Today, this photo came across my news feed, accompanied by the usual witty comments. (Kudos to George Takei for introducing me to the best tri-fold display ever.) My sister B wrote, "I remember the crying and yelling and the 'Quick! Find some food I can put a drop of iodine on!'" Our friend T said, "The one time nothing in the fridge has mold on it!"
I wrote, "In my case, 100% of the time, the parent actually did the experiment, and I provided the neat lettering for the board."
It's not that I wasn't a good student, or a generally capable one. I liked school. I read even the chapters that weren't assigned. I'd always finished the novel our class would be reading for the next month in the first 48 hours.
But the science project? Lord, have mercy.
Even though the science fair was something I knew was coming and could spot a mile away like a dust storm in a desert, I was somehow always completely unprepared. The trouble began with the whole idea of a hypothesis. Although I'd written down the term in my notes (highlighted, underlined, neatly aligned with the left hand margin), I couldn't fully grasp the concept.
My mother tried. She deserves much more than this blog-post-of-thanks as her reward. Usually, our conversations in the month leading up to the science fair ended up with the two of us sitting at the kitchen table -- me crying because I couldn't figure it out and my mother looking like this time, she might just strangle me.
Her questions ranged from the subtly encouraging, "But aren't you curious about anything?" to the subtly damning, "How can you not be curious about anything?"
There was really no way for me to answer. It was true, I was lacking the essential curiosity to approach every science project I'd ever seen. Although I admired the chutzpah of my classmates who cut a planarian in half to chart its regeneration, I was more interested in how a person could cut a wriggling, innocent creature in half than what happened to said creature later. I didn't particularly care how fast things happened, or why they happened at all.
In fact, each time the science fair rolled around, I nurtured serious doubts about my own intellect. What was wrong with me, that I couldn't summon a decent hypothesis?
What I came to realize over the years was that I wasn't defective (at least, not in any way that would cause great damage to my adult self), and that I was in fact curious. I was just curious about things that were of no use in the biannual science fair.
For example, I was fascinated by people.
"Don't stare," my mother would say, as I gaped at a woman talking to herself at a McDonalds. "That's rude." It might have been rude, but I could hardly look away. Did this woman know she was talking to herself? What was she talking about? Why was she alone? Had her talking-to-herself habit driven away all the people who loved her? Was she dangerous, or simply lonely?
At school, I was curious about the social status of my various classmates. I was a little too weird to be one of the popular girls, although I was smart enough and pretty enough to blend in most of the time. Even at an early age, I could see that I laughed at the wrong things, and made connections that others didn't make and couldn't understand when I tried to point them out. But I wondered endlessly about the popular kids. Did they ever doubt themselves? Did they get their strength from within, or from the praise of others? Could popularity be achieved through hard work, focus and determination, or was it an innate quality?
But there wasn't a way to graph loneliness or a method of growing popularity in a petri dish, so I was pretty much screwed.
It was impossible not to do the science experiment.
In thirteen years of teaching, I've met students who simply did not complete the single biggest project that had the largest effect on their grades, but this was never an option for me. Partly, this was out of respect for my teachers; partly, it was from the desire not to look like an idiot in front of my classmates. I attended a private school, and there must have been students who didn't complete the work from time to time, although I don't think I ever knew them.
But mostly, not doing the science project was impossible because of my parents.
Between the two of them, they possessed the ideal qualities necessary for success at the sixth grade science fair. Namely, my mother had all the scientific curiosity I was lacking, and my father could build anything.
This explains the complicated "ball-bearing racetrack" I submitted one year -- sheepishly, because although it was extremely cool to run ball bearings down a four-foot ramp (constructed, sanded, stained and varnished by yours-truly's-father), I could not explain at all what was happening from a scientific standpoint.
Another year, prompted by concerns about my father's smoking habit, my mother took the reins herself, and we (she) constructed a model of a human lung out of an empty dish detergent bottle filled with cotton balls. One of my father's cigarettes was taped to the spout, lit with an oven match (this was my favorite part) and then by squeezing the bottle, it was possible to simulate the experience of smoking. Over the course of this project, the cotton balls turned a nasty brown, and I secondhand smoked a few packs of my dad's Mores.
I can't say my father was especially impressed by the clump of brown cotton balls or what this was meant to suggest about the state of his own lungs. Somehow, my father's apathy supported my impression that what I was doing was not actually science. I was not so much proving a hypothesis as making my father very, very mad.
Did I mention that my mother LOVES science?
For the last decade of her life, even in retirement, she has been at the helm of her school district's annual Family Science Night. For years, she served as the science mentor for four elementary schools -- bridging gaps in the curriculum when the state became hyper-focused on reading and math. She had a permanent display in her classroom of what I liked to call "very cool science things" -- a petrified frog, the bones of such-and-such and the crystalline insides of a geode.
Even today, I marvel at the postcards I receive from my mother, on her various jaunts across the United States with my father. In one, she might describe visiting a national park; in another, she is in awe of the display at a rock and mineral show. I don't have one of her postcards handy at the moment, but here's the gist:
Having a wonderful time in Monterey. Saw a group of 200 sea lions. This is not a typical migratory pattern for the sea lions, due to unusual weather conditions in the spring. I have been taking long walks in the morning while your dad sleeps. Amazing amount of birds, squirrels, butterflies on paths.
The truth is, I would like to go back to the science experiments of my youth and really do them, and get a grade that I (and not my parents) deserved.
But while I've learned many things over the years, I suppose I haven't fully embraced the idea of scientific inquiry. I've simply adapted to my environment. I can upload and download; I can Tweet. I recently learned how to operate the Roku and even added a new channel to my viewing options. There's science at work behind each of these inventions, but it remains invisible to me.
Any experiment I might conduct today would probably involve my pets and their eating habits. I can see it now: a graph denoting the number of times I cleaned up vomit, versus the amount and type of food consumed.
Maybe I could get my mother to help me with the graphs.
And I bet my father could build one kick-ass display.
If you know me, you can probably call up a memory without too much difficulty: me sliding on the ice, walking into a doorway, banging an elbow or a shin. You might remember me on crutches at one sister's wedding and in the ER right before another.
My clumsiness was a defined fact of my childhood, although it hid in other words-- like "uncoordinated" on my PE charts and "accident prone" on my medical ones. My parents were likely to introduce me to new acquaintances this way, explaining the bruises on my legs. "Oh, Paula? She's just very..."
If this were a Lifetime movie, I would have had a serious illness (undiagnosed brain tumor, say) that caused my imbalance, or a ham-fisted brute who caused my bruises.
But no. I had no underlying tragedy.
I was just a klutz.
* * *
I wish I could say that I outgrew my clumsiness, the way I'd outgrown other flaws and acquired new social graces -- through awareness and practice. After all, I must have walked through millions of doorways by this point in my life, and the experience should have taught me about the width of my own body and the width of the doorway and where exactly I needed to position myself for safe passage. For nearly fourteen years, W and I have had the same bed, and once or twice a day I round the corner and smack my lower thigh against the knob on the footboard. It's a sharp stab of pain, but it dissipates by the time I've made it down the hallway. There's never a new bruise to regret, because my thigh has acquired a permanent indentation in that very spot -- my body's way of protecting me from myself.
Somehow, instead of acquiring the ability to avoid these little accidents, I've acquired the ability to clean them up quickly. I can clean up spilled liquid at warp speed. I can very efficiently retrieve a full stack of dropped papers. I have developed as Plan Bs all sorts of contingency plans for things that no one else might realize can go wrong. If I were to fall from this height... if the food does slosh out of this pan...
But I haven't been able to stop myself from getting hurt.
* * *
Recently, W and I (community volunteers! activists!) were passing out fliers about an informational meeting. We had about 100 homes to cover, and I'd done most of them myself on an early morning power walk. The twenty or so remaining homes we were covering together, before splitting off to the rest of our respective chores for the day.
We'd passed out fliers here before with no problems (barring the occasional heart attack from a dog behind a chain-link fence), so I grabbed my stack of fliers and W grabbed his stack of fliers and we took opposite sides of the road. I stopped to talk to an older woman who was moving to southern California, and from across the street, I could hear W introducing himself to a woman who was watering her neighbor's lawn with a hose from her own yard.
I caught scraps of their conversation as I moved along to the next house. "... passed away recently...." and "... wanted to take a moment to invite you..."
I was making good time when I started up a short sidewalk, hand already outstretched with the flier I would tuck beneath the doormat. And then, out of nowhere, the sidewalk jumped up and attacked me.
Well, of course it didn't -- although that would be a more satisfying explanation for the fact that I'd walked on this same sidewalk at least a half-dozen other times before and always managed to avoid the slight uneven lip of cement near the front stoop.
This time, moving at a good clip, my toe caught that patch of cement and I went flying with a surprised "Oooh!"I managed to catch myself with my knees and one wrist, which is to say, I managed to hit the sidewalk pretty hard. The hand holding the flier made it all the way to the front stoop, where a neat oval circle of skin had been cleanly sheared off my forefinger.
As with many of my indelicate falls and stumbles and spills, there were plenty of witnesses in sight. The older woman next door, packing her bags and loading her car. The man at the next house, taking advantage of 70-degree weather and blue skies to wash his car. And of course, W and the woman across the street, still chatting with each other. I heard W say "Indian summer" -- a joke about our unseasonably warm January. Strangely, although I'd cried out, hit the pavement with a decided thud, and was now struggling painfully to a standing position, no one had noticed a thing.
Once I figured out that all of my bones appeared to be intact, I walked slowly to the man washing his car and handed him a flier. I did this Wordlessly, because I was sure my voice would come out in a whimper. I have skinned knees! My forefinger has been mutilated!
W met me in the middle of the street. "Done already?" he asked and I shook my head. I held out my finger, which appeared to be too stunned to bleed, and W stared at it.
* * *
At home, I closed the bathroom door, peeled off my jeans and took inventory. Each knee had two round, quarter-sized raspberries, one on top of the other. After a careful washing, I pulled out the plastic container that housed Band-Aids of twenty different sizes, plus antiseptic ointment, gauze and tape. It's a box that's come in handy for me over the years, since we moved into this house and I kept hurting myself (cuts, scrapes, splinters) during one home improvement project or another.
This time, although my knees were smarting, what I mainly felt was anger at my klutzy self. It had been a while since I'd taken such a hard fall, so there was disappointment too, that I hadn't in fact outgrown this tendency. And resignation -- surely I would be the patient the nursing home attendants kept in a wheelchair at all times, motivated by a fear for my own safety and the desire to avoid expensive lawsuits.
But it could have been worse, and it wasn't. I sighed, slapping the last Band-Aid into place.
The first sign that I was getting better came when I was still in bed, propped up by three pillows, a glass of 7-Up on my nightstand and the remote just out of reach. I was staring at the doorway, where a little clump of pet hair had gathered. It wasn't a new clump of pet hair; I'd been noticing it from this same vantage point every morning for weeks. Miraculously, it hadn't even grown in size, despite the fact that I hadn't taken a broom to our wood floors in ... I couldn't even say.
But later that day, I began the slow process of getting out of bed (holding the wall, fighting dizziness) and slowly padding down the hall in my sock slippers, and on the way past the doorway, I stooped down and came up again, triumphant, with that wad of pet hair clenched in my fist.
I was going to be okay.
What happened was this: I got very busy, and then I got very sick, and then I stayed sick for a long time.
Oh, I kept fulfilling my obligations. I taught all my classes. I went to meetings for one thing or another at night. I graded papers and planned lessons. I revised my novel and missed my deadline by only one week. The dogs got fed and walked; I scooped the cat litter. Somehow, Will and I kept each other fed, although he was struggling, too. Laundry more or less got done, although from one day to the next, I couldn't remember what clothing I'd worn. But it was growing harder and harder to summon effort for the most basic things. Every hour of grading papers required an hour of sleep for recovery.
At one point, it got so bad that I called Will to my bedside, where I sat, surrounded by used Kleenexes. I'd been losing my voice off and on, and so what I told him came out in a hoarse whisper, which gave the occasion even more solemnity. "I want you to pay attention," I whispered. "I'm going to tell you all my passwords."
Will's eyes grew wide.
The second sign that I was going to survive came when I was at the checkout stand at Walgreens, clutching a bottle of orange DayQuil, a quick fix for what ailed me. Passing over my debit card, I glimpsed my fingernails. They were long and ragged, haphazardly trimmed, faintly yellow. They were the fingernails you might expect to see on someone in a nursing home, or maybe a person who had been in a coma for years.
I curled my fingers into my palms, not wanting the Walgreens cashier to see how low I'd fallen.
At home, I clipped and cut and buffed and polished. I'd never really cared about my nails before, beyond basic maintenance; I can count on both hands the number of manicures I've had in my life, each preceding a major event -- wedding, interview, book launch.
That night when I crawled into bed, I fell asleep admiring my champagne nails in the glow of the television set.
I coughed so hard and for so long that my doctor thought I might have cracked a rib. I'd definitely pulled a muscle on my left side; whenever I raised my left arm, a shooting pain zigzagged from my armpit to my waist. It was easier not to use my left arm at all for a few weeks, so I kept it tucked against my side while my right arm swung free. I felt like an amputee with a phantom limb, except mine was there -- just relatively useless.
At one point, standing in the kitchen, I doubled over with a cough, and then realized that I couldn't straighten. Something was definitely wrong with my back. For a long time, I stayed there on the kitchen floor, eventually turning over so that my back was pressed against the linoleum. My pets wandered in, one by one, as if paying their condolences. LG brought me her rope toy and waved it excitedly in my face.
That night, I whispered the ending of my book into Will's ear. "I trust you," I said. "If I'm not around to finish..."
It was dark, but somehow I still knew he was rolling his eyes.
Ten days after I started taking antibiotics, I started feeling better. Small things, like walking the dog or taking out the trash, still exhausted me, but a three-hour nap each afternoon and eight hours of sleep each night seemed to help. "You can't make up for a sleep deficit," my doctor had admonished me, but I was trying, anyway.
On that tenth morning, I woke up and put on a pair of sweats and my cross trainers. It took a while to find my gym bag, buried as it was beneath a stack of blue books and scraps of Christmas wrapping paper.
My first steps on the treadmill were hesitant and slow; I'd forgotten how to move. It took a while to build up a rhythm, and I had to stop a few times for a wracking cough -- but I was going. I was moving.
The city where I live has a bulky-item trash policy, which goes as follows: Twice a year, free of charge, you can schedule a curbside pickup of your unwanted junk. This doesn't necessarily stop people from dumping their unwanted junk in alleys or public parks or in someone's orchard on the outskirts of the city limits -- but if used properly, the policy works extremely well.
If used properly, people dump their unwanted junk at the curb, where it lingers until someone picks it up.
Recently, my mother came over for dinner and expressed concern about a heap of trash outside a home two blocks away.
"Oh, they must be moving," I said, dismissively.
I had passed the pile for the last few days on my walk with Baxter, and then later gone back with my car to pick two old windows out of the hoard. What I will do with these windows, I have no idea, although Pinterest has 2,477 suggestions for me. I could just as well have let them be, since I'm way too busy to refurbish old windows, and now I have two junky old windows in a corner of my backyard where old things tend to accumulate. I mostly hide the pile with a tarp; when I do remove the tarp -- to add another old thing to the pile of old things -- it's always surprising to see what's there.
Where did all this junk come from?
Oh, yeah. From me.
Over the years, W and I have disposed of a number of things using our city's bulky-item pick-up policy: our first couch, which Baxter chewed to tufts of stuffing; a massive roll of 1970s-era carpet that had covered our original oak floors; a recliner with a sprung spring; a rusted wheelbarrow with a flat tire.
Often, the things left out on the curbs never make it to the county dump, or if they do, it's by taking a more circuitous route. Someone passing by will decide they need the couch, even if its cushions are missing stuffing. Someone will decide that decades-old carpet that smells vaguely of death and strongly of pets is the perfect covering for their own floors. And someone, no doubt, has found a Pinterest project for a rusted wheelbarrow with a flat tire.
On one occasion, the disposal truck came lumbering down the street and I tore myself away from my laptop to inform the driver that he was too late -- my junk had already been reclaimed.
"It's amazing the trash people will pick up," the driver said, shaking his head.
I thought this was a curious comment, coming from a disposal truck driver, but I feigned a shared incredulousness. "I know! Isn't it crazy?"
Last spring, after sitting on our 2011 tax return for almost 12 months (which I felt must be some sort of national record), W and I decided to spring for a new couch, an L-shaped sectional that fit our front room much better than our current couch and had the added benefit of not being covered with cat hair.
But what to do with the old couch?
It still had life in it, I reasoned. We could give it to someone who needs a couch and wouldn't mind spending money on professional cleaning, Will suggested. And so, because the space could not bear two couches, we moved the old couch onto our patio.
I'm ashamed to say how long it lingered there, looking more and more shabby every time I opened the patio doors. Suffice to say, before too long, it was now a couch that we would not suggest to any of our friends or acquaintances. Immediately, other things appeared on top of it - empty boxes, bags of trash that we were too lazy to bring to the actual trash can and instead dumped at this convenient halfway point. Leaves collected there. A neighborhood cat discovered it.
Will and I had become the kind of people who have indoor furniture outside their home.
"Oh, don't go out there," I said to a friend, who was wandering in the vague direction of our patio doors.
"Why not?" He laughed. "Is that where the dragon lives?"
"Worse," I said. "So much worse."
After months of waiting for no reason at all, I made the thirty-second phone call to the disposal company, and they gave me a pick-up date. The night before the scheduled pick-up, W and I lugged the couch to the curb. I checked on it a few times that night before going to bed - or rather, I forgot about it completely, only to be reminded by its ghostly rectangular shape every time I passed the front windows. What is that? Oh, right. Our old couch. Still there.
But in the morning, before dawn, it was gone.
In the crazy rush of last spring, W and I took my spring break to fly to Cleveland and drive back to California -- part of a research project for my second novel. We visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, spent a half-day wandering around Oberlin College, visited my hometown of Napoleon, Ohio and rekindled a decades-long friendship. We saw an aunt and uncle in Chicago and met a friend downtown for coffee the next morning. In Omaha, we had dinner with a college friend and his family. Okay -- so part research, part memory-lane.
But in between, we drove, putting thousands of miles on our rented Toyota. When I drove, I sang or chattered to W or listened to one of thirty discs of Stephen King's Under the Dome. As a passenger, I took notes on the topography, the vultures that circled, the town names, the restaurant chains, the brown historical markers. We visited the landlocked lighthouse in Gretna, NE. We visited the pony express station in Gothemberg, NE. We saw Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff (for you Oregon Trail fans). And we drove. And drove.
Every now and then, on a lonely stretch of I-80, we would see someone's castoff belongings - armchairs missing a limb, mattresses that may well have fallen off someone's station wagon. It would be sitting on the side of the road, as lonely and poignant as Willa Cather's big plow against the sky - and then as we came closer, we would see that it was indeed nothing more than a pile of junk.
After five days or so, we were back in California, heading south from Sacramento. It was full-on spring here, not the stinging sleet of Cleveland or the half-melted slush of Laramie, WY -- but spring. It was a good day to be alive. I began making a mental list -- laundry, pick up Bax from my parents, grade the papers I'd lugged across country and back without once glancing at.
We took our exit from the freeway, and began wending our way through the few twists and turns to our house. Less than a block away, I braked and we both stared out the window.
On the side of the road, bridging an overflowing gutter, was our couch.
Last week someone asked me: What happened to your blog?
And I answered cheerfully: Nothing. It's still there, as far as I know.
What I meant was: I really would like to be constantly updating my blog with interesting stories about my daily life and fictional accounts of other people's daily lives, but I've been swamped. (No, not literally.) But I've been busy and dutiful and productive in other areas of my life, which unfortunately has led to a major creativity suck.
When I think of my life at this moment, I think of the to-do list on my laptop, which shrinks only to expand again five minutes later.
Nothing on the list is funny. Nothing on the list is anything but "must do." It would be very boring to talk about the must-dos.
It is almost as boring as the story I'm about to relate.
Years ago, W. and I were invited to the home of some people who I am fairly sure will never read this blog. We ate dinner and talked about traffic. And then we talked about traffic some more. And then - although I longed to excuse myself from the table and bang my head against the nearest wall -- we talked again about traffic.
Apparently, there is a lot to say about traffic*, although absolutely none of it is interesting.
W., sensing that I was nearing my breaking point, tried valiantly to change the subject, but to no avail. I tried bitchily to change the subject and this was still to no avail.
We escaped before we could discuss traffic in other countries, or throughout human history, although I could see the writing on the wall. Make no mistake: it was coming, perhaps with another cup of coffee.
On the way home, Will and I rode in silence. It seemed a cruel trick of fate that we found ourselves on the freeway with a few thousand other cars, but we bore this in silence. We both knew that the first person who mentioned the word traffic would have to be shot.
This story is still not interesting, despite the passage of several years. It still does not make me smile.
And if I told you about the stack of essays I was grading, and the tedium of revising my novel and yes -- the horrors of my two-hour daily commute -- you would not be amused, either.
But don't worry, Live from the Bean will return. I will once again feel compelled to point out my own shortcomings and the shortcomings of others. There will be things to chuckle about and shake your head at. (There will even be the occasional sentence that ends with a preposition.)
And maybe this will even be tomorrow.
*If you're wondering, our traffic discussion included patterns, the fastest routes to just about everywhere, road construction that was happening, road construction that should be happening, commuting, potholes, hard and soft shoulders and the horrible driving skills of other people, some of whom happened to be women.
Overheard: This conversation between two students.
Male: You know, the basic difference between men and women is that men would never wear uncomfortable shoes.
Male: Seriously. Men would never try on fifty pairs of shoes only to find a pair that looks good but makes each step a living hell. It would just never happen.
Female: But I bet you like it when women wear high heels.
Male: Well, I don't mind, but I've never honestly looked at a woman in flip-flops and thought, "She would be attractive if only she was wearing high heels." Women just do that to themselves, so they can impress other women.
Me, conscious of blister rubbing painfully against heel of cute shoe, files conversation away for further thought.
Please note: That should really be done when you're still in the bathroom, before you wash your hands, before you unlock the door, before you step out into the hallway of this fine establishment, before you bump into me, before you say "Oopsie" (perhaps at your age, you should never say "Oopsie") and before I even have a chance to roll my eyes.
Just a thought for next time.
Woman who should just give in and get a kidney infection, already