Posts Tagged ‘bay area’

Wool Worth

13 October 2009

Dear J-

My senior year in high school I ran across a couple of red wool shirts (one in plaid; the other in a houndstooth check) in the back of the closet; my dad had put them there after he had bought them, worn them a few times, and forgotten them.  Grunge was in full swing so anything flannel was favorable, though being wool meaat that there was a bit of scratchiness involved; eventually as part of my obsessive-superstitious mentality (this I think had something to do with initially believing that being uncomfortable meant being more alert; after the first midterm I was willing to try anything), they became part of my regular wear on exam days.  Thus they followed me to college and many exams later, I ended up donating them to a thrift store worn nearly paper-thin.

This morning the unfamiliar sound of water running through the roof gutters greeted me as I got up and went on eBay to look for a cheap replacement; although the variety found there is large, so is the search criteria, which is ultimately what keeps me from shopping there more often.  Putting the right search terms in is like trying to guess Rumplestiltskin’s name:  you get it wrong and you never end up with quite the right thing.  Some years ago my brother gave me a handsome Pendleton shirt which I wear as a liner under my bike jacket when it gets cold.

One thing that relentless survival story reading/watching has taught me is that wool insulates when wet, unlike cotton.  It’s not necessarily the behavior you’d expect, but it let me laugh off the Bay Area foggy morning chill; it’s that feeling of invulerability that I think gave me the confidence for great feats earlier in life.  Funny, though, that I’d ever believe that girding woolen armor would grant me magical powers; they say it’s an attitude, the difference between things happening to do and you making things happen, and sometimes it’s a lucky shirt that makes it.

Mike

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Who Are You?

23 October 2008

Dear J-

It feels like I’m always running away from something lately — after a long day at work, I’ve managed to get another day off to head up north, Bay Area for a funeral tomorrow.  It’s a cliché to say that we all get together only for funerals and weddings, but amongst us cousins, we’re starting to run low on the latter, even if this is the first of the former.  What can I expect from it?

It won’t be the same rowdy scene I’ve come to associate with throwing all of us together into the same room.  Something else, perhaps; to be honest I myself wasn’t particularly close to my aunt; I go because of my mother and the sister she’s lost.  We did have high hopes to spend a week together, roughly half a year ago; all that came to naught at the last minute, as other family events and health issues derailed that promise.  So.  Here we gather from as far away as New York, each with their own lives put on hold for the nonce.

At work we have stand-downs when something significant happens — whether good or bad, we take half an hour to discuss the reasons and causes and take those lessons to heart.  Now we have the opportunity to examine the trajectory our lives have taken — not so much to benchmark where we are compared to the rest of our generation; I’ll leave that for the grown-ups in the crowd — but to change where we see our path takes us.  And though it’s ridiculous to suggest I can read the future any more than I have x-ray eyes, when else would I get a chance to reflect on it?

Better yet, ponder this:  is this what you wanted five years ago, five years from then?  What secrets did you dream of, what secrets have you kept, what tears have you hid, and which tears have you wept?  Where is home?  Who are you?  Who will you be?

Mike

Mortal Coil

16 October 2008

Dear J-

We’ll be on a trip the next few days; theVet’s sister has a timeshare in Palm Springs, so we’ll see if our daughters — cousins — can coexist in the same small space.  It’s one thing when figgy was relatively small and inert, but I suspect that there will be some initial bashfulness later on.  Expect the same format as last February’s trip — I’ll keep writing, and will update once we’re back.

But it’s the trip — the unexpected trip afterwards that I may end up making on my own — that weighs on my mind.  In brief, one of my aunts suffered a second stroke over the past weekend, one severe enough that she has yet to wake up from it.  Severe enough that do-not-resuscitate orders are being mentioned and finding use.  It’s a decision that there’s not a lot of research on, and one without comforting books and cards saying that it was the right one.  The decision has to be made at an emotional nadir, which leads to all kinds of second-guessing and self-doubt, compounded by the utter finality of it all.  And it sucks that my cousins already have to make it.

I’ve tried to imagine what a choice like that must be like, but I can’t fathom it; some things, I suppose, must be experienced to gain understanding.  You spend your time on earth as though you’ll live forever — so far, so good — and sure, any responsible person makes arrangements beforehand, but it’s still unexpected.  As children, all you know, all your world is your parents starting out; I see how figgy sees me and I’m always humbled by it.  You grow up, you get friends and a family of your own and your folks get put off to the side — but not forgotten, never disappeared, never all the way out; you keep that in your back pocket knowing as you do they’ll be there for you.  Where does it go?  Where do we go?  How do we continue?

Mike

The Long Secret

6 September 2008

Dear J-

Yesterday, out thrifting, I picked up The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh.  Those of you who already suspect I’m soft in the head can chuckle and nod (slowly, for my sake) at me buying yet another kid’s book — this I’ll say, at least once:  I’ve never read a Newbery Award winner that I regretted reading.  And I’ve done pretty well in keeping up with them, too; up until graduating high school, I’d read pretty much all the award winners through 1992.  Children’s literature doesn’t mean written for children, after all.

But, on the other hand, amongst Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret, along with her other books (including Sport, published posthumously featuring that same odd New York world), there’s not a single Newbery Award winner.  Doesn’t matter.  Harriet the Spy is the best-known work, and as such I won’t discuss it here beyond giving it a ringing endorsement.  Besides, you won’t understand The Long Secret without having had an appreciation of Harriet (and, to a lesser extent, Janie; otherwise you’ll believe they’re the most evil characters in The Long Secret without some context).

The focus of The Long Secret is on Beth Ellen Hansen; the plot has sufficient hooks in it for the publisher to bill it as a true sequel to Harriet the Spy and the continuation of Harriet’s misadventures, but that’s just frosting on the cake of Beth Ellen’s relationship with her mother, Zeeney, and her grandmother (the otherwise un-named Mrs. Hansen).  It revolves around the surprise return of Zeeney (after having taken off to Europe for the past seven years) and the differing expectations of mothers and daughters — the grandmother hoping that Zeeney has matured, Zeeney thinking that Beth Ellen would regard her as a mother, not a stranger, and Beth Ellen not knowing both how to react or how she’s expected to react.

It’s instructive to note that the three friends Fitzhugh exposits into novels — Harriet, Beth Ellen, and Simon (“Sport”) — all have difficult relationships with their parents.  Dig back into Fitzhugh’s personal history and you’ll see family drama worthy of any soap opera.  Each child takes on a different aspect of Fitzhugh, I believe — each one a window into the author’s mind, but with only a limited view, you don’t see the complete picture.  But I think that their immortality is guaranteed because just like any other window, you see through it and you see yourself in it, at least a little dim reflection if the house isn’t dark.

J-, I grew up shy and am still, to some extent; there’s possibly some gregarious phlegmatic man waiting to burst forth, but I prefer to think of it as being overly cautious amongst strangers.  I still have vague memories of nattering away happily to the girl in the waiting room — I was five — about my age, my parents’ ages, what they did, where we lived, the color of my bedroom — and abruptly being dragged off, nearly by my ear, as I started to delve into far more personal subjects.  If I’m guarded, it’s out of a sense of mistrust for the world; I remember the biggest difference between the Bay Area and Boston was strangers smiling, which I chalked up at the time to the difference in weather (if it was as cold as Boston everywhere, no one would want to smile and risk shattering their teeth).  Yet I learned to appreciate the Boston greeting of indifference until you’d developed a relationship — it’s a question of trust, naturally, and paradoxically, anyone trying so hard must have some ulterior motive, right?

Beth Ellen’s grandmother doesn’t sit down to speak with her — I mean really speak — until late in the book.

Mrs. Hansen folded her paper and took off her reading glasses.  “I’ve thought a great deal about yesterday, as I’m sure you have too.”  Mrs. Hansen seemed to get embarrassed suddenly, because she looked out the window.  “But we’ll talk about that in a minute.”  She turned and looked directly into Beth Ellen’s eyes.  Over the hawk nose the large eyes were violet in the morning light.  “You’re very timid, aren’t you?”

“What?”  Beth Ellen was caught completely unaware.

Her grandmother looked away.  “I suppose you’re timid because you’ve had to grow up here with an old lady.  You haven’t had any real life.  But there’s something I want to tell you about timidity, about shyness.”

Beth Ellen searched her grandmother’s face to see if she were angry, but the face looked impassive.  I’m going to be told I’m bad, she thought.

“Shy people are angry people,” said Mrs. Hansen and snapped her head around to see Beth Ellen’s reaction.

I am not a lady, thought Beth Ellen.  It’s coming now.  She’s going to say I am not a lady.

“You know,” said her grandmother, smiling, “it’s important to be a lady, but not if you lose everything else, not if you lose yourself in the process.”

Beth Ellen felt her mouth drop open.

“There are times when we must express what we feel even if it is anger.  If you can feel it and not express it … it might be better, but you must try to know what you feel.  If we don’t know what we feel, we get into trouble.”  She looked hard at Beth Ellen.  “You’re a very angry little girl.  I have no idea what you’ve been doing about it because you’ve never shown any of it before yesterday, to my knowledge.”

— Louise Fitzhugh, The Long Secret

Beth Ellen’s got a different set of issues; she’s been told all her life that she doesn’t have a choice, that her opinion is meaningless, let the adults decide it for you.  But looking back, wasn’t I too quick to accept what other people wanted for me?  It’s a delicate art, like teaching bicycle riding:  how fast do you take off the training wheels?  When is it time to let go?

Mike

Graduate School

5 November 2006

I think my favorite part of grad school was working with the secretaries/admin assistants. They kept that place going. Second would be getting a bag of Doritos for dinner (more often than I care to remember), riding that last bus #39 of the night to Jamaica Plain. JP >>> Cambridge. Third would be leaving grad school. I don’t think it was a mistake to go, I just think I took too long.

*****

Ditto for graduate school. Moving across the country is something of a traumatic experience. Being away from the friends and family that I’ve known for ten years or more has made me reevaluate my priorities in life, and realize that things only get more complex from here on out. No, you don’t need to deprive yourself of all the joy in your life to try to figure out what you really want out of it. It does seem to help me, though.

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