Monthly Archives: January 2006

Back East (an essay)

May 2004

“What was it like?” I demanded on quiet, interminable afternoons in my grandmother’s mobile home.

“Oh…” she said distractedly, “There was a tire swing at the side of the house…We had our milk delivered once a week and put it in the ice box.” She’d trail off. It was always the same answer, the tire swing, the milk, the ice box. My grandmother had migrated west from Binghamton, New York, in her twenties, and we were her native-born San Diegan descendants. I grew up with the nagging suspicion I was missing out on essential elements of a classical childhood, the kind reflected in my great aunt Nancy’s homemade Christmas cards, which I picked through obsessively on similarly quiet, sunlit afternoons, waiting for my mother to come home. My grandmother read mystery novels in the other room, and I dug through old photographs, memorizing faces, age progressions, and hairstyles, unable to distinguish between who was a blood relative and who was just a neighbor on a campout. I felt like an astronaut from the future coming to inspect the remnants of my family’s history a thousand years before. I knew I was related to these people, but I felt cosmically far from them.

* * *

Unlike the extravagant seasonal changes back east, the ones in California are slight and barely noticeable except to natives. A single deciduous tree lost its 20 leaves by Thanksgiving in front of our apartment each year. As a child, I prayed for snow when the morning temperature dipped below 45, as if the snow that would actually fall would cloak the slopes of the neighboring landfill enough to be able to sled down them.

My mother took me back east, to Whitney Point, the village near Binghamton where aunt Nancy lives, for the first time when I was 10. Certain details stand out: everyone smoked, even indoors. The food was different: freshly killed venison, a lot of mayonnaise. My cousins had accents: they flattened words like “Mom” and “coffee” when my side of the family carried them delicately in the middle of the mouth, with the non-inflection of television newscasters. A clothesline ran from Aunt Nancy’s kitchen to a pole in the yard, and you could manipulate it from inside using a pulley.

My cousins—there seemed to be hundreds—were loud and frank, even when it seemed impolite. They’d never met me, but were as brusque and familiar with me as they were with their own children. Their children—my second cousins—were less forgiving. It was clear they’d spent a decade’s worth of lakeside campouts falling into an intimate, confident rhythm with one another. I learned years later they thought it was strange I spent so much time in the tent, reading.

I look at the pictures of that visit now—they’re in an album among dozens in aunt Nancy’s living room—and I scan eagerly for my face, for a flash of my brief, first insinuation into the tapestry. I was there for two weeks. At 10, I am mousy and not swift. Even my build is different from my lanky, sturdier cousins. My second cousin Julia, an incomprehensible 12, cocks her hip to one side, daring the camera. Elizabeth is holding something, searching. Lauren, on someone’s hip, knits her brows, ready to wail. John, never self-conscious, doesn’t notice that someone is taking a picture. The sun is setting; this moment belongs to them. I think of the old photographs, choreographed black-and-white pictures with all the children in a row, from oldest to youngest, the littlest ones kneeling in the grass with their hands on a ball.

Fourteen years later, the pictures from the campout have that bygone quality—the light, over the years, gone slanted and nostalgic, almost yellow. “Look at my mom’s hair,” someone says.

* * *

Weeks after returning home to San Diego, with its sea cliffs, freeway grids, and approaching fire season, I knew I’d been to a foreign country. A foreign countryside. It reared my grandparents, and their parents and cousins, and the ones before that, until you went all the way back to Scotland, England, Germany, and Holland, which was so distant as to barely register. It did not rear me. Not yet.

This was a place that managed, much longer than southern California, to retain its smallness, in corner grocery stores, smoky, unapologetic diners, and flat, nasal accents. Towns the length of a fading Main Street, announced only by a sign reading, “Thickly Settled.” Other signs bear obscure phrases like “Frost Heaves” or “Raise Plough Now.”

At 10, I noticed every detail with the precision of an anthropologist. I missed it terribly and cried and cried in the bunk bed I shared with no one.

* * *

When I moved east in 1998 and decided to stay, I did my grandmother’s journey in reverse. I’ve changed my orientation, taken on winter and black coffee and a propensity for discussing miserable weather at length. But secretly, it is still marvelous and strange, and so far, my eastern relatives show no signs of becoming ordinary.

“They weave their own wool,” I explain to friends. “They knit. They make quilts. They go bird watching. They built a barn.

“They built a barn,” I repeat. My family in California have taken lately to more adventurous culinary exploits, like roasted root vegetables and Yorkshire pudding at Christmas. They buy their sweaters at department stores. I have never known any of them to make a quilt; aunt Judy crocheted afghans in the 70s.

It isn’t how we do things in California: we are my grandmother’s children. We are sunny and polite where my eastern relatives are sardonic and cheerily confrontational. We make decisions based on the availability of parking, freeway traffic, and major sales, and they learned the pragmatism required to get groceries in a snowstorm, to bear half a year of totally indoor activity, of bleak, icy hillsides and the hideous fallout of a mid-March thaw. Southern California is where people vacation, whether it’s winter or summer, and growing up there gives you a languid, convenience-oriented outlook. Maybe it’s just that I’m familiar with them, but my side of the family never makes me feel like I stumbled into a living issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Aunt Nancy makes invitations for the Memorial Day picnic and talent show by hand. They think big: under her son Andy’s direction, 10 of us accompanied my cousin Rick and his daughter Tara this year as they sang “Summertime” by blowing into bottles filled to specified depths with water, all tuned perfectly with a pitch finder. Andy’s sister Marna makes a dozen scarves in a weekend; aunt Nancy spins her own wool from local sheep. Once, she made a hat by spinning the discarded dog hair from aunt Judy’s collie.

My cousin Andy smokes in his mother’s living room in the winter, sitting on a short wooden stool, exhaling into the chimney.

There is also the barn. Six years in the making, it’s nearly complete; it houses the talent show and the mid-winter garlic party. (Cousin Johnny’s garlic is a local delicacy.) They salvaged the frame from a derelict barn in a neighboring town and built the rest from scratch. Marna made a book about it, compiling pictures and a narrative of its gradual progress; it’s called “Come Along With John,” and it follows the rhyme and meter of “The House that Jack Built.”

There are few occasions, and little available land or resources, for barn-building, or barn-using, in San Diego. Barns were erected in the inland valleys a long time ago, when California was still wild, but the way the venture capitalists bought and carved up and cultivated the land guided the state’s trajectory in such a way that today, my native countryside is tidily sewn by close-together, flimsily built housing developments, tile-roofed outdoor malls, and their mile-wide parking lots.

It’s part of the reason I fled east. I can go to aunt Nancy’s on my own now—I don’t need a picnic or a major holiday or a cross-country trip to do it. I imagine this makes me more of a regular, makes time spent there less excruciating. I’m less likely to mourn the passing of its sweetness before it begins.

Last December, I drove four and a half hours, narrowly avoiding my first snowstorm, to Whitney Point for the annual tree-lighting ceremony. (The town is small enough that its tree-lighting has an audience of 60 people, 14 of whom belong to the junior high school marching band.) Marna joins us; she is here twice a month.

“I thought my family was going to curl up and die when I left for college,” she confides when I ask her why she didn’t settle further away than Albany. She is the second oldest of her brothers and sisters. As a teenager, she would hurry home from school to help her mother care for the babies.

The cousins are a flock, a rare species of bird that managed to flourish, unimpeded, on their own island. It’s hard not to feel left out. “Around here, you’ve got to speak up,” someone informed me years ago, jostling in a buffet line under a canopy. They are used to straining to be heard over the din and resourceful enough not to be fussy. In their presence, I hover at the sidelines, watching. I am still in the tent, reading, so to speak.

As the first snow falls, Marna and five cousins play Pinochle in the kitchen. Everyone is smoking. The overhead is bright enough to make your eyes water; the sun set eight hours ago. They howl with accusation and belly laughs and eat nuts from a can. They are not nostalgic; they have a million nights like this one. They don’t have the grievous suspicion that these moments are parceled out just so: gifts you have to notice before they’re lost.

I am in the next room, sharing the couch with Aunt Nancy as she mends my pea coat. I blink and remind myself that she knew my grandmother as a child. She was born in 1921, before Binghamton became a post-industrial ghost town. She lived in the house with the tire swing and the delivered milk. She is in all the photographs: lithe and red-mouthed in a pair of figure skates on a frozen pond; seated in the lamp light at her mother’s knee, watching her sew; cradling the first of nine babies, fresh-faced and a little scared, my Uncle Charlie standing behind her, his enormous hand delicately resting on her shoulder. People don’t live like she does anymore, not without irony or willful quirkiness. Her sons and daughters are handy and resourceful, but they have email addresses and give iPhoto slide shows.

The snow gets heavier outside; a log sputters in the fireplace. I feel the moment expiring; I commit it to memory with exacting detail; I picture telling it later. I want them to go on like this forever.

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Actual "Actionability"

From the New York Times today, re: Osama Bin Laden tape (ps, why is always a tape? wonders C; isn’t that a little lo-fi? Is that to underscore the whole fundamentalist vs. Western libertine thing? Couldn’t he Pod-cast it?):

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters that President Bush had been told about the tape on Thursday morning after an appearance in Virginia. Mr. McClellan said American intelligence agencies were trying to determine whether the tape provided clues about Al Qaeda’s operations.

“If there is any actionable intelligence, we will act on it,” Mr. McClellan said.

“We are winning,” he said. “Clearly Al Qaeda and the terrorists are on the run, and that is why it is important that we do not let up, and do not stop, until the job is done.”

And I thought my students had trouble articulating themselves. I mean, for fuck’s sake. This man–and everyone else working in the Bush White House–talks and talks and talks, and NOTHING COMES OUT. His words turn to vapor the minute they hit the air.

What does this mean for, um, the American People? What does it mean that the folks in such visible, highly-compensated, diplomatic positions of global power DON’T SAY WHAT THEY MEAN? That they render language moot every time they open their mouths? Does it, like supply-side economics, have a trickle-down effect on the rest of us?

“Ms. M,” my students say, gesturing, “I need help with the thingy-thing.”
“The what?”
“The, um. The THINGY-thing. The, um. The–this,” they say, pointing.
“What’s that?”
“The THIRD PARAGRAPH.”
“The conclusion?”
“Yeah,” they say, rolling their eyes, like, Why didn’t you say that in the first place if you knew what I meant?

“All right, what are the three kinds of narrators?” I ask during a review session.
“Um, the omunist,” S says, spinning in a desk chair.
“The what?” I squeak.
“The omunist!” she says with more conviction. No one else seems to think she’s mistaken.
“The OMNISCIENT narrator?” I say, writing it on the board.
“Yeah, that.”
“Say it,” I plead gently.
“Omunist.”
My face crumples.
“Om…nih…shint,” she says triumphantly. My head drops in gratitude. At least my students have the excuse of learning a new language. Scott McClellan has only the excuse that he’s learning Doublespeak.

On a lighter note, don’t get me started on the truncation of proper nouns to save time, like “Lex and Mad” for “Lexington and Madison Avenues.” Are one or two syllables really so time-consuming?

Ambivalent with regard to hope in the future, I remain,
Ms. Mag Av

Better Living Through Verbs

I used to fantasize about spending the summer living with a half-dozen friends in an airy clapboard house in a sleepy town somewhere in New England or upstate New York, where we’d all have incidental part-time jobs that we never went to, and we’d put old tea towels in the windows for curtains, and we’d spend afternoons on the huge, wide, screened-in porch drinking beer, half-naked, dozing, with Willa Cather novels folded on our laps as the sun barely moved.

I used to think it would be a nice life working behind the counter in an independent bookstore, the kind that had a cat napping in the window.

I used to think it would be great to spend a summer waiting tables on the Cape, or Fire Island, where my only responsibilities would be making cash and getting a tan.

I used to get crushes on nonverbal carpenters and line cooks and awkward tomboys in bands who made crafts. I fell almost in love once, six states away, with a rootless, Dumpster-diving ambient musician who rarely bathed and wrote me anguished typewritten letters on paper bags.

All of which is to say, again, that I seem to have become a Grown-up in the last 12 months.

I turned 25, already having fallen in love with a man 10 years older;

I got a job that entitles me to both a pension and a dizzying amount of authority; I can silence a teenager with a glance; I have developed peripheral radar that allows me to scold someone while facing the other direction.

My expenses are painstakingly transcribed in a series of spreadsheets; the first section I grab when we get the Sunday Times is Real Estate, even if a down payment is years and years away.

I wear the same pair of hip but sensible, not-cheap jeans every day; my sleek but sensible boots are waterproof and cost over $200; I turned down a free haircut from my best friend and paid for a professional one, and it’s more classic than hip. Somewhere between mid-party costume changes at Hampshire and becoming a school teacher, I stopped performing my identity. It no longer seems important to affect the perfect balance of Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, mid-century sailors, Dorian Gray, and the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. Not that I was very good at it, anyway.

At work, I notice the students who stand out for their turned-up collars or distinctive corduroy jackets or matching green Chuck Taylors and polo shirts, the ones with locks or Afros, the ones who reinvent ghetto-fabulous by way of Angela Davis and indie rock and preppy 80s hip outfits, and I remember how fun it was to dress up.

But letting go of it seems to fall in line with everything else I’ve been loosening my grip on, from identity politics and first impressions to cute, impractical clothes. It’s like I tell my students when they write essays: Write with the verbs, lose the adjectives. Write the action; don’t slow down by describing it. Cut to the damn chase.

Do Over

“So apparently Anthony Lane, who I’d always pictured as being, like, 65–”
“And gay–” I chimed in.
“And gay, and British,” my boyfriend went on, “Get this. Apparently he’s 38, and–“
“Get. The fuck. Out,” I exhaled.
“I KNOW! He’s this British wunderkind who, like, went to Oxford or whatever, and he’s 38!”
“Ugh, Oxford,” I said. “I’m doing my childhood over, I’m going to Oxford.”

Speaking of the New Yorker, there is a story this week (beautifully titled “Prairie Fire,” I’d insert a link here if I knew how to do that) about a genius child who committed suicide at 14 last year. “Profoundly gifted” was the phrase used by the psychologists in the article, who also claimed to be psychics; they were convinced he was an angel. So was his father: “Oh, Martin’s very spiritually aligned,” they said.

C was talking to me tonight about light years and the width of the Milky Way (one hundred thousand light years, which are six trillion years long), and my brain started to go all fuzzy. “That’s how I know I’m not profoundly gifted,” I tell him.
“That’s how you know? Like otherwise you weren’t sure?” he says.

I wonder, if my mom hadn’t smoked pot while she was pregnant with me, maybe I would have been a genius. If I’d gone to Montessori school instead of California’s public schools, which the state renders less fiscally important than prisons, maybe I’d be better at tapping into as-yet-unfathomed intellectual depths, or at least not procrastinate so much. Maybe if I’d gone to Columbia instead of Hampshire and had a more bracing exposure to the canon, my brain wouldn’t go fuzzy so quickly. But if I wanted to go to Columbia, maybe I shouldn’t have handwritten my personal essay in tiny letters right on the application, or spent my junior year writing poetry about eucalyptus trees and blowing off AP U.S. History.

Anyway, J says the Ivy League is overrated. “They care about their image, their bottom line, and keeping you and me out,” she says witheringly, less than halfway through a program in education and mathematics at, ahem, Columbia.

Life is what, 80, 100 years long, and I’m wasting time wishing I’d gone to Oxford?

Thinking about the trillions of light years and stars makes C feel small in comparison, and he’s relieved. Like Joan Didion says, quoting the Episcopal litany: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, “which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away” (The Year of Magical Thinking, 189-90).

Yes.

Mountains and earthquakes are bigger than where you went to college, bigger than–let’s just say the phrase “where you went to college” disintegrates when you consider mountains and earthquakes, like flowers pressed between pages of old books disintegrate when you try to handle them.

Most nights before bed, I try to shake the gripping fear that I’m ruining the education of forty-four ninth graders five days a week, mainly by remembering the smallness. Everything else–earthquakes, time, millions of humans, gravity, God, regret–are so big that my towering worry and I are rendered, thankfully, tiny as a dash of salt.

Patient with spring’s slow trip north, I remain,
Ms. Magnolia Avenue

The Case Against Creative Teaching

Confession number one:

Fourteen-year-olds don’t like to hear me talk for more than two minutes at a time. I mean, would you?

Confession number two:

They also prefer, perplexingly, to copy notes from a chalk board (or in my case, a gleaming white dry erase board) over discussing interpretations of literature in their own words, with me or with each other. They like boundaries and clear expectations. They like to be told what to do; or, if they don’t like it, they are used to it. Familiar is comfortable.

Third, most horrifying confession:

I like it when they’re quietly, obediently, copying said notes. I like boundaries and clear expectations. I hate anarchy, especially teenage anarchy.

The remarkable thing about today is that I didn’t feel like I’d been beaten against a reef. Was it because my lesson included only a quiz, note-copying, and listening to a recorded tape of the novel we’re reading? Mostly I sat next to the tape player and looked alternately thoughtful/absorbed and fierce, as if to say, I dare you to fall asleep in my class. I dare you to look distracted. I dare you to chew gum, young gunslingers. But I said relatively little. I’d stop the tape occasionally to clarify Steinbeck’s language and Depression-era idioms, but the quiz, the notes, and the book taught my students today. I just rode in the front and made sure we didn’t careen off the road.

As an earnest student teacher all of six months ago, I recoiled at the thought of having students COPY NOTES. The horror! They should learn how to take notes from a spoken lecture, the way you’re supposed to in college!

But you know, I tried that, and I’ve got two words for you: baby steps. It was chaos. They balked and snorted like a bunch of scared horses.

I retreated to the board notes method, employed by every other teacher in the building. I am offering a modest reward to the book or Master’s class or opportune stairwell conversation that will teach me to bridge the gap between note-copying and real note-taking. Until then, I’ll babysit the World’s Most Boring Teacher trophy.

Sometimes I picture my class, and I compare it the memory of heady discussions of Marxist feminism and Anchee Min at my experimental college in the Berkshires. The gap between them seems the width of the universe.

Today’s finest moment:
“What do you think he means when he says Curley’s got ‘yella jackets in his drawers?'” I ask the kids as we listen to Of Mice and Men.
“He’s got condoms in his pocket!”
“He’s got doo-doo in his pants!”
I shake my head. “Ever hear someone say they’ve got ants in their pants? Curley’s itching for a fight.”
I did an impression of Curley, stalking agitatedly down an aisle, my hands poised on imaginary pistols. Skyler laughed so hard she started crying and had to collect herself in the hallway.

Believing in the dignity of clowns, I remain,
Ms. Magnolia

Timeline

I have not seen the following items for at least ninety days (years?):
Paralytic crushes
Pants held together with safety pins
The inside of a bar
The view from behind a waiter’s service station
The A/C platform after midnight

I called Jim T, a friend from way, way back, in California–it had been over a year since we’d spoken last– “Nooooo!” he let out in an awed whisper when he answered. “Yessssss!” I confirmed. We went back and forth like that for half a block. “I’m a TEACHER in BROOKLYN, can you imagine?” I said. “NO!” he cried again. In a voice made small with affection, he said, “I guess you’re all grown up now.”

It’s been nearly a year since I left Philadelphia for New York; six months since I gave up waiting tables for teaching ninth graders; more than a year since I forfeited useless pining, coffeeshop gawking, and dates with my gay roommate for the hard-won, bone-deep satisfaction of an earth-bound, real-time relationship; and an almost half-decade since I came to New York in the first place as an apartment-hopping boozehound-cum-playwright about to wipe out her unimpressive checking account. (No disrespect to gay roommate dates.) ( R.I.P. gay roommate dates, since he moved to San Francisco six months ago, anyway.)

Even though I spend a disproportionate amount of time chronicling the ways I chafe against my job–and fantasizing about a career in academia–I can say with surety that these dilemmas are more redeeming than ones encountered in previous lives (jobs). More redeeming than the temperature of steak for an asshole on an expense account who won’t tip. Than making the right number of copies for the board members. And don’t tell the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, but also more redeeming than the dilemmas posed by professional dramaturgy, because the last time I checked, not only was public education something the rest of the world had heard of, but they actually pay me for it. (No disrespect to dramaturgs; they aren’t to blame for a gutted NEA and an apocalypse of arts appreciation in this country.)

I have to get up in nine hours and try to explain point of view and foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men to forty-four ninth graders tomorrow. ‘Night.

Grammatically resolute, I remain,
Ms. Magnolia Avenue