“Embarrassed”

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote,

” … In which I decide that breastfeeding in public is gross.  I was taking the minutes at a division meeting, grumbling to myself over the sad fact that professors simply think themselves to be above Robert’s Rules, when suddenly the professor at the next table, who had been holding her five-month-old on her lap for the past half hour, stooped to grab a large scarf from her bag.  Before I could avert my still-scarred-from-too-much-TLC-in-high-school eyes, she draped the scarf around her shoulders and over the baby, and began the feeding as if there weren’t fifty other people in the room.  Gross.  I realize that it’s not fair that you should have to be a pariah just because you have an infant, but still.  Gross.”

I’m ashamed now that I held such an opinion.  And I’m even more ashamed when I think that because of misunderstanding people like me, perhaps that breastfeeding mother was made to feel embarrassed, as if she were doing something wrong.  She wasn’t.

This explains it best:

Poet (and mother) Hollie McNish performing her spoken word poem “Embarrassed.”

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The Waiters: A Short Story

Because it’s cold, and because I’ve been using said chill to justify a long afternoon of lazing around the house, and because having finally settled down with my Feminist Theory readings, I find myself engrossed, I’m posting a story.

I wrote this several years ago, submitted it to First Line Fiction, and won third place.  Having come a long way since 2010, parts of this were painful to reread.  You may cringe at the sentimentality.  You may wonder what on earth led me to disregard quotation marks.  But please know that I’m right there with you.

That being said, I do like a few things about this story, hence I’m submitting it to the Internet for the second time.

I also think this blog needs a little fiction every now and then, if only to punctuate many days of non-fiction ranting.

Here you go.  Happy MLK Day!

The Waiters

He brought in his shirt pocket the last photograph he’d taken of his son.

Poor guy.  You should have seen the way he walked into the office that afternoon.  He wore a yellow jacket that seemed inappropriate.  Its brightness contrasted with the hollow expression on his face so drastically that it was almost shocking.  I was relieved when he took the jacket off, carefully hanging it up on the rack in the corner of the waiting room. 

And then the man began to slowly cross, crumpling a little with each step.  I imagined that he’d be on his knees before he even reached the chair.  I imagined myself putting my hand on the shrugged shoulder, shouting into a wrinkled ear.  He made it though, sitting next to me as I knew he would.  There was no other place, after all.  The waiting room was full of people waiting, most of whom were buried in magazines or clicking on small phones.

He began talking as soon as he sat down.  Talking to me, or so I figured after a few seconds.

I had a son once, he said.

A son?  This was before I decided he was speaking to me and not to someone else.

Yes.  He died, though.  Car accident.

I’m sorry.  Because that’s what you say, isn’t it?  I’m sorry?  I’m sorry I can’t know what you’re going through, and I’m sorry that I’m going to try my hardest to comfort you anyway.  I’m sorry I don’t understand.

Thank you, he said simply.  I thought that would be it, and I could go back to staring at the wall.

He continued, though.  So many people die that way; it isn’t terribly original.  But my son doesn’t die that way.  My son doesn’t die.

He did, though.  I spoke softly, hoping he would know that I wasn’t trying to hurt him with my bluntness.  I wanted him to keep talking all of the sudden.  I wanted to know how this man had come to be folded into himself.  How his eyes got to be the way they were now.  Drowning.  He could see, but he wasn’t really looking out of them.  I saw all of these things in that waiting room, and I wanted him to keep talking.

The man paused for a moment, fiddling with the pocket at the front of his shirt.  Out of the pocket he plucked a folded bit of paper.  A photograph; it said Kodak across the back.  He unfolded the photograph and stared at it for a few seconds before folding it once more. 

He took a deep breath before he spoke again.  Afterwards, we all mourned.  No one talked during meals anymore.  My wife and I cried ourselves to sleep every night.  We tried to comfort one another.  I tried so hard.  But it is so very difficult to dig yourself out of the well of your own grief and reach for someone else.

Suddenly the man looked up at me, as if just realizing that he was talking to an actual person who was listening. 

He looked down again at the photo in his hands and continued.  My wife stopped grieving after awhile.  She got on with her life.  She went back to work.  She started running with the dog in the morning.  She drove our daughters to lacrosse and modern jazz.  She didn’t understand why I couldn’t get up too.  She used to become angry with me.  Why can’t you get over him?   She would yell.  Why can’t you see that he’s gone and that we’re left? You have two other children.  You have a job.  This needs to stop.  The man looked at me again, warily this time.  Do you have a job?

I nodded.  I deliver packages.  I drive a truck and I stop and I make people sign for brown boxes or tan envelopes.

The man took this in.  Do you enjoy your work?  He asked me.

I thought for a moment.  Then I answered.  I enjoy the people.  I watch them.  I guess what they’re like, what their names are. 

Do you ever get them right?

I don’t know if I do or not. 

The man frowned.  I would like to know.   He unfolded the photograph again and stared at it again.  I would like to know.

I saw that he was on the verge of crying.  His eyes squinted up and his knees shook a bit.  People across the room were beginning to look at us.  Not obviously looking, but peering at us every so often over their Newsweeks, as if to warn us that they didn’t want to overhear, but that they would if we spoke any louder.  They didn’t want to overhear.  They didn’t want a share in the anguish on the man’s face, the bewilderment on mine.  They read their magazines.

The man shuddered three more times and was still. 

He began to speak again after a few minutes.  I realized soon that I could lose my wife as well.  That she wouldn’t die, but that she would be just as permanently and irrevocably gone if I didn’t stop missing my son.  So I stopped.  I had to, you see.  I knew if I lost anything else I would disappear completely myself.  Everything tying me down would be gone.  I would be gone too. 

I stretched my legs out across the carpet and arched my back a little bit.  I wasn’t bored; I was only sore from sitting so long.  He knew I wasn’t bored.  Even if I had been, I don’t think he would have stopped.  We both knew now that he needed to say these things.  We both knew I needed to hear.

He kept talking through my stretch; his gaze wandered down to my brown boots and anchored on to them. 

I donated all of my son’s clothes, and cleaned his room.  I even took down his posters and painted over his walls with the spring green color my wife picked.  The paint erased my son’s smell until I couldn’t breathe in that room anymore.  I was about to shut his door behind me for the last time when I spotted the edge of something white sticking out from under the bed.

It was the photograph, wasn’t it?

The man nodded gravely.  I had taken it a few weeks before he died.  We were driving in my old convertible going west.  West like the pioneers, my son had shouted joyfully.  While we were stopped at a red light, my son dug the camera out of his backpack and thrust it at me.  We were laughing hard, like two teenagers instead of one.  My son rested one arm on top of the rolled-down window and leaned back away from me.  He grinned the same smile I had seen all his life.  My son leaned back into the wind against the highway and grinned while I took the picture.

It was all too much for the man then.  He dropped his head into the picture in his hands and sobbed soundlessly.  His back rose and fell with each rolling breath, and as I deliberated patting him gingerly on the shoulder blade, I intercepted a few raised eyebrows from across the room.  I shot those eyebrows straight back, sending most of the waiters diving back into their Popular Sciences.  I wasn’t a big man.  I wasn’t even a brave man.  Not then.  But I knew when things were private.  This was between the man, the photograph of his son, and me.

When the man finally calmed down he looked relieved.  Now he could finish.

Very slowly he opened the photograph in his hands.  I couldn’t quite see it, but I didn’t fail to be amazed at its proximity.  I only had to raise my eyes.  I didn’t, though.  I waited.

He spoke.  The last photograph of my son, the one I clung to when my wife wasn’t around, the one that allowed me to keep him and to keep myself together…He trailed off.  He wasn’t sure how to end, now that he had begun to end.

He tried again.  The last photograph of my son is something I both love and hate.  I can’t make myself throw it away, and yet it feels heavy in my pocket.  He stopped.

A woman had walked into the waiting room, and was now looking around with a definite air of impatient authority.  She called out a name.  I didn’t hear, but I guess the man did because he slowly stood and walked towards her with that same worn down gait he had entered on.

I sat back in my chair and looked around the room.  The other waiters stared boldly at me now.  I dropped my head, all defiance gone.  I sat and I thought.  I knew this was a story I would remember, not just another observation to drop in my brain like a marble.  I wondered if I would ever retell it.  I wondered how I would do it.  But mostly I wondered how it ended.

How did I know about the photograph in the man’s pocket?  Because he told me about it while we waited.

On his way out, the he passed me with only a nod.  Thank you, he said quietly, slipping either arm into that inappropriate yellow jacket.  I stared, decided.

Yes I must.  Sir!  I bounded after him past the alarmed waiters. Sir can I please see the photograph of your son?

He looked at me in his watery way, and then seemed to surface.  I imagined the last waves breaking around his eyes before receding like the tide.  Yes, he replied.  Yes of course you can see my son. 

Slowly he reached towards his pocket and drew out the creased picture.  He handed it to me without unfolding it.  Perhaps he thought that by unfolding it himself it would only make it harder.  Perhaps he needed me to take it from him, to hold his regret and his pain for a little while.

I unfolded the picture and stared at it for what felt like a long time.  I wanted him to feel me take it in.  But really it only took me a moment to understand.

As I handed the picture back to him and watched him refold it and set it gently into the same pocket, I listened to him speak the last words he ever said to me.  I had a son once, he explained patiently, as if we were starting over, as if we were just meeting each other.  I had a son once and he died.  I had a son once, and the last photograph I ever took of him captured only his elbow. 

I stood and saw the glass door swing shut behind him, watched it forget instantly that such a man had ever passed through. 

You know, with people you meet when you’re delivering packages, you can guess.  You can assume that a woman is snobbish, or that a man is out of sorts and late for work.  You can guess about them, and it never has to bother you if you’re right or if you’re wrong.  You can just let your imaginings hang in the air above your head.

Sons and photographs, I have come to realize, are a different matter altogether.  With them, you have to wonder your whole life why you didn’t look through the lens before snapping the shutter.  You have to wish that you had taken the time to aim, wish that you hadn’t been too captivated by the living, breathing boy to focus on capturing all of him forever.

Eventually, though, you have to know that when you tell the story of your son in a waiting room, when people listen, and when people look at the photograph of your son afterwards, that those waiters see all of him.  You have to know that those waiters see all of you too.

Written Between Amsterdam and Berlin

I found this gem in my Word vault.  I sound more than a little cranky in it, but a day of travel will do that to you.

November 3rd, 2011

We’re tired, now.  The thrill of hurtling through countryside, of exclaiming that this or that “looks like America,” and even the slight guilt that comes with comparing everything with America has worn down into nothing but crumpled fatigue (although, you know, we only do it because we’re homesick). 

Now it’s black outside and all we can see are our own reflections in the window.  I can see Maria dumbly using a plastic knife to smear Nutella onto bread for a halfhearted dinner.  Gabi is engrossed in her Twilight-esque book, turning page after rustling page.  She gets up to let Maria out, and remains standing, which irks me more than it should.  It’s not too much trouble to sit back down, and then get up again, I think.  Anyway, it’s better than clogging the aisle and gawking over my shoulder when I’m trying earnestly to hide the fact that I’m writing about you.

I can’t decide what I want to do.  I do some of my German assignments for a while, and then I read 50 more pages of John Adams.  Then I listen to a few podcasts, but I laugh out loud a few too many times, and have to stop before I’m thrown off the train by old Clint Eastwood across the way.  The constant ding of his incoming emails is, of course, inconsequential.  I finally settle down with crossword and iPod.

We’re not even in Berlin yet, and I don’t know if I have the strength to see another city.  To figure out the metros, to find our hostel in the dark, to plan (and fork over obscene amounts of money for) museum trips and monument viewings, to decide which restaurant to eat in for every single meal, to give my signature blank look when confronted with quick streams of local language.

And yet, here it is.  Here are the lights, here comes the announcement over the intercom in three languages.  I’m here, and now that I see it, perhaps I do have the strength to get off this train after all.

Christmas Eve

For almost as long as I’ve been blogging, I’ve written a Christmas Eve post every year.

2009

2010

2011

This Christmas Eve, I’m once again sitting on the couch gazing at the tree, feeling steeped in family and ham with cheesy potatoes.

We’ve had the traditional Christmas activities:

Cookie Baking

Extended Family Christmas Eve Party

Last Minute Shopping/Wrapping

Mexican Train

Christmas Jigsaw Puzzle (which Amy takes over.  I have not the patience for such things.)

Christmas Movies (The Santa Clause is my favorite)

Christmas Eve Mass (and the resulting pew dozing, which is simultaneously irreverent and inevitable)

It’s funny to be twenty-two, and to remember past Christmases when I could hardly sleep for excitement, and to look forward to future Christmases which may not be spent in Minnesota or with family.  It’s funny to feel that I just want to soak up more togetherness, and that I don’t really need a thing under the tree.  It’s funny to be mature and blase and (slightly) boring.  It’s funny to be too old to run around with the kids at Christmas parties, and to instead sit up straight with the adults (and be offered alcoholic drinks).

This is getting to be a nostalgic post, and while I do think that Christmas is the perfect time for nostalgia, and for rewatching those Christmas home videos in which you are quite blatantly opening your little sister’s presents “for her” and coveting them shamelessly, I also believe in merry Christmases and bright futures.  May you have both.

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Election Eve

Four years and four months ago, I arrived in Rome, Italy with my Girl Scout troop.  I was seventeen years old, had never been out of the country before, and was suddenly being led from terminal to terminal by my troop leaders, flanked by my equally bewildered friends.  What stands out in the blur of sensible rolling suitcases and duty-free shops is a certain train station we spent an hour in, waiting for our hotel bus to arrive.  We leaned against the grimy tile, too tired to gush or take pictures.  Suddenly, a passerby, hearing our accents, flung both arms into the air:  “Barack Obama!  Barack Obama!”  he shouted, his Italian accent thick, his voice jubilant and echoing.

Four years and one day ago, I was a senior in high school.  I was old enough to vote by two months, and did so early in the morning, just after the polls opened.  Although my small town was (and is) primarily conservative, I wore my Obama t-shirt to school, and tried to ignore the raised eyebrows aimed at me throughout the day.  I watched the election on TV that night, watched the blue spread across the country.  And then I wrote the following blog post:

HOPE is a Four Letter Word

A quote I heard on the news right after Obama was announced as the winner, “Tonight I am forever proud of my country.” That’s how I feel. I’m just very proud to be an American (cue in patriotic theme music).

These results are especially cool because I voted. For Obama. About three and a half hours ago. I remember back in fifth grade when I went to this tiny private school, my friend Mara figured out that for the 2008 election I would be the only one in the class old enough to vote. I remember feeling really special, but not really understanding what it meant to vote. It’s just a very strange feeling to have an event predicted when you were eleven actually coming to pass.

Already on facebook the bashings have started. I’m not really surprised, but I just think it’s so sad. You know, if McCain had won, I would have been disappointed, but I wouldn’t have sat there and pouted about it and insulted him. I (hopefully) would have learned to respect him as the leader of my country and I would have prayed that he bring about the change America desperately needs.

Anyway, I guess that there are always Debbie Downers, and some of them will probably come around, or at least keep their negative crap to themselves. We can only hope.

Not very well-written, but the sentiment is one I hope will repeat in my post tomorrow: I want to be proud of my country and my state.  I want to enter the workforce a committed, protected citizen.  I want to run through train stations yelling, “Barack Obama!  Barack Obama!”   I want my LGBTQ friends to be shown acceptance and justice, not hatred and discrimination.  I want Voter I.D., which will spend excessive amounts of money battling a ‘problem’ that doesn’t actually exist, to be off the docket forever.

I also wouldn’t mind going back to Italy.

Ja, Genau

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, having listened to me whine a little about having to go to a college football game with my family (yes, I was the kid who brought a book), handed me a stack of blank attendance form pads, and told me to write down my observations.

I didn’t end up writing much, as the game was more engrossing than I had anticipated, but the concept has stuck with me; I’ve since gotten into the habit of carrying a small notebook around.  In it, I write grocery lists, quotes, notes to be made into a poem or a blog post, etc.

I recently found the notebook that I carried through Europe with me, and while I never want to be that girl who begins every sentence with “when I was in Europe…”

When I was in Europe, I carried a little notebook around with me.  Here are some of the unpublished snippets:

1. “Dachau info: Take S2 Bahn to Dachau/Petershausen, then bus 726 towards Saubachsiedlung to entrance. Audio guides 2.50.”

2. October 9. “This afternoon I decided that I have a raging case of cabin fever, and that said fever, combined with my already raging homesickness, was nearly incapacitating.  So, I’m going out.  I’m going to walk around Salzburg by myself, maybe get a snack, and try to remind myself what I’m doing here.”  (Don’t worry; things got better)

3. Eric/Me:

“You should get up there.  Maybe later.  Come on.  I will in a bit.  I don’t believe you.  I will, I swear!  If you don’t now, you never will.”

4. “Hair cut.  Fast, but accurate.  25 Euro.”

5. “To Wikipedia: Air Force fly height, Vienna protesters, body decay time.”

6.  “Put on reading list: 1. Roald Dahl short stories 2. The Discovery of Heaven, by Harry Mulisch 3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

7. “There’s ‘another’ writer sitting across the cafe. He is unimpressed with the live piano music, while I listen with giddy delight. He hardly looks up from his notebook to admire the chandeliers, the green velvet-hung windows, the counter piled with frosted cakes.  I peer around, hardly subtle at all.  My mouth hangs open unabashedly. But then I notice that this other writer is eating around the raisins in his carrot cake.  I’ve been doing the same with my own slice.  I guess I can be a writer after all (edit this ending).”

8. “Eric puked on my backpack on the bus back to Salzburg…gross.”

9. “Lyman lecture: ‘there’s no such thing as coincidence,’ ‘don’t be critical,’ ‘love at first sight does exist.'”

10. “Can I please be airlifted out of here?  I don’t know that I’ve ever dreaded anything like I’m dreading the dreaded, dreadful, German oral exam.”

11. “Well, I think I left my eloquence back over Denmark, but as my homecoming is rather a grand event (to me at least), I thought I should say something anyway. In Munich, I paid 50 Euros to check a bag full of Christmas presents.  After that, I had to chug half a liter of water while a bemused security officer looked on.  Then I hugged Matt goodbye, picked up a Nat Geo from the Duty Free, and trotted off to gate H2 to wait.  It’s been a few hours since then.  I’m officially at the point that I reach on all international flights; the point where I have to clutch the armrests to prevent myself from screaming and running up and down the aisles.  I’m also thinking of jumping out of the plane and swimming home.  Do you think that would be any faster?  I’m watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and appreciating the sentiments greatly.  Life is wonderful. The small child who’s been kicking my seat for the past hour seems to agree.  But still, despite the miserable, Coke-guzzling, leg-cramping, bladder-bursting, zombified plane state we’re all in, the only thing I’m thinking about is that I’ll be hugging my parents in less than 10 hours.  Ja, genau.”

A Good Find

While searching through my word document files, trying to find post material, I came upon something I had jotted down freshman year, shortly after finals week:

May 25th, 2010

For his biology final, my friend Sean had no idea what some of the short answer answers were.  So he made up answers.  He wrote stories in the blanks.  He told puns and jokes.  He drew pictures.  He generally had fun with the fact that he was drawing a biology blank. 

I know all of this because he told be about it shortly after taking the final, on one of the last days we were all freshman together in Morris.  I was probably stressed and carrying a heavy load of anthropology flash cards in my pocket.  Despite my state of mind, however, I was struck by what he did, and even more struck when he sent me the note his professor wrote on his graded final.  Enjoy:

“I doubt that your grade for Fun Gen will come as a great surprise, but (from the footnote you wrote) I did want to reassure you that I took no offense at your answers on the final exam.  I scored the answers to written questions starting with the back section (rather than the front page), and your answer to “Why are you a chordate?” made me laugh out loud.  I trust you won’t mind that I shared it with a few other people, including one prof who then commented “now that makes me want to start grading exams”.  So your good humor brought a little light to others as well.  And so this brings me to what I most want to say.  Sure, I am sorry that I could not inspire you with the fire of curiosity to understand how living things work, but knowing biology is not terribly important for most people’s lives.  On the other hand, being able to maintain, in the face of adversity, a sense of humor, charity, and respect, are wonderful qualities that anyone would aspire to but too few people have.  They are a gift you will bring to people throughout your life, and I am grateful for the chance to have met you.  You will know, then, that the grade you got in Fun Gen was solely a measure of what you learned in the course, and in no way my judgment of you.  And I trust you will recognize my sincerity in wishing you the very best.”