A Good Friday to You

I could be called a taoist, but only if pressed on the issue. Being taoist does not preclude either physics or metaphysics. You can’t file it in a drawer. It just is what is. I enjoy the sincerity of true faith seekers, and the history of various ritual paths, but it all came to me in a tree one day in 1973 shortly after I received First Communion; that is to say, all I needed to be going on with. I'm not a real big questioner or answerer. What I am is what I am. 20130808_213231

The defining idea that drives me, that has always “driven” me, is that people are people. The world is the New Jersey Transit waiting area at Penn Station. Everything to be seen in humanity can be found there. Sitting on the floor, playing the will it be track 6 or 8 or 1 or 2? waiting game, all the hearts and minds, inner thoughts and outer expressions, worries and fears and elations, they’re all there. Will I silently or vocally judge it all, making comparisons and drawing conclusions, or will I marvel at the whole of the universe, both always changing and always the same, with tiny hearts and big hearts and uncertain minds, the awkward mixture of youthful self-consciousness and pride, the sometimes desperate need to both stand out from the crowd and blend into it, star stuff glowing and reflected in the faces of people whose ancestors walked every area of populated earth? Crowd

How can I witness all that, and witness the rise of tulips in spring, and the rise of the first A struck by a concertmaster, and then waste my time arguing over which version of the God story is correct, who gets to make love to whom, or what people seek to pleasure themselves with in the comfort of their own home? In this big beautiful world, there are people drinking dirty water or worrying they won’t have any at all, women making less money than men for the same jobs or no job at all, and a whole swath of the globe in which people have killed each other over the same piece of inert land since time began, and in your own much smaller world there are people around you every day who do not tell you they fed their cat last night instead of themselves, or that they discovered a spot growing on their neck or that their spouse screamed in anger and struck out with an open hand or a fist over something most anyone else would find so trivial as to hardly be noticed.

If you believe this day represents Jesus dying for you and for your sins, “that all may seek the Kingdom of God,” does it motivate you to fear others, to judge them, or to love them as Jesus is said to have done, “that your joy may be full?” John wrote that stuff, so they say.

Matthew is said to have written this bit. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.”

It’s a balanced statement. The measure matters as much as the judgment. Are you meting in generous measure without also judging? To love your neighbor as yourself, (which is the least you should do according to the words of Jesus as written by Mark, equal to your respect for God,) your giving must be unconditional. It’s for the God you profess to obey to decide on the aftermath.

Religiously driven or not, if you let go of fear of others, of judgment of others, of control over what others do, you will have so much more space in your heart and mind to set toward people you can love and things you can help repair. Easter Sunday represents renewed life and hope, just as the more ancient practices did, in their reverence for the return of spring. You weren’t given this life merely to count down the days until the next, gnashing your teeth at others along the way. If you believe there’s light and beauty inside you, let other people see it, too, and watch it grow and spread, overtaking the thorny weeds you’ve allowed yourself to stumble over in the past.

If you aren’t certain all that great stuff is built into you because you don’t take comfort in old books, take comfort in new ones, instead. We now know that a chain of chemical reactions which began in the center of a multitude of ancient stars ultimately resulted in the formation of the planets, of Earth, and of us. Stars-Carina_NebulaAll of us, and all of everything we can see, touch, smell, and taste. People can say a God did that if they like, and what a super cool God that would be. Either way, it’s what we are now, and what we should make sure others can see in us. A reflection of all of the best of creation. Think on it, and act.


Deconstructing Baby It's Cold Outside, correctly

(edited to reflect an updated lyric.) Could you write this song now instead of the 40s (50s, 60s, 70s?) No, not with the same cheeky sense of fun. (Which is why, I suppose, people like me cling so fervently to the nice parts of the past.) And of course that might not be a bad thing in our world in which people must be suspicious of each other at all times, but it doesn’t make the meaning of it as it was created in the past no good now. Judging the hundreds of people who've recorded this song as if they've got no sense until you come along and straighten them out is just foolish.


This has upset me so much because it means much more than just getting it technically wrong. It means all of our recent past is subject to revision, to the point where everything I knew growing up is now “for all intensive purposes” to someone who doesn't see it in perspective.

We are better at a lot of stuff than they were 80 years ago when this song was written, yet that doesn’t mean they didn’t know how life worked. We can do Earth and universal goodwill and women getting great jobs in a way they didn’t do just then. But to take what they made and enjoyed and interpret it as something different now is doing them a disservice. You can never understand any history if you look at it only through your own current view. History revisionists are all on the wrong sides of things; don’t be one of them.


People who have no solid view of history, perspective, context, or songwriting style are interpreting this song as he says/she says, and also don’t even know how people used to talk before the 90s. But it isn’t like that. Each pair of lines works together.

(I really can't stay) But, baby, it's cold outside
(I've got to go away) But, baby, it's cold outside
(This evening has been) Been hoping that you'd drop in
(So very nice) I'll hold your hands they're just like ice

This verse means she went to the man’s apartment and has been having a good time. Now it’s both a little late and getting on toward clutch time. You probably don’t remember life before Britney and Justin were briefly a couple, but back when our parents (your grandparents) were young, and he’d just gotten back from his tour in Germany or Korea, they were celebrating the free world like you didn’t know they knew how.

(My mother will start to worry) Beautiful, what's your hurry
(My father will be pacing the floor) Listen to the fireplace roar
(So really I'd better scurry) Beautiful, please don't hurry
(Well, maybe just half a drink more) Put some records on while I pour


Look at what’s been going on. They’ve been sitting here talking in front of the fireplace. You might not remember that, either, unless you live in a cool old building, but apartments had fireplaces if they were big enough and in the north. She sat and watched while he made one, or maybe she made the first round of drinks, only her round was a little weak, because it’s maybe 1949, and she’s a girl like that. Why would she sit and watch him build a fire? Is she stupid and doesn’t know he’s setting a comfortable scene? No, people born before you knew the score. They just liked to pretend they didn’t. So now he’s freshened her drink, and she has put on a record. It was probably a ten inch long-playing record; twelve-inchers ended up taking over, but not just yet. Know how I can say that? Because I know stuff about before now that I didn’t get from a CBS crime procedural marathon or a Tumblr page. All these details add up to a more complete picture than the one you've got in your head.

(The neighbors might think) Baby, it's bad out there
(Say what's in this drink) No cabs to be had out there
(I wish I knew how) Your eyes are like starlight now
(To break this spell) I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell

Are you thinking she’s been sitting there in front of the fire with her second drink but has a woolen toque on her head like she’s about to fight with the storm? No. It’s a cute hat perched on her head to match her outfit. Her coat might have had a big hood that fit over it, or it might have been super impractical in order to look nice. (You might have wondered why hoods on women’s coats were and sometimes are still gigantic. It was to accommodate hairstyles and hats.) And all she notices about the drink is that the bourbon to soda ratio is narrower than hers was. It was a running joke before it got ruined by a few creepers. Not just women to men, but any old body takes a drink and says, “Wow, what’d you put in here? Everything?” That kind of thing. Maybe she set it down, maybe she kept sipping. We don’t know, but we also know the next line wasn’t “Shh, I demand you toss it back.” But did you think she never had a drink before? That’s no good, either. This isn’t the watered-wine and rataffia era, after all.


(I ought to say no, no, no, sir) Mind if I move in closer
(At least I'm gonna say that I tried) What's the sense of hurting my pride
(I really can't stay) Baby, don't hold out
[Both] Baby, it's cold outside

Her hat is now off. Know how I know? Because she isn’t saying no. She’s saying “she ought to.” People say ought to about things they really don’t want to do. “I really ought to get on that, clean that up, make that call, get to bed.” They’re trying to talk themselves into doing something when they would rather not just now, thanks. It’s a way of appearing diligent without having to be so, like if you see your neighbor is coming over and you haven’t cleaned yet, so you set the vacuum cleaner in the hallway. At the same time, she’s feeling him out. Will he give her a good reason to not have to say no?

Know how I know that? Because it’s basic human nature, and I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that. She’s going to say she tried? Not really, but if she did, nobody would be screaming at her that he took advantage of her. They’re gonna shake their heads a little, grinning, and saying things like, “Sister, what are you up to?”

And then both of them sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” together, because they are in this together. She doesn’t want to go out there yet, but is keeping up a pretense because she’s supposed to, and so he’ll know they can carry on, but maybe not all the way. It’s code, which people have always used, only it’s a little different in each era.


(I simply must go) Baby, it's cold outside
(The answer is no) Baby, it's cold outside
(The welcome has been) How lucky that you dropped in
(So nice and warm) Look out the window at the storm

Now here she says no, but it’s the kind of no he understands, not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s set a boundary. He was going too fast. But does she get up? No. She’s pressed up against him, that’s why, still performing her ought tos. She doesn’t stand up so he’ll stop kissing her, and he hasn’t pinned her down so she can’t move, because they are singing this thing together. Remember, this was written by a married couple, who performed it at a party for their friends. Their friends laughed because they understood it like you don’t. They knew the score.

(My sister will be suspicious) Gosh your lips look delicious
(My brother will be there at the door) Waves upon a tropical shore
(My maiden aunt's mind is vicious) Gosh your lips are delicious
(But maybe just a cigarette more) Never such a blizzard before

This is the verse that tells you the truth you don’t wish to know. He moves in for a kiss. She’s murmuring at this point, as their faces meet, and then when they do kiss, she decides maybe she can hang around a little longer, timing it with however long it takes to smoke an unfiltered cigarette. The cigarette was important, even though it seems really grosstastic now. She can sit up and he’ll light one, but at the same time, she can let him know that kiss was so good, she’ll be around for a few more. It’s another piece of cultural code. And the sister, the brother, the aunt? Now she’s just making up stuff. It isn’t a firmer defense, it’s a weaker one, but she is required to make it in this game.

(I got to get home) But, baby, you'd freeze out there
(Say lend me a comb) It's up to your knees out there
(You've really been grand) I thrill when you touch my hand
(But don't you see) How can you do this thing to me

Do you borrow a comb* from a man who creeps you out? And she put her hand on his when she asked. Why is she touching him and asking to put something in her hair that he has had in his hair? Because she likes him, that’s why, not because rohypnol is taking over.

*It isn't coat, it's comb. Her hair got messy while they were "necking," which they were totally doing.

She knows he knows she’s into him, and he also knows she’s not taking him too seriously, and so he’ll ask again, because she’s not offended, she’s just going by the rules she’s set for herself, which are more about pacing than anything else. She’s indicating to him that she’s got people looking out for her, but at the same time, is making her own choice about what position she is taking with him on the couch.


(There's bound to be talk tomorrow) Think of my life long sorrow
(At least there will be plenty implied) If you caught pneumonia and died
(I really can't stay) Get over that old doubt
[Both] Baby, it's cold
[Both] Baby, it's cold outside (Sung together again)

That was the truth about 1949 or so, and is sometimes still the truth now. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You draw your own line, but everyone else reads it according to their own, though sometimes they’re hypocrites about it, making their own decisions while judging others for making the same one.

You know how “they” say everyone thinks they’re an above-average driver? It is a truth not universally acknowledged that people think everyone else but them is dumber and needs life explained to them. The internet has made this worse. You Google a thing and learn a few talking points, and it never crosses your mind that the person you’re explaining it all to has maybe actually read whole books on the subject or has first-hand experience at it. Your insular confirmation bias bubble leads you to believe you’re the one who uncovered the truth, only actually, not only has it been there a lot longer than you knew, you have only a few pieces of the picture in the frame, and not the whole thing. Sometimes you don't even understand the frame, like when I first saw Impressionist paintings in a museum, and wondered why they were in big ornate gilded things, until someone explained to me that those frames were correct for the period, even though they didn't match the new painting style. That taught me something.


People take old texts like the Bible, and they translate them into modern languages. But they can’t make direct one-to-one translations without knowing what the writers meant by certain words (and phrases, since a word could mean something different when used with another,) because they aren’t what they mean now. Shakespeare is the same way. People who study the language of Shakespeare must decode it according to how he used words and how they’d be taken then, not how they wish for them to be taken now. We put on a play with Shakespeare’s intent, by understanding the context in which he wrote. We don't say, "Sorry, Hamlet doesn't get to mean that anymore; we changed what his words meant."

We can play with it a little, though, without ruining it.


NaNoWriMo: today it's personal

Every year during NaNoWriMo I do a few of the same things. There's always an Italian restaurant scene. Always some people sitting around drinking expensive whiskey and reminiscing. And always one day when I just write some memory from my past. That's what this is. I hope you know I'm not offering it as a great piece of writing. I just wanted to share. It's about 2000 words, which is about four minutes for the average reader.


Mary came into the studio half covered in paint. Violet was there that afternoon, and she made cocoa for herself and Mary. They sat and talked awhile, as Jack was downstairs in the theatre, consulting with someone about lights.

Mary said, “I sometimes forget to change my clothes before I paint. At home, I just take off most of them, and paint in my underwear, but obviously I can’t do that at the shop. She grinned. “So at first I worried people would think I just never clean myself up, and then I decided they could see it as decoration, instead.”

Violet said, “That seems really satisfying to me. And if you’re wearing a blue top, but have a bit of emerald between your fingers or something, you’re actually pretty well coordinated.”

Mary said, “Exactly.” And they both smiled in contentment.

“Although,” Violet went on, “I expect there are people who do not actually cover themselves with the paint they are brushing onto a canvas…”

“Ah, but that’s just the thing,” Mary answered. “Most of the time, I don’t actually use brushes!”

She and Violet laughed again as Jack came in, and Mary said, “Yes, we were talking about you, in case you were wondering.” Then she whispered in a loud dramatic tone to Violet, “DON’T WORRY, I’LL NEVER TELL HIM YOU SAID THAT.”

Mary rarely shows a serious side to anyone but Kathy, her boss, and one or two close friends, and her children. Some people think she’s being serious at times when she’s having a laugh, which confuses her, but she’s mostly reconciled herself to it. She operates best under the banner of “quietly eccentric.”

Jack rolled his eyes. He asked Mary to sit on the stool he now had set up with a full microphone stand, and cautioned Violet to be silent. “None of your fussing around. Come over here and sit down, as a matter of fact.”

Violet obeyed with a smile, taking a seat on the luxurious Danish leather couch opposite the recording equipment.

Mary asked, “How many Danes were killed to upholster that couch?”

Jack answered, “Eleven, I believe.”

She grinned and said, “Okay, I’m ready when you are.”

“I heard this song the other day, which I had not heard in just years and years, and it’s been rolling through my head ever since. But my memories of it have come back slowly, like a stage at a time. I expect there’s more still, that I’ve forgotten and that might never come back.

“I tried so hard to be an ordinary kid. The fact is, I really was, but somehow never felt like other people saw me as one. I listened to the radio stations, wore the clothes, bought the teen fan magazines, went to the skating rink on Friday nights, and made sure Mom got the trendy snacks for my lunchbox at school. I collected Lip Smackers, gauze blouses, pukka shell necklaces, and toe socks. I watched the right TV shows. I don’t know, though, mostly I was alone. There weren’t a lot of other kids nearby, and maybe that made the difference. Maybe if I knew them at home, they’d have known me at school.

“It seemed to me that practically every kid in my class could have been a star athlete. They were all shiny and glossy and could run fast in their expensive tennis shoes. I felt dull and flat and slow by comparison. And I was really, really skinny. Strangely, this led people to believe that I, too, had athletic ability, but that was laughable. Every year we had a series of fitness tests we had to perform, and the only one I was really good at was sit-ups. For some reason, I could do an astounding number of sit-ups in a minute. But I was a slow runner, and could never climb the rope, and when I threw a softball to measure how far it would go, my gym teacher said “You throw like a fat girl, what’s wrong with you?”

Violet gasped. Jack stopped the recording. Mary nodded. “He was special, Mr. Repp was. I remember this very nice and talented girl in my class named Michelle. She was one of those girls who seemed perfect, but was also so kind and polite, you could never be jealous of her, just sort of happy that she was herself. And I remember that more than once, he picked her up and carried her around the gymnasium on his shoulders when we were in 4th grade. I have always wondered what she thought about that. He called her ‘Tiger,’ too.”

Violet said, “That sounds repulsive!”

Jack said, “Maybe he was actually her uncle, or something.”

Mary and Violet just stared at him. Violet said, “I have occasionally wondered how he ended up. Maybe he was just super clueless, like, to give him the benefit of the doubt, you know?”

Violet said, “Yes, but the fat girl thing. You can’t have been the only girl he insulted, besides which, just, ugh, I don’t know.”

“There was a fat girl in our class. Not like it is now, with so many people struggling. We all knew someone who was just built large, or who fought their weight, but it wasn’t common. Which probably made it extra hard. Shawna was in our class, and I wondered if she heard him and how she felt. It angered me so much. But I just couldn’t throw a ball very far. I could roll one! I was often kickball pitcher for both recess teams, because I was lousy, otherwise, and other kids wanted to kick and run the bases, anyway.”

Jack said, “Hey, you must have always been a good bowler!”

Mary answered, “Actually, I was awful. I was just awful at everything until I was about 19, and then I bloomed or whatever they always said I’d do.” She smiled happily.

Jack started recording again.

“So then I went to junior high, and we had a girl’s gym class, and I was terrible at all the sports, and the girls were shocked that I didn’t have a bra yet, so my aunt gave me one my cousin had outgrown, because she and my mom were utterly clueless about these things somehow, and it had red piping on it, so then they made fun of that. And all the girls got leather clogs with wooden heels, but when I went to get mine, they didn’t have the right size. Instead, I picked out a pair of stack-heeled loafers which were actually very sharp, but they weren’t clogs, you know, so they were wrong.” Mary sighed, but rolled her eyes with a smile.

“At that point, I started to figure a few things out. I took charge of my style, and also my fitness. I had a frustrating year barely passing all the gym tests, and so the next year, I started jogging with my dog, figuring I could get stronger that way. I wore what I liked, worked on being a little bit avant garde, and ignored the girls who seemed to need to judge me for that.” Mary looked over at Violet, who grinned and nodded. She knew that same experience very well, though in her case, it stemmed from very different reasons.

“In eighth grade, we had to take this fitness test in the fall and again in the spring. I didn’t do so well in the fall, taking over two and a half minutes to run a quarter mile, but I ran around with my dog all winter, and rode my bike everywhere, and then when it was much warmer out, I put on jogging shorts and took off up an old road past our elementary school, sometimes running three or four miles at a time, at what was a pretty serious pace for me. I had read in a magazine about how important it was to keep a good rhythm while you run, so I used to play songs in my head like a radio. The song “You” by Rita Coolidge had come out, and it might have sounded sad at the time, but for me, that song was about my dog, whose name was Monty Python. We’d gotten him two years earlier, thinking he’d be a good companion for my older brother, but he bonded with me, and stuck by my side for five years, until he was killed in an accident. At age two, he could have kept up with me, though, for as far as I could run.

“And so I’d run, to that disco beat or to another, doing intervals, though I didn’t know that’s what they were. Every time that song played when I wasn’t running, I’d see Monty and I, breezing along in the sunshine together. When I heard it the other day, I remembered that, all in a flash.” She stopped and closed her eyes just then. Violet and Jack watched her, as she shook her head and began again.

“When the spring fitness tests came, I was so excited. I just knew I’d do better, and I told my teacher, Mrs. Bryan, about how hard I’d been working at it. She told me she expected good things from me. Well, what do you know, I was running next to the girl from elementary school, Michelle, who was very fast. She ran that quarter mile in about a minute and a half, or a little less, and set a record. But I ran it in under two minutes! I’d shaved an entire minute off my fall performance. I was giddy with success. Mrs. Bryan said that if I’d worked as hard as I said I did, I should have done better. She was just like that, I guess, and I tried not to let her make me feel bad. And I did receive a good grade for my effort.”

Mary saw the looks on Violet and Jack’s faces, and said, “You guys, this is a happy story! It was a victory, and I owed it to my dog, for whom the song ‘You’ could have been written.”

She went on, “But here’s an epilogue for you. My senior year in high school I was at a different school, and we had to run a mile to pass our one mandatory year of gym. I’d chosen a fitness class, too, because it taught us how to work on a weight machine, and aerobic exercise, and lots of other things, without ever having to be on a team. I wore fun Flashdance- and Fame-style clothes, and was one of the best in the class, blazing through sit-ups, and running the mile in about eight minutes, which is not even a little bit fast, but pretty good alongside all these girls who were lazy and walked half of it, barely finishing in the maximum fifteen.

“Plus! This is why I paint. I was also always surrounded by all these people with loads of artistic talent, and I couldn’t even paint an owl on a rock for Mother’s Day in Girl Scouts. But it turns out, all the messes I made as a child, cutting and gluing and painting things that didn’t look like they were meant to really brought me a lot of joy. So I determined that when I grew up, I’d do something to help people enjoy whatever they love without judgment or grades, or competition. I teach people to bowl and to paint, and to grow tomatoes and peppers, and you do not have to be great at any of these things in order to take real pleasure from them. Maybe I’d have never known that if I hadn’t been so frustrated by how others perceived my efforts when I was a kid.”


The kids are just at school today, after all

I get the notion behind renaming Columbus Day Indigenous People's Day, but I don't think it's quite the right idea. Turning it into a day of mourning won't be more meaningful to most people; the ones with righteous indignation will always have that, and the rest will go on same as usual. And we all know by now that everywhere in the world was or is a group of people turned out by old time Europeans, or sometimes someone rather closer at hand. People did that to each other on a regular basis. It has shaped our world, and it is a history lesson that everyone should learn, lest it again be repeated. But turning Columbus Day into an annual acknowledgement of the people he hurt is not the way to teach that lesson.

I feel sort of bad for the people who like their Italian-American parades, as they're connected to the figure now known to have done so much harm to the regions he explored. Are any of the known world explorers worthy of national celebration anywhere? Probably not. I don't think ethics was a high priority on any of their codes of behavior. But exploration itself is still something to celebrate or acknowledge generally. So I'd rather see the day, if there must be one, be a celebration of something positive for everyone, rather than a shaming of something negative that most of us can't grasp as a part of ourselves, though we must keep telling future generations that no one culture has autonomy over the others.

I'd like to see something conjured like Melting Pot Day. Independence Day celebrates the founding of the United States, but it wasn't so many generations ago that only a certain number of various ethnicities were allowed in. Chinese men could come work, but they couldn't bring wives and make more Chinese. At one point people were worried about too many Italians, too many Irish, too many Jews, and of course, too many Mexicans. But immigrants are what most of our ancestors were, and immigrants built the foundations on which we make our way. We like to say we're a quarter this and a quarter that, because when we are honest, we like this about ourselves, that "world travel" made us who we are. That's something we could do positive arts and crafts and church dinners for. Italian-Americans and people with indigenous backgrounds could have their parades, and we'd eat each other's favorite recipes from Grandma, or just a whole lot of what they call "hotdish" in the upper midwest.

We'd celebrate the blending of it all, rather than dissect it for measurement and comparison.

Catching up with Mom after 25 years

Some great albums were released in 1989. It was one of the music years we can really call special. And there've been a number of fine ones since then, but the album itself seems to finally have turned a corner; a concept now reserved for a few distinct genres of music, maybe, but then, maybe it was always meant to be, and people were just kidding themselves about it for awhile.

All manner of famous people we loved together have died since then. First there was Irene Dunne, and since then, Myrna Loy, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart. There's practically no one left. But the great thing is that now we have nearly complete access to all their films, almost too great, because it's very easy to leave the "real world" behind and just immerse yourself in them. They are preserved, though, and that's important.

They don't make the Taco Light anymore. There's no more Berlin Wall. Some very tall buildings were built and then came down. Every religious figure to whom you might have written a hopeful check was caught with his hand in one type of cookie jar or another.

Lately, I've been developing your figure, softening all over, a middle-aged layer determined and settling in to stay. Asthma and a touch of arthritis make it difficult to stave it off, but there, too, I have advantages you missed out on, which keep me from advancing to double digit dresses. The size spectrum is broader, and people at the extreme ends were doing battle with each other for awhile, but the rest of us somewhere in the vast middle are enjoying better foundations, a relaxation of the need to follow trends, a refostering of the pride and care women in their best natures offer each other.

I like to think so, anyway. I prefer to see the nicest sides of people. But there is still the media, taunting and teasing as always.

You once (or twice) went on a strange diet that involved a lot of black coffee and grapefruit. As I like neither of those things, I have no intention of ever following suit. I did and do, however, admire your ability to stick to a plan, a routine, determined that there should be an outcome at the end of it. When I couldn't have sugar, you worked hard to see I wasn't miserable over it. The outcome was good, if short-lived for my part.

The way I cook is so different. I can make all the same foods, but it's easier than you could ever have imagined to recreate tastes and scents without resorting to either a series of canned ingredients or a long trip to the one grocery store where the real thing is available. Everyone who remembers you remembers your cookies, though, and I recreate them all faithfully at Christmas time for my group of young adults who never had a grandma.

I look back and I remember mostly good stuff, perfectly willing to gloss over whatever wasn't. Turns out that's more about me than you, because I have all these kids, and some of them are the same way, while a couple others are determined that every wrong thing should be worn as part of a permanent cloak. Maybe they'll have kids of their own, and maybe they'll be perfect at it, but of course none of us is. I just wish for them the best of it all, in ways they have yet to understand.

If I still, after 25 years, carried with me the baggage of our last few strange years together, I'd hardly be able to move. It just wouldn't be worth it. I've even nearly gotten to the point where I can eat a fresh peach without a profound sense of loss. Well, I was told to revel in them, to think of the peach as a sort of tender connection, and that I cannot do. They come to me in little paper bags, you see. I know you would see, and so that makes it all right. However, I'm not the person you once knew. It's doubtful you knew me at all, and I'm sorry for that now, but I don't live there, back in that space where you existed. If there is one best thing about all that you taught me, though, it is that the grandeur and pain of real deep abiding love go hand in hand, and cannot be separated. You were better at demonstrating it than I am, but I feel it with every bit as much intensity.

Anyway, so a lot's happened. Mostly it happened to me or around me, or off somewhere in the distance, and I remained a pawn on someone's chessboard or an observer of the larger game, but not much of a player, not much in charge of anything except where the drinks go in the refrigerator and what should be done with the dirty laundry. When you were just about my age, you had this idea of going out and being something that both intrigued and horrified me. I wish now I could tell you to go live this dream, go be this person you thought you ought to be, without the fear that prevented you from succeeding or at least from making a damned good and earnest effort. I don't have the same dreams at all, yet I do seem to have some of the same fears. I hope that I have the opportunity to revisit this topic in another 25 years, and come to some better conclusions, having a sense of satisfaction at having moved some of the chess pieces myself, redistributing the middle.

But also along the way, eating peaches, singing songs in new places with new people, and making life happen wherever I am. You did do all that in your short life, and it's the best part of you for anyone to remember. 

To shake all this off, here's a song, it's okay to admit you liked the "naughty" version best, and if I could ask you anything at all, it'd be why didn't you name me Lena or Elena after Grandma? But I forgive you, having taken another name for myself you'd probably like pretty well.


Finding the ladder: reflections on 80s music and me

Last night on Google Plus, some people were discussing 80s love songs they like. Most of them were from the stations I didn't enjoy, but I was familiar with many. But one person said the love songs then were all cheesy power ballads.

I understand that was a thing. I was there. In fact, musically, I was there in a way only a person born right in the middle of a decade can be; at ages 15-24. Those formative "becoming independent and finding your own way" years were the entire decade of the 1980s for me. 

However, I can name all the power ballads I'd have been familiar with back then on one hand and have a couple fingers leftover. If that's all you thought you could hear without slipping back into time, you were not trying at all. I barely tried to not hear them and had no trouble with it.

The point of this isn't whether you thought Whitesnake poorly defined love songs of that era, which they did not at all, because the 80s began before 1987, the point is that people won't give up working really hard at being narrow of thought and action. And smug about their narrowness, a lot of the time.

You miss so much good stuff that way! And you miss it if you too readily define it as something you are certain belongs in a group of things you disdain, and you miss it if you stay locked onto one channel because everyone around you is and you don't want them to judge you.

Music, listening to and loving music, should never ever be about what other people will say about you, and it is not best heard from a lofty position of superiority, or from the one channel they played in the shake shop after school. Or what MTV was during the Tiffany years. I knew that in 1980 when I was 15, and worked so hard to find more, but it was not until 1989 when I was 24, that some of my now-favorite artists of all time were fully revealed to me, by someone who had grown up with a better college radio station than me. It was a decade of searching, for me.

I still had plenty else to choose from besides the MTV rotation, largely because I didn't even have cable TV yet. When I did get it, I found the best videos were on BET. I told someone at work and she was all, "but isn't that the black TV station?"

Well, yes, however, you weren't required to submit a DNA test in order to watch it. And also, they didn't only play "black videos." I saw "Genius of Love" on there first. For one example. And also, what? It was the beginning of the Benetton era, if you were paying attention.

We have the internet now, and we get to look around so easily and see more stuff than we ever imagined existed. But plenty of it, most of it, was already there. If you sum up an entire era by what you remember during two or three years of it, you are, to me, like the person who just asks for 7s over and over again while playing "Go Fish." Be better. I'm certain you can be.

I went to the record store and book store and listened to what they were playing. I watched late night talk and entertainment shows that introduced new bands, and listened to what older people found to listen to. And because I grew up listening to old music, I knew there had to be more to new music. I was really worried classical music would go away, however, John Williams brought it back to the forefront and now I know that there are people who always have to be creating music in their heads and will always challenge themselves to incorporate sounds in new ways, try new and old things with instruments, and find other like-minded people to do this with. When people look back on this period of time, they'll have a dozen American composers to call the orchestral influences of the day, post-Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and there are certainly more in other places, as well.

Back to love songs. I thought I didn't like love songs before I was a teenager, and thought I didn't like many then, but now I know that I'm just not really very fond of a few certain sounds that seem useful only for lament. And I like my lament prepared other ways.

When I named the 80s love songs I liked last night, mostly what I thought of were songs about making love. It makes sense, in a way, as 15-24 are visceral years for most human beings.

Looking back, this list defines my 1980s pretty much in a large nutshell, although as I said, I was always seeking out other channels of sound. Sorry that it's Buzzfeed. There are a few love songs on it I could have named last night instead of my R&B list. (And thus, here's a secondary faster-to-load list to more fully round out my personal 80s "pop" experience, though it leaves out "Wishing Well" and "Stay With Me Tonight.") But to name a favorite I'd be willing to claim now, I'd compare it to how I feel now when I hear Frank Sinatra sing "Witchcraft." Okay, such a thing is not possible. Still, back then, it'd have been "Ain't Nobody," by Chaka Khan. Tell me this isn't a great song.


But I also remember how I felt when I heard (the slightly cheesy now) "Hold Me Now" by the Thompson Twins, and how I felt when the person I loved turned out not to like it at all. Which should have been a warning, however, let's not digress.

This. Years later, this is the one. For me, this is a love song. 

Only, it was me. I saw the whole of the moon. At least, I always tried to.

The first day of school, the next first day of life

School starts today. My sons, in 11th and 12th grade, have two classes in common; Government and Politics, and Algebra II. The first week of OHVA is just pre-tests, organizing the schedule, meeting the teachers, watching the bugs get worked out of the system.

But they didn't do all that well last year, for three combined reasons, in some of their classes. Their consciences weighed on them a bit during the summer, and they're earnest about doing better this year. The little dears.

The school is being stricter this year about scheduling, turning in assignments, and locking units so that they don't get behind. In a way, I'm certain that is a very good thing. If they knew they could do it later, well, they wouldn't prioritize well, although I helped them make weekly schedules, and tried to monitor their progress. On the other hand, time of day flexibility is something I value, and it's hard to manage without the days going very long. They have several hour-long class connects which take up the middle of every day, and daily lessons assignments in each, some of which take a long time to go through.

They'll need my help with Algebra II, and with the languages; one is taking Spanish and the other French. We also have daily reading time, and I'm teaching them to drive. And hopefully squeezing it all in before dinner time.

There are plenty of kids their age who need less hands-on help with this stuff, I know that. My boys are practical types. I could leave them here to just run the house, and they'd do fine. If you had a conversation with them, you'd think them well-mannered, informed, even somewhat erudite. But they are not scholars.

When I was in high school, there were the scholars, the athletes, and the go-getters. Kids who seemed to be headed for trouble went to vocational-technical school. What about the rest? The ones shuffling along in the middle, just getting by; beloved and appreciated at home, yet largely overlooked in the classroom? I never quite got it from my oddly elite position in school, but that's half the people there are, at least. The pleasant, easy-going types who fill the chairs in the middle.

I want my sons to learn a vocation, far more than I want them to take up a profession. If you have a real vocation, you can go through life Being each thing you wish to be, which is something so many people still don't realize. My vocation does not pay, but it could have, and perhaps someday it will. I will tell you more about that, in shorter form, on another day.

My boys want to get out in the world, get their hands on it, see what's there, and then see what they'd like to make of it. I am being challenged that this is not the path to success. It certainly isn't one path. I'd hoped by now we'd moved past the idea of One True Path, especially to be uncovered by anyone at all at the age of eighteen.

The world is far too big a place for a teenager to be required to say from their tiny corner of it, "This is what I'll work to become." Whether it was "getting on down at the plant" or assuming what has become a huge debt load toward an office desk degree, we have been limited by binary post World War II thinking for far too long.

In his heart, the older one is a shaper, an arranger; crafting and repairing not only objects around the house, but situations and conversations. He is not a desk person. The younger one is somehow both laid back and dutiful. He was born with a sense of what's properly done, and the idea that this is just how people should go along. Do right things, which are good things, and not wrong things, which are bad things. And yet he has a very good sense of humor, as well. He might be a desk person.

When I was in tenth grade, we took a career aptitude test, and my highest scores were in things like forestry and other "outdoors in nature" pursuits. Well, no one even bothered to follow up and tell me maybe that would be a good thing for me to actually learn to be. I was supposed to go do an "intellectual" thing. And forestry? What is that even to a 15 year-old in suburban Kansas City? (Here is something about that test; it was in two parts, aptitude and interest. Now there's also a third part, values.)

But you know what? Somehow that test got something about me that no one else ever did, until I realized it myself just a few years ago. I looked, to everybody including myself, like a desk person. I am not a desk person.

What it looked like I could do and what I probably should have done were so disparate, I ended up doing neither one. People just expected me to go do some "smart person" thing, and in their mid-late 20th century minds, "smart persons" worked with their brains, inside of buildings, writing things down on paper, or typing them into a console. I didn't succeed because it isn't at all who I am. I love to write. But two of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope and Rex Stout, had several careers before they wrote books. What have I had? A muddle, that's what. (And beautiful babies, of course.) I'm still learning, though.

Most of us know now that there isn't just one path we get on and stay on; the world doesn't let that happen for everyone anymore, and for many of us, that's a good thing. So I want to challenge my boys to just get on their first path and see where it leads them, or where it encourages them to go. If passing Algebra II is the step Ohio requires them to take in order to get on it, fine. I'll drag them through it. But I'm eager to see them as adults who don't feel the need to say they "will never grow up" because they can't bear what adulthood is turning them into. Being an adult can be a pretty great thing, and my two youngest sons are going to make very good ones, regardless of their final GPAs.

We have a lot to get through this year, though. Here's to success, both measured and unmeasurable.

Why do they forget the way?

If this were a true essay, I'd quote to you from this linked one at The Atlantic: Does Prince Charming Really Need to be Reinvented? and cite sources and things, but I mean, it isn't. My head is too crowded this week to say all I could truly say on the subject, anyway, so here's kind of a quick response.

I appreciated the thoughts in this essay; it's just the sort of thing I wonder over from time to time. It's too complex and there's too much to unravel to just soundbite agree or disagree in a comment field, which is why I'm typing this here and not at the magazine or Google Plus: Bark-Examining Society. 

I was a child in the 70s, a time when girls could do anything, but as girls. Jane West, the girl cowboy, Nancy Drew, the girl detective. Only the three divorced moms wore jeans, but a girl could say she wanted to be a doctor instead of a nurse. A woman doctor, I mean. Women lawyers were straight-up Angry Feminists, you know. Airline attendants were still stewardesses, of course, but no longer glamorous. And women ran things, but if it was a big thing, she still wasn't listed on the board of directors. She might become a woman politician, though, in the following decade.

In the 80s, when I was growing up, many women emulated men kind of by the book for awhile if they wanted to be on top of the game. For women like me, it was weird and actually disappointing. And it created a huge divide between two distinct types, with a huge middle section working too hard to be both. Their lives didn't all turn out like the Enjoli ad. But we're slowly moving past it now. Apparently, men are less frightened of sharing control, and hopefully, most of the younger ones don't even see gender in that way. At least their sons won't. (There are still "woman engineers," though, and that is a whole ball of wax that's got to be discussed and melted.)

I think twisting the hero prince story in Frozen is cool, if maybe a little mind-bending for some seven year-old hearts. A reaction that says it's cool specifically because no girl should dream of an old-time fairy tale prince is kind of narrow and clenchy, though. And already a cliché. Plus we have the teen movies later on telling us the boy we might really want is the hero's sidekick, right? We evolve, yet we're not all the same, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I've been in love with nearly every character Jim Garner played, because I always liked my heroes to have an edge and sometimes an air of reluctance. But would I actually marry the cowboy instead of the pharmacist? Well, I always knew I wanted the real man himself, who was all of his characters but in fact, none of them. What a person.

I know I'm the product, the result, of an anachronistic pocket in a chaotic time. At least, that is what I am often told, (because of the lack of dollars it generates) and therefore I am required to believe it. My truest self, though, has never had a problem with "lady truck drivers" or preschool teachers who are male or physicists who happen to be female. I just always thought they should go, do, be themselves, however they wished to. And not ever did I wish to be a princess. That wasn't what I grew up with; I read the fairy tales but saw cowboys and detectives on TV, and wanted to be one of those, or the sidekick of one, as I didn't actually want to rescue or be rescued. I wanted to go along for the ride and tell stories about it later.

I think the huge princess phenomenon that developed in the past couple of decades was a sort of backlash to all the fantasy having disappeared under the weight of life management. (this needs another paragraph of development for people who weren't there.) But what those girls see in every day life is what counts in the end. Hopefully, they're shown something more of life than just the series of financial traps most of us find ourselves in. Then they can choose to be their best selves, and fantasize about whatever they like at the same time. You know, I do believe in fairies. Why not?

Waving my cane at "holiday" candy

I've always had a problem controlling my sugar intake. When I was old enough in childhood to walk to the store, I'd spend all my dimes on paper dots, lollipops, whatever new oddities were being introduced at the time, and there were a plethora of them, or I'd buy a Butterfinger or Heath bar. I loved Heath; it was so much better back then before Hershey bought it. Anyway.

Some treats were available only at certain times or in certain places, so they were more valuable, rare treasures to be sought after or longed for. Like movie candy. My favorite movie candies were Junior Mints and Cherry Dots. I liked regular mixed flavor Dots, but getting a box of nothing but cherry felt amazing. Well, back then, you almost never saw movie candy outside of the movie theater, and we didn't go all that often. Once in a great while, we'd see a box of cherry Dots, and Mom would get them for me. It felt like winning a prize in a drawing. I savored the first few, though, then crammed them in until the box was empty.

I had no discretion with holiday candy at all. I would gobble it all up, no matter how much I told myself to let it stretch out for awhile. I am pretty sure no one really thought this was wrong, as it was a happy treat, I ate my dinners pretty well, and was always extremely thin.

But really, candy to me was like beer to my dad. If it was there, I ate all of it until there wasn't anymore. It has taken many years for me to partly conquer that problem. The worst thing is those gelled spearmint leaves. If we're at the grocery store, my son can hold up a bag of those and I will literally start shaking. Yes, I said literally. I am physiologically changed at the sight, almost at the mere mention of them. Right now as I type, I am experiencing the sugary coating, the way a piece looks and feels as you bite into it, and the strange leafy aftertaste. I can smell them, though I haven't opened a package in years. So, I don't eat them. Ever. I know I could just eat one or two now, if someone else was holding the bag, but it would never satisfy me.

When I was 13, I was told I had hypoglycemia, and was immediately put on a no sugar, low carb diet. You should know that was in 1978, long before people got really confused about low fat, low carb, low sugar diets and the fake foods they wrought. I couldn't even have ketchup, because it had sugar in it. And this was before every food had high fructose corn syrup in it, but my doctor was already convinced that stuff was a menace. I mean, you can easily say that it is, in the sense that all kinds of foods were sweetened with it starting around that time; foods that were always strictly savory before. Mom and I had to read labels and work to avoid everything that ended in -ose. There were compromises; I could drink milk, but not eat grapes.

I had to eat special peanut butter and learned to enjoy it on apples. I couldn't have jam, or most of the breakfast cereal I liked, or even the same bread. I ate a lot of sunflower seeds. It was a tough diet, but I didn't cheat, even at school, where my daily lunch had formerly consisted of a chocolate frosty and a basket of french fries. (To this day, I'm not much of a french fry fan, because they aren't like the ones I had in junior high.) The diet began right before Easter, and I wasn't allowed to have a candy basket. And the thing I missed most of all was Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs. Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 9.10.00 AM

They weren't sold individually yet; they came six to a package, and were available only at Easter. Also, they were always sold out, so if they weren't bought early, that was too bad. One year, my mom bought several packages and secreted them away, giving them to me for my birthday in early June. Those I did try very hard to spread out, and for me, they lasted awhile, at least a couple of weeks. Because I knew I wouldn't have any again until the following spring.

They were better than regular peanut butter cups because of the superior chocolate to peanut butter ratio. Peanut butter cups were in fact a disappointment by comparison. But of course, those were available year-round.

I avoid peanut butter eggs now like I avoid spearmint leaves. I will buy them for my kids at holidays but not eat any myself. Five of my six kids can eat candy like a normal person. One of them seems to have the same inherent problem as me, but was at least taught from the beginning to work at being mindful of it.

I felt much better on that very strict diet, but it was extremely difficult and ultimately unsatisfying, which meant I never sustained it for long periods of time. But I still have the problem. I have to limit myself in ways I can manage, because I react poorly to sugar just as I did when I was younger, and as I'm no longer underweight, am yet more susceptible to diabetes. I must now work to never be overweight. These days, I rarely eat candy, or ice cream, I never drink sweetened soft drinks, and I can refuse dessert after a good meal. Sugar has just got to be purely a treat for me, and not part of continual intake. I still have more than I should, but far, far less than I used to.

Before the past twenty years or so, we all looked upon desserts and other highly sweetened foods as treats, and only a few people like me took unholy advantage of them. Before syrup-laden lattes, before foods crammed with sweeteners to make up for the misguided desire for "low fat," before everything was available everywhere all the time, and people didn't have food at their desks, sugary treats were a rewarding pleasure at special times or after a special meal.

Alcohol converts to sugar in the blood; I take rich pleasure in a cocktail I've crafted, but keep to a strict weekly limit. And a piece of cake and an Aviation on the same night would drain my energy for the next day. It's one or the other, and not every day. For many people, though, sugar has become a part of every meal and every snack in a day. It does no good to claim you're okay because you eat only fake sugar. Why must everything you eat or drink be sweetened in the first place? This limits your flavor palate so that you seek out other ways to make your vegetables and grains taste satisfying, like topping it all with cheese...and I would be willing to lay down money that people who consume a lot of fake sugar are also consuming a lot of starchy foods like pasta, tortillas, hamburger buns...

This Halloween I gave out Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins. They were the big hit, the first candy we ran out of. But they were sold individually at the grocery store beginning in August. And look what I saw when I was at Kroger this morning. 20131111_083749
The moment Christmas is over, the eggs will appear, for a three month "Easter season." That special treat once available for a few weeks each spring is now in the stores at least six months out of the year.

I made sweetened treats from fresh fruit this weekend. But the great thing I've learned about making them for myself is that they feel so special, I have only a little, only occasionally, making the most of what I created. One of my best personal rules, not a rule but a general pattern, is to not eat any pre-made sweet that I could make myself. It all has a much higher degree of value that way, and I'm finally grown up enough to treasure that, not be a glutton about it. 

It isn't possible to set the clock back to a less convenient time in order to monitor our food intake better. And actually, most of us have far more access to truly healthful foods than we once did. But more and more people are becoming diabetic, not because of an inherited family trait, but because their diets were bungled nearly from the beginning. I read an article recently that admonished parents not to tell kids to eat their vegetables "because they're good for you," because a kid will think good for you means "tastes bad." That bothered me a lot. I preferred Sesame Street's idea of calling sweets "sometimes" foods. I told my kids that dessert is a special thing you have sometimes after your tummy is satisfied with what it needs. I don't know if that really stuck. I don't know what will. But being bombarded with holiday candy year round surely doesn't help matters. If there are peanut butter flags next year for July 4, I won't be surprised.

Something like Amen, I guess.

I've been struggling with NaNoWriMo for a couple of days for various reasons. The latest one is that a huge revelation occurred that I don't know how to process. It's so huge, yet so personal, no one else can appreciate its bigness. (If my parents were alive, I could just tell them about it, and that would probably resolve the whole thing. They would be glad for an answer to my biggest lifelong puzzle.) I thought, "Oh, I'll write down what this has been like." But it seems to be like forcing a huge amount of air through asthmatic bronchial tubes. I thought I might just record it all aloud, but l think I would start crying, not from sadness, but from being overwhelmed. I have already cried twice since my discovery. It has been many years since I was the sort of girl who cried at the drop of a hat.

And nothing you're about to read will sound the least bit overwhelming to you; I feel it as I write it, so it comes out thin and watered-down. But I have to, so I can get back to the thing.

Once a few years ago, I was walking through some woods in New Jersey (let's be perfectly clear; outside the largest urban areas, and west of the shoreline, New Jersey is made of woods. It's not at all what you think you know) and I came to this beautiful clearing. I sat on a fallen tree for awhile and contemplated things. As one does. A sort of vision came to mind that was so clear and real and detailed, I thought it must have been something I actually saw before. But I had this impression it was in Virginia or North Carolina back when it was also Virginia, where my dad's family settled when they arrived from Britain at the end of the 17th century. There was a cabin in the clearing and it was on fire, and a girl was laughing at a woman who could not rise from her four-postered curtained bed.

And the clearing looked just like where I was sitting. It felt like some sort of epiphany. I was connected to that experience. Every year after that, until I moved to Ohio in 2011, I went to the woods in August, found a clearing, and waited for it to wash over me again. Popping up or over to the woods in Southwestern Ohio isn't really a thing, so for the past two years, August has just been a month to be in.  I had this idea for awhile that something in the mystery and magic of physics caused me to be connected to the girl at the cabin who watched her sister or mother burn. I had a brief notion I could be the woman who burned, but I don't really believe life and death work quite so directly.

Plus, in the dreams I had nearly nightly from age 3 or 4 to age 17, I was never in harm's way. Particularly scary dreams about fire would follow a day in which I saw smoke in the sky, or a fire on TV, or having been away from home, uncertain it would be there when I returned. A fire drill at school would trigger a bad one. But most of them were fairly inert. In all the dreams, fire burned unchecked but never seemed to actually consume anything. (In one dream, the fire wasn't unchecked; it remained a tiny flame on the hearth which never grew, and frightened me as I watched to see what would happen.) The scariest part was waking up from them, light from a window making me wonder if the trees were on fire, noises from the heater or the electricity in the walls making me wonder if something was shorting out, soon to burn throughout the house. If I was too warm, I felt the door once I worked up the nerve to get out of bed, checked for smoke coming in at the bottom before opening it. But for years, I didn't have that nerve and just had to call out to my parents, too quietly at first, then louder in panic that they might not wake to hear me.

No one did much about you if you were weird back in the 70s unless you were violent or used only the red crayon. You'd grow out of it in time. There are a couple things I'd have maybe been diagnosed with if I was a kid 30-40 years later than I was, but back then, no one was particularly curious about or patient with a weirdo. It was mostly, "How about you stop being like that now? It makes people uncomfortable." The school counselor I was made to see for a few weeks in third grade gave up fairly quickly on our Monday meetings. I have a feeling he just thought I was lame, and too smart not to stop being so. But I'll stop digressing; this isn't about the fire dreams, it's merely and probably the bigger solution to why an event triggered something that would not ever fully end, even after I was an adult and could manage it for myself. We'll get back to that.

Once, just down the street, a magnificent old house that had fallen on hard times began smoking early in the morning. I mean that quite literally. It smoked itself to destruction. I came downstairs and saw my mom on the phone, looking through the front door. A neighbor had called, worried I'd see it and freak out. I went to school thinking about that house all day, and afterwards, of course walked over to have a look at it.

You're wondering about the "of course," unless you grew up in a small town with no real system of operations and the worst volunteer fire department known to have ever existed. The house just smoked all day, and later on, there'd be a flame you could see, but it never erupted into flames until many hours later. I went over to look at it with someone, and had this vague sense that it ought to be dealt with, but didn't quite realize it was destroying itself and no one would stop it. I think later I was told "kids were playing with matches," something like that. And eventually it did burn, and some men came and sort of aimed water at it, but by morning it was a charred hull that we were no longer allowed to go near. I don't remember what I dreamed that night, but I know I did.

It probably wasn't the most recurring dream, which featured a canopy bed much like my own, but in a larger, older room, with a woman laughing as someone burned, and I wasn't either the woman or the someone; but I'd wake up hot, anyway.

What the grownups didn't know was that I was never truly afraid of a fire I could see someone start or that I could start myself. It was when it was something outside my control that I felt scared. We had a huge fireplace in our house and I enjoyed sitting by it very much. But then I worried in the middle of the night that it hadn't been extinguished properly.

At some point, I began asking questions about my dreams. Apparently, they started farther back than I was ever able to remember them, but my parents did. I asked if I'd ever seen anything like some of what I described, but no one thought so. I thought maybe they'd started after we moved when I was five, because the house we lived in before that was burned down (by actual teenagers, I was told,) shortly after the county claimed eminent domain over the property, which sits above Blue River Road in South Kansas City, on the Grandview side. But it seems they started a year or two before that. I don't remember, even now.

I imagine people grew bored of my fire dreams. As I grew too old to call out for my parents and to crawl into bed with them, I just had to lie there night after night, convincing myself nothing was wrong, and if I looked out my center window, the trees would not be on fire. If we were driving back home from the city and I saw smoke on the horizon, I had to reassure myself it would not be from the charred remains of my house.

We moved again when I was 16. The dreams were less frequent, but no less difficult to handle or understand. One evening, about a year or so later, my mom got another phone call about a house burning that was being featured on the news. It was the house I'd grown up in. A fire had started in the garage and was so badly bungled by the fire department, it spread through the house, which was by then over 120 years old, and destroyed it. The only photograph I have of the house is a terrible snapshot that looks just like something which never quite existed. Okay, there are two. This one shows just part of the house with Mom and I nice and blurry in front of it.
Scan_Pic0004I both love and am saddened by how terrible this photo is.

There's a lot I don't remember. I remember how it all felt because I can still feel it. For the whole rest of my life, though the dreams have been less frequent, they've included most often one which is set in that house, or along that street, and nothing is as it should be. Sometimes the whole thing is hollowed out by fire, or just fallen apart, or very, very messy. And I'm always so relieved to wake up, but still a little afraid to go back to sleep. The sense of dread never fully departs, though logic and reason allow me to bank it back down to a tolerable level.

I only just saw The Towering Inferno last year, because I didn't know how I'd feel about it. But I need as much William Holden in my life as I can have, so I finally sat through it and that was perfectly all right. Plus I enjoy setting fires, anyway; in the fireplace or the grill, candles, etc. They're a great part of life, after all, providing both warmth and cleansing. But I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to pin down why I have been oppressed by these dreams. The epiphany in the woods brought back a lot of memories to sort, and I drilled it all down to something I thought I must have seen on TV, like on Night Gallery or One Step Beyond. So for the past 5 years or so, whenever I thought of it, I'd do a web search for a description of what I thought I might have seen, but none of it was quite the thing until I was watching Sleepy Hollow with my son on Monday night.

In the episode, there was a reference to someone called a Sin Eater. I had a laugh, telling my son about the most scary thing I could remember seeing on TV as a child; a Night Gallery episode wherein Richard Thomas has to eat food off someone's body in order to take their sins before they are buried. (That's all I'm saying, because, go watch it on Hulu. Second segment. Seriously. You will never think about butter again without seeing him lick his fingers.) But when I Googled the episode, I learned it was on TV shortly before I turned seven years old! My parents were so irresponsible about that kind of thing. Who brings their kid to see The French Connection at that age, as well? And The Poseidon Adventure? I still see that poor captain's face sometimes. But I digress.

Or not, because as it turns out, that's the point. I forgive them, bless their souls. However, at some point in the late 60s, I saw something on TV that so messed with my head, I've spent the last 45 years dealing with it and trying to figure it out. After seeing the sin eater episode description, I started typing in other keywords with "Night Gallery," and this is what I saw that led me to the answer.
Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 11.12.31 AM

I found the title at IMDb, and nearly fainted. Actually, I think I shouted, which is sort of the opposite of fainting. I read the synopsis at TCM, and looked at Google Images. It was like staring Memory directly in its mad, mad face. That's when I started crying the first time.

Let me stop and point out that I totally get why this is actually hilarious, seen from above and beyond. THE DEAD WOMAN IN MY DREAMS WAS ZSA ZSA GABOR. It basically scarred me for life, so I have mixed feelings about your laughter. But here's a funny review of how the movie got made so you can laugh some more.

I cried because it was right there in B-movie purgatory this whole time, and because it was so overwhelming to discover and because I can't tell my parents the mystery has been solved, or even sort of yell at them for the tortured memories I have of film violence, which is probably why I'd hit the classic screwball comedy medication hard by the time I turned ten, and I texted someone I thought would understand how I felt but got a lame not-at-all-getting-it answer in return. Which, okay, fair enough. 

So now what? Nothing, really. I just go on, same as before. How annoying, right? It isn't the end of the rainbow, or Willy Wonka's glass elevator (another movie that scarred me,) or a lottery ticket or a suddenly happy and warm life. Yet it is absolutely the answer to why this happened to me. Well, partly. I think it's safe to say most people would not have had this experience of literally thousands of nightmares about the same thing based on a movie they saw as a toddler. It's ironic that I spent so many years sleeping in a canopy bed, or else my mother knew all along and it was her secret plot to torment me, but probably not. It's ironic that the childhood homes I remember (there was one more, where I was just a baby,) both burned down shortly after I moved out. And it's true that I was such a weirdly sensitive kid that I had to shut parts of myself off to the outside in order to not continually fall apart around negative energy.

But I'm just me here now, 48 years old, and I can still feel it all yet be withdrawn from it, as I choose. So here's a thing you should watch, which is about all you need to take from this long essay or from the movie that spawned it. You need some introduction to it, though. It's a 25 minute long video review of Picture Mommy Dead, aka The Movie that Tormented My Childhood, by this guy who...is a sort of explosion of gay and nerd and self-consciousness. Mostly I want him not to sit in a chair with arms, and maybe be somewhat less arch in presentation, not project so much, however, I like how the thing is put together, and it's really worth watching just to see how drunk Wendell Corey can be and still appear on an ABC Monday Night Movie in 1966.


And so. And so, and so, and so, and so, and so.