A Handful of Salt, Part 2 of 3

It is ironic that when life shovels at you bucketfuls of stuff to write about, there’s no time to write. I have been running–and that is to be taken literally–much of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of twenty steps behind. Trying to remember what my sister would tell me: you’re only behind if you think you’re behind.

And so in the name of needing to sleep, which might improve both  my situation and my outlook, today I’m prematurely posting Part 2 of “A Handful of Salt.”

Michael rubbed a soft hand across the table top and smiled a handsome smile. “Many people don’t appreciate it,” he said. “It has a lot of character.  I like things with character.”

“I can tell,” I smiled, nodding around the room. “So do I.”

“But then,” he chuckled self-consciously, “I can find character in a handful of salt.”

Behind me, one of the Gordon setters snorted—the pundit. My hand encircled my glass of ice water, which I hoped was not leaving a ring on the wood. I was certain he’d correct me if there had been a chance of that: look over his stylish half glasses and wordlessly slide me a coaster. Michael shook his pepper-and-salt head and repeated, smiling to himself, “A handful of salt. If you can believe it.”

It sounded like another challenge. I wanted to say. Let me tell you about salt.

A salt is a convenient working relationship: a positively charged ion conjoined with a negatively charged ion to form a neutral compound, a compound complete, a comfortable partnership. Table salt consists of a halogen atom bonded loosely to an alkali metal: a crystal built of sodium and chloride, elements drawn from either end of the periodic table, opposites having attracted.

When I first learned about the periodic table, in eighth grade earth science, I thought I had discovered the Rosetta stone for human behavior. I could identify people by their elements. And from that predict their actions, and their reactivity with others. It was like some kind of chemical Zodiac. Instead of reading the stars—Gemini, Sagittarius—I read oxygen and gold.

Reading the atomic horoscopes of family and friends allowed me to circle the truth without entering it. Invading the nucleus of an atom is treacherous business. Safer to hover like an electron in a valence shell. Valence derives from the Latin valentia, or power, and depending on the atomic weight of an atom, electrons occur in any of one to five valence shells that, like orbits around a planet, lose strength the further they get from the nucleus. At least that’s how pictures represent these atomic bonds.

On my periodic table, my mother was magnesium, an alkaline earth metal. Magnesium carries only two electrons instead of a full load of eight in its outer orbit—the valence shell which, when the atom bonds with another, either collects electrons, gives them away, or shares them. This means it joins easily with other elements, giving away its own energy for the greater good.

My sister was sodium, an alkali metal, one half of salt. Alkali metals carry only one electron in their outer orbit. Sodium bonds so easily that, like the alkaline earth metals, it does not occur free in nature, and in bonding, it gives its electron away. Back then, before she grew up, I’d watched her give away too much, witnessed the search for a stable state.

My father was a noble gas; specifically, xenon. Xenon means stranger in Greek. Until the 1960s (August 1963, in my father’s case), noble gases were believed to be unable to form compounds at all. Then it was discovered that they could bond, but only under extreme conditions. In the presence of a strong, pretty young nurse with a good laugh and a practical streak, for example.

For a long time, I thought I was, like my father, a noble gas. I did not bond well. I was satisfied with my autonomy, until I realized that I wanted to bond. I desperately wanted to bond. But not just in any old way. I decided I wanted to be a perfect element: one that had all its energy levels filled except the outer one, which would be exactly half full. And I would share those electrons in a strong union, engage in the perfect coupling. I wanted to bond without losing a part of myself, and also to be able to stand alone at room temperature.

*   *   *

The night before I sat facing lovely Michael across his exceptional table, I had stood with a different man at minus twenty degrees Celsius wearing four-inch heels, balanced on ice. After several months, Dave had proven an inappropriate and unstable partner. I was afraid he really was xenon, the stranger, which has a melting point of minus 112 degrees Celsius, so low it was unmanageable under normal earthbound conditions. I was afraid of my attraction to someone who so obviously could not offer the perfect union. What tragic sort of element was I, to want so much?

“I should have fitted these shoes with crampons,” I joked, hugging myself in the cold. “I don’t like the idea of needing to cling to someone just to stand up.”

“Maybe it would be good for you to try it.” Then he laughed softly. “So maybe we were made for each other.”

I thought of my toenails within my impractical shoes, the red polish. Cherries in the Snow, no less. They were the last part of my body that held the imprint of his fingers, from over two months ago, just before he’d told me that in spite of his intention of falling in love with me, he had not managed it. The polish was almost gone now. I’d left it, to chip grotesquely and slide off the ends of my toes, a visual reminder that if my body could slough him off, my mind could do the same. I had never been in love with him: I’d been in love with who I’d wanted him to be.  Why we were together last night, I was not quite sure. An excuse on his part about needing a respectable date for a company Christmas party. But I knew he was really seeing about us. Just making sure. As was I.

We had stood beside the car in haloes of each other’s breath, like paintings of medieval saints. But the saints had died for their beliefs, and I was not having much luck even living for mine. He looked at me how he often had, out of the corner of his eye, like maybe his words meant less if he was not fully facing me, and pushed his hands into the pockets of my suede coat and brought his face close. “I’m sorry,” he said, after he kissed me. “For not knowing what to do with us.”


To be continued in a few days.

HOAku (Of Poetry and Politics)

From the margins of the Lutrell Psalter, British Library (www.gotmedieval.com)

Because it is 3:46 a.m. and, after giving the Midgets my cold last week, they gave it back to me Sunday, with all the requisite symptoms, I am going to keep this brief. In fact, I think I’ll write a haiku. To make it more fun. But first, two quotes:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” –Salman Rushdie

“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” –Oscar Wilde

The haiku, of course, originated in Japan. The Japanese language doesn’t require articles, which makes a three-line verse of seventeen syllables way more doable if it is actually in Japanese. I see that my little brother is online, as now it is 4:04 a.m. (8:04 p.m. in the countryside north of Tokyo), but I won’t pester him for a translation, because my haiku just isn’t worth it. Here it is:

Villas at Palm Valley’s First HOA Meeting

Developer of undeveloped lots holds majority

Voted Himself President, Vice President, and Secretary/Treasurer

I should have stayed home and cleaned the toilets

*   $   *

Does poetry or politics shape your world?

A Handful of Salt

In the spirit of posting fully formed essays on Sundays, today I’m beginning a three-part piece called “A Handful of Salt.”

*   *   *

A Handful of Salt

Michael the photographer brought eggs from his own chickens to my brother-in-law’s shop, and gave them to my sister.

“He’s really nice,” she told me. “And he’s looking for a writer for his next book.” I had not met Michael, although my sister had told him about me, and the eggs struck me as suspicious: bait, perhaps. I thought what he really wanted was a new girlfriend who was even moderately literate. That way he could get his text for free. Or his sex for free, depending on how you looked at it. My sister called me a pessimist.

“Pessimists,” I retorted, “are what optimists call realists.”

But the eggs worked. I went to Michael’s website, and saw that he’d quoted Mark Twain on his homepage: “Optimist: someone who can go from nowhere on nothing to happiness.” After that were his images that had appeared in National Geographic: red sandstone arches and scrub desert, close-ups of weather-creased Ute faces and children dancing before an old wooden schoolhouse. My friend Zorana once said: Just because you don’t want to bear his children doesn’t mean you don’t go have a drink with him. “If you don’t get out,” she’d said, “you’re gonna get weird.”

“But I never have gone out much,” I’d replied.

“Yes,” she noted wryly. “And things are going swimmingly”

I agreed to meet Michael on a Sunday evening at his place. I kissed my cat goodbye on the top of his head and  navigated  the icy streets in my ten-year-old Subaru, squinting through clouds of my own breath; it was not snowing again but the air was like a knife in the chest. I parked next to a Land Rover. Of course Michael had a Land Rover. A successful photographer with chickens and a Land Rover—I was already envisioning our future on the road together. My sister could feed the chickens. How could she accuse me of pessimism when I had so little control over my ability to hope?

The house was modest and well-kept, in an old neighborhood in a town originally built to house miners, and where the streets—Silver, Galena, Carbonate—bore the names of the ores they’d pulled out of the hearts of the surrounding hills. The door opened inward to my knock and against a yellow glow stood Michael. He was my height and handsome (of course he was handsome). I reached out to shake his hand. Behind him, two dogs raised black heads from between gingery paws.

“What beautiful dogs,” I said. “I love Gordon setters.”

“Most people don’t even know what they are,” smiled Michael.

“Poor them,” I said.

“Come in,” he gestured. “Join us.”  He took my coat and offered me a chair at the kitchen table. I sat at the polished, irregular slab of worn pine that appeared to be a beautiful accident, like his photos did, and looking around, saw the house was filled with such objects, carefully arranged—a river rock, a basket, a rug, an arm of driftwood, each weighted with the self-consciousness of uniqueness. I got the feeling he’d carefully collected himself, too.

Two things were implicit in the fact that I was here, in this mountain town, in this room, in my thirty-one year-old body: that I was searching, and that I thought he might hold answers. He offered me a glass of wine. “Ice water, thanks,” I said. He poured two and lowered his fit frame into a farmhouse chair. Light shimmered off his oval wire-rimmed glasses.

Across the table were strewn photographs and a big book on California similar to the one he’d begun on Utah. “I’m looking for a very unique person,” he began, and my hackles rose. He continued. “A person who can share my vision. This project will be all-consuming,” he continued. “I’m creating a beautiful book that will capture the spirit of a varied place and people. It will be something both I and the person I choose to work with will be very proud of.”

The dogs snored softly on the polished pine floor, as though they had heard it all before. I certainly felt as though I had.

“Tell me about your budget,” I suggested. “If we decide we can work together, how would I be paid?”

“Well,” he began.

“Well” did not sound auspicious. It turned out that the proposal was not yet written, in fact. It turned out that would be part of my job. Selling the proposal would also fall under my jurisdiction. He shined a quiet, conspiratorial smile on me. “Whoever I choose will have creative control over the entire text. I need someone with great energy, great imagination, who can look at my photographs and see words.”

So, either I was a person of great energy and  imagination, or I was not. If I was not, I was just like all the other disappointing people in the world. If I was, I would say yes.

In the third grade, Christina Forchemer told me that she knew how babies were made, she’d seen two people making a baby on Police Woman. I went home and checked with my mother, who reassured me that God gave you babies when you asked for them. The next day, Christina and I reached a compromise: half the babies came from God, and half from men somehow. But the seed of distrust had been planted; there was something unpleasantly believable about Christina’s explanation. And I had learned that if one truth was uncomfortable and one made you feel good, the one that made you feel good could usually be dismissed. My sister would scoff. “See? Pessimist.”

“But really,” I’d reply. “Do half the babies come from God?”

I needed a moment to think.  “What a lovely table,” I said, caressing its glowing grain with a finger. In one half of my brain, alarm bells were going off. But the other half was zooming through watercolor canyons in a Land Rover with my heart strapped on tight to the top of the vehicle between the kayak and the mountain bike. Cameras and a laptop computer on the floorboards, dogs’ ears flapping out the windows. We would always be back in a week. The cat would understand.

*  *  *

to be continued next Sunday

A Boy and a Very Big Tree

Taken six weeks ago north of Flagstaff, a picture of one of the earth’s medium-sized organisms among the stems of a member of earth’s largest species.

Although this is only a very small aspen stand, the quaking aspen has a root system that can extend for over a hundred acres underground, the largest belonging to a stand named Pando, which Wikipedia reports is estimated to weigh in at 6,600 short tons (that’s the American version of a ton, a mere 2,000 pounds, in contrast to the British long pound of 2,240 pounds) and be 80,000 to 1 million years old, although the individual trunks average 130 years.

That’s all for now. Just in case you’re feeling old and fat today, what with with holiday wear and bloatation.

It really can be beautiful can’t it?


Parties, Cool Legs, and the Croup

It’s the night we’ve all (read “I”) have been looking forward to: friends of family renewing marriage vows, party afterward, niece called in as a babysitter, new dress, new accessories, Husbot in town.

We left the Midgets sniffling with full-blown colds. The niece did not seem afraid. Husbot got a phone call as we pulled into the church parking lot. It was from work. It had to be dealt with. I went into the church alone. I’m not so comfortable in churches, but there were ninety other people who were, so that helped. I sat (and stood, it was a Catholic church) for an hour, single on the pew. It was a lovely ceremony.

Husbot appeared. It was a nice party, at the couple’s home. The dress held up. The accessories held up. The tights held up. I held up.  As we drove home, at 8:45 (so late for us!), we got a call. Gbot was crying and coughing and asking for Mommy. Four minutes later, I administered croup medicine. Thankfully, Mbot was passed out.

I ate a piece of chocolate and took a bath. Gbot fell asleep in Husbot’s arms.

Pre-takeoff, Mbot caught sight of me in dress and tights. “Oooh! Are you a new mom?”


“Cool legs!”

What was the highlight of your Black Friday? The renewal of wedding vows, or the wedding of reality and new youth?

There I Was, Looking for Eskimo Yoyos (Adventures in Online Shopping)

Available in rabbit or Tibetan lamb. Lamb's not just for Easter anymore!

I thought I’d offer a bit of shopping advice, as we’re going into the Black Friday weekend: expect the unexpected.

The above picture is from a website called Blue Arctic Gifts, and offers, I believe, the strongest argument yet put forth for banning real fur from the marketplace:  a jockstrap, available in either rabbit or Tibetan lamb fur, offered this weekend for $25.99.

I did not find this website–my sister did, while looking for Eskimo yoyos to put in her twins’ stockings. Eskimo yoyos have two things in common with a jock strap of Tibetan goat fur: they are made by Northern Native American peoples, and they are furry. That was enough for Google.

For anyone who did not grow up in Alaska, this is an Eskimo yoyo:

For $3 more than the jockstrap, you can get an actual Eskimo yoyo at the University of Alaska Museum of the North Store

It is generally made from two stuffed seal-skin balls connected by  string, with a sealskin tab, uncentered, between them on the string. You hold the tab and try to get the two balls swinging in wide circles in opposite directions, using a gentle rhythmic wrist motion. You first get one going, then you swing the other one into the air. It’s easy once you know how, just like using a search engine.

My sister has a history of intriguing  internet searches. Several years ago, she was looking for a pair of flip-flops. She came up with a site that offered items other than shoes. “Maybe add ‘shoes’ or ‘sandals’ to the search request,” I suggested, when she called, scandalized by her newfound and unwanted knowledge. I still haven’t done the flip-flop search because I’m afraid that it would somehow put me on some mailing list I don’t want to be on.

So be careful, this weekend, shoppers. You might get more than you bargained for.

What’s your most unexpected internet shopping adventure?

Adventures in Shopping

Did she get it at Nordstrom Rack? (www.ccsd.k12.wy.us)

I bought a dress today. Mbot was at school learning about Charlie Brown falling off the Mayflower (I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this cryptic retelling of what happened this afternoon within the walls of Montessori) and Gbot was drinking himself to sleep–a promising sign, because he recently has decided he has no patience with shopping. I admit, he gets it from me. But at least I don’t holler in the aisles of Home Depot.) I steered the MidgetMobile down the I-10 and up the 101 to a Nordstrom Rack that recently opened thirty minutes away (insert trumpet blasts here).

Gbot, beatifically comatose in the stroller, and I swept into the store. I picked out socks, tights, and a pair of sunglasses needed since August, when mine were used as an ice skate across the concrete floor, and then headed for the fancy stuff via the shoes. Tried on a pair of strappy sandals: Nope, still can’t walk in heels. Then hit the dresses. I managed to find five items that looked like a) they might fit, b) they wouldn’t make me look twenty pounds heavier and c) weren’t hideous.

I needed a dress because on Friday evening, two friends of the family are reaffirming their wedding vows, made some thirty years ago, and I have nothing to wear.  A reaffirmation of wedding vows after over ten thousand chances to do something regrettable every day is a remarkable and lovely event. It is not about me. But being confident and comfortable in your clothes makes it easier to forget about yourself and concentrate on the important stuff.

Although I weigh the same as I did in my pre-Bot days, the short skirts in my closet are somehow too short (were they always?) and my old dresses no longer seem to fit around the ribcage. And so, stroller draped with cut-price couture, I wheeled the slumbering Gbot into a dressing room.

Dress #1 had sausage casings for arms. Dress #2 was…huh. Cute. And comfortable. It was  also marked down 60% and casual enough to be worn with boots, which would allow me to sidestep the walking-in-heels problem. Dress #3 made me look three days postpartum. Dress #4 had been designed for someone with breasts just under her chin. Dress #5, a black Ralph Lauren sheath, turned me into a waistless Doric column. The ruthless lighting deepened the creases in my face and glinted off a rogue gray hair.

I bought the socks, the tights, the sunglasses, and dress #2. I was out of the store in forty minutes. Gbot was just waking up.

I’m still feeling inordinately pleased, in a way I don’t when I spend a lot of time and money. I feel like I’ve accomplished something exceptional. And maybe in some way, I have, in addition to completing a shopping expedition without the G-Bomb going off. It is no small feat to attend a dress-up occasion comfortable and confident, especially when you don’t get a lot of practice. I never could have done it thirty years ago, even with a narrower ribcage and a creaseless face.

Thirty years: something lost, something gained. For better or for worse?

Hitting the Road Jacks

The killer rabbit from Monty Python, available in plush for $16.99 at http://www.thinkgeek.com

The Midgets are old enough that I’ve begun bargaining about what music we all listen to in the car.

Mbot: “I want the beat music!”

This means something–but not anything–with a loud, insistent beat, preferably dance music. When I hit the button for Lady Gaga’s Pokerface, there was a wail from the backseat. “No that’s Gbot’s music! That’s not my best beat music!” So he had noticed, too, that Gbot often, especially when he is diaperless, prances around chanting, “P-p-pahty, yeah. Bang bang!” I tell you, he did  not learn the dance moves from me.

So I searched for Justin Timberlake while I explained that first, we would listen to Mommy’s quiet music, then we would listen to Mbot’s beat music, and then we would listen to whatever Gbot wanted to listen to. So while a very lovely violin concerto played on KBAQ, the local classical station–that I used to be able to listen to all the time, with no input from the backseat–I asked, “Gbot? What do you want to listen to?”

Gbot: “Mona Mona Mona!”

Me: “Uhhh…What’s the rest of it?”

Gbot: “Hid da woad, jaa, doncha come bah no mona mona mona mo….”

Mbot: “But that’s not my best!”

Hit the Road Jack” must appeal to the under-thirty-month set, because before Mbot discovered Justin Timberlake–who we do not listen to very often, mind you, but it made an impression–Ray Charles used to be his best.

“What’s a road jack?” he asked every time. “And why did they hit it?” And every time I would explain. It’s a giant monster rabbit, I said. Who’s really mean.

I wasn’t even thinking of Monty Python at the time. I was just trying to figure out how to avoid babbling about complex and unhealthy adult relationships. But it makes me wonder about the moment that Eric Idle and his boys thought up the killer rabbit. Were they in a car with their kids? Probably not. The carnivorous Leporid might have hopped to life when they were in a car with each other. Or in a room with each other. They might have been arguing over what to put on the eight-track tape.

In a very real way, the Bots and I are a creative team. A noisy, obstreporous, pants-wetting crew, but a team nonetheless. We might not be available on Netflix, but thinking about us this way might help me when the milk’s been spilled, the wine glass has been broken, the Play Doh’s been ground into the rug, and someone else’s beat music is on too loud.

Who’s on your team?

Little Cheaters on God, The End

Can gods and girlfriends see through pasta? http://www.wielandshoehe.de

Little Cheaters on God, Part 1

Little Cheaters on God, Part 2

Little Cheaters on God, The End:

From a glassed-in booth at the postampt, I told my mother to put away the special pins, the thread so fine it was almost invisible. I imagined her rolling the half-sewn gown in sheets and moving it to the upper shelves of her closet, to commune with her three feathered hats from the sixties. At least the hats had been worn. At least the hats were just hats, and not symbols of a life-sized misplaced hope, some wild misjudgment of both myself and someone else.

We’re postponing the wedding, I said. I don’t know when.

It’s okay, my mother told me. I’m sure you’re doing the right thing.

Both R and I were using the word postpone. R was certain it was just a matter of time before we’d be back together again. And I was too much of a coward to say cancel. But every time I said I love you, I’d realized I was crying. And if what hurt the most was telling my mother that the gown would not be worn, I knew leaving was the right thing to do.

I moved to Denver, where I knew no one, to take an editing job. R accepted a position in Frankfurt. He sent me two dozen roses on my birthday. And, now that the world had discovered the internet, we began emailing:

“….I shudder at the thought of losing you. Will you be there in a year for me? I continue to plan my life with you. Love, R”

I told him I was meeting new people. There was someone named S. He was fun, if unambitious. Most important, he liked to kiss me, I said.

R was beside himself. His misery drew out a promise of me to try one last time. On Christmas Eve, R flew to Denver. He still had the same wide, sandy-lashed blue eyes, the same rough stubble over the cleft chin. But now it was impossible for me to look at him without seeing all the hope he had once inspired in me, and all the sadness we’d caused each other.

He brought a gift. It was a juicer.

“Nancy suggested it,” he said by way of explanation, citing his father’s wife.

Sitting on the kitchen counter beside the juicer as midnight approached, he announced that he wanted a new start on new ground, based on truth and openness. Then he said, “Of course you know I’m gay.” He paused, waiting for my acknowledgment. When I remained silent, processing this epiphany, he continued. “Well you are too, right? I mean, you’ve slept with girls?”

I wasn’t, and I hadn’t.

This was the early nineties. It was back before people had gay ex-fiances. I had concluded that our problems were due to my problems: I was unattractive,  inexperienced, and uncommitted. My myopia–not being able to focus past myself–had rendered me legally blind to him.

And now I realized he needed me. He needed me to complete the picture of who he wished he was. His family and two half-brothers didn’t know he was gay. He needed me not because others didn’t accept his sexuality, but because he didn’t.

I told him that perhaps he should have brought up the topic of sexual preference before he’d brought up the topic of marriage. I told him to get back on the plane.

On Christmas Day I bought a bag of oranges. When the universe gives you a gay man with a juicer, at least make the juice.

But I was left knowing that the only real relationship I’d had had been based on lies. That the only man who’d deemed me suitable for marriage was not attracted to women. So what kind of a woman did that make me?

Four years later, I turned thirty. I was still single, living alone with my cat.  One morning, I picked up the phone and heard R’s voice. He wanted to tell me about his job. A nice one with a reputable firm in Boston. That year alone he had traveled to Barcelona, Lisbon, Madrid, and Seoul. He told me about his house. It was a nice one, too, with a dock and a ski boat. He told me about his guy problems. He was afraid Chad was using him. I listened, and told him Chad was using him. He didn’t know how to get out of it. But he feared he couldn’t do any better.

You’re using Chad, then, too, I pointed out.

Well, yes, he agreed.

Like you used me, I did not say. Like you are still trying to use me, I did not say. I realized he was hoping that I’d come to believe I couldn’t do any better, either.

Essayist Susan Griffin writes, “What is hidden, kept secret, cannot be loved. It exists in a place of exile, outside the realm of response.”

I didn’t have those words all those years ago on the telephone. Instead, I said, You have to stop being afraid of what’s inside you. I said this, afraid, still, that there was something inside me that was keeping me from being wholly loved. But wise enough to know that if there was, whatever it was, it couldn’t be hidden. It couldn’t be hidden, and be loved, too.