Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bad Candy

I feel dismal and annoyed with what happened on my street tonight between 6 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., when I gave away the last tiny red packet of Skittles, blew out the pumpkin-colored candle in the front window, closed the curtains, turned off the porch light, and hunkered down to finish off the bottle of red wine (Ars Poetica, from The Boot, if you must know) with my friends Teddy and Dennis.

Between 6 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., about 150 people came to my door. Cars lined the street, crawling along as their passengers darted out (in the rain, the last 15 minutes or so), dashed up my sidewalk and pounded on my door. Pounded.

More than half of the trick or treaters tonight looked to be 15 or older. I'd say only about half bothered to show up in costume. One kid, who looked about 17, didn't even have a bag. I asked where his costume was and he said it got ripped. He wanted me simply to hand over the candy. Why did I care? Yet I felt intensely irritated. Some were over six feet tall and didn't even make a pretense of being a father with kids -- they just wanted candy. It felt...thuggish.

Teddy, an optimist and teacher to her marrow, suggested refusing candy to anybody who wasn't wearing a costume. I said, with a combination of anxiety and moral torpor, naw, just give it all away. Halloween ain't the time for conscious B-Mod. It's JUST CANDY, right?

So, we simply surrendered to the hectic mania. What kind of weird transaction is this? What reflexive game am I playing out? It's a strange ritual, absent of wit, creativity or innocence.

What am I saying? Halloween historically isn't exactly about innocence.

And this was, of course, an itchy exercise in class disparities. My neighborhood is considered "fancy," one of the best in town. The comers were not from here. We're almost all "liberals," with yard signs for the mayoral candidate who's a Rhodes Scholar and Democrat -- young, white, well-fed and good-looking. But I have a sneaky suspicion political distinctions, however much they salve our late-night doubts, are irrelevant to last night's comers. The conscientious residents of Maxine Street were only People With Candy. Free candy.

I don't like where this is going.

I realize now that what I missed was...the mask. The illusion. The facade. It was Halloween, for god's sake. The naked truth about Flint, with its 8 percent unemployment rate, violence and acres of brownfields and deserted houses, isn't very amusing. But why should poor people (if they WERE poor -- I'm depressed by and wary of my own assumptions) have to put on funny outfits to get free stuff from relatively rich people? This all seems embarrassing, undignified and disheartening.

Anyway...The cutest costumes I saw were worn by two of the only people I actually knew who came to my door -- one guy in a blue smock covered with bunches of cotton balls, the other guy, a car board glitter sun. Dopey, innocuous sun and sky, parading up my walk: a gay couple in their 20s. Three cheers for gay men! Relieved by something to laugh at, I gave them a lot of chocolate.


Monday, October 29, 2007

The Hutch of Womanhood

Furniture makes me feel grown up. Even that word -- furn-i-ture -- sounds substantial, reliable, and reassuring. I suppose at my age this should be far past relevant, but anybody over 30 knows there's nothing about one's years on earth that guarantees maturity. I'm always on a scavenger hunt for signs and symbols that I've made a dent on life's confusions. Furniture, for whatever idiosyncratic reason, seems to say "yes, you have."

This matters today because Ted and I recently added a large, significant piece of furniture to our household. It's a tall oak china cabinet in two heavy pieces -- what my mother called a buffet and what Ted and I have been calling a "hutch." The latter seems the right moniker -- it's big, yet designed for peaceful, cozy purposes, like housing the remnants of my Great-Grandma Youtz's flowery china and my collection of cordial glasses. And, of course, "hutch" is also the word for a rabbit's house. What a language! How can anybody who speaks English not be a poet?

Anyway, there was once a time when I was proud that all my "stuff" fit into my '67 Bug. Those were days of heady road trips across the U.S.A., as I freely flew down freeways, 10 and 40 and 80, east to west to east to west, enjoying my unencumbered youth. I think what I had was a bunch of hippie clothes and a "stereo" in three pieces: the turntable and two speakers that slid onto the right and left. There would have been a couple of boxes of books (Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson) and a box of "records" -- yes, children, that's what we called them -- Grateful Dead, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young, Cream, Janis Joplin, Beatles, of course. And a few keepsakes like a small black ivory elephant my dad brought me from the U.N. and a vase given to me by Sadie Russ, a 98-year-old woman in Akron, Ohio who had been friends of my long-dead grandmother.

I still have all that stuff -- well, not the Bug or the stereo, but most of the rest. Eventually the open road, actually and metaphorically, lost its luster as it so often does when one's knees and neck begin to go, and I wanted not a million choices, but anchors to one spot, one house, one man. I wanted to get to know one tree intimately and watch it grow. I wanted to get to know one man and I wanted him to stay awhile. I wanted dishes and cloth napkins and rugs and a real bed with an actual headboard.

I learned that furniture doesn't keep a marriage together, but can outlast it. One of the hardest things I had to walk away from in my first marriage was a dining room table with leaves to seat a dozen. We'd had years of memorable dinner parties there, and it meant something to me. I gave it up. But it is somewhat easier to replace a table than a husband: when I left that marriage, one of the first things I did was buy another one (a table, that is!) -- smaller but solid, suited to what I hoped would be my intrepid solitary life. The emotional reward was mixed but irresistible.

Later, my present husband and I bought a dining room table and big chairs that please me immensely. They haven't been seasoned by the rowdy soirees of my thirties and forties, but they were made by Mennonites in Pigeon, Michigan -- built with deliberate, loving craftsmanship, I like to think, that took some time. When we bought it I told Ted, "Some day I'll need the 'hutch' to go with this." He remembered, and this year, in the sign of the Scorpio -- mine -- he delivered.

It matches the table and chairs and has glass doors and a mirrored back and built-in recessed lights that make my granny's china sparkle. The other night I left the lights on dim, just so that if I woke up in the middle of the night I could come downstairs and look at all my keepsakes shimmering in the dark.

It doesn't change the world or feed a baby, but it makes me feel rooted and substantial. I have a hutch. I must really be a woman now.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Owl at Night in a Silver Maple

There's no hour of the day or night more ambiguously quiet -- or more lonely, depending on the night -- than 2:30 a.m. I'm restless in my bed when Ted's not here; I pile on quilts, preferring the ancient beautiful one my mother and her friends made decades ago. I buy 400-count sheets and drink decaf green tea before turning in, but still, even with these rituals and totems of peace, I often toss and turn without my mate.

Maybe last night it was the full moon that woke me up. Does the moon seem smaller sometimes now, more imperiled and too easy for humankind to reach? I want to believe there is something we can't overrun.

And in the damp, shiny dark after a day of rain, there was an owl in the silver maples, rare in these parts and miraculous, mournfully who-whooing. Sadness for our brief lovely life overtook me. I got up, pushed open the window as far as I could, hoping to catch even a brief silhouette of the bird, a flutter, a connection in a lonely hour. But all the dark offered was his melancholy call, who-who-who, until 3 a.m. when I fell back into a fitful, moonwashed sleep.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Blame the Lilacs

Aren't lilacs just too damn sentimental and audacious for their own good, climbing over everything and exuding their promiscuous spring perfume, making everybody feel light in the head and full of anachronous longing? I mean, really.

Yeah, I'm mad. Pruning down my lilac bush for the winter, I was awkwardly wielding the big clippers somebody gave me for a housewarming gift ("Hint hint," I thought they were saying) back when I moved into this respectable, lilac-strewn neighborhood. I reached up, twisted the wrong way a centimeter too far, and pulled a muscle in my lower back.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. So this is what it feels like to be old.

I've come up with amazing new ways to get my legs into my jeans, leaning back on the bed and gingerly sliding a foot in, cussing and aiming for the pantleg from a not-so-pain-free distance. Putting on a pair of socks is a major operation, not to mention tying my beloved New Balance walking shoes or other more graphic tasks of personal hygiene. I have to plan my time, since, for example, the Lehrer News Hour starts out pleasantly enough with Margaret Warner but ends with ten minutes of me moaning and groaning trying to get out of the recliner. Lifting a carton of soy milk off the top shelf of the frig proved perilous, and opening the trunk of my car called out an expletive deleted. I'm a slow-mo woman this week, walking like Montgomery Burns and muttering at every required and ordinary movement.

It'll be good to have my body back again. Was I young once, physically nimble enough to take advantage of the lilacs?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One bird

The flutter of a silver wing at breakfast, and there was a tufted titmouse, one of my favorite birds, perched on the power line just outside the window. We peeked shyly at each other for just a second before he darted away.

Only one, when they usually travel in flocks. Was it just me or was he a little disheveled, a bit flustered around his topknot?

Yet it was a joyful sliver of morning. With this little bird on the list of disappearing species, a heartbeat of hope.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Imaginary Family

One of my favorite features in the Saturday Flint Journal is "People," the thin little pull-out tabloid almost lost between Sports and Classifieds. It usually features some local yokel on the front (I was once one of those featured yokels -- me and the mutt of the month competing for readership, and I think the mutt won). "People" is a rich storehouse for a hermit like me with no family within 200 miles. I really don't miss having a family to speak of -- in fact I'm grateful for it most of the time, but I get perverse vicarious delight from reading every word about engagements, weddings, wedding anniversaries and geezer birthdays. Not to mention the Pet of the Week.

Today's is Dixie, a two-year-old beagle/terrier mutt. Somebody slapped a yellow bandana on her for her desperate closeup. Her long pink tongue sticks out, and she's smiling in that doggie way as if she knows how much this matters. The way she's sitting there, her little white paws on a hard floor at the Humane Society, breaks my heart.

On the engagement and wedding pages, I look at all the panicky smiling couples in their fancy clothes, their heads touching, the guy's hand tenderly and tastefully on the girl's waist, the women in complicated upswept hair and lacy headpieces, the guys looking slightly strangled by their unaccustomed tuxes. Stiff little flowers, rosebuds with sprays of cliche baby's breath, seem to interfere with hugging. But everybody's smiling. Looking at all of them, the Nicoles and Scotts and Caras and Lances and LaCreshas and Fruquwas (that's the guy) and Sarahs and Dereks, I think, yes indeed, there is somebody for everybody.

And then on the next page, there are the anniversaries: names from another era -- Harold and Phyllis and Shirley and Kenneth and Gordon and Tom...and these couples suggest the toll the years take, a whiplash of time from the hopeful naivete of decades before. The couples are thick and wrinkled, bespectacled and silver-haired -- and still smiling, thanks, I think, to "Cheese." I think they look surprised, and relieved, that they've made it this far. I wonder if they still like each other. The contrast between the two sections -- the young beginners, the weathered survivors -- is almost more than I can take before my second cup of tea. It makes me want a drink.

But the best of all is "Generations" -- the photos where somebody whose 15-year-old kid just had a baby in the family tradition lines up with great-grandma, grandma, mom or dad and a tiny papoose, usually in the arms of the oldest relative, little aware of his or her place in history.

Today's "People" yielded a Generations bonanza: SIX GENERATIONS. Unbelievable! Great-great-great grandmother Lucille, 98, holds little Devan, five weeks old. Arranged around the aged granny and thumb-sucking infant are great-great grandmother Norma, great-grandmother Brenda, grandfather James and mom Nicole. I try to calculate how in the hell this could have happened -- everybody procreated before the age of 20, I guess, and everybody lived. What relentless family-making!

I'm amazed. My GRANDFATHER was born in 1870 and has been dead since the early 50s -- my mother was born in 1910 and didn't get around to giving birth to me until 1949. I come from a long line of extreme late-bloomers, some of whom never actually bloomed. I, for instance, never had kids myself, and I'm still waiting for the break that will bust open my expected celebrity to snare me a mythical -- if truncated -- twig on my family tree.

So my historical family, the people we call ancestors, are largely mysteries to me. And what I know of them, through various myths, memories, scars and resentments, are filtered through "he said, she said" second- or third-hand accounts at best.

My Ancestors Aren't Listening

And, to continue with the above...

The energetic and wonderful New York hip hop playwright Will Power, who's a visiting professor at UM-Flint this semester, came to my fiction-writing class this week. At one point, he said he calls to his ancestors when he's writing, and they often answer back. His ancestors, he suggests, consistently wish him well and enhance his creative juices.

I'm confounded. I'm trying to figure out how this works. As I just wrote above, in the family category, almost everybody before my generation has now kicked off. My brother and sister and my cousins and I are what count as elders now. And coming after me, in my immediate family, a single nephew and three nieces. Two of the nieces are in adult foster care, and the other, carrying a big weight of historical expectation if you buy such logic, is a beginning doctor in the first year of her residency.

I'm pretty sure my ancestors are mute.

And I have no reason to believe that if they knew me, that they'd like me or wish me well. They were very religious and didn't seem receptive to nonconformists like me, especially women like me. In their way, they were nonconformists but intolerant ones -- their nonconformity was rooted in passionate belief that everybody should be like them.

The stories I've heard about my ancestors depress me. I'm feeling cynical today, but even the most colorful ones, like my Grandfather Vandersall, a traveling evangelist, seem screwed up and unhappy. What would they say? I keep thinking, from the Great Beyond, that they might utter, like Philip Larkin,

"Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don't have any kids yourself."