Pseudo-followers ~

How could I not have foreseen that spammers would exist in the world of Blog? How can I be so consistently naive? It’s exciting to get a follower who doesn’t know you, because you figure that person is actually interested in what you’re writing. At least, it’s exciting until you see that the person is following hundreds or thousands of blogs with the aim of promoting their recently published book or trying to get subscribers to their newsletter about how you can make money from your blog. (As if!)

I can’t get rid of you people without taking my blog private, so I’m asking you to pretty-please un-follow my blog. I’m not going to buy your book or subscribe to your newsletter or send money for whatever else you’re promoting. I mean you, sfoxwriting, and you, Kylie Bannink, and you, pmitsuing, and you, Marissa Riback, and you, Julian Sherman, and anyone else I’ve overlooked. Get lost. Go away. Blogs are for communication, not exploitation.

I’m dying here ~

I’ve had little time lately to think about this blog, but as I grow older I’ve been thinking about my deficiencies and when life started going south. Flunking childhood had a lot to do with that. Take a look at the wondrous things I never mastered:

1. Blowing bubble-gum bubbles.
2. Whistling.
3. Hula-hooping.
4. Crossing the monkey bars.
5. Rollerskating, except for rollerskating on rough gravelly sidewalks.
6. Turning a cartwheel.
7. Standing on my head.
8. Throwing a softball.
9. Catching a softball.
10. Hitting a softball.
11. Sledding.
12. Swimming with any degree of competence.
13. Climbing trees.
14. Eating bugs.

What a dud! Even I wouldn’t have chosen me for teams in gym. (Interesting, the proportion of adults who claim the experience of being chosen last. Either their memory is impaired, or the last-chosen are very disproportionately represented among writers and actors and such.)

I could run, and I could ride a bicycle….I did love riding my bike. And I achieved one other near-mandatory childhood accomplishment: hurting yourself badly enough to require stitches. Yet even that I did in a sedentary way. Did I launch myself off the roof in a brief but glorious belief that I would fly? Sadly, no.

I was sitting on the back porch steps and somehow fell off, putting my front teeth cleanly through my….whatever the area between your chin and lower lip is called. But it hardly counts, since I did that when I was 2 and it couldn’t be chalked up to bad behavior. I had to be told some years later what happened, although I have a wispy memory—probably my earliest memory—of my mother rushing me to the doctor’s office across the street, and sitting on her lap across the desk from the doctor when all the painful stuff was over. I carry the scar to this day but can’t point to it as a badge of courage. Such a waste!

Like so many childhood duds, I found solace in books. I began reading at age 3, which led to several cringeworthy episodes, such as my mom making me read to my nursery school teacher to prove I could do it (they didn’t call it pre-school then). Yet both of my parents took a strong ethical stand against showing off or bragging in any context. It could get me or my sister into trouble, so we didn’t do it. My mother, the hypocrite! Dad wouldn’t have made me read for anyone.

Much more embarrassing was the day my kindergarten teacher sent me, alone through the echoing hallways, up up up to the eighth-grade class to read, sort of like a circus freak giving a show. This was not only humiliating, it was scary, because written on the blackboard was an equation, something like 8 + n = 14. Math with letters??! This was a truly alarming concept, and I was sure I’d never to able to comprehend it. Eighth grade would be my downfall. My struggles with performance anxiety may date to this episode.

Still, my early childhood was generally happy, especially during road-trip vacations in my family’s blue Volkswagen Beetle. But when I was 8 I learned that, like bugs and birds, I would someday die. On the instant I became terrified of death. Thus the end of Eden.

The fear of death has ruled and ruined my life. Some of my friends know this and some don’t. Medication has helped a lot over the years, but now I’m debilitated and the end isn’t somewhere beyond the horizon anymore. I don’t plan to write about it. I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog or a memoir. Bathos is pathetic (ha!). But like pitcher Nuke LaLouche in “Bull Durham,” I seem to be starting out with erratic control. You may remember this: In one game, after Nuke’s control has improved dramatically, the catcher (Kevin Costner, in what I think is his best role) instructs him to hit the team mascot with his next pitch. And so he does. Costner looks at the hitter and says, “I wouldn’t lean too far in.” He pauses as the hitter looks at him. “I don’t know where it’s going.”

My first bokeh ~

Wilting Sunflowers

Wilting Sunflowers

Although I’ve been doing fine-art photography for years (you can see some of my work here) and been in many juried shows, the superb photography that Son of Sharecroppers has been doing, especially with shallow depth of field, has inspired me to try some different things. I finally bought a 50 mm f1.8 prime for my Pentax DSLR and think I’ll enjoy playing around with it. Now I can actually get bokeh!

(Bokeh refers to the strongly out-of-focus area of the photo and to that area’s aesthetic quality. “My first bokeh” is not really proper usage.)

So it goes ~

Q: Why did your blog take a turn for the serious side after only a few posts?
A: So I didn’t want to be all directive about the evolution of this thing, and certain personal events intruded, and…

Q: Did you hear what you just said?
A: Huh?

Q: Your answer. You started it with “so.” Why did you do that?
A: I don’t know. What difference does it make?

Q: “So” implies continuation, but that was my first question to you. No continuation involved.
A: Um…

Q: This wouldn’t have happened two years ago. In just the last few months, I’ve noticed countless guests on talk shows starting their answers with “so,” to absolutely no purpose.
A. O-kaay…

Q: It’s irritating. It’s incomprehensible. It’s everywhere. I watched a Charlie Rose interview recently in which the guest was asked five questions, and every one of his answers began with “so”—completely unnecessarily. How did this habit get started? Why has it spread so rapidly? One day everyone seemed normal, or at least as normal as everyone normally seems, and the next day it’s suddenly “so, so, so.” Why?
A: What are you, the language police? This really matters to you?

Q: Yes! “So” serves no purpose in these instances. It’s like watching someone who has the hiccups and can’t get rid of them. It’s maddening!
A: I hadn’t noticed. Maybe it’s just you.

Q: It isn’t just me. My sister has noticed the same thing, and she has the attention span of a gnat.
A: Oh. Can I get out of this interview? It’s turned kind of negative. I’m not into negativity.

Q: Negativity can be a positive thing if used properly. What’s your problem with it?
A: So okay, it’s bad for the skin, and your skin reflects your whole inner state of well-being, so—

Q: You did it again, you moron! But to resume talking about the blog—
A:  So it evolved in an unexpected direction, and I plan to get back on track any day now.

Q: I’m warning you, I’m going to knock all your “so’s” into next Tuesday.
A: You really need to get a life, you know?

Q: That’s your job. You’re the one writing the blog.
A:  Coulda fooled me, word freak. Get out of my space! This interview is terminated.

The things he gave me ~

Two posts ago I mentioned that my first husband had inadvertently done a great deal to shape my later life. Of course, he left me with many brightly shining, enriching things. (Not jewelry; we were grad students.) He took me to my first Monty Python movie. He introduced me to “The Basement Tapes” and to “Layla” and to Elmore James. He converted me into a lover of “Star Trek.” He bought me books by Virginia Woolf.

But if you tenaciously follow the thread of causation—which, admittedly, is to walk a fine line amidst a tangle of other contributing threads—he gave me three bigger things that brought me where I am today.

1. When we were both in college, two years before we even began dating, he introduced me to an acquaintance from his part of Missouri.

2. When we were at graduate school, he told me about an open editorial internship at our university’s scholarly press.

3. He left me.

The acquaintance was the young man who, eight years later, became my second husband. I might have met and talked to him otherwise—all three of us, for a brief time, worked for the campus literary magazine—but I easily might not have. I was quite shy then. Although our marriage was figuratively bumpy and ended badly, our literally bumpy road trips took us to beautiful places together. Maine, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, South Carolina. The museums of D.C. We stayed together a long time. My second husband had much more music to introduce me to, as well as art, as well as a huge reinforcing dose of Monty Python. (I sing the philosophers’ drinking song upon request and sometimes, to people’s dismay, not upon request.)

The internship, which I jumped at, gave me the background to do freelance book editing. That in turn gave me the qualifications to eventually land a job producing publications for the grants office on campus. Those for the public, like the magazine I reshaped, featured campus research; those for researchers were geared to help them find funding and run their projects.

I worked in the same office for 23 years because I was compensated decently, considering that a master’s in English usually gets you nowhere fast, and because my job constantly evolved and expanded. It spanned the transition from typesetting-and-pasteup to desktop publishing, as well as the transition from “What’s the Internet?” to the ubiquity of web sites. I ended up doing editing, technical writing, feature writing, graphic design, web management—the whole catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek said in a different context. It was often stressful, sometimes scary, seldom boring.

Without the divorce, I would have had no reason to join a divorce coping workshop on campus. There I met a woman, K., who would become one of my best friends. Interestingly, K. was then working at—you got it—the research publications job I would later hold. The grants office happened to be housed one floor above the office where I was toiling as a “word processing operator” and copyediting books in my spare time. Meeting K. in the lobby one day when our acquaintanceship hadn’t yet bloomed into friendship, I learned that she was being promoted and that her job would be up for grabs in a couple of weeks. This heads-up enabled me to be excruciatingly well-prepared when I applied for and then interviewed for the job. Which I got. Worried that I’d been favored because K. knew me, I asked her about that one time. She told me that the committee’s decision was unanimous and that my editorial experience was the crucial factor. Thank goodness. Thank FH.

I remember saying goodbye to K. and her husband, L., when they moved away more than a decade ago. I gave them both long hugs and then marveled to L., “If it hadn’t been for [FH], I’d never have known you. Isn’t that weird?!” The world seemed sad and smiling and mysterious all at the same time. Had I been wearing a hat, I might well have tossed it up, Mary-Tyler-Moore style, right into the wondering breeze.

10 postcard platitudes from hell: a rejoinder ~

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What doesn’t kill you usually makes you weaker. Plus, whimpering is often involved. I learned this the summer I had blood poisoning.

God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
May I return the gift, please? If this were true there would be no suicides. Not a useful aphorism for atheists, either. And why would people worship a god who, apparently just for sport, will load you up with trouble to the very brink of breakdown?

Everything happens for a reason.
Yes, but often not for a good reason. The fact that cause and effect exists doesn’t mean it’s looking out for us. That’s not its job. 

All of us have a purpose in life.
A good purpose? Remind me again: what’s yours? Did you get it in writing?

When one door closes another one opens.
Maybe, maybe not. Better look carefully if it does.
See “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, Frank Stockton

Also see “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre
Also see “Let’s Make a Deal”

Look for the silver lining.
Sometimes there; often rare. Damn, that sure is a big dark cloud.

It can’t get any worse.
Unless you’re already in extremis, things can always get worse. I learned this from my last house, which disliked me intensely. The leaky roof was compounded by a falling tree branch, which was compounded by a plumbing disaster, which was compounded by two dead chipmunks in the dryer vent, which was….You get the idea. 

When life gives you lemons make lemonade.
Where do I get the sugar?

Think positive.
Think rationally. Also grammatically.

Just try harder.

How Bondo wrecked my marriage ~

Well, okay, that’s not true. Seven posts into this blog, I have lied already. Bondo, a fine product used for auto body repair, did not wreck my marriage. Serious problems, most of them originating with me, did that. But Bondo played a prominent role, like a sinister musical motif that repeats again and again under the main melody.

Not long before our wedding, my future first husband (FH) and I received signs that we should rethink what we were about to do. These signs, constructed by our friends mainly of posterboard, all read the same thing: “Turn back!”

No, that’s ridiculous. FH and I received no literal signs, although I think I came close to getting one from my father. But signs in the figurative sense—those we got plenty of.

The most obvious one was that we had begun arguing long before the wedding date was set. But such a mundane sign, although the one we should truly have paid attention to, is far less fun to write about than the others.

Like this one: Two months before our wedding, FH spent his small pool of car-designated money on a vehicle that only one of us could drive: a used Triumph Spitfire. This noisy, bumpy ride delighted him and terrified me. I could not then drive a stickshift, and I wasn’t about to learn via the Spitfire. So I was upset and distressed at his choice.

My distress reached new heights when I received a call, only two or three days after this purchase, telling me that FH would be in the hospital overnight due to a wrenched back. He had taken the Spitfire out for a little spin on icy back roads near his home and had wrecked the car.

At that point, lights should have appeared in the sky spelling out a message: “This boy-man is not ready to get married. He needs his freedom.” The fact that I recognized FH’s irresponsibility but chose to overlook it should have produced additional lights in the sky saying: “This girl-woman is too stupid to get married. She needs independence.” Sadly, none of our friends or relatives reported seeing such messages.

Another sign was that my mother, instead of suggesting that we abandon ship, proposed that we move up our wedding date from May to January and hold the wedding at my parents’ small bungalow in Perryville, Mo. This odd suggestion was presumably motivated by the fact that my father was in the middle of a trial year teaching at a community college in Colorado, and he could be back for Christmas break. Much later I suspected that another motivation was to ensure the wedding would be small, very inexpensive, and a done deal before my father could grow more cantankerous about it.

FH and I blithely agreed to Mom’s suggestions, for reasons that now elude me, even though it meant we would be living apart for the first few months of our marriage—FH finishing his bachelor’s degree in Missouri, me finishing the first year of my master’s degree in Illinois.

As the wedding approached, signs fell fast and furious.

There was the impressive thwack, a cross between a thud and a bullwhip crack, made by the back of FH’s head as he hit the wall when he fainted post–blood test at the doctor’s office.

There was our music selection for the wedding, a Bach prelude (suggested by me) and the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” (suggested by FH). I readily approved the latter, a lovely piece of music, without considering the inauspicious nature of its wistful, mournful, high-lonely sound. This musical combination, possibly unique in the annals of weddingdom, undoubtedly mystified our guests.

But there were not many guests to mystify. The wedding was being held at least an hour’s drive away for everyone except my grandfather. More guests dropped out when our wedding day was ushered in by snowfall that soon became a blizzard. Everyone has heard old-wives’ tales about whether it is lucky or unlucky to get married on a rainy day, but I’ve never heard any such axioms concerning blizzards. I’d be forced to guess that they are highly inauspicious. So the gathering was family-only except for my best friend, T., who served as piano player. (This was payback, since she had browbeaten me into playing at her wedding two years earlier, an experience that had thrown me into paroxysms of anticipatory anxiety for weeks.)

Not long after the wedding, Bondo made its appearance as part of a heroic effort by FH and one of his brothers to repair the extensive body damage on the Spitfire. FH had not done a thorough job: he had wrecked the car but, unfortunately, had failed to total it. I soon grew to flinch whenever Bondo, which we bought in alarming quantities, was mentioned. It stole away at least half of our weekends, necessitating trips to FH’s mother’s house so that he and my brother-in-law could work on the car.

Eventually the car was more Bondo than metal. Numerous parts were needed for the car as well, a seemingly endless chain of them, including (if I recall correctly) a new top. This auto odyssey continued through the majority of our marriage, which lasted less than four years before we separated for good. Subconsciously I began to associate the Spitfire with our marriage: Neither would ever be in working order.

The Spitfire was FH’s property after the divorce, but I don’t remember what became of it. However it ended up—whether junked and scavenged for parts, left to rust in someone’s gravelly side yard, or cubed by one of those giant car-crusher things—I imagined it feebly calling out for more Bondo.

When FH left—and he had good reasons—I was devastated. My bitterness lasted for years. But he contacted me on rare occasion, like a dot of Bondo here and there maintaining a slender connection. Both of us made second marriages that ultimately failed. The rare conversations or e-mails continued. In due time, as technology advanced, we became Facebook friends. Now, I believe, we may be on better terms than we ever were during our marriage, though we seldom talk and only occasionally e-mail. As the great short-story writer Alice Munro has said, “Nothing changes really about love” (“Amundsen”). Of course, FH hasn’t yet read this post, and life can turn funny on a person. But we’ve talked about these things in various marriage post-mortems, and I have faith that he’ll see the humor in it.

He is happily married now. He is an excellent attorney, a superb poet, an accomplished photographer. As far as I know, he is good at everything he does, and he remains the most intelligent person I’ve ever known. Quite unbeknownst to him, he shaped my subsequent life pretty decisively. But more of that in my next post. Are you still with me?