Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Sharp Insight, Unbidden

I meant to write about this a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still thinking about it, and in light of the upcoming holiday it seems somehow apropos.

There are certain odd moments that are for whatever reason permanently seared into my memory. I'm not talking about the important Kodak moments--birthdays and graduations and getting married. Those are supposed to be there. But others just remain, and remain forever associated with certain triggers. For instance, whenever I'm driving around a curve on the highway at enough speed, I always think about my aunt Y telling me when I was about 11 and she was driving me around a winding road to Camp Tanako that she'd finally figured out the secret to those curves was to slow down a little bit on entering them, then speed up at the end. Now, Y has told me many a memorable thing in my life, but I can't go around a curve without remembering her voice saying that. Every time, it comes unbidden, even though I long ago figured curves out myself. It's a little irritating, but at least that particular memory is fairly useful. They aren't all.

The first time I remember noticing this phenomenon I was about seven and sitting on the front step of our house in Little Rock, kind of picking at the grass and mulling over life. Ironically, I don't remember what I was remembering at the time, but I thought to myself, "OK, if something doesn't have to be important for me to remember always, can just be anything, I'm going to test it by trying to remember the most boring thing possible for the rest of my life." I then tested my theory by staring at a nondescript section of my blue corduroy pants for about 30 seconds until my eyes glazed over. Of course it worked. That diagonal pattern of fuzzy cornflower blue is what first springs into my mind whenever I think about these random memories and associations. I'm pretty tired of that particular image after thinking about it regularly for the past 27 years, but it's here to stay.

I've been thinking about these because of a small thing that happened a couple of weeks ago when I was tutoring the girls down at the jail (I still really love the tutoring, even if me teaching math is scary for all involved). I had two students that day, and we were working out geometry problems when one of the girls broke her pencil lead in the middle of something I was explaining. She looked startled and said, "Oh, my pencil lead broke! Am I in trouble?"

I said, "Of course not, we'll just get you a new one," and proceeded to try and finish explaining the volume of a cylinder formula to Girl #2, but she was no longer paying attention. She was staring at Girl #1 in horror. 

"Where did it go? We have to find it!" she cried, and got on her hands and knees, searching the ground.

"What's going on?" I asked, as Girl #1 joined her on the floor and looked like she was about to cry.

Girl #2, who had been incarcerated longer, explained that a sharp pencil point could be used as a weapon, so if you broke a pencil and didn't find the lead, the guards would have to strip search you to make sure you weren't concealing it. Then they would have to search your cell from top to bottom as you sat naked on the bed and another guard watched over you.

"Just me, or all of us?" said Girl #1, tears suddenly streaming down her face as she stopped the search for a moment to ask.

"Both of us!" her friend said, in a hushed, urgent whisper, "but not her, of course," indicating me.

I spent about five seconds looking for the stray pencil lead on the speckled concrete floor, then told them to just call the guards and it would probably be fine. The guilty girl got a guard's attention through the glass that looks into the control room, and a female guard came to see what we needed. 

Before I could explain, the girl said, her voice shaking, "I broke my pencil, and we can't find the lead, but we've been looking for it really hard and can't find it anywhere and I didn't mean to get in trouble."

The guard, a nice woman who had let me in earlier, looked at me and at the terrified girls, shook her head and said,"What was it, just a pencil lead? That's OK this time. Do you need me to get you a new pencil?"

And that was that. The girls said they were lucky, that they were OK because I was in there supervising them. Maybe there would never have been a strip search for something as tiny and un-weaponlike as a pencil lead, but the girls fully believed there would be, a consequence of being incarcerated in a place where security is necessarily top priority and likely of a life's worth of getting in disproportionate amounts of trouble for anything they did wrong.

I realized how little I understood about their daily lives, both before they came here and while they served out their sentences. To me, a broken pencil lead has never been more than a nuisance. To them, it was terrifying.

And thus, I know that I will remember that incident every single time I break a pencil lead, or perhaps even look at one. I take my freedom for granted, I know, and my privacy, too. It's not something that--despite my teenage complaints to my parents--has ever been an issue in my life. For many, though, a life without freedoms is the reality, perhaps all they know.  

Thinking about tomorrow, Thanksgiving, it gives me one more thing for which to be thankful. And it's one thing I'll not be sorry to remember, time and again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy Birthday Laura!

Today is my little sister's birthday. She turns 26, a great age, in my opinion. I was thinking about what to write, and--as it so often does in our family--a little rhyme spilled out. (There are better and more sophisticated forms of poetry, but we're not a very sophisticated family, so this is the kind that comes most naturally to all of us. My apologies to the aesthetically sensitive.)

For Laura, with love. Thanks for changing my life 26 years ago, and every day since. Happy birthday!

My World, With Laura In It

The first years of my life 
Were an only-child treat
Yet somehow our family 
Didn't feel quite complete.

So I began asking for a sister,
Pleading year after year,
But until I was nine,
None did appear.

I wanted a sister to dress up like a doll
A best friend to teach about diaries
And take on shopping sprees to the mall.

And then she arrived, one night in November,
And everything changed, all I remember.

For all the sisterly dreams I had erected,
The actual sister was not quite as expected.

She took up space, took up my time.
The toys I outgrew were no longer mine.
She cried and fussed and filled diaper after diaper
(And whenever she'd soiled them the worst
Seemed to be when I had to wipe her).
She broke my things, then wet my bed.
Yes, having a sister was quite different instead.

It was different, yes, but
Though it took a while to unearth it
Having a sister was entirely worth it.

As a baby, she'd smile and look up at me
With eyes filled with wonder,
She'd laugh at my silly faces
And cling to me during thunder.

She'd hold onto my finger 
Because her hand was so tiny
And gradually she became
Markedly less whiny.

She grew and she grew
Getting more fun each year,
A daily joy
Though far or near.

We look nothing alike,
Not one single bit,
But even so,
We're as close as sisters get.

I call her all the time
And she even calls me back.
We have keen sister-sense,
A kind of psychic knack
For feeling what's up with the other
Or knowing when something's down,
For thinking the same crazy things
In our two very separate towns.

I both adore her and tease her,
But she gives as good as she gets,
And though I got a nine-year head start,
I'm no match for her wits.

She's someone charming and funny,
But simple and true.
She likes finding little happy things
And making them, too.

Now she's making another small, happy thing,
A new daughter (and niece!)
So as my baby sister turns again older and wiser
I'm wishing her new family a world full of peace.

I wish her a world of surprises
A world of motherly delight,
A world of sweet joys
And a future that shines bright.

It's the beautiful world I know,
Made more beautiful still,
By the sister I've loved from the start
And the hearts that she fills.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Movie Alphabet Meme

This is one of those memes that's making its way through the cinematic blogosphere. While this isn't a movie blog, I haven't started one of those yet, so this will have to do. 

I tag Laura, Melisser, and anyone who wants to play along either on their blog or in the Comments. 

  1. Pick your favorite film to represent each letter of the alphabet.
  2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of the film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The. No legitimate films are named A or The, so don't try it.
  3. Movies go by whatever name they were known by for their theatrical release. For example, Return of the Jedi belongs under "R" not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy. Same thing with Raiders of the Lost Ark--it goes under "R," not "I" for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all the Lord of the Rings films belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. Confused yet? Don't worry about it; it's not like you're going to get fined. 
  4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. Thus, 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."
  5. These don't have to be what you think are the best movies ever made, just the movies that if you had to watch a movie that started with that letter, you'd never mind watching. Thinking of it as Movies I Could Watch At Any Given Moment, Regardless of Mood or as Movies I Always Get Sucked Into Watching When They Are On TV is a good rule of thumb. 
  6. Any feature film counts, as long as it's on Docs, dramas, comedies, horror, whatever. TV and mini-series and made-for-tv movies don't.
  7. You have to have actually seen the movies and be able to recommend them. 
  8. Select more people to play along. 
  9. Change the rules if you don't like them.

Annie Hall 
Blade Runner
Departed, The
Eight and a Half (8 1/2)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Godfather, The
Harold and Maude
In America
Journey of Natty Gann, The
King Kong
Lives of Others, The
Mary Poppins
No Country for Old Men
O Brother Where Art Thou?
Pan's Labyrinth
Queen, The
Shawshank Redemption
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Usual Suspects, The
Waiting for Guffman
You Can't Take It with You
Zorro, the Gay Blade

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Odd Moment of the Morning

After doing my tutoring this morning at the detention center, I decided to stop by the grocery store for a few ingredients for supper. 

I was walking towards the entrance, and this heavyset-but-perfectly-fit-looking middle-aged black man was walking out of the store carrying two or three bags of groceries. 

He saw me and said, "Would you put these groceries in that car over there?"

I looked to see what he was talking about. He didn't look old or frail or really in need of help, but maybe I wasn't seeing the whole picture. I probably looked bewildered, but said, "That car?" and pointed to the old Pontiac he was heading towards.  

Then he just laughed.

"Aw, I'm just messin' with you. This is America, that's what you gotta do. You gotta mess with people in this country, have some fun. It's what we do here."

And then he walked off, laughing and laughing and laughing.

And I walked into the store, laughing myself, so maybe he was right.  

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Things I Learned This Weekend

  1. Papa's pizza is even better after just meeting a big deadline and writing for 10 hours straight.
  2. People at the next table who throughout dinner repeatedly rock the opposite side of the booth you're sitting on by pressing back on the seat to wiggle their fingers into their too-tight jeans pockets over and over despite me angrily and unsubtly, pressing the seat back towards them really make me mad. It's just rude and unnecessary.
  3. When ordering a custom omelet with everything...don't. Just pick a couple of ingredients or so. Otherwise you'll end up with cheese, onions, tomatoes, peppers, olives, bacon, ham, sausage, jalapenos and a few other things, wrapped in a thin layer of egg. Not good.
  4. No matter how incredibly good the coffee is, if Ben has the equivalent of about 8-10 cups of it, he's going to regret it later. 
  5. When shopping for a baby shower for a little girl, it's almost impossible to resist the urge to buy something pink.
  6. Someone in Fort Smith makes incredibly good cupcakes with incredibly good lemon icing that I am just going to have to learn to make.
  7. Baby showers are mostly all the same, except when you are related to the baby of honor or except when they have incredibly good cupcakes with incredibly good lemon icing. 
  8. Walking the dog on a late autumn afternoon is the best. 
  9. I still like the movie Castaway a lot, perhaps because I only saw the last hour of it.
  10. The Nazis were way more into art than I ever realized and the story of the massive numbers of masterpieces that were stolen or accidentally or purposefully destroyed during the war is pretty fascinating, even though the documentary "The Rape of Europa" about it could have been better.
  11. Starbucks' new gingersnap lattes are not as good as the gingerbread lattes were, and the shreds of real ginger in them are kind of weird.
  12. It really is best not to discuss politics over lunch with opinionated mothers-in-law who completely disagree with your views, but if you have to, best to do it as you are already on your way out the door and telling her you love her and appreciate her cooking.  
  13. Ben finds it hard to relate to films about French teenage synchronized swimming girls coming of age. 
  14. When soaking a cotton shirt in bleach, don't forget it and leave it in your best stainless-steel bowl overnight and expect your bowl not to be corroded almost completely through in the morning..
  15. When washing something that has soaked in bleach all night and corroded your best bowl and gotten a nasty rust stain on it as a result, don't then try to wash it in the washing machine, even on gentle cycle. It disintegrates.
  16. Peanut brittle that you bought from an eager volunteer outside the grocery store promoting autism awareness tastes better than other peanut brittle.
  17. Dexter is a very well-written show, if creepy as all get-out and even if it is about a serial killer. It's interesting and not gratuitous.
  18. Mountains of clean clothes don't fold themselves any more than dirty clothes do and can be equally overwhelming.
  19. Slipcovers are so named because they slip and they will be my forsworn nemesis until the end of time. Or maybe just my frenemy
  20. Weekends are wonderful, whatever minutiae they entail, when I spend them with Ben. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes, We Did

I am so proud of my country tonight. Ben had to work the newspaper's election coverage, so I had to stay home watching the returns come in by myself. I was tapping away at my computer, trying to convince myself I was calmly following the election results, taking nothing for granted, keeping my emotions in check, Obama-style. Then from across the cacophony on the TV a phrase broke through: "Barack Obama has won the presidency. He will be the next President of the United States," and that was that. I became a bawling, shaking, flooding ball of unmitigated joy. 

Then the scenes that followed on the TV: shot after shot of people hearing the news, breaking down like I just had, young people cheering, old people crying, black people doubled over in euphoria and disbelief at the historic moment. This is history, I thought. This is one of those defining moments in the history of the world and I'm experiencing it, I'm part of it. It was as intense as 9/11, but with joy and hope replacing that day's fear and despair. 

I've been an Obama supporter from the beginning, and by that I mean from about two seconds after I first heard him speak, the day after the 2004 Democratic Convention, when the morning NPR show was all abuzz with this amazing new keynote speaker. They played clips, and I was enchanted. That morning, I thought, "This man has greatness about him (with some people, you can just feel it). He could be President someday." The thought gave me chills. 

The more I heard about him over the next couple of years, the more excited I got. He was everything I wanted in a candidate--smart, articulate, thoughtful, respectful, self-made, engaging, inspirational and on the right side (mine) on almost every issue. Plus, his personal story and his melting pot genetics seemed to me just the thing the country needed to bring us back together and make some big changes. Other than giving him a sex change and making him an avowed Academy Awards buff, it would be hard to design a candidate I'd like more. 

Curious about digging a little deeper into what this guy was about, Ben and I listened to his audiobook of The Audacity of Hope a few months before he announced his candidacy. We were wowed by his writing, his positions, his ideas about what this country could do and how we both needed to and could bring everyone together to effect real change, not further divide us. I was officially hooked, in for the long haul.

So of course, feeling this passionate about a first-term senator I'd never met from another state, I was also convinced he was too good to ever be elected, ever do more than be a "what if?" It would never happen. When he announced his candidacy, I couldn't decide how I felt. I was excited, but he was such a longshot, it seemed rash. America needed him, but wouldn't recognize that yet. As much as I wanted him in the White House today, I didn't trust the American people to put him there. They're the ones who twice elected George W. Bush, after all. 

But they did recognize that greatness about him. Over and over, people chose to believe in Obama, just as I had, despite the relentless smears and overt bigotry that dominated too much of the campaign. Tonight, enough people chose him to make him the 44th President of the United States, the first African-American ever elected to the nation's highest office. 

Over the past two years, I've become an incorrigible political junkie. I live online and have followed this election with the intensity of a bloodhound tracking a leaky meat truck. It's been an intense experience, this roller coaster of an election that brought new twists, new highs, new crises and world developments, new outrages, and new encouragements every day. It's changed me, I'm sure, though I'm still figuring out how. As disheartened and sick as I was over the past eight years, as cynical as I was becoming about the political process, I am sure it was and is and will remain change that I, at least, need to experience in myself. 

Tonight, though, I am just proud to be an American, tired, euphoric, overcome. Here, now, in this moment of profound grace and beauty, it's an amazing time to be alive. 

My Halloween Scare

Don't you hate it when you screw up something months before and only realize it too late? That happened to me this morning. 

I used to have a problem with deadlines. Deadlines set by me arbitrarily just didn't seem very important--if I set it, then I should be able to reset it, right?--and I regularly missed mine. Then I started having deadlines set by others, others who paid me to get the project done on time and didn't pay me if I didn't. Suddenly, it was a whole different ball game and I got pretty good at it. I make my deadlines now. It's a point of pride.

So, I've been working towards a deadline for Friday for a publication I edit, where the deadline schedule is set for the year by the national company that owns this publication and several others like it. I manage several freelancers and gave them the Friday deadline, too. But, there's a problem I found out about in my e-mail inbox this morning: the deadline was actually last Friday, on Halloween. 

I got a nice e-mail from the national editor this morning asking me politely if my stories might be ready soon. He's pretty laid back, but the e-mail woke me up in a flash. What? Stories ready? Why would he be asking me that now? With an impending sense of dread, I opened up the editorial calendar for all the different markets, and looked under the December issue. Yep. Arkansas deadline: Oct. 31. 

Several months ago, when I was transferring all the dates to my calendar, I managed to look at the wrong line, the one right below it for some of the other publications, which were to be due Nov. 7. Agh!

Whoa. Not only had I missed my deadline, I and all my freelancers were going to miss it by a week! I sent back a quick and profound apology and explanation, asked for further direction (Get whatever we could scrambled together today? Turn in stories tomorrow? Hide my head in the sand and think about changing my name and hair color and never surfacing again? Give up my first-born child?), e-mailed my freelancers for status updates on their stories, and generally found myself in problem-solving mode, on turbo.  

Meanwhile, I amped up my efforts this morning to reach all the contacts I needed for my various articles. These people, mostly doctors and healthcare administrators, are notoriously hard to reach and take days to return calls. This morning, however, someone sent them the memo that I needed a break, and I've gotten a hold of pretty much everyone I needed, and more. I think I've already interviewed or set up interviews with 10 people, and it's not even noon. 

In the end, it turned out OK. My editor said to go ahead with the Friday deadline, and we are all on track to meet that. I still feel awful and guilty and irresponsible, even though it was an honest mistake, but at least I'm running on adrenaline now and getting all kinds of things done. 

See, I even got a blog post written.