nipples I was used to, had become darker and grown to size of a penny.

I covered them with my arms and groaned, thinking about that morning on the bus. Though I was not as physically developed as other girls in seventh grade, I had always prided myself on being smart for my age. In fact, I had known about puberty for years. I knew that things went in holes and that I would someday get a period. But my mother was flat-chested even before her mastectomy, and I was flat for so long after other girls that I accepted it as my permanent condition.

Puberty had betrayed me after all, and I had flashed my ignorance all over the bus. There had been no woman or friend to spare me this embarrassment. I stood on the toilet and realized that I had no one to turn to.

Around the same time as my mother’s death, all of the other women in my life also disappeared. My best friend moved away, leaving me with half of a heart shaped necklace, and no other close friends at Anacapa Middle School. My grandmother moved with my grandfather back to their home in South Dakota shortly after the funeral—after my father firmly refused their offer to pay for a nanny.

Because we couldn't afford a nanny, my brother and I were sent to the Jensen family's house after school. My younger brother and sister went to another family’s house.

The Jensens had a daughter my age. I was nice to her out of obligation, but behind her back all of my siblings and I called her Grody Jody. Grody Jody was twice my size, wore thick pink-rimmed glasses and had asthma. But she also had two lumps on her chest that had been in a bra for several years. All I knew about bras was that they came in numbers and letters and that there was a complicated method for figuring out your size. I cursed myself for reading Nancy Drew mysteries all year, when I should have been reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?

I realized that there was no one else to turn to but Jody. She knew more about bras than I did, but I had superiority over her from being half her size and less of a nerd, so I knew that she would not tell anyone. That is how I ended up at K-mart with Grody Jody Jensen.

Jody’s mom dropped us off under the pretense of school shopping. Once we entered the store and started down the long expanse of linoleum, everything slowed down. I felt very small next to Jody, and I wanted to shrink even smaller so no one would see me with her. I wanted to forget about the whole errand and go back home. I wandered off the path into the racks of clothes, walking quickly, trying to lose her. I weaved through round racks of overalls, skirts, and purses.
I passed the shoe section with its sour smell of new plastic, then turned a corner and bumped into Jody again. She was breathing in short asthmatic breaths. Her nostrils were flared, and the inside of her eyebrows were drawn up like a baby about to bawl.

I felt bad for ditching her. “There you are!” I said. At this, her eyebrows returned back to normal, and her breathing sounded less like a bull’s. As we approached the bra section I stopped to examine something on every rack. Finally Jody grabbed my wrist and took me to a display of training bras and presented them to me.

“Here,” she said, with a flourish of her hand and then stood awkwardly waiting for me to do something.

I stiffened and looked quickly around. A woman in a K-Mart blue vest was upon us.

“Can I help you?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Jody at the same time. “She needs a training bra.” Jody fidgeted. I glared at Jody but was glad I was no longer left to her guidance.

The woman was a middle aged Mexican woman with fuzzy brown hair and a nice smile.

“Oh,” she said, drawing out the O. She looked around. “Where is your mom?” she asked.

I had been bracing myself for this question, but it still disarmed me. All of the muscles in my body tightened to hold back the tidal wave rising inside. Sweat formed on my forehead. Sudden tears began to leak out of my eyes. The salty drops burned my skin. I choked when I spoke, trying to keep the water from shooting out and filling up the K-mart and drowning me.

“She died,” I said wiping my tears, holding up my chin.

At that moment, standing barely taller than the clothing racks with Grody Jody Jensen and a stranger, I realized what my mother’s death meant. The flat-chested ease of childhood was gone. Everything, even dressing, was more complicated. Most of all, I realized that the future would have many more moments such as that one: uncomfortable, pained, maybe even glorious, and for each of them, I would be inexpressibly alone.

Jan 15, 2011

Shake Spear

In sign language, to make the sign for Shakespeare, you shake your fist in the air, and then as though a spear suddenly appeared in your hand, you throw it—releasing it with and open hand—send it flying to pierce the heart of whoever happens to be walking past. Shake. Spear. It is an excellent gesture. In fact, it brings me so much amusement that I sometimes sign Shakespeare for no reason at all, or to punctuate a passionate statement. I love the athleticism of it—and the dramatic, arbitrary spearing of passersby is in itself Shakespearian.

My relationship with Shakespeare began in the 9th grade, when my English teacher, Ms. Crandall, who always wore scarves with cat broaches, introduced me to Romeo and Juliet. R and J is part of the 9th grade curriculum just about everywhere, but somehow Mrs. Crandall made me us feel like she was sharing something special with just us. She would speak about Romeo and Juliet in a reverent whisper that had a swoon on the edge of it. And she risked herself by letting us watch the Franko Zeffirelli version of the movie, which had a bare butt shot of Romeo. This made quite an impression.

From then on, Shakespeare was everywhere. Every English class in America--and probably the world--has a drawing of Mr. Shakespeare on the wall in his ruffled cravat, his bald dome, and the longish skirt of black hair that begins at his ears. Sometimes as I write about him, I feel like I should capitalize the H in Him, like one does when using the article for deity.

By college, I had read most of the well known plays, including Hamlet, and I thought for sure that a dramatic death for unrequited love, or honor, or revenge, was the only romantic way to end. I personally found drowning most exciting and stylish, in the great style of Ophelia. Looking back, I can’t help but think that if adults remembered how impressionable our young minds could be, they might not have let us read Shakespeare at all.

In college, I was destined to read even more Shakespeare. At Brigham Young University, where I spent several years, there was a well known professor who taught Shakespeare. The only reason he was well known was because his name was William Shakespeare. I’m not joking. That was his name. Professor William Shakespeare.

This brings me to Romeo’s famous question: would a rose by another other name smell as sweet? If you name your son William Shakespeare, does he have any other choice but to become a professor of Shakespeare?

As it turns out, Professor Shakespeare was not all that many students hoped for. Or so I heard. Shakespeare is a required course for English majors, and the word around the Humanities Building was that Dr. Shakespeare was boring. Dull as a depression era text book, and prone to droning on in a monotone.

I thought of Miss Crandall and the way she pressed her hand to her heart and gazed out the window at the falling sycamore leaves whenever she talked about Romeo and Juliet. Miss Crandall lived alone with two cats and the ghost of a dead cat named Fubar, but somehow, she seemed like the happiest of women. She was definitely the happiest of all the teachers at Hillside Junior High School, and somehow I knew it had to do with Shakespeare.

I decided that there was no way I was going to stand for a boring Shakespeare teacher. Looking back, I should have taken Shakespeare from Shakespeare just to say I had. But instead, I took a gamble on a “staff” instructor. Staff means that when they printed the registration guide, they still didn’t know who was teaching it yet.

The first day of class, when I met Nancy Christiansen, I knew I might have lost the gamble. She was a short woman, and her unfeminine body made her clothes fit all wrong. She had wheat-colored hair that looked like it had been cut with a bowl and garden shears. Her face was small and round and she had no lips to speak of. Nancy could easily have passed for John Denver. To further add insult, she had a mole on her face with several inch-long hairs growing out of it.

Her looks were not what made me shudder. It was the way she stepped forward and then shrunk back. It was her first year teaching at BYU and her insecurity hung around her like the smell around an outhouse. I could tell immediately that she had suffered at the hands of bullies most of her childhood, and she already hated half of us for being cooler than she was in high school—and she was going to punish us for it.

We went over the syllabus. She explained that we would studying Shakespeare from the discipline of rhetoric. The more I learned about rhetoric, the more I hated it. At that time, I understood it as the use of a bunch of Latin words to describe patterns of language that are used to be persuasive…yawn. Here is an example: “Palilogia—the use of repetition to get your point across.” Remember that one, it’s important.

I should have dropped the class and tried to add Professor Shakespeare, but it would have messed up my Tuesday/Thursday schedule. I decided to put my gut feelings aside and power through. I had not idea what was in store.

The English department that I knew up till then was frenzied and alive and indulgent of comedy, intrigue, and artful divergence from assignments in the name of creativity. I was about to see another side of the English department.

My first project in class was an oral presentation and a paper on Love’s Labors Lost. This play is about some bumbling noblemen that are trying to win love, and the ladies they try to court are not having it. In it, there is a play within this play which is poorly performed by the players. My paper was about this play within the play, and particularly on Shakespeare’s thoughts about bad performance.

I should note that I was the second person in the entire class to give an oral presentation. The first person gave a boring, lecture style presentation which was the equivalent of him reading his paper aloud.

When it was my turn, I stepped into the hallway to prepare. Our classroom was at the end of a hallway in the most dimly lit corner of the basement of the Humanities building, which would seem fitting later on, but at that moment I was still full of light and mischief. Out of my bag, I pulled a long, sparkling blue prom dress. A thrift store find. It was more than a decade out of style and had plastic costume jewel beads hanging from the sleeves. I slipped it on over my clothes, then threw open the classroom door.

I stepped in to face my audience, linked my hands in front of my chest, and sang in an operatic, pitchy voice, the Billy Joel classic, “Piano Man.”

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man. Sing us a song tonight. We’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling....

I had intended to finish the refrain, but stopped. In the back row, my friend Eliza was the only one who seemed to be enjoying this. Her face was splotchy from stifling her laughter. No one else was laughing. Jaws hung open. Some people looked away, others down at their desks. Dr. Christiansen looked like she had eaten bile. It was bad, I admit. But that was the point—to illustrate bad performance. I knew I would tie it back to my thesis, and Eliza knew it, but no one else seemed to understand.

I cleared my throat and tried to proceeded, somewhat less confidently and still in the prom dress, into the heart of my presentation. Words came out of my mouth, but I felt sure no one was following. They were too busy wondering what the hell Billy Joel had to do with Love’s Labors Lost. I finished as fast as I could without really getting my point across—the point being that Shakespeare was not arguing against artifice, but against poor artifice—which I had so elegantly demonstrated.

I got a C on the paper.

This was unexpected, even given the unenthusiastic response. I had never gotten a C in my life. But the C wasn’t what hurt—what hurt was that everyone who followed my presentation for the entire rest of the semester basically read their paper aloud. No creativity whatsoever. And yes, I took it personally. It made me stand out as the only one stupid enough to believe the line, added like an afterthought at the bottom of Nancy’s syllabus, which said “be creative.”

By this time, it was too late to drop the class, and things had gotten personal. I had never felt so creatively stifled and unappreciated in a Humanities class, and I hated her for creating this class culture. Maybe I also felt found out. Because, if I were honest I would have admitted even then that I often used creativity to help me skate through when I couldn’t pull my scholarly weight. Whatever the reason, I felt exposed and angry.

The next assignment was a 5-7 page psychological analysis of a Shakespeare character. We were to choose 10-15 lines spoken by one character in any play and analyze the passage in “minute detail.” She referred to this as putting it through the “lemon squeezer.”

I got excited when I realized that my favorite monologue by Ophelia was exactly 10 lines. I walked around campus reciting and thinking about Ophelia’s monologue, which I had memorized years before. But I did a lot of sighing when I thought about this assignment.

Winter had already begun to melt and spring was charming us out of doors. On a beautiful afternoon, I put my hammock up in the tree next to my back porch and stared at the sky, sectioned off in odd shapes by tree branches and power lines. Yellow flowers bloomed on the tree, and the smell put me in a happy trance. I tried to take a mental picture as I looked up, but the energy required to take and then develop and store a mental picture was ruining the moment, which was a pure physical sensation. I took a deep breath and sighed. I hated the idea of the lemon squeezer. I knew that if I put Ophelia’s lines through the lemon squeezer, they would never again be as magical to me, like that spring day.

In a moment, I made up my mind. I went inside to my computer, sat down, and started typing, chuckling to myself. In just a few minutes, using copy and paste, I was done. I had seven neatly typed pages that read, “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES FELICE A DULL GIRL.” I went back outside and fell into a daydreamy sleep in my hammock.

The next Monday, I entered the dreary basement of the Humanities building, smiling all over my face, and handed in my paper. I told Eliza, snickering, that I had written one long palilogia.

A week later, when Dr. Christiansen handed the papers back, I tapped my fingers on the desk in anticipation. I had never received an F before, and it was sort of exciting. When the paper fell into my hands from the girl in front of me, I looked for a big red F on top of the paper. But there was nothing. I looked at all 7 pages. She hadn’t made a single mark. I had even left out a few periods and put in a few misspellings just to tempt her red pen.


I scowled at Dr. Christiansen from my seat.

As everyone filed out after class, Nancy and I paused and stared at each other like two animals in the wild. I was clearly the superior animal, so I held my head up and made as if to approach her. She shrunk back a little, then cleared her throat and said stiffly, “Can we talk in my office later?”

“Sure.” I relaxed my shoulders and tried to look casual. I held up my paper. Why didn’t you put a grade on my paper?” I asked.

“We’ll talk about it in my office,” she said, fumbling with a stack of papers.

Dr. Christiansen’s office was dark and windowless just like her classroom. Books were piled to the ceiling and doubled up on bookshelves. I sat in the only other chair and smiled a little too brilliantly. I pulled out an egg salad sandwich and proceeded to eat it.

Nancy stiffened and her face froze as she watched me. I pretended not to notice that her whole office now smelled like egg salad.

Because it was apparent that she did not know how to begin, I said nothing.

After a silence full of muted torture sounds, she finally said, “What are you going to do about your paper?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Oh. Did you like it? I thought it had a really strong thesis sentence, and I supported it pretty well throughout the piece.”

She stared.

I took another bite of my sandwich and smiled. “Have you ever seen The Shining?”

“No,” she said.

“Oh. It’s really good. It’s with Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall.” I smiled even more brightly.

Her eyes bulged. I heard the clock tick. Someone laughed down the hallway. I tried not to look at her hairy mole.

“You’re not going to rewrite it?” she said.


“What do you plan to do about your grade?”

“I’ll come to class, take the final, and hope for a C.” I smiled again, thin-lipped this time.

She said nothing.

“I guess that’s all then?” I said, as I got up to leave.

She did not say goodbye.

I went to class, as promised. But I sat in the back and made sure to send her the message, via wise cracks and mad glares, that I didn’t like her or her teaching style. When it came time, at last, for the final exam, I did the math and realized that no matter what I got on the final, I would not pass the class. I shook my head when I realized that I had been going to class all that time for nothing. My only hope at passing (D credit didn’t count for my major) was to actually rewrite the paper. I considered it for half a second, then closed my notebook. Forget it, I said out loud. I will retake the class with Professor Shakespeare. He can’t be worse than her. I let out an involuntary sigh of relief, and strolled home enjoying the brilliant April sunshine.

A month later, safely home for the summer and enjoying a ripe hunk of pineapple, I called to get my grades from the automated system. I listened for the mechanical voice to announce my grade for English 382. I waited with anticipation to hear my first and only F of my life. But the automated female voice announced “C Minus.”

What? I choked on my pineapple. I listened again. C Minus.

I stood with the phone in my hand and wondered why in the world would Nancy Christiansen, whose life I had made hell for 3 hours a week, give me a grade I hadn’t earned. She should have known that I wouldn’t take her class again, and she had enough evidence to show any administrator that I had more than failed. The mechanical voice was going on and on but I couldn’t hear it anymore. Something was boiling up inside me. I slammed the phone down.

“I can’t believe she didn’t even have the guts to fail me,” I said when I called Eliza. I wanted to shake my fist in the air and spear someone. I had worked hard for an F, and I thought I had found a worthy opponent. We made cracks about how weak and afraid was Dr. Christiansen.

Over the years, I found myself telling this story many times. I would tell it at parties, animatedly, including the operatic Billy Joel performance--and it has been the source of much fun and laughter. I loved to watch my listeners eyes widen, knowing that the story revealed something about my character—thinking it revealed what happens with someone tries to mess with me. But in writing it down I see that this is just one of the stories within the story.

Like Shakespeare, I could never stand mediocre performance. If I couldn’t be the best, I wanted to fail with the most style. If was going to die, I wanted a romantic, tragic death. I always thought Nancy Christiansen was weak, but perhaps in her I did meet a worthy opponent, because by giving me a C-, she didn’t allow me either. In the end all I had was my story, and my love for Shakespeare, still in tact.

Oct 24, 2010

How to Kill a Werewolf - A Memoir

Werewolves of London

I spent most of my late elementary years dreaming of the wonderful life of an orphan. The battle with my parents was over chores. I was the oldest, so there was no precedent, yet I knew their requests were unreasonable. Real parents wouldn’t force their children to labor. It was through this pathway of logic that I figured out that they weren’t my real parents. They were werewolves disguised to look like them.

I had a recurring nightmare in which I begrudgingly took out the trash. My mother stood at the top of the Astroturf-covered stairs with her arms folded, watching me as I lugged a full garbage bag out of the house, past the Bougainvillea bush and into the metal trash bin. As soon as my back was turned, she peeled off her fleshy mask to reveal fur, fangs, and blood red eyes.

Thereafter, to avoid giving my werewolf mother the chance to surprise me, every time I took out the trash I walked backward.

Living with werewolves, however, was not my biggest problem. At school, I had to deal with the dilemma of Colin, with whom I was deeply and passionately in love.

Colin was new at Montalvo Elementary School and thus very attractive to all the girls in the fifth grade. Even then, I understood the ugliness that can occur among girls in competition for love. So, to protect myself, I kept my love for Colin a secret. This caused the dual problem of how to conceal my love, and at the same time, get him to like me.

Colin was tan and athletic. He wore khaki shorts and polo shirts, and he had blond hair that was always parted on the left side and combed with enough gel to keep it in place through a sturdy wind. Although Colin was small, he was fast and good at sports. During recess, he was always on the soccer field. I, on the other hand, was scrawny as a wishbone and un-athletic. Since fourth grade, I had preferred to avoid the embarrassment of being picked last for team sports, and instead played hopscotch with a nice but boring girl named Andrea. With Colin’s arrival, however, my interest in hopscotch diminished.

One day when Andrea was absent, I walked nonchalantly to the edge of the blacktop. A short, steep hill separated the blacktop from the soccer field. I sat down at the top of this hill where I would have the best view of the game.

I pretended to be sunning myself and examining the grass. However, despite my efforts to act disinterested, I became engrossed in the game. Colin scored two goals and I had to control my desire to jump up and shout, “Yes!” My life couldn’t have been better at that moment. The sky was clear and blue and I was in love with a soccer star.

A few minutes later, however, my heart crumbled when the ball hit Colin in the mouth. He cried out and covered his braces. I wanted to run to him, but I sat still. Kids gathered around, and the teacher on duty asked if he was bleeding.

“No,” he said, scowling, his mouth hanging open.

She told him to sit out for a while anyway.

Colin fell into a heap at the bottom of the hill below me. I had a perfect view of the top of his head. I watched him pick at the grass and throw it absently in the air as I thought of things I could say to get his attention. “Are you alright?” “Is your mouth OK?” “Do you want to kiss me sometime when your mouth is better?” He must have felt me staring, because he rolled over and looked up. I held my breath. As I struggled to make my voice say something clever but distant, Colin drew his eyebrows together and down. He squinted at me from under them and curled his upper lip. I tried to smile, but his expression was so disdainful, I was immobile. Then he turned back to the game.

I took a breath. I wasn’t sure if it was my presence or the pain in his mouth that had caused Colin to contort his face at me. I decided that he loathed me. My heart sank to the bottom of my feet and I dragged it around in my shoes the rest of the day.

At home, I paced around. I looked out the windows and tried to see the ocean. I walked around my room, lay on my bed, and paced again.

“Why don’t you go out and play, and quit moping?” my mom said. She was sitting on the couch in the living room, sewing arms onto a doll.

“I don’t feel like it,” I said, kicking the shaggy green carpet.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Did one of your boyfriends look at you funny?” Her green eyes sparkled above her pointy nose.

I stiffened, and opened my eyes wide. “Um, no.” I sidestepped out of the room, glancing quickly back at my mother, who shrugged and went on sewing.

Once out of her sight, I fled to my room, threw the door closed and lay on the bed. The knots in the wood ceiling stared down at me as my heart banged like the percussion section of the high school band. My suspicions about my parents were much worse than I had thought; not only was my mother a werewolf, but she was also a mind reader.

I wondered if she could read my mind at that moment, and I tried to clear it. Naturally, the first things I thought of were the diagrams I had seen in Sex Ed., a page torn from a Playboy magazine I once found on the playground, and the image of my mom on the back porch peeling off her mask. I tried to focus on the backs of my eyelids, but my mind was still unmoored.
I reasoned that she probably couldn’t read my mind unless she was in the same room—but staying in separate rooms forever was impossible. I thought of the catastrophes that could result from her knowing I knew she was a werewolf. Soon, all I could think about was the first Ghostbusters movie when all of New York City was nearly destroyed because Dr. Raymond Stantz thought of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man at just the wrong moment.

I needed a plan—something to think about when my mom was around. I finally decided on something that I used to keep away bad dreams. In fact, it was my mother that gave me the idea years before. She knelt at my bedside one night after I awoke from a nightmare and told me that the best way to forget bad dreams was to concentrate on something nice. The nicest thing I could think of was butterflies.

I imagined myself on a hill near the ocean. Blue and purple butterflies swirled around me in a great cloud—floating, darting, and fluttering—their wings brushing warm air in my face. They would land and alight in undulating patterns on Jasmine and California poppies.

At dinner that night, I chewed slowly, avoiding my mother’s gaze. I appeared entranced by the striped wallpaper, but really, I was surrounded by colorful, winged insects.

* * *
My mom turned out not to be a werewolf. She may have had mind-reading powers, but I soon forgot that as I transitioned to middle school, Colin moved away, and my mother became sicker and sicker with cancer. I didn’t forget about the butterflies, though, and I still summon them occasionally.

In college, I had a butterfly tattooed on my lower abdomen—a choice I couldn’t explain at the time. When I decided I wanted a tattoo, I looked through pages of pictures at the tattoo parlor, but none of them were right. I ended up bringing in my own image.

“Why a butterfly?” my roommate asked.

I shrugged. “I just like butterflies,” I told her.

“But why did you get it there, specifically?” The small blue and purple butterfly is below my swimsuit line, where I am the only one able to admire it regularly.

I explained that I liked to have hidden things—things no one knows about me. I didn’t need mind reading powers to know what she was thinking: everyone has hidden things, and not in permanent ink on their bodies.

I realize now, twenty years after my mother’s death, that my butterfly tattoo, besides rebellion, is a symbol of something else—a remnant from my childhood that I tried to hold on to, make permanent, and safeguard in some way. Something I look at only when I am alone and naked.

Oct 18, 2010

Elementary Justice

The freezing rule was serious business. If any of us were caught moving after the first whistle, the punishments could be as severe as no recess for a week or a note sent home to our parents.

I once saw Nolan, the tall ringleader of the group of boys that called me Skinny-Bone-Jones, dragged off by the teacher on duty for moving after the whistle. At the next recess he sat on the blacktop against the blue cement wall of the school building, scowling at the teacher who stood watch over him.

I was usually a good girl. But you couldn’t give me a rule and expect me not to think about it good and hard. If I learned anything in Social Studies, it was that rules were meant to be challenged.

The freezing rule had a flaw, and I soon found it. “What if the whistle blows and I can’t stop moving?” I thought. “What if I was on a swing, or jumping in mid-air? Surely they couldn’t punish me for coming down to earth after the whistle.”

I tried various ways of challenging the rule by attempting to be in a mid-air position at whistle time. The problem was that I still couldn’t tell time, so I didn’t know exactly when the whistle was going to blow. I tried dallying on the high bar, spinning around and around, but other girls were waiting in line, and I missed the whistle every time. I finally came up with a perfect strategy: I would do cartwheels around the playground all recess long.

The next recess, I circled the field like a pinwheel of bony arms and legs. The grass was still damp from the overnight fog that had blown out over the ocean. Blades of it stuck to my wet hands. I counted to myself, so that I would know for future reference how many cartwheels long was morning recess.

“What’cha doing?” asked Andrea, a girl whose constant hunger made her chew her hair.

“Nothing,” I said, panting.

The playground and the sky swung in and out of the horizon as if on a hinge. After thirty cartwheels, my head felt strange and wobbly. I righted myself and shook it fiercely until the far chain-link fence came into focus, then I continued. I passed a group of boys playing marbles; each time I passed, they looked up.

The sounds of recess echoed far into the neighborhood. Dizzy now, I felt somehow far away from it, as if watching myself. I heard the tether ball chain clang against the metal pole, and the swarming, chirping sound of kids playing.

After cartwheel number one hundred, I began to imagine the scene as it would surely play out. The straw-haired teacher with the mole on her lip would drag me by the elbow to the office. My classmates would watch from their statue-like poses, as I kicked and screamed and asserted my innocence. In the principal’s office, I would stand in the middle of a wood-paneled arena, where I would have my say in front of my judges and prove that the rule was flawed.

When it finally happened, and my feet came down after the whistle, I closed my eyes and waited for my destiny. I felt all eyes upon me, and I waited for the teachers to swarm in. I smiled, knowing I had already outsmarted them.

This is not me. My parents stopped taking pictures of me after age 5. But it's a great shot.

Oct 17, 2010

Time Travel Made Easy

This post was originally published in January 2009, in the no longer MadasHellClub.net ezine.

My interest in time travel was recently renewed when I was asked to the prom. My prom was 12 years ago. Here is a picture:

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That’s because I didn’t go. I never felt any regret about it either—until I met S, who would have been my ideal prom date in 1995.

When he asked me I said yes—how could I resist? The possibilities thrilled me. I even picked out dresses. But the problem with anticipating a date that has already happened is that there is no way to put it on the calendar.

This annoyed me. I thought around it for weeks. What was stopping me, really? Flux capacitors came to mind, as did crystals, spells, and turnclocks. Do we travel through time? I pondered, Or do we remain stationary and it travels through us?

I was at a poetry reading at MOMA when I first heard the idea, attributed to quantum physics, that events change their order as they move further away from us in time. History is not a linear progression: Bono tours the USSR, Abe Lincoln puts on his pants, and Christ is born in a stable.

The idea that time and space can bend and wrap is not that hard for me to buy into, especially given the positioning of my childhood around all the important time travel movies, such as the Back to the Future trilogy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dr. Who, Somewhere in Time, and a dozen others.

Do I believe time travel is possible? Most days, no. But there’s a kicker; I also believe that if you believe hard enough, anything is possible.

A few years ago, after a after a time travel movie binge, my brain reached a state of nirvana where I figured out the key to time travel. My theory was this: we all exist in three places at once—the past, the present, and the future. Time manipulation was possible, I believed, if by thinking hard enough, I could communicate with my other selves. For one moment of perfect concentration I knew I had found the key to what scientists and crackpots had been trying to figure out for years. I then fell into an exhausted sleep and forgot the whole thing.

Recently, while reading a book on Quantum Physics, I remembered my theory. The sudden remembering seemed to me an example of my past and future selves trying to communicate with present me to give me the information I needed to get to the prom. (Thanks ladies.)

In Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve does something similar. He dresses up in period clothing, buys old money and “concentrates” his way back to 1912. It works in the movie. They are vague on the kind of concentration required, but I have figured it out. It is not college mid-term kind of brain power. Not even the most enlightened Buddhist kind of concentration will do it.

If you want to know the secret, it’s joy—the pure joy of a child whose alertness to possibilities and romantic readiness all but spin her our of orbit. If one were able to concentrate all this joy they had, load it, and aim it—nothing could hold them to time or space.

The only way for S and I to get to prom is to multiply our joy until it we almost blast off, then get into the green VW Thing—him in a ruffled shirt, me in a lacy, mid-ninety’s prom dress—hold hands, and drive.