Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On bringing your husband who is from out of town to a basketball game at your old high school

If you are at home visiting your parents for Christmas and you grew up in a small town, you might be tempted to bring your husband, who is not from your town, to a basketball game at your former school.  And because he is a good sport and can only spend so much time visiting with your grandmother, he will agree to go.  He will probably drive you there and park the car, which is wonderful.  But once you get there, how can you explain the nostalgia you feel when he parks the car in the spot where you once kissed Jacob Washburn in October after play practice.  It wasn’t your first kiss, but it was your first time really making out in a gross, memorable and public way and thinking about that moment and the many years that have passed since then make you feel old and young all at the same time.

And then you will walk with him through the doors of the school into the lobby where you spent your teenage years waiting for the bus to pick you up, waiting for your parents to pick you up, waiting for your boyfriend to pick you up.  And your eyes scan the walls, knowing that your name is on that plaque and your picture is in this trophy case, but because you have lived a rich and full life in the time since high school, you don’t need to point these things out to your husband.  He only knows you as an adult and so explaining how at 18 you had imagined coming back to this school as an adult and rubbing your fingers across your name on the brass plates would seem silly.  You could still could reach up and touch the letters of your name but doing so might close a loop that you would like to keep open at least for a little while longer.  

So you pass through the lobby and into the gym and you see Doug Sharpe and he nods at you and you nod back, and your husband asks who it is and so you tell him that Doug Sharpe is the athletic director and your former health teacher.  Which is true, but he is also the teacher who publicly humiliated you in your middle school health class when you were the only one to get a perfect score on a test that asked you to label the penis, urethra, testicles, vas deferens on a large black and white diagram.  When you look at him today, you can still see the way he raised his eyebrows and announced to the class that you sure did ‘know your way around the male reproductive system’, and you remember how you weren’t sure if he was implying that you were promiscuous (which you weren’t) or nerdy(which you were).  But how can you explain the long resolved emotions of a fourteen year old to an adult man who now knows you to be only headstrong and sure to a fault?

And so you find your seats and the game begins and your team takes an early lead, which is great but then the other team shoots and makes a three point shot and your husband claps and then weakly excuses himself with ‘it was a good shot’ when he feels the stares from the crowd.  And in some cases, it is good sportsmanship to clap for the other team, acknowledging a particularly nice play or move, but the team we are playing against are the Golden Knights, the school that was your father’s biggest rival and your biggest rival and the school that you lost to in playoffs your senior year when everyone thought you had a shot at a title.  Jamie O’Neill, the girl who shoved you to the floor with both hands during a varsity basketball game was a golden knight.  Your cousin, who was so beautiful and talented that all of your friends wanted to date her was a golden knight.  And your longest standing high school crush, who never cast his light your way was also a golden knight.  So regardless the arc of the shot or the swish of the net:  you will not clap for this team.  

Then halftime comes and at half court a little girl draws a raffle ticket out of a bucket.  Your husband might comment about how cute she is and you’ll agree, but you’ll leave it at that instead of explaining that she is the daughter of your friend Christa who you first met when her pet goat was in the living nativity scene that you were part of in front of the bank one December in elementary school.  And that later you and Christa drank Boone’s Farm Apple Wine in her tent which gave you the courage to then climb over the fence of the athletic director’s house (mentioned above) and then go skinny dipping in his pool by the cover of darkness.  Or that when Christa’s sister died of cancer you kept your distance which is something you have always felt bad about and maybe that is why when you see Christa and her cute kid, all you do is smile and nod instead of hugging and catching up.  

So the winning number is drawn and everyone cheers for Cathy Westford because she gets to take home $200.  But you keep your hands in your lap because two summers ago, it was Cathy’s teenage daughter who was driving home late at night and crashed her car into your parents’ Tahoe nearly killing your mother and your brother and though she wasn’t drinking, she had beer in her car that she tried to hide before the police showed up.  You know that it’s a stretch to connect the car accident to the 50/50 raffle but when you only see these people once a decade or so, it’s easier to make these leaps.  

After halftime, the third and the fourth quarter pass quickly.  Your team wins and the players are excited and so in the moment that they have no idea that this game will fade away into the past.  It will blur into the next game and into the next season until all that is left is a smear of memories punctuated by a few clear images of kissing in the parking lot, lost friendships and moments of glory and humiliation.  Likewise for you, as you leave the gym after the game, just like you have done hundreds of times before, the memory of tonight is already drifting away.  By the time you drive away, the time warp has ended and you have moved on to thinking about what to do when the lease on your car ends, making year-end charitable donations and how each year seems to come to an end more quickly than the one before.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Post Office

  Shortly after graduating from college, I got into my car and drove away from the small town I grew up in for good.  The next day, my father called and told me "It's a good thing you left when you did.  The post office got stuck on the bridge this morning and you couldn't have gotten across town until the DOT came and towed it off late in the afternoon." 

I had always found my town agonizingly small and often dull.  Big news around town might be that Henry Cobbs sprained his pinky finger when a cow pinched it between a milk machine and a stanchion post or that the youngest Taylor boy got caught stealing pants off and Amish clothesline the day before Halloween.  I dreamed of living in a place where people had interesting things to talk about, where real things happened, and there was more to do on the weekend than loiter outside the gas station watching the snow fall.    

But let's get back to the post office and the bridge.  Since before I was born, our tiny one-room post office was a freestanding building propped on the north edge of the the dingy brown that lazily rolled through town, splitting it  into two halves.  When it was discovered that the foundation of the building was slowly crumbling, causing it to slowly slip towards the water, the postal service quickly moved their operations to a makeshift location in the back half of a bar on the south end of town, leaving behind a sadly empty shell with white siding and the towns zip code in bold black numbers on the front.

 For the next year or so, the old post office building sat, lonely and unoccupied, slowly and imperceptibly shifting on its ancient foundation.  There were rumors that it was to be destroyed, rumors that it was to be opened again as a bait shop, and (probably true) rumors that teenagers had claimed the building to smoke and drink and have sex in.  All of these were disproved the morning the town awoke to find the building sitting precariously in the middle of the one bridge through town.

Although I was settling into my new, far far away life, I can see the scene unfolding.  The townspeople from the north half of town gathered on one side of the bridge gazing across at the townspeople from the south half of town through the open doors of the post office.  The telephone wires must have buzzed with activity as the news spread.  "Get the dog and bring the kids!"

There was one tractor in the lead pulling a chain that had been led in through a window and out through the door.  A second tractor with a fork lift was in the back, trying to give the poor old building the boost of energy it would need to make it the few remaining yards across the bridge.  Under the tired frames of the building were several long, round logs.  The drivers of the tractors talked to each other on a cheap set of walkie-talkies. 

"Ok, now I'll push"
"Ok, I'll pull"
"Well, shit."

I imagine the mail lady leaving the bar/post office that morning, with a full bag of letters and bills and mail order catalogs to deliver.  Rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor the old building that used to be the post office that is now blocking the street…

I imagine the few outsiders trying to get through town that day.  Most people pass through the town without even realizing they've been there.  On this day, a wayward traveler would coast down the hill into the 30 mile per hour zone and notice a crowd of people standing in the road.  Looking further ahead, he would notice a cockeyed building and a tribe of locals either driving or shouting at the big tractors that were ineffectively trying to move it.  He would pick up his cell phone to try and make a call telling someone important he would be late, and find that he had no service.  A local would come to his aid and describe a detour, using landmarks like "just past where Old Stutterin' Joe used to live before he lost his hand," or "right where the oldest Madden boy (or was it the youngest) shot that twelve-point three years ago".

Finally, the various authorities show up.  Their first priority is to clear the bridge.  Ironically, the trucks that have the horsepower to do the job are parked in the town garage on the push side of the bridge, and they have to make the twenty-mile detour to the pull side of the bridge.  The tractor-men continue their halfhearted attempts while they wait, as the story gradually unfolds. 

Last hunting season, the Crescent brothers had a fight and decided they couldn't share their hunting camp anymore.  They decided that they each needed one of their own.  They considered splitting the cost of building one, but found it would be too expensive, and neither would want to then take the old one.  Then they somehow found out that the old post office building could be had for a song, provided it was moved off the site by a certain date.  They swooped in and bought the building, with the intention of towing it to their land, and replacing the clear acrylic tables with the pens chained to them with rustic brown, gold and orange plaid hunting furniture.  They slowly discovered, though that the building was so cheap because the red tape wrapped around moving it was thick with complicated paperwork and permits. 

The move-by date swiftly approached.  The brothers were no closer to wading through the necessary bureaucracy than the post office was to moving out of the bar.  They decided that the only solution was to take matters into their own hands.  By the cover of darkness, they would gather the friends who had the biggest tractors and simply use brute force and ignorance to muscle the building out of its foundation and away to its new home deep in the woods.  Had it worked, the plan was brilliant. 

Much to the delight of our slow-moving town, the first half of the plan went smoothly.  It was the second half, the half that involved getting the building all the way over the bridge before daylight that failed.  I believe that every one of us goes to bed each night with a small, secret hope that something exciting, something different will happen tomorrow.  The lucky citizens of my small town were indulged this warm spring morning, when they awoke to a scene that no one could have predicted.   

Within a few hours, it was over.  People shrugged their shoulders, sighed, and headed home.  The building had been moved the rest of the way across the bridge and shoved crookedly into an empty lot, right across the street from the bar/post office.  Over the next few months, the old foundation was paved over and horse tie-ups were installed to make an Amish buggy parking lot.  The Crobar brothers were issued several generic tickets, and the whole event faded into the past.  Staghorn sumac grew up around the base of the building, and the door swungopen and shut with the breeze.  Years later, the postal service is still nestled in the back of the bar, the Crescent brothers still drive beat-up pickup trucks and everyone patiently waits for the next exciting thing.    

Saturday, December 27, 2014


“Hi, My name is Emily Whalen and I’d like to buy 4 tickets to tonight’s hockey game”
“Hold please,” replied a nondescript male voice.
Friends were visiting from Florida and in an attempt to show them some Yankee wintertime hospitality, I wanted to take them to sit on hard seats in an indoor arena where it would be colder inside than outside in order to watch a sport that they neither understood nor cared about.  
When I heard the voice on the other end of the line again, it sounded different:  husky and a little bit out of breath.  It was as if one of the players had been practicing out on the ice and had rushed off to answer my call when he heard the phone ring.   
“Hi Julie, this is Troy and I’ll be your customer service representative today.  Julie, I am really glad you called because I have some special offers that I want to tell you about.  I wouldn’t call them ‘secret’, but it’s fair to say that they aren’t advertised to the general public.”
I had just an instant to decide how to proceed, because, as previously stated, Julie is not my name.  I could correct him and possibly lose access to the special deals he had mentioned or just be cool and maybe get the fourteen dollar tickets for eleven or even ten dollars each.  
“OK, Troy.  Tell me about these ‘special offers.’”  Suddenly my voice was huskier too and my speech had slowed like I was auditioning for a part in Gone with the Wind or trying to do the voices in an American Girl book.    
“Julie, let me introduce you to one of my favorite products that we offer:  Flex Packs.  Do you know what a Flex Pack is, Julie?”
Before I go on, I feel that it is important to explain that I pride myself in my ability to make independent consumer decisions.  If I don’t feel like cookies, I will flat out turn down the cutest pigtailed beret-wearing girl scout.  Sometimes I even only buy one item in a buy-one-get-one-free situation.    So I was confident in my ability to resist the pitches of this hunky sounding hockey player-slash-salesman calling me by the wrong name, even if he was throwing around terms like ‘secret’ and ‘flex pack.’ The charade might be tempting and fun, but I knew that in the end, I would buy just four tickets for the game that would begin in just a few hours.   
But suddenly I found myself trying on this new identity.  Maybe Emily wouldn’t buy a flex pack but who knew what kind of consumer behavior Julie might practice.  
“...Flex Packs are our most flexible and fun ticket packages.  With a Silver Level Flex Pack, you get thirteen ticket vouchers that can be redeemed for tickets to any regular season game, including Mullet Night, Pink Ice Night and Bobblehead Giveaway night!”
“Bobblehead Giveaway?” He must have sensed a weakening in my resolve.
“Yes Julie, the first 1,500 fans receive a free bobblehead of our Mascot.  And Julie, if you think the Silver Flex Pack sounds good, let me tell you about the Gold Level Flex Pack.”
Troy continued, talking all about premium seating, the popular chuck-a-puck promotion and the t-shirt cannon, saying the name Julie over and over, but I was too busy looking for my credit card which I carried loose in my backpacked, twisted among ipod headphones, rubber bands and granola bar wrappers.  I was sure that Julie would carry her card neatly in a thick but organized leather wallet, so I tried not to reveal how flustered I was after finally finding my card inside a dirty gym sock.  
“I’ll take the Gold Level Package, Troy.”  
I scraped a yogurt raisin off the first four digits of the card with my fingernail and listened as Troy congratulated me, like I had just selected a particularly expensive bottle of wine.   “Julie, you have made a great choice and it is going to be a great season,” he gushed.  “Now, Julie, if you are paying with a credit card today, I’ll just need your full name and your sixteen-digit card number.”
And that was it the end of my imaginary little narrative.  I was no longer Julie who purchased flex-packs on a whim after being sweet talked by Troy.  I was still just myself, and I still only wanted four tickets.  
“Actually, Troy, my name is Emily, and I changed my mind about the flex pack.”
“What?  I’m sorry.”
Sorry about the name or sorry about the flex pack, I wondered.  The tone of the conversation had changed and I felt a little bit hollow inside because of it.  In a pitiful attempt to simultaneously remain true to myself and to experience life as Julie, I ended up purchasing a silver level flex pack and giving away the unused tickets at the end of the season.  
In the end, I will probably never buy hockey tickets again.  Parking was terrible and the games weren’t very exciting.  But I occasionally look back with fondness on the moment that I was Julie, and I was impulsively purchasing an irresponsibly large number of tickets.  

Thanks, Troy.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dear B.J. Novak

Dear B.J. Novak,

I am writing to you to share an idea that I had for an essay.  I was going to write it myself, but frankly, I just don’t have time.  I mean to be honest, I don’t even really have time to be writing you this letter, but this idea has just been burning like an ember in my mind and I was going to share it with David Sedaris, but to be honest, I think you need it more.  Plus, you don’t have a day job so while I spend my days going to work and the grocery store and then trying to fit in the post office or the gym, you probably sit in a little office that has one of those slanted ceilings that you have to tilt your head just to get to your desk (I am shorter than you so I wouldn’t have to duck) and peck your ideas out on some vintage typewriter (I am very busy so I touch type).  Periodically, you probably lean back in your chair, prop your feet on your desk and sigh a cliche to your cat: ‘This is the life, Boots!’ or ‘It’s just you and me, Boots!’  Since you don’t have to spend your time googling ‘how to impress your boss’ or ‘what’s a good interest rate on a retirement account’ you must really be able to flesh out an idea.  In fact you probably have four or five bad ideas for every good idea.  I wish that I had that luxury.  I don’t even have time to dig into the one really good idea that I do have (mentioned above), let alone time to waste on letting bad ideas develop in the first place.  If you can picture it, my mind is like one of those whack-a-mole games like you see at a carnival, and whenever I feel a bad idea welling up, like buying a robotic vacuum cleaner or adopting a pit bull, I just whack it down before it reaches my mouth (or my computer, if I am touch typing).  

So my idea for an essay is that you should write about when books first became popular and write about how everyone was always looking down at their books instead of looking up at the people, places and things around them.  The joke is that the whole time you will actually be talking about cell phones, not books.  So in the essay, you can write about how people kept crashing horses into each other because they were reading their books or about how birth rates dropped as books became more readily available (make sure not to mention improvements in maternal health care, increased access to birth control or vaccines).  Or you could write about people standing around the pump handle at the village well all talking about a new bestseller.  But what you really are talking about is texting and driving, people not having sex because they are too busy with their phones or how everyone at work is always talking about these viral youtube videos. (which you probably don’t know from experience, but trust me, it happens).  

If I was writing the essay, which I am not (see 1st paragraph) I might include a few small vignettes like this one:

As her father reached for another helping of potatoes, Madyson glanced down at the book in her lap.  As she did, she caught a warning glance from her mother, who had always lived on the fine line between friend and informant.  Her mother gestured with her eyebrows towards her father who had recently grown exasperated with his daughter’s constant reading.  The look said ‘Madyson, for the love of god, put that book away before your father breathes the breath of a thousand dragons at your face!’  In a perfect demonstration of typical teenage behavior, Madyson stared blankly at her mother with her mouth half open for a half a second before refocusing on the book in her lap.  Picking up on the weird vibe, her father’s gaze slowly travelled from his plate across the table to her mothers face and then rotated clockwise until it landed on the downturned head of his teenage daughter.  His breaths grew shallow as he prepared to spew tired rhetoric about ‘I don’t care if other teenagers read at the table, this is my house’ and ‘I WILL take that G.D.  book right out of your sparkly nail polished little hands and drop it down the toilet if it doesn’t disappear from the table NOW and FOREVER!!’

Now here comes the good part of this essay.  What you can do at the end of it is point out that although people used to be obsessed with books, the truth is that they barely even read them anymore.  And so while everyone is so obsessed with their phones and snapchat and Candy Crush (I only know of these from NPR references that I hear in my car on my way to work, see paragraph 1) probably in the future, they will barely even use them because there will be something better and newer and more fun.  It’s tough to imagine but maybe in the future, Verizon or AT&T will go the way of Borders, and if you take this idea, you can say that YOU SAW IT COMING.  It will be difficult to make this point without offending 1) people who love books and 2) people who love phones, but frankly, after reading your last book (to be honest, I mainly stuck to the pieces that were three pages or less) I am not sure that you care about catering to anyone’s delicate sensibilities.  

I would like to remain anonymous as I don’t have time for a detailed and lengthy correspondence with you.  If you can’t figure it out from the details above, then I guess I was wrong about you after all.



P.S.  Why the initials?  Just use your regular name like everyone else.