Ingenue bypass

February 13, 2014

I was recently in a play for the first time in, oh I don’t know, more than thirty years? Performing before an audience brought back all the excitement and nervy energy of being onstage as a kid in summer camp musicals, which I’d loved, but failed to love enough to either overcome the recurring disappointment of always being relegated to the chorus or to create the necessary spark that might elevate me to lead roles. I let it go, and somehow the world of theater soldiered on without me. (Just as the literary world has managed!)

Now that I’m “back,” I’m eager to do more acting, and it strikes me that there are a great many juicy roles available to a 44-year-old woman. Such as:

Meddlesome neighbor

Angel of mercy killer

Barren spinster aunt

Comically deluded cougar

Sorceress — or, if ethnic, hoodoo woman

Dust Bowl migrant

Menopausal harridan wife

Boundaryless mother-in-law

Old-timey bordello madam (if buxom)

Meth addict’s girlfriend

Embezzling CEO’s long-suffering executive assistant

Maybe stepping out of the game this long has allowed me to bypass a lot of dreary rescued princess/virgin sacrifice/quirky best friend roles so I can go straight to the pithy character parts. Still, a moment of lamentation for some of the classic archetypes I’ve aged out of playing:

Toxic babysitter

Serial killer’s first victim

Nerdy girl whose cuteness is hidden behind glasses and studious habits before makeover and attitude adjustment net  the guy

Secret sexpot librarian/schoolteacher (again with the glasses)

Hooker with sympathetic backstory

Vengeful mistress

Eliza Doolittle

Black widow


Note: It’s not that I don’t think I could be that last one; I just couldn’t play one on TV.



February 18, 2013

badge photo

I recently had a new photograph taken for my company badge. Mine has always had a blue background to distinguish me from the permanent employees, who wear red badges, though I’ve been with this company long enough to need my photo updated.

This isn’t a screed about worker exploitation. I’m compensated fairly, even generously, and I have a latitude in the wheres and the whens of my work that I’ve come to cherish as someone with young children and writerly pursuits. I’ve also weathered the recession remarkably well, bringing in a steady income during a time when plenty of folks with company health insurance and 401K matching contributions have found themselves abruptly out of work.

I’ve been lucky, and my old badge tells the story. The picture, taken on my very first day, is not flattering. It looks like I’ve been cryingbecause I have been. I may have pleaded allergies, or more likely, people were too polite to ask.

I’d left a “permanent” job for this contract position, which promised only a year and the possibility of renewal. I’d been willing to give up a lot for a shorter commute and what I hoped would be less stress. I was even captivated by the phrase “possibility of renewal” and its unintentionally spiritual overtones.

But shortly after I’d given my notice, the blots that had shown up on my husband’s routine chest X-ray also appeared in all the follow-up MRIs, and then he tested negative for the things it could be that were not terrifying and deadly.

And here I’d quit my job, which would have kept me in contact with physicians and researchers (I wrote for a medical center’s creative services department) and provided the medical benefits to cover any of the cutting-edge treatments they might recommend. And the family leave time. And the life insurance.

I’d let go of all that because I was tired of driving on the interstate.

What a strange, sad conversation to have with my soon-to-be former employer: So hey, if it turns out my husband has lung cancer, do you think I could have my job back? We were in that weird no-man’s land in a large organizationmy exit paperwork had already been processed, so even if they would take me back (and if they wouldn’t, no one was cruel enough to say so), it wasn’t entirely clear if I could unquit at that point. Maybe I would have to start anew, with no credit for time already served. Maybe I would have to reapply and vie for the position with qualified people who didn’t have a looming family health crisis and who hadn’t previously resigned.

Exploratory surgery was scheduled on the same day my new job was to begin. (Stuff like that, they call you and tell you when it is.) We didn’t want to delay the surgery, and though it seemed a little crazy not to change my start date, I felt that I shouldn’t begin things as a special case, already asking for favors. If my husband were sick, we would need all kinds of leeway soon enough.

He had to check in for pre-op at some predawn hour, like 5:30, which was fine since there was so little sleep to be had the night before. We were wide-eyed awake, coiled together, but largely silent, almost too scared to talk. There was nothing to say. We didn’t know anything. My piercing regret that we hadn’t had a second child didn’t bear sharing at that moment.

My aunt, a nurse who worked at the hospital and was acquainted with the surgeon, met us so she could be there when my husband was brought to the recovery room; I would not be there. We said goodbye before they wheeled him to the OR, and I drove to my new company, suddenly, queasily aware of what a foolish decision I’d made. How normal did I suppose I could act today? What did I think I’d be capable of doing?

My phone buzzed just as I breached the gates of campus. We hadn’t thought there’d be news of any kindjust a biopsy and some tests and then another appointment to get the verdict, an appointment I would request time off for. But the doctor scoped his chest and recognized what he found there almost at once: sarcoid tumors, little clumps of inflammatory cells, not cancer. Not cancer.

I sat in the parking lot outside my new building and sobbed in relief. Then I went in and reported to work. One of the first things they had me do was have my badge picture taken.

Nearly six years later, I turn it over. Let it go.

Secret Message

April 5, 2012

My original entry was shaping up to be a silly rebuke of gourmet cupcakes, decrying that enormous whorl of icing eclipsing the nub of mealy cake, and then my husband showed me the ghostly word he’d discovered on the backside of the drywall panel separating the doors of our not-quite finished closet: kike.

Scrawled in Sharpie, it appears to have bled through the paint daubed over it, suggesting that it was not meant to be discovered, and yet the slur would not be concealed. Too many people have been in our house recently, contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, etc., for us to have any certainty about the culprit. And the work is not complete, which means he’s likely to return.

This is my first real brush with anti-Semitism. I’m not Jewish, but my husband is, and that’s how we’re raising our sons. I grew up Southern Baptist, but now I am nothing, and the void in my identity suggested by that phrase is not unintentional. I’d like them to be something, though probably not Christian. It’s nothing against Jesus the man; my beef is with Jesus the policy, Jesus the line drawn between saved and damned.

When I was nine I walked to the front of the chapel of my own accord and asked to be baptized in his name. Though my fervor faded, I still love that he radically allied himself with the downtrodden, walking among drunkards and prostitutes. I love that my great-grandmother freely invoked his aid when searching for a parking space. I just can’t think that much else matters beyond acting with kindness, whether per Jesus’ example or someone else’s.

I’m sad and a little queasy thinking that someone in our home, witness to our good little boys at play, noted a telltale symbol here and there or sized up my husband according to some vicious criteria and concluded “kike,” a sentiment so powerful it had to be inscribed.

This close to Passover, I am reminded that the Israelites marked their own houses—in blood, not Sharpie—so that the final, deadly plague would leave them be.


Say sorry

February 28, 2012

I’ve been driving for more than 25 years now (!), and to date my accidents have been few and minor, though the first occurred at the end of my driving test at age 16, when I hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a parked car. I didn’t pass (and I’d already flubbed my three-point turn, so I wouldn’t have anyway), but neither was I cited; no one knew how to ticket an unlicensed driver with tacit permission to drive, so they left it alone and my mom’s insurance funded the repairs. I didn’t go back to retest for an entire year, but by then I’d practiced and grown confident from many nights of sneaking out with friends and cruising the deserted streets of Raleigh.

In each of my subsequent three accidents over the next quarter-century, my car was rear-ended, and it was not my fault–I think legally it may never be the fault of the driver who is hit from behind, but I’m saying I didn’t suddenly slam on my brakes and catch the driver behind me unawares; their cars simply slid into mine.

The first time was on a road slick with new rain, and the girl who did it was contrite, though virtually blameless, I felt. The second time the woman pushed my car into the car in front of me as I waited at a red light, crunching both ends, and she was so adamant in denouncing her unresponsive brakes she must have forgotten to apologize, or indeed acknowledge me or my frightened children. In the moment all I registered was elation: we’d been hit and were unhurt! My babies were all right!

But later her failure to offer this courtesy rankled, and I know that has colored my recent collision, which was far less serious, and minus my children in the car. I have wronged and been wronged far wronger than these wrongs–I can barely even call these incidents wrongs. Since redress has been proffered, they’re slights at best. Why do I still want the apology? Why does not getting one feel like the greater injury?

For a long while my older son couldn’t grasp why he was being asked to apologize if he stepped on someone’s foot, say, or played a little too roughly with his little brother and made him cry. “But I didn’t mean to do it!” he would exclaim. “It was an accident!” It seemed to him an affront to have to say sorry under these circumstances, like an admission of guilt. It was as if he’d been advised by corporate counsel to avoid liability and damn the bad PR.

I would explain that the person was still hurt, regardless of his motives, and deserved an apology. I would say that I was sure he would never cause harm deliberately; nonetheless he should still say sorry. I would say we are still responsible for our actions, even when they seem entirely beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, and sometimes maybe we needed to have taken more care than we did. It took a while to sink in, but at age seven I think he gets it. His apologies are more often than not sincere and spontaneous. That’s why I don’t mind when the other ones are clearly to stave off my badgering.

We say sorry for things that aren’t at all our fault. When someone dies, we’re sorry for the loss. We’re sorry someone didn’t get a job or that they lost a job or that a relationship ended. Sometimes that’s an irritant–it’s not your fault, the person will shoot back bitterly. But mostly it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s offered. To be told your sadness is shared by someone else, that it is felt chiefly because you feel it, can be deeply comforting.

I walk my younger son through these steps now when someone enters the orbit of his explosive energy and gets a face full of Legos or an errant elbow. Check on your friend. Ask if he’s all right. Say sorry. (And if it’s said inaudibly or with overt hostility, try again.) Try to make things right. Regret that you made the mistake. Resolve to do better. Go through the motions, even if you don’t feel sorry. Empathy may be more of a skill than a trait, but it can be practiced, strengthened. It can become a part of you.


January 24, 2012

My family’s amused suspicion regarding my cooking dates back to a childhood specialty, “Indian bread,” which I made solely from flour and water, no leavening or salt. I’d read, not in a cookbook, that combining flour and water was how the Native Americans made it, and I could be obstinately literal. With only the World Book to extend my research, that was as sophisticated as my Indian bread-making got. I would slather the starchy pucks with margarine when they emerged, steaming and leaden, from the oven, and gnaw them with the supreme satisfaction of the scratch baker. I think my Indian bread is why I now love the crusty hulls and heels of rustic breads like boules and baguettes.

Why no one steered me to biscuits is a mystery. One of my grandmothers still made them, airy and soft, the circumference of half-dollars; I could easily eat twenty at a sitting. The rest of the family had moved to canned biscuit dough in pressure-packed cardboard tubes you split open by pressing the seam with a dull knife or by whacking it against the edge of the counter. I could eat plenty of those, too.

The cheapest store-brands of canned biscuit, dotted through with yellow lumps of shortening and resistant to the flaky layering of Pillsbury or Hungry Jack, are best for making doughnuts. Deep-fried in an electric skillet and rolled in powdered sugar, they somewhat resemble beignets. Paula Deen has appropriated the recipe, but the greater credit should go to my aunt Kathy, who let me gorge myself so fully one summer that it was more than thirty years before I hankered for them again. Now I serve them to my sons at Hanukkah, a finer tribute to the miracle of endless grease than our half-dozen menorahs.

I come from a quick-bread people, leavening with soda or powder instead of yeast or sourdough: primarily, cornbread baked in a pan and cut into squares, or, better, spooned into hot grease and fried into salty, crisp cakes. Hushpuppy mix was an acceptable medium (House of Autry brand preferred), but never the sweet Jiffy, which is ill-disguised Johnny cake, a food of the North.

Other bread, beyond my Indian-styled lumps, came pre-sliced in plastic bags, or as parbaked “brown-and-serve” rolls. On spaghetti nights, “French” bread entered the scene, still white and soft as Wonder Bread but formed in a cigar shape. We would score it at intervals and fill the splits with margarine and garlic salt, toast it under the broiler, then wrap it in a linen napkin and serve it in a basket. The brown-and-serve rolls were likewise shrouded and basketed, as was my Indian bread, where it lay in state: a plaster-cast Yeti footprint, inspiring skepticism and awe in equal measure.

In praise of prednisone

September 27, 2011

If pressed to name my favorite synthetic corticosteroid, I would have to choose prednisone. “Why?” you may ask in this perfectly natural conversation we’re having. It’s so versatile—a pharmaceutical Meryl Streep. My grandmother took it on and off over the years for a host of ailments, including TB-ravaged lungs, arthritis, and headaches. I’ve been prescribed it for acute cases of “mom back” when I could not simply cease tending small children for days on end to nurse my lumbar region.

That’s its action: quelling inflammation. It can take the heat out of strained muscles and dampen down an immune system in attack mode, so that you may hold on to costly donor organs or keep your lupus or multiple sclerosis in check. If your adrenal gland is slacking off or your tumor is secreting hormones, prednisone is also your friend.

If you’ve been on it awhile, you have to wean off it; abrupt stoppage can put you in the ER. But in small doses for short stints, it’s relatively safe. I’ve only ever taken it in five-day bursts, so I’ve dodged its more alarmingly named side effects, such as “moon face” and “buffalo hump.”

By the time my younger son was given prednisone to keep his reflux-inflamed airway from swelling shut, I was already fondly inclined toward it. Eight or nine years ago I’d experienced a few days of mysterious swelling and pain in my hands. One morning I woke crying because they hurt beneath the weight of the quilt but I could not quite scrabble them free of it; my fingers were stiff and puffed tightly as sausage casings, and it took concerted effort to drag the heavy meat of them out to air. To the doctor I flew. I recall some talk of rheumatoid arthritis, but blood tests showed nothing awry. A few days of prednisone and my hands were back to typing up masterpieces and fending off suitors with their usual facility. But what was it? I asked the doctor. She shrugged. Whatever it was had retreated, and we’d worry about naming it only if it came back.



September 11, 2011

I didn’t lose anyone on this day. Today in fact is my grandmother’s 93rd birthday, a tribute to her stubborn persistence, to be celebrated over eastern NC-style pork barbecue.

On this morning ten years ago, I was driving my father to the hospital to get his cancerous bladder and prostate removed. Extraordinary measures were being taken to save one life on a day when thousands were extinguished. But that’s the story of every day.

A little inventory

August 25, 2011

Summer-addled magical thinking led me to believe I’d have August free and clear, but obligations nearly swallowed me whole, and now it’s closing in on the start of school again, synced, sadly, with the ramping up of work, and I’ve nothing but a few loose days to ride into the fall on. At least I read a lot this summer. I would characterize this list as summer-reading random, but tacking toward the supernatural. Here’s a less than comprehensive inventory.

YA and/or Kids Books
Scott Westerfield’s  Leviathan and its sequel (better steampunk fare than Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, though sans zombies) put me onto his dystopic-future Uglies series, which finally left me ripe for Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, two of the three managed over one-hour snatches sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe, where you can read any Nook title free for that brief span. This is not a plug for the Nook but rather to note the lame equivocation. After all, you can hang out and read any of their paper titles all day long if you like (see also Nook’s pitifully limited LendMe feature and the way they ghetto your hard disk’s “library” so e-books not of B&N origin have to inhabit another “shelf” ). I’m a late adopter of the Hunger Game series, resistant to its reality TV theme and suspicious of blockbusters in general, though I frequently succumb to their everyman charms, and HG was no exception, with its plucky renegade heroine and its decadent Rome-like Capitol, complete with vomitoriums.

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the freaking Hunger Games, do you? Nor Harry Potter, which we started reading our older son this summer. He tore through the first two books, then embarked on a comprehensive study of Harry Potter Lego sets he would very much like to own if only his parents weren’t so cheap and selfish. To pace things out a bit, we’re tackling Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider since all things dragon are of interest to him, but also because I’d just read and enjoyed two of her Inkheart trilogy, still a bit mature for him. Characters from a book intrude into our world, accidentally summoned via a read-aloud by Mo, bookbinder and inadvertent conjurer. Sounds fun, only one of the characters is evil, and the mechanics governing this process require a swap, so when the bad guy bleeds through, Mo’s wife is pulled into his world.

Library Grabs
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth and Pastoralia by George Saunders have nothing in common save they were grouped together in a library display of books that have won awards of one sort or another, and bless those librarians for putting together such displays so I can grab and go. MP depicts a fourteenth-century ragtag acting troupe that breaks from its traditional biblical set pieces to stage a play depicting a recent murder in the village they are passing through. Shitstorm ensues. Pastoralia is a story collection of high dark absurdity so funny I constantly read passages to my husband (luckily I don’t have Mo’s gift), like this description of a TV show called The Worst That Could Happen,

. . . a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.

That’s from the story “Sea Oak,” the book’s centerpiece, or at least my favorite in the bunch. Toward the end of the book one starts to tire of such excesses, and especially the constant self-effacing, horny streams of consciousness attributed to various characters. Not that we don’t all have them.

Highbrow Highlight
Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
by Asti Hustvedt. I have to pick up something like this every now and again to convince myself that despite my tendencies toward YA fantasy series books and random library grabs, I really am an intellectual. But perhaps this title lured me more because of my affinity for crazy ladies. The famous hysterics of Salpêtrière Hospital may have been manipulated by their doctors, but their antics in and out of hypnosis approached performance art. Photos!

Lowbrow Highlight
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. Originally published in 1992 and recently re-released (perhaps to capitalize on the current vampiremania’s last gasps), it’s far superior to any of the “urban fantasy” pulps abounding. Its alt-historical premise is that Dracula has eluded his would-be assassins from the Stoker novel, wooed and wed the widowed Queen Victoria, and now England is under his rule and London society is teeming with vampires. It’s gritty and hideously violent and smart. Full of characters borrowed from vampire fiction and movies.

Lowbrow Lowlight
(Newsflesh Trilogy Series #1) by Mira Grant. Zombies are fast supplanting vampires in the world of pop fiction, I suppose because zombies staggering dangerously across a denuded landscape best reflect our fear of the world’s imminent doom, likely to be brought about by our own science and stupidity. This series is set in the post-zombie apocalypse, which in this rendition has something to do with the ascension of bloggers. (Huh?) It seems that when the virus hit and society began its rapid breakdown, they were the only reliable sources of news. (Hmm…) Mainstream media is already shambling around half dead, so I say bring on the end times!

On fire

July 4, 2011

This essay appeared some years ago in an area weekly and I also got to record it for our local public radio station, so there’s no denying it’s recycled, but the topic is timely and I haven’t posted in far too long.

July 4, 1977, State Fairgrounds, Raleigh. My grandfather is dancing on the cloggers’ stage with the mayor, little 4-foot-8-inch, tennis shoe-shod Isabella Cannon. He is drunken ebullient; I have never known him to dance. I am eight and want to dress like the cloggers, in beribboned tap shoes and gingham dresses with crinolines. I ride ponyback in a slow, bored circle. The ponies smell sweet from hay and manure, and next year I’ll be too big to ride them; already my toes drag the ground.

The long version of “American Pie” plays all day on the radio. It ends on one station and we twist the knob until it resumes. I don’t understand what the words mean, but the sad chorus keeps turning in my chest. Drove my Chevy to the levy … them good old boys … this’ll be the day that I die.

My father and great-uncle have been setting up for the fireworks since morning. City workers have buried steel pipes for launching the bombs and fire trucks idle close by. By sundown many cans of Pabst have been drained and a flat, tea-colored pint makes the rounds. No one’s scared of anything but rain.

It’s hardly worth coming just to sit in the stands; we’re down by the racetrack with the shooters and get to lie atop car hoods and watch the display projected directly overhead. The bombs come in parcels the size and shape of ostrich eggs and have exotic names from China: Dragon Dancing with Phoenix, Blossom After Thunder, Golden Silk & Silver Rain, Happy Song.

My father wields a sizzling flare, backs up to each fuse and ignites one after another. Missiles hiss skyward, break open into umbrellas of green and gold fire. Branches of red lightning crack and dribble, hurling glitter. A white-dot bomb punctuates all the color, and I dig my knuckles into my ears, anticipating the blast that comes a beat later.

The finale is the only part my father gets to watch because it’s all on one fuse. He crouches to light it, springs away, and rolls to get clear. The firmament erupts with pulsing streamers; hot ash rains down. He is hidden in smoke. I scream myself hoarse. He’s back on his feet when the haze clears, deaf and reeking of gunpowder. Bombs have exploded 10 feet off the ground, spit flame in his face, and my father walks away grinning, on fire with his own potent mixture of nerves and luck.


Beth dies, OK? It catches me unawares every time because at first she almost dies but pulls through, then hundreds of pages later and blammo! Inasmuch as a slow, wasting death years in the making can be said to go blammo!

Blammo! is my highly subjective reaction, grooved into the brain from years of wishful thinking and denial. I willfully forget enough in the years between reading Little Women so that every time I make it through Beth’s initial illness and recovery I assure myself I was wrong, that I’d been misremembering her death because she almost dies but the fever breaks and whew! Crisis averted. And then she up and dies on me.

I still love the story despite its prissy, hearth-and-home platitudes—and, on a lesser note, I do wish the children and servants didn’t speak in their own precious pidgins, phonetically spelled, though that’s pretty commonplace for the book’s vintage. There’s a beating heart inside this book that masqueraded as an instruction manual for girls, a project somewhat cynically undertaken to pay off the Alcott family debts.  Wan and perfect little Beth may be too good for this world, but everyone else struggles with temper, imprudence, envy, pride, longing. Sisters die and so do babies (though not Meg’s twins, fear not! Dey wiv on for der marmar, who wuvs dem so); far away a war is raging.


I read lots of new books over the past year, too—new to me, not necessarily new releases. They deserve a great deal more than the short shrift they’re getting here, but in the spirit of clearing  the decks for 2011, here are a handful of books I found worthwhile yet failed to blog about in 2010:

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Artistic/radical Edwardians navigating class upheaval, women’s suffrage, and eventually the Great War. Like all my Byatt favorites, threaded through with dark, contrapuntal fairy tales. A gajillion pages long, it accompanied me through many a late night.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. Siberia. Cannabalism. A love story.

At Home by Bill Bryson.  A room-by-room compendium of historical anecdotes ostensibly illuminating how the modern house evolved, but frequently spiraling off into marvelous, if tangential, rumination and reportage.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. A bit of a potboiler set in 1907 Wisconsin winter wasteland, full of repressed and not-so-repressed sexuality. The author says he was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip, a remarkably bizarre scrapbook of turn-of-the century corpse photos and advice-to-the-lovelorn columns. Can there be any better recommendation?