Archive for January, 2012

Clean Plate Club

January 20, 2012

I’ve written here before about that chart on my kindergarten wall, and the stars you earned beside your name for showing you had mastered important skills: say your address, recite the alphabet, use scissors, tie your shoes, become a member of the Clean Plate Club.

This last one wasn’t about washing dishes. To become a member of the Clean Plate Club, you had to bring Miss Marcelli a note from your mother (of course it was your mother, and not your father – we’re talking 1962), vouching that you had eaten everything on your dinner plate for x meals in a row. I don’t remember the value of x. But half a century later, the value of finishing your food (and, by extension, the shame of leaving some food unconsumed) remains deeply entrenched.

What was Miss Marcelli trying to teach us? That it’s bad to waste. Especially food. And especially when children are starving in Europe /China/Africa.

It is bad to waste food. There’s a scene in my book in which a child keeps taking bagels from a platter and taking just one bite from each before abandoning them – behavior that’s presented as a comment on his parents. But it’s also bad to feel compelled, and even worse to compel others, to eat everything that’s put in front of you, whether or not you’re actually hungry. For someone who’s trying to eat less, or better, the Clean Plate Club mind-set can be a major obstacle.

Miss Macelli’s lesson wasn’t just about eating, though. It was also more general, about finishing what you begin. Following through. Making good on your promises and fulfilling your obligations, even if they’re only to yourself. That message has stayed with me, too. It pins me to my seat at the movies until the last of the credits have rolled. It keeps me slogging through books I’m reading even after I’ve lost interest. And it nags at my conscience when I consider the multitude of projects I have begun and left unfinished.

It goes without saying that it’s good to complete stuff. And quitting can be a sign of bigger problems, like laziness, short attention, fear of failure – or even fear of success. But stopping before the end isn’t always bad. If the story you’re reading sucks, why should you waste your time wading through it? And if the one you’re writing isn’t working, well, maybe you just need to try harder. Or longer. But it also might be the wrong story. Or the wrong time to write it. Even if your work doesn’t add up to a viable project, it can still be good exercise. And who knows when or how those lost fragments might resurface?

Sure, finishing is good. But so is knowing when to stop. Even if it does leave a less-than-clean plate.

Walking in the Shadows

January 14, 2012

We’re spending the week in Colorado Springs, home of stunning scenery, Evangelical Christians, and my husband’s parents and sister. Our visits here generally revolve around hanging out with family, eating vast quantities of delicious food, hiking among beautiful rock formations, and being simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the prevailing religious climate.

Colorado Springs is fertile ground for Evangelical Christianity. For years, we would exit the airport past a billboard that read, “Abortion is always wrong – God.” (Who knew God took out billboards?) Once we visited the world headquarters of anti-abortion, anti-gay Focus on the Family, and saw founder James Dobson’s father’s red dinner jacket displayed in a glass case, like a relic. Last year we noticed signs on bus stop benches urging us to “save the date.” The date was May 21, 2011 – the day Revered Harold Camping calculated the rapture would occur. This year we visited Glen Eyrie, a gorgeous, park-like property adjacent to Garden of the Gods.

Glen Eyrie is owned by The Navigators, an interdenominational, Christian ministry founded in 1933. The Navigators proselytize on military bases and college campuses, in prisons and at youth camps. They also run Navipress, a Christian publishing house. At Glen Eyrie they hold spiritual retreats and conferences on topics with new-age names like “Becoming a Woman of Simplicity” and “Scribbling in the Sand.” We were interested in the property’s hiking trails, which are open to the public – provided you reserve a slot in advance, sign the lengthy legal waver, and bring your photo I.D.

A curving driveway brings you to the gate house, where you check in. Beyond are manicured grounds, tall rock formations and old stone buildings, including the impressive “castle.” The feel is part state park, part sanitarium. Our hike followed a narrow canyon threaded between steep cliffs. The stream that carved the canyon runs wet during spring melt, but most of the time, it’s dry. The water is trapped by a dam and channeled into a pipe, which carries it to the top of a nearby mesa, where the Navigators hold it in a reservoir and sell it to the city. Wooden boardwalks and bridges suspended by thick metal hooks give the walk a mild amusement-park vibe.

It was really lovely. I stopped again and again to admire and photograph the angled rocks, the brittle remains of desert plants, the juxtaposition of fabricated and organic environment. High above us, it was a beautiful day, the sky perfectly blue, the tops of the rocks bathed in golden sunlight. Below, where we walked, it was chilly dusk, the trail deep in shadow, the footing lumpy with ice. As we gazed down at the dry creek bed, we could hear the rush of water through the pipe. My thoughts toggled between, How nice of  the Navigators to let us share this and How odd to be able to fence off and own a slice of natural beauty.

We didn’t see very many other people: just the guys in the guard house, a few men with name tags strolling between buildings, and one or two people climbing into cars. Did they give us a second thought? Did they recognize us for the non-believers we are – people come to enjoy the scenery, with no interest in attending their workshops or being saved by their God? Did we inspire smugness?  Pity? Or did they see as potential converts, lost souls lured by the scenery who might one day believe as they do — feel the warmth of their sun, walk their smooth path, drink from their carefully channeled water?

Michele Bachmann: Jack-o-lantern

January 4, 2012

When she announced that she’s suspending her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination today, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said that she “looks forward to the next chapter in God’s plan.” Since late October, we have been watching God’s plan for her unfold here at home, in the form of a jack-o-lantern. Here it is, in pictures, from  our daughter Sophie’s elegant Halloween carving through decay and collapse on our backyard tomato bed.

In My Dreams

January 2, 2012

I’m in a huge hotel complex with confusing corridors linked by stairways and escalators. The place is packed, so as I navigate the architectural maze, I also have to maneuver the crowd as I hurry to my meeting, which of course I’m already late for. Luckily, I make it to the designated meeting place before the man I’m scheduled to meet with arrives. At first I’m relieved, but as time passes and he still doesn’t show up, my worry about being late turns to anger at his rudeness. Is he just making me wait, or actually standing me up? How long should I give him? I practice saying, “Tell him I said fuck you,” and start looking around for someone to trust with my message. That’s when I begin to have second thoughts about my decision to show up for this meeting stark naked.

But the dream doesn’t end there. Naked, I hastily retrace my route, pushing past people and jogging breathlessly up steep stairways. When I arrive at my room, it’s being cleaned. There’s an awkward encounter with the chamber maid, whom I surprise in the process of zipping up her skirt. Waving aside her embarrassed apologizes, I grab a filmy, lime-green camisole and a silky lilac skirt, and struggle into them.

I wake up kicking myself for wearing a black bra under such a pale blouse, and laughing at myself for having such a ridiculous, clichéd dream.

It’s been a while since I had my last anxiety dream. When I was little, I had a lot of anxiety dreams, mostly involving fire. Later, fire was replaced by impossible architecture. When I was an editor at Seven Days, I dreamed regularly about losing my desk. Either the streets or the building had mysteriously changed or someone had moved my work station without telling me. The naked theme is hardly new, but it’s gotten more frequent lately – although, as I said, recently my anxiety dreams have been markedly infrequent.

So why last night’s dream? The crowded hotel is clearly borrowed from David, who spent part of last week at a philosophy convention, interviewing job candidates. He came home talking about the applicants’ justified anxiety. As for the meeting in my dream, it was explicitly an actual meeting I’m having later this week. I guess I’m more worried about it than I’d realized.

But even if David’s convention and my upcoming appointment hadn’t lent my dream its details, I probably would have had some kind of anxiety dream. I blame New Year’s. Although nothing other than an artificial number on a calendar actually changed this past weekend, the turning of a year naturally encourages reflection. For me, this scrutiny has been focused on the professional. What have I accomplished with my writing in the last 12 months? Not what I had hoped. What are my goals for next year? I’m not really sure. And that troubles me.

On the other hand, I really can’t complain. Each night, as I’m falling asleep, I run through a mental check-list of my day. When I have come up with three good things, I can empty my mind and drift off. The good things can be significant events, but they’re usually pretty subtle: how pretty the water looked, a conversation with one of my kids, something good I read or heard or ate. Going through this process is about as close as I ever come to personal prayer. Like traditional bedtime liturgies, the ritual helps me feel safe to sleep.

If I were to apply my three-good-things ritual to last night’s dream, this is what I would list:

1. I did not get lost in the corridors.

2. I was not late for my meeting.

3. I not only figured out on time that I shouldn’t be naked, but also managed to get dressed.

Take that, dream.

Sure, I’m anxious about 2012.  But hopeless? Far from it. And no matter what else happens at my meeting this week, I’m pretty sure I’ll remember to get dressed.