Sunday, February 26, 2006

Number Four

Thought I'd forgotten -- or maybe you've forgotten? -- the rest of the list that started so long ago with Neal's meme about the little things that change our lives? Here's number four.

4) They were a series of numbers...who knew where they were from? A friend of a friend, someone I knew up in Buffalo gave me my first batch so that I could call him, free, anytime I wanted. Back in the day when phone freaking was still relatively new, these sorts of lists circulated around campuses like mine pretty freely and many people carried them around in their wallets. I had a boyfriend (see #5) who lived about 60 miles away; I was crazy in love and desperate to talk to him when the daily letters didn't seem to suffice. So, when I found numbers (obviously a credit card number) scribbled on a scrap of paper in the phone booth across the hall from my dorm room, I picked it up and started to use it. And use it. And use it. And use it. Unlike the other numbers I had used before, it didn't go dead
within days. It stayed active for months. In fact, I used it from October until May -- what good luck! And then, one day, I opened the door to find a very good friend completely furious and bearing down on me to give me the butt-whooping I had coming. As it turned out, it was her father's business I had been skivving, to the tune of several thousand dollars. (This in mid-1980s money.) Even more complicated, her mother was my English professor, in whose class I was enrolled and at whose table I routinely ate dinner. I can't describe the hundred different ways I felt sick.

I was no longer just screwing around having fun. I was a thief, with no way to pay back the huge bill I had incurred.
I swallowed her, and using my own money at last, began to make some phone calls. First, I called the man I had bilked and apologized. I then called the investigation branch of ATT and turned myself in, promising that I would make full
restitution whenever they sent me a bill. (I was the first phone freaker the investigator had ever actually talked
to...he was flabbergasted that I called him.) I decided to wait to tell my parents until the bill arrived, and only
then if I could not arrange an extended payment plan. That was gutless, I suppose, but at least they didn't have
to learn that they had sent me to Very Expensive Private Liberal Arts College so that I could major in least
not yet.

So what was the upshot? I waited many months for a bill and received none. I was never fully forgiven by the victims of the
theft (which I guess was fair); I was not prosecuted nor was I flunked out of spite, but I never had the nerve to pass
the salad around their wonderful rosewood table again (which was sort of like being cast of a literary paradise). My friendship with their daughter cooled (naturally), but eventually came back from the brink and we now chat once in a while.
I never had to tell my parents of my moral failure and I determined that I would live from there on out so that
I would never have to disappoint least not like that.

And my friends wonder why I hate talking on the phone.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Long Pretend...

Undeterred by bouts of illness, a good long visit from Dad, or even a maniacal embrace of all things Potter -- against all odds, the pretend continues. Kid and I are French orphans, running from the policemen of Marseilles and living in the open air markets around the docks, aided by kindly fish-sellers and a round little woman named Marie who owns a bakery. We do needlework to make money and I (being the older orphanness) make sure that Kid gets a proper education, including architectural tours of the city, lessons in French geography, day trips to other towns in France (to get more sewing supplies and see the fashion shows in Paris, naturellement!), and (bien sur) language lessons. This is a work-out on the vocabulaire of the older orphan, since she last spoke French about twenty years ago. Still, with the help of BBCi Steps (free language instruction on the internet! God, I love the British!), I'm slowly recovering my spoken French. If I had more money, I'd take us to France so that she could see this place that exists only in her imagination. Perhaps when she's just a little older.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

ENFJ, aka Teacher Idealist

I'm not persuaded by Jungian typology at all, but look on this as a happy coincidence that I happened to score
(this time) sort of what I am. I must say, moreover, that the descriptions of my personality traits are highly
flattering to my vanity. Maybe Jung isn't so bad after all.

Go ahead. Quantify yourselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Harry Potter

Kid's old enough to be hooked on the books, but too young to read them herself. Luckily, I love to read aloud and
so we've been working our way through them (with voices and dramatic bits acted out) -- in case you were wondering
why I hadn't gotten to numbers 4, 3, 2, and 1. The more recent the event, too, the harder it is to write about (at least
for me -- not enough critical distance.) I think I might have to put a ten-year cooling off period in play, since
it seems to take about a decade for the implications of the little things to become fully clear to me. So I'll try to wrap this list up sometime this evening, but only take it up to 1996, which more or less becomes a new epoch for me anyhow (married in 1996).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Number Five

(This one continues the post below, which explains the concept and gives you number 10-6. If you're just dropping in, I suggest you read "It's the Little Things" first.)

5. Writing a letter to the friend of a friend. A boy (let’s call him College Friend) fell in love with me, and as such things go, I was in love with someone else who didn’t love me. College is complicated like that. So College Friend began to exhibit strange and self-destructive behavior. He’s the only guy I’ve ever known who was a bulimic. He constantly praised the virtues of his Hometown Friend, so I thought that maybe someone who knew him better might be able to have a talk with him and help him get his head screwed back on straight. (Those who know me from this period know that I have omitted the story of my own Great Depression, which was not a small little thing, but a steel-edged speed-freaky time out of which I was just emerging…anyhow, I knew the power of sane friends.) And so on a pretense, I got Hometown Friend’s address and wrote the most awkward letter I’d ever penned. How do you tell someone that his best friend is killing himself very slowly and maybe he could do something? Please? I didn’t expect much of a response, but I felt I had done what was right. I was surprised when I got a return letter the next day, articulate and anxious for College Friend’s welfare. That correspondence, starting as two people with nothing in common but the mutual concern for a third person, blossomed. I met Hometown Friend, who didn’t like me because I was too punk. (Maybe it was the blue hair.) We continued to write. We met again and this time, there was a celestial click. We dated, we became lovers, we lived together, we contemplated marriage. We were romantically involved for almost a decade and remain close friends. And we continue to write each other at least every couple of days. What happened to College Friend, the one who loved me enough to make himself vomit after each meal we shared? He disowned both of us, gained valuable sexual experience with my roommate, formed a band, and wrote a lot of fast, bitter three-chord songs – but at least he stopped puking. Mission accomplished.

It's the little things.

Ok, so Neal’s post ( got me to thinking about those little things that happen that have made all the difference in my life. Not the biggies – being born to my mother, marrying my husband, having my kid – but the stuff that at the time doesn’t seem to matter that later proves to be huge. So, here’s my Top Ten list (which, because I’m a historian, will be placed in chronological rather than rank order.) I’m going to do it in two installments because this takes more thought and time than I have in one day.

10. The happy accident of getting Mrs. James as a 1st grade teacher. When I got to 1st grade, I was already reading well-advanced texts and didn’t really want to do anything else BUT read. She was willing to let me zip through whatever work we had to do in the other subjects and then go to the corner of the class where I was invited to read whatever I wanted from a corner she had stocked with the most wonderful books. Great Expectations (and a lot of other Dickens books). Jane Eyre. Animal Farm. The Red Pony. And some of the best of children’s books – E.B. White’s work, a book titled The Far-Distant Oxus. Elizabeth Enright’s books. Stuff like that. She and my mom collaborated on developing the booklist and then I was loosed upon these works like a starving child at an endless feast of words. I would have gone up the wall in a standard classroom (as became evident the next year, in Mrs. Williams’ exceptionally standardized care). But she bought me one golden year of pleasure and sustained the work of my mom in opening up my head to books. With those books came nameless hungerings for a world beyond my little town, education beyond the ordinary expectations of a poor little redneck girl.

9. Punching Jay Curtis in the nose in 5th grade. I was a painfully shy, nerdy marshmellow of a kid, bookish with thick glasses, buck-toothed, vulnerable, prone to tears while other children picked on me. Jay was a boy struggling with short-man’s disease from an early age. There were three of us in the cloakroom, me and Jay and Cindy. Cindy was the only child lower in the classroom social order than me, a girl who always smelled a little like old pee because she was poor, slept in her clothes for warmth, and had to share a bed with her bedwetting little brother. When he pushed her and made her cry, something inside me just gave way. I flew into him with both fists pounding. He sailed backward and skidded to a stop, a confused look on his face. And then he ran away and never told on me. I never told anyone else, but I think he realized that I could and so neither Cindy nor I had any further problems from him. I realized that if I could stick up for someone else, I probably could and should be sticking up for myself. And that sometimes a little violence can be efficacious.

8. Winning the “If I were President” essay contest in 6th grade. My public policy initiatives amounted to “I think that every worker needs to be given safety glasses” and “we need to raise the minimum wage because this will have good effects on both businesses and individuals.” Nothing earth-shattering, but sufficiently explicit to win. Unfortunately, as the principal awkwardly explained to me, I was not really supposed to have entered the contest in the first place because I would never really be President. I guess I just hadn’t understood that this was a competition intended for boys only – and since it was blind-juried, the local Woman’s Club had been placed in a very embarrassing position by my transgression. They had concluded that the only fair way to resolve the issue (without lawsuit?) was to give the $50 savings bond (the stated prize for the competition and my only incentive to enter) to the boy who was runner-up, “so he could save it for college.” I received a beautifully illustrated cookbook instead. He got to attend the awards ceremony. I did not. Although this boy and I were good friends throughout school, I always took a little bit of delight after that in trouncing him academically. (He’s now a high school teacher in our hometown. I’m a college professor in the same discipline. Neither one of us is President. I still am not a very good cook.)

7. Trying out for the 9th grade school musical. The shyness hadn’t gotten any better, really and I seemed to be stuck at permanently pudgy. My best friend wanted to try out and wouldn’t go without me for moral support. I had no intention of auditioning, but the choir teacher (Mrs. Irwin) wouldn’t let me stay in the audition room unless I also took a shot. Who knew I could sing – I mean, really sing? I got a small part which later turned into leads, which later turned into voice scholarships. Who knew?

6. Meeting Dodie. She was a year younger, a junior to my senior. She was funny, sexy in an uncomplicated way, and unafraid of life. I learned a lot from being around her – to give things a try if they looked like fun, that honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive, and that women who like sex are not whores by definition. In an era before we all rocked the body-positive thing, Dodie totally got the whole celebration of womanhood. She was a fount of accurate information about birth control, STDs, sexual practices, and all the other realms of knowledge that our small-town upbringing had tried to close off from us. And because she had a car, she could take girls to the county seat to get health care through the only Planned Parenthood in a hundred miles. As the lynchpin of my high school group, she probably didn’t realize that she was a feminist role model for us all, but she was. She was the first person other than my mother to tell me that I was beautiful and it was only years later that I came to believe that she was right.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


He was only a few years older than me. He was a brand new prof at Big Midwestern the year I arrived. The first-years all took classes with this guy, pronounced a Wunderkind by the profession with a demeanor (and haircut) somewhere between Bill Gates and Ken Burns. Cool he was not. He was easily irritated with us, trying to pull us up to his speed -- as if humming the Jeopardy theme song was going to make us respond faster. I confess that I thought, after a few weeks, that he was a complete asshole.

And then I got better as a student and he got better as a prof, as these things happen. I got to know his family, his lovely wife, his three kids. He became department chair on the heels of his second book, director of a internationally known Human Rights center at the same time. He published, he supported grad students in their research and in their union organizing, he made hilarious withering comments at times when other professors lapsed into piety or silence. He could say "that's just fucking stupid" and the roof didn't fall in, giving others (me) the courage to call them as we saw them when we felt we'd earned the right to do so. He took on far more than he could reasonably be expected to do and somehow pulled it off, making time to watch the OC with his children and open his home to his colleagues at all stages of professional development.

On Thursday, he collapsed from a previously undiagnosed and inoperable brain tumor. True to his wishes, he was kept alive just long enough to give his final gifts to the world -- "stripped for parts," he probably would have said with wry black humor.

It's devastating.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The one I count.

Every February 2nd, I can expect a letter from one of my oldest and dearest friends, wishing me a Happy Anniversary. Anniversary? Not my wedding anniversary (July 13) or my birthday (Dec 14) or the date I got my driver's license (Sept 14) or the day I had my first real kiss (Sept 17...connect the dots on that one!) So what gives?

The year was 1985. I was a junior in college, living in a women's dormitory in a small private liberal arts school in rural Ohio. I'd been dating the friend mentioned above for about 9 months, long enough to have shared the painful story of my first (involuntary) sexual experience. We were absolutely crazy about each other, but between my skittishness (understandable), my "thou shalt not" upbringing, and his solicitude (this is important, don't want to screw this up), we hadn't quite gotten around to having sex. This strikes me now as utterly astounding -- my memories of desire are so keen that I look back
with a certain amount of impatience at my younger self. Didn't she know that youth and beauty are fleeting? No. Apparently not.

I have no romantic story to offer about my first consensual sexual experience. It was funny from start to finish. We had returned to my room from a cocktail party in which the featured drink was a Sloe Gin Fizz to find my roomate's
top bunk piled high with clean laundry but my roomate nowhere in evidence. Several minutes of dark fumblings later,
we realized -- much to our horror -- that roomate was indeed in the bed above, passed out in the middle of the
pile of laundry. So, ahem, midstream as it were, we had to take the mattress off the bunk so as not to disturb her rest with
our movement. Surely I must be the only woman in the world who questioned, with a nervous giggle, "So, was that
it?" in the tender moments after my partner's climax. I wasn't complaining -- no, far from it. I was really genuinely
confused because what I had been led to expect of sex (painful, dutiful) and what I had experienced directly
(painful, terrifying) was not at all this new thing. I really wasn't sure if we had actually had sex or not and I
wanted to check to be sure. Still, the question itself touched off such raucous laughter
in my partner that we had to evacuate the room and run to the dorm kitchen, where we laughed for at least
fifteen minutes. He was, is, that kind of a guy. (He reads the blog too -- feel free to jump in and add or
comment if you want...) While the romantic relationship didn't survive, our friendship endured and for this I
am glad. Because really, if you can stick with me after something like that, you're really the sort of person that
I need to have around always.

So, that's the story of my beginning as a sexually active woman. At least, that's the one I count. Happy Anniversary to me.

St. Brigid's Day (Feb 1)

If you're reading along in your liturgy (I kid), you know that today is St. Ignatius Day. But to me, being Irish and named Bridgett, this has always been St. Brigid's Day. Brigid was born to an enslaved woman, named by her father for a Celtic fire and fertility goddess. She angered her dad (for whom she worked as a slave) by giving away too many of his possessions to the poor, so he tried to sell her to the King of Leinster. While her dad was in arranging the deal, Brigid (left like a sack of meal in the wagon) gave away her father's sword to a passing leper. The King convinced her dad that she would never be of use as a slave to either of them, given her pathological generosity, and thus she was freed.

Brigid's Day, Candlemas, St. Blaise's Day -- three fiery days right in a row, right at the most depressing time of the year. Pagans had it right when they put Imbolc in the beginning of February, celebrating sexuality and creativity during these
long cold nights.

Go forth and celebrate appropriately.

Rain in January

There's nothing like watching a kid in rainboots go at a deep puddle to make you happy about rain in January.