What It Is Like Around Here,
or, Why I Don’t Live at the P.O.

Audrey Thompson

I have mentioned, I believe, the howls of existential angst that often pierce the air where I live. It is not me howling; I am a fairly mellow type. It is the cats or it is Ivan. If it is Ivan howling, generally he is mad at some software and there is nothing I can do to help him with that. If it is the cats howling, usually they are mad at the unfairness of a world that does not begin and end with them, and there is nothing I can do to help them with that. Nevertheless, I am always the first one to be contacted about it all.

When I got up at quarter to seven this morning, after a night of bad dreams, the cats greeted me at the bedroom with howls of ecstasy. Right behind them was Ivan, also ecstatic. “Guess what!” he said. “I solved that printer problem that HP had no idea how to solve. It was not what they thought at all. I had the language set to English and the country set to Vietnam and when I switched the country to the U.S.A., it worked.”

“That’s great,” I said. This seemed like a good all-purpose answer, but it turned out not to be what I was supposed to say. Apparently I was supposed to really engage with this issue, to show that I got it. There is a great deal that I do not get before a cup of tea; software problems happen to be something that even a cup of tea cannot really help.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Ivan demanded.

“Sure I do,” I lied. “Something about a mouse.”

“Not a mouse. A printer,” said Ivan. Around us, the cats began to howl in outrage. It is not supposed to take this long for them to get fed.

“You understand about the countries and languages settings, don’t you?” Ivan persisted. I do understand about those, because I have heard all about the country and language settings. Some software companies allow you to pick from among hundreds of country and language codes — you can pick Canada and French or Belgium and French or Switzerland and French or Mali and French, for example, so as to specify the exact form of the language you want. The only actual version of French available, however, is French from France, so that is what you will get, if you pick French. I hear about this a lot, as I say, but this did not explain to me why Ivan would set the country to Vietnam and the language to U.S. or the other way around. It did not seem to me that this was an intuitive thing to do, although if you want intuitive, this is not the first house you would pick to live in.

“Yes,” I said, “I understand that part.”

“Well, that’s exactly what they didn’t understand,” said Ivan triumphantly. “But I solved it. I set the country to the U.S., and now it works.”

“Probably you could solve a lot of things by not setting everything to Vietnam in the first place,” I observed. Ivan laughed merrily. He had been up for an hour or two already, which affected his outlook.

I made Ivan feed the cats.

No one, you notice, asked me how I was doing, if I had slept well or if I had had bad dreams or anything like that. Even though I was feeling a little sorry for myself, I have to admit that it was not a topic I would have cared to address anyway. Dreams are a bad topic of conversation. I am not surprised that Freud made people pay him to tell him theirs. In real life, things are bad enough, but in dreams they are obstinately so. Last month I had a dream in which I was 2½ hours late to give a presentation in Dolores’s class, and yet the whole time I was already right there, looking in shop windows (she was holding her class at the airport) and saying to myself, “It’s getting late. I really should get going.” Do not imagine that the rational part of me stood idly by while the dream part dawdled. The rational part of me was doing everything I could to kick the dream part of me in the pants, but in dreams the rational part of me is like a Laurel and Hardy cop that no one listens to. “Hmm, hmm,” said the dream part of me, gazing in boring shop windows, pretending to be interested. It was all very annoying and pointless, and yet people have built whole art movements around this sort of thing. You can tell that the surrealists knew what they were doing, though, because they accentuated the absurd rather than the annoying part of dreams. It is one thing to paint fried eggs in trees. It is another to paint people humming tunelessly while you are trying to read. It’s hard to sell annoyance; you can get so much of it for free.

Probably if they lived as surreal an everyday life as I do, artists would not think that painting fried eggs in trees was all that special anyway. As I write this, Ivan is still explaining to me about countries and languages and software, saying, “The obvious moral of the story is . . . , ” while Trillin is hurling herself down the steps and then stampeding back up them again, taking flying leaps through the air like Batman on a particularly busy day. “En principe,” as they say in French-in-France — in principle — cats who are nine years old are “senior” and cats who are twelve years old are “geriatric.” In practice, Trillin is nineteen years old and dreaming of motorcycles rather than rocking chairs. There is none of that restful cat-in-front-of-the-fire business that one reads about in books.

It is not just life at home that is surreal. Daily life at the office may not be exactly the material from which French and Swedish movies are made, but it is also by no means Leave It to Beaver. The office is full of intellectuals, after all, and as Frank likes to point out, all intellectuals except Ed are neurotic. No one knows why Ed is not neurotic. No one is even sure how Ed happens to still be alive, since he is run down by cars on a more or less regular basis. Octavio suggested that he might want to take up swimming instead of biking, but Ed says that there is no reason to think that cars will not follow him into the swimming pool. This did not seem logical to many of us, but since Ed is our token normal person, we do not quarrel with him. All of us want to be able to say that we are friends with a normal person.

Ed and Frank
Ed modelling normalcy for Frank, Frank not quite getting it

Teaching can also be kind of surreal, particularly as my department focuses on social justice education. It is hard to know what to say to the student who asks, “Now, to get an A in social justice teaching, what is the minimum that I would have to do?” It is like saying, “I want to fight racism and make the world a better place when I am not too busy with other things. How would I get an ‘Excellent’ at that but not have it disrupt my regular teaching plans? Would it count if I did a book report on the movie To Kill a Mockingbird?”

Long before I started teaching, though, I was already accustomed to things being surreal. In my family, surrealism’s just another word for nothing left to confuse.

Annika and Teddy spend a lot of time in boxes.

Annika in a box Teddy in a box

As you know, there is that whole sock monkey business with my brother, not to mention the baby doll heads in his sink.  Somewhere we have a picture of Chuck sitting over the garden sprinkler, reading a book.

Chuck’s Art Gallery Chuck getting sprinkled

Then there is what passes for ordinary conversation with my nephew. Chuck has diligently taught our nephew everything he knows.

Chuck and Tommy Chuck, Tom and Tommy
Tommy the Wizard Chuck the Wizard

It is not surprising, therefore, that Tom has a confused relation to reality. A couple of months ago, I called his house and said, “Hi Tom, it’s Audrey.” “Who did you say this is?” he asked politely. “Audrey,” I repeated. There was a pause. “Your aunt,” I elaborated. “Oh,” he said, “sure. We were just reading your letter to Annika and laughing.” Now, if he had just been reading my letter, it seems to me that it should not have been that hard to make the connection with my name, but it is possible, I suppose, that when Annika opened the letter, she said, “Oh look, everybody, it’s another letter from that woman who keeps writing to me,” and that they read it with interest but no real sense of who I might be. It’s not impossible, I suppose. You never know.

When I called their house two nights ago, Tom answered, and I asked him about math class. He told me that it was pretty interesting, and I asked if it was his favorite class. “Not really,” he said. I asked what his favorite class this year was. “Probably my computer programming class, if I had one,” he said. You could hardly quarrel with that. An imaginary class is bound to be better than a real one, since what would be the point, if it weren’t? No one is going to go to all the trouble of imagining a class that is worse than their present classes so as to be able to answer the what’s-your-favorite-class? question by saying, “Not my class on statistical integration, if I had one, I’ll tell you that much.” But it is not what, intuitively, would strike me as an answer to the question.

Not everything that is not an answer to the question is due to a surreal outlook, of course. Sometimes people are just not paying attention. Not to get personal, but some of you may fit the bill, here. In my last story, I specifically said that Ivan had acquired both a pink and a tangerine mixer. I put it down in writing and I included a picture of the two mixers, side by side. It was not a mysterious, artful picture in which one mixer blended imperceptibly into another one. It was almost a clinical picture, the kind of picture that you could imagine Jack Webb taking if two mixers were accused of a crime and he suspected that they were dangerous hippies on drugs. It was pretty much a Dragnet-style headshot. It could only be confusing to someone who was not really paying attention.

Mixers Mixers

When I talked with Barbara on the phone, she said, “It was interesting about the mixer. In the photograph, it looked almost orange. But I thought you said it was pink?” Later I talked with Bryan, who said, “That picture of the mixer that you said was tangerine — it’s funny, but it casts kind of a pink shadow in the picture.” “That’s not a shadow,” I said. “That’s a second mixer.” “Really?” said Bryan. “Why does it look pink?” “It looks pink because it is pink,” I said. I was very kind and patient with both of them, but I would not have given them an A. They can have an A for lots of other things, but not for that.

Mixers Mixers

It is testimony to my devotion to the facts that I tell the story about Bryan in this bare-bones fashion. If I were striving for art, I would tell it like Eudora Welty in “Why I Live at the P.O.” I would mix in a little more attitude with the facts, such as the fact that Bryan wanted me to give him one of the mixers.

There I was, I would say, minding my office hours, not causing any trouble to anyone, when along comes Bryan-Rondo, back from his fancy trip to New Orleans. Bryan-Rondo has always had things his own way. “Sister,” he says, “can I have that nice new pink mixer, seeing as how you don’t have any more use for it than a dead woman?”

“No, you most certainly may not,” I said. “I’ll have you know that I paid for that mixer with my own money. I fail to see why someone who already has a nice blue office, cuff links the like of which no one ever saw fit to give me, and twelve bow ties should be trying to pry my nice pink mixer from out under my nose. If you wanted a pink mixer so bad, maybe you should of not been in such a hurry to go to New Orleans.”

Next thing I know he is in the other room talking to Marty-Bob, turning him against me. “Marty-Bob,” says Bryan-Rondo, “are you giving away pink mixers? And if so, is it true that you are using my grant money to do so, if you don’t mind my kindly asking?”

“Who says so?” says Marty-Bob. “Because I declare that I will tear them limb from limb.”

“She is in her office right now, telling tales about you,” says Bryan-Rondo. “I know better than to listen, though, Marty-Bob, and as you know I was going to name my first child after you, so I was never so shocked as when she said right out loud, so that anyone with ears could hear, that you had seen fit to give away my grant money. And all the while I was going to use it to buy you cuff links with.”

“I didn’t say any such of a thing, Marty-Bob,” says I, but Bryan-Rondo had turned him against me. So I marched out of there without so much as a “Kiss my foot.” But you can bet that I took my pink mixer with me.

The thing is, though, I couldn’t end my story the way that Eudora Welty ends hers. In “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Sister moves out of the house and into the China Grove, Mississippi post office because it’s quieter. “Peace, that’s what I like,” says the narrator. “Everything cater-cornered, the way I like it.” She no longer has to deal with tap dancing in the hallway, firecrackers in the bedroom, or Stella-Rondo turning everyone against her. Like Warren Zevon, she can enjoy “splendid isolation.” “Michael Jackson in Disneyland. Don’t have to share it with nobody else. Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand.” (That’s Warren Zevon, now, not Eudora Welty. I hope I don’t have to tell you that.)

But I kind of enjoy the surrealism around here; it keeps me on my toes. And I like the company, even when things get contentious. Just in the past ten minutes, Ivan came back from the grocery store demanding to know who opened the windows and let in all that nasty outdoor air; my sister called to suggest that I “add a little something” to my story so that — the tangerine mixer debacle notwithstanding — my audience will understand how quick-to-catch-on she really is; and my mother sent email demanding to know why my father, who could hardly know less about technology than I do and in fact knows a good deal more, was not featured in the “Technical Considerations” story. There have been days when university friends got me into things that I was almost bound to fail at spectacularly, like television news shows, and other days when faculty I had never even met phoned to bail me out of things I had gotten myself into, like process drama, without really knowing what I was doing. Some days, my brother will send photos of Kaarin with Annika and a clone, Harley will forget who Ivan is and panic when she sees him coming, and Mom will send me indignant letters in reply to letters I sent her twenty years ago that she happens to have been rereading. There is always a little something going on, and I can’t say that I understand more than about half of it. Figuring it out is not really what you would call intuitive. But things are never lonesome.

Annika, Annika and Kaarin

Besides, when I want a little normalcy, I can always go next door.

Kanyon, Audrey and puppies
Kanyon, Audrey and puppies
Glenn, Audrey, Woody and puppy
Glenn and Audrey with Woody and puppy


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