February 27, 2014 § 2 Comments
“The words you choose, the abstract nouns, or ideas, and the verbs, those shape what you are trying to say. Your words become your sentences, which become your paragraphs, which become your essay. Get the words right first and you will say what you want to say: the abstract nouns and the verbs are what counts.” I tell this to my composition class, but as always, I am really telling myself, in my lifetime of composition, of making a life from words.
Tomorrow, future tense, is the anniversary of my Mother’s death. I’m looking at it in the past tense, and the distance helps. Still, I wish she’d died on the 29th, so I only had to feel this once every four years. She was so close to that miracle of numbers, that lunacy of a solar calendar, but like everything else in her life, so far. I think about the present progressive, as I learned it, now called the present continuous. It’s ongoing, in the moment, the most forgiving tense. You’re still trying. The problem is, you can’t see the end of it; the beauty is, you can’t judge it yet. There is no end. I am going, I am living, I am thinking, I am feeling, but nothing is finished yet. Nothing is gotten over. She is present. It is happening now, or every day, depending on your interpretation.
I have an idea what you’re thinking: isn’t three years enough? But I am thinking, I am remembering, I am in the middle of life and this state and I am ever present.
On the upside, my mom is continuing. She is the subject, here and ongoing, for me and anyone else in her sentence, her paragraph, her story. I am not focusing on the past. I am going, each day. I am remembering, I am still loving, I am continuing, and maybe progressing.
February 18, 2014 § 2 Comments
“Damn it,” Jeff says. “That’s it. I can’t see the Olympics. I’m ordering cable.” He has always been a fan of figure skating; he had a huge crush on Surya Bonaly.
“No! Can’t we just get a new antenna or something?” I say. “We can’t go back. Surely there’s a way.” NBC is a snowy black and white dream image, but we can kind of make out the skaters. Enough to know who wins.
See, it has gotten to be a thing with me. I refuse to pay for nine million channels I don’t want, just so I can watch sports. We learned how to get Duke basketball games from a European website (from a friend who shall remain nameless). We got a digital antenna for most of the local channels. Everything was perfect. We could get Netflix and basketball—what more did we need? My children were totally used to the scantily clad women advertised in the millions of pop-up screens before each game.
“Delete the girl with the butt,” I’d say, and they’d do it like I’d said, “turn up the volume.” Even early on, when we were offered Russian Brides who were really hot for us, we weren’t phased. The ends justified the means. This was ACC basketball we were talking about, after all. My boys understood the urgency. We made jokes about the bad feeds and rebooting. “Look, Mom,” Jack Henry would say when the feed lapsed and players were stuck in motion. “That guy has some serious hang time.”
My sister with a background in copyright law was a bit concerned, but I argued it was not like ripping off artists. “We already pay for Internet, but they won’t give us access to the ESPN websites.” She turned a blind eye, even though I could tell she didn’t approve. Like I said, it’s basketball.
Let me flash back here to the quadrennial family gatherings of my and Jeff’s youth: The Olympics really were an event, and not just an advertising bonanza, though they were that too. No, my children, in the olden days, we gathered around the television and watched the USA as a family. We hung on the announcers’ every word. For every sport, But this was before Slope style and Ice Dancing. This was in the days of the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat. For both my family and Jeff’s, this was patriotic. We had, after all, just boycotted the Olympics in Russia. Still, I was in love with the most Russian of sports: gymnastics in the summer and figure skating in the winter. My birthday falls smack in the middle of the winter games and I would imagine myself ascending the podium and Peggy Fleming or someone saying: She gave it her all, on her seventeenth birthday, and it was enough to bring home the gold for the USA. Never mind that I was never outstandingly athletic in any sport. I could still imagine it. Never mind that when Jeff sees CO4U on the screen, he sees a weird code; when I see it, after studying four years of Russian in college, I read Sochi in Cyrillic. The Olympics in Russia! We knew we could not miss the games, even if it meant giving into the capitalist system. It was our duty as Americans.
At work, on one campus where I teach, I sit in a cube behind a Russian woman. She sits behind a Brit. You can’t help hearing everything in a cube farm, and I’m nosy.
“What do you think of the Olympics being in Sochi?” the Brit asks the Russian.
“It’s great! We used to gather around the TV,” the Russian says. She is maybe a few years older than me, “The whole family would watch figure skating,” she says. She still has the accent you imagine. “Even my grandmother. It was a big deal, even though it was in black and white. We would listen to the announcers because we couldn’t see the colors. They would describe everything. I miss that.”
I don’t say anything, since I’ve been like, spying on a Russian speaking to a Brit, but I want to tell her I know how it feels. I miss it too, the imagining the Olympics as they happen. Now, I’m willing to pay anything. I want be nostalgic the American way: in HD.
February 6, 2014 § 6 Comments
“When I die, I don’t want to be found,” I say to Jeff in the car on the way to a concert.
He laughs. “What? You mean found at all? Like your body will disappear? That’s morbid.” He is used to the way my mind wanders to odd things, my dark thoughts, but he doesn’t get what I mean.
“No, it’s not funny,” I say. “Don’t be a jerk. I don’t want to be found dead.” He is quiet.
“Like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like my mom. Face down on the carpet. Or in the bathroom. The only people found dead are murdered, or they’re addicts.”
“Homeless people are found. Or people who have heart attacks,” he says. I look at him with the “stop talking” look. He stops talking.
This is the week my Intro to Lit class reads Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Do you know what the blues are? I ask. They don’t really know. For real—they don’t know. I explain. I play Billie Holiday. I think they get it. Look at her face singing “Strange Fruit,” I say. “Like she’s about to be sick from singing the words.” How could they not get it? I have to tell them what it means to “feel blue.” They get it. They just never heard it said that way because instead they say, “feeling some kind of way.” “Blue” is better, I say.
Blue, like the color you turn when you die, I think, but I don’t say this because they already think I’m kind of weird and depressing. I, of course, told them first thing that “only trouble is interesting.”
I go back, like a lot of my friends in shooting range of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s age, to the inevitability of death, the possibility that we will fall into this hole, the jolt of fear that all of our beloved addicts bring with them everywhere they go. Raise your hand if you have been touched by addiction, I say. Your family, your friends, your neighbors. Two thirds of the class raises their hands. I suspect the other one third are better secret keepers. Maybe the addicts we love will fall back into the abyss and end up in the ground. It has happed to me. Twice. I don’t tell my students this. I tell them that Sonny feels this pain and suffering for everyone through his music and lets it all go, even though I am not an optimist when it comes to addiction. Somehow, at least for the length of the story, Sonny lives. For Sonny, it’s heroin or music. For my mom and dad, it was alcohol and nothing creative, except maybe children. Okay, it was alcohol.
When my father fell off the yellow couch, into the floor with liver failure, and my mom didn’t know whether or not to call 911 because everyone in their small town would know; when my mother was found, face down on the white carpet, dead, I was in shock. The real kind. I didn’t want a drink, which people tell me is good. I wanted it to be untrue. I wanted it to all go away, to disappear, like any other secret. It didn’t.
Philip Seymour Hoffman haunts me. He is proof that we all want to pretend this isn’t happening to two thirds of the families we know. His death is proof that we are still ignoring the inside of things as long as the surface is beautiful—when the fact is, our beautiful lives could end, will end. When we die, we might be found alone. And someone will feel a guilty sense of relief that it is finally over, along with impermeable sadness. I know I am right on this one.