Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lemon Beagle

My husband and I have recently downsized from a four bedroom home in the suburbs to a two bedroom condo downtown.  We have done this to “simplify” our lives, but also to prove to ourselves and our families that we are still young and hip enough to enjoy an urban lifestyle.  A lifestyle that puts us within walking distance of numerous restaurants, galleries, and bars, not to mention a neighbor who sings Italian arias while strolling with his dog, and Carl, the local homeless man, who pushes his shopping cart down the middle of the street every morning at eight o’clock.
When my three grown children announced they would be spending Christmas with us in our new place, we enthusiastically looked forward to showing them our hip new crib.  When they announced they would also be bringing their dogs, I was less enthusiastic.  “Oh, we’ll be fine,” my husband said, indicating I was being overly dramatic.
My son had recently adopted what he called a Lemon Beagle, which I had never heard of, that was going to be flying in with him from San Francisco. 
“So you’ll be carrying him on the plane?” I said, imagining a cute spotted puppy that would fit neatly between his feet.
“Oh no,” he said.  “I’ll have to crate him.”  And then he quickly changed the subject.
Imagine my surprise when, three weeks later, I saw him unloading what appeared to be an elephant crate from the back of my car.  My husband had driven down to Atlanta to pick up my son and his Lemon Beagle, which is apparently code for a cross between a pit bull and a Great Dane.
His name was Finn and he was adorable but clumsy, knocking over furniture with his tail which he swung behind him with the velocity of a bull whip.  My dog, Yoshi, gave him a wide berth.
I rose early the next morning determined to take Finn and Yoshi for a walk. 
“Are you sure you want to do that?” my husband said, sipping his coffee at the breakfast bar.
Undaunted, I set out.  What I soon learned is that, although it’s relatively easy to walk one dog on a leash, it is less easy to walk two.  Especially two that have a combined weight of well over one hundred pounds.  Dogs in a pack constantly jostle for dominance, trying to be the lead dog.  Added to the fact that I was walking both on retractable leashes that were quickly entangled, I soon found myself being dragged along the sidewalk like a musher racing across the frozen tundra of the Alaskan Iditarod. 
This would have been enough to discourage any sane person, but I was determined to go on.  I had a point to prove.  I wasn’t the same old Shrinking Violet I had once been; I now ate oatmeal and miso soup for breakfast, stayed away from saturated fats and dairy, and meditated twice a day.  I could handle walking two dogs along a city street.
It was in the second block that the real trouble began.
By now my pulse had begun to pound ominously in my ears.  My breathing was ragged and strained.  We scooted past a row of neat bungalows set back slightly from the sidewalk.  The middle house had a neatly manicured lawn, with baskets of flowers and ferns set out strategically around the base of a large oak tree.  Various whirligigs spun in the breeze, and a ring of colorful garden gnomes peeked roguishly from between the baskets of ferns and flowers.  It was the kind of yard that announces, “No Dogs Allowed” by its very neatness.
Finn, who had apparently never seen a garden gnome, decided he didn’t like the looks of these strange creatures, and lunged suddenly to the right, bellowing and knocking over baskets and whirligigs with his tail.  Yoshi sprang to the left.  I found myself being dragged, spread-eagled, toward the massive oak and began to shout, “No, no.”  Finn, panicked at the tone of my voice, began now to run in circles, catching two of the larger ferns in his leash which he dragged behind him like a conveyer belt. 
“It’s okay, puppy, it’s okay,” I shrilled, trying to calm him down.  He continued to run in circles, wrapping the retractable leash around his legs until, finally, tied up like a rodeo calf, he lurched to a stop, and fell over.  Taking advantage of his immobility, I glanced over my shoulder to check on Yoshi. 
He was taking a huge, steaming shit in front of a basket of fake petunias. 
It was at this moment that I realized my left arm was numb and one eye was fluttering like a bad circuit.  It occurred to me that I might be in the throes of a medical emergency.  I imagined the couple who owned the house returning in the evening to the wreckage of their carefully-tended yard.  I imagined garden gnomes and ferns and whirligigs scattered in disarray, two dogs hog-tied and squealing, and a middle-aged woman, dead of an apparent heart attack, face down on the lawn. 
I fell on my knees, hard, at the base of the tree, and began hurriedly to set up the fallen gnomes and fern baskets.  Then I gathered Yoshi’s warm excrement in a plastic baggie, untied Finn, and turned and limped quickly for home.
I imagined the couple returning home to find that their garden gnomes had been vandalized, checking their surveillance tape, and uploading it to YouTube, where it would become an instant Internet sensation.   I imagined my children’s friends calling. 
“Dude, isn’t that your mother?”
My husband was still sitting at the breakfast bar when I limped in.
“That was quick,” he said.  “Did you have a nice walk?”
I said nothing, handing him the leashes, and turning, hobbled toward the bedroom to take a nice long nap.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Charred Turkey and Jamaican Qualade Shooters

We’re driving to New Orleans tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with our two daughters.  The younger one is still in college and the older one has graduated and stayed in New Orleans.  Her boyfriend is a chef at one of the top restaurants in town and he’ll be preparing the meal for us and approximately twenty-five of their closest friends.  The menu includes Roast Suckling Pig, Turkey with Oyster Stuffing, Sweet Potato Casserole with Apple Puree, and Cheddar Biscuits with Olives, among other things. 
            “Shall I bring a Green Bean Casserole?” I asked my daughter tentatively.
            “No, mom, thanks.  We’ve got it covered,” she responded in a tone indicating she saw trouble coming and was attempting to head it off.
            As with most of the country, we’re approaching this most-American of all holidays with a great deal of anticipation and reservation.  Where else but at Thanksgiving do you celebrate so much togetherness, love, and unresolved conflict around a big, heavily-laden table?  Add a well-stocked bar to the mix and the potential for family drama goes through the roof. 
            I’ve promised my husband to be on my best behavior.
            My daughter, when I talked to her last week, sounded confident and unconcerned.  After all, she and Mason hosted a similar crowd last Thanksgiving and everything went off without a hitch, except for the deep-fried turkey which somehow got left in the fryer after someone broke out the Jamaican Qualude Shooters.  We were not at this celebration but have heard the legendary stories of the charred turkey which was greeted (perhaps owing to the Jamaican Qualudes) with cheers and gales of laughter.  Mason served it up on a silver tray.
            I am determined that this year’s Thanksgiving will go off without a hitch, by God.  I will help my daughter whether she wants it or not.
            “Shall I bring the sterling?” I asked her.
            “No, mom, please don’t.”
            “Oh?  Do you have enough silverware for twenty-five people?”
            “Actually, this year I’m making it easy on myself and everyone else.  I’m using throw-away plates, utensils, and glasses.”
            “You’re using plastic?  For Thanksgiving?”
            There was a pause while I imagined my daughter rolling her eyes and making obscene gestures at the phone.  Still, she majored in psychology.  Her education comes in handy when profiling serial killers or dealing with passive-aggressive mothers.  Her voice, when she finally spoke, was calm and detached.
            “Actually, they make really cute plastic ware these days.  It looks a lot like the real stuff.  You won’t be able to tell until you pick it up.”
            “Oh?” I said doubtfully.  “Well, if you’re okay with that.”
            “I am, mom.  I’m okay with it.”
            My husband, seated across the room, was slowing drawing his finger across his throat and shaking his head.
            “Oh, all right,” I said to him later.  “I won’t say a word about anything.  I’ll just keep my mouth shut and drink Jamaican Qualades with everyone else and let Lauren and Mason handle everything.”
            “I think that would be best,” he said agreeably.
            We leave tomorrow for Thanksgiving in New Orleans.  I have been meditating to ready myself for the occasion. 
No doubt, my daughter is doing the same.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Career Day

Somewhere around the third grade, on Career Day, when all the other kids were standing up and saying they wanted to be either a policeman, or a fireman, or a ballerina, I decided I wanted to be all three.  I didn’t want to limit myself to just one occupation.  I wanted to be everything from an astronaut to a monkey trainer.   That left me with only one career choice.  I would be a writer.

My classmates looked at me as if I’d just announced I wanted to make a living euthanizing puppies at the pound.  By now, I was used to being a little outside the pack.   I’m not saying I was friendless, but I played alone a lot.  Still, the other kids had learned I was good to have around when it came to imaginary role playing games.   They knew who to come to when they needed a storyline for Roy Rogers or Tonto and the Lone Ranger. 

My desire to make a living using only my imagination and my highly developed skill at hyperbole persisted throughout elementary school and into high school.    My father was an itinerant college professor and we moved around a lot  - throughout the Deep South, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma.  I was always the new kid trying to fit in, the outsider looking in, the breeding ground of all neuroses, angst, and future artistic endeavor. 

I attended public schools in the days before Ritalin was routinely prescribed for bright, imaginative students who had trouble paying attention.  This was in the 1960’s and 1970’s when a public school education still meant something, back before Self-Esteem became the cornerstone of learning.  When my high school English teacher, Charlie Chesmore, called me an ignoramus and a sloth for coming to his class without first reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he wasn’t too concerned about my delicate self-esteem.  The result of this public humiliation was that I showed up the next day having read the play in its entirety.  Go figure.

I went to college to learn, not necessarily to get a degree.  I took creative writing and literature courses from enthusiastic professors who taught me to be a good reader, and, consequently, a better writer.  Somewhere around my junior year I realized that if I spent any more time studying the great writers I’d be too paralyzed with insecurity to write anything myself. 

I left school, married, had children, worked a series of meaningless day jobs, and wrote.  I wrote essays and short stories, which were never published, and novels which, eventually, were.  It hasn’t been easy.  Still, when I think back to that third grade girl who stood up on Career Day and told the class she wanted to be a writer, I’m not sorry for the choices I’ve made.  It seemed so simple then – just a matter of putting a few good stories down on paper and making them all fit together.  Years of hard work, rejection, and perseverance later, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Booze and Bad Decisions

My youngest daughter was recently home from school for fall break.  She goes to college in New Orleans (as did my older two) and she’s acquired that slightly jaded, sophisticated air that the city seems to impart.  Been there, done that, dude.  This is a city, after all, that boasts drive-through daiquiris, karaoke laundry mats, and over 150 festivals a year, all of them involving copious amounts of alcohol.  Temptations are plentiful.  Local law enforcement tends to sport a relaxed attitude toward alcohol consumption (you can drink in college bars with only a school ID regardless of the legal drinking age of 21) and it’s not illegal to walk the streets carrying a cocktail “to go” cup.  For students who’ve grown up in the Bible Belt or the Midwest or even New York, it’s an eye-opening experience.  You either learn to hold your liquor, or you become a raging alcoholic.
I generalize, of course.  The truth is, even as a frumpy, middle-aged woman, I love New Orleans.  I love the history and the culture, the French joie de vivre, the emphasis on good food, good booze, and good company.  Where else in the country does Happy Hour begin at noon on Friday and extend into the wee hours of the night?  New Orleans gave us jazz but it also gave us the Sazerac, the Hurricane, and the Ramos Gin Fizz. 
Despite their urban sophistication, I’m always apprehensive when one of my college-aged children comes home from New Orleans.  Chattanooga, for all its revitalization, is still primarily a small town.  With small-town police officers who take their roles as defenders of public sobriety seriously.  Cabs are hard to come by after a night of heavy drinking.  The downtown bars close at 2:00 p.m. but the free electric shuttle stops running at 11:00 p.m.
We thought when we moved off Signal Mountain into a two bedroom condo downtown that it would make it easier for everyone.  Easier for our adult children to party with their friends and take a cab home and easier for us to sleep knowing they were only a few short blocks away and could get home safely.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Jordan’s first night home, she walked into a bar where there were literally “only six people I didn’t know.”   A good time was had by all and at 2:00 a.m., the time she had told me she’d be coming home, I woke up.  I won’t go into the angst of being a parent waiting for an adult child to return home after midnight.  Suffice it to say, my father used to wait up for me.  And now I wait up for my children.  It’s crazy, given the fact that in New Orleans they probably don’t get home before 4:00 a.m., but you see, I don’t know about it, so I sleep like a baby.
At 2:00 a.m. the first of many texts arrived.  Don’t worry, I’ll catch a cab.  Followed by, The cab isn’t coming.  I’ve called twice, and then,  I’ve walked to my friend Kelly’s house, and finally, There’s some guy here who says he’ll give me a ride.  The last one caused a frenzy of return texting.  Don’t catch a ride with a stranger!  Where are you?  I’ll come get you!
Twenty minutes later, she was home.  This was at 3:30 a.m. and I’m the first to admit, I don’t do well without my eight hour beauty sleep.  The screeching was long and sustained.  No doubt the neighbors enjoyed every minute of it.  She, for the most part, was fairly sober and handled my display with a blasé smirking that further enraged me.
“Mom, I’m an adult.  You can’t wait up for me anymore.” 
Eventually, I ran out of steam and we both went to bed.  The next morning she awoke, sweet and contrite, and apologized for texting me eight times over a two hour period.  She had thought that by texting me repeatedly, she’d be putting my mind at ease so I could drop back into a peaceful slumber.  Apparently, she had been “overserved” at the bar (said with a giggle), and the decision to text had been a bad one.  She had not caught a ride home with a stranger (I’m not stupid, Mom) and her ride had not been drinking (Seriously, Mom, I’m not stupid), and I really shouldn’t wait up for her anymore because she wasn’t a child.  She was an adult.
I could only look at her and remember my own father sitting in his wing back chair in his robe, his eyes bleary, his hair standing up in outraged peaks around his face while I argued with boozy breath that he shouldn’t wait up for me.  I wasn’t a kid.  I was an adult.
“You won’t know what it’s like until you have a child of your own,” he’d said.
Forty years later, I get it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Old Maids of the Mist

I recently went to Canada and Niagara Falls with a group of women I’ve been friends with since grade school.  We’ve known each other for forty-five years and managed to keep in touch, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how disparate and scattered our lives have become.  We grew up in the same small college town, went to grade school, junior high, high school, and the first few years of college together.  Three of us left home and went out into the wide world, while two stayed behind and raised families in the same small community where we’d grown up.
A few years ago, after twenty-five years spent raising families and struggling with careers, we reconnected on Facebook.   Since then, we try to get together every year for a girls’ trip.  The amazing thing to me is how, despite our many differences, we’ve managed to remain friends.  As an adult, I have a tendency to gravitate toward women who dress like me, read the same books, watch the same TV shows, have the same social and political beliefs.   The old “birds of a feather, flock together” syndrome.
But other than our shared childhoods and experiences raising families, there’s not a lot my four hometown friends and I have in common.  A former athlete, a cheerleader, a writer, a sorority girl, and a flighty giggler, I’m not certain if we met today we would even be friends.  So what is it about childhood that makes us so much more willing to embrace others different from ourselves?  Do we simply become lazy, or less willing to compromise as we grow older?
It was in sixth grade that I first met Zona.  She and I were both “new girls,” having moved into town from somewhere else.  I was a tomboy and played mostly with the boys on the playground.  She was prissy and was the first girl in sixth grade to shave her legs.  I didn’t dislike Zona; if anything, I felt sorry for her because she was bad at sports.  All the same, I realized that we probably wouldn’t be spending a lot of time together.   
One morning I walked into the girls’ bathroom to find Zona standing at the mirror teasing her hair.  I watched, fascinated, as she deftly moved a long-handled comb through her curls.  We were still standing there when Ruby Mays walked in.  Ruby was six feet tall and had a deep voice and shoulders like a linebacker.  When Ruby asked you for your lunch money, you gave it up.  I was terrified of her and did my best to avoid eye contact, slinking into one of the opened stalls.   Ruby stood in the doorway, watching Zona with an unreadable expression.   Without warning, she stuck out a large, hairy-knuckled hand.
“Hey,” she said.  “Let me borrow your comb.”
Zona stopped teasing her hair.  She tilted her head and stared at Ruby in the mirror as if giving her request careful consideration.  Time seemed to stop.  My bladder sagged.   Give her the comb, I telepathed frantically.  Just give her the goddamned comb.         
 Zona turned around, her expression thoughtful and pleasant.  “Ruby, I hope you don’t mind,” she said.  “But I don’t let anyone use my comb.”
Ruby’s big fist shot out and caught Zona on the chin, and she went down.  She lay on her back, staring up at the fluorescent lights, blinking.   Ruby helped herself to the comb and then tossed it back to Zona as she went out. 
I went over and helped her up.  She seemed genuinely surprised at Ruby’s reaction.  “Why did she do that?” she kept asking.  I stared at her, grinning in appreciation.  I had never seen anyone stand up to Ruby Mays and it occurred to me that despite her shaved legs and prissy ways, Zona had more courage than anyone I knew.  Certainly more courage than me.
Years later in Canada, while arguing with Zona about politics, that scene with Ruby resurfaced.  And it occurred to me that the spark of courage, the knot of stubbornness that I had admired all those years ago in Zona was still there.  Despite our profound, and sometimes violent, differences I could still appreciate that aspect of her personality. 
Forty-five years later, we still have a connection.  And I’m a better person for it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm More Brilliant Than I Look

My fifth novel, The Sisters Montclair, has recently launched and I’ve been visiting a lot of book clubs.  I’m always slightly apprehensive at these face-to-face meetings, because I have the impression that Cathy Holton in Person, is somehow less impressive than Cathy Holton the Writer.  Looking around at the polite faces as I drone on about some event that colored my last novel, I often wonder if I’m on the verge of putting my listeners to sleep.

Flannery O’Connor once complained, when discussing an upcoming television interview, that she was afraid she’d stare blankly at the camera and utter such memorable lines as “Huh?” and “Ah dunno,” to the interviewer’s questions. I know exactly what she meant.  On the page, writers can make themselves sound witty and erudite.  We have the advantage of that most essential tool of good prose; the rewrite.  We can sit in a darkened room for days constructing and reconstructing one line until we get it perfect.  To a reader it may seem that our perfection is innate, a lucky coincidence of fate and natural-born talent, but I can tell you it’s actually the result of a great deal of hard work and determination.  It takes a lot of effort to be funny, or philosophical, or blindingly lyrical.  Any writer who tells you otherwise is bluffing.  There are few geniuses among us.  Most of us are just competent liars with a good work ethic.

At a recent book club meeting, an admiring reader read out several lines she had bookmarked in one of my novels.  

“Did I write that?” I deadpanned.   Much laugher.  (Occasionally, I can be entertaining.)

The truth is, I remember that passage very well.  I must have worked on it for weeks, rewriting, deleting, rewriting, circling back with a frenzied determination that only a true obsessive compulsive could appreciate.  But in the end, I wrote something that was good, something that I can be proud of for years to come.  A passage that makes me appear, to the casual reader at least, like something of a literary genius. 

Now if only I could rewrite my personal appearances. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Birthday Club

I’m in a birthday club that meets monthly for lunch.  We’ve been doing this for over ten years, long enough to get to know each other pretty well, to be completely free and comfortable around one another.  Which is a beautiful thing.  And much cheaper than therapy.  When we first started getting together our children were younger and we were always harried, barely able to spend an hour without having to jump up to go collect a child or hurry back to work.   Now our lunches can drag on for close to three hours, long enough for our waitress to go off shift and the restaurant to empty and the busboy to stand yawning in a corner.

          We are beautiful, self-assured, completely natural women, meaning there’s not a size two among us.  We’ve lived long enough to be comfortable in our own skins, to accept the sags and wrinkles and wobbly thighs that come with being mature, natural women.  So far, we’ve resisted the siren call of plastic surgery. 

          I tell you all of this because my husband always asks with astonishment, “What do you find to talk about for three hours?”  

          Here’s a sample:

          “I ran into Lucy Dillard.” Eye roll.  “She and Jack are getting ready to go to the Bahamas and she was bragging about having her bikini area waxed so she can wear her new thong.”  (We hate Lucy.)
   “I tried some of that Nair stuff once.  It was so painful, y’all.”
   “Is that the stuff that smells like rotten eggs?”
   “See, if you wear a swim skirt you don’t have to worry about hair.”
   “Not unless it hangs down below the edge of your skirt.”
   “When Scott and I were going to Mexico on that business trip last year, I went to Target and bought one of those cute little elastic waist skirts that go over your suit.   It was in a zebra print, which for some reason I thought was stylish.  Apparently I was wrong.  Anyway, by the third day the elastic had stretched out so bad one side hung down lower than the other, which made me look kind of like a wounded zebra dragging a leg. Trust me, it was not a good look.  So I just pulled on a pair of shorts and told Scott he better not say a word.”
   “Did y’all hear they’re coming out with a line of Spanx swimsuits?”
   Much excitement here.
   “I tried one on but the problem is it squishes the fat from your waist down over your hips which is not really a good look either.”
   “Kind of like a reverse muffin top?”

   If laughter truly is the best medicine, we should all live to be ninety.