Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30th - The Long Way Home, Part II - Léopold Sédar Senghor Airport

Across the street from the rented house I spent two weeks in.
The view from my hotel suite.  Compare and contrast.
It’s not until I wake that I see how luxurious the hotel I’ve been transported to truly is.  I have an ocean view from the patio of my suite, and breakfast is served in a restaurant with cloth napkins.  The buffet features eggs, sausage, waffles, and most importantly – real coffee.  There has only been Nescafé instant since my arrival; every morning Idy brought a pot of hot water and a tin of the dark, powdery stuff out to the living room floor, along with a box of sugar and a can of condensed milk.  Breakfast was always fresh bread from a local bakery, a chocolate flavored spread, butter, and fresh fruit.  I’ve been drinking the tea that I’d brought with me instead of instant coffee.  I never got a taste for the watery nothingness of Nescafé, but it seems to be a popular beverage in the city - vendors sell it from wheeled carts on sidewalks.  At the hotel, I fix myself a plate of eggs and join Ram - still dressed in his suit, at a table.  I’ve only slept for a few hours, but the hot shower I took – the first since arriving in Senegal, felt like an unquantifiable luxury, and put me at ease.

“You didn’t get dinner last night,” Ram says when I sit down.  There were containers of airline food waiting to be distributed in the lobby amid last night's frenzy, but I hadn't bothered to get one.
“I was so tired by the time I got my room key, I just wanted to go to sleep,” I reply.  It’s sweet that Ram is worried about my food intake, when clearly I have a pile of hot food right in front of me.  I can't eat much of it though, this western-style food is foreign to me now and sits strangely in my stomach. 

After our brief respite we repeat the previous night’s exercise of piling onto buses, and are transported back to the airport.  Having gone through security once already, we are routed through quickly.  There aren’t many officers manning the security checkpoints this early in the morning, and as I peer into an empty security booth I glimpse a computer with an unfinished game of spider solitaire on the screen.

Also repeated is the endless wait at the gate.  Tempers flare as the time drags, Ram breaks his cool exterior responding to a large man who insists that he wait his turn.  “I have been waiting,” he says in perfectly accented, pointedly angry French.  “I have been waiting here as long as you have.”  It's like watching Jean-Luc Picard dress down an insubordinate officer, only with a different accent.  Once everyone finally squeezes their way through the gate, there's a bus on the tarmac that we sit in for at least half an hour before it taxis us to the aircraft, followed by a slow, agitated climb up a staircase into the craft itself.  I wonder if I will ever get home.  It isn’t until we’ve all been seated for some time that we get an explanation for last night’s cancellation: there had been a snowstorm in Madrid, the region was unprepared for the weather, resulting in mayhem on the roads and airports.  No flights have been able to arrive or depart since late last night.  

Once we finally, definitively take off, exhausted passengers all around me cover their heads with airline blankets, the only parts of them visible are calves and feet.  Making my way down the aisle to use the bathroom I feel like I'm participating in some kind of performance piece, or anti-war demonstration where people drape themselves in cloth to represent the dead.  The bathroom is fetid and lacks toilet paper, but I've gained valuable squatting skills.  I proudly hover over the toilet receptacle, victorious in the face of filth.  I return to my seat serene;  I've successfully left Dakar, now all that's left to navigate is Madrid.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29th - The Long Way Home, Part I - Dakar

A uniformed woman at the boarding gate makes an announcement in Wolof, and the crowd bursts forth in her direction.  “Vous parlez Français?” I ask a woman near me.  She shakes her head no and says “Italiano”.   My time in Dakar has prepared me for this - the trip to the post office, for instance, where it took half an hour to buy 3 stamps, taught me all I needed to know about how fast things move here, and I’m able to keep a clear head as all semblance of order descends into chaos.  Earlier today I’d met Abdou for lunch, and then my cousin’s friend Ndeye.  Both of them met me later than our agreed upon time, which I’d grown accustomed to – schedules here are beyond flexible, but when I got back to the house at 8pm it turned out that I was holding everyone up.  It wasn’t clear that 8pm was a drop-dead deadline, and I was scheduled to leave for the airport with S, who had an earlier flight than me.  The power was out on the block, and everyone was sitting in the living room in the dark.  “We almost left without you,” S says to me.  I rush upstairs to my room to zip my bags shut – fortunately I’d already packed.  I leave several items behind, either because there isn’t room or because I don’t want to bother bringing them back with me:  a towel, a bottle of saline solution, half a roll of toilet paper, the shoes I’d worn for two weeks straight and were completely caked in dirt and red dust.  Malaal calls my name in thirty second intervals while I scurry around the room in the dark, scanning the space with the miniature flashlight that’s attached to my keychain.

I lug the bags downstairs: my backpack, the suitcase that I’d brought here for Idy – originally filled with gifts to distribute to his family, and a djembe that K had bought and then realized she didn’t have room to take back with her.  She’d bought two of them, and was stopping through Poland for a few days to visit family before heading back to Chicago, so I’d offered to take one with me – we don’t live far from each other. 

Our goodbyes are rushed.  Malaal, Mustafah, Ibou, S and I pile into the car with all our luggage, and head for the airport.   Malaal insists on making pit stops – first to pick up the missing stick that goes to a talking drum I’d bought from him, and then to his home to pick up a soccer jersey I’d asked him to buy for me once I grew weary of the haggling process.  “You can send the shirt and the stick back with Idy,” I implore, “S is very pressed for time.”  Malaal, in control at the steering wheel, will not be moved.  His tone is demanding and authoritative.  “You asked me to buy the shirt.  I bought the shirt, and we’re going to stop at my house to get it,” he says.  There is silence in the car.  “Do you have gum?” He demands.  S thinks he is asking out of concern for our comfort on the airplane, “no, I didn’t buy any for the flight,” she says.  “That’s not what I asked,” he says, his voice becoming sharper, “I asked – Do. You. Have. Gum.”  My discomfort piques; last night, at Malaal’s request, I had ridden along to the airport with my roommates to see them off, and on the way back he sat in the back seat with me where I thwarted his advances.  He’d put his arm around me, taken me by the hand, and asked “are you my friend?”   I’d repeatedly removed his hand from my shoulder, released my fingers from his, looked away from him.  We’d been in close proximity to each other for two weeks, and just last night had gotten into a deep discussion regarding the societal differences between the U.S. and Senegal – I’d said that I really liked how women could nurse their babies anywhere and everywhere here, and that children were included in every part of life, but I’d never meant to engender this kind of response from Malaal.  When I got back to the house all the lights were off and I had to sleep alone in the room I'd shared with my Polish roommates.

It was a rotten way to end our acquaintanceship, and now Malaal, for my benefit, was being difficult.  I can’t explain this to S, at least not right now, so instead I pat her on the shoulder and say “you’ll be fine.”  She recoils from my touch and says “you knew when we were leaving, and you know how things work here, you were in control!  I can’t miss this flight.”  Conversation stops in the car as Malaal, Mustafah, and Ibou strain to understand what is being said between S and I in English.   “I’m sorry,” I say to S, “if I were you I’d feel the same way.”  “Thank you,” she says, staring forward.  I watch the clock until we pull up to the departures area at Léopold Sédar Senghor Airport.

I check the djembe and suitcase at the counter, make my way through the long, slow line at security, and find my gate.  The seating area is packed.  I find an empty seat in the waiting area and ask the woman next to it, a blonde wearing khaki shorts, a knit top, and expensive-looking jewelry, if it’s free.  “It absolutely is not!” She says sharply, her arms crossed.  Her tone takes me by surprise, “are you…. joking?” I ask.  “I most certainly am not, my husband is sitting in this seat,” she says, and crosses her legs to match her arms.  I retreat to a wall, where a line has formed, and alternate between sitting on the floor and standing.   My flight is due to leave at 11:30pm, gets delayed until past midnight, and then the uniformed woman at the boarding gate makes the announcement. 

“I speak English,” a man who has been standing behind me for the past hour or so says.  He is dressed in a business suit, wears glasses, and speaks in a soothing tone with an accent I can’t quite place.
“Do you know what’s happening?”  I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says. 
“I’m going to see if I can find out,” I tell him, “I’ll be right back.”  The uniformed woman is surrounded by passengers demanding information.  There is no semblance of a line, and she addresses people in a seemingly random order.
“What’s happened?” I ask her in French when she finally looks at me. 
“The flight has been canceled.”  She says. 
“When is the next flight?” I ask. 
“Same time tomorrow.” 
“What… what do we do?  Where do we go?  Do we stay here in the airport until tomorrow?”  I ask.
“I don’t know, the airline will be making an announcement,” she replies. 

I go back to the wall where the suited man is waiting, and relay the information, take my cell phone out and dial Idy’s number, but the call gets dropped.  I’d made arrangements with AT&T for service in Senegal just in case, but this is the first time I’ve had to use my cell phone since arriving here.  I try again but the call doesn’t go through, so I call my husband in Chicago and ask him to call Idy for me.  Eventually the calls to and from Chicago get dropped too, so we communicate via text message.  E’s flight home was later than mine, so I know that Mustafah and Malaal will be back here with the car at some point, but I’m not sure I want to ride back to the house with them alone; I’m not even sure if Idy is staying there tonight.  Another announcement is made – there will be buses in the parking lot that will take us to a hotel, the flight to Madrid has been rescheduled to 8am tomorrow.  The crowd surges toward the exit, and outside I see Ibou, having just dropped E off at the airport. 
“You need to come back?” he asks, searching my face.  I touch his shoulder, look him in the eye.
“thank you SO much for finding me Ibou,” I say, thinking about the odds of him actually finding me in this mess, “but the airline is taking us to a hotel.  I think it’s best if I go with them because they’ll have to make sure I’m back in time for the flight tomorrow morning.  Thank you Ibou, Thank you!”  And with that I re-enter the stream of people heading for the buses.

I find the man in the suit and we sit next to each other on the bus.  “My name is J,” I tell him.
“Nice to meet you, my name is Ram, short for Rambhujun” he says.  We engage in small talk: what we’re doing here in Senegal, how long we’ve been here.  Ram is originally from Mauritius, and works at the University of Bordeaux as a professor of business administration.  He was giving a lecture at the local university, and is due back home to teach.  The bus pulls up to a long, low building where everyone piles off and walks through a set of automatic sliding glass doors into the lobby of  the Hôtel des Almadies, a resort hotel.

There is one clerk at the front desk, and two hundred and fifty displaced passengers.  The crowd surges toward him like brokers at the opening bell on Wall Street, and the clerk starts handing out forms to whoever is the closest and the loudest.  I press my way forward to the reception desk, the crowd pushing me forward until I’m pressed against it.  I’m able to maintain my cool as long as I don’t look behind me, I stay holed up inside my mind and absorb the experience as if from a distance.  I hold my completed form in my outstretched hand, but the clerk ignores me in favor of louder patrons.   When he finally catches my eye and takes the paper from me, he flips it over and returns it to me – there was a second side to the form that I hadn’t filled out.   I fill out the backside of the form and hand it to the clerk again, where it is entered into a stack with two hundred and fifty others, in no particular order.  He is joined by a second clerk, who takes the stack of papers, and begins reading names and distributing room keys.

My name is finally called and I receive my key, which opens the door to an overwhelmingly opulent suite with a king sized bed, television, sliding glass doors that lead to a patio, bathroom that has western style fixtures, and air conditioning.  I am so amazed that I take photos of it.  I leave my cell phone on the nightstand and just before I fall asleep, at 3am, get a text from my husband:  Du u feel safe where u r staying? I'm feeling a little worried but not too much.  I reply: Its pretty swanky actually, by african standards, and theres an english speaking passenger whos taken me under his wing.

In four hours I have to wake up and get ready to pile back on the bus.  I climb under the luxuriously soft covers, and rest my head on unimaginably fluffy pillows – for the past two weeks I’ve been resting my head on a balled up sweatshirt, and sleeping on a thin foam mattress in a full sized sheet that’s been sewn together to form a lightweight sleeping bag.  It doesn’t take long for sleep to overtake me.

The fanciest bed I'd seen in weeks.
Compare and contrast.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28th - Random Thoughts

  • Something smells terrible in the house, but my husband can't smell it.  Is it me?
  • I totally made my friend drive me home tonight; I'm a dork. 
  • I've been back at work for one day and I'm already thinking about my next day off.
  • There's algae growing in our filtered water thing.
  • There's three days left to the September Blog Challenge.
  • There's nothing to eat in the house except bread from the Wealthy Street Bakery in Grand Rapids.
  • Because Michigan is an irony-free zone, south of Wealthy Street is a bad neighborhood.
  • Thursday some water sealing people are coming over to look at the basement; I hope we can get it fixed soon.
  • Just for fun, we looked at house listings in Grand Rapids; we could buy a giant house there for $100K.  I probably couldn't find a job there though.  Also, we'd have to live in Grand Rapids. 
  • Not that there's anything wrong with that.
  • I scared our upstairs neighbor last night because he didn't hear me knock on the back door.  I had a box of treats from Wealthy Street Bakery in my hands and he happened to open the door because he was about to feed our cats.  He got so freaked out he closed the door in my face.  Even though I knew it was reflex, I was sort of insulted.
  • We've started watching season 1 of The Wire on Netflix, it's really good.
  • I saw The Funny Ha-Ha Show tonight, it was great.
  • Wendy McClure read at the Funny Ha-Ha Show, I've been reading her column in Bust magazine for years, I was all starry eyed meeting her in person.
  • My eyeballs feel weird.
  • I don't do Twitter, but I get the feeling that if I did, my tweets would be a lot like this blog post.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27th - On the way back from Grand Rapids

The roads were clear until we got to the Dan Ryan, where traffic was heavy.  A man in the car next to us rolled down his window, pulled a piece of bright green gum from his mouth, and dropped it out the open window.  It stuck to the door of his SUV like a gigantic booger.  I hope that piece of chewed up gum stayed on that car the whole way home.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26th - Notes from The Brayton House

I.  I first came here in May with Angelica, we needed a hotel in Grand Rapids on our way to and from the U.P.  We wanted something close to the Amtrak station, and were hoping for something cheap.  Someone was smart enough to make their website bandbofgrandrapids; it was the first listing that came up when I typed those words into a Google search. "Goooood morning, Brayton House, this is George, how can I help you?" a man with a radio announcer's voice answered when I called.  I told him the dates we needed, and he described each of the three rooms available -- what kind of bed was in it, how much it cost per night.  The smaller rooms were $80 a night, and the big room with bay windows was somehow only $5 more.  I said we wanted the big room, and asked if it was possible to get two beds.  George paused, and asked: "Well, what's the situation, are you two ladies?"  "Yes," I said, barely containing the urge to laugh.  "There's a cot that we can bring in but it's not very comfortable," he said.  I said it was probably fine just to have the one bed, but before booking the room he made me call Angelica first to clear it with her.  "No way, I'm not sleeping with you," she said, in her flattest sarcastic voice, which can be mistaken as serious if you don't know better.  I called back to reserve the room, and George asked if I had a credit card.  "Just to hold the room," he explained, "we accept cash, checks, and credit cards, but we prefer cash because the bank fees are killing us." "Okay," I said.  "We take Visa, MasterCard, and American Express," he continued, "do you have one of those?"  "Yes," said.  "Well if you've got that rascal out, I'll take the number now," he said.  I relayed this tidbit to Angelica.  "All I can say is," she said, "welcome to my people." 

II.  In our room, there were stacks of old magazines: Smithsonian; National Geographic; The New Yorker.  I read a 1976 New Yorker article on the Carter v. Ford Presidential race.

III.  In every room is a sheet of paper that explains, in flowery, italicized font, the house rules:

No rules - No regulations

Most of our guests are ladies and gentlemen, who are just naturally decent and orderly, and are considerate of the rights of others, therefore, the "rules and regulations" they have applied to their own lives are much better than any printed list we might suggest.

To that very small minority of people who through ignorance or just plain cussedness, smoke or burn candles in the building, endangering the lives of all our guests, who drink loud and long, who have their televisions going full blast when others have turned in for the night, who think it is their (right) privelege (sic) to take towels and other articles when they leave, who throw refuse most anyplace, who feel the entire water supply belongs to them, who allows (sic) their children to roam the building without supervision, and who leave a dirty mess in the rooms.

A list of "rules and regulations" a mile long wouldn't change their habits of living, therefore, none has been applied.

We enjoy having you as our guest and hope your stay is pleasant and memorable.

IV.  Also in every room is a brief history of the house, typed on letterhead with a black and white rendering of the building in the header:

516 College Street

James P. Brayton was the builder and original owner of the house we are enjoying this evening.

Mr. Brayton was born November 23, 1840 in the state of Wisconsin.  At age 15 he moved to Michigan and earned his living as a county surveyor in Ottawa County.  He was assisted in his job by his father.  Through this position he came in contact with men who were making history in Michigan lumbering operations.  Some of these individuals were:  T.R. Lyons, T. Steward White, and Thomas Friant.  Mr. Brayton himself became well known all over the United States.

In addition to buying and selling lumber for himself, his signature was accepted as the last word regarding the value of standing lumber.  Mr. Brayton was a quiet man and aside from being an early member of the Masonic Lodge, he was not a figure in society and did not take part in public life.  He built this house in 1889.  The architecture of the house is called Georgian Revival and it is listed on the National Historical register.

The next owner of this house was Stewart Foote, President of Imperial Furniture Company, which at one time was the largest manufacture (sic) of quality tables in America.  Mr. Foote occupied the house from 1920-1935.

In 1935, James McInerny, (President of McInerny Spring and Wire Company, the world's largest manufacturer of seat springs for automobiles) purchased the home.  He and his family lived here until 1945.  During their ownership, the kitchen and bathrooms were remodeled and wallpapers were put up.  They also adjusted the size of the ballroom on the third floor in order to add three extra bedrooms.  The Carriage House was made into living quarters at about the same time.

In 1945, Mr. McInerny gave the house to the Catholic Diocese and it was used as a residence for priests until 1970.

Mr. Walter Kehres, Director of Waldon Village, an alternative high school, purchased the home in 1970.

In September 1971, the property was bought by Gene and Phyllis Ball.  Mr. Ball passed away in 1976.  Mrs. Ball continues to reside in the home, as well as rent out some of the guest rooms to tenants.

V.  Phyllis likes to serve breakfast early.  I'm here again in September, this time with my husband.  We're visiting Holly and Jeremy, who were already putting up several people in their apartment; the Brayton House is only about a mile from them.  "What time do you want breakfast?" Phyllis asked us when we checked in.  "We're here visiting friends, and we'll probably sleep late tomorrow," I said. "So, nine o'clock?" She asked, her unblinking eyes fixed on me from behind her wire-rimmed glasses.  M considered saying something jokey about nine o'clock not really being late, at least not to us, but reconsidered.  "Um, we're meeting our friends for breakfast," I said, "I don't want to trouble you with making breakfast for us, but thanks."

VI. Phyllis reminds me of David Letterman's mother.

VII.  Phyllis leaves two After Eight mints on a little red tray on the nightstand when she makes up the room.  Angelica thought they were condoms.

VII.  There's a WiFi connection, but it's not very good.

IX.  I went for a run in the morning, then took a shower.  Phyllis opened the door to the bathroom while I was drying off.  I gasped as I saw the top of her gray head, which only comes up to my shoulders, and held a bright yellow towel between my body and the widening crack in the door.  "Oh sorry," she said loudly, closing the door, "sorry, I wasn't sure where you'd gone or where you were."  "That's okay," I said from inside the bathroom.

X.  There are 20 rooms in this house, and only 3 are rented out to guests.  There's an entire floor I haven't seen, not to mention the carriage house.  The wallpaper, bathroom and kitchen fixtures date from 1935-1945.  Antiques and curios are everywhere, including quilts hung from picture molding on the walls.

XI.  Someone at the end of the hall, in the residential part of the house, has a TV or radio turned on at a low volume all day, and I can hear people walking on the floor above us.

XII.  In May, on our way back from the U.P., Angelica and I stayed in the same room with the bay windows that we'd stayed in on our way north.  We sat on the porch eating burgers from Black Castles - a burger joint that looks like it operates out of the converted living room of somebody's house, has a pool table, framed photos of Malcolm X and Tupac, and a TV set that blared infotainment news when we walked in.  Our order came to $7.50; the cashier - who was the only other person there besides us, couldn't break $8 so he gave us back $1.  Angelica found two quarters in her purse so that we could pay what we owed.   On the walk back, we realized we'd just visited the neighborhood where, back when the Brayton House was first built, the day servants lived.  A group of  Heritage Hill tourists  stared at us from across the street.  One of them walked over to us and asked: "Do you own this house?". 
"Yes," Angelica said, in her flattest sarcastic voice, which can be mistaken for serious if you don't know better.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

September 25th - Michigan State Motto

If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24th - Dance Recital; Lunch with Abdou

Chadit and her dance troupe (Chadit in the center)
Idy's daughter and Chadit's son at the recital
Closeup of the beads and fabric
On our last night together as a group, we danced in the courtyard of the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor to a small audience consisting of Idy and his family, Malaal, Ibou, our dance teacher Chadit, the drummers who provided live percussion for us at every dance class, and members of the dance troupe that Chadit works with professionally.  She outfitted us in traditional dresses and jewelry from her own collection; I wore a blue dress with bright stripes, a matching headdress, and two thick coils of multicolored beads that crossed my body from the shoulder to the waist, forming an X.  We danced in the open air in our bare feet, performing the dance that Chadit had taught us, and when the dance was finished we did it a second time - Idy and the others joining us at the end and forming a circle.  We took turns dancing in the center, showing off our best moves.  Later, at the house, Idy praised our performance in his understated way.  "That was good," he said, a small curl of a smile on his face as he watched the scene replayed on a hand-held video camera that K had brought with her.  Abdou stopped by the house; he had planned on attending the performance but had been called away by business.  Idy showed him the video and they watched together.

My roommates left for Poland that night, and I was once again alone in the room.  It felt strange, and I had trouble sleeping.  The next day I packed my bags and waited for Abdou; we had lunch plans.  He drove me out to his house, in a neighborhood where government officials lived.  After spending two weeks in the rented house, it was strange to see such relative opulence; his was easily the largest and most ornate house I'd seen.  He introduced me to his wife, son, daughter, and grandson.  Abdou has four grown children, and two grandsons; about half of them live in the house with him.  He kept his earbud on at all times; it seemed Abdou was always on the clock.  He took a call while giving me a tour of the house, and wore the apparatus while we ate lunch.  I misunderstood something that he said - he asked if I wanted to eat at the dining room table, or with "les gens."  I understood this to mean "with the people."  I wasn't quite sure what Abdou meant by this, and said that the dining room table was fine.  Apart from the time I went to dinner with my cousin's friend Ndeye, it was the only meal in Senegal that I'd eaten at a table with silverware.
Abdou's house

We discussed the Alliance Française, where Abdou had taught first my husband, and then me.  He asked what my fellow classmates were up to: Kim is now married and has two young sons; Caroline is in graduate school; Carla is studying to become a medical coder.  I mentioned my current teacher, Tim, who is American but speaks French like a native.  I said that Tim was learning Swedish, to which Abdou replied: "really, maybe he wants to marry a Swedish woman."  I almost choked.  Tim shows up to class wearing Hermès shirts, frequently breaks into song during class (he heavily favors Céline Dion), and openly discusses his personal life with his students.  To even the most casual observer it is clear that Tim does not want to marry any woman, Swedish or otherwise.  I marveled - if that's the right word, at Abdou's absolute cultural blindness to what for me is a very obvious fact.  Homosexuality is essentially not recognized in Senegal, and Abdou was unable to pick up on the fact that he had a gay colleague at the Alliance Française.

Abdou's grandson
I had noticed that in the absence of any outwardly visible signs of gayness, men were much more affectionate with each other in Dakar than in Chicago.  At the house one evening, over the course of a late night conversation, Malaal and Mustafah were both reclining on the mattress in the living room that Idy and his family used as their bed.  They lay on their sides, propped on on one elbow, so close to each other that they were practically spooning.  "Um... yeah, maybe he does want to marry a Swedish woman," I finally replied, not wanting to blow Abdou's mind.

In Abdou's courtyard - note that he is on the phone
Later he showed me the second floor of the house, where his family was eating, African style, on the floor; I now understood what Abdou meant by eating with "les gens."  "I didn't mean that I didn't want to have lunch with your family," I said, and suddenly felt very stupid.  I recalled a moment a few years earlier when Abdou had come to my house and made mafé, a stew made with peanuts.  He'd been fascinated by the fact that we kept animals inside our home.  I'd seen plenty of cats and dogs in Dakar, but none of them were pets.  They ate garbage, humped each other in the streets, and were treated as vermin.  More than once I'd secretly invited a cat to come closer, and Malaal would wave his cane at the animal and hiss.  Animals were only kept if they were useful - like the goats that Malaal and Chadit kept in a pen behind their home.  In my home, Abdou had asked about the decorations (of the antique banjo mounted on the living room wall he'd said: "that's an African instrument"), but he seemed most fascinated by our cats.  He asked what they were named, what they did, what they ate.  He told us about an uncle of his who lived alone and kept a dog, as if this were the strangest thing a man could do.  I thought he'd asked everything he possibly could when a look of deep concentration came over his face.  "Where do they go to the bathroom?" he asked me in French.  "Um, in a... a box, in a closet" I replied, and, not knowing the exact French words for it (we'd never studied this in class) said, "there's.... sand that they do their needs in.  Afterward... we throw it away."  "And it's in the house?"  Abdou asked.  "Yes," I replied.  Abdou's curiosity was not satisfied until I showed him the litter box.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23rd - True Confessions

I have never seen the film Rocky.  Oh, I've seen clips from it - the montage where he runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punches sides of beef in a meat locker, but I've never actually seen the whole thing.  I still haven't - it was on My50 Chicago and I caught the first half hour before the season premiere of 30 Rock, then caught the last half hour after the season premiere of The Office.  Between the first and last half hours, I learned a few things about Sylvester Stallone that might surprise you, they certainly surprised me.  For instance, did you happen to know that Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay to Rocky?  I didn't.  And if his Wikipedia entry is even close to accurate, he had a pretty rotten childhood.  I mean the rest of it - the endless sequels, Rambo, hanging out with Ronald Reagan... none of that is really to my taste, but I'll take my inspiration where I can get it.  I think I might have to put Rocky on my Netflix instant cue sometime soon.  In related news, I took my first (and possibly only) kick class today at the gym, and it was really hard.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22nd - Dixon Ticonderoga

This afternoon D, one of the fitness specialists, asked if I had any more short, yellow pencils in the supply cabinet. 
“Golf pencils, sure,” I said, “there are more of those.”
“Is that really what they’re called?”  she asked.
“Yup,” I said. 
“Why are they called that?” she asked. 
“Because people use them to keep score in golf,” I said. 
“Really?” she asked, her dark eyes widening and her airy voice slowing as if I were imparting sage advice. 

Lately I have discovered that everyone’s birthdates are listed in the database, including staff, and I happen to know that D was born in 1987.  Recently, while I was filling out paperwork for the fitness challenge I signed up for, D needed to know how old I was – so we’re even. 
“How old are you,” she asked in her airy voice as I stood on the special scale that measures not just my bodyweight, but what percentage of it is composed of fat. 
“Thirty-nine,” I said wistfully, as if it were an age we all look back on fondly. 
“Seriously?” she asked, looking up from the machine that told her how fat I was. 
“Yup.” I said. 
“I totally thought you were younger,” she said. 
“Thanks,” I said.

I handed the box of Dixon Ticonderoga golf pencils to D, and she grabbed them all – there were only about a dozen left.  “Hey look,” I said, “on the inside of the box, on the side they were touching…”  we both looked at the pattern that had been created by the accidental marks of 144 golf pencils; the darkest and most pronounced were at the top, where the pencils had more room to wiggle around, and the lightest were on the bottom, where the pencils had been compressed.  “It’s like… art,” I said.
“Huh, yeah,” D said.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21st - Gorée Island, Part II, Maison Des Esclaves

We enter the Masion Des Esclaves, a rust colored building with a large double staircase in the central room leading to a second floor.  The vendors who've followed us around the island don't follow us inside, and I am grateful for the solitude.  In my line of vision is a placard with the word Hommes above a doorway.  It isn't until I've walked around the periphery of the main floor and seen the placards above the other rooms: Femmes, Jeunes Filles, and Enfants, that I realize these are not restrooms, but holding cells that people were taken to, separated by age and sex.  This information drips down over me slow and cold, like someone cracked an enormous raw egg on my head. 

Our guide takes us to each room, describing the living conditions in each space.  Each room has it's own horrific story: "This is where the men were kept," our guide says as we stand crowded together in the small dark space I'd initially mistook for a bathroom, "they were lined up against the walls so tightly that at night they could only sleep by leaning against each other.  They were held here for a maximum of three months, after that they were weighed - if they weighed less than 60 kilos, they were thrown into the ocean where they were eaten by sharks; if anyone got sick, or no one bought them, they were thrown into the ocean and eaten by sharks.  Approximately 20 million people passed through this island on their way to slavery, and of those, 6 million died."  The number six million feels sickeningly familiar.

"This is where the young girls were kept,"  our guide says as we enter a room marked Jeunes Filles.  "They were picked based on the size of their breasts," he says, cupping his chest with his hands, "if they were big enough, they were sent to this room; if not, they were sent to the children's room.  The girls in this room were raped, became pregnant, and their mixed blood children were sent to live in a house on this island, becoming an elite class of métis who had status higher than their parents.  The slave girls never saw their children after giving birth."

"This is where the children were kept," our guide tells us in the room marked Enfants.  "Families were brought here," he says, pointing to Idy, his wife Fina, and three year-old daughter Mamie, "and separated.  The men were imprisoned in one room," he says, pointing to Idy, "the women in another," he says, gesturing to Fina,"and the children," he says, placing his hand on Mamie's head, "were kept in this room."  If there was ever a moment I am thankful that Mamie doesn't understand French, it's now.  "Families were broken up and sold to different buyers; in one family the father might be sold and shipped Brazil, the mother to a plantation in the American Carolinas, and the child to Cuba, never to see or hear from each other again."

Idy halts in his translation, his voice breaking.  "Oh God," he says quietly, then collects himself and continues.  I'd been anxious to see this place, and had been frustrated that Idy kept putting it off; watching him I wonder how many times he's had to do this, what it must be like for him to have to come here year after year and explain to a new group of people exactly how this building functioned, what it must be like to live so close to this place.  I suppose eventually you'd get used to it - as you might if you lived near a holocaust memorial site.  In some ways, we all live with the ghosts, genocides, and wrongs of the past; in my hometown of Chicago, the streets are mapped out on a grid system - the only streets that run at an angle are ones that were used as Indian trails.  The trails have long since been paved over, and the Indians have long since disappeared.  Chicago is even named for a Potawotami word meaning wild onion or wild garlic, but the Potawotami themselves were forcibly removed from Chicago in 1833.  There are no markers memorializing the Potawotami; coming face-to-face with the Maison Des Esclaves - an actual physical vestige of something that is at once so undeniably central to the story of America, and so completely despicable, is overwhelming.

Finally, our guide shows us La Porte Du Voyage Sans Retour, the gate of the "trip from which no one returned," where slave ships were docked and loaded with human cargo.  "Africans were complicit in the slave trade," our guide says, "they were hired by Europeans to capture other Africans, and were paid in rum."  I stare out at the ocean, my tiny struggles and discomforts dissolved into insignificance.  I imagine seeing a ship on the horizon, I think about all the people who've become part of the ocean I'm looking at, that it's the same ocean that runs along the eastern seaboard of the United States.  I walk into an empty room marked Chambre de Pesage, "weighing room," and quietly lose my composure, snuffling into my hands and hoping no one interrupts me.

I can't bring myself to take any photos of the Maison Des Esclaves, it feels disrespectful.  I take three pictures of the entire island: one of a gnarled tree stump; one of some rooftops; and one of a mother and child tending to their goats and cows.  The scene is so bucolic, you'd never know it was on the same island as the Maison Des Esclaves.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20th - Gorée Island, Part I, and Lac Rose

Waiting to board the boat to Gorée Island, I sit on a metal bench and watch a recorded message that runs on a loop demonstrating the proper method of hand washing.  There are places like Gorée Island up and down the coast of West Africa - former slave trading ports that have been converted into heritage sites.  The Maison Des Esclaves on the island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.  I've been thinking about the island ever since I thought about making this trip five years ago, and in the past two weeks its importance has been reinforced in conversations with my old French teacher Abdou, and my cousin's friend Ndeye, who met me for dinner one evening.  "La il-le faut," you must go there, Abdou had said to me, pointing his index finger at my chest. 

Idy has hired a tour guide, a man in a blue kaftan with silver threads running through it and wire-rimmed spectacles; the arrangement is made just before boarding the boat.  It's only a 3 kilometer ride from the mainland, but even before we land vendors begin plying their wares.  "Bonjour madame," a woman says to me; "bonjour," I reply, and before I know it she is showing me pieces of jewelry and telling me to visit her shop on the island.

Sun-washed buildings painted yellow and rusty red make this place seem like a holiday resort, and for the 1,000 people who live here, it is simply home.  First claimed by Portugal in the 1400's, then Holland, Britain, and France, it was named Goeree by the Dutch, and approximately 20 million Africans passed through here in the 400 years that it operated as a slave trading port. 

We step off the boat and are followed relentlessly by women selling jewelry; they walk behind us and beside us like shepherds.  I keep my hands close to my sides, not wanting them to place anything in them.  They follow us up and down the hills of the island; stand in my peripheral vision as the guide explains the architectural significance of the buildings around us.  They sit when we sit, stand when we stand.  It's like having an extra shadow.  They are more aggressive here than other parts of Dakar, with the exception of the Lac Rose, where I didn't even want to open my bag to get my bottled water for fear that they'd think I was reaching for my wallet.  On the shores of Lac Rose, I lost my cool.  "Madame," one of them began, after having followed me for a quarter of a mile through the heat and the sun, "non!" I barked, surprising even myself.  This caused the woman and her companions to break into laughter.  "Non?!" she said, incredulous.  I looked away, ashamed and frustrated.  We were the only group of visitors at Lac Rose that afternoon, and the attention that was being focused on us wore on me.  All I wanted was to be able to walk for ten minutes in peace, to be anonymous outside the confines of the house.  I had pictured a bucolic respite from the gritty urbanity of Dakar, but there was none to be had.

The only way to escape from the vendors at Lac Rose was by sitting on the edge of a rickety wooden boat that looked like an oversized milk crate, while a guide pushed the vessel forward with a stick that reached the bottom of the lake.  The attraction of Lac Rose was that supposedly it looked pink from the naturally occurring salt on the lake bed that was dredged up and heaped into piles on the shore.  The day we went it looked dishwater brown, and ropes of dirty, salty foam washed up onto the shore.  Our navigator took me and three other women out to the middle of the lake, where a man stood up to his neck in water, pounding the salt rock beneath him with a pointed stick, scooping it up with a basket, and dumping it into a boat tethered to a pole.  "Does the salt bother his skin?" someone asked the guide, "they cover themselves in oil before getting into the water, and only work a couple days a week," he replied, "they only do that job for a couple of years - then they become guides, like me."

I will never again have cause to complain about my working conditions.  As it was, I was covered in SPF50 sunscreen, wearing sunglasses that just barely kept the blaze from my eyes, and wearing a hat with an enormous brim, and I could just barely tolerate the salt and sun that was reaching me.  I wouldn't have lasted an hour out there.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19th - Favorites, Least Favorites

Some favorite words and phrases:

Bum Rush
Pie Hole
Mortar & Pestle
Nut Meats

Some least favorite words and phrases:

Perfect Storm
That Being Said
Penultimate (even when used correctly)
Sooner Rather Than Later (especially when "rather" is dropped from the phrase, which it almost always is)
Extreme (when used to describe sports or makeovers)
Apples to Apples Comparison

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bonus Post! Photos of Thies that I couldn't fit into the last one

Dancer 1
Dancer 2
Dancer 3 

I love this picture
I love this picture too

This boy kept following me and posing in ways that he must have thought would capture my interest.
Fixing us a huge meal.
This shy girl came and sat on my lap without saying a word.

Two little girls.

September 18th - Thies

I am hot and sweaty; we've been driving on the highway in a rented van for the past couple of hours.  The van is filled to capacity - there's a narrow aisle squeezed between a row of one-person seats and benches that fit three comfortably and four squashed; once a row has been filled there is a collapsible seat that folds down between the two sides, creating a pokey, rickety seat for some unlucky person.  As usual, there are no seat belts.  I don't even look for them anymore.
Inside the van - note the falling apart ceiling on the right.

Another interior shot - note the photos of the driver's Marabou (spiritual adviser)
In front of Idy's father's home
Traffic inches forward, and on the side of the highway vendors sell batteries, bottled water, and phone cards.  They approach the vehicle, their hands inches from the open windows.  We exit off the highway and take a smaller road filled with pot holes that the driver swerves to miss, and drive past vendors selling meat in stalls - whole limbs of animals on tables in the open air, covered in flies that no one swats away.  The paved road ends and we continue on a red dirt road, a cloud of dust following us, until we approach a building in the center of the village Idy grew up in.  The moment the vehicle approaches, children start running towards it.

A young boy in Thies
Another interior shot
Interior of Idy's father's house
We descend the vehicle and are led to a building that is mercifully cool and dark inside, my eyes feel singed by the sun and my body weakened by the heat.  We are presented to a tall man with a lined face who is introduced to us as Idy's father; I can see the resemblance.  We're invited to rest in a bedroom off the main hallway.  Outside, children look in at us through the open windows.  I lie down on a rug and close my eyes, but my rest is interrupted shortly by a group of rangy teenage girls who fill the room and begin to dance to music playing from cell phones, pulling me away from the wall and asking me to join them.  Exhausted, I do my best to oblige, then find a moment to escape into the heat and sunlight of the outdoors.

I explore the compound; there are several buildings creating a kind of circle, and in the center several women prepare what looks like a huge meal.  On one side of the compound are a row of toilet stalls, which are comprised of a drain in a sunken hollow with foot-shaped indents on either side indicating where to squat.  There is no flushing mechanism, instead a colorful object that looks like a kettle rests just outside the stalls.  I've seen these kettles on the streets in Dakar and had misunderstood their functionality for several days; I thought they were pretty, and had considered trying to buy one to bring back with me.  The bathroom stalls are clean and airy, a lot more pleasant than the ones at the Centre Blaise Senghor, or the ones I've encountered on the highway between Chicago and Michigan, for that matter.

There are goats tied to fence posts, and at least one donkey, which appears on the road bearing the weight of a young boy.  I join my fellow travelers, who have found a place to sit just outside the main house, surrounded by children.   One little girl has installed herself on a lap; she is shy, but very comfortable where she is.  I find a spot to sit down, and momentarily I feel a strange sensation on my scalp, like I've backed up into some leaves.  I turn to see what it could be, and half a dozen children scatter behind me, giggling.  A boy who looks to be about seven or eight years old looks me in the eye and says: "Bic."  "Pardon?" I ask him in French, "donne-moi un Bic," he repeats.  He is serious in his request, no trace of humor on his face.  We were prepared for this; back in Chicago, the women who'd been on this tour before told us to bring gifts for the children: chap stick; hair-ties; pens; paper.  Idy collected them all and had distributed them from the van, where he held court like Santa Claus.  I don't have any more pens on me - I turned them all over to Idy.  "Desole," - sorry, I say to the boy.  He looks at me dubiously.  Later, Idy approaches me and asks if I have any more chap stick - I'd brought six with me as gifts and they were a big hit.  I don't have any more, and I quietly curse the moment at Trader Joe's when I made the decision to buy just six instead of two or three dozen; they came in packages of three for $2.49 each, would it have killed me to spend another $10 or $20?

Idy distributing gifts
I take my camera out, and immediately groups of children begin posing for me.  This is the only place we've been where people want me to take their picture, except for the women - who look at me and shake their heads "no" when I bring the camera to my face.  I hold my hands up and nod, and put the camera away.  The children, however, want to see their likeness on the screen of my digital camera.  One boy follows me from place to place, striking poses that he thinks will be interesting, in the hopes that I will take his picture.  There's a grown man who also wants me to take his picture; he poses with his son, placing the young boy on a drum. 
Father and son posing

We are called to dinner; our group gets a prime spot on the floor of Idy's father's house, outside the rest of the clan sits where they can.  We eat, and I am extra careful not to use my left hand - at the house in Dakar I've slipped once or twice, but it's understood that as visitors we don't completely understand the gravity of this offense, although Malaal once corrected S with unusual sternness.  S is a leftie, so this arrangement has been especially difficult for her to adapt to.  Afterward we walk to a small hill about a hundred yards from the house where drummers have begun to practice.  With light still left in the sky, the rest of the clan arrives, dressed to the nines.  There is dancing, and we are pulled into the fray - the teenage girls who had been practicing earlier take me by the hand and there is no refusing them.  A small child had planted herself on my lap and even this is no excuse; the woman next to me takes the toddler from me and I do my best to follow the dancing girl's lead; she stands across from me and looks me in the eye, I mimic her movements to the best of my ability, letting go of my inhibitions, and quite aware that all eyes are on me.  Moments earlier A had slipped and fallen while dancing, which caused quite an uproar.

When there is no light left in the sky some men bring loudspeakers and a microphone into the circle and begin singing praises to Idy, who enters the circle and dances to his extended family's delight.  I consider the fact that Idy is related to every single person in this village; I consider that this is where he came from, and that most of what he earns in Chicago is very likely sent back here.  I think about how much of the year he spends away from his family.  Entire villages, I've been told, have no grown men left - they've all gone to Europe or the United States to work, sending their earnings back home, some of them unable to return for years at a time.  I am sad and amazed and in awe all at once.  It is overwhelming, and beautiful, and exhausting. 

On the ride back to Dakar several older women ride with us part of the way; they talk and laugh, and break into song spontaneously, singing praises to Idy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

September 17th - Is this the present?

Recently my brain has been stuck in the past, even as I 've been looking towards the future.  I blame facebook and it's backward-looking ways; every time I think I've connected with every last possible person I've ever met, a new bumper crop sprouts up, and the instant I see their names I'm whisked back to my own prehistory.  It's baffling.  There are very few people in my past about whom I can accurately ask the question: "where are they now?"  In my life I've moved around a lot, creating and losing connections in the process.  I was never particularly good at identifying the people I wanted to keep in touch with, and then making the connection last.  It's not that I don't have any longtime friends, I do - and I've reconnected with people from as far back as junior high in the past couple years in ways that are meaningful, but for the most part when I see the ghosts of my past popping up on facebook, I feel haunted.

At the same time, I've made new connections in the past couple of years that I hope to sustain.  These two opposite-seeming strains feel very conflicting, but maybe they don't need to.  Everyone ends up with a past, no matter how they live out their lives.  I'm not quite sure what my point is, except to say that it's rather unlikely that I'll just happen to run into someone without some idea that they're in the area from their web presence.  It's taken a lot of the mystery out of wondering what happened to people, and I hesitate to reconnect with them all.  Sometimes the very image of someone I knew years ago can drag the river bottom of my memory, and the muck that gets dredged up is not always pleasant. 

The upside of moving around a lot over the course of my life is that I've had the privilege of reinventing myself.  There's no reinvention in the eyes of people who saw me as I was ten, fifteen, twenty or more years ago.  Once you move away, you stay exactly as you were in the minds of the people you leave behind.  It's bad enough going to a reunion where at least there's the chance that I can have a conversation with someone I once said or did something embarrassing or horrible to, and maybe come across as having grown and matured, but seeing a one inch square profile picture, paired with a status update and an "about me" section can be a tough icebreaker, at least in my experience. 

For some reason I have been fixated on a girl from high school who didn't like me - it was mutual, and yet I find myself wanting to change her mind.  Why this is important now, I couldn't tell you.  She is connected to me through several other high school friends and acquaintances, all of whom appear to genuinely like her.  In the years before facebook, I never would have thought about her; I know this to be true because in the years before facebook - I never thought about her.  Not once.  Now she's a constant nagging presence in my peripheral electronic vision. Why do I care?  Why does this matter?  In my mind, I've dredged up every memory I have of her, trying to pinpoint the moment that our mutual dislike became cemented, and to what end? 

The reason I joined facebook in the first place was that a long lost friend I couldn't track down any other way had joined; we reconnected and began writing back and forth furiously, catching up on what had been almost twenty years of silence.  Now, almost three years later, there are 241 people on my friends list, and I'd guess that I actively communicate with about a third of them.  There are people from every corner of my past on that list, as well as my present.  It's like a poorly organized wedding reception in need of table seating charts.  Sometimes I think I should "clean house", go through my friends list and do some judicious pruning, but I simply can't bring myself to do it. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16th - Locker Rooms are the Equalizers of the World

Locker rooms are the equalizers of the world.  When I started working at a fitness center, I discovered that I could get to my cubicle quicker if I used the women’s locker room as a short cut.  At 8:30am, it is filled with a gaggle of ageing Korean women.  Their bodies are wrinkled and sagging, and they have no shame.  They sit naked on stools in front of the mirror, talking to each other loud enough to be heard over the hairdryers.   It’s not your standard first-thing-in-the-morning scene, and I was slightly scandalized by it.  I’ve only used the locker room to change a couple times; the worst thing about it is the prospect of being seen by my coworkers.  I’m not sure which makes me less comfortable – being seen naked at work, or seeing my coworkers naked.  I never had to consider this when I worked in an office.

Over the course of the past four months, I’ve seen a lot of women changing in the locker room during the course of my work.  I’ve seen all body types, all ages; this must be what it’s like to be a doctor.  I can’t say that seeing strangers’ naked bodies on a daily basis feels completely normal to me, but it’s a lot less jarring than it used to be.   I’ve discovered a curtained off area marked “private changing area” that I’ve been using to avoid the naked-at-work nightmare; it takes the edge off.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15th - Halfway through the September Blog Challenge

I have become anxious and hungry, the sun is setting earlier, and a million things are buzzing around my brain.  I signed up for a challenge at work, and now I'm worried that it might be too hard.  It involves heart rate monitors and exercise, and it's kind of boring to write about, but it's on my mind.  The challenge officially starts next week, this week there were tests and measurements; I felt like a science experiment - a slightly out of shape, quickly approaching middle age science experiment.  It turns out I have a high maximum heart rate, which is a good thing to have - only I'll have to work harder to get to my "zone 2" heart rate.  This means I'll have to sweat.  I'm not excited about this.  It makes me anxious.  I like the kind of exercise where I'm blithely riding my bike from one location to another, not the kind where I have to take my glasses off because they're sliding off my face in a waterfall of perspiration.  Hence the eating, it's what I do when I'm worried or anxious or stressed.

The truth is, I wasn't sure I'd still be at this job.  It was better than unemployment, and convenient - two miles from my house.  I've been sending resumes out the whole time, and got as far as a phone interview at one organization and an in-person interview at another.  Meanwhile, the job has kind of started to grow on me.

I work in a medical fitness facility doing administrative work.  It took a while to get used to, but now I'm right on the edge of maybe liking it - if not the actual work, then the flexibility and the short commute, the fact that I can wear sweatpants, and the camaraderie that has begun to develop among me and my colleagues.  I like that for once my job might help me get into shape, rather than out of shape, and I like that when I leave it takes ten minutes to get home.  I like that I still have energy left to go to storytelling events and work on my writing.  And have I mentioned the commute?  This job doesn't pay great, but my entire working life commuting has been a challenge; at my last job it took 45 minutes minimum on public transportation.  

There are so many storytelling events in Chicago now that sometimes I go to more than one a week.  Last week there was Story Club, and last night I went to This Much Is True for the first time, and it was amazing.  Tomorrow I'm going to Grown Folks Stories, which I've heard is fantastic.  Next week I'm going to Essay Fiesta on Monday, something called The Funny Ha-Ha Show on Tuesday, and the week after that I'll be going to the monthly Moth StorySlam.  There's overlap in both the audience and the performers at these shows, I keep running into the same people, and it's kind of cool - the people who run Essay Fiesta and Story Club were in the audience at This Much Is True, the guy who runs This Much Is True told a story last month at Story Club, etc.  I was mulling over the idea of going back to school for this, but it seems like all I have to do for now is keep going to this kind of stuff.  It's great, and overwhelming too.  Could it be that I've struck work/life balance gold?  I might have, but it's making me eat.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 14th - Three

Of the ugliest words ever strung together: manual lymphatic drainage

Monday, September 13, 2010

September 13th - Blonde

When I was seven years old there was a girl in my class who had my name.  She had pin-straight blonde hair, always dressed in neat, clean clothes, and was something of an object of envy within our second grade society.  I was a messy kid; I bathed only when forced to, wore overalls, played with messy, dirty boys, wouldn't play dolls with my girl friends - only stuffed animals, and had a pile of dark tangled hair on my head.  It seemed impossible that I shared anything in common with the blonde, gossamer creature who had my name, much less something as central to our identity as what people called us.  I'd never had the experience of being in a classroom with someone who had my name; in fact, up until that point I may have never met anyone else with my name at all.  By the time I got to the fourth grade there were three of us, but in the second grade I might have thought I was the only one.  Unsolicited, I approached my teacher and asked that she start calling me by my much less lovely and somewhat androgynous middle name so there would be no confusion in the classroom.  As an adult I find this sad and astonishing, but at the time it seemed like a perfectly sensible solution -- I couldn't possibly be called by the same name as that willowy creature, clearly she possessed powers of girliness that I could only dream of.  I relinquished my name to her unbidden, like a sacrifice.

That same year my friend Annie, who also had pin-straight hair (although it was brown, so she wasn't as revered) convinced a boy who was developmentally delayed that I was a boy too; my hair had been cut short, and at the time that was really the only recognizable sex characteristic I had, what with the overalls and the dirt and the company I kept.  We went into the boy's bathroom where he pulled down his pants, showed me his hairless member, and said "see?"  The deal was I was supposed to show him mine too, but somehow I was able to get out of revealing myself.  I may have simply left the bathroom before anything could be asked of me, but I distinctly remember leaving with him; we went into that bathroom as two boys, and as far as that kid knew, that's the way we exited.  I'm quite sure nobody ever questioned the sex of my blonde doppelganger.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 12th - Realization of the week

I do not understand 97% of the merchandise at American Apparel.  Clearly, I am way too old to be shopping there, since not once salesperson approached me while I was perusing the aisles, trying to make sense of $46 gold lamé leggings, and sheer, backless lace dresses.  Fortunately, Marshalls knows how to talk to me.  What would I do without discount chains?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11th - Scattered Thoughts

Two nights ago one of my cats got hold of the earphones that go to my iPhone and dropped them in her water dish, where they stayed all night.  She has a penchant for anything rubber - certain kinds of shoe soles, hair clips, earrings, and drags them around the house.  I wake up on a regular basis to the sound of her biting something I've left on the nightstand.  She spent the first week that she lived with us hiding in a closet, chewing on a pair of my shoes.

I left the earphones to dry in a cabinet; they seem to be working.

I had elaborate plans this weekend to prepare for this body age challenge I signed up for at work; it involves being on a team and working out a lot, and I feel like I need to buy more workout clothes and healthy snacks to prepare for it.  Instead I spent the afternoon at the Renegade Craft Fair, where I spent a lot of money on handmade clothes and art.  I don't regret it, I just didn't get anything done to prepare for this exercise thing.  According to the body age measurements, my body is two years older than I am; I'd like to reverse that.

On the way home from the craft fair we got stuck in traffic; there was a parade in progress that we didn't know about that jammed up the whole neighborhood.  I got out of the car a mile or so from home and walked the rest of the way so M wouldn't be late for work.  By the time I got home I was tired and sweaty - the weather had changed from rainy and 60 to sunny and 80.  I changed back into my pajamas and fell asleep on the couch.

I keep thinking maybe I should go back to school, but I was never a very good student.  Maybe I'd be better now, I don't know.

I spent a lot of time on facebook tonight, talking to people on instant message - when it would let me.  That thing always freezes up.

Someone keeps trying to call us collect from prison; we've gotten three messages of a recorded voice asking if we'll accept charges:  "this call is subject to recording and monitoring, to accept charges press 1, to refuse charges press 2, to prevent calls from this facility press 6, for a rate quote press 7."

We really need to go grocery shopping; for dinner I ate leftover quinoa that I made last weekend, and a freezer burnt bag of risotto from Trader Joe's.

I'm wearing one of the handmade things that I bought today, a brown t-shirt with snowdrop flowers silk-screened onto it.  The TV has been on for no good reason, tuned to MeTV, a Chicago broadcast channel that airs old shows.  Right now they're showing an episode of Gimme a Break! where Nell goes to a funeral, and I'm pretty sure the pastor is being played by one of the guys from What's Happening!! - the one who always wore a beret.

We finally got an estimate to fix the room in the basement that we'd been using as a bedroom; it got damaged about two years ago when we had record rain, and then again about a month ago when we had more record rain.  In between the two rainfalls the market crashed, I lost my job, and got a new one.  We've been living like transients the whole time - our stuff has been shoved onto the back porch, into bins and piles in the basement, and we've been sleeping in the room off the kitchen on a mattress and box spring.  Our clothes are bursting from the ineffective Ikea wardrobe units that we bought as a temporary measure.  The cats seem to enjoy them at least, I often find one or more of them asleep in my clothes.  The estimate for repairing the basement room seemed fair; I'll be so excited when we go ahead and get it fixed.  Maybe then I'll start feeling some forward movement in our home life - we are way too old to be living like this.

As I type this, my cat - the same one who drowned my earphones, is sitting between the keyboard and the monitor, following the cursor as it makes its way across the screen.  This is her favorite spot to sit when I'm at the computer; it's not very helpful, but at least she's not trying to eat something that's not food.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 10th - Story Club

I went to Story Club last night with Johanna.  It was the second month in a row that we'd gone, and the second month in a row that we both read stories during the open mic portion of the show.  I read about getting tattooed and Johanna read about how her family raised her like she was a boy.  Her stories are always hilarious, it's so fun to watch her.

I was really nervous at last month's reading because it was the first time I'd read anything to an audience since college, so I purposely picked a really short piece - 300 words, and went first so I wouldn't have to spend a lot of time anticipating my turn.  I read something a little longer last night - about 900 words.  I think I love Story Club; it's in the back room of a place called Uncommon Ground that features local musicians and performers, and serves locally grown and raised food.  The back room has seating for about 30 or so people, and has a really cozy feel to it.  Last winter when we were both unemployed, Angelica and I spent a lot of time there.  We'd bring our laptops to work on our writing, order fun coffee drinks that were served in bowls, and dominate the overstuffed chairs next to a fireplace in the center room.  It felt like we'd escaped Chicago for a moment and gone somewhere else, somewhere with mountains. 

What am I saying, I know I love Story Club.  I think I'm going to become a regular.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September 9th

Things you wear on your face belong to the world.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September 8th - Christina

I took a break at work today and went outside to enjoy the weather; the building I work in is over-air conditioned, which was fine when it was 95 degrees, but now it's ridiculous.  I went across the street to the park that runs along the north branch of the Chicago River, enjoying the air and the sunshine, crossing paths with cyclists, joggers, and dog-walkers.  I was about to turn back when I heard someone call my name -- it was Christina.  She's been unemployed for almost two years now, and has managed to survive it with scrappy ingenuity.  As she puts it, she works "like an immigrant," making a living babysitting, cleaning houses, and other odd jobs.  The minute she found out I'd been laid off she called me and gave me all the information I'd need on how to file an unemployment claim.  I was literally still sitting in my office, fresh out of the meeting with HR where I'd been let go.  "It will be okay," she said to me, "I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but it will."

Christina is the picture of not just surviving the economic downturn, but of moving on with her life in spite of it.  She cobbles together enough jobs to pay rent, health insurance, and other necessities, and even connected me with babysitting jobs while I was unemployed.  We used to work together on Tuesday mornings at a moms group, on the first floor of a town home that was so big I never saw the top floor in all the Tuesdays I babysat there.  The moms would arrive perfectly coiffed and made up, and I always wondered why and how that was possible.  Christina told me they dressed for each other, that she'd babysat for the mom who lived in the townhouse, and she never dressed like she did at moms group.  Christina was funny, the kids responded to her, and most importantly she knew how to work the remote control to the gigantic TV set mounted on the wall of the playroom.  At a certain point during every shift the kids would get out of control and the only thing that would calm them was a show called Fireman Sam, which details the episodic life of an animated firefighter who lives in the town of Pontypandy.  After our shift was over sometimes we'd get coffee, or make breakfast at one of our homes.  It was a rather pleasant way to spend a Tuesday morning.

We did stuff together outside of babysitting too; we went bowling once or twice, and saw The Hangover at the Webster Place Theater.  I haven't seen much of her since getting a job, although we did get together recently for breakfast.  It was nice to run into her out of the blue.  She was pushing a stroller -- her regular Wednesday babysitting job is walking distance from my work.  We spent a few minutes catching up, and when the baby in the stroller started getting fussy, we parted ways.  It put me in a much better mood to see her; I hope she's out there again next Wednesday.