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Volvo
I started this blog when I was 23 and moving from Los Angeles back home to New York. I was young and had no idea what I was doing with my life.

It's been ten years and I have just recently started a new blog at www.theuglyvolvo.com.

I am now 33. In the decade that has passed I became a stand-up comedian, got married, and had a child. I still have no idea what I'm doing with my life aside from, apparently, "keeping blogs."



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An Actual Conversation We Had This Morning

Volvo
So I go to the tub this morning to see a tiny black bug—no bigger than a tomato seed and teardrop shaped—crawling around near the drain of our white bathtub. And so I call Jonathan and say, “Hey—there’s one of those tiny little black bugs under the bathtub faucet. Can you get him out of the tub so he doesn’t drown when I take a shower?” And so he lets the bug crawl onto a little square of toilet paper, lifts it up, and then deposits it…on the other side of the bathroom.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Why are you putting him right back in the bathroom??”

“If I put him in the living room he could get killed.”

“Why would you put him in the living room??”

“Ok, then where do you want me to put him??”

“You can’t put him outside?”

“It’s still pretty cold outside. And this type of bug likes to be in the bathroom. I always find them in the bathroom.”

“I think it probably would have been fine outside. Whatever type of bug it is evolved before the invention of bathrooms, so it’s probably ok living in…you know…the regular environment.”

Jon pauses for a minute, pondering this and then says:

“Ok, you may have a point.” And he walks off to do something on his computer.



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They grow up so fast

Volvo
My mother and I are sitting in her glacier-colored Volkswagon Passat, outside a Panera Bread in the parking lot of a strip mall. She is on her lunch break from work. I drove to her office to pick her up and take her out to lunch but now we are at a standstill in the parked car and she is shaking her head, biting her lower lip, telling me she wants to go inside, but we can’t go inside because of my fleece jacket.

“Why?” I ask her.

“Because it looks dirty. And I don’t want people to see you wearing a dirty fleece.”

“It’s not dirty.”

“I didn’t say it was dirty, I said it looks dirty.”

“It’s just a little pilly,” I said, pulling off one of the pills with my fingers. “But it’s not dirty—I just washed it. And who’s going to see me wearing it?”

“Who knows,” my mother offers. “I work a few blocks away—there could be people there from the office. Or someone from church.”

“We haven’t been to church in twelve years.”

“Even worse,” she says. “First they’ll wonder why we haven’t been to church and then they’ll see you in that fleece and think you don’t wash your clothes.”

“Ok first off,” I say, “You are being ridiculous. I love you because you are my mother and I want to eat lunch with you, but you are being completely ridiculous. And secondly, even if I wanted to go home and change fleeces we don’t have time if you have to be back at work in an hour.”

My mother pauses, thoughtful. This is the hard part. The hard part for me is that she is not malicious or evil—it would be much easier to just have a horrible mother that I could hate with abandon but my mother is not cruel or unfeeling, she is simply omnipresent and easily embarrassed. If someone were to ask me, “Would you rather have a wonderful, heartfelt talk with your mother or throw her out a fifth story window?” I would reply, “Yes.”

“Here,” she says suddenly. “Take my jacket.” She is tugging her arms out of the sleeves, disengaging herself from the jacket in the awkward confines of the car.

“I can’t take your jacket—what are you going to wear?”

“I’ll just be cold,” she says. “I’d rather be cold than have you go in there with that fleece.”

“I really don’t want your jacket,” I tell her sheepishly.

“I’m fine,” she says, rubbing her hands together enthusiastically, her upper arms sporting a shallow layer of goose pimples. “I’ll just order something warm.”

“Mom.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to wear your jacket.”

“What’s wrong with my jacket?”

“It’s a petite jacket,” I tell her, “and the sleeves are up to here on me.” I make a motion with my hand at where the sleeves will hit, which is approximately two inches past my elbow. “It’s not going to fit me. I’m going to look like a giant.”

“You can pretend they’re three quarter length sleeves,” she says cheerfully. And it’s the “cheerfully” that kills me. Because it’s the “cheerfully” that is my mother saying, “Look, Kelly, I’ve FIXED this! I’ve fixed it and found a way for us to go out to lunch together and please don’t ruin it!” when I want to cry out that it was her disdain for my recently-washed-but-pilly-fleece that created this situation in the first place. But even while oblivious to her role in the problem, she is desperate for a solution because deep in her loving, well-intentioned, easily embarrassed heart, she wants very much to go out to lunch with me because she loves me. And deep in my crazily screaming, frustrated heart, I feel the same way.

“It’s not just the sleeves,” I tell her. “It’s a petite jacket. And I don’t like it—I would never wear this jacket.”

“Just try it on,” she says.

And angrily, begrudgingly, I take off my fleece and put on the petite navy blue suit jacket which obviously, obviously does not fit, and which looks ridiculous. I am five foot-nine, wearing a suit jacket that would need only slight tailoring to fit either a Wizard of Oz munchkin or a five year-old, my long, Frankenstein-like arms protruding from the sleeves.

“It doesn’t fit.”

“It looks fine,” my mother says happily. She has unlocked the doors and is already getting out of the car.

She is happily walking toward Panera, chatting away—telling me that last time she got French Onion Soup in a bread bowl but that she is trying to watch her weight and that maybe she will get a salad. I walk behind her awkwardly, the suit jacket pinching around my armpits.

I am thirty years old, wearing a blazer that would fit a Kindergartener. It looks as though I started out the morning as a child, my mother dressing me for elementary school picture day, saying “let’s put on your good blue blazer for the pictures,” and now here we are only a few hours later and I am wearing the same clothes, but have somehow aged 25 years and grown a foot and a half taller. I look, frustrated, up at my mother and she looks longingly back at me and I realize, in a way, that that is exactly what has happened.



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Job Hunting

Volvo
I am perusing Craigslist like I do far too often, always searching for the job that will make me perfectly content and fulfilled and not require working weekends and holidays and also, ideally, I am allowed to bring my dog. A 9-5 job in a place where I can wear sneakers and ratty T-shirts, where they are in the midst of trying something called “Dress UP Fridays” which allows me an excuse to dress up once a week without having to own more than one pair of pantyhose, and where there is the perfect amount of physical activity and the perfect amount of rest and where they pay enough that I can afford to buy groceries without fumbling through my pockets for nickels and crying. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? And I scroll through the website, beginning in hotel/restaurant jobs, and then moving to customer service, writing, admin, part time and always ending on the category called “ETC,” with the hope that that is where I’ll find my perfect employment—something that cannot be categorized. I know that whatever I am looking for does not exist, but something about the title, “ETC,” makes you feel as though you could find anything—as though the real is mixed in with the unreal--that after an ad looking for someone in part time textbook sales there will be an ad looking for a front desk receptionist at the Ministry of Magic and yes (amazing!) you can bring the dog and be home by 5:30.

I am sitting on my sofa, my laptop sitting on a flattened throw pillow. I am always intimidated by the job requirements. NYC’s Coolest Music Website is seeking fall interns but already I know that I am the type of person who will never work for NYC’s Coolest Music Website because I will never be involved with anything that defines itself as cool, the same way I will not respond to the ad entitled, “Wanted: Bartenders, Shotgirls and Dancers,” because the one time I was even tangentially involved in that sort of atmosphere I had a customer tell me that for a cocktail waitress I looked very science-y, which means, to the uninitiated, that I was wearing glasses and walking with an uncertain, insecure hunch to my shoulders. This is not something that traditionally makes people purchase shots of Jagermeister.

I do not want to be a Spa Coordinator at a high end medical spa and I do not stand a chance applying to KOREAN SPEAKING FEMALE F/T OFFICE ASSISTANT. I see little future as an Egg Donor or a dog walker on the Upper East Side (1 year commitment!) or as someone who could “Get Paid to Evaluate Banks!” I am not a person suffering from Lupus pain who could be involved in a focus group and I am in no way responding to an ad declaring, “Girls with Pretty Feet Needed! 18-30!”

I think back to every high school and elementary school classroom I ever sat in, staring blankly at the walls, and try to remember if they prepared us for this. I remember sitting in science class, next to a couple—a boy and a girl who were sucking on lollipops that the other was holding and I remember my teacher talking about the big bang and how everything exploded outward. How everything in the universe was packed into a spot of unimaginable density which somehow ripped open with an ungodly blast and somehow became the universe. And of course some kid raised his hand and asked “How small was it before it exploded?” and I can’t imagine she really knew that, but our teacher told us it was about the size of a period on a page. And I immediately thought of how much pressure it would take to squish the entire universe into something that size. I thought of the tin foil ball discarded from my lunch, and how even after crushing it with the heel of my hand, I wasn’t able to make it any smaller than a large marble. Now add to that the tin foil sandwich wrapping of all the other kids in the cafeteria, plus the children themselves and all of their backpacks and their lollipops.

And that’s not even the beginning of it, because you have to take into account all the tables from the lunchroom, and the lunch ladies, and the teachers in other classrooms, and the chalkboards and metal desks. You would need to condense the white water fountains and the principal’s office and the principal himself, and then of course my parents and relatives and all the people and buildings and landscapes in every country in the entire world. And then, of course, everything in space.
And I remember being exhausted by it—pushing that ball of tin foil smaller and smaller and knowing that I would never get anywhere close to what it had once been. To being awed by the bigness of the world and the smallness of its past and by the force that could condense so much into so small a space.

And ok, so here’s where I’m not entirely sure how that helps me applying to jobs although admittedly, mastering Microsoft Excel is less intimidating than condensing all matter down to a single speck. But the world is happening, regardless of whether or not I send out resumes to anyone. The universe is continually expanding, or at least this is what my science teacher was telling people, and at some point it will begin contracting again, and all of this will happen even if I never accomplish anything and even if I accomplish a thousand things and go far and beyond anyone’s expectations. And so the universe continues to stretch and I continue to scroll through Craigslist, stopping on one of the writing jobs and sending them a resume even though I do not think I am as qualified as they would like me to be. But I will get the job or I won’t, and there’s no point worrying about it. I pour myself a glass of grapefruit juice and lie back on my sofa. I look out at the afternoon sky and imagine condensing the birds and the treetops and the tall lights of the nearby baseball field into a tiny spot the size of a grain of sand. And everything else, of course—the highway overpass and the tractor trailer that is crossing it at this moment, and my laptop and throw pillow, and Craig himself, wherever he is, with his list of jobs and furniture for sale and missed connections. All of this will be pummeled into obscurity by unimaginable forces. And so, I convince myself, it doesn’t matter if I get a good job or not. But then I watch additional cars speeding across the overpass and glance at a bird alighting on the top of the chain link fence and realize that none of these things is going anywhere for a while—the birds and the cars and the overpass and Craig, or at least the legacy of his list, will be around for decades to come—maybe more. And I, if I play my cards right, will be around as well. So if I want to make something of my life, now, I realize, would be the time to do it.

Biting my lip with uncertainty I paste my resume into the body of an e-mail.

Crossing my fingers I hit “send,” and collapse, exhausted, overwhelmed, into the couch.



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I don't know a whole lot about Bolivia

Volvo
If you had asked me 24 hours earlier what the Bolivian flag looked like I would have shrugged my shoulders and said, “I have no idea.” I knew that Argentina’s flag is light blue and white stripes (like their soccer uniforms) with a sun in the center and I know that Brazil’s is green, with that yellow diamond holding some sort of planet full of stars. But Bolivia—I had no idea.

I was sitting with Jonathan at an outdoor café, the dog’s leash tied to the leg of our wooden folding table, the dog lapping water out of a clear plastic salad container that the waitress had brought for her. The café is in a well maintained old building—a restored antique—and everything is covered in a coat of white paint. There are enormous windows and a pink and brown awning and outside, piped in quietly through the speakers, is the sound of Louis Armstrong. Everyone at the surrounding tables is in his or her late 20’s or 30’s and appears artsy but well off financially—they work in marketing or advertising, maybe. Or maybe the men are in IT and the women are assistant editors at some company in Manhattan. Anyone with a baby has the baby in a conspicuously expensive stroller or else the child is sitting on its father’s shoulders, its legs covering the G-Star logo of his distressed T-shirt. Mainly it is just couples—the girls all wearing large, fashionable sunglasses and the boys wearing aviators. I sit, drinking tea out of an enormous mug, looking at Jonathan.

And that is when someone starts blowing a whistle.

And it isn’t an accusatory, “No running by the pool!” whistle or a “Somebody stop that man!” whistle—it’s a series of staccato beats and it is followed by the sound of horns blowing, and after that, of reed flutes. And everyone at the café turns, slowly, as if we are all extras in a mid-90’s Meg Ryan movie and something funny is happening. And suddenly we notice that policemen are clearing away the cars and blocking off the street and Jon whispers “It’s the Bolivian Parade. It’s always in early August.” And we get up to look and a block away there is a department of Public Works vehicle that is pulling a flatbed trailer with a woman in a sequined dress whose sash says, “Miss Bolivia USA,” and she is surrounded by other people in good dress clothes who are waving and smiling. The trailer looks like something you would rent from Home Depot to lug materials to a building site, but today Miss Bolivia USA is on it, waving, and I feel a little bad that she is so dressed up in her crown and blue sequins and she is standing on something that looks like it is on loan from a farming community.

Louis Armstrong is at this point completely drowned out and so Jon and I pay the check and decide we will quickly cross the road to watch a little of the parade. A group of children, mostly girls, in traditional Bolivian dress march down Grove street, led by a small boy with a crewcut whose traditional outfit is accented by mirrored Oakley sunglasses. The outfits are black and heavy and have elaborately puffed sleeves with red and gold and green decorations and sequins dripping from the fabric. The children are smiling and clearly ecstatic to be part of the parade, and I feel bad that there are so few people watching. Most people of Bolivian heritage are participating in the parade, it seems, which means that the audience is composed of older Bolivian relatives holding Bolivian infants, people from other South American countries who are enjoying the music, and “people who happened to be walking down the street and are trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.”

Another enthusiastic group follows the Oakley-clad eight year old and this group is older, consisting mainly of men. Each group is led by a truck filled with enough speakers to fill a studio apartment, blaring traditional music that seems to consist mainly of horns, drums, and occasionally reed-type flutes. The outfits are similarly eccentric—dark purple puffed sleeves and bright metallic buttons. Jackets with broad shoulders and sequined pants and tall boots that are covered in thick rows of golf ball-sized jingle bells. And the men do an elaborate dance that involves inordinate amounts of kicking, rattling the enormous bells that cover their boots like loud, festive boils. There is one man with gel in his short, curly hair who is incredibly confident—he is grinning, showing off his bright white television announcer teeth, and throwing his head back dramatically, cocking one eyebrow and making love to the audience as he dances and jumps and makes his boots rattle. And beside him is a boy of about seventeen who is almost six feet tall but looks as though he has not yet adjusted to his size—he has braces and a round, babyish head and continually looks at his feet and the feet of the man next to him, trying to make sure they are in sync. He is trying desperately to remember the steps, his legs stomping the ground a half second after the others, his arms awkwardly trying to remember the movements while he sweats—everyone is sweating because the costumes are heavy and it is close to 100 degrees outside. And I am clapping and feeling bad that they have gone through the trouble of putting on these elaborate costumes and memorizing these elaborate dances and that there are so few people watching.

Next a group of unlabeled Bolivian men in suits walks by, smiling and waving at the crowd and it is during this lull in excitement that a woman pushing a baby stroller covered in Bolivian flags quickly crosses the road and two vendors selling Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants balloons make their way toward the bandstand at the end of the parade route. A woman in shorts and sunglasses casually walks out into the parade the way you would step out into a river, letting the water divert its flow around your ankles. She takes a picture and leaves.

I clap loudly and cheer and notice that the crowd of spectators is growing. As groups complete the parade they join those on the sidelines. The children from the first group are standing alongside the road now, drinking orange sodas from cans, still wearing their sunglasses, and the dancers with the bells are cheering and the men in suits are standing on the sidelines smiling. Miss Bolivia USA is standing atop the bandstand, clapping as a new group makes its way down the parade route—women with long, brown braids and short, fluffy, tu-tu-type skirts which they shake back and forth followed by men wearing masks with bald heads followed by costumes that are round and tiered and make their inhabitants look like neurotic wedding cakes. A man walks by, hands thrown in the air, in a large fluffy costume whose animal head makes him look like the squirrel-rat creature from the Ice Age movies, but who, upon further reflection, is probably a sloth. Walking devotedly alongside him is a much smaller sloth of about five years of age who has taken off his sloth mask because he is hot and sweaty and who carries it in his left hand while looking up with admiration at the larger sloth, who he obviously idolizes. The big sloth looks down lovingly at the little sloth and grabs his free hand, smiling and shouting and dancing in a circle until the little sloth begins smiling and dancing as well. The sloths are followed by women in woolen shawls and tiny South American bowler hats that appear to be pinned to their heads, who are in turn followed by more elaborately dressed men who ooze enthusiasm—each man holding a helmet-type hat in his right hand that vaguely resembles a giant hazelnut and jumping ridiculously high into the air, hitting the helmets against the ground with a synchronized “clunk,” before leaping back into the ether. They are energetic and infectious and suddenly one of the older men in the khaki suits runs back into the parade and positions himself at the head of the hazelnut helmet troupe, dancing along with them. He is throwing himself up as his arms go up and down as his legs stomp their energy into Grove street, his Khaki suit pants growing dark from sweat. And then suddenly, for no reason, I am crying. Tears are flowing from my eyes and I don’t look at Jon, because I don’t want him to see that I’m crying during the Parade. I am self-conscious that I will look like an idiot, and I am dismayed because at first I cannot figure out WHY I am crying. When I was very young I cried when I hurt myself or when I thought about my parents dying or once, when I watched “The Fox and the Hound,” when the hound takes a stand, placing himself between the Fox and the hunter’s gun. And then I got older and hormones kicked in and I cried constantly—I cried at the scene in Free Willy where the whale jumps over a rock wall to escape back out to sea and I thought, “Ok, this is pretty pathetic,” which it was, but here I was twenty years later, crying at the East Coast Bolivian Heritage Parade and not even knowing why.

And I tell Jon, “Ok, we’ve stayed long enough. Let’s take the dog to the dog park before it starts to rain,” and he says, “Sure,” and I feel mildly guilty that we are leaving, since I want people to be there to watch the parade since everyone has clearly worked so so hard and they are dancing and sweating and smiling as if the whole thing is being filmed for NBC, which of course it is not. There will maybe be a small article about the parade in the Jersey Journal, which I only ever read when I am using the bag it comes in to pick up my dog’s feces.

And I walk away and suddenly see a giant hurricane of rainbow confetti fill the street and it suddenly hits me that the well-choreographed Bolivians of the east coast aren’t upset with anyone for leaving or for not coming in the first place and they don’t need anyone to be there but themselves—that this was less of a poorly attended play and more of a flamboyant family reunion. And I couldn’t pinpoint the exact thing that made me realize it but it was something about those sequined men with the hazelnut helmets leaping and crashing enthusiastically into the macadam-- rocketing into the air, joyously oblivious to anything. And the man in the Khaki suit jumping down off the bandstand and joining in, and they were clearly having so much fun and were so happy and whatever stupid part of me cried when Free Willy jumped over the wall to Freedom began crying at the Bolivian parade as I realized how happy they were. And so I went to walk the dog, which is a small, muted sort of happiness, and I held Jonathan’s hand, which is a happiness of the same sort—my happiness tends to be quaint and quiet, involving cafes and Louis Armstrong and reading a book.
And as we walked away we listened to the clamor of horns and drums and flutes. Behind us the confetti swirled through the street and the participants of the parade marched forward proudly and various children waved Bolivian Flags (which, for the record, are red yellow and green with a small crest in the center) desperately hoping that in an upcoming year they would be participating—dancing and sweating with their families— rather than sitting on the sidelines.



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Testing

Volvo
I always feel out of place proctoring tests at the nearby catholic high school because everybody is either a teenager, a heavyset bleached blonde woman, or a nun. There is a spattering of Franciscan brothers and one or two non-religious male teachers, but everyone is either in the midst of their adolescence or in their early to mid 50’s, so my being there never really makes sense to anyone. I am thirty years-old, smack in the middle of everyone, and when I come in, when the main office buzzes me into the school the teachers always go, “Hi, can we help you?” which means “You are too old to be a student and too young to be a parent and you are obviously not a delivery man so what are you doing here?”

And I say, “I’m with SAT prep—I’m here to proctor the mock exam.” And the teachers make a face like, “Ohhh, of course,” and start walking down the hallway, fumbling for the janitorial ring of keys which every teacher in this school seems to have. It has been twelve years since I was in high school but all high schools seem to look more or less the same. There are heavy wooden doors and floors that always appear to have been mopped in the past 10 minutes and endless cinderblock hallways painted a light, canary yellow. I don’t know why they always paint the walls that color but probably it’s supposed to be calming. When I was very young I used to walk along the walls, dragging my finger in the lines between the bricks until a teacher told me to stop doing it, saying the walls would make my hands dirty. The hallways have no windows and are lit by a recurring fluorescent rectangle every few panels in the drop ceiling, or by the sunlight that streams in through one of the classroom doors, if one is opened. The schools always seem dark and the walls always seem endless but once in a while a piece of the wall will be painted over in a mural or there will be a bulletin board with so-so student artwork or a trophy case with filled with seemingly epic accomplishments—all-county trophies, photos, medals—against a backdrop of stapled construction paper. In this particular school there is an enormous picture of a hockey team posing on the ice, post-game, grinning and holding an enormous cup high above their heads. The bottom of the photo reveals that it is from 1996, which to the current students must seem ancient—it may as well be from the middle of the 12th century—but it is only 14 years ago. It is the year I was a sophomore. The boys from this photo are probably all working in accounts payable departments in Manhattan or selling dental equipment or working as “online media editors” for companies that did not exist in 1996. Most of them no longer play hockey but some of them have infant children and make their 3 month old sons wear onesies with the New Jersey Devils or Toronto Maple Leafs logo across the chests.

The bleached blonde woman in the magenta V-neck T-shirt goes, “We’ll put you in 103 today,” but upon reaching door 103 finds that the room is being occupied by the football team, whose polo-shirt wearing coach is standing at the blackboard, drawing dozens of curved lines with yellow chalk. The teacher peeks through the square window in the door and sees this and goes, “Nevermind. We’re not going to put you in 103. Let’s see if we can use 106.”

The lockers in this school are the big sort of lockers—the ones they had on television shows like “Saved by the Bell” or “You Can’t Do That on Television,” that nerdy, unpopular students were always being shoved into. There is a girl with a single orange streak in her hair applying mascara and blinking into her locker mirror and underneath the mirror is a photo torn out of a magazine of a young heartthrob-type boy who I do not recognize. She is sucking on a lollipop and I remember being in 6th grade when the Blue Raspberry Charms blowpops were infectiously popular and all the girls had them, even though they turned your mouth a shade of blue that made you look like you were dying of asphyxiation. Girls would sit packed tight around a cafeteria table, gossiping and laughing and sucking on Blowpops with their dark blue lips, looking like fashionable, extremely popular drowning victims.

The woman takes me to 106, which is not locked. She opens the door and there is a nun sitting at the large metal desk, writing something on a yellow legal pad. The nun looks up and I think to myself that there is something very quiet and beautiful about coming upon a nun, alone in a classroom, writing. She looks up at us with a calm, innocent face, like a deer.
“Hi,” she says, and I say “Hi,” and she smiles. I have met this nun before, at the SAT program sign up, where I was sitting behind a table and she was meandering through the hall. She had stopped briefly at my table to say hello and how was I doing, and a woman signing up her 16 year old son for the SAT program looked at the nun and then looked at me and then looked back at the nun and said, “Are you two…related? Are you sisters?”
And my first thought, with a dramatic sigh, is that clearly I do not dress provocatively enough, and my second thought is that yes, we actually do look a little bit alike when I look closely at her face. She is older, and wearing a floor length black dress and I am wearing khakis and a turtleneck sweater, but judging from our faces it is entirely possible that we are related. I politely tell the woman, “No, we’re not sisters,” and make the joke that, “well actually she is, but I’m not,” and both the woman and the nun get a kick out of this and the woman continues signing her son up for the program.

This particular nun (embarrassingly I do not know her name) seems very nice—not like the Nurse Ratchett-y nuns of my father’s youth that he is always taking about. She is about forty or so with rectangular wire framed glasses. She is wearing flat brown imitation-leather shoes and has a little bit of brown hair peeking out from the front of her habit. She has a small watch on her wrist whose shiny black band is frayed. The watchband has split on the side and you can see that the inside is white like the belly of a fish. The woman with the magenta T-shirt says, “Sorry to bother you, sister. Can we use this room to proctor the test?” and the nun goes, “Oh yes, of course,” and picks up a sheaf of papers from the desktop, placing them in a folder and tucking them into a drawer. I say, “Thank you very much,” and the nun nods, and goes, “Oh, of course,” again, and smiles at me and walks out of the room and I think that of course she gave up her room for me—that is what nuns do. They give things up. They are not supposed to have things, like big bank accounts or stereo systems because they give everything away.

I pull out two pieces of paper with the name of my SAT company. I search the desktop for a marker but there is nothing so I open the upper right hand drawer in the desk. And I have done this many times before, looking for markers or a stapler or tape, but I feel strange doing it because it is a nun’s desk and I do not want to rifle through her things. But I am looking in the drawer and it is identical to the drawers of other teachers, albeit a bit neater. There is a small bottle of purell and a calculator and a post-it note pad and I wonder who the first nun was to use a Post-it note or what nuns use Post-it notes for. Mine at home are stuck on every available surface, screaming reminders such as, “LAUNDRY” or “CALL VERIZON RE: BILL” or “6PM APPT WITH DR. PATEL,” each of which is followed by a string of at least 3 exclamation marks. I imagine that nuns might use them to write down inspirational sayings or quotes that will remind them to love God more. Maybe there is one beside her bed that reads, “Remember to Keep an Open Heart” or one on the mirror where she brushes her teeth that reads “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” And maybe nuns do not have mirrors in front of which they brush their teeth, since they do not want to spend time looking at themselves vainly, but at the same time, how else will they know they have done a really good job brushing? Perhaps they do have mirrors and every once in a while a nun will be overcome with the joy of existence and will watch herself in the mirror, holding her toothbrush like a microphone, lip syncing Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer,” while imagining that she is Gina and God is Tommy. And when she is done she will smile sheepishly and look up to God to forgive her for the outburst. And God will obviously forgive her because it’s not all that terrible of a thing to do, and also the song had the word “prayer” in the title.

Using the nun’s sharpie I write “SAT Mock Exam room 106” on two pieces of paper and using tape (which I also found in the upper right hand drawer) I tape the signs to the two main entrances of the school and then go back to the classroom to wait for students to arrive.

I am not sure how exactly I fell into teaching and proctoring SAT courses, but it is something I am doing for a while to pass the time. I am good at it but not amazing. I did not have a calling to it, the way a nun has a calling. I did not wake up one morning to a blinding ethereal light as the voluptuous clouds parted and a deep voice said, “You have been called to teach,” because I would have asked, “To teach what? What am I called to teach?” and the voice would have responded, “Algebra I and Algebra II and critical reading.” And I would have said, “Really? I who earned B’s and C’s in high school have been called to teach Algebra and critical reading?” And the voice would have cleared its throat awkwardly and said, “Uhhh, yes. And basic geography and grammar. And essay structure,” and I would have narrowed my eyes skeptically, pulling back all the curtains in my house to see if there was anyone standing behind them.

I am standing next to the doorway of the classroom, occasionally running ten feet away to the white porcelain water fountain that is mounted to the wall three feet off the ground. I drink, wetting my perpetually dry lips and walk back to the room and wait as one or two students mills in and sits down. I tell them the test will begin exactly at 3:30. I go back and sit at the desk waiting for more students to arrive and while I am waiting I check for new messages on my Blackberry but there is only a reminder for an Evite that I have already responded to, for a fall-themed party a friend of mine is throwing. I sit and wait as more children—many of them wearing hooded sweatshirts with the name of the school across the chest—meander in and sit at various spots around the room, dropping their Northface backpacks beside their desks. The room is filled with inspirational posters—one with the “Footprints” poem above a picture of a sandy beach and one with a picture of three prarie dogs, two of which look as though they are hugging one another, printed with the words, “The simple act of caring is heroic.” There is a small crucifix hung on the yellow cinderblock wall above the blackboard and over the back bulletin board is the quote, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

I look again at the kids and out of twelve children, eleven of them are texting and the twelfth is playing with a trendy black rubberband on his wrist which, when removed, reveals itself to be the silhouette of a microphone stand. I cannot imagine what the doe-eyed nun has to say to a class of children who seem so far removed from her—a class of children who use smartphones in lieu of post-its and who stare at themselves in their bathroom mirrors for ages—examining their hair and the weird dark spot on their face that they wish would go away and worrying over how their teeth look. I sit quietly, glancing at the ubiquitous institutional clock placed to the upper right of the classroom door. I have ten minutes. I stand up and introduce myself and make sure everyone here is in the right classroom and explain to them how to fill out their test booklet, which they begin to do. Three boys stand up and form a line for the wall-mount, hand crank pencil sharpener and a girl raises her hand and asks if I have an extra calculator. Two students did not think to bring pencils, which I find mind boggling, and two well-prepared students pass extra pencils to those who need them, both students’ arms stretching, bridging the gap between the rows of desks. When everyone is set I instruct them to fill in the bubbles for practice test 4A, which is the test they are taking.

The clock hands read 3:30 and so I say, “Ok, open your test booklets and good luck. This section will be twenty five minutes,” and on the board I write, “Section 1: 3:30-3:55.” And then I watch them write.

The girls seem petite—lost in the enormous folds of their black hooded sweatshirts. The boys are all dark haired and swarthy, except for one who is blonde and a foot taller than most of his classmates and who writes clumsily with his left hand. I am amazed that I was this age once and that the boys I liked were boys this age—something which now seems as foreign as having a crush on a three year-old. I heard a male stand-up comic tell a joke once about how when he was younger he had a crush on Winnie Cooper from “The Wonder Years,” and how when he watched the show years later as an adult he was hit with the revelation, “Holy shit, she’s a little girl! I had all those dreams about her and she was a little girl!

The first section of the SAT—the one they are taking on the practice test right now—is the essay question, which will ask them something philosophical and open ended, and to which they (hopefully) will answer using a thesis statement and concrete examples. The question will have a quote—something like:

That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value.” -Thomas Paine

And following the quote will be a question. Something like, “Do we value only what we struggle for? Plan your response, and then write an essay to explain your views on this issue. Be sure to support your position with specific points and examples.

And the kids will lean forward, elbows on their desks, hands pulling their mouths askew as they holds up their heads. And I wonder to myself if we value only what we struggle for but it is too much for me to think about at 3:45 on a Thursday so I flip open the New Yorker I have brought with me, turning to the cartoon caption contest on the final page. There is a picture of two men clinging desperately to a ship that is sinking inside a teacup. The contest encourages you to submit your answer at the website but this is an old issue, since I can never read the issues as fast as I get them, and this contest has already been won by someone like, “Alan Fried, Saugertes, NY” or “Diane Harrison, Minneapolis, MN.” One of the men in the drawing has his mouth open and I try to brainstorm what he would be saying—something about the Boston Tea Party or the expression, “Tempest in a Teapot,” but I cannot think of anything good or witty so I close the magazine and lay it in front of me on the desk. I glance at the clock and say, “You have five minutes remaining,” which makes the children sigh loudly and temporarily sit up straighter, furrowing their brows as they write furiously, trying to sum up their ideas. A few have finished and are sitting listlessly at their desks and I want to say, “No, write more! They want you to write more—you will get a better grade if the essay is longer!” But it does not really matter all that much. The advice I give most often after the test is not to dwell on what went wrong. Some of them will be unhappy with their essays and will continue to think about what they could have done differently throughout all the other sections of the test and I encourage them to learn from their mistakes without dwelling on them. Some of them will do incredibly well on this test and still not have any idea what they are doing with their lives and some of them will do nowhere near as well and will be happy and well-adjusted by thirty.

I have hit thirty and am not sure what I want out of life other than to do something well and to someday win the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. I am trying as hard as I can, but I would like to be a better SAT tutor and a better person. I would like to live by all the sappy rules on the inspirational posters that ring the classroom but I know that I will go home and beat myself up for something stupid, like not having a job in an office or buying the French Vanilla yogurt when I meant to buy plain or for deciding to cut my own bangs and then immediately regretting it.

I hear a slight tap and every student’s head jerks up from their papers and when I turn the nun is peering through the glass of the door. I make a motion for her to come in. She smiles sheepishly and mouths the words, “I’m sorry,” and after walking quietly toward me whispers the phrase, “My keys.” I open the wide shallow desk drawer and there they are—her keys, sitting in a nest of paperclips. She makes a mock gesture of hitting herself in the forehead with the palm of her hand and takes the keys and mouths the words, “Thank you.” Some of the students wave to her and she waves back. Their heads go back down to their essays and the nun surveys them as they scribble. She turns to me and smiles and says, “Keep up the good work,” and I cannot help grinning, happy to be acknowledged by her. I think to myself, “You too!” but do not say anything. I nod graciously, and with that she grasps her keys in her hand and walks gracefully out of the room.

I am envious of her that she knows exactly what she is doing with her life while I will spend the evening scrolling through the craigslist want ads, but at the same time, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” I may struggle for a few additional years, but there is no need to beat myself up about it. I pull a post-it from her drawer and debate what I should write to inspire myself. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point,” I think, but then decide that no, as true as it might be, it seems like something a nun would write. Grasping my pen lightly I write the words, “Defrost Chicken/Remember Mail Netflix!!!” and smile, plastering it onto the desktop.



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Running

Volvo
My track coach was one of those terrifying people who was always telling you to “run through the pain.” This was the late 90’s, when “No Fear” T-shirts and Nike slogans had taken over and people became fond of sayings like “Pain is weakness leaving the body” and “Second Place is the First Loser,” and no one was more fond of these sayings than high school track coaches, who regularly dispensed any wisdom that would keep us running—anything to keep us moving forward.

And I had never been particularly athletic, although the pain inflicted on my body during track practice was nothing compared to the pain of trying out for another sports team—soccer or basketball or lacrosse—and not making it. Or the pain of making it and feeling alone because you were not really friends with any of the girls on those teams. Knowing that no one wanted to pass you the ball because you were awkward and clingy and all your clothes were from Marshalls. But anyone who wanted to be on the track team could be on the track team and the only requirement was that you not stop running.

Looking back, I realize that I was a terrible runner because I was afraid of the gun. I would be crouched in the starting position, one knee bent, the tips of my fingers bearing my weight on the clay-colored polyurethane surface of the track. If you are a good runner or a competitive person, the anticipation of the gunshot should fire you up—there should be an eagerness in your muscles, each of them anxious to fling you forward like a rubber band at the sound of the shot, your body flying around the track like a test tube in a centrifuge. This is never what I felt. Each time I crouched, waiting for the gun and each time the thoughts that ran through my head were, “It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be really loud and where the hell is it? Why the hell haven’t they shot the gun already?” And my heart would begin pounding and immediately I would think something like, “Why am I doing this? Maybe I should join the Drama club,” and suddenly the gun would go off, reverberating through my ears, and I would think, “Shit!” and start running.

When you are actually running is maybe the least stressful part of being at a track meet. You are not quivering, waiting for a gunshot. You are not sitting alone on the bleachers reading a book, wishing you were sitting with the large group of girls on the side lawn who are all talking and sharing water bottles. You are not last-minute studying for a test you are almost positive you will fail, poring over your poorly-taken notes that you have thrown into your bookbag and dragged to the track meet. You are running, which is the only part of track I ever loved. You are running and the people in the bleachers, whoever they are, are all screaming. And most of them are probably not screaming for you, but it doesn’t matter, really. Screaming is screaming and the sound of people screaming energizes you. And your coach, wherever the hell he is, is yelling at each of his runners to run through the pain.

You are running through it as best you can. And you don’t know at the time that the pain is nothing compared to the types of pain you’ll encounter in your future—you have decades ahead of you in which you will be rejected by people you care for and will not be chosen for things that you have set your heart on. You will be lonely at times, which is incredibly painful. Nobody really tells you that—I’m not sure why. You will lose people you love and hurt so badly you will wish you had some sort of physical pain—a severed arm—so that people could see how much you are suffering. The pain of running is nothing compared to those things, but it is pain and you cannot stop running because of it.

My least favorite event in track and field is the 400 meters because it is too long to sprint but too short to be a long distance run. You pound the track for 300 meters, pulling yourself through the ether with everything you have in you until you have nothing left and have an additional 100 meters between you and the finish line. And for that 100 meters it is not so much up to you as it is up to your legs which will either collapse beneath you like coiled rope or will somehow ferry you down the final stretch. And so now, after telling you that that is my least favorite event, I will tell you that the event that I like LESS than the 400 meters is the 600 meters, which is one of the events during winter track.

You join winter track for one of two reasons: either you are a promising track and field star (this in no way applied to me) or you want to play a winter sport and are terrible at basketball. Or maybe, more than your wanting to play a winter sport, you are joining it because you want to do something and you have no idea what you are good at yet. You want to be a part of a group and have no idea what group will take you in. That is another type of pain that you have identified and are running through until you can figure out how to make it go away. You are not really good at anything. You know that you do not want to go home every day after school and sit on your bed reading The World According to Garp over and over again. You cannot join the chess team because you are mediocre at chess. You cannot join the math club because you are horrific at math. All high school clubs seem to have been designed for people who are either brilliant or athletic.

You crouch for the 600 meters, your fingers pushing against the firmer floor of the indoor, winter track. You wait for the gun—the stupid gun that you hate because almost nothing in life begins that abruptly—and you are running. You are pulling yourself forward with the muscles in your legs and you feel a little flicker of something in your hip that you have never felt before. You are running through the pain because that is what your coach has asked of you so at least you can do that. You will never be the fastest or jump the highest or astound anyone with amazing feats of endurance, but the running through the pain thing you can do. It will not prepare you for success, necessarily, but it will prepare you for life.

You feel the flutter again but you are 400 meters through and throwing yourself forward with any remaining energy and that is when suddenly you feel something snap. And I don’t mean that in a figurative way, in that you felt something inside you snap and suddenly you realized your innate self-worth. You feel something inside you snap—something physically snaps-- and suddenly you are filled with the worst pain you have felt in your life. It is not the pain of running, it is the pain of something going horribly, horribly wrong. You note that for some reason you can no longer move your right leg. But everyone is screaming and you are supposed to keep running, so you throw your left leg forward and drag your right leg behind you, repeating this motion several times. Everyone who was not already ahead of you has now lapped you and you are thinking, “Run through the pain, dammit!” So you are tossing out your left leg, dragging your limp right leg as if it were a large animal you had killed and were bringing back to camp. Also, tears are streaming down your face because you have never felt anything this painful. And it is at that point that two seniors run off the sidelines and grab you—and say, “Are you ok? What happened? What are you doing?” They put their necks underneath each of your arms and help to carry you off to the sidelines.

The doctor will tell you later that it is an avulsion fracture—a break that occurs when a fragment of bone tears away from the main mass of bone—in this case in your hip. The bone pulled apart at the tendon, due to a muscular contraction that was stronger that the forces holding the bone together.

There are certain types of pain you should run through and certain types you should not and it will almost always be up to you to decide which is which. You will have to interpret when to stop and when you should keep going. If you are tired, keep running. If part of your bone breaks off, you should usually stop. And if you are going through the most common sort of pain found in high schools—the pain of not really feeling like you belong anywhere—then you should definitely not stop. Keep going at all costs and do not stop moving until you have found a group where you do not seem so completely out of place. Do not sit and rest somewhere where you are fundamentally unhappy and where you have nothing to offer.

After the diagnosis I lay in bed, resting the fracture for a full week and then spent the next few weeks on crutches. The doctor told me there was no way the break would be healed in time for me to join the track team again in the spring. I nodded and thanked him for his advice. That spring, after ascertaining that it did not involve a starting gun, I joined the Drama Club. I remained in the club for the final two years of high school. It was very enjoyable.



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I can't emotionally handle waitressing.

Volvo
The woman walks into the restaurant smiling. I see her only out of the corner of my eye because I am busy getting something for another customer, but I watch as the hostess leads her to a round corner booth, setting down two menus. The woman sits, sliding deep into the booth and stares dreamily out across the restaurant. She is wearing a white jacket that looks like something my mother would find at TJ Maxx and would hold up to me on a hanger, asking, “Isn’t this nice? On sale! Thirty dollars!” She is in her mid sixties, maybe, wearing a modest, mid-length black skirt and black, open toed flats with pantyhose. She has a slight thickness to her ankles and her wrists and her neck—her hands she places on the table, one on top of the other, drumming her fingers across the tops of her opposing fingers. Her hair, which is shoulder-length, has been dyed a deep red, and is dry and frayed at the tips. Under her jacket she is wearing a black top with a small bow on it, from which a loose thread protrudes onto her neckline. She smiles and says,

“There are going to be two of us!” and I nod and say,

“Can I get you something to drink while you wait on the rest of your party?”

This is always what I say to tables that are waiting for people to arrive. And she says,

“May I have a coffee, please?”

She grins while she asks, showing all her teeth. Her eyes get small and squint when she smiles and she reminds me of a good-natured British housekeeper from a movie. And I nod, happily—I am in a good mood because it is Friday—and leave to get her coffee. When I return there are three gifts on the table wrapped, alternatingly, in gold paper with white curling ribbon and white paper with gold curling ribbon. The gold paper has the imprints of stars on it. The gifts are shabbily wrapped or have been tossed around a bit—the corners are pushed in and the paper has wrinkled in places, but she sets the three boxes on the table, one stacked on top of the other, creating a tiered wedding cake of presents. I pour the coffee, setting down the milk. I place a sugar caddy on the table but she waves it off, saying, “No no, it’s fine, I don’t need it,” and I place the caddy back on the tray. I ask her,

“Is tap water all right or would you prefer sparkling or still?”

and the woman, smiling but anxious, waves her hands over the tops of the glasses, saying she doesn’t need any water for now. The coffee is fine. “I’ll wait for him,” she says. “I’ll see what he wants.”

I walk away from her table for a while and she sips her coffee and stares out into space. Sometimes when people are sitting by themselves for a while they will pull our a newspaper or start doing SuDoKu puzzles or will play round after round of Angry Birds on their iPhones, but she does not begin doing any of these things. She will occasionally pick her black patent leather purse, which is the size of a VHS tape, unzippering it and pulling out her cell phone. She opens the phone and then immediately closes it, putting it back in the purse. She continues to sit.

And I am still working so I begin to move around—ordering a lentil salad and an order of mussels for the two Japanese women in my section. A mother comes in with her adult daughter and orders a chopped salad and a chicken club, which are my two least favorite things on the menu. They both order diet cokes. I glance at the woman with the coffee but she is fine—still sitting alone, still staring ahead blankly. A man who comes in twice a week or so comes in and is upset that we are out of salmon and begrudgingly orders pasta. And when I apologize that we don’t have what he wanted initially he suddenly becomes calm and says, “It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it.” Two women sitting in the back order wine and ask about the beet salad appetizer with enthusiasm.

I stand by the computer, punching in orders and out of the corner of my eye notice that the woman who ordered coffee has been joined by a man of about forty. The man has a crew cut and a crisp light blue work shirt and khakis, and is sitting with his legs hanging out of the booth, as if riding side-saddle on a horse. He looks a little bit like a young Steve Jobs and it becomes apparent that the woman is his mother, who, judging by her excitement, does not see him all that frequently. She has fluttered to life like an excited bird, fawning over her son, talking to him with enthusiasm while he calmly fields her questions with a contrived energy. I walk to the table and ask what sort of water they would like and the man asks for a Champagne and says no water—he doesn’t need water. I bring the Champagne back and he continues sitting awkwardly, his legs half out of the booth, with the woman handing him the presents. I ask if they have any questions on the menu and the man turns to me and says, “No food, I’m not going to eat—I have a dinner later.”

I keep an eye on the table and after a few minutes the man calls me over and asks for another champagne and then asks if I can order him an omelet with American cheese and then charge his card right away. And I get him the Champagne and order the omelet. He pays with an American express black card, which means that he has tons and tons of money. Several minutes later he hugs the woman quickly and abruptly leaves the restaurant.

I go back to the table, where the woman is once again sitting alone. The gifts the man was given are unwrapped, piled on the chair. On top is a birthday card that reads, “I can’t believe you’re 40!” with an image of a cartoon man with very long arms putting his hands to his cheeks in disbelief. The woman, re-adjusting to the silence, sits quietly. I ask if everything at the table is ok and she says, “Oh yes, everything is fine.” Her omelet arrives and she eats it slowly, in small polite forkfuls, staring at nothing. Her son’s empty Champagne glass sits opposite her on the table and I pick it up, as if to erase the evidence that this was originally a two-person lunch. When she is done eating she politely pushes her plate to the side and begins re-wrapping the gifts in tissue paper and bubble wrap. There is a book with a polar bear on the front with the words, “Snow Day,” written across it in blue letters. I do not understand why a 40 year old man would want a book like that, but it seems like something the woman would buy, thinking it was cute, possibly for a grandchild. In the store she must have been excited—the polar bear and the glossy paper of the cover and the discount (30% off the regular price!). But now the woman’s hands have become heavy and her thumbs move slowly as they clumsily re-wrap and re-pile the opened presents, which are still sitting beside her. She had counted, I think, on her son taking them—on his saying, “Thank you, mom! This is indispensable! These are so cute! This is exactly what I wanted!” and sitting down with her to a long, chatty lunch. But it did not work that way. He is gone, but she is still here and the things that she tried to give him are still here.

When everything is re-wrapped the woman quietly asks me if we have a bag somewhere that she could use to put the gifts in, since it will be hard to hold them otherwise. I say, “Oh yes, don’t worry, I’ll find a bag for you just hold on one second,” and run downstairs to get something—anything—that will help her. I find a bag used for take-away orders and my hostess finds a large plastic bag somewhere and between the two bags, we are able to fit in all of the gifts. The woman says, “Thank you very much,” and I say anxiously, “I hope everything was ok,” and she smiles and says, “The food was delicious.” She grabs the bags with her son’s gifts and 40th birthday card and picks up her black patent leather pocketbook, holding her head high. She smiles like a news anchor. She smoothes her skirt. And then, just as my heart is breaking, she walks out the door and disappears into the city.



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Everything at Bed Bath and Beyond is Stupid

Volvo
When Aidan Reese Podgarsky-Carlson arrived in the world, weighing 3 lbs. 11oz, I was wandering through a Bed Bath and Beyond, picking up Quiche pans. I was using up the remainder of a gift card by wandering the store, aimlessly picking up vegetable brushes and spatulas and soap dispensers, and when I found the quiche pans, I thought, “Oh, nice. Quiche Pans,” and tucked them into the glass pyrex dish I was already carrying, next to the silicone pot holder and grapefruit spoons. I am holding all these things, vacillating between the idea of getting a cart or a basket of some sort, or just keeping them piled in my arms, awkwardly lugging my items around the store, when I receive a text message from Arthur’s brother saying that Andrea is in labor. The baby is two months premature, but so far it appears to be ok. I smile hugely because I am excited—excited that their baby is coming and that it seems healthy and that its parents have so many milestones ahead of them—I am smiling thinking of how they must be smiling, and turning my head I see a woman staring at me quizzically, because she does not realize that a baby is about to be born somewhere in the world. She does not understand why I am grinning. She has never, she thinks to herself, seen anyone get quite this enthusiastic about silicone bake pans.

Today was January 14th, 2011, and years from now, my friend Arthur and his wife Andrea will look back on today as one of the happiest, most monumental days of their lives. They will re-live it over and over, thinking of today as the day that turned them from a young couple into a small family, and here I am like a giant turd in a coat, waltzing around listlessly during the birth of their son, looking at the prices on non-stick fry pans, cheerfully noticing that my spatula is printed with the conversion table from cups to ounces and going, “That might be really helpful with some of my recipes in the future!”
When I first learned that his wife was in labor my heart picked up a little bit and I went, “Oh boy, it’s really happening,” and immediately thought, “This is exciting! I should do something.” But as exciting as it is, it is not my baby and I am not the doctor delivering the baby, so there is nothing for me to do except to continue to do what I was doing. So I continue walking through the Bed Bath and Beyond, which has suddenly become oppressively mundane.

Arthur, when he is not pacing hallways as an expectant father, is a post-production film editor, and if he were editing this for a movie trailer he would begin with a shot of pandemonium. He would start off with a frantic hospital room, with close ups of his wife panting and screaming and holding her stomach while nurses and doctors run in frantic circles—blurry flashes of seagrass green as their scrubs fly past the camera lens, people yelling things like, “Stat!” and “Give her 9 cc’s!” or “She’s dilated to 25 centimeters!” And right when your conscious mind kicked in and went, “Excuse me? 25 centimeters??” he would immediately cut to a shot of me, walking lazily through the aisles of Bed Bath and Beyond to the hum of repetitive Muzak, casually picking up egg timers shaped like chickens and setting them so that they all go off at the same time. The camera would cut again to a shot of me looking confusedly at a long pipe cleaner-type mechanism whose purpose I was unable to discern (it’s for drying the insides of bottles, I was later told) and then again to a shot of me trying to adhere suction cup-mount bathroom appliances to my forehead, before knocking over a display of toilet brushes and slinking guiltily behind a display of trash cans.

And then suddenly, without warning, you are back with his wife in the hospital, surrounded by noises and beeps and craziness. Back to innumerable people holding clipboards and a woman whose mouth is covered by a doctor’s mask but the camera zooms in on her eyes as she realizes that they cannot slow the pre-labor—that despite the fact that the due date is not for another two months, they can’t keep the fetus in utero. And if you are close enough to her face maybe she says something under her breath, like, “This baby’s coming out today,” And then it zooms to his wife’s face, which is steeled with resolve, and then zooms in on Arthur and Andrea’s hands, which are gripping each other tightly, the veins bulging in their fingers and wrists as they wheel her towards the delivery room. And as the couple is separated momentarily, we watch Arthur’s mouth become a small, thin, determined line—as if he will deliver this baby himself—as if inherent in his mouth is the determination in all his 36 years of life that his baby will live and thrive and succeed. And as they wheel his wife into the delivery room she becomes a silhouette against the blinding, ethereal light that emerges as they open the doors.

And you hear a woman’s angelic voiceover promising that your life is about to change, and you see Arthur’s face thinking, “Yes. This is a defining moment in my existence,” except that the woman keeps talking and specifies that your life is about to change, thanks to the new SodaStream Genesis—the video for which I am skeptically watching in-store while standing near a collection of Brita Water filters. The SodaStream genesis is a device that turns water into sparkling water or, if you add a capful of some sort of syrupy concentrate that is being sold for $4.99 a bottle, into a variety of different sodas. And your heart is still beating rapidly, going, “The baby! What will happen to the baby?” but sorry, no dice, you’re back to the aimlessness-of-one’s-twenties montage as I cynically watch the SodaStream video, which is now showing a shot of a waterfall, announcing that buying this product will keep 2,000 cans and bottles a year out of a landfill, and out loud to nobody in particular, I go, “No it won’t.” The ad cuts to a woman in a hot pink V neck sweater who cannot seem to stop smiling, filling up a bottle with water, installing the Soda Stream cartridge, and (ta da!) turning it into sparkling water with the gentle press of a button. The woman then decides she would like to turn it into a cola drink of some kind, and so she takes a capful of the allotted syrup and pours it into the bottle, in much the same way one would pour detergent into a load of laundry. I make a disgruntled face, imagining what it would be like to drink laundry detergent. I quietly walk away from the display.

The camera cuts again to me (Yes, me. We’re still on me) as I peruse the now-extremely-on-sale Christmas decorations—wreaths and ornaments and things you’re supposed to hang over your doorknob that say “Ho ho ho!” on them. I roll my eyes at most of it, being drawn toward the decorations that make noise, finding one that is playing the song, “Up on the housetop the reindeer pause…out comes good old San-ta Claus! Down through the chimney with lots of toys! All for the little one’s Chris-mas joys!” And immediately after the song ends you hear a woman going AAARRRRGHHHHHH, which, admittedly, is just a stereotype I have from seeing pregnant women in other movies. I have no idea if most women actually go AAAARRRRGGGHHHH when they have babies, or if they do, if Andrea did that. But for now—just for now—we’re going to have her going AAARRRRRGHHHH as she has the baby because it’s such a nice contrast to the Christmas music that was playing directly beforehand. So she goes AAARRRGHHHHHH, and there will be crying, and then an overwrought voice going, “It’s a boy!” even though they knew in advance it was going to be a boy—it’ll be better for the montage if they pretend they just found out.

And then we’ll cut to them a little bit later, when we are positive the baby is ok and is going to make it. Arthur is standing by the side of her bed and she is holding the baby for the first time and they look at each other and smile. And inherent in their smiles is the realization that all three of them will be ok. That they are filled with pride. That it is a long, hard road ahead, but that they are looking forward to it, except for maybe the whole ‘paying for college’ part. And as the camera pulls away from them, the angelic newly-born family, we hear an obnoxiously loud chime go, “Don-DING. Don-DING,” and just as you wonder why the hell none of them are reacting to it it cuts back to me, apologizing to the Bed Bath and Beyond Cashier as I both hand her my coupon for 20% off one item and reach into my pocket to read my text message. And I smile, reading the message that says that Aidan Reese was born and that he weighed 3 lbs. 11oz. and that mother and baby are doing fine, and I go, “Aaaaack! This is exciting!” Because it is exciting. I will go home and put away my quiche pans and my pyrex dish and my vegetable brush and my spatula with the conversion of measurements on it, which is stupid, obviously—none of those things is the least bit important in the grand scheme of the universe. But Arthur will go home, eventually at least, with a tiny genetic experiment—an amalgam of himself and his wife whose tiny hands are balled up into fists. Aidan Reese weighed only 3 lbs. and 11 oz, which, in case you are curious, is 3 lbs and one and one third cup, according to my spatula.

And I will go home and look for baby gifts online and will maybe make some sort of casserole in my pyrex dish and watch documentaries that are streaming through Netflix. And Arthur will go home and never be the same again for the rest of his life.
And the woman says, “That’ll be 44.19,” and I hand her my gift card, and she swipes it and hands it back to me with a long receipt and says, “You have 26.50 left on the card. Have a good day,” and smiling—still smiling, I say, “Thanks.”



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I sit with my friend Guy in a shitty vegetarian diner eating disgusting, crustless pie that is so awful I would feel bad feeding it to a cat. We meet once a month or so-- not always in a shitty vegetarian diner-- and never again in THIS shitty vegetarian diner because Jesus Christ, this pie is disgusting-- but we meet once a month to talk about writing and whether or not either of us has been capable of doing it well or at all. Guy is a good writer and a good person. He has a Ph.D in psychology and a british accent. We met each other several years ago at an open mic when we discovered that we were the only two comics that had elaborate filing systems for our jokes-- the only two people who were regularly alphabetizing punchlines and categorizing one-liners by subject matter (This goes under "C" for Cat Vomit). We are the type of people who are impressed by Jamie Lee Curtis because she has a filing system for the homemade soups in her freezer. Or, ok, admittedly we have never talked about this but I think it is very impressive and I know him well enough to know that he would be impressed as well.

We meet with a third friend, a despondent copyeditor who is also a comedian, who is ALSO a vegetarian, hence the disgusting, disgusting pie which I am picking apart with my fork as if it were an owl pellet and I were hunting for a squirrel skeleton that I could glue to a piece of construction paper.

Guy says, "So I finished the screenplay and I reeeally like it."
When he is excited about something he is writing he smiles with all his five billion teeth showing at once and he looks like an eleven year-old who is being given a gift and CANNOT WAIT TO RECEIVE IT. "I really like how it turned out and I'm submitting it to all these contests so...you know," he says, toning down his enthusiasm. "We'll see." He smiles hopefully.

The copyeditor and I both smile because we are excited for him. We are all good writers but Guy is by far the most prolific, turning out endless sheaves of pages. I first got to know him after reading his screenplay which, after the first two pages I stopped reading because I thought it was going to be about baseball and I am usually bored by baseball-themed screenplays. And he politely let me know that no, the script had nothing at all to do with baseball-- that was just the first scene that took place on a baseball diamond. And so I said, "I'm sorry-- I'm a horrific douche bag with the attention span of a flea," which is mainly true, and I read the rest of his screenplay, which was wonderful.

We meet again, a month or so later, at a brunch place in Chelsea. Our copyeditor friend picks the restaurants because she is the only one who is decent at that sort of thing-- I am there to talk about our writing and our lives and would often be content to eat bread crusts from an East Village trash can as long as the conversation is good. Guy has begun another project-- another screenplay-- a Pixar-type film about the secret lives of clothing, which I think is very good. He and my friend ask what I am doing and I am doing, as usual, nothing fast. I am writing essays about my dad farting or my dog taking a nap and in the time it takes to write one of those essays, Guy has written three more dissertation-length pieces.

The next time we see him he has written a young adult novel and the time after that he has written a similar novel, but this time for regular adults who are not young. And he writes well, in the same way he is funny. He is a talented person, but wonderful things do not always happen to talented people. And he is persistent, but wonderful things do not always happen to talented people even if they are persistent. The world can be an unforgiving, shitty place, filled with mediocre, crustless, vegan-friendly pie. The three of us have been googling ourselves for years with very few encouraging changes. My goal, which I have only recently achieved, was to google my last name and no longer be outranked by an obscure Austrailian Law firm. Guy's goal was to be able to google the phrase "Guy Winch" without coming up with information on sailboat winches, specifically the guy winch (which is, unfortunately for him, an actual type of winch).

We are living our lives and stockpiling our rejections.

"I have so many rejection letters," he says, "I've rented storage space for them."

But we are trying so, so hard. Guy, the copyeditor and I meet at a bagel place on the lower east side. The copyeditor is bemoaning her job, which has become unbearable. She is writing furiously. Guy is working on another screenplay but is stuck and mentions that he has an idea for another book and is considering abandoning the screenplay altogether. This other book is about complaining.

"Not about venting," he stresses. "Complaining."

"Venting is what we've been doing for the last forty minutes," I say.

"I'm venting about my stupid awful job," the copyeditor says.

"Yes," he says, "But I don't want to talk about venting, I want to talk about complaining. The problem with complaining," he says quietly, "is that no one listens and so nothing gets done." He sits for a moment in silence, thinking. "Nothing ever gets done," he says again, as if he is just fully realizing it. "People complain about things for hours, but the whole point of complaining is to have someone listen so that things will change. No one is listening because people who complain are so...they're so..."

"Mean," says our copyeditor friend. "Obnoxious. Horrible."

"Complainy," I offer.

"We'll go with 'mean,'" he says politely. "But yes. Also complainy."

He sits back in his chair.

"I'd love to write a book," he says, "on how to complain."

And it is not a screenplay about clothing or a young adult novel or anything similar to what he has written before, but because he is a good writer and we think he will do a good job we say, "That is a wonderful idea." And it is. We have been meeting for years now, writing endless lines of text. And we vent, but we do not complain. We vent that we are tired and frustrated and that we think a piece of writing is very good but we sent it to a publication and they said, no, we were mistaken, it was not good, it was a piece of shit. Or, "it was very nice but they don't have room for it," which is much friendlier but feels almost the same. We vent that we are working hard but that the world is too big and too unforgiving. And then we admit that ok, maybe we could have worked a little harder and typed sentences more creative than, "the world is too big and too unforgiving," because give me a break, right? Sheesh.

We will keep writing, because if airing our woes to friends counts as venting, then to keep writing and keep submitting our writing is complaining-- it is taking action. We are politely tugging on the pant leg of the world and asking if we can say a few words for posterity. And when the world says, "No, other people are talking right now," we pull out another piece of writing and say, "What about this? Can I say this?"

"The complaining book sounds good," we tell him. "Go home and write it." And we left the restaurant with our respective dreams and went home to our respective keyboards.
And we sit and write and we do not complain about having to write. Complaining is very useful sometimes, as when you are in a restaurant and you are served a piece of pie that looks like it is make of sheep brains and bat vomit-- you have to know not to yell at your waiter and go, "You stupid piece of shit! This is disgusting!" You have to know that if your spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend puts too much medicated powder in his or her sock to combat his or her athlete's foot, you shouldn't go, "Are you a fucking idiot, tracking powder all over the house! It looks like ghosts have been tap dancing through the fucking apartment!"

Complaining is about patiently chugging away to get whatever it is you really want. It is about learning how to politely tell a waiter that this pie was "not so great," without using the words "cat mucus" or "gag reflex." It is funnier to use those words, but not as effective. And if you are lucky, the waiter will say, "I'm really sorry, let me see if we have something else that might be better," and your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend will say "I didn't realize the medicated foot powder made such a mess. I'm so sorry you had to clean it up. I'll make sure I never do it again."
And if you tug on the pant leg of the world enough times, eventually, if you are tugging politely enough, the world will say, "I'm sorry I kept you waiting in obscurity for so long. If there is something you would like to say, please go ahead. We are all listening."




The Squeaky Wheel
http://www.amazon.com/Squeaky-Wheel-Complaining-Relationships-Self-Esteem/dp/0802717985

www.guywinch.com



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