Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Voting with the Stars

It's an odd election year. Maybe you didn't even know it was an election year.

Omaha is odd anyway. We vote for our mayor during odd numbered years when everyone else's yards are free from bright red and blue yard signs, thick as spring dandelions. But this year offers a stark choice among the two mayoral candidates: one a meeting-lover, one a pile-driver.

Statistically, it's a tight race. Five percent of voters strongly favor one candidate or the other, twenty percent are undecided, and seventy five percent don't know there's an election.

It boils down to this. One candidate doesn't care what you think; he already knows what he wants to do. The other candidate needs to call a meeting to find out what he thinks. How do you choose from that?

Let the stars decide. Look up your astrological sign below, and let fate take its course.

Aries: You are bright, dynamic, quick-witted and impatient. You will vote early, and choose the first person on the list, just to get it over with.

Taurus: You are determined, efficient, stubborn, and conservative. You will be on your hands and knees pulling weeds in your yard when you realize you forgot to vote.

Gemini: You are lively, social, literary and communicative. You will read all of Hal Daub's treatises and attend all of Jim Suttle's neighborhood chats. Then you will flip a coin.

Cancer: You are emotional, sensitive, moody and conscientious. Voting is important to you, and you will be on your way to the booth when someone invites you to a party. Fuck it—you can't pass up a party invitation.

Leo: You are extroverted, dignified, proud, a lover of the limelight. You don't care about this race because you are not running for mayor.

Virgo: Practical, responsible, a careful planner and a dedicated perfectionist. You can't vote because you're a volunteer poll worker.

Libra: You are idealistic, diplomatic, fair-minded, and indecisive. You'd rather not have to choose, because you don't want to make the other candidate feel like a loser.

Scorpio: Intense, powerful, strongwilled, and enduring. You won't vote for Hal Daub because he pissed you off fifteen years ago and you haven't forgotten about it. Suttle's out because you think he's a pussy and you hate pussies. You'll write in the name of one of your friends.

Sagittarius: You are idealistic, optimistic, freedom-loving and gregarious. It's only the mayoral race—how much harm can he do? You skip voting in favor of a bike ride in the sun.

Capricorn: You are ambitious, disciplined, thrifty, and responsible. I wish you were running. Vote for yourself.

Aquarius: You are individualistic, unconventional, independent, and unpredictable. Like I'm supposed to figure out who you'll vote for?

Pisces: You are supersensitive, impressionable, sympathetic, and intuitive. Daub is good because, like, he has all that experience, but he also made a lot of enemies when he was mayor before, y'know? Suttle gets along pretty well with everybody, but that's only because he tries so hard to please everybody and doesn't really take a stand of his own. But really, that can be a good thing too, you know, because listening is important, and it's  best to have a consensus, but dude, sooner or later a guy has to take a stand and pick a side, you know?, and you can't just gather opinions all day, and so maybe…what's that? The poll closed?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Mice and Me

Through my high school years I did laundry at a motel. Every day I washed every sheet from every bed. I was a fast folder, and my reward was to have a few minutes between each load to do absolutely nothing but watch the huge drums of the gas dryers twirl. It was all the entertainment my 16-year-old brain needed.

Around sunset, when all the maids, maintenance men and managers had gone, I had the place to myself—sort of. There was a big hole in the wall that had once been a window, now just a portal between my laundry room and the recently added garage. The windowsill was now a viewing platform for the motel mice. Three or four would come out of the wall each evening and rest their pointy chins on their rice-thin forearms, their tiny black eyes, small and dark as poppy seeds, watching me work. For them it was happy hour, before they moved on to their jobs.

I was glad for the company. They didn’t judge my work and wouldn’t interrupt as I told them stories of my day. I didn’t try to approach them. When I was finished for the day I would look up to say goodbye, but always they were already gone.

They worked hard through the night. Every morning the manager came in, ranting about the “infestation.” He would enlist me to help brainstorm on trap design and placement. I love gadgets, so I greatly enjoyed devising clever systems to entrap the greedy, and imagining irresistible places to lay traps. More so I enjoyed making the rounds after the manager left, tripping all the trap triggers, leaving the cheese or peanut butter booty for my mini-uns.

My affection for mice sparked when I was thirteen. The pet store had a sale on mice: one for a dollar. I had a dollar. I asked my mother if I could have a mouse, that I’d pay for it myself and feed it and care for it and . . .”

“No.”

I bought one anyway. I named him Henry as I carried him home, hidden in a little box in my coat. I slunk up to my room and dropped him into my empty wastebasket, a metal cylinder brightly painted to imitate a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can.

Immediately the mouse began leaping to unimaginable heights, and I slammed a book over the can to contain him. The book didn’t quite cover the hole, so I flipped the can over. It worked until nightfall, when the mouse began leaping again, now smashing his tiny head into the bottom—now top—of the can, which bonked like a tin drum. Mortified that my mother would hear, I put the book back on top, and a blanket over that to muffle the noise. By morning Henry the mouse was quiet again, dead of a broken neck.

I never felt worse about myself than I did then, selfish and dishonest and cruel. I feel that again now in the recollecting. Since then I have viewed mice with an affection and tenderness born of my guilt, as if Henry had been a little mouse Jesus, whose death saved the lives of many mice after him whose sins have been forgiven.

The closest I came to having another mouse was in college. I took a class in Expermental Psychology, which trained students in the scientific method by having us teach a rat to press a lever. We were issued a lever, a chart, and a rat.

It was a Charles River rat. They are not so named because they thrive along the Charles River, but because they come from the Charles River Rat Factory, a business that supplies rats which are specifically prepared—or more accurately, specifically unprepared—for experiments. They are pure, white as innocence, with eyes red as candy. Once each rat has been used for a single experiment, he cannot be used for another because, having learned how to learn, he is now tainted, no longer a blank slate. I didn’t ask, but I presume they were recycled to Biology 101.

As I worked with my rat, whose cage was in the middle of all the other neat columns of stacked rats, I daydreamed of setting them all free. But I too was tainted, and resigned that it wouldn’t change anything. I got an A.

Every morning my motel manager would wander into the laundry room, whistling or perhaps singing outright, his lovely tenor voice a gift to man and bird. He was a deeply spiritual person, young and full of sunny optimism. At the sight of the flipped, empty traps he would stop mid-“hallelu . . .” and go silent. A Yosemite Sam fury invaded him.

His religion didn’t allow dancing, much less cursing. He didn’t believe it was okay to substitute a safe word for swear word, like “Jeepers Bucking Cripes.” Stomping and flailing were dangerously close to dancing, so he was rendered inanimate but for his bulging veins and quivering pupils.

It was a motel after all, and we had serious cleaning gear, so it wouldn’t have been an insurmountable mess if his head burst, but I would step back anyway. The quietest quiet falls when you are expecting an explosion and don’t get it.

To this day he doesn’t know of my complicity in the debacle, and he never will. He died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-three, an otherwise lucky number. He was a motocross racer, and his bike had come apart. There were rumors of tampering, but I kept quiet, knowing only that he stored his motorcycle in the new garage next to my laundry room.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pet Peeve

I grew up with a little black dog. I don’t know what kind she was, and I don’t care. She wasn’t my dog—she was in the house before I was, and she always looked at me as if to say, “Who let you in?”

Her name was Eenie, as in “Meenie Minie Moe,” which were the names of the rest of the litter, plus a runt named Charlie. It was the only charming thing about her.

She was old. Her fur was stiff and wiry, not soft to touch, as if she would let you touch her anyway. She growled and snapped at me. When I learned that you could call female dogs “bitches” and not get grounded, I used the term at every opportunity.

As happens with most pets when you are small, one day she was gone. No fuss, no explanation. My four older brothers and sisters did not keep me apprised of every family event—maybe they were crushed and I didn’t notice that either—but I suspect that she was sent to live “at a farm.” But I was too embarrassed to ask, because I didn’t know how much time had passed before I noticed she was missing.

The first thing I did, though, was beg for a puppy. Every day for years I supplicated, regular as a morning yawn. Once my dad brought home guppy and said it was mine. Was that word play? It was one of those ugly black ones with spherical bug eyes on either side of its head. He put it in our big aquarium with the other guppies. “You can feed it,” he offered.

“Can I walk it?” I replied.

He just walked away, thinking I was the weird one.

You can’t hug a goldfish. You can’t hug a turtle or a snake—no, boa hugs don’t count.

A few years later—I might have been twelve years old—I was sitting in the bathtub, quietly crying to myself. Looking down at my pale belly, bulging out from a big dinner, I was afraid I would grow up to be fat. (Wasted tears: two years later I was 6 feet 2 inches tall and 125 pounds.) The door to the bathroom creaked open, and I shrieked, “I’m in here!” We were not one of those families who walked around naked in front of each other. Indeed I hadn’t seen anything between my mother’s chin and knees since I was breastfed. But the door opened farther, and in horror I bleated again.

A three month old labrador puppy sniffed his way in.

My dad said the pup belonged to the whole family, but I named Howard and he was mine. I immediately began training him, walking him, feeding him, sleeping with him. Three months later he was dead, run over by a car while I was at school.

I was a very controlled kid. Besides when I was little, I can only remember two times when I sat on my bed and just cried. The other was when Nancy Patsios broke up with me in junior high, even though we hadn’t actually dated.

After a few years, I began asking for another dog, but it was half-hearted. Two weeks after I left the house for college, dad brought home a stray mutt. She needed a lot of care and attention. They had to clean up after her and listen to her bark about random things.

It was then that I realized who the household pet had been all those years.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

We Deliver

I was married once. It was a long time ago. We got pregnant 18 months later. I don’t goof around.

The hospital where we were scheduled to deliver made us take a childbirth class. There were four sessions, one per week, with six other couples of the usual variety: some who want you to think they know everything, some who ask relentless questions and don’t listen to answers, and some, like us, who sit silent and saucer-eyed, minds spinning as if they were just informed their father was David Crosby. If you don’t take the childbirth class, I guess the baby just stays in there forever.

The first class was about feeding and bottles and how to hold a newborn so his head doesn’t fall off. I wondered how babies survived before school was invented. I don’t remember what the second class was about because the Q&A couple wouldn’t shut up long enough for the teacher to get a theme going.

“We’re going to watch a film,” the teacher announced at the third class. Mrs. Q&A started to ask whether it was video or Super-8 as the teacher pressed on: “…all about Cesearean sections.” That shut her up, her hollow mouth still open.

I froze. “They’re going to train me to go in after the baby?” I envisioned myself like Little Jack Horner, only instead of sticking in my thumb, it would be my whole hand, and instead of a pie, it would be a lasagne. Instead of pulling out a plum, it would be my daughter.

Back then, if you had a C-section, you had to deliver that way forevermore. I wondered why they bothered to stitch women back up, just to open them again later. Why not install a little door? Women like Octo-Mom could harvest babies like eggs from a hen. You could decorate the door with a little wreath, maybe tattoo some daisies around the entrance. You already have a little shrubbery.

They don’t because women wouldn’t leave the door shut. Every woman I know, but one, wants me to understand what she’s really like on the inside. If she could just show me, she would.

All these thoughts raced through my head in one second, and the dizzy swirl popped like a soap bubble when the movie started. I learned that once a C-section begins, the father has no job whatsoever. He doesn’t get to say, “Breeeaaathe,” because a machine took over that job. He doesn’t even get to coach, “Push, honey,” because to push at that point is like squeezing a pumpkin seed.

There’s no need to tell you more about the movie. You pretty much know what happens, if you saw Aliens. I don’t know why they made us watch it except to make regular childbirth, which is the equivalent of passing a football-sized kidney stone, look like fun in comparison.

Contractions started three weeks early. In the delivery room the doctor said flatly, “Congratulations. You’re having twins.” He left. That wasn’t in the class.

Right after delivery, I ran into our birth teacher in the elevator. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I could barely form sentences. I tried to explain that since we had just delivered twins we wouldn’t be attending that night’s class covering normal childbirth.

“How big were they?” she asked.

“Fifteen and sixteen pounds.”

She fainted, right there in the elevator. “What are you fainting for?” I thought. “You’re the one who presents horror films for a living, and I’m the one who just touched two bloody, waxy fetuses for the first time.”

No, wait, I remember now—they were five and six pounds. I don’t know whether that’s good or not. They probably covered that in class.