Unusable Sources

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

A research paper is due, so there is a line of students waiting outside my office door. I think of giving tickets, like a short order cook. They all want the special: fix my paper. I am tired. I want to tell them that if they had listened, say, for the last month, they would be done with the paper. I want to tell them I don’t care that their boyfriend’s car broke down, that the daycare closed, that they had the flu for two weeks. These things have been happening to me too, I say. This, my friends, is what you call life. Suck it up and get your paper done.

When Mona comes in, she is in tears. Mona is about my age, but she calls me Ms. Whetstone. She is tall and broad shouldered, but slim. She might have played volleyball in high school. Her hair is straightened and dyed red, leaning toward burgundy. “I can’t do this paper,” she says. “These kids can look up all this stuff on the computer, but I can’t. I bet they can’t use a phonebook, but give me a phone book and I can find anything.

“Here,” I say, “Let’s see what we can find. “ I type a few words into the library search window and five good sources pop up. “You’re just not using the right search terms,” I say.

“Ms. Whetstone, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done besides getting clean,” she says.

I can’t believe this. Mona has become a kind of hero to me. She used crack for sixteen years, while I finished high school, went to college, got married, had kids, and worked. She finally got clean while I was finishing grad school. Her paper is on the challenges felons face in finding employment.

Mona is the only addict I have ever met who seems truly “clean,” as in not in danger of going back to addiction. I have been close a lot of addicts. Of course my parents, but friends too, co-workers, students–last semester, one of my students slipped back to heroin. There is, of course, nothing you can do about someone else’s addiction. Sometimes, people will still “just drink beer or smoke a little pot.” Some people maintain this, but it scares me to death. It’s a long, fast slide down. The heroin student had been clean for eighteen months before she went back to using. Mona has been clean for at least five years. She needs me to help her write a complete sentence. I need her to reassure my faith in the possibility of recovery. I’m not sure she even knows this is the deal. In other words, she has to write the research paper. There is no way in hell I am going to allow her to quit, phonebook or no.

The word recovery, according to the dictionary, means a return to a normal condition. Something gained or restored in recovering, the act of obtaining usable substances from unusable sources. Mona goes home, and my fear is not that she will not finish her paper. I just don’t want anything to break her. “I’m going to work all weekend on it,” she says. I show her how to integrate sources, how to back up what she knows. “It’s just a paper,” I say. I forget sometimes that words terrify people. Different things terrify me.

Mona shows up the day the paper is due, just like a made for TV movie, paper in hand, on time. The paper is too thin and probably has too few sources. I don’t care. She is smiling. She tells a young, terribly anxious student not to worry about his oral presentation. She has not slipped away, irrevocably. Something has been gained or restored.




All obstacles in my way

April 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

My best friend Elizabeth got glasses when we were twelve. I wanted some–anything to be just like her. She was getting braces too. I wanted those at first, but I wised up on that one by the time I was fifteen and heard the urban myths about braces getting locked together in a kiss. You couldn’t shame yourself with glasses. At least not that bad. You could just look smart, and you could get funky cat-eyed frames from a thrift store and have them converted to your prescription. This is a fantasy my friend Pam actually fulfilled, which is only one of the indicators of her perennial coolness.

I have been stopping at the rotating reader stand at the grocery check out for at least five years. You know the one—with the little mirror at the top, right next to the magazines? My ice cream and frozen vegetables would soften as I tried on different prescriptions, read the eight-point font, and chose another pair. They were all just a little too strong. I was only embarrassed once, when a hot young guy looked at me, like, get out of the aisle old lady! I put the readers back on the rack and slunk away.

“Be happy you don’t need glasses!” Jeff would tell me. “Nobody wants glasses. You’re so weird.” My friend Kathy humored me by giving me an old pair of readers. “they’re not those, ’look! I’m wearing glasses’ type” she says. Those, of course, are they kind I want. Hers were a little too strong. Then I lost them. But finally, this year, I mistook a B for an 8, and I had to extend my arm to read a medicine bottle. Some dreams do come true!

The optometrist (I’ve learned this should not be confused with opthamologist or optician, though I can never remember which is which) came recommended by Jeff and Kathy. He has certainly hosted a game show, at least in his mind. He greets me with a wide smile and conservative, wire-rimmed glasses. He is cordial and gabby. Within five minutes I know about his entire family history. “Would you please go the room on the right, Stephanie, “ he says, sweeping his arm in that direction. I go to the right, sit nervously on the chair. Maybe he will think I’m exaggerating. I always have this fear at doctor’s offices—that I will be seen as a hypochondriac.

He switches lenses in front of my eyes as I look at the letter chart. “Which is better?” he asks,” Number one or number two?” “Number one is clearer,” I say. He has this habit of sucking back the excess spit that forms in his mouth when he’s talking so fast. “Sssssssttt. Going with number one!” he says with the same enthusiasm he might have used had I chosen door number one, with the Cadillac behind it. “Now which is better, more focused, Number one or Number two?” “Two,” I almost whisper. “She likes number two better this time!” he booms. We continue, until I have won the prize! “Sssssssttt. You are not imagining it,” he says. “Your eyes have had too many birthdays. If I had a quarter of a cent for every time I’ve told someone that,” he says, “I’d have more money than the lottery! Sssssssttt.” This is not exactly the way I always imagined it. Not the “too many birthdays” part, at least. Still, I am happy. I get glasses and my prescription isn’t sold in the grocery store, so I get real frames! I think you know what I’ll pick.

Where’s My Other Brain?

April 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Where’s my other brain?!” I say this with my eyes closed, teeth clenched, remembering the eleven-year-old boy who said this to Jeff years ago when he forgot to bring his camera to class. I have forgotten to do something, again, and so the phrase pops up. It is perfect, the idea that should my familiar brain fail me, there is another, ready to go, if I can just find it. How can I find it?  If I were eighteen, or if I were who I am now, but eighteen, I would study the brain. I’d prove the existence of the other brain.

Now, the brain is attacking me from all sides. My mother-in-law is changed, but still her elemental sweet self with Alzheimer’s. Every person I have ever introduced her to is “soo pretty!” Not a bad way to see the world. She remembers the deepest things, but forgets anything recent, like where she is. She tells old stories over and over, but isn’t this what we all do inside our heads? Maybe she has just shed the filter. My old stories talk to me every day. It’s the fact that she doesn’t remember who she was to all of us that makes us sad.

My mom, her own brain impaired, could not believe that my Dad’s brain had changed. About a year and a half after my dad’s stroke, she called me in tears, “I talked to the doctor,” she said, “Your dad has brain damage.” Of course he did. I mean, isn’t that what a stroke means? Hadn’t we known that, like, since the swallow test? She could not imagine my dad without his brain. I find this oddly romantic. She fell in love with his smarts, his ability, as well as his 6 ft. 2, skinny frame. It explains  a lot.

I remember flying to my friend Swooze’s wedding outside of San Francisco when I was seven months pregnant with Cole. I read on the internet that my baby’s brain was forming, that everything I did would shape how he thought. This scared me to death. I ate ice cream, went swimming, marveled at the redwoods and the beauty of my friends, their newlywed happiness. I hope he stored all this in the deep recesses of his brain. He turned out smarter than either of his parents.

I have stuffed a lot down into the foxholes of my brain,stored it in my other brain, so even when people don’t recognize me, I recognize myself.



Who needs Doris Day?

April 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

I am driving down Main Street with my sister Leigh Ann. “Did you see that?” she says. “No, I’m driving,” I say. “That license plate says April 3.” We both know this is my mother’s birthday, and we take it as a sign. We decide, after consulting Leigh Ann’s friend Lou, that it means we should celebrate my mother’s birthday, instead of marking the day she died. In other words, nothing has changed. She wants a party.

We are used to signs. There are markers through my days of what I interpret to be messages: cars, words on billboards, songs, menu items, an old man’s glasses. It doesn’t take much. My great grandmother read playing cards, but only some of the time, because she was Baptist. My mom introduced us to psychics and tarot when I was a kid. My dad didn’t really believe in all that, but he, a math major, played the lottery. I may not be very religious, but I am some kind of believer, from a long line of believers.

I have dreamt of my mom, and she is usually at the beach, tan and covered in sand, which is no surprise.  We used to call her “Shake and Bake.” If there is a heaven, that is hers.  I have been “seeing” signs of her around lately, and I decide it’s because of her birthday.  Leigh Ann and I usually spend the significant days of my parents’ lives together, often at a French restaurant, which they would have liked, or getting our toes done in some gaudy color my mom would have approved of.  We make plans to be together April 3rd.

I am cooking Monday night and listening to the radio. I hear, on NPR, that April 3rd is Doris Day’s 88th birthday, and it pisses me off that my mom would have been 68, and Doris has had twenty more years than her, and counting.  Who the hell needs Doris Day? She might have been the very downfall of my mother, a bad role model for a young perfectionist. She was the purveyor of an impossible happiness.

I have a strange talent for remembering birthdays, even those of people I don’t know very well. Jeff doesn’t understand my fixation, but he is the baby boy, so what would he know? In a family of five girls, you get one day a year when you are the center of attention. One day of recognition, of acting the favorite. No one hates it when you remember their birthday.

Yesterday, technically April 3rd, at midnight, I get on facebook to see what people have to say about Kentucky winning the NCAA championship, something I am interpreting as a gift either to or from my mother. I grew up a UK fan, and I love a lot of people who still love the Cats, including my mom and dad.  I see, to my surprise, that I have not only posted, but sent a special card to my mom. I know there are computer programs that make these things up in some attempt to gain information, but I did not do this. I have never done this and well, my mom’s facebook page has been a little, um,  dormant for the past year. I am so freaked out, I immediately delete the card without clicking on it. I immediately regret this, but it is already gone.

I guess this is a sign she wants a card. She wants to be remembered. Happy Birthday, Mom.

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