Tuesday, December 25, 2007

If I bite your head off, just pick it up quietly and back away slowly

It was one of those days. You know the ones I mean: every nice gesture, friendly smile and murmured greeting grates on your nerves like the sound of fingers slipping over wet Styrofoam.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think I may have more of these kinds of days than most people. There are tell-tale signs that I am in one of these moods: you smile at me, I grimace in return; the longer you talk, the more my shoulders hunch and my head sinks down to my chest; the longer the day, the less my words are comprehensible between growls and snarls. If you are of the male persuasion, you will probably get it worse, because puzzlement only increases my frenzied anger, much like a dog that smells fear. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, my mood has everything to do with the cycle of the moon.
There are rules, however. The cardinal rule is as follows: Thou shalt NOT mention the letters “P-M-S” nor anything related to this specific hormonal imbalance until I have done so myself. Let me give an example.
Unacceptable phrase: “Oh, I get it. You’re PMSing again, aren’t you?”
Acceptable phrase: “Gee, is anything wrong? What can I do to make you feel better?”

There is one other way to appease the savage beast: large amounts of either sweet or greasy foods, depending on the logically-challenged PMS monster. But do not try to hand feed the beast. Set the offering at its feet, and back away slowly, else your head will be next on the menu.

How to Approach a Morgan

It has recently come to my attention that many people try to approach me in entirely inappropriate and rather vexing ways. It then occurred to me that it may be because they have never had it explained to them how exactly to approach a Morgan. I have come up with a short and succinct list of, specifically, don’ts to assure a positive experience and establish a rapport with this elusive creature.

1) Morgans are skittish by nature. Don’t come up on them suddenly if you can help it. They may accidentally kick you in the head (very much like but not related to the Morgan horse, actually)
2) Give a Morgan plenty of warning with any plans you may have involving her – preferably one to two months. This is not because Morgans are necessarily booked out that far; more likely it will take them that long to get used to the idea of interacting with people.
3) Morgans do not respond well to pet names like “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” “Darling,” “Sugar plum,” or “Ma’am,” especially if you are a sixty-year-old woman who job shares with a Morgan.
4) Morgans also do not respond well to women like that one stated above who, upon taking the seat Morgan was just sitting in, say, “Oohh…you left it nice and warm for me. Thank you.” (emphasis not mine)
5) If a Morgan does not call you back and you are a close friend, she is probably dead, or so sick she can’t reach the phone. Call 911, or her mother. (Note: if you are one of Morgan’s close friends yet there is an understanding between you that immediate call backs are not necessary, you may not get a call back right away.)
6) If a Morgan does not call you and you are a male trying to date her, do not push her. Morgans get irritated easily in this situation and do not appreciate harassment. If Morgan never calls you back, it’s because you annoyed the shit out of her and she has no desire to speak to you again. Get the hint.
7) If you email Morgan and she does not email you back, that’s because Morgan is like that. Don’t take it personally. (Note: if number #6 above applies to you, replace every call with email in #6 and react accordingly.

The Pact

I swore on a stack of my own bibles
that I would never again let you feel
such cold. Forever you slept, nestled in
steel twigs and angry thistles. I never
let them through, the soothing words that one by
one could pull apart protective shells and
expose you. When he came I was ready.
I thought I had strengthened my weaknesses.

The hairline cracks, friendship, spread like poison
ivy. But when we lay in the dark his voice
chipped like a sledgehammer at the silence.
I wanted to drown in the words he set
before me like jewels but you wailed as
the sunlight burned your blind eyes. I failed you.


Beware the Chronic and Contagious Travel Bug

“This is the last time, I swear.”
“I just want to finally settle down in one place.”
“It’s time to stop this. You know, grow up.”

My name is Morgan, and these are just a few of the lies I tell myself all the time. You see, I have a problem: I love to travel. Other people spend their money on cars, stereos, houses, clothes, shoes, maybe food. Me? I live in a cardboard box when I’m not abroad.
That may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but not by much. Every time I travel I come home exhausted. All of my clothes are so well worn I throw most of them away. I’ve slept more on airport floors than I have in beds, eaten more meals consisting of bread and whatever local spread is cheapest, and walked more miles to save bus fare than can possibly be healthy.
Each time I come back, I bury my backpack in the closet, throw some domestic goods on top of it, and say to myself and everyone else, “Good riddance. I’m done. I want to be able to eat real food, buy nice things for my house and have a job I like and want to stay in. No more traveling for awhile.”
I’m lying.
I don’t do this purposely. It’s not like I don’t believe myself. I come back and scramble to find a job, any job that will help me pay the bills. I can’t afford to wait for the one I want. Once there, I find myself a cheap place to live after spending at least a week on someone’s couch. I move all my stuff in and set it up like a home, like I’m going to stay.
Within a short amount of time, there’s a positive number in my bank account. It starts to grow, even though I’ve begun to splurge just a little: I start buying vegetables again, or go out to eat every now and then with my friends. I go to the movies. I might even buy some new clothes if they’re on sale. At whatever job I have, I get settled. I start to get to know the people. I develop a routine. And slowly but surely, I begin to hate it.
The change is almost imperceptible. Nevertheless, I become irritated at work, I find my routine mundane, and I can’t bring myself to stay still. I start taking long drives on the weekends, and all of a sudden I decide I spend too much money on food. I cut down to frozen vegetables and Top Ramen. I check my bank account, then airline fares. I start thinking about where I want to go next, and cutting my expenses to a minimum. I rifle through my closet and find my backpack. I look it over and set it back in the closet, but near the front, so it’s the first thing I see when I open the door.
At work, some small thing sets me off, and that’s it! I’m done! I bide my time for just a little while, then I quit, move out of my house, put everything in storage, and I’m gone.
My experience is different than most peoples’ trip abroad because of my traveling style. Nevertheless, no one should ever doubt that I get less of an adventure. In fact, I think I usually get more of one. The people, food and culture I find off the beaten path are usually incredibly interesting, and often hilarious. I expect nothing less in Australia and New Zealand. I also expect that by the end I’ll be ready to come home, eat real food, and have someplace to call my own.
Morgan Fraser is a 2000 graduate of Manson High School. She is a graduate of Washington State University with degrees in Spanish and print journalism and has lived in Spain, Mexico and Germany and traveled extensively. Her adventures in Australia and New Zealand will be published in the Mirror as they become available.

The Nightmare that Came True

His name was Mitchell. He was 8 years old, from Texas, and called me ma'am. He and another kid from Texas, Brady, were my only ski school charges that day, and both had kind of gotten to the point where they could wedge themselves to a stop, so I decided to take them up to the beginner chair up on the hill via another chairlift. Despite my extensive explanations, they both biffed it trying to get off, but really this is nothing new. So I tried to get them to ski down a hill about as steep as a table top, trying to teach them to stop on their own without falling, turn maybe, and God forbid they be able to get up by themselves. Brady could stop, about 50 feet ahead of where I was at any given time, but Mitchell was having problems with even that. Near the bottom of the hill, I was hot from lifting them, tired and frustrated and threw off my coat as they mewed in little heaps of snot around me. Right then a seasoned instructor and his row of perfectly skiing ducklings sid to a stop behind me. As the kids began to push each other, Tom asked me if I was okay. "Yeah, sure,” I said trying to be calm…and failing. “How do you...WHAAA!"
Okay, so maybe that's a little melodramatic, but I felt like a fool trying to stop crying like my 8-year-olds. Tom took me by the shoulders and made me look at him.
"Don't let them see that they're getting to you, or it will all be over." I felt like I was stuck in a kennel with rabid dogs that I had to keep from seeing my fear.
I pulled myself together and put my goggles back on before we parted ways, them down the hill in a perfect line and I leading my group to the chair lift. It is our policy that the instructor go up the chair first so that someone could help them off at the top, and after I got on I turned around and watched Mitchell keep walking instead of stopping at the line to get on the chairlift, his little snot-encrusted face staring up at me as he walked right off the front of the loading platform. Brady was sideswiped by the lift operator before he could be whacked in the head. I sat on the non-moving chair for five minutes watching the liftie take my kids' skis off, move them out of the way, help them put the skis back on and stand them on the line with the explicit instructions to stay put. When they got to the top, I was waiting for them, but the liftie wasn't watching, and neither of them made any move to get off. I lifted them down after they tripped the safety gate, then pointed to a distant spot across the hill where we would stop. Too bad they couldn't make it to that distant spot. Right at that moment, like a bad horror movie, I saw my boss incognito because it was his day off in a baseball cap, and before I could stop them, both my kids tried to go across the hill, but they were pulled DOWN the hill in a gravity riptide into a hole with a big pole sticking out of it inconveniently placed below the offloading ramp. Brady, the better stopper, managed to fall down with one of his skies halfway into the hole, as I'm screaming in slow motion to Mitchell to fall down, FALL DOWN MITCHELL! before I watch his little frame pick up speed, launch over the hole and literally wrap himself momentarily around the pole before I hear the thud of his helmet wacking into the cold metal, then he is a crumpled heap at the bottom of the hole. I almost fainted. I ran over, unclicked my skies, and touched his arm. "Are you alright, Mitchell?" I am on the point of hysterics. "Yes," came his muffled reply, since his face way half-hidden in his coat and halfway into the snow. When I had established that nothing hurt and I could lift him out without doing him any harm, I did so and sat with him in my lap.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yes, ma'am."

Grayland is a state of mind

When people think of beaches, they think warmth, bright colors and frothy comforting water. When I think of beaches, I think Grayland.
Grayland is more than a town, but it is at least a town on the Washington State coastline. Grayland is a state of mind. Unlike the destination beaches found on tropical islands, Grayland’s beach is not smooth white sand. It is gray and lumpy, textured like whale skin, rubbery to the touch and covered with silt. Its waters froth and tumble to the shore, but their bite is icy like a small nipping dog. When the sun shines in Grayland it is wan, like a tear-stained smile, watery and lacking vigor. Its moods are more than seasonal: they pass like the hours in quick succession and varying degrees of tempestuousness.
The Beach was a place for me. A single destination, devoid of brilliant colors and full of a color pallet of browns and greens and grays, muted, tired, allowing the ocean to suck their life away with the outgoing tide. It is a place I associate with salty air, permeated with the smell of decay, of mold, of moss. The trees clothe themselves in lichen coats to keep out the cold, the wind runs its icy nail down your spine and makes you shiver. The people here walk with the clouds on their shoulders like heavy burdens, smiling up from under them toward the sunshine that they never see. Their homes are chipping away with the wind, piece by piece, the paint flaking, the wood softening, the windows weeping rusty colors into trails to the ground.
Nevertheless, when I went back to The Beach two days ago, I felt like I had just rediscovered a part of myself that I wasn’t aware was missing. I kept rolling down the window just to smell the air, salt-covered and icy. The thudding waves drowned out my heartbeat and I felt like I no longer could feel myself as a single person. I stepped on the ballooned end of a seaweed just to hear it pop. Why is it that this cold unwelcome place holds such comfort for me? What is it about Grayland, about The Beach, that makes my skin crawl and my heart open up like a wave yawning toward shore, swallowing as much as possible before retreating, full to the brim?
I don’t know, but I hope I keep it.

Newsflash: Kids are People, too.

Temperature is relative. Some people are cold in 90-degree weather. Me? I used to get hot on 15-degree days. A ski instructing job in the Colorado Rockies will do that to you, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t tan in the winter, either, because despite the freezing temperatures and fantastic skiing conditions, I ended up with a lovely new semi-permanent make-up from my days on the slopes teaching children to ski. I had a tan line at my elbows from pushing up my fleece, another one at my wrists where my gloves stopped, one at each temple where my sunglasses sat, rosy cheeks around white eyes protected by afore-mentioned sunglasses, and a white forehead from my hat. However, in an effort to even out my new look (which, by the way, is much accepted in the mountains but doesn't get you dates anywhere else) I left the hat off. Although I wore sunblock, I was not exactly careful in its application and ended up with a burnt patch up near the right side of my hairline. To further increase my attractiveness, I made sure I didn't actually apply anything in the hairline, and consequently ended up peeling big chunks of skin in a white dust over whatever I was eating, writing or talking to any time I tried to get my hair out of my face. Yes, you have caught on: I am a regular heart breaker.
But this is nothing compared to my impaired mental state. You see, by the end of the season, (okay, halfway through it actually) I was sick of snow and wanted green grass and warmth. When spring came and I was sliding around over slush and dirt, I could not have been happier, which is a problem when you are a self-professed child-hater who once offered to tie a friend's child to a cinderblock so he could move about freely without actually touching anything. No, I swear that I have learned the error of my ways and become one of those sobbing, googling little-people eaters. Oops, I mean lovers, of course. Why, they say and do the darndest things! Here are a few of my favorite examples from throughout the season:

"Are those big bumps [moguls] fat people who fell down?"

"When do we get to ride the forklift?" (he meant the chairlift, of course, the little darling)

"I'm putting feces in the potty" (a three-year-old on a bathroom break)

"I love you" (within 30 seconds of meeting me)

"I'm peeing my pants."

And of course, there were my favorite little sayings that I gave back to these angels that I know they will remember forever:

"Stop moving. No. Stop. I said stop."

"Did I say you could go down there? Did I?!?!"

"So, when we get into position to ski, we bend our knees, lean against the front of our boots, bend slightly forward at the waist, and put our hands out in front of us to push the people that get in our way."

(When helping fit snowboard boots) "Do you know if you're goofy or regular? No? Do you play soccer or skateboard? No? Do you have a brother or sister? Yes? When you kick them, which foot do you use?"

"Can you be quiet while I'm talking please? Quiet! Now!"

"Well Bobby, I told you to go to the bathroom while we were inside. Now you'll have to pee in the woods. There's a tree."

"Fall down. Fall down before you hit someone! LOOK OUT DOWN THERE! FALL DOWN!"

"S@#$! Oops. Don't tell your mom I said that, okay?"

"Dustin, please stop picking your nose. It's grossing me out. No, stop it. Here, here's a kleen...that is disgusting. No, don't put that in your...Oh God."

For all of my efforts, my supervisor told me at the end of the season that he thought I was the best rookie we had. I was flattered. I was touched. I was glad he hadn't heard half the things I had said to the little cherubs.

And, looking forward to heading back to Fort Collins, which is very much out of the mountains and which had been experiencing 70+ degree days, I packed up my car and settled back into my house. I am now watching six inches of snow pile up outside my window. The snow gods have a great sense of humor.

"I really like you."

“I really like you,” he said.
Then he bit my hand.
Why was I annoyed? Perhaps because I didn’t feel that hand-biting was an appropriate form of expressing emotion. After all, we weren’t animals; we were civilized human beings with vocal chords and rapidly-firing synapses that gave us the ability to express ourselves with words instead of with our teeth.
Why was I annoyed? Was it really him, this sweet man, so naïve yet so well-versed, a student of music, poetry, the human condition, that made me want to jump out of my skin and run away? He brought me flowers, bought me dinner, stopped on every street corner to shower me with kisses, and constantly told me how beautiful I was. Could I really be so annoyed with him that I would be willing to end it?
When I told a friend that I had ended the budding relationship because I knew it wasn’t going to last, she told me I thought too much and just needed to go with the flow.
“But Tara, you can’t date everyone,” I exclaimed, and I believe it to be true.
There are many fish in the sea, and fishing is some people’s favorite pastime, but in all reality, you cannot possibly date everyone. If that were the case, people would be getting married constantly, finding their loved ones early in life, in the first person they dated. Why doesn’t that happen? Because something doesn’t work out: either your goals and expectations are different, or at least one person just isn’t feeling the same sort of connection.
Why would you want to? What could possibly be so great about having a lineup of people that you like and like you? What would you do to choose, if you refused to pick out what you didn’t like in any of them? How could you ever find one if you were stuck with many?
In the meantime, hand-biters beware. I can’t just go with the flow, and you aren’t on my acceptance list.


Last night I watched a woman take her last breath and die.

I had bet Bonnie once, and it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. She was only 57, a principal who had just started at a new school, a newly married son, her husband closing a deal at work that would have brought them money at home.

A month ago, Bonnie was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer whose carriers number less than 50 worldwide. It grew quickly on the hypatic artery that fed her liver, displacing her inner organs and causing her to lose her appetite. Her mother learned she was terminally ill two days before she died.

Bonnie was the older sister of my mother’s oldest friend; their house was her second home growing up. As we sat in the hospital room with Bonnie, slack-jawed and in a coma, her breath coming suddenly like someone gasping for air, my mother began to tell stories to Brenda, Bonnie’s sister.

“Bonnie saved me once. I spilled nail polish all over the carpet in one of the bedrooms, and she told you mom that she did it. Lucy was so mad.”

Over and over, again and again, little bits of information about this woman leaked into the room. She has a son working in L.A. for a billionaire. She did the yard work at their house, because her husband hated it. She cooks standing on one leg, the other foot resting comfortably on the inside of her knee. She wanted her ashes mixed with the ashes of her cat, Fred the Fat, whose frame had been so large when they got him that her 8-year-old son had to use both arms and carry him like a big stack of firewood.

These memories are what it came down to. Bonnie’s life had been full and she was loved. She had touched many lives as a principal, teacher, sister, mother and wife. In the end, though, what really touched me, sitting at her feet, was that her outreach had been small, infinitely small, and made monumental differences.

I had never watched someone’s last moments before. Bonnie’s breath slowly slackened, her color turned gray, her limbs grew cold, and slowly, slowly, she stopped breathing as regularly. When she stopped, I kept expecting to see her chest rise again, because it’s something you expect but don’t notice: breath. In. Out. In. Out. I realized that I had stopped seeing it, but kept believing it was there, like a mirage of life, a last defense mechanism against the inevitable.

I barely knew this woman, yet I cried the hardest when she died. I cried in fear of what was to come: for the other people whose deathbeds I would see, the friends I would lose too early, the relationships that would be taken away from me before I was ready, because you’re never ready. I cried at the thought that one day it would be me lying there, slowly drifting away, my loved ones wishing me the best but begging me not to go. I cried because I felt death cheats us all, because there is no escape. I cried because this is supposed to be normal, but death has never felt normal to me.

Then, inevitably, I couldn’t focus on death anymore. It is hardwired into our lives to want to live, to go on, to pretend that we will be young and vibrant forever. I didn’t want to fight my new focus, my new train of thought that washed over me like a cleansing wave. Death is to remind us what life is all about; what’s really important; what shouldn’t be taken for granted. I suddenly had a clear picture of what I wanted to accomplish before I came here, and realized that I was the only one in my way. I woke up the next morning not weighed down by Bonnie’s death, rather invigorated by her life.

Perhaps that is why the sun seems so much brighter today.

Hidden culture

Who says culture is something only found in cities? Who says that there is no such thing as American culture? Well, probably no one. However, sometimes you’re reminded of the down-home roots and how deep they reach at the most unexpected of times.
To find the true American culture, the one that knows no outside influence, that has not become enlightened through the years, the one that has embraced the vinyl covered booths and spinning stools of the 50’s and never looked back, you have to go deep into the middle of nowhere. Nowhere is a destination found without looking most of the time, and it’s found all over the country.
One such cultural epicenter is located 10 miles up a river valley in Central Washington. The town of Ardenvoir is one building called Cooper’s. Inside is a post office, a general store and a café. The floor is paved in old rusted license plates and the beer cooler is from the last century and may still need ice blocks in it to keep it cold. There are ashtrays with COOPERS stamped on them, cans of vegetables, extension cords, glass table decorations, signs that say “I’ve been in two wars. I’ve been married twice.” There’s a wall of Polaroid shots of hunters in camouflage, holding deer heads with no hides, no bodies, or blood soaking the fur around their throats.
The café has old-fashioned bar stools and a sloped floor, so you can lean against the wall as you eat the huge plate of cheap and greasy fare they set in front of you.
The woman that runs the café – waitress, cashier and cook – commutes up the valley in a monstrous truck with a grill to ward off the deer that try to bar her way. I asked her where she got the cups she served the coffee in, and she smiled. “Wal Mart.”
She’s exactly what she needs to be: gray long hair, laughing eyes, crooked teeth and a comforting motherly figure. She tells the locals how it is, and treats everyone the same. No one complains about the service, or the undercooked eggs, or the cheap plastic tablecloth, because that’s not what they came here for. This cultural oasis is where you come to meet your neighbors, talk of your pending divorce, and drink beer at 10 a.m. for a dollar a can out of the refrigerator with the “please do not serve yourself” sign.
If this isn’t culture, then what is?

Anticipation is the Lightest Emotion

Some emotions are painful to experience. They are deep, cutting, and the blood wells out of them and runs into your eyes. They are unrequited love, loss, jealousy, fear, rage. While part of you enjoys the vibrant chord they strike that reminds you of your existence, their presence needs only to touch once in awhile to burn a print into your soul, like a lit cigarette to the skin.
There are other emotions that touch lightly and flit effortlessly in and out of the light of your consciousness. They are daily happiness, companionship, ageless love, and anticipation.
To anticipate is to hold off for the moment of pleasure. It is to let hope guide you, thinking nothing of the process or the consequences. It is knowing that payoff may or may not happen, and thinking little of any other part of the equation.
Anticipation makes the climax greater. It makes the heart grow fonder, the night grow calmer, the birds sing louder. It is the building silence in the symphony, the bite of cold water on your toes before you take the plunge, the possibility of win or defeat in the last moments of tied game. Anticipation brings men and women together. It is what makes men ask women to dance, makes women smile across the room at strangers, makes friends cluster at the end of the bar watching their friend grin foolishly at a woman in the distance.
It is recognizing yourself in another’s eyes, and knowing your eyes reflect their light.
It says, “I see you. I want to know you, and I am willing to take a chance to see if my anticipation was well-founded.”
It responds, “I am worth waiting for, but don’t wait too long.”
Then anticipation smiles and makes way for the moment.

A first day to be proud of

A first day to be proud of
I had three days of training for ski instructing, then I was supposed to have an afternoon orientation session on harassment and being an employee for a BIG corporation. I took a clinic in the morning before the hill opened on how to show people why balance is important, but pretty much this just means that we talked about balance and skied our butts off on an empty hill as the sun came up. Then it started snowing, with all the flakes glittering in the still present sunlight, and I thought I had gone to heaven. Well, that must be what the entrance to hell is supposed to do to you: lull you into a nice cozy secure place before unleashing the demons. And the demons, in case no one knew it, are about eight years old.
I finished my clinic and was contemplating what to do until my afternoon session when the instructor said, "can you just go up to the green room for me?" This is bad. The green and blue rooms are where the 3-6 year-olds meet before their lessons, where you fit them with little ski boots and helmets. After running around chasing kids with boots and dropping to my knees to help them about 50 times (45 minutes) I was then approached by the same instructor, who asked me to go outside, where I would get a class to teach. TEACH? I shadowed the day before, and I thought I would start the next day. Nope. I got a passel of midgets and tried to teach them how to manuever two sticks across slippery white stuff most of them had never seen before without killing themselves, eachother, or me. In 10 minutes I was sweating profusely, and these are 5-hour lessons. Let me just highlight:
"NNOOOOOO!!! I don't WANT to put my goggles on!"
"HEEEELLLLPPPP!" I can't move forward!"
"Look! I can run into people without any help!"
"I can't stop!"
"AAAHHHH! I'm doing the splits and I can't get up!"
"OOOOWWWWWW!! My ankle/wrist/head/soul/psyche!"
And here's what I was saying most of the time:
"Are you guys listening to me?"
"Lean back so you don't fall off the chair!"
"Duck! The chair's going to hit you!"
"Turn, Deidra! TURN!"
"Wait for me!"
"No fighting!"
So there you have it. I am a natural at instructing kids. Just try not to bring me yours.