Monday, August 31, 2009

The Outhouse, in Fifty Five Words

If you've never taken a crap in an outhouse with a view of apple trees and an ultimate frisbee game in progress, you're missing out. A percussion of urine pounds the soft earth below like rainwater falling down a gutter, and your efforts land with a soft thud like an overripe banana.

Its really something.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Does this count as a blog post?

I have this lifelong habit where I set out to do something, assign an unrealistic goal to it, and then quit when I miss my goal by a hair. For instance, I'll think "I'm going to write in a journal every day", and then stop completely because I missed one day of writing. Nobody else ever hears about the goal, but inside I know I fell short, and it can never be made right. Its not a very effective approach to long-term projects, and I've given up on numerous endeavors over the years because of it: learning Arabic; playing guitar; and becoming a rock star, to name three.

I've been pretty good about posting to this blog since late March, when I attended the Story Studio Writer's Retreat. I really should give them a shout out, it jump started my writing big time, and connected me with two fabulous ladies who have since become my writing buddies. Every week - or as often as we can, we meet for a writing date. Seriously. For about an hour and a half all we do is write. No talking, no goofing around, we just sit there with our laptops and our notebooks and do the deed. Then, if we have something we feel is ready to be read out loud, we share. Its pretty awesome, and even though I've missed more than one meeting, I haven't quit doing it. It gives me hope that this writing thing will stick. Its such a big deal to me, in fact, that I still have in my wallet the receipt from Cafe 28, a Cuban restaurant on Irving Park Road, where the three of us dined on March 28th, the second night of the retreat. I don't hang on to a lot of receipts, but this one has sentimental value - it's a memento of the night that I had dinner with two strangers who I hoped would become writing friends... and then they did.

All of this is to say that I have a lot of ideas tumbling around in my head, but none of them feel ready to publish here yet. Normally I would just wait a day or two, but I'm leaving town tomorrow for rural Vermont, where I will have neither Internet access nor cell phone service, so if I want to get at least three posts in during the month of August, its now or never. If I'm lucky I'll get something in when I return on August 31st. In case you were wondering, the magic number that I have assigned myself for this blog is 4 posts per month. Anything less and I start to feel bad about myself. So here it is, blog post number 3 for the month of August. I hope to return from the wilds of the green mountain state with endless material.

Until then,


Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday in the Garden

Its a gorgeous Friday morning, and I’ve taken the laptop into the yard. We’ve had a series of picture perfect summer days now, and are due for a few more. I’m in my pajamas, sitting at the patio furniture that we got from The Great Escape a few summers ago, the orange umbrella in the center of the table fully opened. I have my favorite mug with me, it has the heft of an old time diner mug, and an outline drawing of a stack of pancakes sitting on a plate with a fork stuck in the top, a square pat of butter melting down the sides. Above the image is the word "Pancakes", below it is the text "make people happy". A black ant just climbed its way up the face of the mug, as if drawn to the image on it. Above me the thunderous sounds of fighter jets training for this weekend's Air and Water show has begun, a sound that will continue until Sunday.

I have an interview today for an unpaid editorial intern position. I responded to the posting in June, and was contacted yesterday. I'm making small footholds in a couple other local publications too, tomorrow I'll be attending a training for neighborhood reporters at the Chi-Town Daily News, and I might be writing for another local online publication soon too. I haven't gotten much traction with the usual employment route, and since I'm being paid unemployment I figured this would be a good time to try my hand at getting in print, even if it's not paid.

Since being laid off my tolerance for downtown Chicago has diminished, it happened surprisingly fast. I first noticed it on an interview in early June; the mad crush of bodies on the train was suffocating, and navigating my way through crowds on the street sent me into a Koyaanisquatsi-like trance. In just a few weeks the everyday patterns of commuting, cemented into routine over years of office work, had begun to unravel. There have been other changes too; I’ve let my hair do whatever it wants to, and its been liberating. Taming it has been a lifelong struggle, I was the only one in my family to have frizzy hair, and nobody knew what to do with it. When I was six years old my best friend Annie had hair that was straight as a pin, and she was always clean and well dressed. She wore neat dresses with ruched panels on the chest and sweetheart sleeves, cardigan sweaters, and bows in her hair. I was a muddy tomboy. I lived in overalls, wore the same outfit for days at a time, and barely bathed. I thought my hair was wild was because I wasn’t neat and clean like Annie. I tried to alter it by brushing it endlessly in front of a mirror, but all that did was make it frizzier, proof positive that I had crossed the point of no return. The concept of cosmetics and hair products was completely foreign to my family, I don’t think I’ve seen my mother in lipstick more than twice in my life, and I don't think she's ever owned a bottle of hair conditioner. Her bathrooms have always been spartan, containing no more than a bar of Ivory soap and a bottle of Neutrogena shampoo. She's never spent more than three minutes taking a shower.

I didn’t start experimenting with hair products until I was in my twenties, and these days there’s always at least one gel or spray product in my medicine cabinet that promises tamer, glossier hair. I started coloring it when I was sixteen, and have been going to the same hairdresser for over ten years. I had an appointment lined up when I got laid off, canceled it, and haven’t done a thing with my hair since. These past few months its gotten longer, and the color has changed - partly from swimming in chlorine, partly from being in the sun, and partly from new growth, and a handful of grey hairs have become visible on my temples. Its been like watching time lapse photography.

Apart from the occasional smudge of Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer, available at Walgreens for $4.99, I’ve stopped wearing makeup, and I tend to dress comfortably. I feel like I’m reverting back to my natural tomboy self, like a manicured lawn that's suddenly been left to it's own devices.

Along for my tolerance for downtown, my patience for time spent in offices has diminished considerably. The few times that I’ve stopped by my old office to deal with unemployment paperwork or meet a former colleague for lunch I’ve felt oppressed by the tedious nature of office life, surprised at how much time passes when all I meant to do was fax one page or make one phone call, and have little tolerance for the persistent shop talk around me. Doing the same thing every day seems unthinkable now, and I’m dreading the day I'll have to start doing just that.

At 11 a.m. I go indoors and look for something presentable to wear. I pick out a pair of black slacks and a semi-casual top. I don't want to look too stuffy, this is for an internship at an alternative weekly paper with offices in a semi-industrial neighborhood. I dig up a pair of sensible earrings, put my hair up in a clip, and apply eyeliner and mascara for the first time in months. I load the dishwasher and set it to run, then walk to the corner and catch the Kimball bus to the Blue Line.

The interview is short - twenty minutes, and I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Normally I would send a thank you note, but now I'm second guessing myself - will I come off sounding out of touch? Do people send thank you notes for internship interviews? When I return home the dishwasher is still warm, and I change back into my pajamas. I set some water to boil and go into the garden for tomatoes and basil to serve with store bought ravioli. Our upstairs neighbors are avid gardeners, and we're taking care of the vegetable beds while they're out of town. The result is simple and fantastic, and makes me think about gardening. Hopefully some of the seeds I've been planting will start taking root.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

97 In The Shade

It is hot as blazes. According to WGN chief meteorologist and Chicago institution Tom Skilling, the 1913 record of 97 degrees might be broken today, with heat indexes reaching 105. We've been indoors all day, moving as slowly as possible and turning the air conditioning on when we can't take it anymore. I'm dressed in a tankini top and summer weight pajama bottoms, my hair up in a clip and contact lenses in my eyballs because its too hot to wear glasses. M is in a t-shirt and madras shorts. This kind of heat causes me to hibernate as tightly as severe cold, but for some reason it makes me feels worse. Maybe it just feels that way because its summer - ask me in six months and I'll probably dream for a day when I sweat the afternoon out in my kitchen.

There's almost nothing to eat in the house but neither of us wants to go grocery shopping, so I've been excavating the pantry. I would have food delivered, but I can't muster up enough appetite to think of something I want to eat badly enough to pick up the phone and talk to someone about it, and I'd feel responsible if anyone died of heat stroke on the way to my house just so that we could eat a plate of cold sesame noodles. Here's what my spelunking has uncovered:

The remains of a 16 oz. bag of farfalle;
Two 6 oz. cans of tuna, dusty;
One 15 oz. can of Del Monte sweet peas, dusty;
One 15 oz. can of Trader Joe's whole kernel corn.

I don't really want to boil anything, but it's better than our microwave option: one freezer burnt Trader Joe's southwest chicken quesadilla to split between us, and there's no way I'm turning the oven on. I set some water to boil and grabbed a cucumber from the fridge, along with a container of kalamata olives and a jar of mayonnaise. I boiled and drained the farfalle, opened a can of tuna and plopped its contents into the same saucepan used for boiling the pasta, the heat from the pan igniting the aroma of canned fish and a sudden interest from the cat population of our household. I cut up some olives and cucumber, and tossed them in with mayo, salt and pepper. The final product looked like something out of a 1950's cookbook for children, and smelled like cat food. I plated two dishes, arranging tomato slices on the plate edges in an attempt at presentation.

It's been three weeks since the triathlon, and I've been floundering between projects. The week after the race I volunteered as a camp counselor for the final week of summer camp at the Alliance Francaise, I'll get a free class out of it. I worked with a group of five to seven-year-olds, and one week was about all I could handle. From 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. every day I herded them towards whatever project was on the schedule. I was the oldest counselor by about twenty years, which made me the obvious choice for dealing with the behaviorally challenged kids. I found myself saying things like:
"Is that really working for you?" to the seven-year-old girl who pouted and cried her way through the entire week because two children who she'd decided should be her best friends were ignoring her. When she wasn't whining and pouting, she was interrupting people, and rolling her eyes and neck.
"They're being mean to me," the pouter said, leaning into my leg and resting her tear sodden face onto my breast.
"Well, you're not being very pleasant right now," I'd say, "I don't really want to be near you either. Is pouting and crying really working for you? Maybe you should try a different strategy."

The highlight of that week was a tossup between some misunderstood lyrics to a Michael Jackson song, and signage in the break room. A sign by the coffee pot read: "It would be nice if everyone would bring some ground coffee so that we all can enjoy a cup of coffee once in a while. Thanks." It reminded me of something my teacher Tim had said about the French cultural penchant for understatement. If a French person really likes something, he explained, they're likely to say "it wasn't terrible," rather than "it was great!" A sign by the sink read: "Please wash your plates and cups after you use them. Please "DO NOT" leave them in the sink. Thank You", the quotation marks undermining what they meant to stress.

One little girl kept singing Billie Jean, but it came out: "Billie Jinx is not my love, she's just a girl who says I am the one, but Chan is not my son." At one point she asked me if it was Billie James or Billie Jinx. I asked her which she thought it was, not wanting to ruin the entertainment.

We took them on a field trip to Oak Street Beach, leading them past a sleeping bum on the sidewalk, and steering them away from an empty fifth of vodka and clusters of beer bottles scattered underneath the lifeguard's perch. One boy was transfixed by something floating in with the tide that appeared to be a decomposing tampon. "It's garbage," I said to him, "leave it alone." This worked for a few minutes, but he turned his attention to it repeatedly.

Lunch for the counselors was provided by the Alliance, and consisted of a few plates of thinly sliced cold cuts, off-brand bread, iced tea and candy bars. Every day after lunch the director asked if I'd had enough to eat. I always said yes, but I was lying. I began joining the children at their 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. snack times, and carried granola bars with me in my purse. On one particularly tiring day I walked to the closest Starbucks for a strong coffee at lunch, and witnessed a bum being asked to leave Mr. J's Dawg 'N Burger. The counselors ate together in the atrium next to a baby grand piano while the kids ran around the courtyard, and conversation usually revolved around campers who were being particularly difficult.

I took a shine to one of the girls who worked with the 8 to 12-year-olds. She had long dirty blonde hair parted far on the right side of her head, the strands cascaded across her face creating a slight Flock of Seagulls effect. The braces on her teeth were offset by a small dark hoop pierced into the right side of her lower lip, and she texted constantly on her iPhone during lunch. She wore blue metallic shorts over her pale chubby thighs, tank tops that exposed her soft belly, and flip flops. She developed an instant crush on the teenaged son of one of the instructors, he'd assisted during a cooking demonstration.
"Mireille's son?" I asked.
"Do you know her?" she asked, eyes wide.
"No, sorry," I said, "I don't have any inside information for you." At the end of the week she asked if we could be facebook friends.

That weekend M and I went to Michigan with his parents, his sister, and our seven year old niece, who was a breath of fresh air compared to the children I'd worked with all week. The six of us spent three days in a cabin on Magician Lake with no internet access. We played Clue, Scrabble and Boggle when it was cloudy, and swam, canoed and fished when it was sunny. With no computers around it felt more like a week, and we returned to Chicago refreshed, our car packed with blueberries, peaches, corn, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers from a local farm stand. I turned on the computer almost immediately after returning home, logged onto facebook, and there it was - a friendship request from my teenaged co-counselor. In her profile picture she's leaning over in a tank top with six inches of cleavage visible. I haven't decided yet whether to accept.