Monthly Archives: September 2009

E is for Earthquake

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We were in marching band practice (yes! band geek! complete with band camp!) in a parking lot across the street from campus when suddenly I heard the sound of an eighteen wheeler truck going down the street…only there was no truck on the street. Where was the truck? It was 7:42am in the morning, and the street was empty, save for the occasional sedan.

We heard the sound of the truck above our music, the sound was that loud. It was that loud. It was THAT loud. Our brains alerted us, nary a split second later, that it could NOT have been a truck, and so we stopped marching and lowered our flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trombones, trumpets, and baritones and stood, confounded.

And then the oddest sight: concrete lamp posts waving in the air like dandelion stalks in a strong, yet indecisive breeze.

It was then, as we stood still, watching those lamp posts waving in the air like metronome pendulums, that we saw the cars bobbing up and down, and strangest of all, we felt the earth beneath our feet move.

It was an earthquake, later named the Whittier Narrows earthquake. (Seriously, they should come up with sexier names for these things, like how Hurricanes get named human first names–like Katrina).

I’d lost my earthquake virginity; that was my first big earthquake. Before that day, “earthquake” was a distant and exotic word, like “avalanche” or “famine” or “war,” one that I thought would never walk into my life. Most of all, it was an ABSTRACT term but that day it became a concrete term describing the earth rolling under my feet, in the same unsteady way one feels when walking off a people mover onto solid ground. Or like the deck of a boat, swaying underneath my feet. Odd. Logic-defying.

Immediately, two kids starting screaming and crying. I scoffed at them, but deep inside, if I had been entirely honest with myself, I could identify with the terror of having the earth, something that was supposed to always hold steady, something we’d always known to hold steady, move beneath your feet.

***

Many kids went home that day crying or in reluctant terror, even though I stuck out the school day in awed silence.  Those of us who stayed in school played out our shock in numerous ways, including entertaining stories of where we were when the earthquake hit.  One of them, my friend C, kept her eyeliner as she’d applied it that day, a jagged line sprouting from her eyelid; she had been in the middle of putting on her eyeliner when the earthquake hit.

And me?  For months afterward, the sound of an eighteen wheeler made me think earthquake.  For months afterward, the vibrations on the ground from a passing eighteen wheeler made me think earthquake.   Years later, in New York City, I’d feel the subway move beneath my feet and think earthquake.

***

Joining Charlotte’s Web and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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D is for Dirty

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I used to carry around disinfectant wipes and/or a bottle of purell with me all the time. Before the days of wet wipes and packaged purell, I would carry little packets of rubbing alcohol wipes–you know, the kind they have in bulk supply at doctors’ offices. On public transportation, I would wipe down the seat before I sat down, or wipe down a pole before wrapping my hand around to hold. Or anywhere public, for that matter. During flu season, I’d wish I could sanitize the air of viruses, and all year round I feared bacteria floating through the air, let alone those residing on said seats and poles and handrails.

I was always this way–when I once rode the RTD (L.A.’s MTA used to be called the RTD–the misnomer, “Rapid Transit District”) to the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) with my friend in high school (hello, from the suburbs of LA this is a huge expedition), I diligently wiped down my seat before sitting down, to the stares of other riders.

My mother was a nurse who, when she cleaned the house, called the act, “disinfecting,” using surgical grade cleaners to wipe down kitchen counters until she stripped the finish off of surfaces. Nothing was clean until the germs were gone. She would chant, “Once you get something dirty, it will never be the same again, never the same clean it once was when new.” That line stuck with me.

My friend would brush the leaves off a wooden bench. Was that bench clean? No, because the germs were still there. Wipe, wipe.

This compulsion only increased when I worked at a medical facility, surrounded by disinfectants and germ-killing procedures. It also didn’t help that there was a lot…and I mean A LOT of greed in that particular corner of the medical industry. Surgeons would scream at me if surgeries were cancelled; not only were they dismayed at the cancellation and the impact on their schedule, they were mostly furious at the loss of revenue.

Until then, I’d always seen doctors as role models, as highly educated and deft practitioners of saving lives and good health. Ok, maybe doctors could be super horny and full of drama, like in St. Elsewhere or ER or Grey’s Anatomy but no one’s a truly greedy asshole, not even McSteamy. It shocked me to see that patients could be seen as revenue sources, and it shocked me to see the behavior of very very greedy doctors. It felt…corrupt. I felt dirty. I felt unclean. I felt I would never the same as when I was new. I felt I would never be clean again. I felt dirty.

And so I would wash my hands.

I would wash my hands again.

I’d get screamed at. I’d feel pressure to make money in an industry vertical that I’d before seen as altruistic practitioners of medicine ala Marcus Welby, M.D. I would go into a dark empty room and cry. I’d never heard such profanity directed at me in a workplace before.

I’d wash my hands again.

I’d wipe my keyboard.
I’d wipe my desk.

I’d get screamed at–why is everything cancelled? We’d undergo inspection by the Department of Health Services. They’d scrutinize every single corner of our facility, pore through our procedural manuals. Were we clean enough?

I’d wash my hands. I’d wipe my keyboard. I wiped the surface of every single thing. I’d watch the scrub techs mop the floor of the surgical suite with a special mop only used for that room. With industrial grade disinfectant that smelled sweet and artificial. I’d wash my hands. I’d wipe my keyboard. I’d wipe the doorknobs.

I’d hold my breath. Once I even wore a surgical mask. I took it off at the behest of my coworkers, but I’m telling you, I felt SO MUCH BETTER wearing that surgical mask.

I quit that job. I applied to, and got into MFA programs. I kept carrying around surgical gloves and purell and wet wipes.

I went through a bottle of purell each week. I went through my portable packets of wet wipes more than once a week. I wore surgical gloves when I used the computer lab at school and had to use a shared keyboard. A fellow MFA student leaped up and said with a smile on her face and concern in her voice, “Jade, what is UP with the gloves?!” I would wear surgical gloves when I went to a buffet, the thought of touching the same serving tongs that some stranger had just used seconds before me gave me the heebies.

I quit going to buffets because the thought of people breathing on my food, and possibly coughing and sneezing onto the open vats of food gave me heebies I couldn’t mitigate.

And finally. And finally, I said I couldn’t deal with this. More specifically, my husband said to STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP.

So I stopped carrying purell and wet wipes. I put my hands on things. I washed them afterwards, but I did not use purell and wet wipes. No purell. No wet wipes. NO disinfecting.

I chanted to myself that viruses eventually die, and that shopping cart over there had probably not been touched in an hour. At first I picked abandoned shopping carts in the far corner of the parking lot. Even then, I made my husband push the cart when possible. And then I was, one day, okay with using one that someone had just abandoned a few seconds previous. And no wiping.

I still wash my hands a lot. But I refuse to carry the purell and wet wipes. I met a friend I hadn’t seen in years and years. She asked me if I had a wet wipe. I said no. She was surprised. I told her, I don’t carry them anymore.

She said, eyes widening with surprise, that’s good.

***

Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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C is for Corpse

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I’d never seen a corpse before. But there he/it/the body was, in a small studio apartment the size of a basic motel room, on the bed, on his/its/the body’s back, the face frozen in suffering, spelling out every single effort of last breath and pain. Not a peaceful death even if perhaps it occurred in sleep, the eyes closed.

If I had not known this was my friend’s deceased father, I might have initially guessed he was asleep, until the stillness of his body would make it clear that he had passed.

She had called me an hour earlier. “My father died last night.” He had been fighting, and losing, his battle with prostate cancer. “I don’t know what to do, he was Jewish, I don’t know what to do.” She was not a practicing Jew–she had grown up in Russia behind the Iron Curtain, with little knowledge of Jewish practices. She wanted me to help.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be over.” I didn’t know much, either, just what I’d learned in my studies during Orthodox conversion. Just what was in books. Asking me to help was an act of desperation. I spotted my copy of Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and slipped it into my purse before driving over the bridge to the City.

And now there I was, feeling inadequate in the room with her father’s body, a corpse, armed with…a book.

“Hi.” What else could I say?

“Hi,” she said, and I could see she was very far away, by the way she moved. She was a nurse, and she worked with a familiarity with the dead, businesslike and well-practiced in the art of caring for bodies. The only evidence that this was not a normal patient was the way she periodically sighed as she idly straightened his blanket.

Together we opened the book and figured out what to do. We should get a candle. It was the Mission, a candle was fetched. It was an altar candle. Was this okay? I shrugged, it should work. It was lit. We should say a prayer. We should not leave him alone. We should try to bury him today. We should try to find a burial plot. There was a Jewish cemetery nearby. Buy the plainest wooden casket.

We whispered, we moved around the room as if he was asleep. But he was not asleep. He was dead.

I am ashamed to say that I felt a great fear of his body, the corpse, sitting in the room. When the mortuary people came to take his body away, I watched with great awe and relief as they, with great grace, carried him away.

***

Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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An ill-timed comment and my rebuttal

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Most ill-timed comment, ever: I ran into a professor from my MFA program on the eve of my departure to a writing residency at Hedgebrook several years ago.

We were both browsing through shoes at REI–I needed “needed” a pair of shoes for Hedgebrook (hey, any reason to buy a pair of shoes, right?)…and she ironically, was also headed to Whidbey Island, where Hedgebrook is located, and needed a pair of shoes for her trip as well. Not that Whidbey Island is a volcanic island with special footwear needs or anything, it was just coincidence that brought us there. (And again, any reason to buy a pair of shoes…)

I had never taken her writing class, but I recognized her from my program and so I said hello. I told her where I was headed in a few days. She mentioned that she knew she’d recognized me from somewhere (i.e., the halls of the English building on campus).

“Ah, Hedgebrook!” she smiled her space-cadet smile, her eyes focused at infinity, even though her face was pointed at me, standing a mere three feet away, that weird polite zone of space, not too far, not too close. “It’s where I went and learned I wasn’t cut out to be a fiction writer.”

What? A nightmare started forming in my head.

“Oh yes, I was writing a novel, and I had a tough time writing while there. I really struggled. I ended up throwing the novel away, and realizing that I should be a journalist!” She was still smiling. Why was she smiling?

“Didn’t that devastate you?” I asked, thinking…I would be FUCKING DEVASTATED. Nightmare definitely forming in my head.

“At the time, yes!” She waved her hands, as if to emphasize the point that it was in the painless, anesthetized, past.

Oh, I said. Oh.

“But have a great time!” she said, pointing at a pair of Keene shoes. “Did you like the pair you just tried on?”

The Keenes were comfortable, but I felt like they looked like Smurf shoes. “I love them,” I lied.

“Oh well then great! I’m going to try a pair!”

And off she went ambling towards a salesperson. Leaving me with a thundercloud over my head.

At Hedgebrook, I struggled with loneliness (a good thing in the long run), until I met a friend for life while there that then blushed the whole experience pink and golden so that now my memories of Hedgebrook are mostly blissful (like birthing a baby, maybe?).

But mostly, I struggled with my writing. My struggle could have been like any other day writing, just staring at the laptop screen, waiting for the Muse to arrive, keeping vigil. But her statement made every one of my struggles with writing larger than they were: Was I a fiction writer? Should I throw this novel away? Should I just…blog? I must just totally suck. Should I just totally give up writing?

She cursed my residency, in some ways, with that extra pound of self-doubt, a pound I did not need to bear. And I still question myself as a fiction writer to this day. Even today, her words resound in my head on my worst writing days, or when I open the mailbox to find another rejection. To be truthful, I find myself wondering if I should still write the day after I’ve received an acceptance letter.

There are many hardships in life that do enlighten us, lead us to self-improvement. But I think self-doubt planted by others…is something we can do without. And for that reason, when people are off to a residency or an MFA program, I only give my blessing.

So…Good luck to all of you beginning your Fall semesters everywhere. 🙂 Have a great Fall learning, or teaching, or writing, or living, whatever it might be that you begin this season.

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