Friday, September 23, 2011

A Spontaneous Ode to R.E.M.

Unless you live under a rock (or possibly if you’re over the age of 55), you've probably heard about the decision by R.E.M. band members to “call it a day” after 31 years. These guys weren’t just any old band, but a supremely good band. If I were someone different I would be able to describe them in really outrageous terms that included phrases such as “kick-ass” or “all-time best ever” or perhaps even something involving the word “rockin’,” but since I can’t really use language like that without also relying on an oddly affected tone of voice, and since there is no tone of voice involved in reading what I’m writing, I’m just going to go with simplicity here and say they were a really good band. And I just don’t see how anyone can argue with me on that.

I’m not a music snob. I’m not obsessed with music, I don’t keep up with what is new and cutting edge or popular. I can’t, under any circumstances, be considered any kind of music aficionado. But I was fairly dedicated to music from about age 14 until maybe 27 so there are many bands and musicians that I was pretty devoted to during those years and whom I will always hold very, very close to my heart.  Music is so amazing; it’s almost like a magic trick the way hearing certain songs can act like a time machine, instantly transporting you back to some moment in time that your psyche intensely associates with that song. And I love that. I love the feeling when you listen to a song that has such a powerful memory attached with it that you feel physically crushed by the sensation of remembering and you think you can smell some aroma that you smelled years ago and your skin actually feels prickly like you are surrounded by spirits of an earlier time and they are having a cosmic energetic affect on you as you sit there listening in your hum-drum, present-day life.

That’s exactly what R.E.M. does for me. I feel no shame in admitting that I am speaking almost exclusively of their “early stuff” from 1983 until 1989 or so. I did like a lot of their songs after Green came out but I was never manic about them again. And I was manic about them for a while. One of my most fabulous friends of all time, Kim, can attest to this fact because she was manic with me. We fed off of each other’s manias. It was a great time. I was a senior and she was a junior in college in Los Angeles and we’d buy cheap wine from Trader Joe’s and listen to every R.E.M. album and talk about how much we loved them and how much we hated college. In 1991, after she & I had both graduated, we were living out in Washington D.C. and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan to drive down to Athens, GA for a weekend. Kim wondered what we would do down there. I had no idea. We’d get drunk at a bar that R.E.M. may have also gotten drunk at. We would walk streets they had walked. We would see sights they had seen. What did I care, I just wanted to be there. I was also a big B-52’s fan so I thought I might double my chances for a brush with a brush with fame just by sitting on a street corner or buying a pack of gum at a 7-11 in Athens.  The road trip never happened, which may or may not have been a blessing. We saved ourselves a lot of gas money anyway.

I have so many other R.E.M.-related memories. My sister was actually the one who discovered them in 1983, which is not surprising since she (at 2 years older than me) was really the source of all cool music at that time. If it weren’t for her, I’d still be listening to my Styx record. Or Shawn Cassidy. Or Journey. Oh, I shudder to think… But I have this very contorted association from Spring break of my freshman year of high school that involves listening to Murmur, going for a drive with my best friend (at the time) to a local park where I sincerely hoped to run into the boy I had recently made out with and sporting my new birthday duds, a pink polo shirt and white shorts that highlighted the suntan/burn I had gotten from “laying out” in the sun on the balcony of our old house in Denver. C’mon… memories don’t get much sweeter than that, do they? Can you even believe all the random elements of that memory? Every single one of them can be instantly conjured by a quick listen to Radio Free Europe. How awesome is that?

There are many other R.E.M. songs woven into the fabric of my youth. Life’s Rich Pageant came out when I was a freshman in college and anyone at Occidental College in 1986-87 who lived anywhere near Haines Hall must remember the two guys who owned a prime piece of college dormitory real estate that year with a 2nd-floor room that opened onto a balcony where they were often spotted kicked back listening to Pageant over and over and over again on many-a sunny SoCal day. Then there were the numerous parties that spring (and by numerous, I mean more than one because obviously 1+ equals numerous) at the Women’s Water Polo coaches’ house where the song Superman was frequently featured in the musical repertoire. I know of at least two other people besides me who will never forget the night that this freshman guy sat there picking his nose all through that song and was henceforth known (only by us) as Boogerman. And how about that cute little jig Michael Stipe performed as he sang Get Up, which I first witnessed at a concert in Irvine the same day as the big earthquake in San Francisco in 1989? I still do that dance, even if I’m driving the car. Oh, R.E.M., so many good times. How can I ever thank you?

Even now, in the days of motherhood when it feels as if my youth is long gone, I still listen to R.E.M. on a regular basis. My daughter is a big fan of many of their songs, including, but not limited to, Nightswimming, (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville, and Imitation of Life. And she can tell you all the names of the band members and what instruments they play. In any given song she can identify which voice is that of Michael Stipe and which belongs to Mike Mills. Man, I love my kid.

Still own it... on vinyl
So here is a little farewell ode to R.E.M. I hadn’t planned on writing this at all but it came to me as I sat at the dinner table listening to them sing their signature barely-intelligible lyrics which I nevertheless still have memorized, if not as actual words, at least as approximations of sounds. It’s quite comforting to my brain to be able to predict each note before it is played. Mr. Stipe, Mr. Buck, Mr. Mills and the already-retired Mr. Berry, I do thank you, from the bottom of my soul for creating so much good music and so many memories, for contributing so many numbers to the soundtrack of my life. I don’t blame you for wanting to call it a day, for wanting a change. Change is what I believe in.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Yesterday morning I was headed to a dentist appointment, driving down a busy street near my house. I had only gone a few blocks when I noticed two dogs in a yard up ahead, little ones, running around in circles. Since we adopted our dog, Carson, five years ago, I have become somewhat obsessed with dogs and my attention was instantly drawn to the two furry figures. One dog seemed to be headed for the street so I slowed down a bit in case he ran into traffic. With a parked car blocking the view, the driver of the van ahead of me was not so prepared. The puppy dashed, the van rolled on. I never even saw break lights go on. Dashing puppy was hit and lay motionless in the middle of the road.

In my car my hands flew up to my face and I think I may have even yelled, no, at the moment the dog was hit. I pulled over to the curb with the thought that the other dog might also run out into the street and I absolutely could not bear to see this scene played out twice. Dog #2 did indeed cross the street but made it safely to the other side where he stood barking at me. I tried not run towards him even though the situation felt pretty urgent to me at that point. Even so, the dog ran back towards the house we were in front of while I proceeded to ask the dog pointless questions like why he was running loose outside and where did he live, informing him that he needed to be safe and stay out of the road.

The driver of the van had stopped and gotten out of his car and was standing next to the lifeless dog while he spoke to someone on his cell phone, maybe the police, but really I have no idea who he was calling. Since the second dog was now on the front step of the nearby house, I assumed this was where he lived and tried ringing the doorbell. There was no answer. The dog disappeared around the back of the house, which I figured was a safer place than out on the street so I didn’t pursue him. Instead I turned my attention to the poor dog in the street, wondering what in the world was the right thing to do. His collar had come off and lay next to him. When there was a break in traffic I ran out and picked it up. ‘Sammy Davis’ it read. There was also an address listed on the little bone-shaped tag, the same address as the house I had just rung. I showed the van driver the tag and tried to get him to call the phone number listed on it but he said he was calling animal control. I returned to the house to try banging on the front door. There was still no answer.

I considered getting a blanket out of my car, the one my family and I use for picnics on the rare occasion we remember to go on them. I thought it might be a good way to scoop up the bleeding dog and move him from the middle of the now-congested road but it seemed wrong moving the little guy without the owner there. The garage door of the owner’s home began rolling up just then and when I caught sight of a person I told them their dog had just been hit by a car.

A young girl came running out into the driveway and immediately screamed and started to cry. I told her to go back inside, to go find her mom. The mom was not dressed, the girl informed me. I confess, I was distraught and not feeling terribly patient so I said to her “tell her her dog just got hit by a car! She needs to come out here!” Like it’s not enough that this poor child has just lost her dog, now she’s got a total stranger who is clearly deranged hollering at her. The mom did finally appear and reacted pretty much the same way as the daughter. She wanted to run out to the dog but I told her to go get a towel, which she did. We scooped up the poor broken dog and she carried him to her front yard.

There was a lot of chaos, the van driver wanting to apologize and leave his contact information, me asking this woman if she wanted me to drive her to the nearby veterinarian clinic, the woman’s cleaning ladies arriving at the home and exclaiming “dios mio” over the body of the dog. Somehow it was decided that I would drive her up the vet and the daughter and mom and I all piled into my car, the two of them in tears. The mom, whose name I never did discover, cradled the towel-wrapped dog and asked how the dogs got out and told me how mad she was at her landlord who was supposed to have fixed a faulty entrance.

The attendants at the vet’s office took over when we got there and I sat in the waiting area with the daughter, asking her about her dogs and telling her how cute Sammy was. It didn’t take long for the mom to reappear, I’m sure because there was nothing to be done. The dog’s neck was broken, she said. It hadn’t looked good when I saw the dog collide with the tires of the van. Poor furry little guy, he didn’t stand a chance.

I drove the mom and daughter back to their house, leaving them with my name and phone number and telling them to please call if they needed anything. I have no idea what she might call me for, but it seemed the least I could do to comfort these people who clearly faced so much grief with the loss of their pet.

I have mentioned before my daughter’s obsession with death and dying and how we both have agonized over it, she trying to understand the injustice that life has to end and me trying to provide some explanation for a fact that really defies reason and fairness; that’s just the way life works. Things live and things die. Sometimes life ends naturally, sometimes life ends in a sad, violent manner. I kill bugs all the time. I see dead squirrels, dead birds, dead raccoons on the roads all the time. It would still make me a little sad to see a squirrel get hit by a car, just because that’s how my mind works (the squirrel might feel pain or feel sad, or a squirrel mommy will miss her baby or vice versa). But the loss of the dog seems so much more painful because of the love his owners feel for him. I don’t feel love for the squirrels, but I adore my dog. It is almost as if the emotions I feel for my dog would be wounded just as much as he would be by death.

That’s part of what was so upsetting, witnessing the dog transform from a lively fur ball into a dead animal in an instant. His doggie life ended right before my eyes. The love of a small girl for the soft little pet that slept on her bed at night was equally crushed. I know I am making a lot of this, that in some countries they actually eat their dogs and they would not comprehend such devastation over this death. But I still feel like something has to happen to the fabric of the universe when we lose something we love. Maybe it’s just the fabric of one’s heart that is affected and emotions can sometimes carry so much weight as to make us feel like it’s actually the whole universe that shifts. After all, death must be constantly happening in small and large ways all over the world, every minute of every day. Can the universe bear so much violence? But life is constantly being born or reborn, as well. That’s just how it works.

In the end, all I take from this incident is a reinforced and desperate need to protect what I love. My dog is precious they way he curls up with his nose tucked under one paw and it will be terrible when he dies. But I am also busy protecting my daughter, not from death but simply from the endless sadness that exists in the world. It keeps me busy, as well it should. Grief is just part of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. I hope that someone is protecting you from sadness because there is so much of it. And for all my dog-loving friends, I hope you are protecting your puppies tonight. Maybe you want to give them a little bit of extra love. Rest in peace, Sammy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th

I have been thinking about this post for quite some time but not with any sort of productive result. The image in my head is that of a chef endlessly stirring a swirling pot of unpleasant emotions that refuse to come together to form anything coherent. What I would prefer is if the chef could bring all these elements together to create a brilliant and deeply moving meal. But instead, I am serving up only a post made up of random ingredients that may or may not mean something to anyone, including me.

Today is September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of a really bad day. Everyone has a story to tell from that day, some more compelling than others. My own story is about my father-in-law who was on the 57th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. It is a story that has been told by others before me and I feel like it is pointless for me to tell it over again. My father-in-law has no interest in talking about that day and no intention of telling his story over and over again. And since it is his story and he’d like it laid to rest, I feel as though I, too, should let it rest and not drag it out once again. I guess it’s inaccurate for me to say that his story is my own from that day, as really my story was just one of waiting. My husband & I lived in Boston, MA at the time and we were both in graduate school so we witnessed it all from home in front of the TV, like so many others. For anyone who wants to read more details of Mr. Dall’s experience, there was an article published recently in Lower Manhattan’s weekly newspaper, Downtown Express that gives an adequate description.

One thing I keep thinking about is whether or not it means anything to me to write about this day. What can I say that has not already been said? How is my sadness distinct from all the other sadness that surrounds the memories of the day? I entered a push pin on the The New York Times' interactive website that shows where people were on that day and how they felt then, as well as how they feel now. Well, I wasn’t really able to elaborate much on my feelings; if I had to record my feelings from this day ten years ago, as well as my current feelings, I would need a lot more than 100 characters with which to work. All I really need to say is that now, ten years later, I feel angry but somehow not all that surprised that our world seems more messed up than ever. What would worldwide optimism look like?

For me, a dominant memory from September 2001 is that my husband and I were “trying” to get pregnant and a month after September 11th I actually would be. The only regret I would have about it was that the world was feeling like a particularly hostile environment to bring a baby into. Now my baby is one of the few things that brings me any peace when I think about the state of the world. And mostly I try not to think about it too much, figuring what good is that going to do me? None of us may know how the human spirit survives something like that; what makes the difference between someone who pushes on after a tragedy and someone who falls apart? It’s a bit of a crap shoot, like many things in life. My husband and I were fortunate ten years ago in that we only had to wait a mere 5 hours to hear good news of our loved one. We dodged a bullet that day, but we haven’t always been so lucky. Call it fortune or destiny or random chance or God or what have you. It is not always kind. But it is not always so evil.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Home organization and mental disorder... same or different?

My pulse quickens at the mere sight - is that wrong?
September is here, it’s back-to-school season; time to get organized! No more lazy days hanging around in your pajamas til noon. No more kids without schedules waiting to be taken by surprise with your creative and spontaneous ideas for summer fun. No more neglecting those bills until the insurance company calls to tell you that your coverage will end tomorrow if you do not pay your monthly premium. It’s time to tackle the mess, the clutter, the piles of paper you have been ignoring all summer. I need renewal, a clean slate. I need to see the surface of my desk. I need a trip to The Container Store.

Yes, that’s right, if I’m going to sort, categorize, file and recycle I am definitely going to need some colorful plastic bins, some designer file folders and maybe some of those dividers for my sock drawer so I can fold my socks into nubby little sock-packages and wedge them into tidy columns according to color. Oh how I’ve missed my argyle socks while I thwocked around in my flip-flops all summer. And now I’ll finally be able to find them!

True confession, people, I have a bit of a container fetish. And by fetish, I do not mean that I have any unnatural, uh… “romantic” fantasies about the containers. I do mean that I have an odd, but certainly not unnatural reverence for and devotion to containers, preferably small ones, but really any ones will do. I like boxes with hinged lids as well those with removable lids. I like the feel of the box as I open and close it, peering into its emptiness and imagining all of the wondrous items that could be categorized and compartmentalized into the tiny space. But I also like bags; bags with zippers or bags with no method of closure so that your fascinating items can peek out the top and entice passers-by with visions of your sophisticated lifestyle. I like jars, particularly those with lids that screw and unscrew smoothly. If it’s one of those sticky lids then you can just forget it. I like folders and envelopes. I like bins, but if there is no lid and, therefore, no way to stack them, they can make me a little testy. My favorite boxes are the colorful ones, stacked in a rainbow of translucent towers built from brilliant, box-like jewels. Jewels that can hold other jewels. Or bank statements. Or all those delicious, wholesome recipes you are always cutting out with the intention of cooking nourishing meals for your family. Well, actually, you might want to invest in a laminating machine so that those recipes can be properly preserved and then organized in a sturdy binder according to food groups. After you have prepared each recipe, you should probably create some kind of rating system that indicates ease of preparation, degree of deliciousness and total carb, fat and protein content. Then when you need to whip up something quickly and will settle for a merely ho-hum meal with major carbs, you will be able to easily locate just the right recipe by consulting the index of the nifty rating system.

But I digress. Before I get busy consuming environmentally questionable and potentially petroleum-based plastic boxes or just driving to The Container Store to wander the aisles and stand there idiotically opening and closing boxes and bags and jars and bins and stuffing my hand into the empty receptacles, I just want to leave you all with one of my favorite home organizing tips. You will want to file this one away for sure. You know how you run across certain items, like an article on teaching your kids the value of money or a friend’s brochure for her new business that you know with certainty you will never patronize but you cannot bear to throw it away because it came from your dear friend? And you know how such pesky items refuse to be neatly categorized for filing away under any of the other super good labels you’ve created? Well, I like to keep a box, a nice flat one, just the right size for storing your average 8.5” x 11”-sized piece of paper and, in my case, a colorful one (mine is yellow) where I collect all my difficult-to-categorize pieces of paper. There usually aren’t that many of them, as well there should not be if you are really thinking through your categories. Store the box in a cupboard or under a desk and forget what is inside. Look through it once per year, at most. When you next open the box and sift through the contents, you will be pleased to find that most of the stuff is totally outdated and completely meaningless and you are now free to recycle it. Now doesn’t that feel better? I simply adore the feeling of getting organized. Happy September.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The joys of family fitness

It’s a Sunday morning, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining. Well, the sun is not shining outside my window, per se, but I’m sure it’s shining somewhere. It’s a three-day weekend so we are all feeling particularly relaxed and luxuriating in the fact that we don’t have to do our chores today, or rather, not do our chores and then feel like a slob for not doing them, because we have one whole extra day to “get stuff done.” Life is good.

I’m going to go for a run, my husband says.

I perk up at the mention of running, being dangerously low on endorphins and positive feelings of any kind, as it has been almost 2 weeks since my last workout and, coincidentally, 2 weeks since my daughter was engaged in any kind of daytime activity that did not involve total participation on my part. I come up with a brilliant idea. Let’s go for a family run, I say.

(Side note: the family run is defined as a family fitness session whereby the husband and I run while our daughter rides her bike. It’s a healthy, wholesome family activity!)

At the mere mention of the words “family run” my daughter emits a very loud, breathy, heavy sigh. She is decidedly unhappy, undeniably displeased. Her shoulders sag. She begins to plod slowly out of the room.

What??! I snap.

Nothing, she says.

A family run would be terrible, wouldn’t it? I say, voice several decibels too loud. It would be torture to have to go outside and get some fresh air and some exercise. It would be terrible to NOT spend an hour in front of the TV or the computer or the Nintendo DS screen. Gosh, I can’t believe we could be so mean as to suggest this; it’s just so unfair of us to ask this of you.

Martha plops down angrily in a chair. I refuse to let up. What about mom and dad? I ask her (rhetorically). What about what we want to do? Would it be so terrible to do what we want to do for an hour or two? When do you not get to do what you want to do? Didn’t we just spend a whole summer doing fun things you want to do? Didn’t you get to do almost everything you wanted to do? Didn’t you get to have your cousins over for a sleepover? You got to go to Shady Oak beach with them, you got to swim at the Edina pool, Buddy and Maggie (the cousins) came over to play, they came over for dinner. We went to the State Fair, we went on rides. When we were on vacation, didn’t you get to go to the beach every single time you asked? When we go out places, you always get treats, you get croissants, you get donuts, you get pound cake (my daughter is a big lover of the carbohydrate, especially the sweetened kind).

Martha stares at me blankly.

Forget it, I say, just forget it. I have resorted to just plain martyrdom and manipulation here. Whereas my ranting may have been over the top, it was at least sincere. I do not, in any way, intend to “forget” anything and I am now more determined that we will be doing a family run no matter what anybody has to say about it.

My husband offers her the choice to ride her scooter instead of her bike. No, I say. No. She’s riding her bike, we bought her that nice new bike last summer and she’s barely ridden it at all this summer, she’s riding her bike.

Silence. Husband and child stare in silence. Everyone turns to go get ready for the family run.

As we load child and her bicycle into the car, my husband suggests we ride/run on a bike path, which is actually divided into two paths, one for foot traffic and one for those on non-motorized wheels. Martha says she would rather go around a lake, which is also divided into two paths for the separate uses but the paths diverge less from one another. I throw in my vote for the lake, recalling that the last time we went on the “bike path” route we were on the receiving end of some old guy’s angry reminder that bikes should be on the bike path (Martha was riding her bike on the foot-traffic path with us). Husband recalls unhappily that the lake can be crowded and he frets about Martha wobbling on her bike as she weaves nervously through the walkers. We all stare at each other some more. Husband sighs, rolls his eyes and says “fine” in a manner that implies nothing remotely like “fine-ness” but something more like “I want to run away from these people who are bugging the crap out of me.”

We are a lot like this family
We are now on the road to our fun family running destination when Martha begins to waiver, as is her tendency when any sort of decision making is involved. Maybe we should just go to the bike path, she says. I am no help as I inadvertently encourage her waffling. There is more heavy sighing from the driver’s seat.

I know you just wanted to go for a run, I tell my husband. Aren’t you so glad I suggested this? Thank goodness for a three-day weekend! Maybe we can do this again tomorrow morning. Ah, life is good.