Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I regret something.

When I decided to take this job and move us back to California, I figured it would be notice too short for finding a house. I expected to move into an apartment, and I was okay with it. In time, I thought, my investor mother and brother would find a little house somewhere to buy and would rent it to us.

They had the same idea. In fast-forward. By the time I arrived, they had clinched the deal of the century on a home-- a condo-like thingy in a planned community which was evidently intended as a retirement community. It's next to a swamplike corridor they call "the green belt of Arroyo Grande"-- I suppose it's the big ditch in question-- and it is therefore duck-adjacent. It's perfect for us.

It's also perfect for the person who lives there now. She's being offered a month's free rent by her previous landlord to make up for the gravely unhappy-making surprise of being requested to move out as soon as possible, as well as $1000 by my family if she is willing to relocate within 30 days, rather than the 60 the law requires them to allow her.

I have my doubts that she'll be out even by the time 60 days roll by. Evidently, she has lived there for 7 years and is devastated that this sale has taken place. It's not like her landlord could warn her in advance; he didn't know he was going to sell it until my folks contacted him about it.

She has a lot in common with us. She's in her early 40s and just got her (advanced) degree. She rehabilitates wounded birds, which people throughout the community bring to her (fortunately, so do we, so if they bring them to us we will have some idea what to do-- maybe I will ask that someone tell her so, in case this information can answer a concern for her.) She has a big silly looking cat, who was gracing the windowsill when we went to ogle the property. I feel that she must be a kindred soul.

A bird person, a cat person, a lover of wildlife, a midlife academic. What stories could we tell each other? Might we go birding together? What did she study-- and how has the experience been for her? We could probably hang out.

And it is because of me that she is being evicted.


It's a done deal. And I want her to move out, impatiently, urgently, desperately. I want to dig in and start living the life I've chosen. But there is a cost. And if she was not this person who appeals to me in the abstract, she would still be somebody...

When I was a kid I won first prize at a science fair (ooh, be impressed) because my mom helped me design a project showing that water seeks its own level. A tube shaped in a J and a tube shaped in a U have something in common-- the water settles at the bottom and it's the same height on both sides of the tube. I guess I could have followed up on that and been a plumber... instead I did my Master's thesis on hydraulics and irrigation law.

Whatever I may think about "hydraulic" theories of social organization, I cannot help but think that hydrodynamics and society have something in common. Two things cannot coexist in the same space (unless, like Kool-Aid powder and water, they can combine to make another and slightly bigger thing... and depending on how molecular you want to get with all that, of course); one displaces the other. Conflicting economic systems. Duelling nationalisms (squeal like a pig, boy!) People who compete for a job, or, as in my case and the bird rescuer's, for a place to live.

I feel like a nasty person because I know what is happening. I think that most renters don't get the chance to find out what happened to previous renters, and don't feel this guilt, this sense of connection, this feeling of unworthiness.

I try to be responsible, humane, and compassionate. Responsible: I buy products that do the least harm possible to my fellow man, to animals, and to the environment. Humane: I do what I can for the less fortunate and those who cannot speak for themselves. Compassionate: I am nice to strangers, I try not to ruin people's days or lives, and I help wounded animals. And yet, here I go... getting recent graduate students and their flock of wounded birds evicted because I want a taste of the rich life.

So, yes, I guess I regret something. I regret discovering that I am, after all, a greedy bastard who displaces people just like myself, and I regret being that bastard. I don't know what to say; it's a done deal, and it's going to happen. Rip the Band-Aid off quickly.

Boy, I sure hope she finds a beautiful home where her birdies are welcome, and fast!

Brownies, candle shops, and gun oil

Claudette was fatigued and my Mom had had about all she could take. "I don't want to tire her," she whispered to Claudette's granddaughter, and hugged her goodbye. Off we went. Mom was still smiling sweetly and bravely, but there was grateful hysteria in her eyes as we left.

Hospitals really are labyrinthine. Cruising along with my limping mother, who gasps every time she takes weight off her mangled right knee, with nothing much to say and not knowing how to say anything without taxing Mom's strained resolve, I wished that we were closer to the exit.

We got within 30 feet of the double glass doors that led out to banks of succulents and flowers, and sweet freedom and relief for my poor mother. And then...

"Myrna?!" a woman asked. She looked familiar: red hair gone largely white bound in a ponytail, olive drab pants, hippie jewelry and black wife-beater, freckles, a face so much like my own that she HAD to be family, but who? She was accompanied by a woman in her late teens or early twenties with the round smug face of the young, dressed in badly fitted hip-hugger jeans and a top that exposed the belly that bubbled up above them.

"Judy, how nice to see you!" Mom said. "What have you been up to? And how is your mom?"

Ah, my father's cousin Judy, then. My favorite of his cousins, really-- accepting, individual, less churchy than many of the others. And her mother, my great Aunt Evelyn, whom I adored. For some reason, I had been convinced that Aunt Evelyn had passed on just before my maternal grandmother, Grandma Red, whose fishing buddy she had been.

"About 5'9"," Judy laughed. We groaned. Mom's eyes had become wide with hospital panic, white around the entire chocolate brown irises. "She's no taller than you, now."

The other woman, callow with youth, interjected, "And can't remember things longer than about five minutes."

Judy crowed. "Elizabeth, you give her too much credit! Thirty seconds, maybe. Depending on what kind of thing it is, of course. If it's something you mention casually, it's like two seconds."

"Yeah," Elizabeth howled.

"Myrna, this is Elizabeth, she's my son's girlfriend. She's just here for pre-op. Anyone else, I would say they're my ex-cousins, but Myrna will always be my cousin, and Linda is her daughter. And are you back?" Judy asked me.

"Yes, I got a job here-- I've just moved back, as of yesterday."

"Cool! Good! Come to see us-- and come to see Mom, she'd love to see you."

"I will," I promised. Elizabeth looked at me doubtfully. I smiled at her.

Mom was looking at the open doors, tortured. "I hate to do this, Judy, but we've got to go-- It's great to see you, and God, you're looking good!"

"It's great to see you," Judy and I told each other, and hugged quickly as Mom charged for the exit. "You look terrific," I told Judy, who really does-- she's lost probably a hundred pounds, her eyes and skin are clear and bright, and she needs, and wears, no cosmetics. "You too," she said, but I don't; at least I was dressed up a bit.

She turned at the last moment and said, "Oh-- you smell good." I called thanks and jogged to catch up with Mom, who was all but gone like the Roadrunner after a particularly good prank on Wile E. Coyote, leaving a cartoon puff of dust and a zing sound.

I do try very hard to smell good.

I am fond of my perfume. It's ludicrously named "The Exact Friction of Stars." What I like about it is that it always changes. It goes on smelling of chocolate and orange peel, then warms with vanilla and cinnamon. Then it smells faintly like a candle shop, with bursts of chocolate like that brownie-baking smell you get sometimes on the Dan Ryan at night. It's not strong and it doesn't leave a sillage scent trail, but it doesn't let itself be forgotten, either.

The other day I was talking to my brother about it; he was telling me how nice it was, and I told him I liked its restlessness-- which was what he'd noticed. I got out of the car to run an errand, and when I came back he was laughing. "Did you know that your perfume leaves behind a note that takes me way back..."

I laughed. "They're all food smells, how can it not?"

"No, to when I was working at the gun club." He used to pull skeet down in the chilly bunkers of the gun club. He's as afraid of spiders as Mom is of pain, and there were Black Widows; he did a lot of growing up on that job. "It has some combination of scents that add up to... well, to gun oil."

I laughed a lot.

"That's not bad," he said. "It's not a bad smell."

"Now that you mention it, I can smell it too. Oh well. It's still me, I guess."

He grinned. "It's perfect for you. Chocolate and cinnamon, backed by gun oil."

You know, they ought to market it that way.

Blogging my mother: Claudette

My mother is a pistol.

She's one of those people who gives of herself for the people she loves until she bleeds. She's brisk, energetic, opinionated, stubborn, vain, and not afraid to tell you about any of it... yet she uses childlike euphemisms for sex and body parts, is grossed out by potty humor, and is touched to the point of tears by sweet things even as she recoils from their "ick factor." She's a very type A personality, unlike me. It's not that she plans it that way so that she can dominate me-- far to the contrary. She wishes that I were an "alpha," too; last month she gently explained to me that a lot of my problems stem from not standing up for myself enough. (She is probably right in many respects.)

One thing about her, though: she's mortally afraid of pain and sickness. Hospitals are anathema to her. She becomes shivering and soft-eyed in them, and she will allow her own illnesses to go untreated for preposterous stretches of time because she is afraid, deathly afraid, of sharing human suffering.

And yet...

When I was a child, Mom's best friend was Betsy. Betsy was another mother to me: the one who smoked like a train, drank socially and joyfully, told dirty jokes, made shy-making comments about my budding body, Armor-All'd the seats of her white Lincoln Continental so that when she went driving for puddles to splash pedestrians (yes), we kids would slide around helplessly in the back seat and flounder (take that, seat belt laws.) Betsy was larger than life. It would have been a blow for anyone to be diagnosed with lymphoma cancer, and to be given six months to live, but because Betsy was the person she was, it stung and stank of lese majesty.

(We were kids. We didn't understand what cancer was, but we thought it was pretty bad. We knew it "ate people up," so I thought it meant that there would be holes in Betsy like Swiss cheese. I was a sheltered kid... when I discovered that I had a hole in me that I hadn't found before, I ran screaming to my mother, hysterical and sure that it was cancer. Anyway...)

Mom was there by her side for the 12 years during which the doctors cured her of cancer and treatments killed her. She traveled to other cities to accompany Betsy when she went for special treatments. She helped Betsy around the house. She stayed with her, holding her hand and letting Betsy tell her dirty jokes*, in every hospital Betsy inhabited. She just squared her little jaw and put on a bright and businesslike "alpha" voice, and went along. I don't know that she ever told Betsy how mortally miserable hospitals made her, but I suspect not; she told me, and then she went and did it, and I went along and didn't say a word.

(*The one I really remember is the one-liner about chemotherapy making one's pubic hair fall out, and that that could turn any pair of slippers into fuzzy bunny slippers. Yeah.)

When I was a teenager, I became aware of a connective tissue disorder that made me stretchy, because I dislocated just about all of the joints in my body, one at a time or in small groups (as when I tumbled downstairs). Mom came with me into the ER dozens of times, sitting beside me and watching so that the doctors didn't pull any fast ones, I guess. I felt so bad for her. She fussed after me at home, too, but insisted that I "man up" and do the things I ought to, even injured. I owe her so much for instilling this grit in me.

When my grandmother got sick, Mom put her into a senior care center. I was furious that she didn't provide home care, just acquire a caretaker or two and bring Grandma Red back home where she belonged, but I am starting to realize what it must have meant to Mom to go to the hospital as often as she could and sit among the elderly, weak, sick, and dying. She must certainly have felt that it was the best solution, because otherwise she'd have been out of there like a scalded cat. She was with Grandma when she passed on. It has been over three years, and she hasn't put one glance on Grandma's things, which are in storage where my brother's friends put them; that is my job. Sure, it seems eccentric... but it may give insight into the depths of her terror of death.

Now, Kathy is my mother's best friend. She is loving, filled with the spirit of celebration, with a ribald sense of humor but a sense of propriety that tames her down to my mother's demure level of expression when she is not actively telling a joke. She reminds me of Betsy, kind of. Kathy is very close to her family, including her mother, Claudette.

Claudette is one of those souls who beams love upon everybody she meets. With a wry and irreverent sense of humor, unquenchable interest about what people do and how they live, and a radiating sense of peace and tranquility, religious faith and faith in humanity, she touched my heart from the first time I met her. And Claudette, I am sorry to say, is dying.

She has been through six kinds of primary cancer (not metastasized from other cancers; they arrived fully formed, like Athena from Jupiter's forehead, and evidently invited their friends). The sixth and most heinous is a large brain tumor they found when she was experiencing dizziness and weakness on one side after they removed her ovarian cancer. They thought it was a stroke, but tests showed it to be a tumor the size of a walnut. They did surgery to remove it, knowing that it would only buy her time; it was more the size of a fist, and, according to my mom, they had to take out practically a whole hemisphere of her brain. It was already into the bone of her skull, and she is in trouble.

Claudette is unchanged, miraculously. She has trouble telling right from left, but she is herself. She says she wants the Colts to win the Super Bowl, because she has a C-shaped scar on her head. I figure she'll be okay either way, since the Bears have that huge C-for-Chicago. She asks who is the patron saint of farts, because her tummy's feeling gassy. She is making prophecies (she told my Mom that we were going to have kids, soon!) and asking boons. Less inspiringly but with sarcastic, lucid irreverence for what her caretakers want, she pleads for us to smuggle her some Aspercreme for her sore legs, which are tumescent, nearly black, and torturing her.

Mom has been visiting her three or four times a day, because Kathy is her friend. She brings chocolate cream pie, sandwiches, hot tea, her children, good cheer and brisk compassion, something every time. When I accompanied her, she fussed briefly and secretly in the car about the hospital-- how she hates them, how labyrinthine they are and how painful it is for her to march their length with her knees destroyed by degenerative arthritis, how awful it is to be among the sick and the silent and the dying. And then she got out of the car and marched in, smiling.

I am proud to be with her in the hospital, so proud. I am glad I went along to visit Claudette-- glad because I got to see Claudette, but more glad because I was there for my Mom in a moment of weakness that others won't even see. My mother's toughness is miraculous. No matter how astonished or cowed or frustrated I can be by this "alpha" personality, there are other times when my envy and admiration are so great I can hardly choke them down.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I'm going back to Cali, to Cali, to Cali...

Still filled with did-I-do-the-right-thing jitters after a great send-off party (complete with a survival kit in case of zombie apocalypse), and feeling guilty because I didn't do nearly my share of packing our 18 years of crap for the move, I got up early to fly to California and begin this new phase of my life. My stomach was fluttering with nervous butterflies and I was tearful. I am unaccustomed to being separated from my better half and partner; hey, I'm co-dependent and I know it. And an absurd sense of shame dogged me.

I was going home, to the shelter of the dry spot under my mother's wing, to the place where I'd been a dreadful and bitchy teenager plagued by all kinds of social incompetence and emotional melodrama, the place where I had grown up. All the half-strangers who composed my extended family lived there. My grandmothers had died there, recently; when I was a toddler, my grandfathers died there. The many friends I had loved and fallen out of correspondence with, or shunned, or alienated, or with whom my relationships had dramatically altered over the years as I learned to erect barricades over too much intimacy lived there. My mother's friends, my brother's friends.

When I was ready to go, I bundled out into the fresh snow with my luggage. The city looked like a pearl, sparkling white, coated in an inch of untouched, dry, glittering snow. It was like walking on an enormous wedding cake. The wheels of my lime-green suitcase cut the first tracks into the gorgeous stuff beneath me as I fidgeted in the intense cold. It was Sunday morning, and as still and quiet as a church. Two sleepy cardinals said "swee!" to one another in the trees behind the house.

I looked forward to the Meditteranean weather and the landscape that is etched onto my psyche indelibly as home. The sere and golden hills like the flanks of a lounging lioness. The restless sea and the blossom-hued sunsets. Clouds all the shades of fire opals, scudding across the water and dancing swiftly overland. I wanted to be as done with leaden sky, sodden earth, ice-rimmed lakefront, and flooded cityscape as I was with the caustic environment of academia. Yet I loved Chicago too-- the matter-of-fact and cordial people who greeted me in the street, the glory of old brick buildings clustered on tiptoe, on top of one another, the torrential summer rains and silent, sparkling winter snowfalls.

There is never a moment more agonizing for me than saying goodbye to someone I love for a while. It stretched on for ages this time. First one party, then another, and finally the rushed and awkward farewells to my geriatric cat and my supportive partner. (You think a farewell to a cat can't be awkward? Oh, it is if you pick her up with snow gloves for the first time in her life. She screeched in terror and I felt like a heel.)

It was a beautiful flight, in a very sparsely populated plane. I got to watch as we flew over a country as elaborately gowned in white as a bride, but patched where canals drew borders around perfect rectangles of field, and traced with darkly lacy oakleaf patterns where the waterways broke the soft snow with ice or liquid water. Eventually the white gave way to the wan browns and greens of winter fields in warm places, and the richly earthy majesty of the Grand Canyon. I lost track of the scenery as I dozed, but when I awoke, it was my lioness hills that spread below, and I was home.

For almost two decades I have mocked the people who stayed home or crawled home after being scorched by the world: the security guards, the salespeople, the gardeners, the "breeders." I have a hideously stubborn tenacity that made me hang in there far longer than I ought to have, trying to achieve an advanced degree in an underpaid and impacted field without the help of caring committee members. I called it principle. It was prodigal foolishness, and now, the prodigal daughter, I have had enough of principle. I want a home, a garden, a car. I want fair weather. I want the decision to have children or not to be in my hands, not those of professors who do not care and do not have a stake in the matter. I want to have the resources and comforts that people my age have attained, when they have not sacrificed their standard of living for their intellectual standards. And it felt absurd, carnivalesque, to find that I envy the people I have mocked for so long. I was humbled, reborn; I did not know what to say to justify my long preoccupations and projects, or to explain why I have abandoned hobbies, correspondences, family, home, and materiality. Embarrassment seized me.

As the plane landed and I debarked, I suddenly realized that I had already moved. I was committed to a new lifestyle, and I had already done it, already gone home. Was it a terrible mistake, crawling back under the wing of home and returning to the place of my adolescence? I was paralyzed with nerves. Would my mother and I quarrel? Would I have any independence? Would I be enslaved by guilt for my many debts to my mother and brother? Would we fight about politics, about race, about religion, about food? About Dubya and the Governator? About racism and globalization? About pig bones and giant whales? About vegetarianism and Atkins?

Not so far, no. I feel welcome, and although I am still freaked out by the strangeness of "home," I think I've done the right thing. The tears that the hills bring to my eyes are my evidence. I feel like I've abandoned some of my adult self's paths, but I am still an adult, and I am still myself. My options are what have changed: I have a job, I have a home, I am close to people who will not let me be erased by my having abandoned my education.

I miss the white-sequined charms of frozen Chicago already, and have already passionately missed, from the time I decided to commit to this move, my dear, true, and brilliant friends there. Like a cat that cannot decide on which side of the door it wants to be, I am barely here and cannot wait to see you again.

All right. Enough of the bellyaching.

The name of this blog holds true. Although I miss you and what I am doing feels strange, I regret nothing.