mouth guard

My mom has Alzheimer’s. In my dreams, I fight monsters, like in a video game, and she comes back to me. In real life it’s not that easy.

Lately, I’ve been fighting so hard I sleep with an old roller derby mouth guard to keep my jaw from cracking. I beg every fictional character I know of to help me. Sherlock tried to concoct some chemical counteragent to memory loss. Egwene Al’Vere tried to invent a new weave using the Power. Doctor Who tried to help in the TARDIS. No dice in either case. Turns out being able to travel back, again and again, and see someone the way they can no longer be, the way they no longer are, doesn’t help. Actually, it rather hurts.

Sometimes it seems like if I could do with art what Mrs. Dalloway did with parties, I could encapsulate something of her and save it. Awake, I know it can’t work but the lingering impression is still there, like an afterimage. There are dreams where I am trying to write a song. If I could just finish the song, it would hold her in place. But I never finish it in time. Sometimes I lurch out of bed and thumb the “voice memo” app on my phone on and hum in the little bits I remember. I harnessed some of that for a music class I sat in on. But it was unimpressive. I am no musician.

It would be a waltz, I think. Prior to the class, waltzes were the only songs I knew how to count out, and my mom taught me that. Using Melissa Etheridge, of all people, as the example. But I’m so easily drawn off the known, countable path into marches–so much surer, so much clearer that you’re making some progress–or into frantic flutterings of strings, that sound like if you fly high enough you can shake off the shackles of anything. Even if I know you can’t.

For years after I hooked up with the man who is now my husband, I didn’t have to worry too much about nightmares. I would cry or whimper in my sleep, and he would wake me. I think that my subconscious has learned since then that if I make a sound, I will never win. I will never finish the song that will save my mother. So I am silent. Through the fangs and the explosions and the staccato jolts of white noise that threaten to rip my notes from me; through terrible images of loss and failure tumbling over each other and shattering like dropped dishes, I remain silent and still. If I last long enough, maybe one day I’ll finish the song. Maybe one day I’ll save Mom.

I think that’s how my thinking goes, anyway. I don’t know. I wasn’t consulted.

what is this weird curve to my lips

I have a very acceptable life.

But let’s be honest: gray weather in a gray month where the only thing to look forward to, really–spring–is, given my coordinates on this planet, four months away at the very least. Combine that with the fact that the holidays are dead and gone and they’ve been memorialized chiefly in passive-aggressive messages from my MIL wondering where her thank-you cards are, and you have a very lackluster stretch of days indeed. I go to work. I come home. It’s dark both ways, like as not, which makes cobbling together endorphins from running difficult at best and dangerous at worst. It’s a grim time of year, everyone knows it.

So why am a grinning a little under my scarf as I await my bus in subzero temperatures, and why do I whip out my tablet happily on my 15-minute breaks, and grin a little more on my way home?

Fandom.

I’ve gone on and on about it before so I won’t babble but let it be known that I haven’t done this for a very long time. Been so invested in fictional characters that perusing their exploits, as detailed by third parties receiving no royalties or syndication rites, and who also are somewhat less constrained by, ah, ratings, that my mood is actually impacted positively by the reading. It’s something to look forward to, to the point where I actually bounce to the bus and the reading that takes place there. The last time I did this, invested this much, I understood it as a kind of holding pattern, a way to tide myself over until adulthood and its no doubt endless charms swept me up. Now, as an adult, I realize sometimes holding patterns are still necessary. Because there are still decrepit buildings and dirty snow and, yes, financial safety, but earned at the price of intellectual boredom.

I am so, so bored.

And yes I’m working on it but doing what I’m doing to fix it will take years and a degree that can only be earned slowly. So in the meantime, I wait. Amongst the gray buildings and the gray town with its dirty snow. And these stories have none of those things. Or if they do, they are overcome, fantastically so, with the kind of emotion adults do not, perhaps unfortunately but also somewhat practically, exude at every moment. It is the bells and the light and the trumpets as opposed to the slurry sucking sound of snow boots in brown slush, one after the other for miles. It is everything daily life isn’t. Even literature doesn’t please me so much, because so much of that is like, well, standing quietly in an art gallery and quietly appreciating the technique of the painter. So quiet. So clean. This is messy and joyous and if no one is going to win any Nobel prizes for this I don’t care. Throw us out of the gallery for our uproar, why don’t you. The party on the pavement will be just as grand.

why yes, i thought so too

“Wait, so how come you get to be Sherlock?”

“Because I’m about to have two master’s degrees and two bachelor’s degrees, I’m constantly reading and I can spout a million facts you’ve never heard of. Also, I’m less sensitive to other people’s needs.”

“All…valid points.”

the long view

I have almost finished Edward Rutherford’s London. I make no bones about my knowledge, or lack thereof, of British history. Back to 1800 I’m passable, but anything prior to that is very shady indeed. And now that the book has arrived at 1800, where things begin to feel familiar, an important sensation that pervaded the book before now is beginning to fade.

It was a sense that you could almost grasp it. Grasp the thing that has so warped and riven societies well beyond English shores for millennia. I’m not an idiot; I knew the power of the church was a formidable thing. But, as a non-believer, it was easier to think of the conquests and squabbles of the church as what they were: political. Easier to do this than to sit through the dull discussions of the validity of miracles as if they mattered in a non-political way. (Which, to me, they don’t.) I know I’ve written before of my last history class before 9/11, where my professor, pointing to a news item on Protestant parents in Belfast pelting Catholic children with stones, remarked that sure, you thought it was about religion, but really it was about land. No shit, I thought.

But the value of this generation-by-generation march through time that Rutherford has set up (and continues to set up, in novel after novel), is that you see what these conflicts did to the people too blind, too trusting, too faithful to ever believe that it was all about land. That it was all political. The way these lauded authorities–be they in starched Puritan woolens or gleaming thread-of-gold cassocks–mess with the heads of the ordinary folk is atrocious. Knowing that someone alive when Elizabeth was praising Shakespeare on the stage might then have lived to bear witness to the draconian idiocy of the idealized Puritan state during the period of the Commonwealth unhinged me. So much change! In so little time! Brought about in part by people–like Martha Carpenter, in the book–so terribly and terrifyingly convinced of their rightness. “Why yes, the Black Death has come back. For your wickedness, you sinners!” Cripe. It’s one thing to encounter bullshit like that in a small area, as you do in the children’s book Witch of Blackbird Pond. Yes, you are horrified at the doings of the Puritans but–and perhaps this view was granted to me by my distance from New England–I was always comforted by the thought that “well, it was just Massachusetts.” I hadn’t been to Massachusetts, but it sure seemed small on the map. Pennsylvania I had been to, and Pennsylvania was huge. And wasn’t William Penn in charge down there? Surely these women could’ve up and taken off down the road for a little religious tolerance, or at least some time spent not burning at the stake amongst the Quakers.

But for a whole world power to be consumed by that kind of tomfoolery. (No need to point out the religious fanaticism running rampant in the conservative ranks of my own country at the moment; I’m quite aware of it, thank you.) To be beside yourself, to march in the streets, because it was thought (ultimately correctly, it turns out) that your monarch made a secret deal to return your country to Catholicism! To kill people over it! I tried, I really tried, to sit there and put myself in the position of some staunch Protestant Englishman, and to understand why that would be so upsetting. Would Rome levy huge taxes that would affect my business? Would my women no longer be able to walk about on the streets? (Whoops, wrong restrictive religion.) Sure, the trading relationship with my Dutch pseudo-friends would suffer, but the staunchly Catholic Sun King across the way doesn’t exactly seem to be lacking in money. And given the sundry popular crafts and services Huguenots fleeing him brought to England, I’m likely not entirely averse to some more of that culture drifting my way. It would be nice to think that I’d balk against a reversion to Catholicism out of sympathy for people like the Huguenots, persecuted terribly after the tearing-up of the Treaty of Nantes, but I don’t think that many people are that altruistic. Their outrage was for themselves. They thought that some terrible aspect of state-driven Catholicism would send them straight to hell.

And I just couldn’t see it. So you’re forced to eat a cracker every week in the building you choose to go to and sing in. If you don’t believe in it, where’s the harm? Even watching the charismatic Edmund Meredith bring all the theatricality he used to bring to the stage to the pulpit–even musing, at the back of my mind, that had I been born 500 years ago ago and a man, I’d have been very good at this whipping people up into frenzies of my own elaborate design, and that the pulpit may have been the only place someone not born to prestige might have been able to exercise those particular skills–I kept thinking but they only have the power over you that you let them have over you. If you don’t believe it, fuck it. Eat the cracker. Drink the wine–hey, it’s free wine! If there was a direct and measurable impact to quality of life or likelihood of success, I could understand the upset. But if it’s just choosing a pink frock over a green one–come on: six one, half dozen the other.

But I know it was there. The thing, that belief that digs down into people like a cavity, urging them to wage ridiculous wars on each other–wars which do, always, have the political components of land and resources, but which also (and this is what Rutherford is so good at showing, following in good-enough prose these fictional family lines through history) speak in some way to this cancerous belief that festers in people. Even more so then than now, I suppose because you had so little else in your life back then other than church and work. Reading, particularly, the chapters on the Reformation, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, it felt like you could come so close to getting what it was that made these people butcher each other (or announce that they were ready to) at the drop of a hat, all for control of who said what on Sundays. In a broader way, though–I felt like if I could just squint my eyes and skew my vision enough, like before a Magic Eye picture, I would suddenly understand. Not from the perspective of belief, but from the perspective of someone who has inherited a world shaped by belief, and where people continue to die (or live–too much so–what with overpopulation exploding since, apparently, God Doesn’t Like Planned Pregnancies) because of it.

And now that we’ve reached 1800, I’ve lost my chance. We’re back in territory rendered familiar to me by previous exposure. The famous Fleet debtor’s prison, is it? Where Robert Rogers, in Northwest Passage, sat rotting in one of the saddest downfalls you can read about as a child raised on adventure stories? Are we headed to Bath next, where the ladies will take the waters whilst making eyes at charming convalescents? This I know. This is familiar to me, whereas the pitchfork-wielding ranks of black-and-white-clad religious zealots are something I thought England usefully rid itself of, sending them to our shores where they would, to everyone’s relief, eventually be forced to assimilate into a (slightly) more tolerant culture. By 1800, the Dark Ages have been kicked under the rug. But they still live on in the hearts of men, even today, it seems like. Just turn on the news.

co-conspirators in the league of extraordinary stubbornness

To the elderly gentleman with a snowblower who saw me slip and, having ascertained that I was okay, said not one word about my being the only soul out here in the blowing snow, or about my choice of footwear, or about the fact that dusk was falling, but who promised to salt that area and who looked up from chiseling free his front stoop, upon my return, to nod resolutely toward the patch of sidewalk and announce firmly, “Fixed!”:

I salute you.

Image

my dad is better than your dad

Working from home in the bitter cold, my shuffled playlist rang up the John Dunbar Theme and you need to know: my dad is better than your dad.

Because while yours was nursing an addiction to amphetamines or Jesus, or sleeping with his secretary or forgetting you existed in favor of his football game or his one-too-many beers or his stock quotes, mine was teaching me how to read, making me the only one in kindergarten who came in with that skill even though I was also the only one who never went to preschool. While yours was dragging you for yet another repetitive trip down to yet another corporatized amusement park, mine was driving us to every Civil War battlefield save Vicksburg, and giving us better instruction on what happened there than the college-age interns standing around as informative guides. The same scene replayed itself at Revolutionary War sites, at museums, at national parks: he knew more than the people who ran the place did, but he was never an ass about it. As my husband continually marvels, my dad is a stand-up guy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a waitress or a gas station clerk in Alliance, Nebraska, he’s going to ask you how you are, if you’re in school what you’re studying, how life is there, had you seen this movie filmed in the area, etc.

And I want you to know this because the older I get and the more people I meet, the clearer the distinction between the dad I could’ve had and the dad I have gets. I could be staring at someone who abandoned his sick wife in favor of a fast car and a gold-digging flipskirt my own age. Instead I get to visit both of them, and however grim it gets he is still there looking out for her, and also asking after us and our dogs and recommending movies and books and shows I don’t know how he finds the time to engage in, between work and Mom’s medical issues.

And I want you to know this because sometimes, whether it’s a half of a sniffly phone conversation heard on a bus, or somebody’s Facebook post eulogizing their lost father, I’m faced with the question of how in the hell am I supposed to sing his praises when he’s gone. Because he may be better than your dad, but I’m probably not better than you. You are probably more patient than I am. You probably work harder to understand people who are shits to you. And I don’t know how to table my inadequacies, distract from them long enough to get my message across. There are lots of terrible fathers out there, and mine wasn’t one of them. In fact, he was/is one of the best. Like a book dedication, I want to say that whatever faults lie in me are not his. But that’s apologizing, not trumpeting. And I wish to trumpet. Because, like everyone else, I’m surrounded by shitheads on a daily basis. But I had the good luck not to be raised by one. And I don’t know that he ever got the credit he deserves.