Monday, January 10, 2005

Misunderstood Desks (part 2)

What happened next? What did happen next? Do I relate this story with mirth? bile? melancholy? regret?

Do I start with the double-dealing author, who left her box of secrets in our garage? Or do I begin a little farther back, when life tugged at our edges, and we all got out of town?

Start with the desk. The bamboo desk is gone. Enter a third desk, which once belonged to the woman who sold us this house. She was a writer (on the lam, it turned out), and a mighty serious desk she left behind.

Mission style. Imitation Stickley. Dark oak stain. Nearly as deep and wide as a twin bed.

We were glad to buy some of the writer’s furniture. What little furniture we’d had wasn’t worth hauling across the country. What little furniture we kept included only the few irreplaceable pieces, my grandmother’s table among them.

Adam had purchased the writer’s desk for me as a wedding present. My desk having again become a kitchen table, the new desk was meant to fill the void. The writer had written her books on this very surface, said Adam. He said he hoped it would bring me inspiration.

I ran my hands over the majestic desk and felt like a pianist who has forgotten how to play.

The writer, it turns out, wasn’t the nicest person. If I had once believed that all creative people were kind, I know better now. I also know better the limits of my own kindness.

The writer lied. About the condition of the house. About having paid for the new roof. About having lived in the house at all. (She’d evicted her tenants—a woman and her elderly father—just before we met her.) The writer fled to the West Coast and demanded more money. Although we were, in accordance with the sale contract, already living in the house, she threatened to renege on closing the sale.

What a lovely desk. What a horrid woman. I tossed our copies of her books out into the rain. Adam rescued the books and tried to hide them from me. We quarreled. I stalked off to the garage.

I found in the garage a box that didn’t belong to us. The box was marked “PRIVATE.” “To be burned in the event of my death,” it said. An upstanding person would have restored the box to its rightful owner. And that, my friends, is exactly what I did.

But first I took the box to Kinko’s. And I photocopied each and every page.

Sitting at the writer's desk, I found my tongue felt mute and dry. I buried the desk in the xeroxed pages—one of which, I hoped, would hold a cure.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Stupid Injuries

Sometimes I think I am the queen of stupid injuries. I have been knocked out while running to first base. I have fractured my foot by toppling over a suitcase full of books. I have stabbed my forehead (accidentally, I assure you) with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Yesterday, I may have sustained the stupidest injury of all. I sprained two fingers and put a bloody gash in one hand....while trying to break apart a block of dark chocolate.

(P.S. It was worth it.)

Friday, January 07, 2005

Misunderstood Desks (part 1)

If you wanted to rough somebody up, you could send Tony Soprano. If you needed some muscle to make your point, you could maybe send Lucy Lawless. If you need someone sweet-faced to deliver flowers to your grandmother, then you could send my brother Ben or me.

Physically imposing, we are not. We’re both tall enough—Ben’s just under 6 foot—but people tend to mistake us for smaller and younger than we are. Scrawny-armed and narrow of shoulder, we’re often described as skinny, lanky, or slight. We are freckle-specked. We are baby-faced. We are, in the words of an elderly friend, “a couple of tall drinks of water.”

We also do not care to be underestimated.

My brother Ben is my kindred spirit. Although he does not like to be told so, he is the sister I never had. I’ve adored him and felt totally connected to him from the moment he was born, and there is no other family member who means as much to me. So I was pleased as can be when, just after my divorce and his college graduation, Ben came to Minnesota to live near me.

Ben has few material needs. The joke in our family is that if you give him $300 in June, by December he’ll still have $250. He moved to Minnesota with a minimum of possessions — just a futon and a suitcase of clothes. All he really needed was a proper desk. So we began scouring the city’s thrift and antique shops, in search of the perfect piece.

I would not have picked it out. (Probably I had been imagining older and darker wood.) But Ben recognized it as the right desk right away. It was a ‘60s-vintage, and was in some ways quite traditional, with one over-the-lap drawer and three vertically stacked drawers on either side. But each of the drawers was outlined in three-dimensional, faux-bamboo accents, as were the legs and back of the matching chair. And the entire desk had been brushed with pale-white paint, flecked with the occasional highlights of lemon and gold.

We had never seen anything quite like it. And that, of course, was part of the desk’s charm. It had been marked down from $200 to $120. The price tag represented an enormous splurge, but Ben decided it would be worth it. The desk was sturdy and well-made and, after weeks of searching, Ben was feeling very committed to it. Delivery would cost us an extra $40, which was irksome, but necessary. We blanched a little at shelling out that kind of cash, but were otherwise giddy, the desk mission accomplished.

I wrote the check. I remember that because, as I signed it, the antique store owner informed us that we would owe yet another forty dollars – this for a “truck loading fee.” I thought at first he must be joking. He and his assistant had just lugged the desk to the front door, and had exclaimed about how heavy it was. The desk was a great deal heftier than it looked. Ben and I had briefly tested its weight, and quickly assessed it as both solid and unwieldy. But yet another forty dollars? Eighty extra dollars to transport a desk just half a mile up the street? I felt we were being suckered, and said so, as politely as I could.

“If you want the desk, you’ll pay the fee,” said the shop owner. “Because, obviously, you can’t carry it off on your own.”

Okay, that sounded like a dare.

If only we hadn’t parked the little Jetta right outside the shop’s plate glass window. Ten minutes later, Ben and I were doing our best to play it cool while the shop owner and all five of his employees gaped at our progress. Fueled either by indignation or pride, we’d managed to hoist the desk, upside-down, to the roof of the car. The many drawers and chair we’d tumbled, Testris-style, into the trunk and back seat. Now we were placidly (or so we hoped) lashing the desk in place with rope. “Tie the knots tightly,” Ben smiled through clenched teeth. “The last thing we need is for this thing to come crashing off as we make our getaway.”

Ah, the getaway. Knots in place, Ben and I grinned triumphantly at each other across our upended treasure and each grabbed for a door handle. Alas, in securing the desk to the roof, we’d tied all the doors shut. Through our frozen smiles, we may have managed a curse word or two.

Fortunately, the two tall drinks of water knew exactly how to salvage the situation. We are children of the 80s. We know our Dukes of Hazzard. We leapt blithely through the car’s open front windows and drove away, cackling at our own surprising aplomb.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


To WRITE every day. That's been my one and only resolution for 2005.

In tandem with that promise, I also resolve to be KINDER to myself (that is, to shun regret and self-loathing) and to be HARDER on myself (to banish fear and laziness).

I’d also like to put a muzzle on my self-conscious self, the voice that’s screaming right now about how egocentric my resolutions appear. “But, Cello, they’re all about YOU and nobody else.”

Just let this be a start, okay? Just let this be a start.

(Later: The Fine Print)

Monday, January 03, 2005

The war that was supposed to end all wars

Despite my present dismay for the country of my birth, I remain captivated by U.S. history. But "my" periods—that is, the periods I've written about, and those I find most intriguing — have always been the 1930s and the 1960s/1970s.

Tonight, however, I felt lucky to catch the second half of an absorbing PBS documentary (honest! that's not an oxymoron!) about Woodrow Wilson, the "Great War," and the failed League of Nations. This has fed my growing obsession with the period 1914-1920. So, too, have other chance encounters in popular culture. Over Christmas, I read Margaret Atwood's remarkable The Blind Assassin, which is partially set in that period. On New Year's Eve, we watched Gods and Monsters, which turned out to have a World War I sub-plot. And I recently obtained (but have not yet screened) a copy of "Iron-Jawed Angels", about the circa-1919 women's suffrage movement.

Meanwhile, A Very Long Engagement is showing at our neighborhood's little theatre this week. Three guesses where Adam and I will be tomorrow night...

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The First Desk

I wrote my dissertation at my Nana's kitchen table. Or, rather, I wrote it at the cherry wood table that had been my Nana's for many years before she died.

This was the table that my poor-as-church-mice grandparents had received as a wedding gift. It was the table at which my mother took most of her meals while growing up. It was the table that moved with me to Minnesota in the middle nineties, and which became my writing desk.

Eight years passed. The desk had a pattern of grooves, all the better for stopping a rolling pencil. The desk had an apron, all the better for steadying the grey kitten on your lap. I could, with eyes closed, run my fingertips over the desk and locate its injuries: the scratches, the patches of thinning varnish, the ghostly rings of glasses put down without coasters.

I was fondest of the table’s most obvious imperfection: the elongated splot of ink, like a hurried birthmark, in its one corner. I liked to think that my mother, an art major, had put the splot there. I liked to think that my grandmother, an easy-going woman, hadn’t fussed about it too much.

Now the table has returned East. And it is again a kitchen table.

We tugged at its “leaves”— the weighty, wing-like extensions that for eight years were tucked under each of the table ends—and made the table into a very grand table indeed. (We do worry that too heavy a burden will send these leaves crashing into the lap of some unhappy person, likely breaking both his or her knees.) We know to treat the table with respect. But we have also, inadvertently, added to the story of the tabletop, which has now a steamy ring from a too-hot Thanksgiving platter, and a puddle glaze of candle wax.

Some day, I will repay the table for its kindness. I'll refinish and restore it. And, in the process, I'll both recover and expunge its “original glory.”

(Up Next: Misunderstood Desks.)

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Downs and Ups

Adam isn’t keen on the Times Square ball-drop, but, as an East Coast kid, I still insist we tune in. Sometime during my years in the Midwest, Disney horned in on the Times Square festivities, which peeves me to no end. Ditto the forced merriment of the hosts, sunny tributes to “the world’s best police force,” and the corporate sponsorship of bloody everything. Fie on Discover Card for “bringing us” the countdown clock and, by implication, time itself.

If I hadn’t known Dick Clark was ailing, I would have thought that he was dead, so thick were the celebrity encomiums. Behind those blinding white teeth and freaky, penciled-on brows, substitute host Regis Philbin had to be feeling glum. By midnight, his chatter sounded strained and slightly deranged, as in the moment when he observed that “Every person, all over the world tonight, is just thrilled at this moment.” Adam and I winced at the presumptuousness. Surely there were a few spots on this earth tonight—Indonesia’s Aceh province springs to mind—where some folks were feeling less than thrilled.

Having slammed Regis, how now to segue to my next self-centered thought? I was startled by how much the arrival of 2005 did privately thrill me. Once Discover Card had made the new year official, I felt as if a tiny bulb had been switched on in the darkness of my skull. How heavenly the time this evening. How hopeful the time still ahead. How clean and agreeable this fresh start.

'05 Alive

It's been so long since last I blogged that I've almost forgotten how. Suffice it to say that the semester dragged me under for a while. Then the holidays created their own bubble of distance and distractions.

Am now kicking off guilt and returning to this space. I've felt a little off without it.

Last year, I had fistfuls of resolutions. This year, I'm making only one. To write every day.

All the other areas I'd like to improve will fall into place with this one change. Or so I'm willing to gamble.

Happy 2005, everyone.