All of us prefer our own neuroses. They are so much more realistic, so much more deserving of the attention we lavish on them than other people’s paltry, ill-advised, misconceived neuroses.
My family thrives on neuroses, so it is a little suspicious that Annika seems to be free of them. She is also very musically gifted, again a suspicious circumstance. Possibly she is a changeling. Of course, my family is very open to strangers and welcomes Annika quite as if she were one of us. I have tried to encourage her to acclimate by celebrating with her the one neurosis she has. Between you and me, you could hardly call it a neurosis. She explained to me that she does not like people to sit on her bed once it is made; she called this a neurosis, but it is a poor, pathetic approximation of a neurosis. Nevertheless, I am a supportive aunt, so I helped her to write a song about it. It is played, unfortunately, to those few fragments of classical music that Annika knows how to play on the piano with one hand. These are not easy songs to write lyrics to, and the lyrics have suffered accordingly.
Kaarin and Annika being musical
The first verse begins like this: “Somebody sat on my bed when I’d already made it and they messed it up, Now I have to remake it,” continuing in an even lesser vein for three verses and a ticked-off refrain. Bearing more or less the relation to the glory of song-writing that Annika’s protectiveness of her bed bears to the drama of neuroses, “The Bed Wrecker” is not what you would call a good or even catchy song. Nevertheless, I wrote up the final version of the lyrics on a sheet of paper, and Annika and Tom have played and sung them vigorously numerous times. Chuck made a photocopy of this precious sheet of lyrics and handed it to me when he came to visit. Almost as an afterthought, he asked if he could keep the original. Sure, I said, but why? “I like to keep original art,” he said.
Annika did not object to Chuck’s keeping the original lyrics for our song (as she pointed out later, the true original is on several pages of a tiny wire-bound notepad; he just has the fairhand copy), but she would not let Chuck keep the original of the cartoon story that she, Kaarin, and I drew. It is the unforgettable story of a girl who goes shopping and eventually is kidnapped by aliens. Chuck had to be satisfied with a scan.
Kaarin and Annika drawing
Annika and Audrey drawing
It is a shame about Annika’s failure of neurosis, for she comes from solid neurotic stock. For a month before I came out to Corvallis to stay with Tom and Annika, Barb and Joe fretted. In the two weeks they would be gone, what might not happen? Would the furnace break? What if the cats threw up on the rug? Would Audrey see the box of Cheerios in the cupboard or would she buy more? Would Tom remember to take out the garbage? Would Annika be late to her flute lessons? For weeks beforehand, my sister sent me email every day explaining things in detail. I have been coming to stay with the kids for over a decade, so it might have been thought that I would have the basics down, but things are different now, Barb said. Now, says Barb, she is more “prepared,” more “organized,” the upshot of this being that I got twenty-five pages of typed, single-spaced, closely reasoned instructions before I even got to Corvallis, and thrice-daily phone calls and emails after I arrived. Meanwhile, for weeks in anticipation, Joe was busy fixing the furnace. Every day he tried a new way of fixing it. Each time he fixed it, he showed Tom how to fix it the new way, while being sure not to forget any of the old ways, in case those also worked. Joe wrote out instructions for both Tom and me, as well as for Chuck when he visited. On the fridge, as a last resort, were the name and phone number of the furnace repair people. Despite never having showed up in the past, the furnace people like to be humored with phone calls that suggest that they might show up if really needed.
Acknowledging his excessive worry, Joe laughed at himself. “Probably nothing will happen,” he said. “It never happens to me,” added Barb. “It is only when Joe is here that the furnace breaks. I think it probably just fixes itself if he is not around.”
The day after Thanksgiving, Barb and Joe left for their cruise, stopping to visit Mom and Dad in Florida on the way for a few days. There were no problems with the furnace or anything else, although this did not affect the unabated barrage of phone calls and emails that the kids and I received more or less hourly, checking on everything from the neighbor’s bunny rabbits to the provident use of leftovers.
On the morning of the day that Barb and Joe were to leave Florida and the phone calls ceased, the furnace broke. I woke up to a cold house.
No one else woke up because waking up is not a popular event around here, especially on school days. When you wake anyone up, they say, “What? What?” as if they had never heard of anyone getting up before noon. It was cold out, and wet, and the Oregon damp gets under your skin. I turned up the thermostat. After a while, Tom wandered into the kitchen, looking around vaguely. I asked him what he needed to do before setting off for school. Although I phrased it in the form of an interested inquiry, I already knew what he needed to do before leaving for school. I was trying to provide him with an organizational prompt to help him get things clear in his mind, help him plan. According to Tom, he is an excellent planner, but the fact is that two thirds of the things that he gets done without someone else’s planning and reminders and urgings and undisguised threats are things that he passionately wanted to do. So far, these invariably have included making movies and eating pizza but less frequently have involved doing history or physics homework.
Tom was happy to tell me what he needed to do before school. He likes to talk about things like that, although not necessarily to do them. If planning were merely talking, Tom would be an excellent planner. He is not a big talker first thing in the morning, though. “Um, get dressed, eat breakfast, make my lunch, get my backpack together,” he said. I reminded him of the other things he needed to do. He debated some of these but in the end agreed to them readily enough. Then he got out a bowl and filled it with cereal, poured milk over it, and left. After a while, I went to his room to check on him. He was editing his latest video.
“How long before you have to leave for school?” I asked.
Tom checked his watch. “Twelve minutes,” he said.
“In that case, master planner,” I said, though I did not really say, “master planner,” “it would be best if you did all the things that you have to do before you worked on your video.” He claimed that working on the video was in fact one of the things he had to do. Not in the same way that he had to get dressed, eat, and make his lunch, I pointed out. I suggested that the best place to start would be getting dressed and eating his cereal.
A minute later, Tom was back in the kitchen, wearing the T-shirt he had worn to bed, now accompanied by pants instead of pajama bottoms. He could check “get dressed” off his list. He looked down at his feet. “Oh,” he said, and went off to scrounge up some socks.
Tom’s clothes closet
“How about a shirt?” I suggested when he came back carrying the socks. It seemed awfully cold to me.
“A shirt? I’m wearing a shirt,” Tom pointed out.
“A long-sleeved shirt,” I elaborated.
“A long-sleeved shirt?” Tom asked.
“Yes,” I said. “A shirt with long sleeves. Do you have one?”
“Like a coat or a jacket, do you mean?” Tom asked.
“No, not a coat, a shirt,” I repeated.
“I’m wearing a shirt,” Tom explained.
“One with long sleeves,” I repeated.
“I don’t think I have one,” Tom said. I offered to look in his room for one. It wasn’t necessary, Tom told me; what he was wearing was what he always wore.
“Don’t you get cold?” I asked.
“Sure I get cold,” he said. “That’s why I have a coat.”
“Don’t you get cold at school, I mean,” I said. “Don’t you get cold inside, in the classroom? Or do you wear your coat inside, too?”
“Oh no, it is very hot in the classroom,” Tom assured me. Later, when Annika got up, she put on a long-sleeved shirt and a thick sweatshirt. It is a good thing that Annika doesn’t go to Tom’s school. She would be ridiculously hot in a get-up like that.
By the time that Tom had done his chores and snuck in a few minutes he didn’t have on his editing, I had noticed that the furnace was not working, but it was too late to ask Tom to fix it. It didn’t matter, I told myself. Probably it would fix itself while he was gone. It was a good time to test out my sister’s theory.
Naturally, I did not tell Barb and Joe about the furnace. Joe would have done nothing but worry from then on, and he would not be able to check email from the ship. Even if he could, he would worry the whole time. I preferred for them to think everything was fine, that their luck had turned.
Things had not begun propitiously. This confirmed their tendency to worry. Their plane to Florida and mine from Salt Lake were supposed to overlap: just as mine arrived in Portland, theirs would be taking off. Chuck and the kids brought Barb and Joe to the airport and then waited to pick me up. As I came towards the security gates, though, I saw Barb walking towards me. Their plane had been delayed, she told me with a hug; Joe came up and added that they had been rescheduled, but that that plane had refused to let on any of the newly assigned passengers. They were looking at a minimum of ten hours before they could leave. “I should call Mom,” said Barb fretfully, “to tell her that we’re delayed, so that Dad won’t try to meet the flight, but it costs $15 a minute to call collect. We already tried once but no one was home.”
It is unbelievable that collect calls cost fifteen dollars a minute. It makes you long for FDR or Johnson, or even Nixon.
I handed Barb my cell phone and she called Dad’s cell, but Dad didn’t answer; she had to leave a message. “Try them at home again,” I suggested. This time Mom picked up the phone.
Barb spoke quickly and urgently. “Mom,” she said, “this is Barb. We’re still at the airport in Portland. I’m on Aud’s cell phone. Put Dad on, will you? I want Joe to talk to Dad.” There was a flurry of back-and-forth talk in which it became clear to Joe and me that Dad was not there and that no useful information was being exchanged. “Mom,” said Barb, “I need to go, but just tell Dad that our flight is delayed. We won’t be there tonight. I’ll try to call back later, when we know more.” She hung up, handed me the phone, and chased after Joe, who was by now back in line at the gate, getting their tickets changed again. As I came up, Joe was telling Barb their flight options, none of which she liked. When they finally settled on an arrangement, I called Mom myself.
“Mom,” I said, “it’s Audrey.”
“Thank God it’s you, Audrey,” said Mom. “I was afraid it was going to be your sister. She keeps calling me. One time she called me collect. I didn’t recognize her voice and I figured it was probably someone in jail, so I hung up on her.”
I took this in stride. It is no use inquiring into the logic of this sort of freestanding fantasy. You will just get off track from what you yourself wanted to say. My mother does not know anyone in jail, so there was no real reason for her to hang up on collect calls on the grounds that they might be from someone in jail, but as she knows many people that she thinks should be in jail, I figured it was probably just wishful thinking. “Yes, she was calling to let you know that their flight is delayed,” I told Mom. I explained the situation.
She listened dutifully, then asked, “How do you know all this?”
“I’m standing right here with them,” I said. “When Barb called before, she was calling on my cell phone.”
“Standing right where?” said Mom.
“In the Continental ticket line,” I said.
“But where? Which town?” Mom asked.
“Portland,” I told her. “Barb and Joe haven’t left the airport yet.”
“Oh, Portland,” she said. “What are you doing there?”
“I’m here to stay with the kids,” I reminded her. I was in fact late to meet them, so I moved the conversation along. “Mom, do you have a piece of paper and a pencil?” I asked. She said that she did, so I told her that Barb and Joe were switching to a Delta flight and I gave her flight number and time of arrival. I made her read it back to me twice. “Now remember to tell Dad not to pick them up tonight. They won’t be coming into Tampa till tomorrow morning,” I said. “They’re taking the red-eye.”
“Oh, the red-eye,” said Mom. “Poor things. Is Barbara very stressed?”
“Very,” I said.
“Give her a big hug and kiss for me,” said Mom. “Give them both one.”
Barb and Joe came back out the security gate with me to join Chuck and Tom and Annika, who had been waiting long past when everyone else from my plane had come through the security gates. Eventually, Chuck and Tom had gone off to get my luggage, confidently plucking my black suitcase out from all the other black suitcases. They had brought it up to the security gate and were hiding behind a pillar with it, hugging one another like friendly statues, while Annika waited out in the open for me. She pointed out Chuck and Tom behind the pillars for me.
I don’t have a photo of Tom and Chuck playing statues, but here they are in Eugene
Chuck and Tom had not worried at all about my non-appearance. They had assumed that I had arrived, had assumed that my luggage had arrived, and had made convenient artistic arrangements for my discovery of the hugging statues when I finally came through the security gates. They were confident, patient, unfettered by woe. Chuck and Tom are not very much like the rest of us.
Joe told everyone about his and Barb’s delay and refused Chuck’s invitation to take them back home and bring them back at ten that night. “No, it would be more convenient to stay here. Then we’re right here,” said Joe.
“Why isn’t it more convenient to be in our house and not be here?” asked Chuck. For a surreal person, my brother can be remarkably reasonable. “Why is it convenient to stay at the airport for ten hours?” After a certain amount of shillyshallying, Joe allowed as how it could be more convenient to be at Chuck’s and Kaarin’s house in Portland than at the airport in Portland. We piled into the car to go to the house.
Not at the airport
Kaarin met us at the door. “Your mother called,” she told us. “She said that she had received a garbled message from Audrey and that she wanted to find out what was really going on.” Joe tried calling back but no one was home. He left a message. Then he called their cell phone and left a message on that, too. Over the course of the afternoon, he sent Dad three emails with full details of the new flight itinerary and requests for Dad to email him back. He never heard back. Finally, he called Mom and Dad again. This time Dad answered. Joe asked him if he gotten the revised flight itineraries that I had given Mom on the phone and that he had emailed Dad. “Hi, Joe,” said Dad. “I figured out that you must be on Delta and I looked up their itineraries online. You don’t need to tell me the itinerary. I already know it.” There is such a thing as taking distrust of one’s children too far, but as yet my parents have not figured out how far that would be.
Having done my bit for the clarification of the issues, the first thing I did at Chuck and Kaarin’s was what I always do first at Chuck and Kaarin’s. I take pictures of their neighbor’s house. It is a bold, opinionated house that clashes with the rest of the neighborhood and even with itself, but it is kind of refreshing, in its way. When I called Ivan from the hotel where I was staying in Phoenix a few months ago, I said morosely, “The hotel room is decorated in a tasteful blend of sand and salmon. It is almost unrelievedly neutral except for where the teal wallpaper band below the ceiling clashes with the forest green curtains.” Awed by so much neutrality, Ivan begged me to take pictures, but I wouldn’t. The memories are too bleak.
In Chuck’s and Kaarin’s neighborhood, there is no question of an overabundance of tasteful, restrained, dampening neutrality. Their neighbors are all one-of-a-kind. Actually, so are Chuck and Kaarin, but the outside of their house does not advertise this. To be fair, it cannot be easy to express oneself in authentic terms next to an orange and purple house, and it is perhaps wisest not to try.
Barb and Joe also have an interesting neighbor. In her case it is the yard rather than the house that is so interesting. There are broken-down chairs everywhere, artfully arranged along with ladders, a shower curtain, large chunks of styrofoam, suitcases, old brass mailboxes, tiny birdhouses, flags, braces of shovels, scattered cement blocks, broken pots, stacks of bicycles, and empty birdcages. Surveying a sea of bikes, I asked Annika interestedly, “Does she ride a bike?” “No,” said Annika. But I suppose you never know when you might begin to do so, and this way if eight or nine bicycles break, you still have several more to choose from.
The front yard is impossible to miss. It struck me as almost a masterpiece of artfully arranged rubbish, but the back yard is actually more exciting because it does not have just broken chairs, broken planters, mailboxes, cement blocks, and little statues and plants surging out of their plastic containers. I had gone with Annika to help feed the neighbor’s bunnies, so I was able to admire the back yard as well as the front yard. The back yard has some real treasures. It is probably the only place where I have seen a shower curtain hanging outside and that is also where most of the bikes are kept. But the bikes are not the main thing. The main things are the suitcases, one of them in particular. I have never admired anything as much as I admired the suitcase that is mounted in a place of honor in the back yard. It is like a dream come true.
Unfortunately, the bunnies do not have a choice about the squalor they have to live in. When Annika and I checked their litter box, it hadn’t been changed in weeks. A fundamental right of bunnies is not to have to live in human-made squalor.
Think of me as the bunny police.
Annika with one of the bunnies
A neighbor around the corner also has a crowded front yard, but it is crammed full of new stuff rather than broken junk. Like the neighbor across the street, the one around the corner has plants in their original plastic containers plastered all over the yard, but here the ornamentation takes the form of little statues rather than decrepit chairs and mailboxes. The lions hold little horses and lizards and things between their paws; elsewhere in the yard, there are plaster monkeys, a puppy, some gnomes, deer, a couple of glum cows, a happy Winnie the Pooh, a multitude of frogs, and some heavy hummingbirds. It is rather a jolly yard, although probably hard to mow.
Kaarin particularly admired the plaster pigs in the birdbath.
In Salt Lake City, there is a gated property scattered about with blandly creepy statues rivaling anything I have seen in Corvallis or Portland. There are no overgrown plants, the statues are custom made, and their owner is obviously wealthy. Every neighborhood has its oddities. This yard has a fence to keep the statues safe and there are several security devices to keep people from stealing the statues. There are never any actual people or animals on the lawn. Instead, the statues are supposed to mimic real life — they are fence painters, dog walkers, dogs, and tourists. It is pretty eerie.
In our neighborhood, Ivan and I are the most interesting neighbors, although not as interesting as Ivan would like us to be. We do not have flamingos in the front yard. Ivan would really, really like us to have some pink flamingos in our yard. We now have quite a few photos of other people’s houses with pink flamingos and of charming pink flamingos that one could buy, as a reminder to me of how life could yet be lived.
Although the trip had not started off all that well for Barb and Joe, for me it started off fabulously. At least, it did after I got on the plane. In the airport at Salt Lake City I had to sit next to a fifty-year-old white man who, in a loud voice, told the woman with him that he could study anywhere, noises did not bother him. “I guess that’s why I am such a good student,” he said, “nothing bothers me.” “I find it hard to concentrate,” the woman with him said, “when there is a lot of noise around.” “I know you do,” he said, nodding at the book she was trying to read, “but that is where you and I are so different. People can talk all they want, the television can be on, none of it bothers me. No sir, I can just keep studying. It’s too bad you aren’t like me.” It was hard to listen to a lot of this, although I did. Not to as much, of course, as the woman who was with him.
But once I got to Portland, I got to spend time with Barb, Joe, Chuck, Kaarin, Tom, and Annika. When the kids and I got home from Portland, about five that Friday evening, I relaxed in Joe’s capacious leather Lazy Boy easy chair. It is incredibly soothing. Pretty soon I did not want to get up again. “Annika,” I said after a while, “do you really feel like having dinner or are you full?” “I’m full,” said Annika. When Tom came in, he said he was not full. “How would you feel about making yourself some pasta and adding your Mom’s pesto to it, then?” I asked, explaining that Annika and I were not hungry. “Sure,” he said. There is nothing he likes better than pasta with his Mom’s pesto, and if he can make it himself, he is sure of there being enough. As it was, there was more than enough. Having become hungry in the meantime, Annika and I ate the leftovers. Then we watched Grosse Pointe Blank together, with me almost prone in the Lazy Boy chair. A little way into the movie, Annika decided to break out some cambozola cheese with crackers. Placing the snacks in front of her, she carefully spread cheese on individual crackers, then handed them to me one by one. I barely had to move out of my prone position. Having me get waited on hand and foot probably was not what Barb and Joe had intended when they had me come out, but it was working out very well. It was like a Corvallis cruise.
Then, early Monday morning, the heat stopped working. Since it happened during the night, the house was already cold; it stayed cold. From time to time during the morning and early afternoon, the furnace made hopeful noises, but it did not put out any hot air. The noises were evidently not working noises but ruminative noises, ineffectual but well-meaning wouldn’t-it-be-a-good-idea noises. I would make myself tea, and after I removed the boiling kettle from the burner, I would warm my hands over the turned-off burner till it cooled. I did not try to fix the furnace myself, despite Tom having told me what it involved while Phyllis and Rick were visiting on Saturday. “The first thing you try if the furnace isn’t working,” Tom told us, “is you bang on this one place. If that doesn’t work, you can twist a knob. You have to kind of twiddle it. Then, if that doesn’t work, there is a button you can push. And if that doesn’t work, and Dad doesn’t think it will, then you can bang on this one other place. After that, if that doesn’t work, you can pound on another place. There’s also a tube you can squeeze. Sometimes that works. The last thing you try is you can replace this valve and then bang on it again.”
“So pretty much your best hope is to bang on the furnace in various places?” said Rick.
“That’s what it comes down to,” Tom agreed. Not being much of an engineer, I decided to leave things for Tom to fix when he got home.
Seven hours after I had turned up the heat, though, it came on, at first faintly and with a lack of really committed heat, but after a while with pride and vigor — all without engineering assistance. I started to say that the heat finally came on of its own accord, but it would be truer to say that for seven hours it refused to come on of its own accord. When at last it came on, it was a time of great joy for Stormy and me, let me tell you. Stormy had been on Barb and Joe’s bed all day, waiting for the heat to start, and I had been bundled up in blankets in the family room. Patches was outside. Patches does not believe in coming into a house unprotected by children. She does not care for adults, although she will make an exception for Joe, the Tuna Man. When Joe is gone, Tom and Annika fight over who gets to be Tuna Man and feed the cats tuna and be greatly beloved. There is no question of my doing so, of course. Stormy would accept it; she is not terribly discriminating in that way. But Patches would not dream of taking tuna from someone so obviously fitted to be a cat killer. When I come to Corvallis, Patches sits on the front walk and glares at me through the kitchen window. Presumably there is a plan here. Evidently, in Patches’ experience, a lot of cat killers just give up and go away when glared at through the kitchen window.
Recently, I conducted a wide-ranging drawing contest for the best representation of Tuna Man. The grand-prize winners, I am proud to say, were all from my own family. The selection of the judges is final.
|Tuna Man Drawing Contest Grand Winners by Annika, Barb, “Tom,” Chuck x 3, and Kaarin|
We are aware that none of the winning entries has much to do with Tuna Man and that one of them is forged, but we like them anyway. While the judges frown on moral turpitude, the fact is that depravity is rarely an obstacle to prize-winning. Compared with the crime rampant in the highest circles of government, the Tuna Man art forgery is so delicate, so discerning, so heartwarming a crime that it maybe even ought to receive extra credit. It is not as if it did not involve effort. When submitting his forgery, Tom wrote to say that he “dearly hoped that the actual number of tunas in the picture has some direct effect on the overall scoring of the particular piece.” He had gone to all the trouble to add extra fish to his forgery. That is surely worth something.
The losing entry
Although none of the prize-winning entries provided a recognizable portrait of the Tuna Man, some of the representations are more true to life than others. Any absolutely faithful representation of Tuna Man — and in my family we are all fiercely devoted to the precise factual truth — would have to include Stormy and Patches, who first called Tuna Man into existence. Patches may be especially responsible for his existence, since she is the one who has had to be bribed into adult human contact.
According to Barb, Patches feels relatively safe on the kids’ beds and “may actually purr and settle in once it is determined that today is not the day that you plan to kill her.” Joe always reassures her. “We are going to eat you,” he says, “just not today.” In warm weather, there is no need for Patches to be brave, but in cold, damp weather, she takes some risks. Even if there are serial cat killers in the basement, she would rather be in where it’s warm. But she only feels really safe if the kids are there. Encircled in Tom’s arms, she watches me balefully. She has met my type before.
Patches with Tom, keeping a sharp eye on me
Stormy, in spite of notable past mistreatment, was an oasis of calm. When Barb is home, she follows Stormy around the house until she settles in one place. Barb acknowledged that being stalked spooks Stormy. Nevertheless, she urged me to stalk her too, to ensure that Stormy did not do anything illegal. I pretended to agree but I did not really do it. I feel that we all are pretty busy with our own neuroses and it is too much to ask us to pinch hit for others in their neuroses just because they happen to be out of town and unable to exercise the full range of their neuroses themselves. Also, it is very unrewarding to stalk Stormy, who goes straight to Barb and Joe’s bed, lies down on Joe’s pillow, and then sleeps for eight hours straight unless interrupted by flute-playing. When Annika practices flute or piccolo, I let Stormy out. Other than that, I am far too busy adapting my own private neuroses to a new setting to have time to do more than gesture vaguely at enacting other people’s neuroses, which I do not see as all that interesting or realistic or pressing.
Since I regard my own neuroses as business-as-usual, I do not have much to say about them, but if you care to wait for a full portrait, Ivan is documenting them in detail. The plan is to compile them into a so-called fictional portrait. Or you could ask my sister. Despite having conducted no formal research whatsoever, Barb claims that my picture-taking is a form of neurosis. When I snapped the AP photographer who came to the house to take pictures of Ivan for an article on Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam, I kindly sent my sister copies of the photos. She said I was a “nut” to take photographs of the photographer. “What are you talking about?” I shot back. “It is perfectly normal to take pictures of photographers. In fact, it is people who do not take pictures of photographers that I principally object to.” Barbara understands very little about the nature of life fully lived, but of course she is not a philosopher.
Neko is like Patches in that he is frightened by the regular human inhabitants of his house and terrified of visitors. Although Neko does not glare at Ivan and me, he eyes our feet suspiciously, apparently regarding them as the most alarming of our outposts. If we come near him, he sproings straight up in the air. Compared with Gaston and Evie, he is timid, but this does not stop him from launching himself from the top of the Morris chair to land on Gaston in a heap. Gaston, who likes a nice rout, is very enthusiastic both about leaping and about being leaped upon. If we let him, he would like to have a puppy, but since we do not allow him to have a puppy of his own, he likes having kittens around. Harley does not care for the kittens all that much, but they are working on her.
Neko with Gaston
Neko and Harley
Barb and Joe and the kids have cats and Ivan and I have cats; Chuck and Kaarin have sock monkeys. They wrote to Aunt Maggie to explain this. Having sock monkeys was their alternative to children, they said. She wrote back graciously. “It is an idea,” she wrote, “to have toys instead of children.” You could tell it was an idea she hadn’t really thought of before.
Sock monkeys in Chuck’s and Kaarin’s kitchen
In spite of not having had children of his own, Chuck has somehow reproduced himself in Tom. Here are Tom and Chuck volunteering to have their pictures taken in Eugene.
Here is Tom videotaping my ankles.
Notice how almost preternaturally normal I seem, by comparison.
It is because of my normalcy that I can serve as a neutral family observer and provide reliable insider documentation.
When Phyl and Rick visited us in Corvallis, Rick lodged a complaint. “We have not been in a newsletter of yours for a long, long time,” he told me. “It is time we were in a story.” I did not ask him what he wanted me to say about him and Phyl; I already know that content is immaterial. Nobody in my family cares what I write about them, just so long as I mention them, preferably at length. “That was a very good story,” my father will tell me. “It was about your mother and me. That is the kind of story we like.” Family standards for story interest are not subtle or sophisticated. The stories do not have to have any sort of plot, do not have to be well written, and do not have to be especially coherent. They do not even have to be true, although it is possible that this particular standard or lack thereof has emerged as a result of the stories, rather than pre-existing them.
Phyl and Rick
It has always seemed to me that my stories are heavy on content, that they are in fact deeply revealing, but no one in my family thinks so. There is something to be said for the confidence that any story about oneself, regardless of content, is bound to be delightful and that no one will much mind the content anyway.
Tom has a version of this belief, not regarding stories about himself but about stuff he is working on for school. His version pertains to a video he was making about Greek mythology for a class. The Saturday after we got back from Portland, Tom and James spent the whole day on it, coming up with jokes and visual gimmicks that made them laugh heartily. “What about content?” I asked. “Content?” said Tom. “You know, anything actually about Greek mythology,” I explained. “Oh, we’re getting to that,” Tom assured me.
James and Tom working on the DVD together
Tom and James have been making science fiction movies together for over a year. Their first movie was a short about a teenager who gets stalked by teenage hit men from the future. Their next movie will be about a man who leads an imaginary life while on a decades-long trip into space. Conveniently, because cheaply, all the people in the future wear plain white uniforms. Tom has the first and last acts of his new feature film written, a lot of the special effects worked out, and some great angles planned. The only things he’s worried about are the middle act, which is where the actual drama is worked out, and the lack of good lines. “Unfortunately, the dialogue is pretty cheesy,” Tom told me. He is the writer, director, and producer of this movie; it is not hard to know where to put the blame for the cheesy dialogue. The plot, however, is well within hand. Tom told me about it on the drive back from Portland. The plot is extremely complicated, so he just gave me the bare bones version, which took an hour. Then he sketched out the special effects for me, which took another hour. At the end of the second hour, as we were pulling in to Corvallis, I was still troubled.
“Aren’t you worried about the cheesy dialogue?” I asked.
“Sure, I’m worried about the cheesy dialogue,” said Tom. “I was hoping that someone would help me with the cheesy dialogue.
”Oh,“ I said doubtfully. ”I suppose Chuck could help you. It would mean having some rather surreal dialogue, though.“
”I don’t need surreal dialogue,“ said Tom. ”This movie is already so surreal that most people won’t understand it, and I’m not going to explain it. What I need is uncheesy dialogue.“ He looked at me meaningfully. I didn’t volunteer to help. People in white uniforms all sound alike to me; any dialogue I gave them would all sound alike, too. Instead, I gave Tom helpful advice about filmmaking and friendship.
”I hope you are leaving James some room to play a creative role too,“ I said. ”He shouldn’t be relegated to just holding the camera.“
”He just holds the camera,“ Tom confirmed. ”You see, I’m also the cinematographer.“ Just turning the camera on and off seemed to me rather a thankless role for James, particularly since, as Barb later pointed out, it was his video camera, but Tom assured me that his creative vision requires total control. A couple of weeks later, he, James, Annika, Alice, and I were all at the Linus Pauling Middle School for Annika’s school concert. Tom was going to use his brand-new video camera, which he had received only the past weekend, to tape the concert, and he invited James to come and bring his boom mike along. Annika heard Tom tell James on the phone, with great satisfaction, ”This will be one more film project under our belts.“ She was very touched by how seriously Tom and James took the event.
I did have some reservations about Tom inviting James to Annika’s concert primarily so that he could bring along his boom mike. I pointed out that James might not wish to go to a concert just so that he could bring his boom mike and also pointed out that he might have homework, but apparently James took very little persuading. Tom arranged for James to come at the same time the three of us would. I reminded Tom that he and I needed to be there a half hour early because of dropping off Annika, but that James might want to come later. There was no reason, I said, that James had to be there half an hour early. ”Yes, there is,“ said Tom. ”We will probably need that half hour to talk.“ ”Probably“ is a major term in Tom’s vocabulary and means ”I can’t imagine any other possibility that, realistically speaking, would work, or that I would not argue against.“
After the concert, when Tom and I were talking, he said something about there being more than one Tom. I turned to James. ”How many Toms would you say there are?“ I asked him.
Tom tuned out for this discussion. He is the only person I know who is not interested in people talking about him even if he is only one step away. He began to fantasize about editing, which he likes better than actual filming.
”Based on tonight, but also on my past experience, I would say there are three Toms,“ said James. ”There is the Tom who says, ’I can’t do this.’ Then there is the Tom who says, ’I can do this.“ Finally, there is the Tom who says, ’Only I can do this.’”
Alice came to the concert too, to be there for Annika’s big moment. Annika is section leader of the flutes and at the school concert she played the piccolo as well as a flute solo. She was completely self-possessed, looked like an angel, and played beautifully. I wanted to leap up shouting, “I’m with her!” Alice’s dad had told her that if anyone looked at her, she should say, “What are you looking at me for? Look at her! That’s my home girl!” After the concert, Alice squeezed Annika’s cute cheeks. “Cheekies — goin’ for the cheekies!” she said. Not that it is only in a congratulatory spirit that Alice pats Annika’s cheeks. “Sometimes,” Annika said in the car on the way to swim practice, “I will be saying something uninteresting and Alice’s eyes will start to drift to my cheeks and she gets kind of mesmerized and then she pinches my cheeks.” “Like today, on the bus, when you recited the Declaration of Independence for the eighth time,” Alice agreed.
Tom filming Alice and Annika after the concert
At the concert, I sat next to Alice, as close to the front as I could, partly to have a good view and partly to take pictures. Tom and James stood at the back of the audience with the boom mike, tripod, and video camera, getting various angles and close-ups. This was only partially successful. Tom said later, “The main action in the video is you, Audrey, taking all those photos.” Careful to highlight this interesting source of action, Tom zoomed in on me with his camera every time I popped up from my seat. The three main events in the video, he told me, are general shots of the band, close-ups of Annika playing her flute or piccolo, and close-ups of me popping up to take pictures. To the disinterested observer, this might not seem like the best possible set of choices on the part of the cinematographer, but it is a lot better than the choices that the one disinterested observer I know of did make. There was a nine-year-old boy sitting across the aisle from and one seat behind me, wielding a video camera so heavy that he had to sway it around on his small shoulder. Because his sister is in the band, his video showed up in Annika’s band class the day after the concert. Interspersed with close-ups of the little boy’s sister, Annika told me, were close-ups of my butt whenever I stood up to take another photo. Someone in band asked, “Whose butt is that?” and Annika, suspiciously saintly, said, “My aunt’s.” I am very grateful to Tom for not being this boy and not making these choices.
In the car on the way to the concert, Tom and James discussed the power of the boom mike. “People are going to be so impressed,” said Tom. “They might even think we’re professionals. You don’t have a boom mike like this even if you might have a really nice camera.” The two of them went on in this vein for some time.
“Are you more concerned with getting good sound quality or looking like you’re getting good sound quality?” I asked them. “You are talking as if you are mostly interested in the kind of impression you make on other people and not on the actual quality of the sound.”
“Oh, we’ll get good quality sound,” said James. “There’s no question of that.”
“We already know that,” agreed Tom. “That’s why we can concentrate on the impression we’re making.”
The first Saturday night I was in Corvallis, Tom stayed up till about 1:00, working on his Theseus video for his mythology class. I had mentioned to him that he needs to arrange his time better — that this one video was not worth as much time as it took, and certainly was not equal to more than all his math, physics, history, and English homework combined. At first, Tom agreed, but only seconds later he had convinced himself that, in fact, “probably” the video actually was worth more than everything else he was supposed to be doing. (I asked him if he had any evidence for this; he said no.) Also, it soon dawned on him that he was, in fact, an excellent planner. It is hard to argue with people who make up facts as they go along and blissfully believe them, so I did not try. It did not seem like the best use of my time. I thought maybe I would talk with him when he had finished it and might not yet have had occasion to make up new, even more useful facts. My main worry was whether there was going to be any scholarly content to this video. So far, I had only heard jokes.
Sunday, Tom and James spent most of the day coming up with more jokes and special effects. Around four o’clock Gabe (aka “Jack”) came by to voice the rest of the narration for the video. It is not absolutely clear why James and Gabe are expected to devote their own time to Tom’s project, but Tom feels strongly that this is in the best interests of all. Chuck denies that he and Tom are alike, and in this particular respect I must say that I think he is right. Tom is more like Gaston. No one could call him the aloof, silent type who prefers to work out his genius in solitude. Not that Chuck is either, but we are not speaking of Chuck. We are speaking of Tom and Gaston. Tom and Gaston believe, and the belief is so deep as to be not merely a credo but a basic fact of being, that things must be worked on together and that real progress can only be achieved by a vigorous group of two or three or more. When Gaston initiates the chomping on and tearing up of a cardboard box, there is deep satisfaction in the knowledge that the kittens are joining in, ripping and shredding, watching him for any new line of thought that might occur to him.
Consulting Gaston about the box
Although Tom does not credit me on his mythology video, I feel a great deal of ownership in it because I have seen it twenty-seven times. I told Tom that the credits should have listed Annika and me as “Chief Audience,” but he dismissed that. Nor did he acknowledge an inspired piece of video sleight of hand for which I am largely responsible and that I consider indispensable to the success of the video. At one point, Tom mentioned that he was running into trouble with a particular scene, getting the speaking lines of his narrator in sync with the corresponding movement in the mouth of his cartoon anchor man. “In the rest of the video,” he said, “I can distract viewers with the other things that are happening, but here the only thing to look at is this guy talking.”
“Then add something to distract the viewer,” I suggested.
“Like what?” said Tom.
“You could have a chicken walk across the screen,” I said thoughtfully.
“A chicken? What would a chicken be doing there?” Tom asked.
“Okay, okay, a Greek person, then,” I said.
“Like a little animated figure in a toga? I guess I could find one of those,” said Tom. “Do you really think that that’s a good idea?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” I said.
He laughed and laughed. “Couldn’t hurt!” he echoed. Like that was any more offbeat and surreal than his decisions. I thought mine was a very good suggestion and probably would even add much-needed content.
In the end, Tom inserted a miniature schoolboy walking in front of the narrator’s desk. It is very effective in distracting the eye. It is also rather surreal, as there is just this tiny, happy schoolboy strolling across in front of the desk, oblivious to what is going on, while the narrator in turn is oblivious to him. I said to Tom, “If they ask you what that is, tell them, ’This is my signature appearance, like Hitchcock. The schoolboy is me.’”
Tom prefers to deny everything. “If they ask, ’What is that schoolboy doing there?’ I will just say, ’Schoolboy? There’s no schoolboy’,” he decided. No one asked, however, not even the teacher. The video turned out beautifully and was very well received, although Tom said that the class laughed harder at the pauses than at the jokes. Other than the version on Tom’s computer, I own the only copy in existence. I am delighted to let people watch it but no one is allowed to actually borrow it and take it home. It stays right here with me.
Almost as soon as he finished the video, Tom had to write a short story. He took on this new assignment dutifully enough, even trying to stretch himself as a writer, but it would be too much to say that he enjoyed it. The story was supposed to revolve around some insight he he’d had about nature. When Tom asked for my advice on his first draft, I was a little dubious. “Well, if it is supposed to be about nature, I think you will have to say more about nature than that there are some trees off in the distance,” I explained. “Do you know anything about nature?”
“No,” said Tom, who preferred to leave things that way. I asked if he couldn’t imagine nature from a gardener’s point of view or even one of the cats’ point of view. He said that that would be impossible. Instead, he wrote a heavily moralistic legend in which nature, serving merely figuratively, was less prickly than in real life. This story may not have been what the teacher had in mind, but she was lucky to get it. Tom’s story was seven pages long; everyone else wrote a half page, mostly poems along the lines of “Fire, fire, how it rages, Fire, fire, how it’s hot, Fire, I fear it.” “I think my story is better than that,” said Tom. We agreed that it could hardly be worse.
Although Tom labored over his story, it was not a labor of love. “I will be so glad when I have this short story finished and I can concentrate on just regular homework,” he told me. The next afternoon he came home with the short story to revise and an enormous new project assigned for the following week.
Both Tom and Annika have an absurd amount of homework, although Tom’s is even more ridiculous than Annika’s. Annika and I did homework together till 10:30 every night, when I went to bed. Then she practiced her flute for an hour. Tom stayed up till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning doing homework. Once, when he came home from school and fooled around a little before settling to his homework, I said, “Why don’t you dive into your homework straight away? That way you can look forward to having time later to fool around in.” “Because there won’t be any time later,” he said morosely. “It doesn’t matter how long I stay up. It’s never done.” This is not what the big shots in Washington, DC, say. They claim that kids today don’t have enough homework. Must be an east coast phenomenon.
Tom did not ask for help with his homework very often, but on the few occasions he did, my input was pretty much indispensable, as with the Greek mythology video. There is nothing like having an education professor as an aunt to guarantee top quality in one’s homework.
My own knowledge base deepened considerably while I was in Corvallis. It was like being on one of those educational cruises. I came out a deep thinker. Ask me anything about the myth of Theseus, climates, or the rotation of paddles in relation to something or other on submarines and I will be happy to answer. For a while, I could even help Annika with her math problems, but my flurry of mathematical competence lasted fewer than ten days. At the beginning it was kind of fun. The initial story problems were along the lines of “Mary has two blackberry pies. Betsy and Jane also want pies. How many more pies would Mary need for each of them to have twelve pies?” But by the end of the second week, the math story problems had escalated to near-futility. A typical second-week math story went something like this: “Imagine you have a turbo-charged engine. In it, the pistons move at 90 mph, the crankshaft rotates at 4000 rpm, the radiator hose is slipping off at the rate of 13 cm per hour, and the driver has changed the radio station 8 times in the last minute and a half. Pretend that the car hits a hole in the pavement. The hole has a depth of 5 cm and is roughly 52 cm in diameter. If it were raining, how much water would be in the hole? Do you have any real proof? How long would it take the driver to get the car back on the right side of the road? How long before his mother in the passenger seat turns off the radio? In seventeen words or less, explain the significance of the pistons, tying them in with a general theory of mathematics.”
Because Annika likes to be interactive in doing her homework, I learned far more about math, outer space, and submarines than is my usual lot in life. I also got to practice my Vocabulary. Years ago, I had a student complain that I used “too much Vocabulary” in class. Apparently “Vocabulary” in this technical sense refers to words that only appear in vocabulary books.
Annika is very thorough about learning her vocabulary, but she only learns exactly what the book tells her. If it doesn’t make any sense, this is not really her problem. For me, it was more of a problem. I like words to mean what they really mean, not what the vocabulary book says they do, and I also like them to be kind of useful and interesting. This is not the outlook espoused by Annika’s vocabulary book. What her book counts as a definition of “huzzah” is “exclaim.” “Repose” is “nap”; “importunate” is “too bad”; “philosopher” is “a deep thinker who goes with the flow.” The book’s ideas of illustrative sentences include “He seemed truculent” and “She stood near the stanchion, mesmerized, counting her lucky constellations.”
In addition to her regular vocabulary words, Annika spent several days memorizing the Declaration of Independence. As it had not occurred to her teacher to ask any of the students to consider what the language of the Declaration meant, most students did not inquire deeply into that issue unless pressed by aunts. A few days into the Declaration of Independence unit, the teacher played a song from the seventies consisting of lyrics from the Declaration, after which Annika began singing the song at home. She has a great voice and it is a fine Declaration of Independence, but there are actually only so many times a day one cares to hear it sung or recited. Still, I was curious as whether there was a limit to how many times Annika would in fact recite it. “We hold these truths ...,” I would murmur to myself in the kitchen. From whichever part of the house Annika was in, a ringing voice would take up the challenge, carrying through all the way to the end of whatever Annika had memorized thus far.
Tom, paying only intermittent attention, was not troubled by the repetition. “That song was banned from the radio in the seventies,” he told us conversationally. “It was considered too controversial.” Tell me about it.
One evening at dinner, Tom explained that what he would really like to do would be to demonstrate how all of U.S. history can be compared to various Simpsons shows. The next morning, he mentioned that he couldn’t understand why his class spent so much time going over history that they had already learned backwards and forwards. By the by, he said, he had had no idea that Jefferson was so accomplished a president. He had assumed that he was just some writer that they hired to write the Declaration of Independence in unnecessarily convoluted prose. “It is possible that you may not have had too much history yet, after all,” I suggested.
In one of her classes, Annika was assigned to play Abigail Adams. It was supposed to be a team effort but Annika was the only person on the team to show up. She was given a drawing of Abigail Adams’ face to color in and use as a mask and told to research Adams’ position on various questions. Annika taped the face to a stick and planned to don a medieval costume that she had sewed for herself. Annika knows that Abigail Adams was not medieval; she just likes wearing the medieval costume. Another interesting anachronism was that every character was supposed to have a symbol representing them. Annika asked me what she should use. Helpful as always, I said, “How about the 1970s feminist fist symbol?” Annika was delighted. “Yes!” said Annika. Tom helped her research the symbol on the web and took infinite care in getting the image just right, even though Annika was just going to copy it by hand anyway. He is a very sweet brother but he was also stalling on his own homework.
Tom had not gotten enough sleep the night before. That morning, when it was time for him to leave on his bike and he still had not made his lunch, I went to check on him. I figured he might be fooling around on the computer. But he was not on the computer. He had gone back to bed after breakfast and fallen asleep. When I finally managed to herd him towards the door, he almost forgot to put on socks and shoes before leaving on his bike. Earlier, his cereal had overflowed the bowl by about an extra half cup. “Small bowl?” I inquired sympathetically. “Tired,” he said. But he did not throw away the extra cereal; he kept sweeping it into the bowl and going back to the fridge for regular refills on milk to make it come out even.
By that evening, he was totally slap happy, telling himself jokes in voices with foreign accents, talking to an imaginary French friend, singing to himself in a French accent, and generally making a lot of noise while supposedly reading his physics homework. At one point, he started laughing uproariously because, he said, “You can’t put a bullet through a pen!” When I asked who had claimed that you could, he said, “I did.” After a while, he had talked so much that I knew he could not have read a word. “Tom,” I said, “exactly what have you learned in the past 10 minutes?” “Ah,” he said in a fake Italian accent, “in the past eighta minutes I have learned not to gamble or they willa breaka my thumbs.” A few minutes later, he was singing scat in Italian, a talent I never knew he had. It was impressive, but it probably would have been better to sing something about physics or even the Declaration of Independence.
I describe all this as if it were an unusual event, which it was, but even Tom’s ordinary events tend to be unusual. When Tom goes to take a shower, he shouts out “I love you!”s as if departing on a long journey.
One evening when I asked Tom about how his day had gone, he mentioned that he and Ari had had an argument over lunch. “What was the argument about?” I asked. I assumed that it concerned something like art or politics or personality traits, one of those topics around which strong opinions form. “We were arguing about what counts as the normal human temperature,” he told me.
Tom, Ari, and James a couple of years ago
He went on to give me the specifics of the argument. “Did this argument last for the whole lunch period?” I wanted to know. “Yes,” said Tom. “But you could have just looked up the answer. Did you look it up later?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. This made me wonder how deeply invested he had been in the issue — as opposed to being invested in the exercise of arguing. “Were you interested in this argument?” I asked. “Not really,” said Tom. It is more a matter of being right, perhaps, and he already knows he is right. He is the oldest sibling.
One of the difficult things about older siblings, I am told, is that they seem to think that they always know best. Octavio and Dolores and Ivan and I are all the oldest siblings; we have talked about this issue, but we can’t see that it is more than a vicious rumor. I notice the problem more in Ivan than in me. He often thinks he is right when he is wrong. In Mexico City, he insisted on taking photographs of Volkswagens. I sent photos of a VW bug to my sister and she asked me why Ivan had taken so many of them. I assured her that Ivan had had no real reason for caring about the VW bug. “He is not a normal person and I don’t understand this car business at all,” I told my sister. “I have tried and tried to understand about cars but it makes no sense, so I have given up, knowing that I am right and he is wrong.” I assumed that Barb would take my side, but she refused to. “It must be lovely to be so sure of yourself,” she told me, with a notable lack of sympathy. “Perhaps you and Tom can start a club. Call it the ’I’m-right-and-that-would-make-you-painfully-wrong’ club.”
A year or two ago, inspired by Barbara’s tales of teenage melodrama as well as old letters of my mother’s detailing our own teenage behavior, I came up with the following useful teenager comprehension form.
Teenager Comprehension Form
Because I am fair-minded, I also came up with an adult comprehension checklist. This somehow turned out to be longer than the teenage version. By the end, I had to cut it back considerably. I had no idea that adults were so annoying.
Adult Criticism Comprehension Form
I did toy briefly with the idea of putting together a cat comprehension form, but I soon gave it up. Everyone knows that cats will just make forts out of any forms you give them to fill out. They are not interested in self-improvement. Not that people who want to fill out the people forms are necessarily interested in self-improvement, either. Soon after I came up with the adult criticism form, Ivan said he needed a copy. “Where’s my form? I want one of those criticism forms to fill out,” he said. I didn’t give it to him. He might not have had pure motives.
Annika probably will never need to fill out the teenage form. She is not a normal teenager. Annika is almost an angel, although not entirely an angel. In her view, her brother gets away with far too much, but the thing is, it can be hard to get through to Tom. “Tom thrives on positive feedback,” my sister says, “but when it comes to anything negative, he really doesn’t see how he could use that.” Meanwhile, Annika “is keeping tabs and is ready for the big hammer to fall on Tom.” Still, compared to anyone else in my family, Annika is practically a saint. Naturally, she has trouble fitting in with the rest of us. While I was in Corvallis, I read a memoir in which the grandmother carried a full-size hacksaw in her largish purse. No one in my family would go as far as this. But we are not what you would call angels. Even Annika herself sometimes has to stretch for this ranking. One evening during my visit, she explained that I was having things much easier than her parents did, as she and Tom felt morally obligated to be much more demanding with their parents. Because I am not accustomed to parenthood, Annika said kindly, she and Tom were willing to cut me considerable slack. Hence the cruise-like conditions of the visit. I gather that I was supposed to give Annika extra credit for this generous gesture, but what it really showed me was that she merely reserved the right to apply full teenage pressure as needed.
One night I mentioned that, as a teenager, I had worked at McDonald’s, and Tom said, “My Dad wants me to get a job like that. Any job, he says, but preferably a lousy job like that, because it will be motivation to study so that I don’t have to work at a lousy job like that.” “Wasn’t it greasy?” asked Annika. “Yes, it was very greasy,” I said. “What I want to do when I can get a job is either work in a quilt store or be a flute teacher, but I probably couldn’t do any flute tutoring till I was a sophomore. No, a junior. Maybe a senior.” “For middle school students? You could be a tutor now,” said Tom. “You’re better than all of them.” It was very sweet and matter of fact.
Annika helps a lot with chores, feeds the neighbor’s bunnies diligently, keeps up a voluminous correspondence, plays the flute like a dream, and gets all her homework done as soon as it is assigned, so you don’t ordinarily notice signs of teen resistance. By the middle of the second week that I was in Corvallis, Annika had Abigail on a stick down cold. She became quite attached to her and was going to take her face to school on Wednesday, even though she didn’t need her. When I said, “Are you sure you want to? The mask might get wrinkled or torn and you don’t need it there till Friday. You might want to leave it here,” she got down on her knees and shuffled back into her bedroom without her feet touching the floor. I watched her interestedly. “I suppose you don’t want to walk on the carpet,” I said. “Yes, I have mud on my shoes,” said Annika. “I, however, am wearing slippers, so you could have asked me to put that away for you,” I observed. “Yes, but I think maybe this is better,” said Annika. It clearly wasn’t; it was just a little flair of neurosis. So I was pleased. There may be hope for her as a full-fledged family member yet.
Tom says that Annika is a teacher’s pet, and she agrees, although only in P.E. She and Kehala are ping pong partners, and whenever the teacher has everyone put down their paddles, which everyone does at the same time, the teacher says, “Thank you, Kehala, Annika,” as if they are the only two doing what she asked. “Ping pong!” I said. “You play ping pong in P.E.? Is that considered a sport?” “Yes, it is, and I Kehala and I won last time and she gave us candy as a reward.” “Candy? In health class?” I demanded. “Why not just give you each a cigarette?” I was not really recommending this, you understand. It was in the nature of irony.
While Tom and Annika were at school, I spent some of my time studying, some time avoiding studying, a large amount of time scouring cookbooks, grocery shopping, and cooking, and some hours tooling around town in the rain with the camera. One day I went to campus, both to use the library and to take pictures. The pictures I knew Ivan would value most were of a Land Rover parked in the Women’s Studies and Physics parking lot. I sent him email notifying him of my important find. Ivan wrote back to ask how many doors the Land Rover had, what color and year it was, whether it was a hardtop or ragtop, and whether it had a short or long wheelbase. The only thing I could remember was the color. I told him tersely that I did not know how many doors there were to the Land Rover. “Four, I think. Math is not my strong suit, although I seem to be doing very little else.” As for the wheelbase, I told him, it was medium. He claimed that there was no such thing as a medium wheelbase, only long or short, but I knew this had to be wrong. Aristotle says that medium is always best. It is therefore not possible for there not to be a medium. I refused to say any more on the grounds that I had not gotten underneath the car and could not give any more specifics. What I had already told him was as much as I was able to ascertain on a relatively casual inspection.
The hardest thing for me to do, since it is so intrinsically unrewarding, was grocery shopping. As I am bad at it, I had to do it every other day. I complained to Ivan. “You don’t know what it’s like to have to do all the grocery shopping and cooking,” I said. He pointed out that he always did all the grocery shopping and cooking. To me, this does not really count, as, after all, he must be used to it by now and could have no conception of the hardship I was undergoing. I did get some help. At the Albertson’s store, a clerk led me around showing me things. It was completely personalized service and I was almost happy as a result. When I told Ivan about it, he was dismissive. “How could you need to have someone lead you around the store personally?” he asked. I got a little defensive. “A lot of the stuff I wanted was obscure. It was hard to find,” I said. “Like what?” said Ivan. “Like capers and anchovy paste,” I said. “Capers, next to the olives, anchovy paste, next to the tuna,” said Ivan. “Ah, but what aisle number?” I asked. He didn’t know, claiming that the aisles were different in different states, but it all goes to show.
To pass the time, I eavesdropped on other grocery shoppers. Next to the yogurt case at Fred Meyer’s, I ran into a thirty-some-year-old man, skinny-scrawny in the way I associate with working-class cigarette smokers, holding two yogurts in his fists and talking to a six-year-old boy as he led him away from the case. “And if you like this stuff,” he said, “we’ll come back and get a whole shitload of it.” The little boy looked up at him excitedly and breathed out, “Yeah!” In the canned vegetable aisle, an older, middle-class woman complained to a man in a loud voice that this was the time of year when you had to worry about cold germs, as another woman pushed past her, hanging onto her cart and sneezing miserably into a handkerchief.
Cooking was a lot more fun, although it has been so long since I’ve done much that I only had a seventy-to-thirty ratio of decent meals. Barb is an excellent cook, so I had a lot to live up to. In the past, I used to cook a lot, but even at my most fluent, I have never been a speedy cook. If the recipe says, “25 minutes,” it will take me at least two hours. It is hard to know how much of this is my fault and how much stems from cookbook authors who lie. In Champaign, years ago, I baked what an author called “easy, everyday Italian bread.” It took me eighteen hours.
When Chuck called to check on the kids and me, I told him that I was finding cooking regular meals to be a challenge. “Especially since with kids, you have to make a point of whether they are getting all the vegetables and fruits they need,” I explained. “Oh,” said Chuck, doubtfully. “I was going to say, ’Cooking for kids is easy,’ but I didn’t know that you were going to bring health into it. I thought you could just give them a pizza.” This despite Chuck’s own habitual diet, which consists of rice cakes, turkey bacon, and Cheerios with orange juice. He knows that this menu does not enjoy widespread favor. Chuck can get Tom to take walks with him if he promises pizza at the other end, but it is well known that Tom will not walk a step for a rice cake.
As I say, I was never an efficient cook. In any case, you can’t be speedy if you are constantly interrupted by phone calls and if you have to do math story problems on the side. You would think that math and cooking might mix, but they don’t. Either your roux will burn or you will get the equation wrong. Once I called Tom in to help Annika with her math while I made the roux — Tom is very good at math — but he got sidetracked watching me make gravy for our leftover German meatballs.
Peering into the pan at the broth, Tom said, “That looks awfully thin. Is there a way to make it thicker?” Yes, I told him, and explained how to make a roux. He asked if I was going to do that, since he thought thicker would be a lot better. I was already taking out the pan to make the roux. The previous evening, Annika had watched me with interest, when I made the roux for the original gravy. She wanted to know how to make a gravy herself. Tom watched not with a cook’s interest but a consumer’s. “How much flour will you put in? About a cup?” he asked. “No, not a cup,” I said. “A heaping tablespoon. Are you really interested or are you just procrastinating?” “I am procrastinating and I want to make sure that it is a really thick gravy. There is no way that tablespoon of flour is going to work. I would think you would need at least a cup,” Tom assured me. He was amazed when it worked out and very pleased. It was exactly the gravy he wanted it to be. Both of them loved the meatballs and noodles. Annika was pleased because there was salad. All the green peas disappeared in a flash. With Tom and Annika, one does not have the disappointment of seeing dinner just picked at disconsolately.
Tom and Annika approve of peas, especially Tom. Peas are really the best vegetables there are, he said, if not almost the only ones. Beans are not really a vegetable, he said; he wasn’t going to count them. Carrots were good, but not as good as peas. What about cauliflower and broccoli, I asked. “I don’t really like cauliflower,” Tom said. “Cauliflower is okay if you just sort of happen across it in the course of a meal. What I don’t like is when it infuses the whole meal. The good thing about broccoli is that it never infuses the whole meal. It is just one thing by itself.” Apparently Barb had once cooked cauliflower and then reused the cauliflower water to cook the pasta in, leading to an infusion of cauliflower throughout the pasta and the entire meal. This has never been forgotten and has led to a certain blaming of the cauliflower.
Most of my meals enjoyed notable success, in part because I was lucky in my recipe selections and in part because the family standards were not high. As long as the meal had a great deal of garlic and onion in it, and certainly if it were accompanied by pasta and bread and cheese, it was pronounced an amazing success. I was having a string of these amazing successes when, unfortunately, I stumbled upon a recipe for an “elegant” vegetarian casserole. Choking down a couple of chivalrous bites, Annika said sweetly, “Good!” Taking the smallest bites possible, Tom politely did not say anything. I took a number of bites, to give it every chance I could. Then I made up my mind. Barb and Joe write comments in their cookbooks, and I thought I would add my own. “I am going to write a comment next to this recipe,” I told Tom and Annika. “I will forge your mother’s handwriting, and I will write, ’Yuck.’” “Let me do it for you,” Tom offered.
I am not sure how much help Annika got on her math the night of the meatballs, because Tom was keeping a sharp eye on every aspect of the gravy operation. At one point, I was about to mix an egg yolk in with a little bit of the hot broth before adding it to the gravy. Tom, in his gravy supervisory role, was all for adding the egg yolk all at once. I explained that it would curdle if we did it that way, and then had to explain what curdling was. As I went about preparing the egg it the right way (which seemed to Tom to take forever), Tom spun off into a fantasy about what if you had top-speed propellers whirling in the gravy to make the egg mix in before it could curdle and what if.... There was a lot more to this imaginary invention and in fact the hypothetical scenario took as long to imagine as the making the rest of the gravy did. Tom does not begrudge extra time spent in imagining alternative ways to make gravy, only time spent in making actual gravy. When he came up for air, I said, “That’s an interesting question, Tom. You could research industries that make gravy and see how they solve this problem. It probably is a real problem for them that they have used machinery to solve, and maybe you are right. You would have to find out.” He at once lost all interest.
Since Annika is in middle school, she has less homework than Tom. In part because of this, and no doubt to repay me for my indispensable professional assistance on her math story problems and vocabulary lists, Annika helped me with my own assignments. One night the school sent home a recycling survey that students’ parents were supposed to fill out. Rather than just letting any willing adult forge the entries, as the rest of the family would have done, Annika conscientiously asked someone at the school if it was okay if I filled it out instead of her parents. The school said yes. Notwithstanding this strict attention to protocol, Annika filled out the survey herself while I cooked. The true author became apparent when Annika began to balk at my answers. At first, she merely forged my signature at the top of the page. She said that this was necessary in order for the rest of the page to look the same as the signature. She read out the questions and wrote down my answers, until, halfway through, she started disagreeing with my answers. “You can’t put that,” she told me, filling in her own, preferred answer. “It’s wrong.”
“It is not wrong,” I said, “and besides, it’s a survey. It is not a test to find out if I know the truth. It is a survey to find out what I do, or at least what I am prepared to say that I do.”
“Well, I’m not putting it down if it’s wrong,” she informed me. I had to convince her that I was right before she would write down anything I said. So much for your scientific surveys of actual, unwashed parental attitudes. “Attitudes supposedly held by aunts from other states as vetted by disapproving nieces,” the survey ought to have clarified.
I see some family resemblance here. My brother has a similar tendency to try to insinuate his own personal views into other family members’ supposedly private belief systems. As with Annika, it starts off innocently enough. When Chuck and Kaarin came to visit the second weekend, Chuck told us one of his fantasies. “This is an easy fantasy,” he said. I had no idea what that meant, but I didn’t ask. “In this fantasy,” he said, “we lose all our money and Kaarin has to sell my drawings and paintings. She only gets $10 apiece for them but there are 10,000 of them so that is $10,000 right there. Isn’t that a good fantasy?”
Kaarin denied that it was a good fantasy. “I tend not to have fantasies in which we lose all our money,” she said.
“But in this fantasy we get it back and we have decluttered the house by getting rid of all the art work,” Chuck said in persuasive tones. Just then Annika came in the room. “Annika,” said Chuck, “what is a fantasy that you have about your room? A nice, easy fantasy about something that would make it better?”
Annika looked blank for a minute. It was pretty clear that she didn’t have any nice, easy fantasies about her room. But she is an obliging girl, so she said, “A bed that made itself.”
“Very good,” said Chuck, although it quickly became clear that it was not good enough. “But what about your books? I notice that you have a lot of books. What if you could have just one book and it would automatically turn itself into whichever book you wanted to read, so that you only had that one book but it represented any book you cared about. Would that be a good fantasy?”
“Sure,” said Annika.
“But then what if someone stole that book?” Chuck asked, concern shadowing his voice.
“Chuck,” I said, “what is it with these fearful fantasies of the impossible? First you ask Annika to imagine something that could never happen but that you think is desirable and then you raise the grim possibilities for the whole fantasy to turn to ashes. What is the point of that?”
“But that is my point,” said Chuck. “My point is that every dream or fantasy comes with a corresponding cost, so that nothing is ever all good.”
“So if you fantasized that your cats could talk, you would soon find that they were singing Chinese opera,” Kaarin elaborated helpfully.
“Exactly,” said Chuck, “although you do not have to fantasize the Chinese opera and some people might even like that. All you have to fantasize is that the cats could talk and then they wouldn’t shut up and you would have to hear everything that they were thinking. There is a cost to these fantasies. That is my point.”
“But most of us do not have these fantasies in the first place,” I pointed out.
I doubt that my brother believed this, but he was willing to play along. “No, but if you did, they would turn to ashes,” he said. So actually, if you think about it, I am that much further ahead.
Having no real fantasies about Corvallis, I was spared having any of them turn to ashes. As a matter of fact, I was pleasantly surprised. I have been to Corvallis many times, but rarely with sightseeing in mind. The main thing I remember from previous visits, sightseeing-wise, is a building on campus that, for over a decade now, has been covered in a net. At first I thought the building was being worked on, but by now it is clear that the net is forever, apparently to keep all the stonework from falling out. It is probably the Education building.
Wandering around downtown and on campus this visit, I got to see several interesting old buildings, one interesting new one, some surprising cars, the river and bridge, moss and more moss, municipal garbage cans with built-in planters on top, indignant squirrels, and a bell choir. The Benton County Courthouse was designed by a Portland architect inspired to combine an Italian villa with a military frame of mind. In the 1880s, this worked out a lot better than it would today.
I did not get a chance to take a picture of Alice’s house. Her father had begun putting up the Christmas decorations but had gotten tired of the project before getting very far. All that he had put up were some red lights circling the posts next to the front door. “It doesn’t look very Christmasy,” Alice warned us as we drove her home after the concert. “Actually, it looks like the gates of hell.” At the dark end of the cul de sac where Alice lives, two glowing pillars of red greeted us. “Awesome!” said James and Tom.
It was an omen. Chuck was right. I had asked Annika if I could take a picture of her with her in her medieval costume and the Abigail Adams head on a stick. She said to wait till that night, after class. I agreed. She came home that night without the mask. Her teacher had collected all the colored-in masks and would return them later, with their grades, Annika said. Joe could take a picture later, when the mask was returned. I waited and waited. But the mask was never returned. The teacher is keeping all the masks, probably forever. I will never get my photograph.
All my dreams are ashes.
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org/audrey.html