Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Defense of Anger

I was raised in a suburb in the midwest. After I grew up and moved away, I learned that, throughout my childhood, the neighbors who lived on both sides and behind my family regarded us as unstable and possibly dangerous. Had I known, I would have gloried in it, but I did not know. Most of the trepidation had to do with my dad. The thing about my dad--there are a lot of things about my dad; he's an interesting guy--but the thing that so alarmed the neighbors was my dad's explosive temper. To illustrate, take a fine fall morning, any weekend, circa 1979, and we find my dad fixing himself a lunch. He gets out the cold cuts, probably olive loaf or those thinly sliced squares of processed beef, and goes to toast a couple slices of white bread in the toaster. He waits. The toaster does not pop up the toast, despite the evident burning that has begun. So, my dad has to try to extract the bread with his finger. By now, he is cursing in a low but intense voice--something about engineers who design things like this toaster. He burns his finger slightly and the cursing gets louder. If you were there, you would be able to hear him throughout the house and from the front or back porch, even if the doors and windows were closed. He turns the toaster over and shakes it, and maybe he yells, "you godDAMN piece of SHIT!" Then, let's suppose that the toaster slips from his hands as he's shaking it and crashes to the floor, dumping his toast and a half cup of burnt toaster crumbs on the linoleum. Things quickly escalate. My dad introduces new, more powerful terms into the yelling, which is coming out pretty much non-stop. The volume rises significantly. At this point, the neighbors hear a word or two from their own yards, or, if the windows are open, from their own kitchen tables. Next, his foot slips on the crumbs. He doesn't go down, but the sudden movement to catch his balance causes the blood to rush from his hands and sends adrenalin pumping through his system. He feels a small spasm in his back. Now, he is in a true rage. Now, he bellows forth the poetry of fury. If the neighbors haven't yet realized a show is on, they learn soon enough when dad yanks the back door open (things get even better when the sliding screen door comes off the tracks), bursts on to the back deck, and cursing at the top of his lungs the whole time, hurls the toaster into the back yard. Then, he turns back inside where my mom has appeared, with her eyebrows up and her lips pressed together. Dad goes and sits on the couch, still puffing a little self-righteously, and pretty soon mom brings him a sandwich. She's not friendly about it, and he will still be trying to get her to talk to him at dinnertime, but he gets fed and the kitchen floor is magically wiped up. Over the years, the toaster is followed by a hairdryer, blender, telephone, a small black and white television, and of course the sliding screen door. No body ever gets thrown into the backyard, but I can imagine them now, the neighbors, half-smiling, feeling superior and biting their lips, peeking around their curtains, wondering if it is really very safe to let their kids play over there.

I don't blame my dad for his behavior, even though I did grow up feeling weird about having friends over and sort of nervous about when he might start flipping out. The really bad thing is that I either inherited or learned his rage--or both. I don't usually throw things, but I certainly get so mad that I can't hear or see, and then I act impulsively and say and do things that most people would never do. Once in Rhode Island during the peak of the shopping season--mid-to-late December, I found myself driving around and around in a shopping center parking lot with a bunch of other cars playing a tense kind of duck-duck-goose game. I stopped when I saw a woman approach and get in a car and start the engine. She didn't move and she didn't move, and she didn't move. I could see her. She was on her phone. She pulled down her sunvisor and put on some lipstick. She lit a cigarette, opened her window a bit. I waited. Finally, I put my car in park, got out, and approached her driver's side. She looks at me. Blows smoke out the window. Are you leaving? I ask. When I'm ready, I'll leave, she says to me, holding her cell phone down from her mouth a bit. I was heart-thumping mad when I got out of my car. Now, for a split second, I cannot see, and there's no specific sound in my head but I cannot hear anything around me either. A dizzy pulsing in my brain, and then it passes. I turn and get back in my car and very slowly roll forward to park directly behind her, so that my passenger's door is pressed up flush against her back bumper. She's still jabbering. She doesn't even notice. I get out and walk about half a soccerfield's length across the parking lot before she realizes she's been blocked in. All of a sudden I hear screaming and turn to see her waving her arms, her face red. I wait as she runs across the parking lot. Ready to leave, now? I say. People are smiling as they walk by. Squawk! Squawk! Squawk! I walk back, get in my car, and go home. I feel good, really good, like I've solved an important social problem, not at all like I am a social problem. I don't know if my dad ever felt like that when he propelled cheap, poorly designed appliances and other household goods into the back yard, but I do sense an affinity between us. All of us face the world with so few weapons; it reminds me of Ahab telling Starbuck of his need to punch through the mask--hit back at the big, dumb uncooperative universe of contrary people and things that defy and withstand our will! Hi-yah!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Why it Seems Like I Twitch a Lot When I Talk to You

Sometimes I feel guilty for things I haven't done. I don't mean large-scale social injustices like race discrimination. Although I am probably guilty of that, too, on some level, given the unbidden and unearned privileges I enjoy on account of my "white" skin. But I am not talking about that right now. I am talking about being guilty of things like shoplifting or lying. I have this recurrent feeling of guilt in certain situations, even though I am doing and have done nothing blameworthy. Many times I have had the experience while shopping. I gradually feel my neck and shoulders tightening, because I know I am being watched. And once I realize that I am being watched, I feel suffused with guilt, as though I am shoplifting, even though I've never stolen anything from a store in my life. If, under these circumstances, a salesperson catches my eye, I am compelled to look down or away, and I am overly conscious of my arms and legs. I am thinking the whole time about how I'm not stealing anything, don't even intend or want to steal anything, but my body is actively performing as though panicked because I have been caught stealing. Except I am not stealing. Other times, I will be in the middle of talking to someone, looking them square in the eye, centered in what I'm saying, when I am all of a sudden apart from myself (not visually but in my head) listening to myself and thinking, "yeah, right." Even though I always really, genuinely mean what I am saying, another part of me has split away and doubts (or maybe plays with doubting) it, and that part begins to affect the part that believes what I'm saying, so that despite my sincerity, which is real, I can feel my eyes start to look like they are lying. And sometimes I'll stumble over my words, or I'll suddenly scratch my face when I don't even have an itch--a "give," as that old movie about the gambling psychiatrist--House of Cards--called it. And the thing is, I know I am not lying, but I also know I feel like I am and I look like I am. Then, instead of spinning my head around and spitting green stuff, I usually tell my self /ves that I don't really care if it looks like I'm lying, and I bluster my way through, telling sweet truth the whole time but getting none of the credit or enjoyment from it that I deserve. These are the things that make social interaction difficult for me.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Whew! Glad I got all that off my chest. Today, a fit of nostalgia instead of guilt. I somehow got to thinking about a long-past obsession I had over a Portuguese guy on my co-ed soccer team in Rhode Island about five years ago. Part of the obsession was my first husband's fault. He wouldn't sleep with me for 33 months because I once said he smoked too many cigarettes which made me not want to have children with him. I figured he would be likely to die before they were able to drive. It was not a particularly sensitive thing to say, but the intention was good: I wanted him to quit smoking. Addicts are astoundingly skilled at protecting their habits; he immediately transformed my words into "You are not good enough to be the father of my children, you dirtbag." This imagined insult had such a hurtful effect on him that he never again had sex with me. Really. No matter how many times I told him that my words were directed at a behavior, not at his essential being, he insisted on misunderstanding what I said. It was absurd. So, around the age of 30, at my sexual prime, I was married to someone who, for the next almost-3 years, refused to sleep with me. We never had sex after that point. To keep this short, despite my growing resentment (and increasing libido) I did not violate the agreement that was our marriage until after I filed for divorce. Then, I went after this guy on my soccer team. I didn't and don't even know that much about him. What I did know indicated that it would be difficult to find anyone less likely to be an appropriate love interest for me. Still, the barbed-wire tattoo on his arm and the stories he told about Portugal gave me goosebumps. And when it all came down, I was so overwhelmed by this intersection of my day-to-day life and what had become a painfully constant fantasy world in my head, I really think I lost all sense of reality. This was probably the closest I have ever been to psychotic. The guy was barely literate. He had finished 8th grade. He was nice, but probably not very. Maybe it was chemical. I read in an alumni magazine last year an article about research on the influence our sense of smell has on our emotions. The research reported that a head cold that lasts for two weeks can prevent women and men from processing smells unique to their partners that keep them emotionally primed for intimacy. These are specific smells that attract some and repel others; the scientists have even developed a natural selection process based on smell. Why am I writing about smells? Anyway, I was blown AWAY by this guy--or my ideas about this guy (or his smell?). I don't know how I got anything done that year. All I thought about was being with him--not necessarily sleeping together, although that was a significant part of it--but also the satisfaction of being wanted after being concertedly not wanted for several years. Anyway, today, I was remembering that period and how I had once found a passage in Othello that captured exactly what I was feeling. I looked it up in an online concordance. And the weird thing is that when I read the lines I could feel my heart clinching up and my ears going cold--an inexplicable ache, a yearning in the bottom of my throat.

[ . . . ] If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate. (Othello 2.1.974-978)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

At Night

Fold and squint and cringe. I find myself thinking about non-being or, alternatively, the emotional and physical pain of people I love. To hold these thoughts is unbearable and also unstanchable, like the smooth flow of water over a flat plane in a fountain, from one level to another, but seeming like forever.

I dream of the back yard of my childhood. Animals--wolves and deer and other fast-moving creatures--roam the space, trotting across a trimmed lawn and along the back fence. I watch them from the deck and dart inside when I sense they've noticed me. I am full of a nervous foreboding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Food and other Follies

Earlier this evening I indulged an abnormal eating behavior that I rarely have time for these days. When I was in grade school and even later, in high school, I read a lot. I was sort of a bi-vert, sometimes an extrovert but often not, and in any case, would spend entire days and nights reading. Usually, if I started a book, I would read it non-stop until finished. I can still do that occasionally, when I take a plane somewhere, for instance or allow myself a day or a couple days in the summer with a novel. As a kid, one of the things that always struck me most powerfully about what I read were scenes that involved eating, especially scenes in which some single item of food was painstakingly detailed--fetishized, I guess we would say. I remember a few of these, though I've probably got the details wrong: little Laura Ingalls's uncle bringing her a delicate, heart-shaped cookie covered in crystals of white sugar in Little Cabin in the Big Woods; Heidi's grandfather toasting thick slices of crusty bread with cheese bubbling on top in Heidi; the crisp brown roast pig and assortment of pies that seduce Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepyhollow; the buffalo hump that Natty Bumppo--or Long Rifle or whatever he's called at that point--feasts on with the squatters in The Prairie (which hump, incidentally I mentioned to a Lakota woman, an author and sometime sojourner in this area; she claimed never to have heard of anyone eating buffalo hump, seemed not to know anything about buffalo humps. Yet just recently I noticed that Melville, like Cooper, refers to buffalo hump as a delicacy in MD, so maybe this is a mythical meal imputed to the mythical West by nineteenth-century New Englanders?). Anyway, it wasn't just that I liked to read about food. I liked to work up little imaginary scenarios for my own eating. I would take a break from five hours of reading and get a couple Saltines or a small bowl of cottage cheese. I'd reach to the back of the shelf where we kept the drinking glasses and get the miniature A&W Rootbeer mug and fill it with milk. Then, I would eat and drink very slowly, nibbling and chewing so daintily that every tiny morsel was completely savored, and I would imagine that I did not eat regularly and felt awed by the wondrousness of each curd of cottage cheese. Or chew the Saltine into a doughy ball and flatten it on my tongue and chew it up again, pondering the whole time how the food had arrived just in time to save my fading life. Then, I would imagine that other people were watching and encouraging me to go slow or else I would make myself sick, since my stomach could surely not handle so much sudden bounty. Or I would put a piece of bread in the microwave with slivers of cheddar cheese on top and stand next to the open back door chewing on soggy bread and wet cheese, listening to the wind whistle and imagining a fire crackling behind me, an old man knitting or darning a sock or something. Tonight, somehow, a chapter of statistics sent me to the kitchen where I thought about Moby-Dick and dry ship biscuit and salty, oily whale steaks and imagined myself a sailor just home from years at sea. My legs felt shaky--probably scurvy. I quickly slurped my way through an overripe pear and tore the skin off a grapefruit. Twice juice squirted directly into my left eye but so intent was my body on the need for Vitamin C that I didn't even feel the sting and kept digging the sour pulpy segments from the skin that clings so tightly. I eyed an apple but decided that my sea-faring stomach needed a rest. It was a harmless indulgence, and the pear needed to be eaten. I can't imagine that anyone would see such a thing as an eating disorder, although I was telling a friend recently, I used irrationally to associate inappropriate sandwiches with eating disorders. This was prompted by a roommate I once had who criticized a sex partner of hers for eating leftover spaghetti in a sandwich. She was majoring in Psych and said told me that putting everything in a sandwich was the sign of an eating disorder. I don't know how much of this I remember and how much I'm making up or made up in my own mind at the time, but I recall that the reason such sandwiches are a problem is that the person making these inappropriate sandwiches does so because he or she feels that by reducing the entree to an on-the-go sandwich, s/he has reduced a meal to a snack. This sort of delusionary behavior = red flag for the roommate who was obsessive about weight, eating, drinking, smoking, and sex.

Having nothing at all to do with food, except maybe the grocery-store setting, here is one of the weirdest things that has happened to me in the past six months. In May, I was getting out of my car in a grocery store parking lot, when the wind yanked the door from my hand sending it crashing into the car sitting in the next spot. I wrote a note with an explanation, my name, and phone number and was walking around the car to stick it on the windshield, when a woman and man approached. I asked if the car belonged to them; it did, so I explained what had happened and gave them the note with my phone number. The next day while I was playing soccer, the answering machine took a message from a woman who identified herself as the person whose car I whacked and left a phone number. When I returned the call, I also got an answering machine, so I too left a message--this is the person who dented your car in the parking lot, I am home, call me, blah blah blah. A few hours after that, I get a phone call from a woman who tells me she called the number I gave her but it was the wrong number. I say, "I'm confused. I only gave you my number and you just called it." So, she says, "I mean the number that that guy you were with gave me--your husband, I think--the number he wrote down." This really confuses me. I tell her I wasn't with a guy, that I was completely alone. I start to think she's putting me on somehow and ask her where the incident she is talking about happened. She says it happened in a Walgreen's parking lot in Fargo, North Dakota, where she was visiting, but that she's now back in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Well, I'm in Vermillion, South Dakota, I say, and my accident happened at HyVee--here. We're both silent. I ask for her phone number and check it against the number I called. I had dialed a single wrong digit . The person whose car I hit with my door had the same phone number except one digit as this other person who had been involved in nearly the same series of events on the same day, and of the ten digits, I misdialed that one. This is so much more exciting if you believe we live in a random universe!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Last night before bed I logged in to my Sharebuilder account. I've put money into this account half-heartedly, a little at a time, over the past three years, choosing stocks randomly or because I liked their names--Clean Fuel Technologies and so on. The only one that has done anything is Abbott Labs which I chose because I began browsing at "A" and was already bored by the time I reached the "Ab's." I have never had much over a thousand in the account altogether, and the last time I looked, several months ago, there was about $900. Last night, the total read $564, which means that my stock has lost about 40 percent of its total value. I'm not too broken up over it; I had no plans for the money--wasn't counting on it. But it's still mind-boggling. I cannot conceive how horrified people with 401K and other retirement plans must be these days. We are being spanked by the invisible hand.

Like many if not most children, there were periods of time when I was a child that I stayed with a babysitter during the day. These were mothers themselves who took in a number of small children and kept an eye on them for however many hours each day. As I recall, my babysitters were decent people who fed their charges healthy meals and kept them happy and entertained. I had one babysitter who shared my first and middle name. In addition to the name, I remember nothing about her person but her fingernails, which were a high-gloss, fire-engine red. While I cannot bring her face into mind's view, I have distinct memories of her fingernails tapping down rapidly one after another, again and again, on various hard surfaces: a kitchen counter, the metal lip of the kitchen sink, a coffee table in a TV room. With this image comes Helen Reddy singing, "I am Woman," although I can't be certain that the fingernails and the song actually ever met. Possibly "Reddy" and the red nails occupy the same space in my long-term memory.

This particular babysitter had her parents living with her. The older man and woman must have been occupied elsewhere during the day, since we never saw much of them. Or they may have avoided children. I remember the grandfather in particular, because one day when it rained and we were denied the yard, some of the children, including me, wandered down into the unfinished basement. I recall finding what appeared to me to be a very old man with a beard, sitting on a stool in a corner, painting a picture. Somehow, my memory has run the image together with the story of Rumpelstiltskin--maybe, the grandfather told me the story, or maybe he was painting a scene from the story. Or, maybe, my five-year-old mind combined the parts, adapted the scene: a princess (me? the grandfather?) in a dungeon creating something of beauty and value. The man had a long beard as I recall, like Rumplestiltskin's beard, or like the straw--or like Rapunzel's hair, whatever she has to do with it.

During that year or some other, after the grandmother smacked my little brother on the butt with a wooden spoon, we left that babysitter for another.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I gave notice at my job in August. Nine-months notice. If I were inclined to draw bad analogies, and I am often so inclined, I would say something about giving birth to my new self, which would make this very moment part of my self-gestation. I am creating myself anew, quitting this life for new possibilities. I am torn between viewing my decision as quitting and abandoning, on the one hand, and seizing and storming, moving and rising, and such things, on the other. What does it mean when a person gives up a secure professional life, a good salary, and a certain kind of prestige--all the result of much hard work--in order to start over from scratch? And to make that move as the economy is coming apart at the seams?

I have been trying to think about other things I've quit. I dropped Chemistry my senior year in high school at mid-year. I quit playing soccer after my first semester at college. I quit debating after my sophomore year. I quit being a wife to my first husband after three years, although it took another year to convince the Rhode Island courts I was serious about it. I quit being a Republican when I was 18. I quit smoking when I was 32. I quit ballet dancing when I was 10. I quit throwing tiny celebrations whenever I noticed that the time was 11:11 sometime last year when the time no longer moved me. Quitting has a negative ring to it, like "making excuses." Everyone knows that "losers make excuses" and that when you fall on your face, you get up and try again and again and again and again, even if you hate every minute of it, because when you finally succeed ... oh! Is Benjamin Franklin responsible for this? I can remember in recent years interviewing students for scholarships and asking them to describe their response to an instance when they'd been defeated or opposed in their goals somehow. How would I answer that question? "When I did not get promoted in my fourth year, I quit." "When I realized that 4 out of 5 my students wanted nothing more from me than a snappy performance and a good grade, I quit." "When I figured out that no matter how hard I work I am not going to be as brilliant as all that, I quit." "When I saw that working 65 hours a week would not be enough time and that people would always ask me how I like having my summers off, I quit."

It takes courage to quit this job. This profession. Quitting means more than ceasing to affiliate with an institution. I am throwing off an affiliation, an identity I've claimed for 15 years, truly, a way of life: the "life of the mind," as one of my mentors calls it. A New York Times column last year reported an MIT study in which students were asked to make choices with a mix of known and unknown outcomes. Even when it was irrational to do so, students would keep as many choices available to themselves as possible, refusing to commit to one clearly good choice because it meant giving up others that remained uncertain. The writer of the article contrasts the thinking of these students with that of a legendary Chinese general who was known for his great successes. His strategy was to burn his own ships and supplies when he landed an invading force. His troops knew that retreat was no choice; their invasion would succeed or they would perish. Just before writing and sending my resignation, I reread that article and considered myself brave. I would burn my bridges, cut off retreat. I would not quit my quitting.

Monday, October 6, 2008

This is my first blog. I should be working on something else. I've never regularly read a blog, "followed" a blog as they say. I once read the entire archives of a blog written by a college kid with cancer, but that's different, more like reading a finished product. I have viewed and admired a colleague's blog, Octopus's Garden. But I'm not sure who has time to read other people's blogs on a regular basis, and I am not sure who would stumble across this one. Even so, I am feeling very self-conscious.

This morning I took a work guest from the small South Dakota town where I live to a slightly larger South Dakota town an hour away so she could fly home to Italy. She has been studying the rhetoric of two recent, female candidates for American national public office, Hilary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin. I don't know what she (the Italian visitor) had to say about Clinton and Palin, since I didn't attend the presentation she gave, and in the car we got caught up in bemoaning how hard we work, but I have a few thoughts myself on the subject.
One, neither these nor any other modern political figure, male or female, says much worth hearing. Even when I agree with a candidate's views, her public comments are predictable and flat--newsbite comments. There is no analysis, possibly, because the public wouldn't follow. But more likely, the candidate doesn't know the issues well enough. Any close look at healthcare, the banking system, tax codes, the budget, or global military commitment presents a candidate with the risks of factual error or, worse, with offending some segment of her audience. Regarding the latter, I listened to an NPR program Sunday about the Latino/a vote and the lack of any engagement of immigration issues by the major candidates. The point made by one caller was a good one: neither McCain nor Obama can address immigration--in any way--without making someone (i.e., a group) mad, someone whose vote he needs. There are simply too many strong feelings running in too many directions for a candidate safely to articulate a stance. Instead, they leave out the issue altogether or gesture toward it in overly general ways. Campaign strategy, one might say, thoroughly sucks the brains out of campaign rhetoric. But, and this is two, the science of politics and the strategy of marketing for votes seems to leave us with political speeches and debates that are deathly boooorrrrring as well. Not just dumb but lacking in pathos. No art. Verily, these are not the days of fiery speechmakers like Daniel Webster or even the Hollywood-grandad glow of Ronald Reagan. When the honest antics of political rhetoric do occur they tend to be second-rate--and are followed by such a media go-to as to discourage subsequent performances. Howard Dean howled his enthusiasm and paid a high price indeed. Women, in particular, are pressed to show their professional bona fides by avoiding the appearance of anger, sadness, or undisciplined joy. This unofficial rule has at least a practical (practically monstrous) rationale: who would want a world leader, after all, for whom emotion might influence the decision to make war? Who indeed. Three, it would not be too much of a stretch to describe both Rodham Clinton and Palin as overdetermined by male-dominated political machines that obscure our ability to read their rhetoric as "their" rhetoric at all. Both--not unlike their male counterparts--follow the mandates of political parties, advisors, planners, speech-writers, media consultants, and, in the case of Palin, co-candidates. Seems like Hilary never quite shook Bill's potent shadow, and Palin has yet to register as much more than an obedient puppet (albeit one with a very dangerous potential for autonomy).