Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In my younger and more vulnerable years

my father gave me some advice I have been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the same advantages that you've had."

I didn't write these lines.

But if you're an American literature geek like I am, or someone who was mildly awake during a high school English class at some point in your life, you might recognize where the lines come from. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know these lines (and the last lines of the novel, as well as several other passages) by heart because I have read the book at least fifty times.

The first time was my junior year in Mr. Fay's English class at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.


Look! That's my copy from that class and the same copy that I read the 50+ additional times.When I was a high school English teacher, I taught the book to my classes of 11th graders. I just now thumbed through it and saw both of my children's names written on the inside cover below my name, their notes from their time reading the book in school, scrawled next to my own notes as a sixteen year old and later as a teacher.

When I was sixteen, I think it was the romance that drew me in, the obsessive love Gatsby had for Daisy, but more, it was his yearning, his dreams, his desire to make himself over into someone who would be worthy. And the tragedy of it all when we find out that it none of it was enough.

Still, all of that striving was worth something regardless, right?

That's how Mr. Fay taught Gatsby anyway. We also had discussions about the class system in America, corruption, wealth, the American Dream, and the Jazz Age. And then we watched the kinda dumb movie with Robert Redford, who was too pretty and polished to be Gatsby and Mia Farrow, who was too drippy and blah to be Daisy. Or maybe not. Daisy was at the core fairly drippy and blah.

Gatsby's a good book to teach to high school students, for a variety of reasons, I later learned, when I taught it to roughly 800 students over the years. It's only 182 pages-- with nine chapters, something you can easily cover over a two week period in an average classroom. Also, to snag the attention of your students you can play up the mystery, the romance, the bling, the murders. Trust me when I tell you that in the classroom, in terms of keeping teenagers awake, Gatsby easily beats out The Scarlet Letter, another book I've read 50+ times.

And then there's the fun symbolism that all English teachers love: the green light at the end of the dock, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, and what's the deal with Daisy crying over Gatsby's beautiful shirts? So many fun essay questions...

Oh, and the book holds up under multiple readings-- which is good for the teacher having to read it 50 times-- because there are always interesting details to puzzle out. The cuff links made out of molars, Myrtle's pathetic dog, the weird interlude with Nick and another man at a party, the shitty book that Tom's reading about white supremacy.

I can go on and on. And recently, if you've talked to me, I have been going on and on about it. There's a book out about Gatsby that I've been listening to on audio written by Maureen Corrigan. It's titled appropriately So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Maureen Corrigan is a book reviewer on NPR's Fresh Air and for the record, she is my favorite book reviewer, mainly because I love her voice. It's not "full of money" (Gatsby fans will recognize the reference) but I would venture to say that it is "full of books."



Before I started listening to Maureen (can I call her Maureen?) talk about Gatsby, I wondered what she could possibly say to me that I didn't already know about the book.

Well.

I don't know who's left reading this blog post at this point, if there are any other people like me who are in the exact center of the Venn diagram of People Who Have Read Gatsby 50+ Times and People Who Love the Sound of Maureen Corrigan's Voice, but if You are one of those people, I beg you to please check out the audio of this book, so we can chat.

I will end this post with-- what else?-- the iconic last line of Gatsby:


So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 


The End



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Twenty six years ago today I was cleaning my kitchen

I don't remember if it was particularly dirty. All I remember is I had the uncontrollable urge to clean it. I am talking clean clean, the kind where you fill a bucket with sudsy, hard-core cleaning detergent and get down on your hands and knees and scour the corners. We had a big kitchen back then, bigger than any kitchen we've had since, come to think of it, so there was a lot to scour.

I was channeling my cleaning-obsessed Italian grandmother, scrubbing out the oven and emptying the cabinets so I could rid the dark edges of any dropped crumbs. And then I moved on to the bathrooms. It was a Saturday.

Every once in a while my husband would poke his head into whatever room I was presently scouring and say, hesitantly, So, um, are you finished yet?

At some point he dragged me outside to take a walk. We had a loop we used to do around our neighborhood. It started in our humble subdivision and reached up into a much fancier section that seemed like would be forever out of reach for us. Our habit after we both got home from work was to take this same walk. My husband was big into goal-setting and planning. He would say stuff like, What's our five year plan? What's the ten year? Twenty? Thirty?

I used to laugh at him. As much of an imagination as I had, I couldn't project out that far. We were twenty-six and twenty-five years old and had been married for three years and had just bought a house, things I couldn't have foreseen five years before. Five years before, I was, to put it plainly, a mess. The fall of my senior year in college I was in a dark place.

The truth is, I was suicidal. I mean, I was seriously thinking about how I would do it. The only thing that was saving me was that I was too tired. I remember going to bed one night and feeling like it was the end. I wanted only to stop the pain I was feeling. I wasn't afraid of death anymore and I couldn't imagine anyone would miss me if I were gone. Some part of me knew that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation because I started to pray. I am not a praying person, but that night I did. The prayer was a simple one:

Help. Help me understand why I should want to stay in this world.

The next morning I was exhausted and wrung out. I walked to class, stopping on the way to get the mail, how I always did, even though most days there was no mail. That morning there was a letter from my favorite professor. He was on sabbatical for the year and had never written to me before.

It was a strange out -of-the-blue letter. Basically, he said he'd been thinking about me and wondering if I was doing okay. He said, I hope you realize you have a lot in you that's wonderful.

After I read the letter it was like a veil lifted, and suddenly, I wasn't in a dark place anymore. I was outside looking in on myself, thinking very logically about my future, a future that the night before I could not envision.

I still couldn't envision it--at least not the particulars--but I knew with a weird degree of clarity that I could keep going. I could grow up. I could meet someone, get married, have a job, buy a house, have children...

Instead of dread and sadness and anxiety and fear, I felt curious. I wanted to hang around for the things that were potentially going to happen.

A few weeks later I met the man who would become my husband. Flash forward five years, and we are walking around our neighborhood where we've bought our first house. I've just finished scouring the entire place. "Oh, I understand now," my husband told me, "All of this cleaning. It's like the What to Expect When You're Expecting book says. You're nesting."

It turned out he and the book were right. That night we rushed to the hospital. In the morning we welcomed our first child into the world.

Tomorrow, he will be twenty-six years old.





Monday, September 30, 2019

The door in the garden

came from a prison. The old Ohio Penitentiary in downtown Columbus, or so the neighbors tell us. I don't know why someone would put it in a garden. People do strange things. I can see the door right now through my kitchen window.


When I first saw it, when we were thinking about buying this house, I didn't look carefully. I thought it was an old gate. Another one of those shabby chic things cluttering up this house. Broken mirrors and peeling-painted windows hung on the walls like artwork. We got rid of all of that. The prison door, though, it's stuck pretty good in the garden. 

It's a conversation piece, a friend told me. But all I can think about is a man sitting on the inside of a cell holding onto the bars. A murderer. Or some sad pathetic innocent person. I looked up the Ohio Penitentiary on Wikipedia and it’s an awful story actually. The prison opened in 1834 and operated until 1984. There was a fire in the 1930’s where 322 inmates died, some burned in their cells. 

Over the years a confederate general did time there. And the mobster Bugs Moran. The writer O Henry spent three years in the prison for embezzlement, and is said to have written 14 of his stories in the place. A sociopathic doctor in the 1950s did research on prisoners, injecting them against their will with cancer cells. 

The former prison was an abandoned building for a while in the 1980's. The city demolished it finally, in the 1990's. Today the area's the site of a shopping district and a parking garage. 

And now a piece of it is in our garden. 

But not for long.

FOR SALE: One prison door. Best offer. All proceeds will go to the Athens Books for Prisoners.








Sunday, September 22, 2019

In my old neighborhood I took the same walk with my dog every day

Well, actually, I took the same walk with her three times a day. One 15-20 minute loop around our block, past the same houses, the same trees, the same cracks in the sidewalks.

Three times a day the dog stopped to smell the same sewer cover. She sat down at the same corner to take her treat. We went in the same direction: turn right coming out of the house. Once in a while, if I was in an adventurous mood, we'd go to the left. I don't know why I fell into this pattern. I told myself it was for the dog. She gets anxious when we break our routine. But who am I kidding. I'm the one who liked following the same path.

Set me in motion, and I can go, hardly paying attention to my own feet slapping down. No need to look at the houses, the trees, the cracks.

And I was all ready to settle into a similar pattern in our new neighborhood. My daughter helpfully worked out the route for me. She was the one who took the dog for walks those first few days after moving in. She figured out a nice fifteen minute loop and pointed out the landmarks so I could follow it myself. The blocks in this neighborhood aren't perfectly rectangular. They loop and wind and double back on themselves. There are side streets and alleyways, forks in the road that split off in multiple directions.

The first few weeks I followed the route dutifully, but I kept tripping over the unfamiliar cracks, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the houses and the trees. There is too much to look at. This is a fairly old neighborhood-- the majority of the houses were built in the 1920's. Some of them are Sears kit homes and I am fascinated by this fact. And equally fascinated by all of the additions and personal touches the owners have done over the years.

Front porches and side porches. A bridge built over a dry creek bed. Glorious gardens. Around here they have vegetables growing in the front yards. Grass-less lawns filled with perennial plants and multi-tiered rock gardens. Those adorable little free libraries.

I can't stick to a pattern. I have to take the dog down every street, through every alleyway. One day we stumble upon a pollinator garden smack in the center of a street. Another day we find giant silver bulbs as large as beach balls hanging from a tree. A sculpture of a meditating toad.

meditating toad

silver bulbs

little free library


In front of one house is a bed of ridiculously large flowers, brightly colored and top heavy. They don't make sense. The blooms are too big for the stalks. They should be falling over, snapping themselves in half instead of bobbing in the breeze. I can't get over it. One morning I spy the owner and tell her how much I love those flowers.

absurdly large flowers


They're Cleome, she says. I tell her we've just moved into the neighborhood and how much I love it. She asks me where I live and we chat for a bit more and then the dog and I continue on our walk.

The next day I find a baggie of seeds hanging on our front doorknob. (Or rather, our front door faucet. Yes. All of the doorknobs in this house are faucets, no idea why.) There's a card. Enjoy!

I will.



Sunday, September 15, 2019

Radical Deconstruction of a Koi Pond

When we bought this house, we inherited a koi pond and we didn't want a koi pond.

First, let me say, I have nothing against koi ponds. Our next door neighbors at our previous house have a koi pond and when we sat outside on their patio, I liked to look at the fish.

They have a big one that I called the Dr. Seuss Fish because it was enormous and could stick half of its body out of the water and it looked like any second it was going to crawl right out and walk across the patio. I told my neighbor, one of these days, there's going to be a knock on your door and you're going to look down, and it's going to be the fish.

Dr. Seuss Fish

Anyway, we inherited a koi pond and we didn't want a koi pond. We didn't know how to take care of it and we didn't really want to learn. The previous owner didn't leave behind instructions. She did leave a bag of food, but when were we supposed to feed the fish? And how much? I called our previous next door neighbor. Can you help us with the koi pond? I asked.

What I meant was, Can you take the fish out of the koi pond and put them in your koi pond?

He said, How many fish do you have?

I said, I don't know. Maybe five?


A few weeks later, he came over with a bucket and a net. He stepped into the pond and started swinging the net around. You've got more than five, he said. Also, he told us the pump was broken and something about the filter. We were all surprised when he pulled more than 25 fish out of the water.

After he left, my husband and I yanked out the overgrown vegetation and promptly found four or five more fish. The plan was we'd catch them, carry them over to our old neighbors' and begin dismantling the koi pond. The plan quickly went awry. For one thing, it was 95 degrees every day and who wanted to be outside. My husband had a hard time catching the fish. He got some and put them into a bucket, but we kept finding more. It was amazing how fast they were and how they could find hiding places in what was left of the vegetation.

I was getting nervous about the ones in the bucket. Every morning I'd go out with the dog and expect to find them floating on the surface, dead. 

One morning I went out and did my usual peek into the bucket and there was nothing there. No dead fish. No live fish. Just water. I called my husband in a panic, thinking maybe he'd dumped them all back into the pond? But no. Something must've gotten them, he said.

A raccoon? A cat? But wouldn't that have knocked over the bucket?

A friend suggested that it was a hawk. It looked like whatever fish had been left in the pond had been snatched away by the hawk too. Not to mix metaphors, but when I'd yanked out all of the vegetation, I'd basically left the poor fish out there like sitting ducks.

That night, before we'd hardly had time to process the deaths we'd inadvertently caused, we realized the empty pond had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. My husband punctured the lining to drain it and added some vegetable oil to the water, something we'd read online would keep mosquito larva from hatching.

By then the koi pond looked like a toxic waste dump. Dead plant stalks, a few oily puddles, and a mosquito graveyard.

A week later and the weather broke. This weekend it looked like we could really take some time out there to dismantle the thing once and for all. Clean up the muck. Pull out the punctured lining. Fill in the big hole.

But first, we found a fish! I have no idea how it made it through the destruction but there it was, an orange flicker in a mucky puddle. My husband caught it and took it across town to be reunited with its old friends.

The End


Tune in next time for the story of the newly discovered raccoon family living in our broken down shed.









Sunday, September 8, 2019

We dropped our daughter off at the airport

and did the whole goodbye thing. Hugs and pictures. Multiple wavings as she stood in line to go through security. And more waves as she turned to head toward her gate. We watched her walk down the hall until we couldn't see her anymore, and then there was nothing to do but go home. But we didn't want to go home yet.

There was too much traffic and we turned into the first restaurant we found off the highway.

I was thinking about the day we dropped our son off, his freshmen year. The college was close-ish to where I'd grown up and I remembered there being a clam shack on the beach, but we couldn't find it. I told my husband to keep driving while I craned my neck looking down the side streets. Everything was unfamiliar, the streets all dead-ending at the ocean, but no clam shack. Not far away our son was settling into his dorm room.

I knew he was excited and I knew he was where he was supposed to be and I knew it was all going to be okay, but still, I felt like crying. Finally, we found the clam shack. We got a table with an ocean view and stuffed ourselves with fried clams and shared a pitcher of sangria and told each other we were fine.

I relayed to my husband what my wise friend Margaret had told me about your kids going away to college. She said, When they go away to college, they're not really gone. Your home is still their home base. They'll keep coming back for holidays and over the summer. When they graduate from college, that's when they're really gone.

Whew, because we had tons of time. The night of sangrias at the clam shack we had a college freshman. We had a daughter who was only a sophomore in high school for crying out loud.

The restaurant off the highway does not serve fried clams. The view from the outdoor patio is of the shopping center parking lot. Our son has lived in San Francisco for three years. Our daughter is at the gate waiting for her flight. Soon, she'll be jetting across the ocean. She's going to graduate school in London. She'll be gone for a year.

I know they're both where they're supposed to be and I know it's all going to be okay, but still.

My husband orders us a pitcher of sangria and we tell each other we'll be fine.







Saturday, August 31, 2019

How to Paint a Room in Ten Easy Steps

1. Prep-work prep-work prep-work! It's been said that 90 percent of painting is prep-work. Okay, I don't know if that's actually been said except for me saying it, but the percentage feels right. There's so much to do before you even start painting-- decluttering the area, dusting, vacuuming... Because the last thing you want is to find a cat hair painted forever against your baseboard.

2, This week is Paint the Kitchen Week and I am ready. Painting clothes on. Hair tied back.

3. Shoot. I forgot to take all of the light plates off the walls. Side note: PLEASE DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Case in point: at the our last house, when I was removing the light plates, I realized that the previous owners had left the plates on and painted right over them. Total amateurs.

4. Primer everything. Wait. First, you've got to wash the surfaces you'll be primering. I got this tip from the guy who was standing behind me in line at the paint counter at Lowes. I was asking about primer, explaining to the Paint Clerk that the people who lived in the house before us smoked and now everything smelled smoky and what kind of primer was best for this problem, and the guy behind me piped up that he knew all about that, being a contractor and just having painted an entire house where six people had smoked up the place for twenty years.

The secret: a solution of water mixed with bleach and Dawn Dishwashing Liquid.

For the record: this is a messy yucky job and it takes a good part of a day.

5. Primer everything. Two coats. (This takes two days.)

6. Paint the ceiling. I have never painted a ceiling before but how hard can it be? I watch a bunch of Youtube videos. And I'm ready. Side note: It's not hard, exactly, but I do get a nice crick in my neck that reminds me of that summer I painted all of the McDonalds in Central Connecticut. 

7. Paint the walls! No, wait. First, you've got to tape everything off. I used to do this step religiously, but after painting what feels like a thousand rooms, I am more confident in my ability to paint a straight line. Still, it's a good idea to tape what you absolutely do not want to ruin. The kitchen cabinets, for example. This step takes a good two hours.

8. Paint the walls!! The color we've chosen is called Familiar Beige and I think it's lovely. Warm and brown. A few weeks ago I painted swatches of it on every wall to make sure we all really like it. We all really do.

But now that I've painted a wall,

I'm not so sure. Maybe it's clashing a little with the cabinets? No. It's fine. I keep going. I paint the entire kitchen and the back entryway. When my husband gets home from work, I ask him what he thinks and he hesitates. It looks a little red? he says. I argue with him that it does not look a little red. And anyway, what's wrong with a little red.

Nothing, he says. Forget I said anything.

I send him off to buy another gallon of Familiar Beige so I can paint the second coat, but as he's walking out the door, I say, Maybe we can change the cabinets?

He hesitates again.

Whatever. I AM NOT PAINTING THIS KITCHEN A DIFFERENT COLOR!!

We have a nice long bickery argument with our daughter looking on and shaking her head.

My husband flips through our collection of approximately 200 thousand Lowes paint samples and picks out another color, something called Salt Crystal that looks a lot like the color of the cabinets. He is so wrong about this color selection and I tell him 50 times and then I send him out to buy it.

8. I paint the entire kitchen again in Salt Crystal. Twice. It's creamy and delicious and makes me think of buttercream frosting and damn it all to hell, my husband is right. I do something I rarely do. I tell him he is right.

9. Paint the trim. Twice. (Two days)

10. Peel off the painter's tape. (Two hours)

Wah lah!

Now it is time to paint the dining room.