Saturday, May 24, 2008

That'll be the day

My father had always been...not a hypochondriac, exactly, but something of a fabulist--given to embellishment, in things medical and otherwise. Oh, he was always having something stitched up or snipped off or blasted with lasers, in the last decade or so; he weathered dramatic and vaguely suspect injuries, and their equally spectacular remedies, with vividly described aplomb. For years, I'd been wanting to say You pulled what doing what, now? and Put the doctor on, I want to talk to him. So when the fire department chaplain called Tuesday evening, I was very slow to catch on. He said things like, We found your father in his shop, and collapse, and finally that he was sorry, we didn't get there in time. And I, I said mostly Yes? and Oh? and Yes? and I was waiting, honestly, waiting for final instructions--what hospital was he at? was I supposed to go pick him up?

Oh, I said, again, at last. Oh.

* * * * *
I posted the obituary notices to four papers this afternoon, the gentle facts, the list of survivors. I'm writing this one for me.
* * * * *
I was not an accident. My parents had been married for three years, though they were still ridiculously young. This is the first picture I could find, of me with my dad, of all of us together. I am two weeks old; he is 25, my mother 22.

I look at this picture and think, here are three babies. All of us look apprehensive. A month later, we are marginally more confident, but still, this? is the face of a man who doesn't much know what the hell he is doing.

Though, also, maybe he's just woken up.

* * * * *

As far back as I can remember, the common thread between me and my father was music. When I was still in footy pajamas, he'd play his guitar and sing me to me, mostly Johnny Cash. Not necessarily the best toddler lullabies, those prison laments and hard-drinking tales, but the one I remember specifically is "Ballad of a Teenage Queen."

There's a story in our town,

'bout the prettiest girl around,

Hair of gold and eyes of blue,

and what those eyes could do to you.

He worked my name into the lyrics, coupled it somewhere with a rhyme for Kimberly. Even at three, I was aware that I was neither blonde nor blue-eyed, and was a little bothered by it. At any rate, I didn't remember anything past this verse. When, 30 years later, I bought a giant CD compendium of early Johnny Cash, I played that one with dread. Didn't all his songs end up with someone on the wrong end of a gun barrel or a blade? But no! After a spin through the Hollywood machine, the Teenage Queen shrugs off the trappings of fame and goes home. She marries the boy next door! From the candy store! "It has a happy ending!" I laughed to my dad over the phone, in goofy disbelief.

I can still be made a fool of, by a good-looking man with an acoustic guitar. When we were very little, riding around in Dad's truck, he'd sing doo-wop and make me and Sis sing backup. Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel. I remember him telling me about discovering Buddy Holly, that early, gritchy rock-and-roll rhythm seeping out of the radio and into his rural Snohomish childhood, the thrill and the shock of tuning that in. The year he got the Compleat Beatles Songbook for Christmas, all the tablature, we spent two days poring over it and singing ourselves hoarse, while Sis rolled her eyes in the background and probably secretly longed to drown us out with her Madonna albums.

In the last decade, Dad developed a consuming obsession with folk and bluegrass music. He went to festivals, he played at community events and little local bars, jammed with strangers and with a regular group. He sent me a variety of banjo-player jokes he found on the Internet, and made me several mix CDs of the roots music he most loved. Here is a confession: I sang along with some of these in the car, the high harmonies, training myself for that hillbilly wailing. My dumb secret fantasy was that, at some point, I'd join him and his band, somewhere public, sing on stage with my father, surprise and impress him with how I could belt it out. House of Gold. Angel Band. Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings.

The last time he came to stay with me, when I bought my house, he brought his guitar...but he wouldn't play a full song for me, just bits and snatches, fiddling around, faltering. He seemed embarrassed, suddenly, to perform for just me, adult me. He sang me part of one he'd written, trailing off after the chorus, and I couldn't prod him into continuing. Sis says that on his most recent visit with her, he brought the guitar, too, but it made the dog howl.

I was making him a mix CD myself, for Father's Day. I wanted to introduce him to The Knitters, throw in a little Lyle Lovett swing.

He didn't have a will, of course, or any kind of plan at all for this eventuality. Goddamn it, Dad, I have said, more than once, this week. "I know you get the guitar," my stepmother said, apropos of nothing, Wednesday. He'd alluded to this, for years, but of course neither of us actually expected it to happen. When I was very little, actually, a toddler, I wasn't allowed to touch the guitar--though I did, when he wasn't home to see it. I don't remember ever getting caught. I am longing for it now, I am desperate to have it, and I am frankly terrified to go down there and actually have to take it into my own hands.

* * * * *

Dad and my stepmom left Seattle for La Center in 1982, trying to recapture something of his rural childhood, I think, in that then-tiny podunk farm town. From what I know, that childhood was rather shitty, so I don't know what he might have been looking for. At any rate, he tore down and rebuilt their rotting farmhouse one wall at a time, though he was never quite satisfied over the years, always tinkering: nah, I don't like the deck over here, and he'd rip it off and add a skylight, extend the porch instead, move the bathtub to a different wall.

This might be as good an opportunity as any to admit that I find Jason Lee's incarnation on My Name is Earl weirdly compelling and even attractive, in a way that I am really NOT entirely comfortable with. Go figure.

We grew a lot further apart, with the physical distance and my own adolescence. For years he coached girls' softball there; we'd play with some of those kids on our summer visits. He quit abruptly when Sis turned 18, and I asked him why. He said something like, "Oh, I only did it to know what girls your age were thinking and doing, you know? To be tuned in to what you guys thought was cool." I heard this and thought awwww, he was doing it to be closer to us! How sweet! It was a couple of years--YEARS--before I realized, hey--if you wanted to know what we were thinking, you could have picked up THE PHONE, maybe.

I find this next picture devastating and hilarious both: the visible disconnect. We're at a figure skating competition--so I guess, technically, he was attempting to pay attention to what I was interested in. But I am fifteen, and I am trying so hard to be Fancy, and he is so, so...not.

And oh my GOD, people could SEE him, in PUBLIC. I was mortified, then. I am sorry, now. I am angry, still, a little.

* * * * *
We had a very bitter and cathartic fight, once, on a terrible visit that included a trip to Reno, The Saddest Little City In the World. (Oh my God, he loved the slots, loved the blinky lights and pretty girls, loved to stand over my shoulder and say oh, so close, two lemons and a cherry! just think, if only it had been THREE lemons! wouldn't that be amazing! and I could never convince him that THIS IS THE WAY THIS WHOLE TOWN WORKS, IT IS NEVER NEVER THREE FUCKING LEMONS.) He accused me of not respecting him, of not taking his advice, financial and otherwise; I maintained that he'd moved away, neglected us as kids, that he had his wife waiting on him hand and foot, that no one else was entitled to so much as the fucking remote, let alone an opinion.

"When you're an adult, you'll understand some things," he shouted.

"Well, I'm 27 years old, Dad; when do you think that'll be?" I snapped. I left in a fury, drove home at speeds surely not legal in any state, hurled the ridiculous, immense takeout cinnamon roll he'd pressed on me into the dumpster behind my apartment building. I fantasized about his funeral. I knew what song I would play, bitter, snotty, triumphant. Buddy Holly. You say you're gonna leave me, you know that's a lie. Wait. Which one of us was speaking, through that song?

And for a long time, we didn't speak. But when we did, at last, things were different. I don't know how to explain it except that we saw each other clearly, in complete. I was an adult, and he'd finally noticed; I, too, had realized that he was who he was. Often, that person was a 6'2" ten-year-old...but he was entirely himself, always had been. And in figuring that out, we achieved a kind of peace with each other.

* * * * *

He was, truly, an enormous kid. He owned an electronic Fart Machine, which he would tote to bluegrass festivals and deploy around the campfire. He laughed so hard at the pie-eating contest/vomit scene in Stand By Me that he gave himself a nosebleed and we had to stop the tape. He built marvelous Lincoln-Log fortresses on the living room floor, and then would stand across the room lobbing the smaller logs into them like shells, making the long whistle, the explosion noises, destroying his creations while we hollered at him to stop knocking them back down. The Fourth of July was his favorite holiday; he loved nothing more than blowing shit up all over the driveway, and somehow he left this earth with all ten fingers still. When his diabetes could no longer be controlled by diet and he had to start taking insulin, the first time he gave himself an injection in my presence he retreated to the bathroom to do so...but then he ran back out into the den, shirt hiked up to show the needle still buried in his belly, syringe dangling from his flesh, yelling GAAAAHHHH! Going for the gross-out. Here he is, sporting the Dr. Bucks fake snaggleteeth he happily wore to the weekend farmers' and artists' market. I love how hard Sis is laughing, trying not to wet her pants.

* * * * *

When we were really little, he'd do this one thing, all the damn time: he loved hide and seek. We'd be goofing around on some construction site he was working, the skeleton of a new house--safe, Dad! Nice!--or walking idly through enormous, woody Lincoln Park, in West Seattle...and Dad would edge behind us, and then just...step off the trail. Slink into the bushes and see how long it would take for us to notice. Suddenly, he'd just be...gone. There Sis and I would be, two dummies, Hansel and Gretel, clutching at each other and looking around, increasingly nervous, jumping at every twig snap and bird tweet. He'd lob tiny pebbles at us from his hiding place, bink! on the shoulder or head. Or, eventually, he'd get to laughing, and that would finally give him away.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Birds all sing as if they knew

Last night, I approached the season finale of The Office with the same giddy anticipation as the rest of you: OMG was Jim gonna propose to Pam?!? I mean, I'd started screaming a tiny bit in my living room when he showed off the ring, like, a month ago. Wheeee! I watched breathless to see it unfold; I winced when poor Andy, heaven help him, stepped all over the moment and popped the question to frosty, mortified Angela instead; I shuddered and giggled in equal measure when she said "...Okay." (And I gasped and cringed and giggled some more at the final twist, Angela breaking her marriage vows before she'd even taken them. Poor, poooooor deluded Andy! But also thank God, and also BOY are things going to be tense on the Party Planning Committee going forward.)

But then, this morning, I was watching a few moments of the Today show before darting off to the gym. And on the steps of the California State Supreme Court, people gasped and cheered and screamed for joy, and a small salt-and-pepper-haired woman shouted into her cell phone: "Honey, will you marry me?" And that, that was the proposal that made me burst into tears, this week. "She's crying," the woman said, grinning, holding the phone out at the camera. Me too, lady, me too. Congratulations, to California and to everyone now allowed to marry whoever they damn well please, whoever they love. Two states down, 48 to go.

Also if there are any Jim Halpert-esque boys out there who would like to propose to me, please yell a little louder; I haven't spotted you yet.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Twice a week, after yoga class, I try to indulge myself--and temper my anxiety a bit more--by spending at least a few minutes relaxing in the hot tub at Fancy Gym. I do find myself constantly wanting to refer to it like Will Ferrell's creepy professor character from SNL: hotTUB, with the accent on the second syllable. Remember? He'd be in the hotTUB, propositioning everyone to be his lovah and then, like, eating an entire roast chicken like it was the thirteenth century. (I also often refer to my book club in this manner, in my head. BookCLUB.)

The palatial women's locker room at Fancy Gym has three gigantic tiled spas side by side in a restful lounge area, complete with a gently murmuring fountain that trickles over some vaguely classical-looking-type stone pillars. It's a little Vega$ in there. Because the locker room is ladies only, the hotTUBs are clothing-optional, and we're all pretty much politely discreet with our gazes. That said, the first time I got into the whirlpool sans culotte I was damn surprised: I'm a curvy girl, and it turns out that, unfettered by a spandex suit, I am...very buoyant. Some parts of me in particular are really REALLY buoyant, and bobbled away so furiously right beneath the surface that I sort of wished I had a buddy, to point this out to. It was seriously a little amazing, this demonstration of physics that I hadn't previously been witness to. Too much information? Probably. Well, what is this Internet for, I ask you.

Anyway. Tonight, I confess, I may have rudely--if surreptitiously--stared at the woman across from me, in spite of myself. I was distracted, first, by what she was wearing: a very nice watch, on one wrist. Luckily, she was very successfully keeping that hand up out of the roiling waters...probably because that was the same hand she was using to hold her Blackberry. She had it propped up on a little towel on the lip of the spa, and sat turned awkwardly sideways on the bench seat, scrolling through what seemed to be a lengthy text document.

My first thought was only that I would not court disaster, would not openly taunt fate in such a manner. I am convinced that, were I to attempt so unwise a maneuver, not only would I fumble the little bugger right in the drink with an ironic plunk! of tragedy, but then would probably sustain a head injury diving frantically after it, and drown right there in the Fancy Gym hot tub, naked and humiliated and still bereft of my ruined electronics. (Though, considering my earlier discovery, I would probably rise quite quickly back to the surface and maybe be rescued.)

But the more I thought about this woman, the sadder I felt. Was she...working, in there? Because it's a hot tub. This is the closest thing you can get, really, to a ten-minute, Thursday-night vacation; you are not supposed to do anything but sit there limply, getting the thoughts gently boiled right out of your head. I suppose I should be grateful that she did not have a Bluetooth headset on, was not sitting there trading stocks in so vulnerable a state. But really, it couldn't have waited? I hope for her sake it was a long goofy e-mail from a friend, or a fun blog post (ha), or some erotic West Wing fan fiction--anything mindless and fluffy and not, like, a market-saturation analysis of FY08 Q4, or what have you.

She was still in there, steaming and scrolling, when I climbed out and made my drippy footprint-trail away to the dressing area, feeling rather sorry for us both somehow.