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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.

January 2009


Up here, January isn’t the beginning

but the middle,

Of winter, doubt, serious cold.

Sharp wind slices along the main street

Crowded with the sounds of hard working cars,

Of tough packed snow, labored breath, creaking ice.

Mean sky and low clouds light our faces,

Flushed and creased with flat smiles,

Of determination, measured hope, longing.

So I’ve got that going for me.

On Mars, the news of late is bad. Broken cars, long distance tows and insurance hassles. With every turn, I have serenely looked for the bright side. “Yes the car’s engine failed but it failed in the parking lot, not on the way to Ivan’s school in busy morning traffic.” “Yes, it’s going to be the coldest week of the winter – but at least Monday was warm for a super fun Metro Transit outing!” “Okay, so I have to have the car towed to Albany, 90 miles from here, but I’m getting a really good deal from a mechanic I trust.” Well, all this Pollyanna crap is making by pigtails hurt. Life’s giving me lemons, and I refuse to make lemonade. I’m sucking on that lemon and making a sour, mean face. So there.

On the other hand, this blogging enterprise sure is a hoot! Just this week, the very first week ever for House on Mars, I find out my blog is “Possibly Related” to a rancher in Austrailia, that it is blocked in Burma (awesome!) and that my friend Roni thinks I’m a Stylish Blogger. So yeah, I’ve got that going for me.

In return, I need to nominate 5 other Stylish Bloggers, and follow a bunch of other directions. So I’m gonna do that now.

1. Make this post and link back to the person who gave the award to me.

2. Share 7 things about myself.

3. Award 5 great bloggers.

4. Contact the bloggers to tell them they’ve won!

Seven Things Sure to Fascinate:

1. I used to be called, almost exclusively, Corn. It was a nickname I accepted with all the grace afforded to one associated with a vegetable. In college, I had a Philosophy professor, the venerable “Spuds” Hanniford. I felt a kinship with my vegetable brethren, and a relief that my nickname didn’t necessarily presage a life spent in  Loserville. Just when I think I’ve dodged this nickname for good, I let slip to someone that I used be called Corn, and then it starts all over again. Like, for instance, now.

2. I’m a Unitarian. Look it up.

3. I collect glass birds.

4. I pathologically kill houseplants.

5. I used to teach poetry to high school kids, just after college. This is something I forget about, all the time, and then I run across lesson plans, and photo copied poems and all this evidence of having done it, and I’m reminded it actually happened. My most successful was the “Teen Angst Workshop” (yes, I really called it that) that I held at my own alma mater, Hartford Union High School.

I had advertised with flyers around the school, and when the first after-school session arrived, only 3 kids showed up. So I said, “Wait here,” and I walked to the art room. As suspected, there were a half dozen ner do well art room kids, hunched over scratch-boards or gazing meaningfully into each others eyes or drawing on each others jeans. “Who in here writes poetry?” Nothing. “Come on, I know you do.” They all raise their hands. “Come with me then. Just for today, and you can decide if you want to keep coming.” I waived the $6 fee the Hartford Rec Department wanted me to collect and spent the next hour convincing them I was sufficiently cool, and also a poet. They came back, and they brought friends.

They were the most earnest, hard working group of kids. I read to them, and they were absolutely rapt. I met with them individually in the hallway and pored over their terrible poems, helping them turn them into pretty good poems. I had to write notes to parents who didn’t believe their kids weren’t staying late for detention. The Milwaukee Journal did an article about us, and one kid said their parents never thought they would be in the paper for anything but breaking the law. Shit like this made me cry. At the end of the 12 week workshop we published a little photocopied chapbook and had a reading at a local cafe, which also made me cry. It is one of the only times I have ever seen that look of recognition, that change in expression that reveals you have actually gotten your idea across to a student. A fleeting brightening of the eyes that says “learning is happening.” That I won’t forget.

6. My high-school prom date took LSD – yes, at prom – without telling me.

7. My first pet was a goldfish named Ivan. This is also the name of my son. I totally forgot that I had him (the goldfish), until I found a note tucked in a book that gave instructions on his care and feeding while I was on spring break. I think the fish was named after a character in a Dostoyevski novel (PRETENSION ALERT!). My son was not.

Whew! Ok. Now for 5 STYLISH BLOGGERS:

Roni @ minivanorclowncar

Greg @The Nothing Box

Anastasia @ Dr Frankenbaby

Allie @ Hyperbole and a Half

Kat @ I’m a Fucking Writer

And pretty much everyone over on the right hand side of the page, but I am feeling lazy about adding any more, and I’ve gone on much too long already. Thanks Roni, for inadvertently making me think about that old poetry workshop instead of my stupid car.

Baby Come Back

I know I took you for granted. I expected you to just give, give give, and all I did was take. But as the tow truck driver turned the winch and I watched you lurch onto the back of the platform truck, I realized how much you really mean to me 2002 Volkswagen Jetta wagon.

Remember when you needed new wipers for like 8 months? I'm sorry.

Yes, I should have changed your oil a little more frequently and I let the kids eat all manner of sticky things in you and put stickers up all over your windows. Worst of all, I ignored all your subtle cues, the things I can only see now in retrospect. The way you slipped a little going into fourth gear. The Engine Light Scare just before Christmas. Why did I ignore the signs? Oh, If only I could go back in time baby, I would take you to the mechanic for semi-annual tune-ups and give you only synthetic oil. Honest I would.

Oh, who am I fooling? We all knew you were too good to last. I was never cut out for a car like you. And now you’re going to make me pay. Well, I’m not going to let it ruin me. I’ve already been cruising craigslist for your replacement and even thought of writing my own ad:

Woman Seeking Reliable Car for LTR. Broke but loyal; I am a one-car-at-a-time kind of woman. Must be suitable for long road trips through frozen wastelands as well as daily abuse in urban traffic. Only serious inquiries please, I’m tired of games. Let’s meet and rev your engine and see where it goes from there!

I’ve even considered some car sharing programs. Pretty wild, eh? Yeah, well you’ve really left me a mess 2002 Volkswagen Jetta wagon, and only I am left to pick up the pieces of your fickle love.

But I have a feeling this isn’t over yet. You’ll be back. Oh, you’ll need to go to a repair shop and “find yourself” I’m sure. All the while I’ll be biding my time, catching busses and waiting for your return. It will be different from here on in. Only the best for you. Just please come back to me – you were the only car I ever really loved. I’ll be better next time, promise.

In Case of Childbearing Emergency

I found this note tucked in a cookbook last week. At first I didn’t know what it was – I certainly had no memory of writing it. Then I realized it was a list of items for a kit, to be kept in the car, in case I gave birth on the way to the hospital. my favorite bit is the “shoelace to tie cord” followed by instructions to “cut in two places”. As if we’d be checking our notes.

The names of the three towns are, I think, possible locations the imagined emergency delivery might happen. Why does Melrose have a question mark? I have no idea. They are all about midway between St Cloud, where we were living at the time, and Alexandria, where I went to deliver my kids. The irony being, of course, that both my kids were overdue, and I would have gladly delivered them roadside by the 10th day past their due date. Still, it’s a great illustration of the way a first time expectant mother’s mind works. Shoestring indeed.

This is my house on Mars

Hundertwasser Model
Hundertwasser On Mars

When I posed the question to my Facebook friends “If I were to write about something in a blog, what is it that you would want to read about?” the response was overwhelmingly “whatever!”. Which is better than just “whatever.” But I liked the way my friend

Mollie said it, in a list of suggested random topics she said, “What would your house on Mars look like?” Well, I happen to know exactly what my house on Mars would look like. But also, I took a liking to the phrase. I like Mars. It’s my ruling planet, as an Aries, if you go in for that sort of thing. Mars is fiery, and the planet of war, and it’s also the planet where Martians come from. It’s got a lot going for it. Which is why I set up my blog there.