"Sheila's Nose." A Serial Cat Tail. Part 1. 'Have You Seen My New Cat?'

Normally, Miss Abigail would not be out, still suffering, as she was, from a long bout of the funk.  But today, since she had run out of provisions, she had no choice but to walk to Main Street.  Having encountered no troubles while making her purchases, Miss Abigail felt unusually buoyant, so decided to window shop. 
She found that she could not resist the lonely little cat with the crooked tail in the thrift shop window.
There was something so familiar in the cat’s bewildered look, that Miss Abigail felt like she had known the cat all her life.  The cat felt vaguely the same way about Miss Abigail.  Within a block of leaving the thrift shop, Miss Abigail named the cat Sheila and by the time they reached Miss Abigail’s house, Sheila was happy with that.
Miss Abigail gave Sheila the place of honor in the curio cabinet.
Suddenly, Miss Abigail felt a stirring inside which she hadn’t felt for so long, she had trouble diagnosing it.  But Miss Abigail, being of rare insight, only had to reflect for several long moments to realize that the stirring was the desire to entertain guests.  It came as quite a shock to her since she hadn’t had guests for many months.  But Miss Abigail was never one to ignore an instinct.  She telephoned her friends, plucked rhubarb from her neglected garden for the making of her great grandmother’s rhubarb raisin pie, and set the table with tea cups, saucers, spoons, cream and sugar. 
As the guests arrived each was sure to fawn over how well Miss Abigail looked.  They had long suspected that their friend was suffering from the funk and wanted to encourage her social behavior.  Miss Abigail took the compliments in the most poised way she knew while subtly attempting to draw her friends’ attentions to the curio cabinet.  But seeing that all her eye rolling and throat clearing and head tipping was only inspiring looks of queer curiosity in her friends’ faces, Miss Abigail had to resort to more direct methods. 
“Have you seen my new cat?” she asked. 

Her friends, imagining a warm-blooded creature, capable of leaping, purring, and meowing, were overcome with enthusiasm, thinking that the presence of another living being in the house would be the perfect therapy for Miss Abigail.  So when Miss Abigail practically floated to the curio cabinet, and they saw that the object of her statement was nothing but a little bewildered looking stuffed cat with a crooked tail, they were stunned.  But the friends, all acutely aware of the fragility of the situation, fawned over the little cat anyway, which made Miss Abigail beam. 

Though Sheila was not accustomed to such attentions, Miss Abigail thought she handled her new fame with aplomb.  “I think,” Miss Abigail said that night after all her friends had departed,  “that Mr. Elliot would appreciate your company.”  Mr. Elliot was owner of the town’s bookshop, a benevolant gentleman who, in the months before she fell to the funk, always greeted Miss Abigail at the bookshop door, the corner of his mouth twitching as he offered a gentle collection of poems that he was sure would not damage Miss Abigail’s sensitive constitution. 
These books of poems Miss Abigail found lacking in a vital zest, yet she had always been so charmed by his earnest gifts and his nervous ticks that it had not been an unpleasant chore to bake oatmeal raisin cookies and deliver them once a week, on Tuesday mornings, when she knew the bookshop would most likely be devoid of customers.  And now that Sheila had helped to lift the gloomy cloud so characteristic of the funk, Miss Abigail could see, by inspecting the calendar hung on the wall, that the following day was indeed a Tuesday.  Miss Abigail got right to work, mixing the batter for the cookies. 
After they had completely cooled, she carefully wrapped each cookie in wax paper and packed them into a sturdy shirt box, all the while humming Blue Moon since she knew that Sheila would appreciate its rapt sentimentality.  


Something True about me that My Husband Denies is True About Me.

I am not a vegetarian.*

* The average Wisconsin resident (i.e. my husband) considers anyone who doesn't eat meat for every meal, a vegetarian.


Chronicles from 51st Street: Confessions of a Double-Ditcher

No exaggeration.  Growing up, there were over fifty kids from babies to high-schoolers, living on our block.  Summer time was playing outside with them, pickle and kickball and kick-the-can.  When it rained, we girls gathered in Bee's basement for epic rounds of Life, Clue, and Detective. Or we spent whole days making radio shows on Bee's cassette recorder, the pinnacle of modern technology.  But the most beloved and sacred game of all was Hide-and-Go Seek.  Acre's to Rock's. Heenan's base. The boundaries shifted, depending on which neighbors were least irritated with us. But Heenan's front porch was always base. They lived in the stucco directly across the street from us. Bewilderingly, Mary and Peggy were twins, but looked nothing alike.  They and Beth Gillespie were my best friends and worst enemies, depending on the slightest shift of the weather vane.  Because I was youngest, I never understood what prompted Beth to inform me that Mary was no longer my friend, or Peggy to take me aside and say that she still liked me even if Mary and Beth did not, or Mary to make me swear that she was my best friend even though I wasn't hers, or Beth and Mary to say that me and Peggy could only be friends with them if we stopped being friends with each other, or Peggy and Beth and Mary to say that I couldn't be their friend unless I learned to flawlessly sing all the lyrics to Barry Manilow's "Copacabana."

But Bee was Queen.  When I was ten, Bee was sixteen.  She took me on as a helper one glorious summer when she drove the two of us to Marian where she attended Catholic girl's school.  She had her own key to the dark room. We spent hours developing and printing black and white film for Bee's photography class.  What a wonderment, to frame a bit of vision, and then to watch it appear on a glossy sheet of paper under black light after the ritualized preparation.  Ghostly. The chemical pierce in the nostrils, the shock of total blackness, the panic when we fumbled, transferring the light sensitive film from camera to developer, the emergence of shape and line that solidified into a miniature deja vu.  Sometimes we became too enamored with the magic and neglected to dunk the paper into the stop bath in time to save it from going black.

That same summer, Bee also taught me to play tennis.

At the time, I remember my mother puzzling over the fact that this sixteen year old wanted me hanging around.  But who wouldn't want a devoted follower to do the grunt work and play tennis just well enough to make a match but never well enough to win.

And Pete was King.  I fell in love with Pete one night when I encountered him in the flood light at the end of his driveway batiking a sheet he had hung from the garage.  He was even older than Bee.

And I was still ten.

In Hide-and-Go-Seek, the most sacred breach of contract was going out of bounds.  Inside was out of bounds.  So was crossing the street.  It sometimes rose, from the most malodorous pit of our natures, the decision to ditch the Greek kid who lived down the block.  He covered his eyes and started the long march to one-hundred while we - Bee, Mary, Peggy, Beth, me, and all the others - chased Pete across the street and down the block, the double ditch, the dirtiest kind there was.  We ran down the McGaffin's driveway and started to make our way back, sneaking behind houses.  My heart was still pounding from the sprint, when Pete screamed.  He had slipped, climbing over the Monrad's rotting picket fence and now he had punctured the back of his thigh.  We were too stunned to be of any help.  We ran to the sidewalk and watched Pete hopping across the Neiman's front porch, grasping his leg, and screaming.  It was so comic, the way stinky old Grandma Neiman just kept on rocking as she watched him writhe, that we figured he must be faking it.  That's just the type of thing Pete did to make the girls scream.  After he disappeared inside his own house, we waited, gathered around the front door, waiting to see what would happen.  Finally, the door creaked open and Pete hopped out, making it look very painful.  His sister scolded us for playing so rough and then lifted the bandage she was holding over the back of his thigh.  We leaned in and gasped.  A bloody crater littered with paint chips.  We screamed and ran back to the fence. Sure enough, a long piece of Pete's skin.  We argued over who would get to keep it.  Of course, Bee won.  



Morris Leiben fought for the tsar’s army in Siberia during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.  He returned home after his service to a family who expected him to marry and become a successful business man.  He found the atmosphere suffocating.  It inspired him to do the only ambitious thing he ever did.  He said good-bye to his parents and two sisters and boarded a boat to cross the ocean to America
Morris landed in Galveston, Texas.  He withered in the heat.  He wandered for two days until he found a man who spoke Yiddish.  Is the whole country like this? he asked.  Of course not, the man scolded.  America is huge.  Is there any place like Siberia? Morris pleaded.  The man told him to catch the train north to Omaha.

             There, Morris found a room and got a job at a hat factory.  The owner of the boarding house thought it a shame, these young unmarried people.  She arranged for Morris to marry Rose Sluskey, another Yiddish speaker from Russia, a poor and determined woman, the only one from her family to ever come to America.  Rose and Morris opened a grocery store on 19th and Willis. They had three daughters, the oldest, my grandmother, Lillian.   Rose warned Lillian that she would die if Lillian ever left her.  Just after my mom graduated from high school, Lillian and her husband Joe decided to move just a few miles away, from 18th and Willis to 50th and Burt.  Rose died not long later, of complications from diabetes, an intentional insulin overdose, Lillian claimed.

Morris, by then an old man, came to live at the house on 50th and Burt, where he sat and read the newspaper.  He, like my mom's father, died before I was born.  There is a photograph in one of my mom's many albums of my brother as a little boy, nose to nose with an old man.  Today, my mom mentioned it when I was digging for more details about her ancestors, and I can perfectly picture it, having studied that photo many times, without ever having made a connection, here was a man who made the decision to leave behind what was familiar, to begin a life unknown.

All our ancestors on both sides left Russia to make that ocean crossing at the beginning of the 20th century.  Their pictures hung on the wall in my parent’s study, in the 51st Street house where I grew up, not a mile from Grandma Lillian's Burt Street house.  All my life, I have studied the faces of my ancestors and heard the tattered bits of stories that have survived.  They met and had children and formed families and we who remained gathered for Passovers and Hanukkahs, birthdays and funerals.

The stories of how we came to Omaha are more dramatic than how we left.  Less than a hundred years after these Russians arrived in Omaha, most all of us have snuck off, each leaving in our silent way, through death or diaspora, to follow children, to attend school, to chase jobs, to live out dreams.  Another hundred years, and no one descended from this family will remember that their ancestors were from Omaha, or rather, it will be a vague recollection, a hunch, three generations of people condensed into a single unrevealing fact:  In the twentieth century, they lived in Omaha.

            The story goes, when Morris was a very old man, he told his daughters that he was ready to go back to Moscow, to see his sisters again after almost a half century.  Too late, they told him.  He was too old to make such a journey.  When we get close to death, we fill with love for the things we took for granted and regret for the love we forgot to give.  And now they are gone, the highest branches of our family tree collapsing into a single detail.  They came from Russia with two rolling pins.


Thanks Giving

Thank you for making me come along when all 
I wanted to do was stay behind.  Thank you for 
not saying anything when you had so much to say.  
Thank you for stopping by even though it was too late.  
Thank you for not making a big deal out of something that was.  
Thank you for bringing salad, wine, and dessert 
when we specifically said just bring your funny selves.  
Thank you for calling when I didn't want to talk 
to anyone.  Thank you for not telling anyone about 
that terribly embarrassing thing I said.  And even if you did, 
I still thank you.  Thank you for over looking 
spelling errors and forgiving grammar gaffs.  Thank you 
for not taking seriously anything I may happen to write about you 
even if it happens to be true.  Thank you for not making
me fess up.  Thank you for lowering your expectations.
Thank you for knowing when to cut out.  Thank you for not being there
that day I was really pissed off.  Thank you for playing music
with me.  Thank you for not passing judgement.  
Thank you for letting my kids play at your house for six straight hours 
most Saturdays.  Thank you for your comments.
Thank you for ignoring those little indiscretions.  
Thank you for making me laugh.  Thank you for laughing.
Thank you for your understanding.
Thank you for letting me sleeping in.  Thank you for your 
enthusiasm for those things I have no enthusiasm for.    
Thank you for asking me to go to the dog park with you 
even though I always say no.  Thank you for knowing 
I thank you even when there is no thank you letter.  
Thank you for allowing me to go too far.  Thank you 
for thanking me even when no thanks are required.
Thank you for inviting me to eat your delicious cooking.
Thank you for not caring too much that I broke your dining room chair.
Thank you for reading when you should be sleeping.  


A Matter of Fashion

“That’s what you’re wearing?” the husband asks. 
“Yes.  Why?” says the wife.
“It’s fine if you’re homeless,” he says.
“This is a nice skirt.  It’s Italian.”
“But you’re wearing it over pants.”
“It’s cold outside.  Who wears a skirt without pants in this weather?”

The wife and husband go to pick up their daughter at school.  They pass a googly eyed mother in the lobby.  She is wearing a vibrant flannel onesie. The googly-eyed mom sees the wife and lights up.  “Yay!” she says with a thumbs up.  “Skirts over pants is the only way to go!”

           "See?" says the wife, backhanding the husband across the chest.
           "See?" says the husband, patting the wife on the back.


From the Archives: Too Many Cook Spoil the Holidays*

Last Thanksgiving morning, with a bandwagon full of my in-laws due to arrive any moment, my husband and I decided to fight about the super-size turkey I had just wrestled into a cooler full of oranges, lemons, and salt water.  "You are going to waterlog the turkey," said my husband and cleared his throat to read from The Joy of Cooking.  “‘Do not soak the bird in water at any time.’”
            This came as a bit of a shock since last year, waterlogging was all the rage.  According to the New York Times, basting was out, brining was in.
            "But you can't brine without putting the bird in water," I argued.
            "Then you shouldn't be brining," my husband declared.
            I had to remind myself that my husband's uncharacteristic deferment to The Joy of Cooking was a case of displaced anxiety.  Being our first time hosting Thanksgiving dinner, we were all on edge.  My husband was worried that no one was going to show up.  I was worried that everyone was going to show up.  
            "But I've been telling you I'm going to brine for a week now," I said.
            "Well, I didn't know about the dangers of waterlogging until just a few moments ago," he said, tapping The Joy with his index finger.
            Fortunately, the phone rang.  Unfortunately, it was my mother.  Even though she was spending Thanksgiving at her brother's house, 1000 miles away, she was worried about our plates.  She had called three times in the past two days.  "But you don't have enough plates for all those people.  What are you going to do?"
            "Don't worry about it," I told her.
            "I'm not worried about it.  I just want to know what all those people are going to eat off of.  You can't use disposable plates for a Thanksgiving dinner, you know."
            "I'll borrow some, okay?"
            "If you would have let me know a little sooner I could have sent you some.  But you always have to leave everything till the last minute, don’t you?"
            So when my mom called on Thanksgiving morning I was poised to tell her that my mother-in-law was bringing plates.  But my mom didn't want to talk plates.  She wanted to talk turkey.
            "Is the turkey in the oven?"
            "No, it's brining."
            "Brining?  In water?"
            "Yes, in water."
            "Oh, I don't think you should do that."
            "It's already done."
            "Who told you to do that?"
            "The New York Times."
            "Well. . . . That is a good newspaper.  But you're going to waterlog the bird."
            After hosting Thanksgiving for thirty years straight, my parents were experts.  They had it down to a science.  Setting-up, cooking, cleaning-up was confined to a single day.  And brining was not part of the procedure.  The turkey was kept in the basement refrigerator until my mom woke before dawn on Thanksgiving morning.  She washed it, stuffed it, sewed it, and cooked it, so that when The Uncle arrived at five o'clock, the bird was ready for carving. 
            "Who is going to carve the turkey?" my mom asked.
            "I don't know."
            "What do you mean, you don't know.  Isn't your father-in-law going to carve the turkey?"
            "Is he going to bring his electric knife?"  Many years ago, The Uncle bought my mother an electric knife for Thanksgiving.  She has grown to believe that there is no possible way to carve a turkey other than with an electric knife.
            "I don't think he owns an electric knife."
            "If you would have only let me know sooner, I could have sent it along with the plates."
            "Mom, I gotta go."
            "Yes, you have to get that bird in the oven."
            By the time I got off the phone, my husband had forgotten all about the brining.  I hoped that he was doing something useful, like putting the leaves in the dining room table.  Instead, I found him upstairs. 
            "Look at this!" he said, pointing at our bedroom window with a tense index finger.  "Moisture!"  He shook some papers at me that he had printed from a government web-site.  "It says here, moisture on the windows is very bad.  We have to do something about it."
            I rubbed the moisture away with my sleeve.  "There," I said.  Down on the street we could see that the relatives had arrived.  On this side of the family, The Uncle brings cases of wine.  I’ll take that over an electric knife, any day.
            The telephone rang before we even served dessert. 
            “Well, how was the turkey?”
            “It was fine.”
            “Not as good as mine.”
            “Of course not, mom.”

*First printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  November 6, 2005  


Thank Pete

"Is it new?" my five year old daughter asked last night when I took my flute from its case.

"Better than new," I told her.

Exactly as Pete promised.


A Dangerous Beast

Like the werewolf, that half-man, half-beast, I have had to come to grips with the frightening but indisputable truth:  I am a creature controlled by some cruel fate that had twisted and warped my personality so that at the first sign of personal involvement, I became transformed from human being into the most feared and dangerous beast on earth, the observer-writer.
Neil Simon in the Introduction to The Collected Plays of Neil Simon. Volume 1.

Might this be the beast my mom saw lurking when she declared, just yesterday, after a conversation about hotel reservations, "And don't put that in your blog!"  Unlike with short stories, that seem to be theoretical at best, rarely appearing and even then, years after an initial inspiration, the blog is immediate.  I try to assure friends and family that the exposure is scarier for me than for them.  But my in-laws, in particular, can see right through that.  My father-in-law panics whenever I mention the word memoir, regardless of context, and demands never to be mentioned in mine nor anyone else's.  Suddenly, I am curious.  What is he so eager to hide?  My mothers-in-law, all of them, certainly provide a healthy quantity of material, but they, unlike my own mother, are somewhat immune, given that our relationship is optional rather than mandatory.  And even my own mother (mandatory), who was completely uninterested in the blog until discovering that she herself was a subject, is growing suspicious of the beast.  The children will have enough to rebel against without me publicly parading their innocence.  I am afraid that leaves only my husband highly vulnerable.  Those who know him will not deny that he is a gold mine of plot and dialogue, conundrum and controversy, quirk and contradiction.  He suggests that perhaps I participate all too eagerly in games of husband bashing.  It makes the mothers nervous.  But my dad gets it.  There's nothing funny about a couple who gets along famously.

So as the days draw near to Thanksgiving and the relatives begin to gather, I try to devise a disguise to hide the beast, one that will allow me to move about this, shall we say "idiosyncratic" family undetected, innocently serving turkey and stuffing while secretly gathering much needed fodder for the blog.  But I'm afraid that, no matter, they can no longer be fooled.  There is one mother-in-law, who always gleefully quotes Joan Didion when I am in ear-shot.  "Writers are always selling somebody out!"

The mild-mannered Human Being suddenly dashes for cover behind his protective cloak called skin and peers out, unseen, through two tiny keyholes called eyes.  He stands there undetected, unnoticed, a gleeful, malicious smirk on his face watching, penetrating, probing the movements, manners and absurd gestures of those ridiculous creatures performing their inane daily functions.  "How laughably that woman dresses . . .  How pathetically that man eats . . .  How forlornly that couple walks . . . " The writer is loose!
Neil Simon, ibid.

More stuffing, anyone?


Once a Kindergartner, Always a Kindergartner.

Last year when my daughter was in kindergarten, I sometimes went to school a half hour before the final bell rang in order to read to my daughter's class.  During one of those visits, I read Leo Lionni's Frederick.  At the end, one of the boys asked, "What's a poet?" So the next time I came in, I brought a book of Shel Silverstein poems marked with the ones I thought the kindergartners would enjoy.  While I was reading, the teacher, Mrs. S. disappeared to the office.  I decided then to read a poem called "Something Missing."

I remember I put on my socks,
I remember I put on my shoes.
I remember I put on my tie
That was painted 
In beautiful purples and blues.
I remember I put on my coat,
To look perfectly grand at the dance,
Yet I feel there is something 
I may have forgot--
What is it?  What is it? . . . 

My four year old daughter who always came with me to class called out, "His mittens!" even though the poem is accompanied by a drawing of a man exposing his dimpled back end.  We all had a good laugh about that.

When Mrs. S. came sweeping back into the room she had black markers and shiny white paper. "Now children, I will give you paper to illustrate your favorite poem."  To my horror, I saw every kid in the class hunched over their papers in grave concentration, each drawing their version of a grown man's naked ass.

Fortunately time was up, and Mrs. S. instructed the children that they could finish tomorrow and to stack their drawings in the basket.  In the rush of getting coats and backpacks, she came up to me and asked what poems I had read to the class.  Mrs. S. has the power to make everyone feel like a kindergartner.  I fumbled with the book, trying to come up with the proper answer.  Oh, forget it, she said, I'll figure it out later.

I worried that evening, that night, all the next day, about the children finishing their unfinished drawings and Mrs. S.'s reaction and the summons I would soon receive to the principal's office. Finally, it came time to head to school to pick up my daughter and her friend, M., who was coming home with us to play.  It was a chilly day, so the kids were lined up inside.  I stood outside and waved to the girls to come out.  That's when Mrs. S. saw me.  "Just a moment," she said.  "Can I have a word with you?"

My heart was thumping, my breath short.  "Sure," I squeaked.  I stepped inside.  Some of the kids gathered around, eager to hear.  Mrs. S. glared at them, and they shrunk away.  She turned a frown to me, bringing her stern face very close to my quivering ear.  "I just want you to be aware," she said, "That M. wetted her pants today.  There were many tears."  She herself came close to tears, so thoroughly does she commiserate with her students.  I was so relieved that I was not in trouble, I gave her a hug and said, "What great news that is!"


artist's fortune #8


All artists ponder, "Why do I create?"
Sometimes we fantasize that if our work becomes
respected and well known, the answer will be apparent. 
But the desire to be famous distorts our art. 
We grow increasingly frustrated and blocked. 
The question "why do I do what I do" looms larger and larger, marring our conscience. 
Only when we can separate the means of our art from the ends,
can we understand that the rumination of questions with
elusive, ephemeral answers is the answer in and of itself.


Journal. 10:13 am

They warn you.  Never start with the weather.  But the rain is falling hard for the first time in long enough that the rain is new and interesting to me this morning, cold and noisy since it is almost sleet and occasionally snow, like the moment we stepped out the door for school.  I drove the kids today because I had an appointment at the edge of town in a bland suburb where, on the door of a nondescript house was a little sign above the buzzer.  Emerson Instrument Repair.  It was the second indication that I had found a gem, the first being the fact that I was required to make an appointment.  Pete keeps a neat basement shop and wears a hearing aid and a black rubber glove on his left hand.  He shows me three clarinets waiting to be shipped back to Guam.  A third affirmation.  He calls my flute "a workhorse" that will last longer than either one of us.  He assures me he can make it sound better than new, and I believe him.

I rush home to make tea.  Suddenly, I am interested in Harold Pinter.  I first heard of him when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 and then again last year when his second wife, the biographer Antonia Fraser was promoting a memoir about their thirty-five year love affair.  She called him "uxorious," a new word to me that she defined as having excessive love for one's wife. No wonder why I had never heard of it.

My husband is not a sweet talker.  Earlier this year we got to interview each other for StoryCorps. Today, we were on Wisconsin Public Radio as they celebrate 50 years of Peace Corps service, a three minute clip from our 40 minute interview, a clip that's all too indicative, I suppose, of our relationship.  Here we have shared this vast experience together and yet we go on and on about the intimate details of a discarded spray bottle.  The man who conducted the interview did tell us that crying is a good way to get your interview on the radio.  I doubted that would happen.  But sure enough, as our time was running out, I leaned into the microphone and teared up telling my husband that going to Guatemala to visit him in the Peace Corps was the best decision I ever made. Silence.  "Now you say something nice to me," I told him.  He choked out a "Thank you."

Last week I randomly pulled a movie from the library shelf and came home to watch Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming."  My husband lasted 20 minutes.  My son declared it so boring.  But I was transfixed.  And now I'm on my Harold Pinter kick and writing a play of my own.  About marriage.  Of course, this worried my husband a bit.  "Are you just making it all up or basing it on real discussions you've had?"

A little bit of both, I tell him.  He doesn't ask which discussions nor who they were with.  He has his suspicions.

And the rain continues to fall.


Incident X

I was not present for Incident X, having left the party just after midnight, but I was the first to hear about it, told to me by our friend, R, the protagonist, shall we say, of Incident X.  My husband and I were staying at R. and his wife's house, and since I had gone to bed relatively early and since R. has been forever cursed with being an early riser no matter how late he stays up, I found R. awake when no one else was the morning after the party, watching television.  Naturally, I asked him how his night was.  And this is how I came to first hear of Incident X, the type of incident that makes a person laugh and cringe simultaneously, exactly what I did as I listened to R. tell the story.  When R's wife and my husband woke, I asked them how their night was, needing to hear their versions of Incident X, to which they were witnesses.  They were still a little bitter about Incident X, having forced them to walk further than a person wants to walk under such conditions at such an hour, so their first telling was not so vibrant, but after a couple of cups of coffee they came to life and added some details that R. had forgotten to tell, didn't remember, or had chosen not to tell.

We went out to breakfast and met up with some of the friends we were out with the night before but who didn't yet know about Incident X since the only ones involved were R, his wife, my husband, a cab driver, and a policeman.  These friends were not only intensely interested in Incident X, but found it incredibly funny, even funnier than I found it since they themselves, at one time or another, have been in similar predicaments.  Particularly funny to them was the loss of R.'s and my husband's debit cards which resulted in some of the more painful plot twists in the aftermath of Incident X.

R's wife's shoes, wore the night of Incident X

After breakfast we drove to the baseball game and met up with more friends who had been with us the night before, but who also did not yet know about Incident X.  By this time, I was familiar enough with the material to tell the story myself, starting with me urging my husband to come home with me at midnight.  As more friends gathered in the parking lot of the baseball stadium, more versions of the same story piled on top of one another.  There was nothing else that we needed or wanted to talk about that day.  At some point, my husband remembered that he had taken a video on his phone, and though it wasn't of Incident X itself, it captured R. in the back seat of the cab, shirtless, arguing with the turbaned cab driver, more interesting and funny than if my husband had captured Incident X itself.  Now we were able not just to tell the story, but to watch the faces of friends, joining us for the first time that day, including R's brother and sister-in-law, as they watched the video on my husband's phone of R. and the cab driver discussing a very sensitive issue.

Throughout the telling and retelling of Incident X, R remained in immensely good humor.  Some would argue he had no choice, but I think it's a testament to his dedication, sacrificing a bit of self-respect for the fine art of the development of a story.  And now we are looking forward to the day next spring when we will reunite with these friends for another round of parties, to celebrate the life of R's brother, a man we all knew and loved who died too young, who would have appreciated more than anyone, the making of a legend in his honor.


Before there was Steve Jobs

“As you know, a view of self is one of the last things you ever get straight.” Seymour Cray, Father of the Supercomputer, 1925-1996.

           When my brother came from San Francisco to visit, I took him to a small unobtrusive government building on the corner of Grand and Rushman, home of the The Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology.  “Are you here for Parks and Rec or the museum?” the woman at the front desk asked. She was surprised when we said the museum.  “There it is!” my brother cried.  “The Cray 1!” Back in 1988, my brother read an article in Time Magazine about Seymour Cray, Chippewa Falls’ most influential citizen.   For several years the article hung on his wall in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He never dreamed he would see a Cray computer himself.
For a  man who deemed himself a loner, who claimed to require only a few hours of human interaction a week, Seymour Cray had a striking insight into human character.   “People buy these great big computers emotionally,” Cray said in a November 1985 video interview on display at the museum.  “It’s not necessarily that they need them at all…and so aesthetics are very important.”  The machines are sixties-hip, both Star Trek retro and ultra-modern.  The  Cray 1, unveiled in 1975, is a  squat six-foot tower, a 12-sided C with vertical panels in maroon, green, black.  It is encircled by its cooling mechanism, doubling as a vinyl-covered bench.  Co-founder of Cray Research, Frank Mullaney, laughed that potential investors scoffed at the design.  “Some people were so unkind as to say the Cray 1 belonged in the lobby of a cheap hotel.”  But step inside the Cray 1 and you will find 200,000 integrated circuits and 67 miles of wire, a machine that took one year to assemble and was capable of doing 80 million operations per second, the fastest computer ever invented, a snail compared to the computer I type on today.
Seymour Cray worked out the arrangement of these wires with a very sharp #3 pencil and graph paper.  Cray said, “I like to stay with very primitive tools. . . . The fancier the tools, the greater percent of your time is spent working with the tool.”  One of his notebooks was on display.  My brother and I paged through it, marveling at the incomprehensible lists of numbers and letters, notes to himself which read like gibberish.  “Instruction stack.  Assume 8-8-8-8-16k  Coincidence fields.  Two 16x4 chip banks.  Four 4kx1 banks.”  This thought, written on 01-20-83 is followed by a circled “No.”  On another page, the only thing in the entire notebook not written square with the graph lines, the calculation, “256+18=274” 
Ask people around town about Seymour Cray and they will tell you that he kept to himself, wore a flannel shirt, drove a rusty old pick-up.  (His wife drove a Ferrari.)  A modest little museum, open only in the afternoons seems an appropriate match for a man who shunned publicity.  His greatest wish was to be left alone to do technical work.  When he got stuck on a problem, he dug, working on an 8 foot by 8 foot tunnel leading from his house out into the forest.  Although many people liken him to the world’s greatest inventors - Edison, Bell, Marconi - Cray himself seemed unimpressed by his own achievements.   “I took parts of different people’s ideas and put them together.  That’s why I call myself a packager.”
In the pouring rain, we drove to Gordy's supermarket to buy film for my brother's camera.  We returned to the museum where I took pictures of my brother standing inside the world's first supercomputer. 
“Everyone is going to be like, ‘My God, you got to touch one of those!’” 


The Girl with the Magical Mind

A while back, our ten year old son decided to forego trick-or-treating this year in order to hand out candy and scare the kids.  He wanted me to help decorate the porch, but I didn't feel like it.  So he put up spiderwebs and skeletons and mic-ed scary bird calls from our bird book and cranked up the haunted CD.  He dressed as a vampire and lay by the wicker basket in order to rise up just as the kids reached for the candy.  I was in a bad mood and wanted nothing to do with it, but spurred on by my son, dug through the costume bucket anyway and found a mask to cover my eyes and a devil's cap for my head.  I didn't want to talk to anyone, so with an eyeliner I stitched my mouth shut.  And then I sat on the porch in the orange plush lounge chair my husband recovered from the curb and stayed very still, not saying a word, which it turns out, is the scariest thing I could have done.

Girls from my son's class screamed.  Some kids wouldn't come onto the porch.  All regarded me from a distance with great suspicion.  Even my own daughters and their friends weren't daring enough to step onto the porch and ran off screaming.  Then there was M., a girl who lives near-by. Who are you? she asks, every time she sees me, genuinely interested to know.  It always throws me. Just saying my name doesn't seem to cover it, nor that I am a neighbor, nor that I am the mother of some kids at school, nor that I taught a yoga class that she briefly attended.  She always seems bemused by the world, a little confused and a little delighted and a lot curious.  Unlike the other children, she rushed towards our house, drawn in by that which scared the others.  As she took a piece of candy she smiled at my son and then stood, studying me.  She came very close, closer than even my husband dared, and looked me right in the eyes.  Then she put her thumbs up and said, "Nice job!"


Awkward Moment #32

Alexandra hoped her curt comment about the neighbor's rhododendron wouldn't inflict lasting psychological damage.


Dispatch from Guatemala #27

That night when A. and I left the office, the dirt streets were rising into the air.  Metal roofs creaked against the strain.  We passed by the caseta to say goodnight to Edgar.  He was pulling the window flaps down, his face tense. 
            "¿Te vas?"
            "No, no," he said and looked at his naked wrist.  "I'm going to stay open for another 45 minutes or so."  No one was around to buy beer and howl to the Ranchero music Edgar turned up loud to cover the lonely chill.  He waved letting us know that all was fine.  So we made our way home with dust stinging our eyes.
The morning was sunny but the trees still swayed uneasily, so it was hard to know exactly what to make of the day.  I walked to the corner tienda to buy chocolate for pancakes.  The fat fisherman's fat father called out from his permanent post, street side, squeezed into a plastic chair.  He was unintelligible, as usual, but he was gesturing towards the wall of vegetation and vines that hid our house from view.  "Only the banana tree fell," I told him.
            "You must eat them!" I heard, his jowls vibrating through the haze of dust.
Back at home with the chocolates, I opened the back door and inspected the yard.  Giant palm fronds lay criss-cross over the laundry lines.  Our flowering birds of paradise lay in the mud across the back step.  I convinced myself, after a while of staring at it, that the yard looked hauntingly beautiful.  Waves of shadows swept the green, a budding carpet of organic debris, happy accidents, as an art teacher of mine once called such things. 

The Rock Children were prowling around the yard picking up sticks and gnawing on green bananas.  Everyone I saw that morning was carrying sticks.  But the children scattered when they saw their father approaching our house.  He stood in our doorway pulling on his fingers and asked me if the big tree had fallen on our house in the night.  I looked at the tree in the corner of the lot, towering over our rooftop.  "No," I said, it hadn't.
            "Well, it was blowing like this," he said, and held his forearm parallel to the ground.  Then he told me that the roof blew off their house again.  I stared at the leaves and vines as if I could see through them to his house, a lean-to hunched between mounds of quarried rocks.  What was he asking of me?  Did he want me to help him put it back?  Should I buy his family a roof, a house, food, clothes, a different life?  Would giving him money solve any problems or just make things worse?  Would it bring an endless flood of others in need?  Would it give him another excuse to abandon his family?  He was, as far as we could tell, a mostly absent drunk, his wife without means to properly care for the five children.  He stood looking at me with red veined eyes.  I said, “Cuesta, la vida.”  He nodded, satisfied with that, and left without closing the gate behind him. 
I had work to do and sat down at the computer.  I didn’t get far before I heard hammering and yelling from the rock lot.  I should go help, I thought.  But instead, I remained, pecking at the keyboard, flipping through notebooks filled with illegible details about hotels and restaurants, convincing myself through a long and complex maze of justifications, that this was important work.  I typed words like: musty, hollow, branded, stiff, spongy, moon-like.  I was writing for a gold-covered tourist guidebook whose editors, I later discovered, did not appreciate my adjectives.  
            That afternoon the Rock Children appeared in the doorway, asking me to go for a swim.  We took along an inner tube and walked the wide dirt street two blocks to the lake shore.  I asked them if the roof was back on their house.  Julia, the second to oldest, slipped her hand into mine and smiled up at me.  Oscar, the baby of the family, held up a rotting fish by its tail.  The other kids giggled and ran. 
I floated the tube into the water and dove under.  I popped up inside its center and the Rock Children laughed at that.  For a while I was able to mimic their aimless and senseless play.  But I was soon distracted, my mind bent on churning out tourist guide drivel.  "Though it is not advisable to swim at noon, especially during periods of increased sun spot activity, taking a dip just off shore the quaint fishing town of El Estor may allow you to momentarily forget the gross ironies and offenses of a tourist based economy.  Be sure to bring your visor and watch out for the rusty hooks that hide among the water weeds on the rocky lake floor." 
            We were all shivering.  Oscar stood with his arms crossed over his naked body.  He looked at me the same way he did the other evening when A. and I stumbled across him squatting at the edge of the rock lot.  He had stared at us as if we were total strangers, though many times we had all swung in the hammock, sung songs together.  A. and I had joked that we just might adopt him because there was something about Oscar and the way he smiled that made us very happy.  But now, he was grave, as if he understand better than I what was really inside of me.
I walked back home and the children followed, their bare feet immune to sharp pebbles.  Oscar ran ahead and then attempted a somersault, tumbled and landed with his face to the sky, his tongue hanging out.  We all laughed and Oscar jumped up and smiled, showing off his rotting baby teeth and repeated the performance.  A woman passed us, her pleated knee-length skirt swaying as she walked.  She was carrying a pile of sticks.  But that was not so with everyone we passed.  Most of the sticks had been collected by now.  It was late in the day and the sun was setting over the far side of the long lake.  I began to think about dinner.  Maybe, when A. gets home, we will lock up and go to Edgar’s for a beer and fried fish, to see what news he has, what damage he suffered in the night. 
I stopped at our gate.  The Rock Children skipped and spun, Oscar making them laugh as they ran.  Having forgotten all about me, they disappeared behind the rock piles, to sleep in a house open to the whisperings of the sky.