Saturday, December 20, 2003

St. Harold's Day

Insomnia is stalking me. Stayed up too late again last night, accomplishing nothing, making lists. Finally fell asleep thinking about my grandfathers, doing incantations, visualizing their bodies changing from very old to....less old. To the way I best remember them.

Morning dream. My grandmother Julia stands weeping at a funeral. I don't know whose funeral it is, but people are standing around under a large, white tent. They mingle at the edge of what I assume is the grave. Green astroturf under foot. Atmosphere is part funeral, part outdoor wedding. People with pro-union placards (?) mill around the periphery. Friends of the deceased? My grandfather Tom is there, looking like his current, addled self. But he sees Julia, his wife, and is moved to improve. He totters toward her, and his face becomes less shrunken. His hair changes from white to charcoal grey. He embraces her and they begin to dance.

I sit up with a start. But I have been shaken to wakefulness by happiness, not fear.

Phone rings downstairs. I hear Adam talking, making his way upstairs to me, where I still sit in bed. Adam is saying, "I'm so sorry," and I know that my grandfather has died. But Tom was dancing. Who has died? Which grandfather?

We went to the movies. We went too early to the movies and so spent some time killing time in a pet shop before the show. Adam hollered for me to come see a tiny fish who was food for the others in his tank. They had bitten off the back half of the little guy, so he looked like an unfinished fish sketch—just a terrified head and fins. The fins beat insistently, as if to impel the front part of the fish free from his predators and from the trailing wound of his missing half. But the effort was doomed. Without his tail, the fish kept sinking, nose-first, to the tank's pebble floor.

We screamed at the other fish. Go get him! Finish him off! He's stuck and he's dying! But the other fish sailed blithely over the devastation below.

We went to the movies. We forgot ourselves and crying for two whole hours. We stared and blinked with absent smiles.

Harold. Sweet, saintly, Pop-pop Harold has gone. Tom remains.

Peace come. Peace come. Still waiting on peace.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Clichés and Vanities

There are faces that only a mother can love, and I know that my mother loved mine. But hope springs eternal, and that's why she has so often sought to improve me. It all started in grade school, four or five years into my ugly phase. We had our first seventh grade "mixer" (This was Catholic school, so, yes, they were still called mixers.) and I didn't want to go. But Mom bought a whole outfit and laid it out on my bed, as if it were being modeled by a hipper, flatter me. From bottom to top: Yellow slouch socks. White pants, stylishly tapered at the ankle. A blouse with fat, vertical, yellow-and-white stripes. A matching yellow mesh scarf (to be worn around the head, Madonna-style). And giant, triangular, yellow plastic earrings.

Would you believe? I was a hit. And I started to like mixers after that. Mom could be counted on to at least give me the appearance of cool. Later that year, she picked out a Hawaiian outfit for a classmate's luau and slathered my freckles in blush.

By the summer after 8th grade, I still wasn't improving much. And so Mom decided to "highlight" my darkening brownish-red hair. I was trusting in a way that most soon-to-be 14-year-olds are not. And so I didn't even get upset when an inevitable highlighting mishap required an emergency trip to the drug store, this time for an all-over dye that would cover up the streaks. She would touch up this all-over job every couple of months.

By 10th grade, at Mom's urging, I was as blonde again as I'd been at age three.

That was 16 years ago, and I've been blonde ever since. Once or twice I've tried to go redder or browner, but the color always washes out again. And so that's how I've looked for a long time now. Pale hair to match my very pale skin. (Don't even get me started on Mom's efforts to make me fake tan, or the fake-tan handprint that accompanied me to the junior prom.)

A college friend (with glossy black hair) once opined that blondes get more credit for being good-looking than they deserve. "It's a crutch," said Ilana, of people who lightened their hair. "Thank goodness," I remember thinking privately. After all, why not let the ordinary-looking among us work with what we've got?

But it's a drag running chemicals through my scalp every 5 weeks (no matter how adroit I've become at doing so). And there are few successful blonde women in academia. (The only ones I can think of are "personalities," are over 50, and are tenured.) So, yesterday, I decided to get back to my roots. Today I stare in the mirror at someone who looks very much like she did when she was twelve.

Mom gave up years ago on making me beautiful. But she won't appreciate this step backward. Meanwhile—much as I hate to admit it—my new, darker 'do has me feeling a bit smarter.

And also a bit more invisible.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Eyes Have It

Adam distrusts dentists. So this morning, when ours asked him to open wide, he flipped the guy to the ground and demanded to know why he had gone into the business of pain. The terrified hygienist tried to intervene, but Adam held her at bay with the dentist's scraper and warned her that she was just as complicit.

By chance, today we also were supposed to pick up Adam's new glasses. And this pleased us enormously, because going to the eye doc's for new specs appeals to one's vanity, or at least one's desire for self-reinvention. Going to the dentist, on the other hand, offers nothing more than a free toothbrush to accompany the admonitions.

A visit to the eye doctor is an exercise in self-indulgence. A visit to the dentist is an exercise in shame.

Why? It's all about our mortality and how it signifies. Glasses—especially for those of us who have had them for almost as long as we've had eyes—can represent dignity, erudition. Your eyes are wearing out because you're so industrious, don't you know.

But let your teeth or gums change just a little bit and that's a moral failing. You slovenly thing. The proof that you're aging—nay, that you're dying—is right there between your lips.

In the movie world, one can whip off one's glasses and become exquisite. The love object's heart swells, along with the background music. Beauty and youth have shed their disguise!

But try whipping out your retainer and see what kind of reaction that gets you. Precious few of us find airborne drool endearing. Get thee to the bleaching strips before we take those teeth away from you.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Mome Raths

Graduate school subtracts ten years from your financial and emotional maturity. Or so a fellow grad school traveler once told me, as he and I marveled at the surge of college friends marrying and breeding without us. So am I a decade younger than my peers? Or a decade behind?

A hairdresser's magazine had the answer. Turns out a divorce adds ten years to your life. So, like Alice and the queen, I made the sprint, yet stayed in place.

Time slips, stutters, bends. Every time you turn around, or stand long enough in a supermarket check-out, you’ll find the tests to discern your "real age." 'Fess up your naughty habits. Try not to stretch your virtues. And maybe it turns out that, although you’re a chronological 31, your love of kale and propensity for washing your hands has kept you a biological 27. Or else—alas!—your job as a coalminer and your weakness for cheese curds make you a biological 49. Do you prefer dark chocolate and lift weights? Younger! Do you hate your job and drive a wee car? Older! Now send us your address and $29.95 and we’ll send you a complete nutritional analysis…

Time twists, lunges, hides its face.

Last week, I went “home,” which is to say that I went to my parents’ house. And that home is a good place, although I do have a hard time finding my “real age” within it. Home time is a teaser. The hours of the day creep, then race. One moment I’m a child, her high-floating voice full of question marks. And the next, I’ve darted ahead of all our moments. From the other side of our looking glass, I double-see all present interactions with elegiac ache.

I was stuck “home” on account of a snow storm. And that’s only fitting, since snow storms were, once upon a time, a happy phenomenon that could derail time out of time. A worthy snow storm would toss out the quotidian rhythms of school and practices and merrily lump you in. You could linger all afternoon in pajamas and drink a book by the window and not even be aware—until another’s exclamation about ruined eyes—that early winter shadows had sneaked in and killed the day.

Time rubs its eyes. Time’s belly growls.

Through four hours and perhaps forty radio stations I drove north toward a different home, in Central New York. The earth slid from white to whiter and deeper and, oh, to have just a moment’s sleep in all that snow.

I walked back through our door and all seems too perfectly remembered here, so harmoniously outside-of-time. You are real but you are not real. Because, if you are real, my love, what happens to them? But there is this mottled brown kitchen floor. And there are these cats, and the familiar scent in his skin. There is no stereoscope to make these two homes, two selves blend to one. No stereoscope. No cross-eyed clock. No galumphing forward or back, just home.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Maybe the worst is over

My mother-in-law and I spoke of Barbara Kingsolver and what seemed to us her absurdly lucky life. But then I realized that any life sounds serendipitous when narrated with a sense of gratitude.