Monday, December 3, 2007

Hardly Workin’

I work at area colleges and universities, captioning classes for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. This morning, school was delayed until 10 a.m. because of a winter storm. I had classes at 10 and 11, but the professors canceled them without notice. Then I had another class at another college at 2:30 and, mysteriously, nobody showed up at all. Finally I did some work at 4:00 when I captioned a faculty meeting for a professor.

10:00 – Show up at classroom to find professor has canceled class. Feel disappointed and not disappointed at same time. Go downstairs to office to wait for 11:00 class. I’m alone in the office. I turn on my computer to work on my novel.

10 to 11: A sign language interpreter comes in and sits down. I like her. I like all the interpreters. They’re an energetic, quirky bunch. I cheerily hold up my end of a conversation about what to do when there’s a funny smell coming from your refrigerator and you can’t find the source. We do some problem-solving but arrive at no conclusions.

11:00 – Show up at classroom to find professor has canceled class.

11 to 12:00: Back in interpreters’ office. Interpreters come and go like barn swallows. I turn on my computer to work on my novel. An interpreter says she wants to simplify her life. I tell her about how when I sold my house I got a dumpster, threw everything in it that I didn’t need, and had it hauled away. Maybe that’s what I should do, she says. I tell her it was very cleansing. Then I say, “I can’t believe I just said ‘cleansing.’”

12:00 to 1:23: I go home to walk the dog and eat lunch. For lunch, I steam a heap of butternut squash and eat it with two pieces of toast. I contemplate and relish the single life: I can eat squash and toast for lunch if it so pleases me. I rinse off the plate instead of letting the dog and cat lick it clean. They really want to have at it but I stand fast. They need to know who wears the pants in this family. Never mind that as the head of a household comprised of me, two cats, and a dog, I’m the only one who needs to wear pants.

1:23 to 2:00: I drive to another college for a 2:30 class. I stop at a bustling café where the twenty-something baristas are dancing around to “Dancing Queen.” I feel old and dour. I think about tipping them, but don’t. They’re being just a little too boisterous. They need to be more serious. They need to think about their futures. They are the generation after all that is going to have to do something about global warming.

I bring my coffee to a table, open my computer to work on my novel. Instead I listen to the break-up happening at a neighboring table. All I hear is the girl’s side. She’s telling the boy how selfish he is, and that instead of this he could have done that, but he didn’t, he did this, and she can’t get past it. Why didn’t he just do that? That’s what she would have done. He answers in a low, low voice that could be contrite or defiant or noncommittal.

2:20 to 2:25: I am about to give up hope of finding a parking spot near the building I work in when I see a young guy heading for his car. He’s leaving. But the car is encased in ice. He takes out his ice scraper and makes a couple of wimpy passes at the ice with it. His girlfriend gets out of the car and gives it a shot. They look at the ice. They look at the ice scraper. They look at each other. At this rate, I’ll be late for class before they finish. I jump out and stride towards them, smiling benevolently and waving my own ice scraper. He says "All right!" and I say, "I couldn’t just sit there and watch you," as though this were a random act of kindness, but we both know I just want the parking spot.

2:30 to 2:35: I sit in the empty classroom. Where is everybody? I feel as if I’m the lone protagonist in an existential one-woman show.

2:35 to 3:25: I go back to the bustling café. I order a coffee and a granola bar. The barista is friendly without being glib. I think about tipping him. Then I decide not to tip him. Then I tip him. I find a table. I open my computer to work on my novel. What will happen next? I think. If I were one of these characters, what would I make happen next? Hmm. What, what, what? Maybe one of them could start writing a novel in which nothing happens.

3:45 to 5:00: I drive to the college, park, find my way to the seminar room. I set up my equipment. The talking starts. I work. The talking stops. I stop working.

5:00 to 5:30: I drive to see an old friend. We talk for an hour. I complain about the day. He listens to me complain but does not complain himself. I tell him I’m going to go home and blog about it. I leave smiling, because I know he’s going to read it, and that when my novel is finished he'll read that too.

The day has not been wasted after all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Not so Dangerous to Know

I'm writing this from my sickbed, like John Keats in his final days. I’m not penning brilliant poems as I breathe my final precious gasps of air, but I am laid up in bed with a cold, struggling over my third blog entry ever.

In college, I thought Keats's death at age 24 was romantic. My roommate thought he was pathetic. "He died a virgin," Tanya would say. "What kind of a person dies a virgin?" Steadfast, suffused with the over-the-top energy of a 21-year-old English major, I wrote a 23-page paper on "Ode to a Nightingale" for my Romantic Poetry class. I memorized the poem in the process, and became practiced at reciting it from memory with a Boston accent. Tanya was entertained, but still preferred the profligate, promiscuous Lord Byron, who was described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Keats was “dangerous to know” for other reasons – he died of tuberculosis, the highly contagious "it" disease of his time.

All I have is a common cold that annoys me and consumes my bank account (I'm self-employed and have no sick-time). I am armed to overkill with Nyquil, Vitamin C, Airborne, cough drops (with Zinc and Echinacea), and the advice of friends (“Go home,” said one. “Drink fluids. Pee.”) I’m not mad or bad, and am only slightly dangerous to know.

Still, I think I have earned the right to feel sorry for myself. My pets have been tolerant and supportive, but their patience is wearing thin. The dog, deprived of our daily hour-long walks, stands and stares at me, ears pricked up, wagging her tail wistfully. The cats engage in passionate battles at the foot of my bed. My apartment looks like a crazy neighbor stalked through it with a leafblower.

Even when healthy I tend towards the melancholy, and have struggled with bouts of clinical depression that have diminished as I’ve gotten older. I’m also a cancer survivor. Both illnesses have been treated – cured, I hope -- but a few days laid up with a common cold brings me back to days spent in bed, too sad or too weak and tired to get up and do my thing.

But this is different. This is just a cold. Between paragraphs I’ve gotten up, showered, eaten breakfast, and taken the dog on a half-hour walk. The cold is abating. And I am comforted and energized by my tentative return to my routines.

By Monday I will be back in the saddle.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Meeting the Neighbors

I moved to Page Boulevard in September, and hadn't met many of my neighbors until yesterday. I walk my dog twice a day, every day, rain or shine, in big loops around the nearby residential neighborhoods. I bring along two plastic grocery bags and fastidiously collect her leavings, dropping them in gas station and bus stop wastebaskets along our way. I normally enjoy these walks, and look forward to them. Yesterday, though, I was sick with a bad cold, and had been inside all day, avoiding eye contact with the dog, who was desperate for a walk. Finally she stood in the center of the living room and took the action of a desperate dog: she barked at her owner. She went, "Bwop!" Like all dogs, she has many different barks. This one is her reasonable, yet firm, request for a walk. Request slash demand. I ignored her.


Louder, this time. There was no use waiting for a third. I bundled up and we headed out.

About fifty yards down the street, she stopped and struck her usual pose on the tree strip between sidewalk and street, and I stood on the sidewalk looking discreetly in another direction while pulling out a bag and flapping it open. Someone yelled "Hey!" I knew instantly that it was the homeowner, objecting to Ivy's choice of venue for her little, er, performance.

"Don't you let him do that there!" yelled a man, striding aggressively towards me, holding a leafblower like a bazooka. "You get him out of there! Don't you let him..." He kept yelling. You might even call it screaming. I was alarmed, and took a couple of steps back. "I'm picking it up," I protested. "I have a bag. I have a bag. I have a bag." He was still screaming, and I was trying to insert my defense in whenever he took a breath. But he seemed to need very little oxygen. I waved the bag between us. "I have a bag, I have a bag..." "You get him out of there! How dare you! Don't you dare..."

I tried, also, to explain that there are some processes that you just can't stop once they've begun. "Yes you can," he hollered. "You have your own yard. You get him out of there."

I don't know exactly at what point I started screaming back, but I did. I was so alarmed by his fury and by the muzzle of the leafblower bearing down on me that I left my dog's, um, product where it was and took off down the sidewalk, still screaming back at him over my shoulder, as he continued his tirade from his end.

"I catch you doing that again and I'll pick it up and put it on your doorstep."
"You don't know where my doorstep IS!"
"I'll find out!"

How? I thought. What are you going to do, hire a private detective?

The cleverness of this retort calmed me a bit, and eased the angst of realizing that I'd just participated in a rather ridiculous scene. I imagined women pausing at the sink, children looking up from their Legos, men leaning momentarily on their rakes, all of them glad for this little burst of drama on a dreary Sunday afternoon. Who would they side with? They had to see I was right. But maybe the Screamer was their friend, or their in-law, or their Daddy. They had to be loyal. Would they still like me? But wait a minute, they didn't even know me.

The dog looked back at me nervously, and I stopped for a moment to comfort her and myself. "Don't worry, honey," I said. "He's an asshole. He's an asshole. Yeah. But we're not assholes, are we? No, we aren't."

I went home and wrote about the experience on the Masslive Springfield forum. One person said, "Some people can be such jerks," bringing tears of gratitude to my eyes. Another sided with Mr. Leafblower. She said that even though I pick up after my dog, I must leave traces on the grass, and the bacteria pose a health risk. Do I sprinkle lime as well as picking up after her? She thinks not. I replied with a passionate mini-essay about how the real threat to public safety is the people who don't walk their dogs, which results in pent up animals that become more and more aggressive from boredom and lack of exercise.

"My main concerns," I puffed, "is with public safety, and with civility."

But really, I just don't like being screamed at. What I learned from this experience was very, well, kindergarten: after somebody screams at you, the first thing you want is to be reassured that you didn't deserve to be screamed at.

Know what I mean?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Listening to Dr. Laura

I’m a liberal. I am pro-choice and anti death-penalty. I oppose the Iraq war, I voted for John Kerry, I recycle, and I’ve believed in global warming from the start. I listen to NPR between seven and nine in the morning. Then, between nine and noon, I switch to AM and listen to Dr. Laura Schlesinger.

I know. She’s pro-life, pro-war, pro-military, pro-Bush, anti-feminist, and I bet she doesn’t listen to NPR. She and I cancel each other out. Yet I listen with rapt attention as she dispenses her bitter advice, her voice snapping with sarcasm. It’s as bracing as a strong cup of coffee.
Admittedly, my fascination with her show is partly voyeuristic. I enjoy hearing about the personal problems of strangers. Infidelity, porn-watching husbands, relatives in prison, meddling mother-in-laws, recalcitrant teenagers, deadbeat exes. Dr. Laura is merciless with them all. It both pains and entertains me when I just know that a particularly clueless caller is about to be torn to shreds. “Wait a minute,” she’ll interrupt. “You’re telling me you’re shacking up with him?” or, “You mean you’re leaving your child to be raised by a stranger so you can buy more stuff.” “Uh-ohhh…” I’ll say. “You’re in for it now.” It takes my breath away every time she tears into somebody, and leaves me waiting anxiously for the next caller.

Dr. Laura is rude, snide, arrogant, and sarcastic. I hate her politics. She is anti everything I am pro, pro everything I am anti. But I listen to her. Or maybe I should say “and I listen to her,” because for me, these statements don’t contradict each other. Occasionally I shut her off, like the time she told a female caller, “I’ll pay to have you sterilized.” That time I was stunned, and went up for air, switching to Public Radio International.

But here’s the thing: sometimes she gives really good advice. A man once called to complain about how his mother had let him down. Dr. Laura asked him, “Is that the first time she’s ever let you down?” No, she’d been doing that all his life. She told him to imagine an antique chair. It’s your favorite chair, and you’ve had it all your life, but whenever you try to sit in it, it falls over. You know it won’t support your weight. Will you keep sitting on it, or will you find another chair? The man made a surprised sound – it registered on the air as a puff of static – and then answered, “I guess I’d find another chair.”

At Christmas, I was sitting at the table with my family, feeling as prickly as Dr. Laura, just waiting for someone to bring up a political view that offended my liberal sensibilities. And then I thought, “But I don’t have to sit in that chair.” So when someone said, “But there were weapons of mass destruction,” I inhaled, exhaled, and told myself, “Just don’t sit there.” I spent the day feeling restless, like someone who can’t admit she’s lost at musical chairs, but in general was more at peace with myself and my family.

I suppose I can only stretch the chair metaphor so far, but it has stuck with me and served me well in a number of situations. I now have a number of rickety chairs I avoid sitting in. The cranky chair, the road rage chair, the but-I don’t-feel-like-it chair, among others. I also don’t want to sit in the chair Dr. Laura offers me – it’s too hard, and sometimes she puts tacks on it. And at times, the liberal chair is too soft. But from listening to Dr. Laura, my ideological enemy, I’ve found one that’s just right, and I think I’ll keep it, because from this chair, you get to listen to everything.