Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Karen Kamon went out with the 80s

I have been fairly lonely lately: ready for a new boyfriend. It's an itchy feeling. But, I must be growing up because I'm not willing to go out on a man hunt. If I am wise, it is because I have read a lot of books and experienced some heartbreak. That small amount of wisdom that I have tells me that a man hunt will only find me someone who is easily flushed out of the bushes when loud noises are made. Those guys can run pretty quickly and I'm not very fast. I'm taking bets that the right guy for me will be a little like my pug, Retha. She was so fast that I would have to run not to catch her, but simply to keep her in sight until she got bored of running. When that happened, I would lie down on the grass and pretend like I wasn't looking at her and be totally interested in some stick. She would get curious about what I was doing and sometimes I could catch her before she realized that the stick was just a stick.

Now, I know that sounds like I'm willing to trick a man into coming home with me. However, that is not what I mean to communicate with the story about my puppy. I think probably that I have to actually be totally interested in some stick. To borrow (and change) from Dr. Phil, I have to add a relationship to a life, not a life to whatever relationship I have. So, I have to have a life, first. I'm working on that now.

All this is to say that when I was at a bar for a friend's 30th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, dressed up to go dancing with her and talking with a couple of cuddly-looking firefighters, I felt very comfortable concluding the conversation and walking away once they had teased me about using such a big word as "acuity." Those jokes always arise from insecurity. I've already been dumped by a doctor for being too smart. I don't even need to start out on that path toward hurt with a total stranger. That kind of guy is too easily startled and should only be bagged in a man hunt, which is, again, something I'm unwilling to do anymore.

What kind of girl uses the word, "acuity" while wearing a push-up bra and hot jeans in a bar, anyway?

That's right, me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

My job puts me in an awkward position sometimes. It is my responsibility to decide how product that has been donated to my organization will be redistributed to non-profits and churches in the inner city. Sometimes, this means that I have to make judgment calls about how things like shampoo, clothing, school supplies and toys will best be put to use. As a young, white woman, I have a very thin line to walk between due diligence and paternalism. On the one hand, I am educated and passionate about the theories of responsible charity and community development. On the other hand, my education and passion can easily lull me into believing that my opinion is right, which can quickly lead to acting like I’m the Great White Hope. It is easy to think that because I am literate and articulate, then I know more than the people from these hurting neighborhoods. In reality, I don’t know more; I know different things. For instance, they are geniuses of relationships and community. Life on the west side has taught them to know everyone in their neighborhood, what special needs and resources those people possess and to what level they can take the relationship. I think we’ve established pretty definitively that I’m terrible at all of that. The best I can say is that I try to interact with all types of people not just those that are like me, but the most I can usually manage is to stumble along, stepping on toes and having to apologize a lot. The ironic bit about this is that good relationships are what will change the world. I can know all the theories about what works to rebuild communities, but if I do not have a real relationship with the people that live in those communities, my theories will never get implemented. So, really, in terms of what is essential to fixing the problems of poverty, they know more than I do. My role is just an after-thought about efficiency.

But, because of my studies and my experiences, I’m becoming resolute in my opinion that simply offering up stuff for people to come and take home with them is actually making the problem worse. It’s the old give-a-man-a-fish-vs-teach-a-man-to-fish dilemma. It’s better to teach a man to fish because then he can support himself when something happens to the fish-giver. In fact, if you keep giving fish when you could be teaching fish, generations of people grow up not even realizing that fish come from water. Also, the people begin to identify themselves as Receivers rather than Fishers. A guy named Jayakumar Christian calls this a “marred self-identity” and it is actually worse than any situation except literal starvation.

But what do you do when you have a warehouse full of fish that have already been caught?

I can’t let them rot, so I try to give my fish (remember, Dad, I’m actually talking about shampoo, clothes, school supplies and toys) to organizations that are using those fish as incentives to bring starving people in the doors in order to teach them how to fish for themselves next time. This doesn’t account for all the fish that I have and, of course, it’s not that simple, but it is the criteria that I try to keep at the top of the list when determining who gets what.

In August, everyone wants backpacks for their back-to-school BBQs. Most of my community partners have a big party and pass out flyers and any kid that shows up gets a backpack, whether she really needs one or not. Giving the kid a fish, as it were. I’m not a big fan of this practice for the reasons that I stated above. So this year, I decided to give the backpacks that I had to the schools that fell in a one-mile radius of our facility. I figured that the schools would know which kids were actually starving because the schools would know which kids showed up on the first day of school without a backpack. However, since it had been the practice of my predecessor to give a few backpacks to every community partner who asked for them, I had to face some angry people who felt like they had been cut off unfairly.

In retrospect, I could have done that better. I could have sent out a letter explaining to my partners about my choice and providing alternate resources to purchase backpacks at reduced prices, which I see as the equivalent of teaching them to fish for backpacks themselves. Then, people wouldn’t feel so pole-axed. Like I said, I’m not so good with the relationships. But I’ll do better next year.

One of the worst interactions that I had was with a tiny African American woman who pastors a church just down the street. Her head reaches its pinnacle at my shoulders and she is slight of frame, but with the nobility that only poor, Black women in their fifties have earned the right to carry. She came to me on August 25th and started our conversation with, “I’m down on my knees begging you for my kids.” This, of course, brings to the surface every discomfort and fear that I have of becoming the Great White Hope. This fear often manifests itself as anger that someone would think that I would be so crass as to make my decisions about who gets what based on who toadied up to me the most. Don’t they know how much I agonize about being fair?!?! Of course, they don’t really think that about me and, if they did, they don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. It’s just how the world works in an under-resourced community. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and all that.

Because I knew in my head that women like the one in front of me are actually smarter than me when it comes to changing the world, I tried to tamp down the indignance of my heart and said as kindly as I could manage, "Please don't beg, Linda. I don't want to be the cause of your loss of dignity." She said that no indignity was too great if it will help her kids. I told her that I didn't have any more backpacks and explained to her about giving them to the schools this year. At this point, she was visibly upset. If I had brought James Brown himself in to sing, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door. I'll get it myself," she wouldn't have seen him because probably all she could see was these children that she loved starting school with empty hands. She looked up at me somewhat fiercely and told me, "Something about that doesn't feel right." She repeated herself when I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say. Finally, though, I asked her if she could explain why it wasn't right. I tried to be as open and honestly interested in my demeanor as I could. I don't know how well I succeeded. I was saying, "I'd like to know because I'm changing the program in the next couple of months and your input would be valuable." By the time I got to the end of that awkward sentence, she had already turned her back on me and walked away.

In October, when we did our regular monthly distribution of stuff, I was working on paperwork and at meetings all day while my colleague met folks at the door and helped them load up their cars. At the end of the day, I asked him how things had gone and because he is a good person, he told me everything had been fine. I pushed a little and he admitted that one person had complained that she didn't get enough. I asked, "Was it Linda?" because he rarely wants to even imply that someone is less than reaonable in their behavior. I named her so he wouldn't have to. He laughed and agreed that it was.

Friday, Linda rang the bell to pick up her Christmas toys early in the morning. We have a visual intercom, so I clicked in on and asked, "Can I help you?" because people either stand VERY close to the camera or move out of its range very quickly after ringing the bell and so I can't tell who is out there. Linda is one of the latter, apparently, "It's Linda, Rebecca!" she called from a distance. "OK, someone will be with you in just a minute!" I yelled back into the intecom. This is what I always say because I manage the administrative side of my program and my colleague manages all of the physical warehousing for the program. After I greet someone through the intercom, I page him and he actually meets them at the dock door and gives them their stuff. I heaved a sigh of relief, thinking how great it was that I could hide in my office and let him - who is so much nicer than me - deal with her this time.

Of course, if one has spent any time at all with Jesus, the moment one heaves that sigh of selfish relief, one realizes that one's actions have begged the question, "What would Jesus do?" The answer is never, "Hide in your office!" Also, if one has spent any time at all with my father, when encountering a broken relationship one is hit with the internal question, "What would El Gordo do?" He would make a deliberate point to go out and be very glad to see Linda, so that she would know that he had no hard feelings. He wouldn't let her assume that no news was good news. Because he knows that people always assume the worst if they aren't told differently.

So, after this double whammy of better judgement, I went out and was very glad to see Linda. I wished her Merry Christmas and told her it was good to see her. Instead of the icy dissatisfaction that I expected from her, she hugged me warmly and asked how I was doing. I felt very successful and comfortable as we made our way through chit-chat that things were going to be just fine. Like the British, we would let social niceties smooth over the rough spot in our history. We could pretend like it never happened.

But African American women from the ghetto who have made it to their mid-fifties don't earn that regal bearing by playing along with the convenient lies of small talk. Linda turned to me and then turned me to face her, grabbing my upper arms with both hands. She said, "Do you remember the last time we talked when you told me not to beg?" I immediately thought that she was going to yell at me aain and so I hedged a little, "I remember when I asked you not to give up your dignity." Instead, she said, "Well, I've been thinking about that and I'm not going to do it anymore."

I was stunned. She kept talking about really examining her behavior and how hard it is to be honest with ourselves. She said that from now on, she was just going to ask me what I have and be grateful for what she gets. I couldn't do much more than restate her words in my own, like a paraphrasing parrot. I told her that if I have it when she asks, she can have it. If I refuse, it's because I don't have it. She wasn't done, though. She went on to say that this past year my company has treated her the best it ever has. Other years, she said, she just got junk and this year she really felt like we gave her good stuff.

It is relationships with people that will change the world. All of the good policy ever written won't make any difference if we don't actually have a chance to see God in the faces of other people because we hide in our office. I'm still terrible at relationships. This is not one of those stories where my life is turned around and aluvasudden I'm no longer awkward at engaging with people that are different from me and now, maybe just a little, I even like it. That only happens with the Grinch and mawkish memoirs. I'm still stepping on a lot of toes. But it is good to feel like maybe I won't always be such a klutz. That Linda, with all of her reason to dislike me, would forgive me for my missteps and even consider that I might have said something worth listening to, is enough to make me keep dancing. Even if my wisdom is the type that comes "out of the mouths of babes," which means, of course, unintentional wisdom come across through ignorance of how something is supposed to be said. I'm grateful that I can accomplish even that.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Deck the Halls

Today, I watched four episodes of Sex and the City while installing and decorating my Chistmas tree.
I was going to watch one of my Muppet holiday movies, but they're all on VHS and the rumpus room doesn't have a VCR. Yes, those are signed limited edition Brian Froud prints on the wall of my rumpus room, just in case there was any doubt just what kind of nerd I am.

Last night, I went over to my parents' house to help my mom finish decorating their tree while my father was still down in Danville for my great-aunt Delores' funeral.

Decorating the tree is the only holiday tradition all year that is still difficult since the divorce.

When I had been married only a month and a half, I began decorating for our first Christmas. We lived on the first floor and in the basement of a classic bungalow house in Berwyn and had lots of room for a full-sized tree. Because it was so big and because I had accumulated only a few ornaments of my own in my short adult life, I went to my mom's stash to fill it up. I guess I saw my mom's collection as the sourdough batch from which I could take a starter lump to make my own bread that would taste like my mother's but over time would acquire its own microbes that were specific to my environment and so be distinct to my life. Dennis brought some from his family's collection, as well. In my enthusiasm for this idea, I took all of the ornaments that were my quarter of the sets of ornaments that had been made over the years for my brothers and I. Specifically, my mother used to paint ceramic teddy bears with blue eyes to look like us and my teddy bear would have eye-lashes since I was the girl. She would paint our names on them. We also had ceramic stockings with our names painted on them. I had fantasies of all my brothers' future wives taking theirs when they got married as a way of forming their own sourdough cultures. I was starting a new tradition.

I don't know how, but I've lost all of those ornaments.

The best case sccenario is that I wrapped them up and kept them separate when I put my stuff into storage before moving to Orcas. But since all of my boxes are packed Tetris-style into my old closet, I haven't had the time to tear it all apart to check. Also, I fear that once I do tear it all apart, I still won't find them and then I'll really have to grieve.

Because my ex-husband used to throw things away when I wasn't around. Usually, it was when we were moving. Because I hated moving, he would tell me that he would finish up and make the last couple of trips to relieve me of the stress. I wouldn't realize that whole boxes were missing until months later and there was nothing I could do about it. I assume he blamed their loss on his friends, who he characterized as irresponsible and immature when we talked about them so that I would believe explanations like that when they were necessary. Certainly, that's how he explained missing cash and jewelry. His friends (many of whom had been his students) must have taken them. You know how kids are. Pedro's family is pretty poor. Vicky's mom doesn't really love her. What do you want me to do? he would say. My wedding pearls! I still grieve those. Now I fear that my ornaments will join that list of loved things lost.

So, now it's 7 years later, I'm divorced, none of my brothers are married and there are only three ceramic stockings on my mom's tree. It's not actually symbolic of my status in the family, but it still hurts.

The mystery is that I still have so many other ornaments. That's why I'm pretty sure that I must have wrapped them up separate.

So, in an attempt to focus on what I have instead of what I am missing, I present to you a gallery of ornaments that actually are symbolic of my status in the world. I almost never purchase ornaments for myself. Almost every one was given to me by someone who thought I was special at some point in my life.

The Murphys account for a good half of the ornaments on my tree.
I have to be honest and tell you that I can't usually remember who made what. However, it's pretty good bet that those with a sea shell theme were made by my cousins Emily and Megan, who grew up in Florida. Jake signed this one so I know it's his.Since becoming an adult, my aunts Barbara and Cynthia also contribute to my Christmas decorations with ornaments and manger scenes. A penguin them seems to run through the ornaments.

Many of these family onaments are fun because my mother has matching ones on her tree, which provides a little of the relationship that I was looking for when I took the ornaments with my name on them. This pickle also matches one on my mother's tree. She became enamored of the German tradition of hiding the pickle one year and bought one for her tree. At least once, she has hidden it so well that she left it on the tree to be taken out to the curb and she's had to buy another one. In one of those years, she bought two and gave one to me.

My Aunt Delores was a meticulous and artful ceramics painter. I was thinking about her since I couldn't go down to the funeral. She was a hard woman who was unable to have kids and whose medical situation was such that she grew up knowing that she would never have a family. I don't know if that was why she was such an unpleasant and hard woman so much of the time, but she had a delicate touch with a paint brush. She made the mouse that hangs on my tree. I also remember that she had glasses that had ladybugs in the cat's eye corners. The snowflake also matches those on my mother's tree. They were tatted by my Grandma Tolentino, who was my older brothers' grandma who made sweaters for my younger brother and I with our names stitched down the sleeves.

I was talking to Jeffrey a few days ago and reminded him that his mother changed my life a little when she said, "Just because I no longer ride my bicycle all the time, that doesn't mean it isn't important that I once did." Some of these ornaments are from people that were important to me at one time and so, despite the fact that we no longer spend time together, they are still important to me.
I haven't seen or spoken to the woman who gave me this Shakespeare in over a year but we taught English together at my first teaching gig. She bought it for me when she traveled to a Shakespeare festival in Canada as a chaperone for the smart kids. Will is flanked by a Santa sweater given to me by my parents' next-door neighbor who I was close to when her twins were two-years -old and I was over there all the time watching them so she could get some life taken care of one summer. My mother bought me the Santa on his other side this year because he is beautiful and made by Villeroy and Boch, ceramic designers that consistently produce beautiful dishes that fit our aesthetic perfectly.
This little mouse is named Chh, which is the noise made in the back of the throat for some Jewish words, like "challah" and "Channukah." One of my best friends from high school and I traded it back and forth at speech tournaments as a good luck talisman. We had named him after the accents that we had to learn as we portrayed Holocaust survivors for our horribly over-dramatic duet scenes. I haven't seen or spoken to her since graduation. Next to Chh is a Santa that I made in the 4th grade. I know this because I was a little retentive about creating heirlooms for posterity at that age, so I labeled it well. Mrs. Barker used to pick her ear wax and eat it. I swear it. Two of my brothers had her, too, and they will totally back me up on this one.

This monkey was tied to a basket full of candy from a fellow English teacher at my second teaching gig. She and I have stayed in touch but she just started a very busy stage in her life and I haven't seen her since this summer. Next to it is a house that was attached to a house-warming present from my friends Emily and Joe, who are hopefully in labor with their first baby right now. One of my good friends in college made us all these glass globes my sophomore year. I've seen her once since then and emailed just a few times. It's always good to talk with her but we've never been able to start up a new relationship. My best friend from high school gave me this our senior year. She loved Disney and a couple of the gifts she gave me had the Pooh Bear and Piglet best friend theme. We stopped spending much time together when I went away to college. We have known where the other was over the past 10 years but it hasn't been until the last several months that we have spent time together as friends again.

In the stories we tell, especially on TV and in movies, one of the most satisfying things to watch is when friends or lovers have a giant blow-out fight and say everything they've kept to themselves over the course of the relationship about the character flaws of the other person. Admit it. It's satisfying. To imagine ourselves in that situation, throwing it all to the wind in one big purge.

But scar tissue remembers the wound and relationships are never the same, even if forgiveness and reconciliation are possible.

So, I've never forced anyone to declare that they no longer wanted to spend time with me. Only once have I ever said it. Despite wanting the kind of clarity and closure that formalizing the break would give me, I've always feared that any conversation with a friend about how we were drifting apart would result in one of those giant, blow-out fights.

I used to think this was a weakness: that I didn't live life as boldy as I could because I feared permanently losing the few friends that I could muster. But again and again, it is playing out that leaving the door unlocked behind me, even as I keep walking on through new rooms means that old friends can catch up with me or meet me in rooms through other doors. I don't know who was Pooh and who was Piglet in our relationship, but I have told everyone I know the story of realizing that her one-year old son had not thrown the plastic butter packet on the floor but hid it in his mouth with closed lips and chubby cheeks and the laughing frenzy of trying to get him to reliquish it once we knew it was there because he smiled in joy at the taste of the butter leaking out.

Like my ornaments, I have friends that I can't find right now or for the last several years, but that doesn't mean that I won't find them again someday when I'm cleaning out my closets.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Washing machine

My tummy hurts. Like I've been laughing at one of my brother David's situationally perfect one-liners or I've been doing as many crunches as Arnold Scwartzenegger says I should be. But, instead, my stomach feels like it has a softball in it every time I flex it because I've been bitten by some sort of flu bug. Unfortunately, I spent most of the day yesterday thinking it was food poisoning and so didn't take any sick supplements. If I had, maybe I wouldn't be feeling so bad today.

A very cute mailman just came to deliver a package for my brother and I had to greet him in the hallway in my Route 66 pajamas. Bless his heart, he said that he couldn't wait to get home to his pajamas, too.

Luckily, he didn't come yesterday when I had the world's worst hangover. All day.

I haven't had a drink in a week.

Nevertheless, yesterday I was trapped on the couch with a fever, giant headache, tender skin, wooziness and the sensation that someone was pulling each and every one of my muscles taut every time I moved.

Also, I had eaten Indian food the night before and all of it plus everything else I ate on Monday left my body within a 45 minute period. Just the words, "butter chicken" are enough to make me . . . well, I don't even want to put those two words together in my head. Think of something else! Washingmachinewashingmachinewashingmachinewashingmachinewashingmachine. Whew.

I told my brother Daniel that he was going to have to break up with Meena. I just can't see how the three of us are going to build a life together if I can't eat the food of her people!


Monday, December 11, 2006

College memories

This is a picture of the store that is almost directly across the street from the two freshman/sophomore girls' dorms at Illinois Wesleyan. My good friend Erika still lives in Bloomington and sent this recent photo out to all of us to bring on fuzzy memories of good times at our small, rural, midwestern liberal arts college. Ah, the liberal arts education! It's a dying breed.

What makes me happiest is the early morning lighting, which means that on her way to work, Erika was so full of delight that she stopped her car and took a picture with her phone.

All mornings should have that much delight.

Does that mean that all mornings should have obvious double entendres and smarmy, skanky sex stores?

You be the judge.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ice Gnomes

For he-ere by the fire we defy frost and storm. Aha! We are warm and we have our heart's desire. For he-ere we're good fellows and the beechwood and the bellows and the cup is at the lip in the pledge of fellowshi-i-ip!

It is a classic case of not knowing that something was important until years after it was gone, finding it again. If that is, indeed, a classic case.

Now, for the first time in years, Christmas can finally start.

I have heard a men's choir sing "Winter Song," by Frederic Field Bullard. Specifically, I heard the Windy City Gay Chorus sing it, directed by my friend Alan, who is the best director I have ever worked with. But what is important is that a men's choir sang it. And sang it well. You could practically see the beer mugs swinging back and forth, they had such gusto.

You can hear it here. The tempos are a little different than I'm used to, but it gives you an idea of the infectiousness of this ditty. Now your Christmas can start, too.

Ho, a song by the fire, pass the pipes, pass the bowl. Ho, a song by the fire with a skoal, with a skoal. Ho, a sooooong, by the fiiiiiiire, pass the pipes with a skoal.

When I was three years old, my oldest brother Paul joined Dick Whitecotton's Freshmen Boy's Choir at Glenbard West High School.

And an era was begun.

I don't remember that first Christmas concert, but I know for a fact that Paul sang "Winter Song." How do I know this? Because every Freshman Boys Choir sang the song every Christmas for probably the entire tenure of Dr. Whitecotton's 30 year reign at West. There are two generations of Glen Ellyn men drifting around the world in a diaspora that upon meeting could burst into four-part harmony singing "Winter Song" without having to pause for recollection. I know this because my three brothers have done and because Daniel and I sang along with the choir last night. Daniel didn't even realize that he knew the song until the first words were out of the men's mouths and then neither of us could contain our laughter and smiles. As he took a bow at the song's conclusion, Alan, the director, who also spent four years in Dr. Whitecotton's choir, looked right at us and raised a smiling eyebrow, to acknowledge the brotherhood.

Yes, I include myself in that brotherhood. If Paul started high school in 1982, David joined the Freshmen Boy's Choir in 1984. That is six consecutive years of Christmas concerts that my family attended since both boys were in the choir all four years of their high school experience. Although they moved on from Freshman Boy's Choir, the concert was one of combined choirs and so we all got to sing along in our heads with the current year's crop of Freshmen boys each season. So, that 1982-1988.

In 1990, I was in the 8th Grade and the junior high choir was invited to sing at the high school as part of the combined choirs. It was so huge. I remember putting on one of my mom's white button-down shirts and tucking it into a black jersey-knit skirt and feeling so grown-up as I looked at myself in the mirror, because I looked like six years of high school kids that I remembered. Of course, I looked rediculous because it is impossible to tuck a starched and ironed broadcloth shirt into what is ostensibly a t-shirt and look at all put-together, but what did I know? I was 12-years-old. I had beautiful fuzzy memories of watching all of the mouths of the high school choirs changing shape in perfect unison from smiley ee-vowels to the perfect oh-vowels. I was going to be part of that group. I was so very proud. That was the 7th holiday season ushered in with, "zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom."

Then, I had my own high school career in the choir to enjoy the pubescent sounds of 13 and 14-year old boys singing drinking songs. That's years 8, 9 ,10 and 11 that "Winter Song" was part of my Christmas celebration. My younger brother was in high school another 2 years, so that rounds out the experience to a full 13 years that boys have sung:

For the fire goblins flicker on the ceiling, and the white witch glitters in the glass, and the smoke wraiths are drifting, curling, reeling, and the sleeeiiiigh bells jingle as they paaaaaaaassssss.

Unfortunately, by the time I taught two years at my old high school, Dr. Whitecotton had retired and I can't tell you for certain whether or not Mr. Salotti carried on the tradition.

But Alan has! And now I can go on and watch Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, The John Denver and the Muppets Christmas, and the Star Wars Holiday Special while making and wrapping presents with the peace that comes from tradition carried out.

For the wolf-wind is wailing at the doorways, and the snow drifts deep along the road, and the ice gnomes are marching from their Norways, and the greeeaaaaat white cold walks abrooooaaaaad.