They look like they like each other. It is late February on Mars, and the atmosphere around here is tense, at best. The children are bored with their Christmas toys, mommy is broke and crabby, and the regular onslaught of snow and bitter cold continues. Worst of all, Ivan and Veronica alternate between fighting and fits of giggly hysteria, both of which drive me crazy.

Time for a playdate.

I do not like arranging for these meetings, because it is too much like real dating in that I tend towards becoming an insecure, anxious mess. So far, Ivan has been stood up twice by Jack, his friend from Montessori school. In both cases, Jack was sick, and in both cases, Ivan was absolutely heartbroken. This week it looks hopeful.

I am nervous because the playdate is here. Jack lives in Arden Hills (which sounds like a women’s perfume) or Falcon Heights (which sounds like a men’s cologne). We live in Frogtown (which if it were a perfume, you would not want to smell) in an “artist’s co-operative.” Our neighbors are the Hmong marketplace, and a crumbing green house with a very suspicious looking trailer parked on the lawn. I find these details delightful, but I worry that Jack’s mother, wreathed in the fragrant aura of the suburbs, will not. I can only hope that Jack returns home to say, “And they have a bike in the living room.” and not, “Ivan’s mom only smokes outside and only when she gets really upset.”

As for Veronica, I tried to make a playdate with her friend from school who, like all of my daughter’s school friends, has a name I can neither spell nor pronounce. It sounded to me like Ellipses, but that can’t be right. Veronica brought home a post-it note with her friend’s phone number, written in her seven-year old scrawl. I left a tentative message,

“Hello, this is Jennifer, Veronica’s mom, and I was calling to see if Ellipses would like to play this weekend. If this is, in fact, Elleepsies mom (and here I change the pronunciation slightly, in hopes I will eventually nail it), which I hope it is (nervous laugh). Okay, then, just call me, Veronica would love to see Ulllisspes.” Following this call, Veronica by turns harassed me and checked my phone for messages until I called and left another message, and finally, another on Saturday morning.

Elipses mom called me back around eleven on the Saturday of the would-be playdate.

“Hi!” Elipses mom brightly said, “Obviously a playdate isn’t going to work out today!!” Obviously? I wonder if she understands the meaning of the word, “Oh? That’s too bad.”

“Yes, well, we volunteer on weekends, so that’s probably not going to work out.” I’m impressed by this information, particularly that she cajoles a seven year old to spend all weekend volunteering.

“Weeknights are a little too hectic, I suppose.” I say, thinking of V’s wriggly little handwriting and hand-wringing.

“No, it will probably have to wait til summer.” Ellipses mom says definitively. “But we both really appreciate the offer!” I am pretty sure I am being snubbed, but can’t fathom why. How can my reputation preceed me at this school? How can anyone snub my adorable girl? I mouth the words ‘fuck off’ into the receiver, “Hmmkay, let’s touch base then.” I hang up and yell to Veronica, “You need to find a different friend at school for your playdate. Ellipses isn’t going to work out!”

I decide to plan a playdate for her and I while Jack is visiting. We will make cookies so the house will smell like vanilla when Jack’s mom comes to pick him up, and he will tell his mom, “Ivan’s mom makes the best cookies!” Volunteer that.


I Saw You

I guess I must have a stalker, or maybe even a gang of stalkers, because the other day I checked the “Missed Connections” ads on craigslist, and half the ads on there were about me!

Roseville Library – m4w – 25

You: baggy wool pants with something sticky on the butt and a filthy white winter coat with no buttons. Me: standing behind you in line when you argued down your sixty cent fine. The way your hair clung to your head after you took off your pink stocking cap stopped me in my tracks. Do you always smell like red wine and pizza in the morning? Call me!

Number 16 University Avenue – m4w – 55

Tuesday afternoon. You were headed east on University with your two adorable children, who you appeared to be screaming at, but no sound was coming out of your mouth, despite gesticulating wildly with your hands. Is there something wrong with your vocal chords? You should get it checked out. And also, you seem like a bad mom.

Shopping at Cosettas – m4w – 41

You spent 40 minutes deciding on a $4.99 bag of pasta. You picked up a wedge of cheese, and put it down again, then picked it up and put it back, like about 100 times. You must have picked up and set down everything in the store. I think your indecision is really cute! Are you even crazier once a person gets to know you? I can’t wait to find out.

Lex and Larp – m4w – 5

Idling at the corner of Lexington and Larpenteur, a projectile hit you in the back of the head. I did it. Love, Ivan.

Shmexy Shmoker – m4w – 49

I saw you standing on a fire escape smoking a cigarette at 11:30 a.m. wearing sweatpants, a kimono, pig-tails, a do-rag and obviously no bra. I was the guy rocking from foot to foot hugging a bottle in a paper bag who asked you if you wanted to party. How come you said no? I think we are soul mates.

February, 1994

Valentines for Seven Friends and a Stranger

Weary of girls floating by
cradling long boxes of roses like newborns
their sweet fragrant blossoms choking me,
A memento of my empty arms.

We contrive  a Valentine’s Day party –
Dress in black and come ready to mourn
the Death of Love by Hallmark Card.”

The coterie arrives alone, by necessity,
Each more bitter than the one before.
We revel in our loneliness
And drink the swill of co-misery.

But cupid’s arrows are fierce and frequent:
A pack of smokes, a hand-made card,
A shot of bourbon, and a dance of abandon in
the smoky haze of an otherwise empty bar.

I’m wounded, I’m hit,
With a quiver full of tenderness
For my lovely orphans, my drinking chums,
Oh my comrades and amigos!

To toast the love this day forgets
At two a.m. it is February 15th,
But still I call out to the bartender
“Eight more pickled eggs!”

Ripon, February 1994

Now I get It

First gig: Groovy Hipsters, backing vocals.

I spent years dating musicians. Not on purpose. But my first love – or more accurately, my first obsessive infatuation – was a guitar player. He was in a wedding band called “The Unexpected!” (punctuation mine) that played mostly 50-60’s classic rock. He was the lone teenager in the band, the rest were in their twenties. I used to go see him play and wait for The Kinks so I could go and dance like Molly Ringwold and gaze up at him, playing expressionless except for the odd, taut smile. I thought this was because he was cool, but now, I wonder if he was just concentrating really hard.

Anyway, our courtship consisted primarily of me gloomily smoking cigarettes and him playing the opening to Ceremony on an acoustic guitar, which never ceased to thrill me. Sometimes we had to walk to the gas station for more cigarettes, and sometimes we made out, but mostly, I think, I gazed at the ceiling and listened to him plink-a-plink. Then I would go home and dash out poems on my electric typewriter about our difficult and doomed love.

Stella, camping, 1995
It will comfort those who knew me then, I no longer play guitar.

One thing quickly became clear. Band practice comes first, girlfriend comes second. The guitar was his object of obsession, as he was mine. This fueled a resentment I harbored gleefully for all of my twenties, as I dated one musician after another. Then I married a painter, and moved to St Cloud and stopped thinking about rock and roll because I had babies and worked in advertising. Rest for eight measures.

When I met Doug, I thought he might be my boyfriend, but it turned out he was going to be my band-mate. This happened when he shoved a microphone in front of my face and said, “let’s see what you can do”. Then he put me in front of a keyboard and said “write a part” and I did. I think I surprised him a little, and nobody more than myself. Douglas does nearly all the hard work; drum parts, rhythm tracks, guitar, bass, mixing, producing and writing lyrics. I was – I am – a rank amateur. But I really, really love making music, and when I show up in his living room studio, I’m ready to work, and ridiculously serious about it.

I played a Chintzeys’ Christmas song for my mom, and she was utterly bemused. “So what now, you’re going to be a rock and roll star?” No mom, I’m not. But I don’t know, is this what it is like for some people who start golfing and just can’t get enough of it? Other people play softball, or build model trains or watch football, and I guess I make weird art-rock, new-wave music with my friend who graciously allows me to do so.

So, the actual recording is much less glamorous than you might have imagined.

So now I get it. Now I know why it was guitar first, girlfriend second. It’s just really fucking fun. To start the day with nothing and end it with a song is just short of alchemy. Like a secret I’ve just been told, and now I can’t help but blurt out to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not my life’s work, it’s not as important as parenting, or as natural as putting words down on paper, and it certainly doesn’t pay the rent. But it’s better than any high-school boyfriend I ever had. It’s not personal, it’s just I’d rather be doing this.

(Oh, and if you want to hear what happened when that microphone got shoved in my face, it was this.


Veronica, second grader

My daughter Veronica, second grader, is telling me what she wants to be when she grows up.

“I’m going to be an artist.” I nod knowingly. I think of Patti Smith whose memoir I just finished. “Well,” I tell her, “you’ll have to work very hard.” I check the rearview. She registers all this with an intense look out the window. She is, I think, well on her way. Then she pipes up,

“Jerry is going to be an artist too.” Jerry. I have heard this name before. When I asked her why she was lugging The Invention Of Hugo Cabret (544 pages, 2.7 lbs) around in her backpack. “Jerry and I like to read it.” I smiled and looked away. Veronica is extremely squeamish about romantic relations, a state I wish to preserve until… adulthood, I guess. I tread lightly.

“So tell me more about this Jerry. What does he look like?”

“Well, he’s Jewish.” Pause. “But he doesn’t wear one of those little hats on his head. He just can’t eat certain foods.”

“Like pork?” I offer.

” No. Like kiwis becuase Jews don’t eat kiwis because they aren’t grown around here. So like if we eat kiwi in class, he just has a little.” This sentence is so densely packed with mind-blowing information, I’m not sure where to start.

“Are you sure his parents aren’t locavores?”

She sighs. “No they are Jewish. And he is, like, partially bald.” What?

“Is Jerry an adult?” I ask, startled.

“No mom. He’s a kid. He sits next to me”

“Then why is he partially bald? Do you mean he has very short hair?”

“Yeah his hair is really short.” Despite her concession, I still picture a seven year old with male pattern baldness, maybe a comb-over.

“He and I draw together.” I recall a stack of baby animal drawings she showed me yesterday, and mention them. “Yeah, but Jerry draws  mostly superheroes.”

“Hmm. So did you make him a special valentine?”

“No. I just wrote ‘you’re funny’ because sometimes he is. And I also said ‘you’re cool’. I’m probably going to make a book about baby animals when I grow up.”

I look back at her again, her thin blonde hair parted in the center, glasses, one adult tooth descending slowly from her upper gum. If she and this prematurely balding Jerry kid grow up to be funny and cool artists, and read books and make books about baby animals and superheroes, I think I can live with that. As much as I can stand her growing up at all.

She’s Come Undone, Again

Cappadoccia, Turkey, 1995
Capadoccia – as good a place to lose your mind as any

I went crazy in Istanbul. I know that I went crazy, because there is an entry in my journal, sparsely kept, that reads “I hated Istanbul. I think this is where I began to mentally disintegrate.” However, I broke that cardinal rule of good story telling; rather than SHOWING that I went crazy, I merely TOLD myself that I went crazy. Like, “Went to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, then gambling, then crazy.” Now, truthfully, I do remember some of the details. But like many memories, and maybe in particular those of psychotic breaks, much of it is lost to the passage of time and the power of repression. It was almost 15 years ago now.

In order to jog my memory – which I wanted to do for the sake of writing, and not just remembrance alone – I decided to re-read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Because it contains what must be one of the most stellar female-crack-ups-of-an-American-woman-abroad, ever. Kit Moresby looses her shit in the Sahara, and never, ever gets it back.

The book is, I hate to say, existential. There’s no getting around it. But as Tenesssee Williams points out in his original  review in 1949, don’t let that stop you from reading it, it’s also a ripping good yarn! Albeit one that will really fuck with your head.

From "New Geography" textbook, 1920
Shifting sanddunes burrying date palms in the Sahara

What I remembered about the book from my first reading this: three incredibly self-absorbed Americans set out for the Sahara in search of something meaningful, and that gradually, they are undone by the vastness of the landscape combined with their own nihilism. Which is true, sort of. And is why I really didn’t want to re-read it. Because I was worried that while I might have suffered nihilism in my twenties, I would have little patience for it in my thirties. Could I really give a care about three rich, self-indulgent post-war brats – again?

What is so stunning about The Sheltering Sky is that one is not asked to sympathize with the characters. Bowles is plainly ruthless in his characterization, so that the reader needn’t be emotionally invested in them, just fascinated by them. And who can help but be fascinated as Port and Kit, the married couple at the center of the story, by turns take actions more and more incredulous and illogical.

The first time I read the book, I finished it in one of those marathon reading sessions on the old green velvet couch in the apartment on Summit Avenue. Back in the days when I could devote a good six hour stretch to the last 200 pages of a novel. I remember being unable to tear myself away as first, the protagonist was killed off (what?! who does that?) and then, Kit gave herself over to a sort of catatonic voluntary victimization that frankly blew my mind. I remember a sort of blinking, fuzzy post-reading state of “well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.”

Upon re-reading, I knew what was coming, and felt more able to … enjoy would be the wrong word; more able to appreciate Kit’s spin into madness, acutely aware of the distance between her madness and my own unhinging so many years ago. Early in the book, Port makes a distinction between travelers and tourists, identifying with the former. It was the same distinction backpackers and wanderers made in the nineties when I was abroad. Port defines it partly as a question of time “tourists generally hurry home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly over periods of years”. To me it always seemed the difference was that a tourist was interesting in seeing places, things, sites; whereas the traveler was interested in the acquisition of experience, wherever that may take them. Bowles’ pushes his characters to places wholly new – death, madness –  from which there is no return itinerary.

As I finished the novel this time, it was with a sense of relief. Kit wanders off into the streets of Algiers, I drift through the rooms of my sleeping children. I attend to small bed-time rituals, turning off night-lights and radios – my children, like myself, fear both absolute darkness and silence. It is a long time since the traffic and crowds of Istanbul, and I am still dipping in and out of crazy like a tourist. But here I am  – mother, single mother – ever forward, onward. There is no returning in life, only passage through.