Friday, October 31, 2008

Dog People

What makes some families, including our little branch of the Raihala family, Dog People, as opposed to Cat People, Bird People, or Pet-free People? I’m sure if I googled this topic, I’d find lots written on it, but it’s more fun just to free-associate and figure it out for myself. Here goes.

When I was little, we always had dogs. Sometimes we had cats, too, but only when I begged and pleaded and cried. Dogs were the constant, though. George had no pets at all, not even a goldfish. That’s because his parents were Pet-free People. George’s father is allergic to cats and has asthma—a very scary combination that sort of necessitates pet-free living.

When George and I got married, I knew that I didn’t want to have children with a man who’d never even had to care for a fish, so I campaigned hard for a pet. In college, we were too broke for a dog, but I convinced George we could afford a bunny. The very inappropriately named Snuggles entered our lives.

I came to hate this rabbit. He was evil, an unsocialized full-grown pygmy rabbit, not the sweet little baby bunny I thought I’d bought. As soon as I realized this, I had a serious case of buyer’s remorse but wasn’t sure what to do about it. After all, I’d begged and pleaded for the bunny, and now all I wanted to do was drop-kick him across the room. Generally, I’m very humane and loving toward animals, especially cute furry ones. But this rabbit wasn’t an animal. He was a long-toothed, sharp-clawed, hard-hearted Satan.

George tried to make sure I treated Satan well, let him out of the cage to play, and interacted with him. It’s the only time in our 22-year marriage I lied to him. I felt really bad about the lie, but not at all bad that I hadn’t let Satan out of his cage. I was protecting the universe.

Satan eventually went back to the pet shop, we graduated from college to real jobs, and I set my sights on a proper pet. I wanted a dog, and since George had always wanted a dog, like any red-blooded American boy, this was an easy sell. When George was assigned to an Air Force base in Michigan, it was the perfect time to get a Samoyed puppy.

Before the dog purchase, George talked tough: our dog would live outside like a “real” dog and never, ever go near our bed. People who let their dogs sleep in their beds were pansies. I didn’t argue because I knew better. We picked up Shemya from a breeder in Lansing in February, 1989, when she was a three-month-old puffball and there was a foot of snow on the ground. On the long drive back to Oscoda, George said, “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside. She can sleep in the empty bedroom next to ours.” “Okay,” I said.

When it was time for bed, we put Shemya in her new room with a little bed and closed the door. She promptly tried to scratch her way out, whining and yipping the whole time. When we tried to go into the room to “make” her be quiet, she slipped between our legs and made a beeline for our bed, which she scrambled under, breathing hard and ready to defend her position if necessary.

That’s where she slept for the next year or so, even when she grew too big to fit comfortably. One day, I found George lying on the bed reading, with Shemya tucked comfortably under his arm. I said, “So, the dog is never getting on the bed, is she?” “Awww. Why not?” he responded, and scratched her behind the ears. After that, she slept on the bed with us.

If living with a dog does not have this softening effect on you, there’s something really wrong with you, and you should seek professional help. I’m serious.

Samoyeds were originally bred to pull sleds, herd reindeer, and act like big, furry hot-water bottles. Shemya lived true to her genetic imperative by taking us for “drags” (what normal people call walks), herding us to her food dish, and keeping our feet warm at night. She was the best dog I ever had, and she was mine, all mine. She tolerated George but made it very clear if she did what he asked, it was only because she wanted to, not because he told her to. She followed me around and curled up at my feet wherever I was. I loved her completely.

George eventually wanted a dog who would worship him as Shemya worshipped me so we bought Hoover, an adorable golden retriever pup with a very waggy tail. George was completely ga-ga over this dog, but Hoover was a slow learner, and this did not endear him to me in the beginning. He had two bad habits which rubbed my fur the wrong way.

First, he ate carpet. It cost several hundred dollars to repair the two places he dug up, and since he didn’t worship me, I wasn’t inclined to forgive easily. When he disemboweled a pillow while we were outside doing yard-work, George finally conceded that Hoover needed to be crated when we weren’t with him.

Second, he pee-walked. If he needed to go, he would just walk around the house leaving a twenty-foot long trail of pee drops on the carpet. We tried the “humane” way of house-breaking, but Hoover wasn’t getting it. By the time he was six months old, I had had it with pee-walking. The last time he did it, I had George grab him, beat his behind, and throw him outside. Far from being traumatized, Hoover just looked at George as if to say, “Well, go figure. I guess you don’t like my doing that. Who would have thought?” He never pee-walked again.

When Hoover developed kennel cough, I finally softened toward him. Staying up all night to make sure your dog doesn’t die bonds you, somehow. Hoover, however, didn’t respect me until long after Shemya died. George deployed to Florida in 2005 for more than four months, and to Hoover’s way of thinking, this constituted abandonment. He transferred his adoration to me for no other reason than I was there. Now I love the dog dearly and am quite as goofy over him as I ever was over Shemya.

Dog ownership has brought out behaviors in us that Pet-free People might find bizarre. For example, George and I have conversations where one of us pretends to be the dog. If Hoover is quivering with riveted attention on my spoon as I eat ice cream, George might say in a goofy voice, “Uh, Mom, are you going to give me some of that? Please, please, pretty please!” And I might reply, “I'll let you lick the bowl, Hoover-McDoover.” Sometimes, however, the dog is rude. George might tell Hoover to jump up on the bed, and I might reply for Hoover, in a very grouchy voice, “Screw you, dude. I’m not jumping on that bed. I’m old and have arthritis. Piss off.” Hoover has quite the potty mouth at bedtime.

Then there’s the baby talk. George and I prided ourselves on not using baby talk with our children, who both have excellent vocabularies for their ages. But the dogs…let’s just say our Shemmer-wemmers and Mr. McFuzzykins reacted positively to silly baby talk and leave it at that.

Reading back over this very unscientific essay, I conclude that Dog People just want to be worshipped. Fish, satanic bunnies, and cats don’t “do” worship, so perhaps people who prefer them as pets just don’t need to be considered gods. Ultimately, I think dogs give us unconditional love we can’t get anywhere else, and as long as we can put up with the poop, fur, and general inconvenience, we revel in their adoration.

On the other hand, being worshipped by a dog transforms humans into fairly ridiculous, sappy, love-struck fools who worship their worshippers in return. These canine fur-balls worm their way into our hearts and teach us to appreciate the simple joys in life, such as just being in the presence of our loved ones, getting a belly rub, or barking at the UPS man, who, as every dog knows, has come to kill us all.

Love makes fools of everyone eventually, and at the end of the day, we Raihalas are goofy fools with a fuzzy friend who thinks we’re gods. That’s certainly better than being scratched-up, bitten fools with Satan the pygmy bunny for a pet.

That may be why we’re Dog People.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The China Policy

In this election year, we have heard lots about foreign policy, health care policy, and, most especially, economic policy. The economy is big news right now, and our government, God help it, is trying to clean up the mess which has resulted, at least in part, from too many people trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You know what I’m talking about. Too many people have spent more than they have because they feel entitled to McMansions and expensive cars and riding lawn mowers and iPhones and $5,000 birthday parties for their one-year-old children. They think, “The Joneses have all that, so why can’t I?”

Sadly, Jimmy Buffet was right: there’s no free ride in this carnival world. These tough times call for new policies modeled on common sense and fiscal responsibility. Because we can’t possibly expect the United States government to operate on common sense and fiscal responsibility, we the people must take charge. I propose a new model for personal economic responsibility: the China Policy.

I’m not talking about the upper-case China that just hosted the Olympics. I’m talking about the lower-case china that sits in your cabinets most of the year, pretty but expensive and not terribly useful. George and I developed our China Policy years ago, about the same time we realized that credit cards are evil.

Here’s how the China Policy works: we just don’t have any.

I can hear your gasps of astonishment. After all, isn’t fine china a prerequisite for civilized life? Not really. Despite numerous Thanksgiving dinner parties at our china-less house, no guest ever complained about pouring gravy from a $2 pyrex measuring cup rather than a $200 Wedgewood gravy boat. The gravy tasted great and didn’t have lumps, so why should they complain? If they cracked jokes about our tackiness in the car on the way home, we remain blissfully ignorant of it to this day.

In the interests of full disclosure, we did have Noritake china on our wedding registry over 22 years ago, simply because that’s what engaged couples do. We were young and stupid, and the china didn’t really suit us. We received a few place settings as gifts and used them for a few years, which with china is a huge mistake. You just can’t use it because it chips, cracks, or breaks too easily. Eventually, we had one complete place setting left of the “fine” china, and every time I looked at the pattern, I wanted to barf. What had we been thinking?

About the same time the Noritake was failing us, our credit card debt hit its highest point ever. Then, when George’s grandparents sold their cabin at Lake Vermilion in Minnesota, they gave us their cabin dishes—a plain, white set of ironstone. I’ve never heard of ironstone, but I tell you, it’s pretty much indestructible and just what we needed. The gift of the ironstone dishes allowed us to donate what remained of the Noritake to Goodwill, and shortly thereafter we paid off our credit cards and cut them all up but one. Fiscal responsibility feels great, and we learned our lesson.

A few years ago, my in-laws offered to give us their Rosenthal, mainly because they didn’t want it anymore and hoped to send it on to a good home. George and I declined their kind offer by invoking our China Policy, which is based on four common-sense lessons of economics that can apply to lots more than just china.

Lesson One: Before purchasing anything, think about how items might be handled in the future. If small children, teenage boys, Lowest Bidders, or pets might be involved, refrain from paying top dollar.

Some of you non-military folks may wonder about that “Lowest Bidder” reference. It’s a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of American military families. The Lowest Bidder packs and moves all your belongings from one military base to another. Military families move frequently so the Lowest Bidder has lots of opportunities to break, damage, or destroy your precious belongings. Our friends Cindy and Kevin lost $2,000 worth of fine china in a single box. The Lowest Bidder was supposed to wrap each piece of china in packing paper, but when Cindy opened the box at her new home, she found pulverized china, canned goods, and one single piece of packing paper. Cindy and Kevin got $200 in reimbursement. That’s $1,800 in the trash and an unquantifiable amount of heartache.

The Lowest Bidder could have broken all our dishes, and we would have been out $0 because that’s what the dishes from the cabin at Lake Vermilion cost us. I would have replaced these at Target for about $75, happily and with none of the heartache Cindy and Kevin experienced. If we had taken my in-laws’ Rosenthal, we might not have lost any money, technically, but there would have been heartache. Serious heartache.

Lesson Two: Know your lifestyle preferences. Buy—or don’t—accordingly.

Fine china like the Rosenthal cannot go in the dishwasher. I LOVE my dishwasher. It’s bad enough that our cookware is not dishwasher safe because my darling husband is a cooking snob and insists on expensive pots that must be hand-washed. Given the quality of his cooking, it’s a price I am willing to pay, but dishes…dishes just hold the food off the table.

Lesson Three: Don’t buy something just because everyone else has it. In other words, don’t be a lemming and mindlessly follow the crowd over the cliff of economic disaster.

How often do those of you with fine china actually use the stuff? Be honest, now. Thanksgiving? Christmas? Easter? Is it really a good investment to spend thousands of dollars on place settings, gravy boats, serving bowls, and platters that get used in less than 1% of meals in a year? For us, the answer is no. George and I prefer to spend our money on things that we can and will use frequently, like cameras and bikes and rubber stamps. Yeah, lots of rubber stamps. Just because the Joneses expect us to have fine china doesn’t mean we have to.

Lesson Four: Your money is finite. Set your priorities, and don’t spend more than you have.

George and I prioritize our spending rather than go into consumer debt. That’s why George looked like such a ninny in his patched-up wetsuit at Ironman Wisconsin; we were too cheap to buy him a new one. He’ll get a new one next year, after we’ve saved for it. We learned the hard way years ago that you can’t have it all, no matter how many credit card applications you receive in the mail. We do not have china because we would rather spend what money we have to spend on other stuff. Of course, the Rosenthal would have been free for us, but only until we started breaking pieces and needed to replace them. (See Lesson One.) Then it would get expensive.

Now you know our China Policy. It certainly makes more sense than adjustable-rate mortgages, hedge funds, and keeping up with the Joneses. And wouldn’t it be great if all four of these lessons were adopted as economic policy by our next president?

Oh, my goodness. Did I really just type that? Please excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a few minutes….

I’m back. Whew. That was funny. Or sad. I’m not sure.

As for the Rosenthal, my in-laws decided to keep it, which I think in their case is pretty smart. Despite owning fine china, my in-laws are among the most fiscally responsible people I know. Since they can’t get anyone to pay what the Rosenthal is worth (certainly not in this economic downturn) and neither of their children wants it, they might as well keep it. Who knows, it may still be useful someday. Probably not, but you just never know.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bike Porn

Now, there are two words most people don’t put together. If you read my post HERE, however, you know that things are pretty crazy in my world, and bike porn is to blame, at least in part, for that craziness.

As sex researchers have shown, men are visual creatures. I know this because I read Discover Magazine, which reports juicy little tidbits of this nature. Men like visual stimulation and respond positively to images of things they desire. Bike porn is visual representation of bicycles created to stimulate desire in men (and a few women, too) in the same way Godiva chocolate advertisements stimulate desire in women (and a few men). Chocolate is well-documented as an aphrodisiac, but bikes?

I’m not feeling the love, if you know what I mean.

Unlike regular porn, which for the most part exists only to sell itself, bike porn exists to sell bikes by appealing directly to visually-stimulated sex-drive circuits in some men’s brains. Not all men are attracted by the perverse allure of bike porn; some prefer cars or computers as objects of their desire. Some even like trains or model rockets or cigars, the sexual symbolism of which we can discuss some other time. Men’s brains really are very strange places.

Bike porn, however, is just the thin edge of an insidious wedge. You can’t buy the naked women in magazine or internet pictures (not legally, at least) but the whole point behind most bike porn is that you, too, can ride this beauty, if only your bank account can handle her. Bike porn leads to an ever-increasing need to possess and obsess over the objects of bike lust. Obviously, bike porn is NOT pictures of skanky bikes you can buy at Toys R Us or Kmart. Bike porn aficionados have standards, by golly, and don’t you forget it.

You would think that just a bike frame without wheels or gears or handlebars or a place to put your backside would be, I don’t know, sort of pointless and not worth looking at. In the world of bike porn, however, bare naked frames are sexy. Bare naked frames made of carbon fiber or titanium are the sexiest, because there is a geeky, high-tech aspect of bike porn that is integral to its charm. George once shared with me some porn of a bamboo bike frame, which, I assume, is porn for those bike lovers who prefer exotic Asian looks.

Then there are the accessories. My personal favorites are the Zipp Wheels with a Powertap Hub, George’s gift when he retired from the Air Force. He started showing me porn of the wheels about a year before he got them. At Ironman Wisconsin last month, I guess roughly two-thirds of the bikes had Zipp wheels, so George is definitely on trend with this. Zipps are clearly labeled and easy to spot for an Ironmate like myself, but I’m not sure what the Powertap hub looks like, so I have no idea how many of the racers had them. I bet it was lots. These hubs come with software and measure the wattage the cyclist generates on rides, so they are really, really sexy. Bike porn gets into the collective consciousness of the biking community and just takes over. You don’t even want to know how much the wheels and hub cost us. Okay, about $2,500.00, but George got a heck of a deal. Honestly.

I could buy a lot of paper-crafting supplies with that much money.

George has kept virtually every bike porn magazine he’s bought in the past 20 years and frequently peruses these old magazines, though he usually claims it’s for the articles, not the porn. Yeah, right. I, on the other hand, purge my Discover and paper crafting magazines annually because I’ve learned that I won’t go back through them. But then, I’m not passionately in love with my paper craft tools, either. They are cool and all, and I am very happy to have them, but I don’t stroke them lovingly, talk to them, or dry them with a diaper when they get wet.

George also has numerous valuable brain bytes dedicated to remembering which article appeared in a 1990 copy of Velo News or a tidbit of training advice from a 2001 copy of Triathlon Magazine. How does he remember these things? I had a hard time remembering that I was supposed to make pumpkin-scented play-dough for the preschool this month. I certainly don’t remember a particular card I saw in a 2004 issue of Rubber Stamper Magazine. Sure, it’s buried in my subconscious somewhere, but it’s refusing to be exhumed by conscious thought, which is fine with me.

I’m convinced it’s the porn. Bike porn sears itself on some very conscious and very primitive part of my husband’s brain, making this sort of information recall possible. When George opens a bike porn magazine to a particularly sexy bike advertisement, he shows it to me and says, in a deeper voice than usual, “Isn’t she beeeauutifulllll?” He’s not referring to some scantily clad model, such as you might see leaning provocatively over a car in a car magazine. “She” refers to the bike.

There’s a lot of bike porn on the internet, too. George’s computer is in the dining room, and my computer is around the corner in the kitchen. So when he’s trolling Slowtwitch (a triathlon forum) for bike porn, he’ll call me into the dining room. “You’ve got to SEE this!” The awe in his voice always hooks me, and I get up from reading paper-craft blogs or posting on Splitcoast (a rubber-stamping forum) or writing—you know, things that actually interest me—and go check out the bike porn. I pat his shoulder and tell him, “She’s beautiful, honey.”

I want to support him, honestly, I do. I wish I could share his enthusiasm, but it’s a bike, for heaven’s sake. Two wheels, some gears, a seat, handlebars, a frame…what’s so sexy about that? My own bike languishes pathetically in the basement, disabled by a broken chain, flat tires and neglect. She’s envious of his Cannondale, who sits perkily on a $250-trainer but feels sorry for herself because she’s George’s bad-weather bike and never gets to go out on the open road anymore.

George keeps the rest of his “harem” in the garage now, but that’s only because I put my foot down. He’d be happier if his girls were in a climate-controlled location like the living room. He also used to buy Yakima bike racks for the tops of our cars to transport the girls. He even dressed them in bike bikinis to protect them from bugs that might splat onto them and mar their good looks.

That was before carbon fiber. His girls used to be made out of sturdy steel or aluminum, but due to the irresistible allure of carbon-fiber bike porn, several aluminum girls (except the Cannondale and a Cervelo) got dumped and now he has two light-weight carbon-fiber girls (another Cervelo and a Kuota). Carbon fiber is really strong yet vulnerable to breakage and largely unfixable if damaged. This makes no sense to me—how can something be strong and yet easily damaged at the same time? And why does carbon fiber cost so much? I gave up trying to understand it all a long time ago. I do know that George would rather put our children on top of the car than one of his carbon-fiber girls. One thrown rock hitting that carbon fiber would be disastrous.

I’ve toyed with the idea of staging an intervention to get rid of all bike porn that’s more than a decade old, but what’s the point? As vices go, bike porn is pretty harmless even if it is weird. And if I let him buy all he wants, I don’t have to justify my own magazine purchases or my rubber-stamp addiction. Always look on the bright side, I say.

Besides, let’s face it. I can’t fulfill the same needs as the girls in his harem. The girls roll; I walk. The girls like the open road; I like my craft room. Their accessories are expensive and sometimes even have software; mine are as cheap as possible because I’d rather spend the money on rubber stamps. The girls stick with him on the 112 miles of the bike course at an Ironman race; I cheer him on comfortably sweat-free at transitions and the finish.

The girls cost thousands of dollars; I, however, am priceless. This makes me first wife in the harem, and as long as the girls don’t get in my way, they can stay.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing a lot of titanium-bike porn and folding-bike porn, and I think George is trying to tell me something. Will this craziness ever end?

Please don’t answer that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"What Should I Read?"

I fantasize about people asking me this question because I’m a seriously educated reader and would never dream of hiding my light under a bushel so I make darn sure everyone who meets me knows this. But no one ever asks. People seem intimidated when they find out I have a master’s degree in English and want to change the subject fast, but only after telling me how much they HATED taking freshman composition and Introduction to World Literature.


Unfortunately, normal people should be nervous about asking people with advanced degrees what to read, because people with advanced degrees are almost always mentally unbalanced. They often specialize in subjects that most people don’t care a fig about, and by “specialize,” I really mean “obsess.” If your obsession leads you to a career as something useful like a neurosurgeon, people respect you for it because you can save lives and make good money doing it. But what if your obsession doesn’t pay well and never saved a life? What if most people think it is a total waste of your time, effort, and energy?

Welcome to my world. I’m obsessed with almost anything written in the Middle Ages (c. 410-1475). I have a huge bookshelf full of medieval literature. This makes me very happy, but normal people usually avoid medieval literature unless forced to read it by a teacher who, they are convinced, wants them to suffer.

It’s lonely being me sometimes.

How did medieval literature become my obsession? I wanted to be a sophisticated reader and knew that sophisticated readers read books written by dead people like Shakespeare and Homer and Hemingway. That’s what schools teach you in 9th grade, which was when I decided my reading should become sophisticated. I was a budding intellectual snob, and my English teachers encouraged me shamelessly. Furthermore, I was a goody-two-shoes who did my homework without being asked, kept a dime between my knees on the rare occasions I had dates, and always told the truth. Just call me Sandra Dee. All that repression was bound to come out somehow.

In eleventh grade, it happened. I discovered that sophisticated literature could be naughty. We read The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. My favorite was "The Miller’s Tale," a bawdy story about adultery and very literal ass-kissing that actually makes pubic hair the punchline of a joke. I quickly decided I wanted to be a medievalist so I could read more naughty literature and feel sophisticated while doing it. So to speak. This is how we goody-two-shoes rebel; we become geeks.

In college, I majored in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The Renaissance was certainly fun—it had Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth the First and Leonardo da Vinci, after all. But for true rollicking bawdiness and sheer strangeness, you can’t beat the Middle Ages. This was the age of faith and the heyday of the Catholic Church. The Middle Ages had the Inquisition, philosophical debates over how many angels fit on the head of a pin, and trial by ordeal (where God settled your guilt or innocence in bizarrely sadistic ways). All that religion ironically highlighted the earthier aspects of human existence. I soaked it all in—the good, the bad, and the just plain weird—like an alcoholic on a bender and kept looking for more.

While doing research for a very serious medieval history class my sophomore year, I stumbled across a book on the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery done in the eleventh century to illustrate William the Bastard’s conquest of England in 1066. It was almost certainly commissioned by Bishop Odo and hung in his cathedral at Bayeux for hundreds of years. In the lower margin of the embroidery, which measures an impressive 20 inches tall by 230 feet long, there is a little vignette which shows a naked man with a huge, um, part reaching out to a naked woman. Honestly, what is not to love about this fabulously graphic juxtaposition of headless, blood-dripping corpses and laughably comic lust? It's just so...medieval.

In graduate school, amidst my more serious papers on Beowulf, Quaker rhetoric, and feminism, I gave a very entertaining presentation on a piece of medieval pornography called The Romance of the Rose, a French poem about a lover who spends a lot of time figuring out how to pluck a woman named Rose. The presentation was a hit with my professor and fellow grad students, especially because I included medieval illustrations of the lover plucking his Rose in a canopied bed.

Like all normal, healthy people, English professors and graduate students are obsessed with sex; we’re human and hardwired for it by Mother Nature. Unlike normal, healthy people, however, English professors and graduate students dress up their interest in highly opaque jargon and tweed jackets. Sex is much more sophisticated and intellectual when it is dressed up this way.

We tweedy geeks instantly fall in love with almost any piece of literature that has been banned anywhere for any reason. Lots of medieval literature has been banned. I wrote my thesis on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a frequent victim of banning even though she’s only a little bit bawdy. Mainly, she threatens uptight religious fundamentalists’ ideas about how women are the root cause of all evil and need to be kept in their place by men. Even Chaucer couldn’t keep the Wife of Bath in her place, and he wrote her. She takes on a vigorously independent life of her own and is openly contemptuous of men’s feeble attempts to control her. She’s a blast.

I could have written my thesis on something more spiritual, like the morality play Everyman. Trust me: no one, not even fundamentalists with book-burning tendencies, would ban Everyman. It’s a complete buzz kill—beautiful, yes, but definitely a buzz kill. The Wife of Bath joins the Canterbury pilgrims on her quest for a sixth husband just so she can be the boss of him and keep him in his proper place, which is in her bed. Doesn’t that sound more interesting than a play in which Everyman says goodbye to Worldly Goods and his five Wits because only Good Deeds will go with him to the grave? I certainly thought so, and because I discussed the Wife of Bath with appropriately serious jargon and proper footnotes, so did every single member of my thesis committee.

Which leads me back to my original point, from which I have badly strayed. If you were to ask me what you should read, my answer might surprise you.

It’s this. Read whatever you want.

That’s what I do. I read great literature of both the bawdy kind and not-bawdy kind because I’m mental unbalanced, but I also read historical fiction, murder mysteries, science fiction, chick lit, and Harry Potter with equal enthusiasm. You’ll even find a variety of nonfiction on my overflowing bookshelves. Technically, I am a “master” reader who could work a room at a Modern Language Association Conference if I had to, but what sophisticated reading taught me is that reading should be…fun.

Right now my mother is thanking the scholarship and financial aid gods that she didn’t pay much for my very expensive college education.

I will leave you with a few wise words from an exceedingly sophisticated source. Professor Lee Patterson, a top-notch medievalist, once asked his class, “Why do we read literature?” When someone offered up the standard answer (“Because it makes us better people”), he said, “I know plenty of people who’ve read great books their whole lives, and some of them are real assholes. The honest reason we read these books is because they are fun.”

Amen, Brother Patterson. Amen.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Class Reunion Time

My apologies to all of you who plan, organize, and/or attend your 25th high school reunion. I sort of get where you’re coming from, but you’ll have to write me off your list. I’m not going, and you can’t make me.

I have fond memories of my six years at Charlotte Latin School, and there’s no one from the class of 1984 for whom I harbor the slightest feelings of ill will. Even those two boys who played a mean trick on me in Founder’s Hall to steal my tootsie rolls in seventh grade. Or the people who rigged my locker so when I opened it everything would fall out onto my feet. Or the two girls who stole my lunch money during assembly. Or the kids who wouldn’t speak to me at school but called me at home at 10:00 at night to ask for answers to homework. Or the girls who consistently chose me last for teams in P.E. Or my best friend of five years who dumped me senior year and hid in the photography dark room with her brother so she wouldn’t have to talk to me. She, at least, had good reason to shun me, though at the time I was too depressed to realize it.

With the exception of my former best friend, these kids were garden-variety bullies or snobs with trust funds, and I am certain karma took care of them long ago. Honestly, I hope every one of my former classmates is now happy, healthy, and successful—especially the boyfriend I so gracelessly dumped for reasons that had nothing to do with him. I do not, however, particularly want to see them again.

Don’t you think it would be a tad awkward?

I’d be delighted to have dinner with the old gang. I belonged to a group of kids who didn’t belong with the jocks or nerds or cheerleaders or troublemakers. We were eclectic and, I thought, much more interesting. Tim took me to both proms, introduced me to my husband, and was the best man at our wedding. Julie was one of my bridesmaids, and we still exchange Christmas cards. Ronn was George’s neighbor and one of his groomsman. Kathryn, Lawton, Suzette, Erica, Tammy, and Loretta...good peeps, each and every one.

My teachers were the best: Dr. Collins, Mr. Lentz, Mr. Lynch, Mr. Harmon, Mrs. Skidmore, Mr. Gardner, Miss Browning, and all the rest. The headmaster at the time, Dr. Fox, and the school nurse, Ms. Lindsay, also rocked. These grown-ups encouraged me and taught me. Heaven above, I still love them for it.

But let’s just say that my teen years were not the best of my life.

It’s weird being the not-rich kid at a rich kids’ school, sort of like being Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, only without the happy ending. Socially, you can never really belong. Your house is in the wrong neighborhood; you are not a member of the “right” country club because you are not a member of “any” country club; and you don’t have vacation homes at Beech Mountain and Kiawah Island. You don’t shop at the same stores or wear the same clothes or carry the right kind of purse.

Lawton, for example, had never set foot in Kmart until senior year when Tim needed batteries for his Walkman. When I was in elementary school, my grandfather bought my shoes at Kmart. That’s not something I mentioned to Lawton or anyone else at the time.

Now, however, I can tell the world because, thank God, I am no longer an awkward teenager who desperately wants to belong. Now, I’m just really, really grateful my grandfather loved me enough to buy my shoes when I needed them. I remember how I loved those shoes and felt so pretty wearing them. I’ve learned what is important in life, and it isn’t where you buy your shoes.

Ultimately, my family's lack of dusty old Southern money did not make my Charlotte Latin experience so miserable. Depression did that. Anyone who has been severely depressed and recovered knows exactly what I mean. If you’ve never been depressed, I highly recommend you get down on your knees right now and thank whatever deity you worship for your mental health.

Depression was the smoky and wildly distorting lens through which I viewed the world and myself in it. When you’re depressed, you lose your sense of perspective, so things that are really tiny in the grand scheme of the universe seem preternaturally huge, and the huge things—those things that can save your soul and your life—seem tiny and powerless. When you’re depressed, you are tortured by the razor nicks of a million little cruelties, overwhelming loneliness, and an exaggeration of pain to the point where the universe becomes a big, dark, inescapable pit of misery.

Yeah, I want to go hang with the peeps who were a part of that time in my life.

Fortunately, my mother, my husband, and a very nice psychologist helped me out of the pit. I learned to be happy, grateful, and confident again. In college, I figured out how to find a place, make friends, and be useful and real. It took time, but it all worked out for me. Rest assured, I thank my deity for that every single day.

Recently, I found an invitation to Charlotte Latin’s fall high school reunion activities in my mailbox. It displayed a montage of color photos of smiling, happy people having a great time. Call me cynical, but I’m unconvinced by the marketing. The rosy-tinted spectacles of nostalgia clash with my gray hair anyway.

I hope the class of 1984 has a wonderful time. Really, I do. I hope no one makes snide comments about people’s weight or careers. I expect most of them have learned how to be useful and real and grown up, just like I have. And I hope they don’t comment on how pathetic I was when they page through the yearbook and see my picture. But if they do, well, that is okay. I was pathetic.

But I was also hard-working, compassionate, accepting, helpful, and kind—or at least tried to be all those good things. Now, in my forties, I no longer beat myself up for my inadequacies and imperfections, though I still have plenty of them and they make me cringe frequently. I also deeply appreciate my strengths and try not to let them go to my head.

Balance and perspective are good. I’m so happy I found them and wouldn’t turn back the clock for all the dusty old money in the world.

So, to the Charlotte Latin Class of 1984, I salute you and wish you a happy reunion without me. I hope the last 25 years have been as good to you as they were to me. May the next 25 be even better to us all.