Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Birthday Wish

Today is my friend Carrie’s 24th birthday. I thought I’d call her and sing “Happy Birthday” (or “Go Shorty, it’s your birthday”), but as I scanned my cell phone contacts, I jumped from “Aunt Elyse” to “Charles.” No Carrie. I phoned Carrie’s parents -- whose number I know by heart -- but I got their answering machine. I left a message.

Carrie, wherever you are, I hope you’re celebrating.

The reason I know the number of Carrie’s parents is: I dialed it nearly every single day of my childhood. Carrie was my first friend in Murfreesboro. On a summer afternoon in 1985, I marched down the street to her family’s pale yellow house, knocked twice on the door and, upon finding her on the other side, announced, “I’m Jesse, and I’m four and a half.” Carrie asked, “What does ‘half’ mean?” Duh. I replied, “It means you’re almost five.” Carrie said, “I’m three and a half.”

I wasn’t too sure about playing with younger kids, but I saw the Disney train set on her living room floor and decided she might not be so bad -- for a child.

Remember all the great toys of the ‘80s? Barbie and the Rockers. My Little Pony. Smurfs. Carrie and I played with all of these. Our favorite thing to do was to pretend. One afternoon, we would be schoolteachers, trying to corral an unruly bunch of bears and Popples. Next, we were brave single moms whose husbands had gone to war, leaving us to care for the Cabbage Patch dolls. On rainy afternoons, we were Civil War doctors -- the thunderclaps were cannon fire.

As we got older, we built our play repertoire. In the heyday of New Kids on the Block, we became FBI agents, trying to track down dangerous Donnie Wahlberg . We practiced shooting at each other with the “Duck Hunt” gun from Carrie’s Nintendo set (much to the chagrin of our parents, who were sure we’d inflict radiation damage). When Carrie’s mom and dad got a video camera, we filmed several episodes of a “Wayne’s World”-style show. We called our program “Under the Covers,” though we weren’t exactly sure what that meant.

Carrie and I never attended the same school, but I know that her first-grade teacher was Mrs. Dolly Jolly. (Mine was less-dramatic Dr. Jones.) We couldn’t swap secrets about our classmates, but we enjoyed tormenting our neighbor, Nathaniel. During caterpillar season, we told Nathaniel we could make the caterpillars “throw up.” We then smushed the poor crawlers until they oozed green. Maybe my vegetarianism grew out of caterpillar remorse.

Puberty hit -- wham. Carrie’s parents enrolled her at Central Middle, where most of my elementary school buddies wound up. My parents sent me to Webb, a private boarding/day school. I’ve never regretted Webbhood -- in 7th grade I met two non-Murfreesboro kids who were to become my best friends. I doubt I could’ve made it to my quarterlife crisis without Hillary and Jessica.

Still, the distance between 119 Cherry Lane and 133 Cherry Lane grew a lot larger.

Carrie eventually became a “Riverdale Warrior;” I stayed a “Webb Foot.” Our family pets -- the cats and dogs we used to dress in baby clothes -- got older and crankier.

By 1998, my New Kids on the Block posters had been off the walls for at least seven years. I replaced them with prints of Wellesley’s Tower Court and Founders Hall.

Several weeks before I left for college, I called Carrie’s house one more time. We couldn’t legitimately play Barbie Beauty Pageant anymore, but we could make a last CJDJ tape.

CJDJ -- the Carrie and Jesse Disc Jockey Show -- began as an excuse to play Carrie’s Dirty Dancing record five or six times in a row. With advanced recording technology, we could eventually tape our voices interspersed with favorite Top 40 hits. “And now, here’s Whitney Houston reminding you that the greatest love of all is right inside of you!”

After preparing our traditional CJDJ snack of Fritos topped with melted Cheez Whiz, Carrie and I took a couple of Cokes from the fridge and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

Testing….testing….and RECORD.

“The Last CJDJ” cassette is with me in Honesdale, but I’m not going to listen to it tonight. I know that it includes the song “How’s It Gonna Be” by Third Eye Blind. “How’s it gonna be when you don’t know me anymore?” Seemed ridiculous at the time -- the idea that Carrie and I would turn into almost-strangers. “You seriously think I’m going to lose your phone number?” I would’ve told her. “Come on!”

Sometimes I think about a quotation that Carrie posted on her door when we were 11 or 12: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw, according to Google. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if we hadn’t stacked the Barbies in boxes and sent them to the attic. What if we’d set aside time for prom planning and “Oregon Trail”?

Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Despite what Jon Knight sings on his last New Kids on the Block album, age isn’t “just a number” -- it’s a state of mind.

Two whole decades have passed since I stood in front of Carrie’s door. If I could rewind 20 years, I’d introduce myself all over again. I just wouldn’t leave quite so soon.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Smiling into the Abyss

Last night I watched the movie Coffee and Cigarettes -- a little slow for my taste (despite the stimulant-ridden title), but I do like this line, delivered from one weathered old man to another: “You know what your problem is, Bill? You lack joie de vivre.”

I know how Bill feels. This was a joie-less week for me. Maybe I’ll blame it on the overcast weather, or those ever-raging hormones. On Tuesday night, I held back my tears in karate class, as I couldn’t remember the difference between a roundhouse and a side kick. On Wednesday night, I cried as I sat alone and casserole-less in my apartment. (Mary is visiting family in California. Mary! Come back!) I took a 2-hour hiatus from melancholy on Thursday, so I could watch “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” and play with my neglected hermit crabs. But Friday marked a return to sorrow, when I lost a duel with the copy machine at work. (In the words of my comrades from Office Space: “PC Load Letter?? What the f-ck?!”)

Even as I sat in my darkened living room communing with Axl Rose and his mournful “Don’t Cry,” I realized how ridiculous my depression appeared. On IM, I whined to Hillary: “My bangs are too long. My skin is breaking out. My hands are cold. I think I have poor circulation. I’m falling apart.”

Jessedelta: pooor jessssseeeee
htspiller: *cue violins*

Poor, misunderstood me. By Friday night, I’d exhausted my supply of ennui, and my spiritual connection with Axl had grown stale. I had to do something with myself.

So, I lassoed my friends Joelle and Paul into attending an open mic poetry reading with me. Big mistake.

The reading was held at the Himalayan Yoga Café downtown. In addition to chai and muffins, the Café sells New Age-y music and books. To give you an idea of the atmosphere, I wrote down a few of the titles for sale: Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill; The Power of Now; Lighting the Flame of Compassion. The place smells like incense -- natch.

I’m sure that most of the poets had flames of compassion burning somewhere within. Unfortunately, these flames were no match for their conflagration of angst. The first woman who read -- a petit Indian lady dressed in gauzy pink robes and a jean skirt -- spoke of her father’s heart surgery. “I’m glad my girls can see me this way,” the woman’s dad told her. “When we’re healthy, we walk around wearing emotional masks. This is the true me: weak and helpless.”

The third poet honored Arbor Day by lamenting our planet’s state of environmental decay: “Pollution seeps from the sidewalk cracks. Acid rain burns the sky.”

I bit the insides of my cheeks and tried to focus on the pilates videos displayed nearby.

In the middle of all this sighing and gnashing, a fifth-grade girl stepped up to the podium. Her poem was called “Happiness.” The meter wasn’t particularly fancy -- all of her lines took the “Happiness is…” form. “Happiness is an ice cream cone. Happiness is a sunny day. Happiness is a kiss from my dog.”

You’d think my tolerance for this type of poem would be low, considering my current occupation. At that moment, however, I wasn’t far from requesting a framed copy.

I had a last, long sobfest after I returned to my apartment. I also gave my mom an earful of moodiness on the phone -- she and my grandparents are visiting my cousin Parker and his family now, as Parker makes his stage debut in his high school’s production of Bugsy Malone. I’d really like to be with my family . . . but happiness is what we make it. If you don’t have a big reason to be happy, I guess you do the best you can.

So, yesterday morning I made a grocery list and bought ingredients for M&M cookies. I spent the day baking and singing Michael Jackson. For the record, whatever the Jackson verdict turns out to be, “Billie Jean” still kicks it.

Later yesterday evening, I dusted off one of my cookbooks and invited Paul and Joelle to dinner and Blockbuster. My pasta puttanesca could’ve used more tomato juice, but my guests were nice enough not to complain. Between the three of us, we decided that we can pen a collection of heart-wrenching, fist-clenching verse. Joelle suggested the title: The Babbling Brook in the Abyss of My Soul. It’s a work in progress.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Heaven and Hilton

“He’s not my Pope” -- this post-white-smoke announcement came from my boss yesterday. Actually, “announcement” probably implies too much force. My boss is Methodist, and so I’m guessing the Pope would agree with her. “No, lady, I’m not.” Also, we were standing in front of a mounted television at the Scranton Hilton, where the presence of an all-you-can-eat snack buffet apparently dissolved most people’s interest in the papacy.

I nodded and said something profound such as, “Yeah.” After spending eight straight hours in the Hilton ballroom listening to the lecturer du jour, I could hardly muster the energy to eat my bag of Doritos, let alone discuss the high and mighty Roman-Numeraled.

Ironically enough, the topic of this draining day-long lecture was resilience. Specifically: how can we help children overcome stressful life events? The speaker, Dr. Robert Brooks of McLean Hospital, displayed such a nice sense of humor that I caved and bought one of his books: The Power of Resilience (subheader -- “Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life.” Wish me luck.).

I’m Episcopalian, and while I’ve heard my religion described as “Catholic Lite,” I doubt that Cardinal Ratzinger will ever sprinkle holy water on my doorstep. Yesterday’s New York Times online edition noted of Benedict XVI:

“His well-known stands include the assertion that Catholicism is the ‘truth’ and other religions are ‘deficient;’ the spiritual weakness of the modern, secular world; a sense that Catholicism is in competition with Islam; and opposition to homosexuality, women as priests and stem cell research.”

From this description, I get an image of the new Pope as that really cool kid in high school who would only let certain people sit at his lunch table. The words “weakness,” “competition,” and “opposition” don’t sound too welcoming to me.

Even though Benedict XVI isn’t “my Pope,” I’m disappointed. One of my top-ten favorite things about Jesus is His inclusiveness. Prostitutes? Bless them. Tax collectors? Why not?

I still can’t get over the part of church where Jesus forgives me all of my sins. Every Sunday (when I drag myself out of bed), I recite along with the congregation: “Jesus, we confess that we’ve sinned against You in thought, word, and deed. We have not loved You with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” Every Sunday, the priest replies, “Our Lord Jesus Christ forgives you all of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

I want to say, “Hey, Jesus….You’re making a big mistake. I’ve done some really dumb stuff this week, and it might not be wise to forgive me so easily. For instance, instead of reading about the situation in Dafur, I Googled articles on Britney Spears’ pregnancy. Also, I wasn’t too productive at work. And I played Ludacris at top volume on my iPod. Do you have Ludacris in heaven? I don’t think so.”

In this Hilton lecture, Dr. Brooks linked children’s resilience with the presence of “charismatic adults” in their lives. Charismatic adults are adults from whom a child gathers strength. These grown-ups provide unconditional love and support -- they accept kids’ mistakes and encourage growth and change. As a matter of fact, Dr. Brooks believes we all could use at least three charismatic adults.

I wish the Pope could be one of my charismatic adults. I could use some earthly spiritual guidance. It’s good to know, though, that Jesus wants to be in my top three. He lacks the visibility of the Pope, but I feel fairly certain He’d welcome me at His lunch table. He might even share my chips.

Monday, April 18, 2005

On a Lighter Note (with heavier breathing)....

This morning my naughty, saucy friend Hillary requested a blog essay about porn. I don't know enough porn to fill an entire essay, but perhaps this will do:

A Limerick About Porn

I've seen parts of Debbie Does Dallas,
And I'm sure this opinion seems callous --
But I'd rather play gin
Or read "Gunga Din"
Than watch thirty minutes of phallus.

bow chicka bow bow.....

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Meditation on Anger

Last night I saw the movie The Upside of Anger. I thought this might be a good opportunity to write a bit about anger -- it’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore for awhile. I hope you’ll stick with me through this long essay, and offer ideas if you have them. I haven’t reached any conclusions yet.

I’ve spent most of my life avoiding anger. This is not to say that I’ve ever had many reasons to feel angry. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where voices were never raised. On the few occasions when I lashed out against my mom (I didn’t mess with Dad….surprised, Dad?), Mom calmly sent me to my room. My remorse kicked in after a few minutes, and I slunk downstairs to apologize.

I remember Dad once telling me something like, “All families aren’t as peaceful as ours.” After witnessing a few blow-out fights between my friends and their siblings (and sometimes between my friends’ parents), I concluded he was right. And I felt happy -- grateful that I could play my way through childhood without shouting and smacking.

My calm childhood segued into an un-rebellious adolescence. Kids at Youth Leadership camp called me “Sandra Dee” (“I don’t drink or swear / I don’t wrap my hair / I get ill from one cigarette”).

Until recently, I wasn’t even sure I could feel anger. “Recently” means three years ago, when I started teaching. My first year in the classroom, Calvin S. did everything he could to disrupt order. And it made me furious.

Calvin is the product of the worst kind of incest: his parents are brother and sister. Upon learning that Calvin had been placed in my classroom, the other teachers shook their heads in sympathy. “There’s not much you can do with Calvin” was the general sentiment. Of course, I puffed up with the idealism of a first-year teacher: “Not much you can do with Calvin! Just wait! Calvin will be reciting Shakespeare by the year’s end!”

I know of many teachers and ex-teachers who might have “done something” with Calvin. Unfortunately, I had so much trouble keeping order with my other 13 or 14 students that Calvin -- who could barely write his name -- became just another annoyance. Most of the time, I let him play with toy cars during class. Technically, I didn’t have to “teach” him anything, because he received all of his report-card grades from his resource classes. I should have worked with him anyway, but I didn’t.

Ignored by me and frequently teased by the other students, Calvin sought attention any way he could. He threw stuff around the room. He made faces behind my back. He picked fights with the other kids. Once or twice he dumped the garbage can on the floor. It may have been after a garbage-can dumping that I reached breaking point. I yelled at him, and then I punished him in a truly shameful manner. I’m not going to tell you what I did -- it’s too embarrassing even to write -- but I will say that it involved physical discomfort, and it made Calvin cry.

I’d like to assure you that, after this incident, I never again lost my temper with my students. That would be untrue. Some afternoons, I left school hoarse from screaming. Several times, I grabbed students by the shoulders or arms. My anger endangered my career, and it scared me. When May 2004 came and my teaching commitment ended, I felt mostly relieved. Class dismissed. Anger dismissed.

Well, most of you know what comes next. It’s almost comical…like in the movies, when J. Lo or Meg Ryan announces, “I’ll never fall in love again!” right before Matthew McConaughey enters the frame. In July 2004 I launched a capital-R Relationship with an intelligent, charming, endearingly goofy guy. In December 2004 the Relationship ended extremely badly. The specifics aren’t very important (chances are, we’ve discussed it already). We can just say that, for the first time ever, I became a “victim” -- and afterwards, I felt really, really angry.

This anger was different from the anger I experienced as a teacher. Education gurus say that when you lose your cool with a child -- scream, yell, hurt -- it’s a sign that you’ve lost control, and it’s pretty much your fault. My anger at Calvin was a product of many mistakes I made in his instruction and discipline. I took my anger out on him, but, really, I was angry at myself for failing him.

What happened in December wasn’t my fault. I may have spent a few anxious moments blaming myself, but, deep down, I knew that the person who lovingly called me “Sister Golden Hair“ didn‘t love me in the end. Four days after my Relationship ended in Tennessee, I flew back to Pennsylvania. I no longer had a target for my anger, but I didn’t stop feeling angry.

In the past couple of months, I’ve done many things to deal with my anger. I’ve cried to friends who have been patient in listening to me. I’ve talked with a therapist. I’ve taken a few karate classes (which I’ll probably write about later). I’ve chatted with God and read lots of Anne Lamott.

I keep hoping for a deus ex machina to take my anger away, but I’ve concluded that no such miracle is going to happen. When I asked my therapist how to handle anger, she admitted that she lacked a “magic cure.” Sometimes I answer letters from Highlights readers who are angry -- I tell them to “take a deep breath and count to ten.” This probably works in some situations, but I’ve been counting to ten for a long time now. No big changes yet.

The Upside of Anger doesn’t have many answers, either. The movie’s message seems to be that anger happens, but the “upside” is anger‘s potential to transform us. Joan Allen copes with anger by drinking a lot and snapping at her daughters. After a few months, Kevin Costner stumbles into her life, and things get a little better. For a few minutes. Then they get worse for months. Then they get better. Et cetera.

Maybe “big changes” never happen. Maybe it‘s a process. Back in January, I was searching for transformation in the middle of anger. Now, I’m occasionally encountering anger in the midst of transformation. For today, that's enough.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Occupational Hazard

Two questions: when’s the last time you heard someone say, “I love my job!”? What misfortune did you instantly wish upon that person? “I love my job!” Oh, really? And where were you on September 11th? Loving one’s job is downright un-American. Saddam Hussein probably loved his job before he was downsized to cave-dwelling.

That said: I have a pretty sweet job. And it’s making me slightly miserable.

Yesterday I gave a tour of Highlights to 14 writing workshop participants. Outside of Nissan, I can’t think of any corporation that willingly offers tours of its offices. And I bet most people take the Nissan tour because they want to ride in those funky golf carts. The tour groups that trickle into Highlights once or twice per month show enthusiasm on par with Dorothy entering Oz. I fully believe that many of these Honesdale tourists expect to be greeted by the Munchkin Mayor. “We represent the Timbertoes League!”

Inevitably, someone among the tour group---some grinning Virginian or New Jerseyite---will say, “It must be so much fun working here!” Often, this statement is accompanied by a conspiratorial wink. Like a good tour guide, I smile politely: “Oh, yes! It’s lots of fun!” I want to add, “Magazine editors hardly work at all! In fact, all of our proofreading and layout work is done by little elves who enter our offices overnight. We spend our mornings and afternoons frolicking with the local woodland creatures.”

I have yet to spy a gnome or nymph at Highlights. But privately, I’ll admit: many parts of my job are (sigh) fun. I spent all of Tuesday testing toys for the Highlights product catalog. It’s hard to complain about playing portable mini-golf and applying glitter glue to fairy wings. On Wednesday, I shared our riddle page with a focus group of third and fourth graders. What shoes do sea creatures wear? High eels.

Hardly any of my friends have fun jobs. (Wynne, I know you enjoy your job….but would you really call anti-tobacco research “fun”?) Last year, I could spend hours swapping on-the-job horror stories. As a relatively untrained 4th grade teacher, I owned the job-misery trump card. “Oh, I’m sorry you had to alphabetize file folders this afternoon,” I could say. “Today a 10 year old called me ‘chickenhead’ and threw up on my arm.”

Now, I’m forced to exaggerate the tediousness of my responsibilities. “Bored. Bored. Bored.” I e-mail my friend Hillary. “Writing an article about cultural sensitivity for Highlights telemarketers. Feel like gouging my eyes out.” Hillary replies, “How nice for you. I just spent two hours taking an inventory of office bathroom supplies. I smell like formaldehyde and urine.” Okay, I’ll quit whining.

Thank goodness I’ll be leaving Highlights in a few months. I expect to be thoroughly whipped by graduate school. My law-school pals rarely see the sunlight. I made the mistake of typing a long, cheery note to a second-year law friend during finals week. “Happy you’re doing so well!” she wrote. “I’ll write you a longer message when I’m not studying 12 hours a day.”

There won’t be any happy sprites conducting my psychology research at Tulane, that’s for sure. Finally, I’ll be readmitted to the cult of disgruntled productivity. Hip, hip, hi-ho!

In the meantime, if you need any alphabetizing done, please let me know.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Catcher in Honesdale

Returning from karate class tonight, I double-clicked my baby cousin’s IM away message. It reads: “life sucks sometimes.” I feel a Holden Caulfield complex coming on.

Remember that scene in Catcher in the Rye where Holden finds the f-word scrawled on a bathroom wall? He says:

“It drove me damn near crazy. I thought Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them--all cockeyed, naturally--what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.”

Holden manages to erase the f-word from the wall, but then he finds another one “scratched on,” and he has to give up. Phoebe’s loss of innocence is a foregone conclusion -- it might drive Holden crazy, but, really, there’s nothing he can do.

The truth is, my “baby cousin” isn’t a baby anymore. Parker is a decade younger than I am, and this decade grows smaller with every year. Ten years ago his bedroom sported a Thomas the Tank Engine motif, while I had only recently packed up my New Kids on the Block posters. Now his bedroom walls are adorned with Franz Ferdinand memorabilia, and mine display a few family photos. In ten more years, our walls will probably look more or less the same.

The s-word is pretty darn close to the f-word. It’s perplexing to me why the two words aren’t level on the vulgarity playing field. Don’t they both connote intimacy of the sort 50 Cent and Lil’ Kim rap about? Maybe Parker doesn’t know the cruder meaning of the word “suck,” but one day some “dirty kid” is going to fill him in. Like Holden, I’m done with damage control. The f-word and the s-word predate me and my cousin, and both words will still be around long after we’re gone.

“It’s hopeless anyway,” Holden decides. “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half of the F-you signs in the world. It’s impossible.”

What to do, then?

Buried among Parker’s alt-band bedroom shrine is a picture of the two of us, circa 1991. Even though, as a 1 year old, he’s clearly big enough to walk around on his own, I’m holding him up. Hoisting him, really -- at this point, he weighs a good chunk of what I do. He’s scowling at the camera, slipping out of my scrawny 11-year-old grip. It’s disturbingly clear that he might hit the pavement at any second. My embrace isn‘t too secure, but I’m grinning through a mouth full of braces just the same. There’s no telling what will happen in the next five seconds, but as the flash goes off, I must be telling myself, “I’ve got you, Parker. I’m gonna keep smiling, and you just hang on.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Tuna Noodle Casserole, The Musical

Mary promised to make tuna noodle casserole tonight if I paid respects on the blog. Mary, I felt it might be appropriate to combine your favorite musical with my favorite Wednesday-night meal.

So here it is, for posterity: "Tuna Noodle," sung to the tune of "Summer Nights" from Grease:

Tuna noodle, had me a blast
Tuna noodle, ate it so fast.
Mary serves it, Wednesdays at 8
Jesse eats it, fills up her plate

Just a spoon sends me to the moon
But uh-oh, it’s gone in two bites
Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh
Give me more, give me more
Does it have extra cheese?
Give me more, give me more
Makes me weak in the knees.

“Smallville” watchin’, sure, that’s real swell
But I love this dish more than Clark -- can’t you tell?
Almost hate to serve it with beer
Tuna should be the Fish of the Year

Just one bit sends me into a fit
But uh-oh, it’s gone in two bites
Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh
Give me more, give me more
What mushroom soup did you use?
Give me more, give me more
There’s no way I’ll refuse.

"Jack and Bobby"? It’s 9? What’s the deal?
Time slipped by…had my mind on my meal.
Just can’t look at the WB
With this casserole starin’ at me

Just a nip makes my heart want to skip
But uh-oh, it’s gone in two bites
Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh
Give me more, give me more
Though it’s gone soon, I know
Give me more, give me more
Can I have some to-go?.

My plate’s colder, show’s at an end
Tuna noodle, adieu, my friend
China Castle just can’t compete
You’ll always be the best meal to eat.
One more taste…. it can’t go to waste…..
But, uh-oh, it’s gone in a bi-iiiiiiite.

Message for Clifford: Phone Home

Today I returned home from work to find yet another message for Clifford Erikson on my answering machine. Apparently Clifford (“Cliff” to his friends) owned my phone number before Verizon recycled it. Wherever you are, Clifford, I know that your auto insurance payment is overdue, as is your DVD of “A Shark’s Tale.” I’ve also spoken with your father, who has your incorrect number on speed dial. The old man misses you, Cliff.

I wonder what you’ve been up to since September -- besides skipping out on bills and ignoring immediate family. Maybe you got fed up with the 9-to-5 and bought a few lobster traps. Maybe while I stare at a computer screen all day, you lovingly plunge your traps into the Atlantic, then you sit back and read Hemingway. You named your beat-up boat “Faithful Dave,” after Dave’s Super Duper where you used to buy beer.

Or you could be on the lam. You owe an exorbitant amount of money to a loan shark named Doug. Your friends bought you a copy of “A Shark’s Tale” for a laugh. You didn’t think it was funny. At this moment, you’re using your fake ID to purchase tequila in Mexico. You crossed the border seven months ago, and you’ve been craving Philly cheese-steak ever since.

I hate to say it, Clifford, but I guess you could be dead. If that’s the case, I hope Blockbuster dropped the late fees. It seems you never should have left Honesdale for the big city. Why would you give up walking down Church Street every morning, seeing that friendly old couple with the big Saint Bernard? What NYC brunch could be better than griddle cakes and o.j. at Maple City Café? Did you hesitate while packing your bags? Did you consider the way Honesdale looks in December, when the Wayne County Arts Alliance puts blinking reindeer on the streetlights? The Big Apple has a bitter aftertaste, Clifford. I wish you’d stuck with farmer's market kielbasa.

Eventually, your family will stop calling me. The bill collectors will give up. One day, you’ll be completely off the hook. When that day comes, I hope you’ll return for a visit. If it’s not too much to ask, you might buy me a drink at the Limerick. I’d like to know what you’ve been up to. Just one Smirnoff, Cliff. I've been waiting, and really -- it's the least you can do.

Monday, April 11, 2005

I Hope You Dance (but not to the Commodores)

I’ll start this blog with a confession. The truth is….I love to dance. As revelations go, I know this is a disappointing one. In fact, you might think it doesn’t qualify as a revelation. (Especially if you’ve seen me salivate in front of Kevin Paige, nerd-stud lead singer at Alfred’s on Beale.) But wait -- there’s more.

I love to dance when nobody’s watching. This sounds like a bad lyric from an inspirational country song, but I assure you that my living-room dancing would make Leann Womack blush. My dance-alone songs of choice are Britney Spears’ “My Prerogative” and Chingy’s “Balla Baby.” Sometimes I’ll vary it up with “Son of a Preacher Man,” but mostly I stick to the bad-influence-on-kids stuff.

Yesterday I danced in public for the first time in about four months. After weeks of searching, my friend Mary and I located a live band within a 50-mile radius of Honesdale. Four guys named the Cunning Stunts (yeah, I know…) played a 10 p.m.-1 a.m. gig in Callicoon, New York. They favored Jimi Hendrix tunes, though they also dished out Van Morrison and The Calling. Body count at the bar outnumbered the count on the dance floor, but there was no question in my allegiances. Why dodge elbows for an overpriced vodka-tonic when you can talk a friend into buying v-ts and delivering them as needed?

Bar/club dancing is a little different from living-room dancing, as you might guess. In the privacy of my apartment, I can try any dance move that suits my happy feet. In bars and clubs, I generally alternate between The Seductive Wiggle and The Flirtatious Shuffle. These are the only socially acceptable moves for hapless white girls like myself. Certain songs are no-nos, too. Informal research has convinced me that “Brick House” is an inside joke among the music scene, played only for the purpose of singling out the rhythmically challenged.

Prior to my evening with the Cunning Stunts -- back in January -- I danced at the Winter Blues Fest in another small New York town. Like any Mississippi Delta transplant, I translated “Blues Fest” to B.B. King and “My baby done lef’ me.” Not so. For New Yorkers, “blues” means “doldrums.” This is understandable, in a region where sub-freezing temperatures can last through April.

I don’t remember the name of the band that played the Winter Blues Fest, but I’m certain that it was devoid of sexual double entendre. The Fest is an alcohol-free event meant more for energetic 10-somethings and their parents than for the restless bar crowd. I tagged along with five or six coworkers, ranging in age from 24 (that’s me) to early 60s. The venue was a refurbished barn, decorated with Christmas lights and paper streamers. A dessert table offered three types of chocolate chip cookie, also buckeyes, and sugar-coated Chex mix.

Not soon after I left the sweets buffet, I hit a problem: the Seductive Wiggle and the Flirtatious Shuffle weren‘t exactly good Fest fare. Much as I wanted to join my coworkers in their “Johnny B. Goode” grooving, I feared the consequences of “shakin’ my money maker” in the club-patented way.

Well, long story short -- I didn’t sit out. I roof-raised. I hopped. I spun around. I did some weird version of the late ‘90s “running man.” I mouthed the words to most of the songs (big faux pas in club dancing). Such lack of dancing sophistication had previously only existed in my living room.

I half expected the Dorky Dancer Police to escort me from the floor, but the DDP must have thrown up their hands at Blues Fest long ago. Either that, or they didn’t have the heart to arrest septuagenarians for fox-trotting to “Good Vibrations.”

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to embrace adulthood and champion community dance-a-thons. Well, I have to say, I’m not yet mature enough to discount the Cunning Stunts. I realize that club dancing involves an agenda -- yesterday I Wiggled and Shuffled in the direction of the pool table, where many of the 20-something males staked their territory. I hadn’t worn my favorite tight-jeans, tank-top combo for nothing.

I will admit, though, that as a “private dancer” (apologies to Tina Turner), I felt more at home at the Blues Fest. For a few hours in that barn, the Macarena came back in style, along with the Grapevine and Chubby Checker’s twist. Self-consciousness was….dorky. I missed that yesterday. And as I wiggled at midnight, I wondered: how many of my coworkers were moon-walking in their pajamas?