Monday, May 28, 2012

Bear Hunting with a Switch

Bear Hunting with a Switch

“God Damn, you’re big enough to go bear hunting with a switch”, was the observation I often heard from my dad, on the rare occasions that he took notice.  He made this comment because I was a big graceless girl, with a lumbering slew footed gait, the proverbial bull in the china shop. I had a large moon shaped face with oversized front teeth and freckles splotching my chubby cheeks. At 5’9” I was almost as tall as my dad and had a loud carrying voice.  Oddly, what I heard, when dad told me this, was that I was strong and able to take care of myself.  It wasn’t until later I realized what he had actually been telling me was that he thought I was fat and graceless and a little repulsive to him.
One of his four children, I was the third girl and about five years older than my brother, the last of us to be born. Our dad never hesitated to share his opinion of our intelligence, abilities or body type.  Encounters with him often left us shaken both figuratively and in actuality, so our goal was to stay out of his sight, knowing the less notice he took of us the safer we would be.  The only time this would change was after he had a few drinks.

Growing up I didn’t know the term, alcoholic but I did see how dad’s personality changed when he drank.  When sober, his temper was short and his disposition dour but like a reverse of Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde he became outgoing and sociable when he drank. He also became impulsive and uninhibited so that our world often careened from one extreme to the other.  In either persona he painted our world in big gestures and broad strokes, as likely to backhand one of us for accidentally interrupting, as he was to buy a horse and lead it home on a rope strung out of the back window of the station wagon.

I don’t have clear memories of my dad, just a vague outline of a barrel-chested muscular man with dark hair.  From old pictures I can see that he might have been considered handsome.  In his day he would have been described as “black Irish,” dark and brooding, with a dark complexion, curly black hair, light hazel eyes and a burly frame.    He was an intelligent man, a tool and die maker, as they were called then.  Always curious in a compulsive way, he would immerse himself in a particular subject.  When sated he was just as quick to release it, never to think of it again.  He once purchased a microscope for the sole purpose of viewing mold growing on cheese. He had a brief career as a professional wrestler, under the name of Bobby Lund. By turns a photographer or a cook in the merchant marines, he moved his family regularly to pursue each endeavor.

When I was in the third grade he took a job in Chicago and instead of moving, mom stayed in Indianapolis with us.  In Chicago he met another woman and eventually he and mom divorced after twenty-three years of marriage.  None of us regretted his absence. He had no comprehension of the injuries he had inflicted on his family. He left us damaged, his children feeling ashamed and inadequate, his wife worn out from trying to appease him.

 He was fifty-three years of age when he died of cirrhosis, a sick and lonely man. At sixty-two I understand how short his life had been.  How hot does a person’s soul burn to flame out in such a short amount of time?  What demons chased this man, my father? Maybe he was his own demon, as well as ours.

I was twenty when he died, years before I began wondering about why I am, who I am and I did find many answers to that question. I know parts of the hulking young girl came forward into my adult life. Undeniably, the insecure and awkward girl is here—but the girl that heard strong and able, instead of fat and graceless, has also been there to guide me.

Perhaps, I truly have gone bear hunting with a switch.

Diana, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is a movie about older Brits who choose to move to India to live in a palace. They hope that they will be cared for impeccably in their older years, thus allowing a grander life style for those with limited resources , an escape for some, and a grand adventure for others who had depleted their welcome in their own specific social circles. Every wonderful British actor seemed to have signed on:  Judi Dench, looking fabulous in linen; Tom Wilkinson;  Bill Nighty from that delightful film, ‘LOVE ACTUALLY,’ and ‘UNDERWORLD’; and the always pursed up, ever intolerant  Maggie Smith, grimacing at her constipated best. Another favorite actor is Penelope Wilton from BBC’s ‘DOWNTON ABBEY’ as well as the effervescent Dev Patel from the Oscar-winning ‘SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’. The director,  John Madden of ‘SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’ fame shaped Deborah Maggach's book THESE FOOLISH THINGS into a gem of a film with the help of Ol Parker's screenplay. It is chock-a-block with love issues: old love, bad love, shamed love, unfulfilled love, gay love, modern love, substitute for love, and the always complicated parental love.

Gem may be too strong a word for this film, since it is pretty predictable. But sometimes that works--we like knowing where we are going and predictability can be just fine. This glimpse into another culture, mediated by the ubiquitous  western disdain for bad water, poverty, incompetence, and ‘those’ simpler dusty people, is typically coupled with an inane superiority that makes it equally playful and off-putting.

A brilliant first ten minutes help us quickly pinpoint each of the seven characters' major traits and foibles. We identify the good one, the prickly one, the sick one, the nice one, and learn who is vulnerable and irritable, who has secrets, and who is the informal leader as well as the survivor. As we watch them in airports and on buses and all uniquely Indian modes of transport, we feel their realization that they are ‘not in Kansas anymore.’
There are no big surprises other than the straightest character freely acknowledging his gayness to the others with most of group understanding and politically correctly sympathetic. We knew who would be the most changed and who was attracted to whom but it was still a gift to watch it unfold. Sometimes no surprises are an okay thing. The person who needed to leave did so and happily everyone else embraced this new chapter of their lives almost unquestioningly. The big question we all leave the theater with is "Would I do the same?” My own bias is that having the old randy guy, and the long in the tooth hottie seeking to improve her lot in life continually highlighted to lighten the mood is tedious and regrettable. Although we all know the' type' we just don't hang out at those mixers anymore, and after age 60 it is not such a good look, even if you are well preserved. Every movie has to have this story line, making for a few predictably lame viagra sorts of jokes.
The views of India are familiar to anyone having visited, and remind those travelers of all the unexpected assaults on the eyes, nose, ears, any hidden sensibilities of our pasteurized life style with this more authentic mixture of the extremes of living. Camels and elephants, chickens and cows share the streets with people, food, plants and trees. Pollution is everywhere, dotted with buildings majestic or humble, old and contemporary. Most appeared crumbling and mildewed.  A few poor untouchables sweep with bristle-challenged brooms, never quite cleaning a spot of dirt for long, just sort of dusting things up. But color is everywhere, in dress and smiles and pace of life.  Once the unfamiliar streets, food and cleanliness become navigable, our seven-some mostly realizes that the fear of unknown threats and imminent diarrhea and disease are all self imposed. Is that not what all of life's big aha moment are anyway, just realizing the truth that was always right in front of you all along?

The goal of the manager of the hotel is to have his guests "so happy here they will not want to die." Played by the lovely Dev Patel, he is pitted into his own Indian family drama of running the decrepit mansion as his mother plans to sell it, while he tries to woo a parental-unapproved- love interest. Untouchables flutter about with no explanation as to their status (which was a unfortunate missed opportunity to teach--but those are always the pieces of dialogue that end up on the cutting room floor.)
The clever quote throughout the movie is "it's all good when it's over. If it's not all good, it's not all over.“ Simplistic, but the one character who feels good (at last) is the one whose life is soon over.
Because everyone portrayed is over 65 for sure, I fear it will not be very mainstream, but the theater I saw it in was packed at 1 pm on a Thursday and admittedly filled with an audience of the same age .  The joy of seeing people at the end of their years looking critically at old habits and morĂ©s and seeing something different than they supposed life would be, adds an excitement to life that is so hopeful for us all. As the small-lettered words under the hotel billboard told us in the beginning the Exotic Marigold Hotel is 'for the elderly and the beautiful.' 

You can be both even in today's culture.

Carole for PGM 

Monday, May 7, 2012


I met my daughter when she was 10 months old and I traveled to China to pick her up. As beautiful and profound as everyone says it is, our relationship is tinged with a fundamental sadness that covers me from head to toe every single day of our magical lives together: on the day she was born the woman who gave birth to her, or someone close to that woman, picked up this baby, wrapped her in a blanket and left her outside on the ground in front of an orphanage.

Nothing I can say or do from that moment on can mitigate this basic human sadness.  Who or what would make a woman abandon her baby?  I cannot even begin to guess.  Well yes, I can.  I can and I do and I believe that as my beautiful daughter gets older and begins to understand she will ask me and I must be ready to give her answers.

I don’t feel like an heroic person who swooped into a backwards country and made some child’s life magic.  I cringe when people tell me how lucky she is.  It is I, in fact, who is the lucky one.  I feel like I stole something primal and important from a country that is just beginning to find its feet and understand itself.  Sometimes I must confess, I feel like a thief.

A friend and I were discussing adoption one day, she herself is adopted, and she said to me, you have started telling her, her story, haven’t you?

“Um, no,” I confess. “I have not.  I thought I would just wait until she asked.  I figure she will ask questions because we do not look alike.”  

“No,” the friend said, “you must begin to tell her now.  This is her story, you must have her hear it and know it before it becomes a big deal.”

The weight of this story and its import to my girl hangs low and heavy over us every night as we lay down to read. I know without careful consideration that my friend is right, and it is a story she must know as she grows, so that it becomes a kind of backbone story and she can gradually hang other details onto it to eventually create the full and rich story of her life.

So I say to her one night as we are lying in bed, would you like to hear the story of how we met?

“Yes,” she says and now you must know that my girl is not one to climb into bed and wait patiently for her story and then roll over and sleep.  My girl jumps and moves and tosses and turns.  She is motion, so I begin to tell the story to a moving target.  I say it low in an almost whisper so she will strain to hear it, but really I think, I am sad to tell it, sad for her to know the truth.  I almost hope she does not hear me.   

Flash forward two weeks and I’ve told her the story now many times. In fact, after the first time I told her she began to ask for it by name:  tell me the story of the time we met.  And so I begin every night…A long time ago in a far away place there was a little girl named Yi Xiao Jian.

It is at this point that she always interrupts me to tell me her favorite detail of the story.  It is not that we flew on a plane to get her, or the fact that we met in a big conference room, or that we were there with all her friends' mommies and daddies, or that she was first in the room carried in the arms of her nanny. No, the detail she always remembers and tells me herself, before I even get to the end of the story is that Mommy brought her goldfish crackers.

So the story becomes the time I brought goldfish crackers to a very faraway place, and I can see in her eyes that she is making a memory for herself. Years from now, long after I am gone, she will remember our meeting not because she remembers, but because she has told herself a story again and again, making the memory more and more vivid as the time wears on.  Her small fist filled with orange fish shaped crackers and the laughter that came easily as she ate every single one.

Amy for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Water's Edge

During April Poetry month, I attended a lovely day of poetry discussion with the Poetry Detectives group followed by a short workshop sampler offered by Nancy Long on the Japanese Haibun form.

Following is one attempt.  There have been many others since.  This can be kind of addicting.    

   Water’s Edge

The mailbox at the end of a Carolina strand nods with sea oats pushed eastward by prevailing winds.  We leave messages on yellow paper as children, wistful promises of our return.

In starglow one milky way night I run with a flashlight from far up the beach to alert the porch people of the hatch.  I’d felt them first, tickling the tops of my brown feet, then caught them in a pale light beam as they scurried to the surf line.  Other children join me as we call for our mothers in the dark, strain to hear their watery voices over the whooshing of waves and all that wonderment.

We carry you out of the cottage, sorrowful, sniffling, suffering your infant adjustments to the hum of strange waters.  At the end of the still warm boardwalk,  a holy circle of strangers gathers round an enormous black disc , a muted scratching, a thwap, a thump, a digging spray of cool night sand.  You quiet like the rest of us, breathe in the leatherback night, the luminous pearlescent jewels deposited just so.  Later, we follow her at a distance, the silent procession of us, stopping at the ocean’s edge, mouths agape, tears on our cheeks.  And you sleep.

Stars in a night sky
Illuminate the wonder
Promise of return

BLR-- Poplar Grove Muse