Archive for April, 2011

Few people realize that puny, brown, not particularly cute girls from dull Midwestern towns can morph into Sandra Dee-like bombshells by watching Grease throughout their adolescence.  At least, that’s what I believed when I was a child.  As a second grader in Ohio, creative stimulation was kinda hard to come by.  My neighbors’ folksy blandness barely piqued my curiosity.  The monotonous pace and flatness of the region was a lousy canvas on which to unfurl my imagination.  The only other student “of color” in my class was Chinese while I was black with a picked out ‘fro.  Thus, I was considered an outsider and a bit of a freak.  All I had to look forward to was cattle tipping in high school.

Small town kids inevitably come to one of two realizations; either you know you’ll escape one day because you’re destined for fabulous things, like becoming Madonna, or you say to yourself, ‘this is where life ends so get used to the cows.’  Grease led me toward fabulous, proving the world was bigger and more colorful than life in Ohio.  Until seeing the flick, I assumed adulthood in the rust belt would mean working at a gas station and gorging on Cheez Whiz sandwiches like my friends’ moms.

I was eight when I saw the movie.  My single mother was working the night shift so her younger siblings brought me to the cinema.  I expected Disney and a bucket of popcorn.  Instead, I got Pink Ladies and T-Birds, cheeky one-liners and loads of sass.  Every inch of the screen had something to ogle; butter-colored costumes and blue cotton candy bouffants, boys shaking their hips against Greased Lightnin’ and a gymnasium crammed with hand jivers.  Rydell High was full of sunshine and dancing, it was opulent with color and life.  Even sad moments were filled with song.  So giddy and overwhelmed was I while watching the flick, you’d have thought Santa Claus had landed in a UFO on my front lawn.

At the center of all this wonder was Olivia Newton-John, the goody-two-shoes country singer turned pop star who played Sandy.  To this day, I wonder why I became so enamored of her.  Maybe I assumed little, brown girls like me would always fade into the woodwork while shiny, golden stars like Olivia got noticed, especially in yawny old Ohio.  If I could be like Olivia, my friends, my day-to-day, my entire life would shimmer.

After seeing the movie, I made my mom enroll me in acting lessons and started teaching myself to dance, using the numbers from Grease as guides.  I was too young to realize Australian stiffy Olivia wasn’t the best dance teacher (and also too young to recognize the tragedy of a black girl longing to be white).  By fifth grade, when I rewrote the movie’s script and begged my friends to perform it with me, I could out Sandra Dee my heroine.  What followed were arts classes, piano lessons, ravenous book reading and a spell in a performing arts high school.  With college, I finally got out of Ohio.

And by golly, what a life it’s been since!  I’ve had the ordinary – marriage, divorce, nine-to-five rat race.  I’ve also come into contact with the extraordinary.  I did Manhattan for a few years, lived in three foreign countries, traveled into some juicy corners of the world, survived two terrorist attacks (in New York and Madrid), and spent a lifetime following my dreams of literary stardom.  Though I haven’t lived with the maximum amount of carpe diem day seizing I dreamt of in my youth, and have yet to become a literary star, I doubt my life would’ve looked anything like this had I stayed in Ohio.

But here’s the kicker.  At the tail end of my thirties, I find myself missing the relative calm of my childhood, even missing Ohio.  There was a genuineness there, a kindness I’ve had trouble finding elsewhere.  Maybe the crux of the matter is I’ve arrived at that late thirties crossroads where you’re asking yourself what it’s all about.  Regrets start haunting you, disappointments leave permanent scars.  My career isn’t where I want it to be, my relationships could use help, the gap between reality and my dreams stands wide as the ocean.  So life isn’t really making me sing, “shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom.”

Maybe I’ve just been disappointed to find adult life isn’t as friendly or exciting as I’d fantasized while watching Grease.  Challenging times and triumphant moments aren’t commemorated with musical numbers.  Days can be dreary and lovers don’t float into the sky in’48 Fords.  So while I still think of the movie as the slingshot propelling me into a meatier existence, I wish I’d been more realistic in my expectations.  Though I suppose things could be worse.

I could be realizing this in a gas station in Cleveland.

[Image from http://www.wallpaper-s.org]

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The Interrupting Cow

Recently, I sent the following to a short story contest.  The challenge was to write a story that included a joke and someone crying.  Oh, and it had to be less than 600 words.  Sadly, I didn’t win.  Short stories are tough for me, which is one of the many reasons I’ll be entering an MFA program this summer.  Thought I’d share  the piece here.

Interrupting Cow

Emma was mesmerized by a guitar-playing lemur bounding across the television screen on its way to scouting zebras in the Sahara.  She lifted the hem of her polka dot nightie, revealing striped Barbie panties and a bandage covering a scrape on her knee.  Mark reached out to lower the hem, but the five-year-old swatted his hand away.  As Emma became more enthralled by the Saturday morning kiddie show, Mark bounced one of her pink rubber balls on the floor and thought of what to say.  He hadn’t been home much lately, what with prepping for the Endicott case.  Still, he’d fantasized himself the beloved papa whose arms Emma would run into whenever he made an appearance.

Mark was in love with her in the sweet way he used to love his own mama, his grammar school crush, his Mary the first time he saw her hiding in a corner at senior prom.  But his love for Emma was even sweeter, the kind of deep down adoration where he knew the world really would end without her.

Mark grew up in a family of men.  Eagle Scouts and football players, military men and firefighters.  He thought this put him at a disadvantage.  But Emma was his girl.  Spawned from his seed.  There was no way he wouldn’t break through.

“Knock knock,” he said, tapping his coffee mug.

Emma turned, considered him for a moment as if she’d forgotten he was in the room.  “Who’s there?”

“Interrupting Cow.”

“Interrupting Cow wh—”

“Moo,” he said before she could finish.

Immediately, he sensed the eruption catch fire in her belly.  It began with her smile turning into a frown and her cheeks glowing red.  Finally, the volcano blew and Emma let out a wail that echoed through the halls.  When he went to her, she dropped to the floor kicking her heels.

“You never let me say what I wanna say,” she whined through a throat clogged with mucus and tears.

Mary came into the room holding a bunch of roses she’d been arranging for a client.  “What happened?”

“I was just telling her a joke.”

“What joke?”  Mary held her trembling daughter.  “You obviously scared her.”

“Interrupting cow is scary?”  Mark shouted.  “Interrupting bear maybe.  Interrupting jackal.  But interrupting cow?”

“You always bark at people.”  Mary bounced Emma in her arms.  “The whole world to you is a court room.  You have to be sensitive.  She’s a girl.”

The room became agonizingly quiet.  The only sound was Mary’s sloppy kissing noises against the side of Emma’s head.  She’s a girl.  As if this was the answer to every question on Earth.

This was his first mistake.  The next mistake would find him suggesting Emma not wear her princess crown to the grocery store.  The next he’d warn her about her belly growing pudgier if she kept eating whoopee pies.  Years later would come the weekend she locked herself in her room after the neighbor’s puppy was hit by a car.  Mark never rapped on the door.  The next year, she’d nurse a painful crush on a mascara-wearing drama dude with a girlfriend.  Mark’s only words of encouragement were, “you’ll get over it.”  In between were the moments she’d shut the door during phone calls or he’d sit at the dinner table listening to conversations he knew nothing about.  But all those moments evolved from this one.  If he’d known he would never get Emma back completely, he would have told a different joke.

Mary plopped Emma on the floor and returned to the kitchen.  Mark rolled the pink ball between his hands.  He was about to leave the room when Emma giggled, opened her mouth and said, “knock knock.”

[Image from http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com]

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You know you’re busting your own tail too hard when you actually look forward to getting sick.  This year, I’ve been running myself ragged but for the most part, have been fortunate enough not to catch an illness.  Over the past several months though, I’ve been bombarded with itty bitty ailments, which is probably my body staging a coup.

At the moment, I’m battling the cold that ate Cleveland.  The pressure in my sinuses is so massive, I imagine all my teeth falling out and the roof of my head bursting open like a Southwest airliner.  One of my ear canals feels as if someone dropped a deflated balloon inside and is now slowly blowing it up.  It all hurts so darn much I don’t even get to relax while sick in bed.  My greatest fear is developing a sinus infection, which I’ve never had before but am just tickled pink to get the chance to experience.  What better way to spend the first warm days of spring!

All this to say, my entire being is working way too hard to be able to put together a blog post this week.  So I thought I’d pose a fun, yet immensely helpful, question.  As my health began to deteriorate this week, one of my students, a gentleman from Guatemala, gave me his family’s cure-all; a brew made of things like eggs, ginger root, honey and loads of tequila.  Though I’m not apt to hit the bottle, I’d love some tips on how to deal with sinus infections seeing as how I’ve never had one.  Ideas?

Please help your friendly, neighborhood blogger get well.  And see you next week!

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So I’m at Trader Joe’s last week shooting the poop with the cashier.  For those who don’t know, Trader Joe’s is an über-hip grocery store that sells the basics along with funky gourmet items and lots of things covered in chocolate; pistachios, sunflower seeds and even edamame.

The other distinguishing characteristic of TJ’s is the cashiers, who are apparently trained to engage customers in small talk.  Most of this small talk revolves around all the delicacies in your shopping cart, which they hold up, saying things like, “oh, I love these!” or “these are my favorite!”  Still, it’s all rather friendly and makes one say to oneself, “gee, how I love Trader Joe’s!”

Anyway, the cashier is engaging me in the requisite small talk.  First, he holds up my chocolate covered peanut butter cups and tells me how much he adores peanut butter.  Then he tells me he also loves cheese.  As I’m trying to come up with clever things to say about the Gouda in my cart, two little kids with their mother queue up behind me doing cute kid things like absent-mindedly blowing spittle bubbles on their lips and wearing pink coats with frogs on them.

The cashier makes a gushy face and asks me, “Do you have kids?”

“Um, no,” I answer.

He asks, “You want any?”

What in God’s name?  Do I want children?!? Sir, you have just stepped from small talk into giantly humongous, life-altering big talk.

Mind you, I’d been having a rough week.  Money had become tight, the job was in flux and my personal life had hit a snag.  Whenever I arrive at these challenging moments, I go into full-on worry mode, obsessing over questions like, “will the stars ever align to bring me the creative life I crave, will I ever get ahead of my finances, will I ever settle into a space where things hum along smoothly?”  But my greatest concerns are having love and family, so life’s occasional rough spots and snags create mucho anxiety.

In other words, Dude had lousy timing.

What was I supposed to say?  How does one answer such a question in the time it takes to ring up a bag of groceries?  What if I started sobbing into my purse, was he going to take me for a coffee and offer a shoulder to cry on?

So, I answer, “good question,” and hope it ends there.  No such luck.  The cashier goes on to tell me he wants kids but his wife doesn’t.  They’ve been married for years and he loves her but oh how it kills him to imagine a life sans family.  And I’m thinking, ‘can I just buy my chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds and be done with it?  Since when did a trip to the grocery store become group therapy?’

The rest of my day was shot.  I moped, I pouted, I obsessively read online horoscopes to know when this rough patch would flatten out again.  And I decided to hate Trader Joe’s.

But then I started feeling bad for the cashier.  So overwhelmed was he by his familial dilemma, he couldn’t even stop himself from talking about it with a complete stranger.  Every bubble-blowing, frog-coat-wearing kid who steps through his line probably breaks his heart a little bit more.

I know what it’s like to have the entire world be a reminder of all your unfulfilled wishes.  We all do, I suppose.  Everyone’s fighting the same battles, sharing the same longings.  So maybe next time I’m at Trader Joe’s, I’ll send some good thoughts the cashier’s way.

But no way in heck I’m standing in his line.

[Image from pos-university.com]

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