A day to leap

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I perch on windowsills for years, waiting to jump, believing I can fly. When I finally leap into the arms of the air, I land on my feet in another room, just like the one I left.

 

Staring out of windows, I have believed for years that the outside is a different world. The sky holds her arms out wide and tells me, “Jump. Don’t be afraid. I will catch you.” It takes me years of courage to push off from that windowsill. With my clumsy wings of hope and desire, I leap and land inside again.

 

I still believe in windows. And after I readjust my wings, I may take another leap.

 

 

Icarus by Keith Newstead at http://www.cabaret.co.uk/artists/keith-newstead/

Image of Icarus from http://blog.dugnorth.com/2008/05/flying-mechanical-icarus-automaton-at.html

Froggery bloggery

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If a froggery is gathering of frogs, a bloggery must be a gathering of blogs. Or, for my purposes, a gathering of bloggers, who sit around the WordPress pond croaking. Not the kind of croaking that leads to funerals, although some days, because of the posting, the reading, the commenting, the researching, and  the revising, followed by more of the same, the exhausted blogger may feel close to death.

 

Headline: Death by Blog. Today in Podunk, Wisconsin, a husband discovered his wife’s dead body in their home office, sitting at her desk and staring at her computer with her fingers still on the keyboard. Mrs. Mortimer had been there for three days before her husband realized she was dead. “We often went days without speaking,” he said, “because she spent all day writing, reading, and commenting on blogs.” It’s the fourth case of death by blog this week. Experts attribute the deaths to blogged arteries, leading to permanent brain freeze.

Okay, back to frogs and blogs. After extensive research, which may translate to over a hundred minutes, I have discovered some amazing similarities between frogs and bloggers, which I think you will find ribbiting. I know I did.

But first, you must understand that the crucial difference between frogs and toads is all in your head. Popular culture put the idea there, along with thousands and thousands of images of J*st*n B**b*r, he who must be asterisked. In spite of their differences, frogs and toads belong to the same order, Anura; they just have different last names. Some have more warts than others, but so do some of your family members.

At last we are on the same taxonomic page, so here are the similarities:

 

  • A frog’s skin hangs loosely on its body. Compare that with the slack-jawed look of bloggers who sit in front of a computer screen for hours and days. Then, if you dare, stand in front of a mirror with just your froggy skin on. Anything looking loose? I thought so.

 

  • Frogs are nocturnal creatures. Think how many people blog at night. When you wake up, are there new blogs to read and new comments to answer? Again, I thought so.

 

  • Frogs wear camouflage to help them sleep during the day. Many bloggers have so-called jobs during the day, but most of them just look awake. They are half asleep because they stayed up too late blogging. Also, they have special eyelids that make them look like they are engaging in a conversation with you while they are mentally composing blogs or comments for other blogs.

 

  • Some frogs produce psychoactive skin secretions that make you hallucinate. You know which blogs I’m talking about.

 

  • Frogs return by the thousands to breed at the body of water they call home. Every day close to 500,000 bloggers gather at the WordPress pond, post close to 850,000 new posts and almost one million comments. Just today, as of 6:30 a.m., that adds up to 182, 325, 317 words. That’s a lot of spawn.

 

  • A frog is an amphibian, which means “two lives.” Before you become a blogger you were a person with a life, once you become a blogger you lost that life and now live in the blog pond. And you look different, with looser skin.

 

  • Frogs appear in stories as harmless, unsightly, and clumsy creatures. However, they often hide some talent or their frogginess is merely a disguise. In the blog pond, reading a blog is like kissing a frog and being magically transformed. Sometimes. The other times, it’s like kissing a frog. With warts.

Happy Leap Day! I know it’s tomorrow, but I have been pondering this for a while and wanted to get a jump on all the celebrations and well-wishing. And, although I have toad you this before, thanks for reading.

 

All photos courtesy of http://www.theinformationarchives.com/frogs/

 

 

Getting home from the last station

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The wind swept out the flooded floor of the sky, drenching the world below. I watched the night through the windows as the train hurried through the falling water. When we pulled into Hamadayama Station, I felt relief and dismay. In ten minutes, I could be home. But I had to walk through the rain to get there.

 

Ten minutes in that insistent rain felt like a lifetime. The cold didn’t think much of my jacket, and my umbrella was built for a kinder world. I carried the taut cloth over my head to hide myself from the sky, believing I could. Then I started walking.

 

My feet drowned first and my pants clung to me like a shroud. The wind resented the umbrella, which kept my head dry as long as it could. Finally, it threw its hands up in despair and surrendered.

 

I yielded to the baptism of rain until I managed to half open the broken umbrella. I belonged to the rain now. On the dark streets, I saw a few others, struggling forward. We didn’t speak. Lost in our private thoughts, we were willing ourselves to a place of belonging. All I could think of was home, where I would be safe, where I would be warm.

 

Those last few steps were the hardest. They always are.

 

You cannot imagine my delight, grasping that cold doorknob, knowing the door would open into a world of warmth and light, with all of my loved ones waiting for me.

 

It rained with fury that cold November night in Tokyo.

 


My feelings about sentimentality

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Words are like celebrities. Some of them keep their signature style over the centuries; others turn into parodies of themselves. Public opinion is part of the reason. Words that socialize with people in power often become so popular that everyone knows and remembers their names. They use their connections to stay current. Other words go out of style because they only want to talk about the past.

 

Word handlers – writers, journalists, poets, and essayists – play a part as well. Too much promotion and people can grow sick of a word. Ask the word to perform in ways it’s not suited for and people will look for a different word, one that has honed that skill. Once the handlers start sending a word out on assignments just to make quick money, a word can grow jaded and start to say whatever the highest bidder offers, even if it is the opposite or near opposite its original meaning. Take a word like silly. Back in the 1200s, it meant “pious” or “blessed.” A century later, a silly person was “weak” or “pitiable.” By the 1570s, only fools and the feeble-minded were called silly.

 

Trace the root of “sentimental” back to the Latin sentire and you find the meaning “to feel.” The words “sense” and “sentient” come from the same Latin parentage. The first usage of the adjective “sentimental” in the 18th century referred to something characterized by feeling or sentiment. However, after the word began modifying ideas and novels filled with excessive emotions, people began to use it to mean too much emotion or sentiment. Hanging out with “maudlin” and “mawkish” ruined its reputation. Now its name is splashed across every dictionary tabloid in the land, so no one will ever believe it when it says, “But that’s not who I really am.”

 

Fortunately, even words with a bad reputation have cousins or other relatives that will stick up for them. Words are notorious breeders and there’s hardly one who doesn’t have at least one good apple in its thesaural barrel.

 

For some reason (call me tender-hearted), I started feeling sorry for “sentimental.” A few bad choices in life and suddenly you’re a pejorative. So I  looked up some of its first cousins and they introduced me to even more cousins who introduced to me some well-known, likable words that no one would be ashamed to be seen with in public. See the chart below.

 

Sentimental and its relatives

 

If you have time and would like to see how words come in and out of fashion, go to the Google Ngram Viewer and type in words. Please don’t go there is you have work to do. I didn’t, so I tried avuncular, of or about an uncle, and discovered that its growing popularity was unstoppable until just a few years ago.  However, verdant, green or covered in green growth, has started to fade, mowed down by the whims of fashion.

 

Enjoy.

Sentimental swoons

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Sentimentality is one of the nicest pejoratives you’ll ever meet. Maude, as I call her, cries easily, regularly rams into icebergs of emotions that sink her unsinkable optimism, sending her to the bottom of the ocean, but not before she can remember her happy childhood when every flower smelled of heaven and housed a butterfly, and house-trained robins fluttered above her head, leading her safely home where she lived happily ever after. She always manages to escape or resurrect from her watery grave and dry off her emotions, just in time to plan her next voyage across the sentimental seas. She calls every sailing vessel the Titanic, closes her eyes or changes the channel when the bad parts of life come on, and always thinks in pink. Even her sunglasses are rose-colored.

 

The Titanic (photo from Google)

 

However, Maude wasn’t always a pejorative. She was the darling of philosophy and literature in the 18th century; she looked more attractive when she was younger. During much of the Age of Enlightenment, Sentiment had to eat in the kitchen, while Reason sat at the formal dining table entertaining scientists, philosophers, and writers. After a while, Sentiment got tired of eating the leftovers and seduced the master of the house. When she sat down at the formal table and poured her wine, the conversation turned to discussions about subjectivity, introspection and her role in developing a moral sense. Sharing the table was one thing, but now Reason, long used to hunting alone, had to take Sentiment with him when he went out looking for moral truth. Reason always fancied himself the better shot.

 

Not-so-stern-looking Laurence Sterne, author of The Sentimental Journey, a sentimental novel. (Photo from Wikipedia)

 

Maude appeared in many of the novels of that era, using her beauty and brilliance to appeal to the reader’s emotions. After loosening the reader’s hand from the grip of cold logic and reason, she grabbed it and took the reader with her as she supped with sorrow, fought off lascivious brigands, and succumbed to both love and terror by swooning. Carried across the stormy seas of emotion, battered and bruised, now aloft on the crest of a wave, now almost drowning in its trough, the reader arrived at port, armed with a moral compass to find his or her way safely home. It was the only way Maude knew to teach the reader how to live nobly and morally. Ever the heroine, she drowned or died in story after story, the consequence of being too good for this world. She always showed up for work again the next day, ready to teach someone else.

 

Modern and post-modern readers who have grown up eating irony-fortified cereal for breakfast usually feel seasick after riding the high waves of sentimental novels from that period. Maude’s excesses led inevitably to parody and ridicule. She moved out of her manor, where she had entertained well-bred friends with refined sensibilities, and bought a house in town, next to the used bookstore. You have probably seen her shopping at Wal-Mart; the prices make her swoon.

 

People who write capital L literature want nothing to do with Maude. If she appears in your story or poem or essay, critics will label your writing sentimental, and they will use a sneering font on the label. As you know, labels written in sneering fonts are almost impossible to remove, so you can forget your dream of obscure fame in literary journals. Oh sure, there’s always the New York Times best-seller list, but do you really want to end up like Nicholas Sparks?

 

It’s probably too late to try to clear Maude’s name, no matter how much we may like her. I’ve noticed that she often uses her first and middle name these days: Maude Lynn*. She was never one to show restraint, any more than I do when it comes to puns. She chose a life of excess; that’s why a lot of people won’t make eye contact with her. I think she will always be popular, maybe not with the big L people, but with people who don’t capitalize their literature. I feel a certain amount of sympathy toward her, but I don’t like it when she glosses over the hard truths or pretends they aren’t there. I don’t like it when she takes the shortcut to happiness, to avoid the winos, addicts, and broken people who hang out at the bus station downtown.

 

I would like to live in a world with fewer problems; a world where every broken person is fixed. But as much as I would like to get to happiness faster, today I am not going to try to get there with Maude. I am going to go downtown and take the bus instead.

 

(*Note to reader: Gratuitous puns found on this blog are the result of an almost imaginary medical condition. Try not to judge.)

Losing what you never had

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I remember the first time I read the stories of the Greek gods, particularly Zeus and the birth of Athena. To most people, the idea of a full-grown daughter emerging from someone’s forehead sounds incredible, the stuff of dreams and mythology; however, it didn’t seem strange to me. Zeus reminded me of my mother who could open her mouth and speak fully grown siblings into existence.

 

In the galaxy of our neighborhood, my family was one of the smaller solar systems.  Daddy blazed like the sun in the center, circled by mother, his reflecting moon, and his two small planets, my sister and me. Friends and relatives, like distant stars, were out there somewhere, but we lived primarily in a world of four.

 

Mother had been someone’s moon before; this was her third attempt at marriage. She had escaped the drunken rages, violent beatings, and evictions of her earlier life, and found a man who loved and provided for her. As this new man drew her forward and away from those events, her memory looked back and wrote them into a story she told, but no longer lived. Daddy treated her with kindness and love, but he wanted nothing to do with her past. That included her other children, the five she had before she met him.

 

When my daddy was alive, I moved between two parallel worlds. In one, I was the second daughter of a loving father and his faithful wife, living a typical middle-class life. We lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath brick house with elm trees in the front and a swing set in the back. In the parallel world, I was the fifth daughter of a father who was my oldest sister’s abusive stepfather. He married a woman, twice divorced, whose last known address in Alabama had been on White Trash Avenue. The point of intersection of these two worlds was my oldest sister, Connie.

 

Clyde and Connie: mother's first two children

Connie was mother’s firstborn, dragged into mother’s three marriages and written into mother’s story of abusive men, poverty, and abandonment. She learned early to take care of herself. Funny, independent, and defiant, she left home at 17 to get married. I was two years old, too young to remember. My father, the love of mother’s life and the man ever kind to mother and his two children, once beat Connie with an electrical cord, a story I learned years and years after he died.

 

By age 23, Connie had three children. From as early as I can remember, we visited her and her children. I was their youngest aunt, just two years older than Connie’s first child. Mother forbade us to tell our daddy of our clandestine visits. Since Connie had been in my life from the beginning, she was a secret, but not a surprise.

 

Daddy wanted mother to himself. To please him, she locked her secrets up and never spoke of the past in front of him. But when he was not around, she shared those secrets with my sister and me. Her words carried us back into the past with her, and I began to understand that the story of my life didn’t begin with me. I had arrived in the middle of her story, the story she must tell. So, secret after secret, she told us her life. I doubt she had any idea how heavy those secrets were to the two little girls listening and wondering. But how can I blame her? Stories demand to be told and give us no rest until we give them voice.

Clyde as a young boy

 

I don’t remember how old I was when a brother, Clyde, sprung full-grown from mother’s mouth into my consciousness. Born two years after Connie, he was mother’s firstborn son from her first marriage. She never spoke much about him, but when she did, she prefaced the story by mentioning the car accident. When Clyde was around ten years old, a car hit him and threw him several yards, causing a head injury. “He was never the same after that,” she said, as if that explained everything that followed.

 

What followed was a life of petty theft and then more serious crimes, which led to at least one felony and internment in La Tuna prison in New Mexico.

 

Even before my daddy died, mother kept in touch with Clyde, sending him small gifts of money, trying to right some of the wrong he suffered by being left behind so many times. Daddy must have known that mother contacted Clyde. If he could have stopped her, I’m sure he would have. On the other hand, my grandmother could have been her go-between, passing the occasional letter back and forth, because she had been the one to raise Clyde most of his life.

 

Out of focus: how I remember Clyde

Clyde visited us a few times after my daddy’s death and during the time mother’s fourth husband was stationed in Korea on a remote tour. Out of nowhere, my oldest brother would knock on the door, looking as handsome and charming as his father, with the same dark, curly hair and green eyes. When Clyde left, things left with him: money, jewelry, silver dollars, and even a small revolver mother kept because there was no man in the house at the time.

 

In my senior year in high school, two men from the FBI came to our house looking for Clyde. Mother denied knowing his whereabouts, and I think she was telling the truth. Clyde drifted in and out of her life, much like she had done to him when he was small. He usually contacted mother when he was in need of money. To support himself, he took various jobs, often driving a truck.

 

Although I visited Clyde with my mom when he was in La Tuna prison, I don’t know or remember what his crime was, but I’m pretty sure it involved theft. After he left prison, mother lost touch with him. A few years before she died, she asked my younger brother to try to find Clyde. He searched online and discovered Clyde’s death certificate, and in the space marked “next of kin,” the word, unknown.

 

I can’t believe how little I knew or asked my mother about Clyde. When I was a child, part of my reluctance may have been fear. Mother had children from both of her previous husbands, and the children from those marriages were left behind as she moved on to new husbands. If it happened twice before, maybe it would happen again. She could leave me, find a new husband, and I would become just a secret she whispered in another little girl’s ear. “That’s her,” she would say, pointing at me standing in front of the brick house, “she had green eyes too.” The new girl would smile, snuggle closer, and soon forget about me, just as I forgot about Clyde and the others mother told me about. I would be left behind with the scenery, entrusted to my grandmother or some other relative willing to take me.

 

Or maybe I didn’t ask more questions because I chose to hide her secrets, my complicity an act of seeking her favor. Perhaps it was my way of saying: Keep me! Keep me! Abandonment was my greatest fear and after my daddy abruptly left through death’s door, mother was all I had.

 

Fear may explain my childhood disinterest, but I can’t explain why I didn’t try to find out more about Clyde when I was older. I felt mother’s reluctance to talk much about him. She only told the stories she could; the others stayed inside, breaking her heart. My demands to hear more may have awakened words that would have shattered her world or her sanity. Sometimes silence is the only way we can survive. I don’t really know why I never asked more questions.

 

We make choices in life. We walk down a road, afraid to turn back, driven forward until it’s impossible to find our way back even if we want to. Now, no one is left to answer my questions. Clyde became the book I never read, buried years ago.

 

Some stories never find a voice in this lifetime.

 

I wonder if those buried stories come back as ghosts to haunt us. Do they roam the earth seeking to be embodied in someone’s words, willing to take on new names, live in strange locations, just as long as their story can be told? Maybe Clyde’s story waits for me in a book: he has changed his name, moved to Montana, and now wears his blond hair short. Maybe he is sitting at a table in a small café, looking for me in the crowds and waiting to tell me what I seek to know.

 

I cried when my younger brother told me about Clyde’s death certificate. Next of kin: unknown. It breaks my heart that he died alone, like a motherless child. I want to tell his story but I don’t know how.

 

 

 

 

She reveals her restraint

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By fifth grade, my humor was tall for its age. It was goofy and awkward and made my friends laugh. My two best friends, both nerdy, called me Professor Car-Car.

 

In sixth grade, almost everyone else’s humor started filling out and looking more grown up. Mine stayed skinny, scrawny, and flat chested. By year’s end, it was shorter than most.

 

In high school, I was ashamed of my humor. Everyone knew it had stopped growing in the fifth grade, loved dumb jokes, laughed hysterically at slapstick, and snorted through its nose at jokes about gas. Most people my age preferred jokes about sex, but my humor and I secretly preferred Knock-Knock jokes and puns.

 

There’s no cure for fifth-grade humor; it never grows up. I’ve tried literary supplements but I end up making fun of them. After hours of imbibing ironic artsy films full of sardonic laughter, I create parodies in my mind to mock them. These often involve banana peels.

 

Contrary to what you might think, I have tried to train my humor to sit quietly through meetings and not make up funny stories in my head about the people talking. However, my humor can only sit still so long. Fifth-graders have a lot of energy and can’t be stuck in a chair all day.

 

Yesterday I wrote about my husband’s colonoscopy and titled the post Let’s get this party started. In an act of heroic restraint, I did not use my first choice: Let’s get this party farted. I should get some credit for that.

 

Also, I refrained from writing an entire post about Doctor Payne and his daring space probe. He lands on Uranus in search of his nemesis, Paul Upps, a parasitic creature who attaches himself to other living beings and sucks the life out of them. Doctor Payne heard that Paul Upps was hiding out in a dark tunnel deep in the heart of Uranus. In the end, Doctor Payne finds Paul Upps and removes him. However, that’s just the pilot story. Paul Upps is not so easily destroyed. He takes on other forms and shows up other places, so Doctor Payne can have a satisfying career seemingly killing off Paul Upps each week, only to find the evil creature has re-emerged somewhere else next week. I haven’t decided yet who should play Doctor Payne, but I’m open to suggestions.

 

I’ve given my humor free rein in my brain, where it has room to run around in all that empty space. The letter “g” has corrupted free rein, so now we are seeing people given free reign. Free rein means my humor is sitting on the buckboard of my mind letting the horses run wild. Free reign means the little potentate is sitting a throne, dictating what I say. So untrue. I keep my humor in check, and I think it’s important that you know that I’m doing my best to keep it from racing around the interblogs, kicking up dust and  making a nuisance of itself.

 

You’re welcome.