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At Dunkin' Donuts: "You know how we're made of meat? Are vegetarians made out of vegetables?" a very little girl asks at the table next to me.
The mother explains, "No, they're regular people."
"Why don't they eat meat?" the little voice insists. "I mean, we're made of meat. Does meat taste funny to them?"
How I wish I could introduce myself: "Hey! I'm a vegetarian!" so she could see vegetarians aren't green, composed of broccoli spears and spinach leaves.
Would the kid start thinking about animals killed for food, decide that's not OK--or would she see me as two-headed?
Sometimes I give money to people who hold out paper cups; sometimes I don't. Sometimes I buy a Streetwise, sometimes I don't. Depends if I have change or singles; depends if I'm feeling scared, nervous; depends, to be honest, if I'm feeling antisocial, not wanting to interact with anybody. Definitely NOT What Jesus Would Do. I admire people who always give, even if just a little; I admire people who get into conversations with the askers. The only time I did was with a woman always reading while sitting outside the B train station. I used to bring her books.
I feel uncomfortable using the word "dark." Like many, I refer to "the dark side" when talking about Star Wars-like good-and-evil conflict; I refer to works of literature being "dark." "Dark," in "the dark side," refers to evil. "Dark," when talking literature, refers to a somber, not-happy, almost despairing or depressing quality. I find the word "dark" useful, especially when talking about literature; I can't think of a good synonym that fully describes that tone. But does using the word "dark" like this contribute to the underlying racism that is a foundation (even though often unconscious) of our cultural psychology?
I have a problem as a writer--I don't typically read for plot. Not that I don't appreciate a good plot (or I'd never have finished "The Da Vinci Code"), but it's not my primary motivation for picking up or finishing a book. I want to hang out with imaginary friends. That's as true today, as I binge-read the Miss Fisher mysteries, as when I read the Bobbsey Twin books as a kid. I want to hang out with Phryne, Dot, Bert, and Cec, just as back then I hung out with Nan, Bert, Flossie, and Freddie. But editors want plot.
I wish I weren't so puppy dog-like, wanting everyone in the world to like me and want to be my friend. To make things worse, I'm a worrywart--if someone brushes me off, I wonder which of my sins he or she has discovered; I worry about these past sins catching up with me and being judged bad enough that friends will become ex-friends. Of course, I don't treat my own friends that way--I don't care about their past sins, they're good people today, and that's what counts. Why can't I give myself the same benefit of the doubt and kindness?
Talk about the "good ol' days" always feels a bit false. Some things I do miss--Lincoln-Belmont being a vibrant shopping area, the singing of parakeets and canaries at Woolworth's, buying a greasy white paper bag of chocolate kisses at Goldblatt's bargain basement. More somber, I miss when gang fights meant fist fights.
My biracial son says time travel is not for people with brown skin, that he doesn't particularly want to go back to the fifties--and definitely not the 1850s.
Would be nice to revise the past and cleanse it of injustice, keeping dime store nostalgia but erasing Jim Crow.
Visit me at Dunkin' Donuts.
Give me insight into the workers hurriedly meeting customer demands
Regular or decaf or dark-roasted, French Vanilla or Hazelnut or Coconut
Customers who complain about Today not being the Good Old Days, white whispers about Obama
A senior citizen who stares out the window while nursing his styrofoam coffee cup, then leaves
A little girl who pipes up,
"Are vegetarians made of vegetables?"
Pop music, "Shut up and dance with me" vies with
"All about the Bass" singing praises of us chubby ones
And outside, Saturday cars zoom back and forth on errands.
I read at a gathering of South Side writers, feeling a big guilty, as I'm a white North Sider. But then again, if you're a Hyde Parker, your neighborhood life probably isn't that much different from mine. A classmate of my son's told their teacher she lived on the South Side, but when she mentioned Hyde Park, the teacher shook her head. "You don't live on the South Side." And as the mother of an African American 23-year-old man, my concerns about police shooting unarmed Black men is no less than those of my fellow writers. I'm just more ignorant.
In the concrete parking lot
The sparrow chases a bite of bagel
Almost half her tiny size
But doesn't give up
Nibbles what she can
Stubborn little thing, fights for life
Thank God nobody saw who did it
Who dropped a bagel--OK if it's accidental
But feeding birds illegal
The Mary Poppins song banned, probably
(Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Day)
Guess we do want to keep disease far, far away
But birds going hungry
We don't think about
Any more than we think about workers in other countries
Making pennies, working long hours
To make our comfy athletic shoes
A Facebook friend posts about choosing happiness to keep healthy; someone comments that that is insensitive to people who suffer from depression, who can't make that choice. I liked the comment, then unliked it; I don't want to make anybody feel bad. But would a post about running to keep healthy be insensitive to people who use wheelchairs? Would a post about choosing to take time to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of music be insensitive to people who are deaf? Of course, a newspaper column about the value of family made me cry back in days when I had nobody.
Write what you know, the sages say. Others say, write what you want to know. Being self-absorbed--a friend complained that I always took things too "personally"--I usually start with my own life but then change things, change male to female, change race or ethnicity, or split myself between a host of characters unlike yet all me. I read that Dickens' inspiration for his bad guys actually was his own self--a shock, as we think of Dickens as kindly, not an unreformed Ebenezer. I wish I were one of those writers who gravitates to imaginary lands and people who never were.
I talk too much; hate when someone pointedly lets me know the conversation is over and I slump away. I'm bad with social cues, whether because of my heredity--lot of my half siblings are the same way--or because of environment--I didn't have friends until I was eleven and endured a lot of bullying growing up, and I didn't come from the healthiest of home lives. I've learned, on the phone, to ask if someone is busy, and to catch hints that the conversation is over. But in person? I don't catch stuff. Sigh. Oh well--guess if that's my worst fault!
Hard talking with hard-core Catholic friends who never question anything a priest says. M is sweet, but when I vent about single parents getting a bad rap, affirming that just because a child is raised by a single mom doesn't mean that he or she is "doomed," M just looks at me, not knowing what to say. She doesn't want to insult me, but she's been told that children from "broken" homes, as she puts it, are doomed, so it must be true. Reminds me of my fourth grade teacher gasping when I admitted that my parents didn't live together.
Wish jealousy didn't attack and take over my mind, soul, heart, and body. I read of U of C and still feel a gut punch that I didn't go there when I had the chance, imagining joys I might have known. Of course, my son tells me that U of C has the highest suicide rate in the country, for colleges, so who knows? I might have been one of those deaths, or I might have been hit by a truck. Trying to rewrite the past is ridiculous--and those young U of C students I envy have their own griefs.
My favorite birthday gift:
My dad calling me on my day, and we talking over an hour.
Know what's funny? He forgot
To wish me Happy Birthday and apologized
The next day and I was too shy to say
THAT was the gift, that he forgot to offer a ritual greeting
But instead we talked, for real, for an hour, not ritual, real.
It had been a stub-toe rocky path, didn't meet him till I was seven
Annual pre-packaged Easter baskets--sometimes.
Didn't tell me I had siblings until I was nineteen
But later sent checks, writing in the memo:
Glory Days. Maybe it's better to think of Glory Moments that shine on. Like going to the Bruce concert in 2012, my kind son serving as human stair railing as we sat in the very last row of Wrigley and I was in musical bliss for four hours. Getting published and getting to read my work at 57th Street Books. The feeling of glory when simply sitting at Dunkin' Donuts, decaf coconut-flavored coffee by my side, writing while pop music plays and the old guys sit in back criticizing nowadays. Unexpected joys, from a spring dandelion to a book sale.
Do cats need us? An Internet post laughs, says, "No." My son says, "But that's what I like about cats. They're independent." Huh--he's pretty happy when D greets him when he comes home from work, squeaking excitement. Do our cats just regard me as food-giver, litter-scooper? Mrs. S, years ago, said that people were the same way, that we "loved" each other because we needed each other for survival. Does love really exist? People sacrifice themselves, give up their lives for others--but some would say there's a group-survival mechanism at work here, too. I want to believe love is more.
No, this Starbucks isn't a good after-swimming writing place; it's not Caribou, comfy with checkerboard tables, and it's not Dunkin', with a nice cross-section of humanity enjoying donuts. This atmosphere feels too yuppy and upper class. I'll have to find another writing place, but where? Burger King? In morning, their coffee probably won't be too bad. The independent coffee shop on IP? If I munch on peanuts beforehand, I can just buy coffee and safe money. I need to take a walk in the Y neighborhood and explore coffee options, because writing is a great motivational treat after swimming laps!
On Sunday, I went for my swimming lesson, and a mishap turned out wonderful! Swimming from one end to the other, I felt my instructor nudge me, so I assumed I was at the dividing line, smack between shallow and deep ends. I stepped down. Only I wasn't at the dividing line, but still in the deep end, and my feet were not going to touch the pool floor! But somehow I bounced right back up and finished the lap. My instructor applauded me, and I applauded myself! Now to see if I'm less chicken swimming away from the wall.
I hate getting sick, the exhaustion and congestion that makes your head too fuzzy for coherent creativity. Years ago, I jokingly complained to my boss P that I wished I could detach my head. He took offense; I got the impression that because he used a wheelchair, able-bodied me shouldn't complain about anything as insignificant as a head cold. Of course, he had a point. But that's why J and I could be bestfriends; sure, she used a wheelchair and I didn't, but she listened to my little woes and I listened to her bigger woes and we were buddies.
Three has been my lucky number since I was eleven years old in Ms. P's class at St. A's, during the happiest year of my childhood, maybe my life. For some reason, Ms. P had us draw numbers from a basket, with the winner to get a Barbie-like doll. I think the doll was a little younger than Barbie and not a brand name. I picked the number three and won the doll! That was the first time I ever won anything. At home, I had fun sewing clothes for her and introducing her to my tempera-painted cardboard box dollhouse.
Tonight's the Republican debate; I wonder how awful it will be. Probably a lot of racist talk about "illegals" (as though a person can be "illegal") and empty rhetoric about "making our country great again." My son wonders when Trump and followers think America was great. The fifties, when Jim Crow was thriving and Emmett Till murdered? During the Reagan era, when under Reaganomics the rich started their path to getting richer and richer, with precious little trickling down for the rest of us? Of course, not even Democrats mention people who are poor; they focus on middle class folks.
I come to Dunkin' at lunchtime hoping to finish my 100 words for the month but the time element blocks me; I must be home and back at work by 1:30 p.m. Funny--I'm sure lots of people seeing me stroll over here assume I'm retired, not working 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. I'm doing exactly the same work I'd do at the office; sometimes I work late and on weekends. Not complaining! I love the lack of commute. Why should I care what others think of me? But that's the thing--working from home is lonely, I do care.
I wish I didn't get jealous. I envy my brother and sister-in-law for being college professors. I'm jealous of people in my writing group who have had books published. I'm jealous of people in orchestras, feeling a nagging guilt that I should have kept up with my violin. I'm jealous of people who have earned PhDs, again feeling I should have done that. But--did I want to? I want to write, and I do write for a living, no name in lights, but was that ever my goal? I measure myself by shallow standards of people I don't even like.
Mansplaining. My son explained the term--men "explaining" the simplest stuff to women, assuming that because of our gender, we're clueless. I get that a lot, not just from men. When I was unemployed years ago, a couple of female college students brightly advised me to at least "get out." Huh? I was going on twelve interviews a week. When I vented to K about having to tell my son he couldn't go over to friends because he had a fever, K told me, "That's what parenting is all about." I'm guessing his condescension stemmed from me being a single mom.
What can I write about the death of our cat H? She had a warning sticker on her chart at the vet's. I'm sure the techs shook their heads at my tears--she's crying over that cranky mean cat? But she was never mean to me. She was shy. When she came to live with us from the shelter, it took her forever to get nerve to hop up and curl at the bottom of my bed at night; if I woke up and moved, she's fly away. But over the years, she got more comfy and slept by my pillow.
My 12-year-old nephew wants me to write another story about the mischievous witch; he suggests that I have her cat start school. "What kind of school," I ask, "magical school or cat school?" "Cat school," he promptly replies, and I see my sister-in-law smile. So, a writing assignment, but a tricky one. How do I show M in school? How does she communicate with the other cats? The other cats are from non-magical backgrounds. Does the human teacher use cat language? Telepathy? The human cats aren't as mischievous as M, don't play as many tricks. Does she do magical stuff?
I struggle trying to depict a diverse background in my writing. It's easy, with main characters, to go in-depth about their backgrounds, but what about minor ones? I want to show that the fictional school is diverse. How do I do that without bluntly identifying nationalities, without minor characters being stereotypes? I tend to base characters on people I know, but knowledge of any group I'm not part of is limited. Hell, knowledge of groups I'm part of is limited--I'd never claim to speak for all straight Irish American sixty-year-old females. Maybe the effort to be diverse is something, though.
Yesterday, after I rushed aboard the A bus, one of the Dunkin' workers greeted me. I almost didn't recognize her, as I'm only used to seeing her behind the orange counter. She mentioned being tired, asked if I'd been there earlier.
"Are you a teacher?"
"No, I'm a writer."
Immediately she turned to her phone. I added, quickly, "I work for a school, write on my own time," but she just nodded, kept eyes on her phone. I had the feeling that if I'd said I was a teacher, the conversation would have continued. What's wrong with being a writer?
Monthly breakfast with H at IHOP, and we conclude, smiling, as she drops me off, "Fun as always." During our conversation, ranging from our families to our work to politics and religion, she told me something her mother once said: "The only sin is not to be happy." Because God created this wonderful world, so not appreciating it and life is a sin. That is a beautiful thought, something I need to remember. Makes sense--it's when people are unhappy that they do hurtful things. Of course, it's more complicated--what about depression, a physical illness? Still, happiness is a good--and moral--goal.
Today was FSB's grand reopening after the fire! A new red awning decorates the Mexican restaurant, celebratory streamers sway outside; you walk in, wind chimes sing. A guy at a table pronounces, "I was here on your last day, now I'm here on your first day!" The woman at the counter greets me, "Long time!" Someone brings flowers. Passerby glance in as we fans rejoice!
FSB is just a little fast food restaurant, but the people who own it are nice, the hours long and prices cheap; you can sit there as long as you like. Comfy. I've missed FSB!
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