"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Friday, December 21, 2007

beacon street, just before six a.m.

This morning, very early, I drove through my old neighborhood. Brownstones and wrought iron fences. Plowed-in cars cocooned until spring. Graveyards of the revolution, uneven streets barely wide enough for a city bus. My first life in Boston. It has been followed by other lives, all part of one story but, also, distinctly separate. College student, girlfriend, runner, fiancĂ©e, mistress, grad student, teacher, friend, activist. Sometimes I can’t find a string to grip that runs through all of those people, even though they are all me. Other days I think my eight year old self and my current self are too similar for comfort. There are times I am blindsided by shock in a world I thought I had a handle on; other days I lose hope that I will ever feel anything new. Then there are these paradoxical moments – both constant and new, permanently. Driving through Beacon Hill this morning I was struck by the way the public garden looks after a snowfall, before anyone is up. I’ve seen it a million times. White lights on white snow. Bent, arthritic tree branches, snow laden, poking toward the sky. The black of the branches and the white of the snow frozen in stark contrast, neither in rows nor appearing chaotic or wild. It will always be both new and old to me. The roll of emotion is part nostalgia, making me ache for one of those old lives. I remember long, cold walks, pauses under lightly falling snow, gloved hands soft on my face. The breathless shock of loving someone. I long for the sense of newcomerness in my city, being awed by it, scared of it, lost in it. This all seems so completely part of the past, out of reach. On the exact same roll of emotion is the surprise at how much I love to look at trees covered in snow. It has been falling every winter now for as long as I’ve been alive. I know what it will look like. But the magic of that snowy hush, the noiselessness of an untouched city park just after dawn, will never be old to me. I could turn that corner onto Beacon Street every day for eternity. And if the snow had stopped falling but the walkway wasn’t cleared yet, the white lights were shining in a haze through bright white snow on wet black branches, and the city’s morning hadn’t started, I would stop. As if for the first time, I would leave my car illegally parked, breath caught in my throat for reasons quite unclear to me, and let my ungloved hands freeze to the fence, leaning there feeling full and new, staring at the snow.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snow Days: 1988 vs. 2007

Snow Day 1988:

I woke up most winter mornings in the eighties already wearing many layers of clothing. On a normal day, the thirty seconds between the hot shower and taking off all those pajama layers was horrific. On a potential snow day, the pajamas stayed on, and we headed downstairs in bed gear.

First of all, going down our stairs in feet-on-pjs was dangerous. I imagine the guy who built our house, at some point in the late 19th century, understood the basic idea of stairs. But I understand the basic idea of converting matter into energy, yet I’m definitely not qualified to put that into practice. Pretty much, with the thin-plastic-covered feet, little tufts of pj material sticking out between the cracks, pajama clad children rushing down those narrow, a thousand times painted over, death trap stairs was a mini-chernobyl waiting to happen every snowy morning.

The kitchen housed an electric stove. This is important. In the spirit of progress, the mid 1980s found my house abandoning the ancient wood stove system in the basement and adopting oil heat. The little thermostat thinger on the wall that I had seen at friends’ houses appeared on our living room wall. No more waiting for the dank basement’s wood piles to dry enough to burn! No more smoky eyes! Control over how warm it was in the house! Not so much. If you EVER even entertained the idea that you might think about potentially in the distant future possibly touching that thing, my mother would sense it and say, “If that thing is above fifty-five…” And this was all we needed in the way of a threat. We had no other rules. We could come home tattooed, pregnant, smoking cigarettes in a stolen car and she’d just sigh and ask us to do the dishes. But you did not fuck with the thermostat.

I digress. The eight-floor-tile-wide space in front of the kitchen stove was the only place in the house that ever went above tundra temperatures. Between November and March that spot was the nexus of the house. So we would wedge ourselves into the hallway between the wall and the stove, our plastic feet pressed against the grate. We’d use our toes to scrape remnants of dinners past, blackening on the once white stove side. The morning news went on in the living room, the TV just visible from our spot by the stove. We’d watch that scrolling cancellation ticker, inhaling the somehow comforting smell of singed plastic. Mother standing behind the stove with coffee, both hands around her cup. Her glasses get steamed, so she periodically raises her head, then lowers it again, all very slowly, so she looks like a turtle. It seemed we always just missed our school in the rotation, so we’d wait through the whole alphabet, squirming. Then there it was. Granville. Closed.

My sister and I are jubilant. Our mother’s eyes roll.

Leaving the stove front was a challenge. But eventually we braved the Alaskan living room. The couch was covered with a perpetual layer of laundry waiting to be folded and extra blankets. We burrow into a knot of blanket and mismatched socks, pulling the dog onto the couch for warmth. We burrowed for only a moment, because no amount of cold air could keep us from The Greatest Luxury of my Childhood for very long. Figuring prominently in every snow day was that fiercely addictive 8 bits of pure joy, the Nintendo. Stacked on top of the television, which was stacked on a broken television, that little gray box brought way more delight to our childhood than could be considered healthy. Even the ritual of banging on it just right, blowing in the game cartridge, blowing in the console, taking it out, doing it again, screaming with fury when the screen went blue mid-game – all a labor of love, people!

Eventually, though, one must go outside and play in the snow. Snow is great for kids who have an acute and absurd resistance to potential physical harm. To qualify this, I was great at BEING hurt. Once I got hurt, I was super tough guy. But if I wasn’t yet hurt, I would avoid getting hurt so carefully that my caution often impeded certain instances of fun. The snow meant invincibility! All my best uninhibited feats of derring-do occurred in the snow. And, of course, there was the temptation to tie the sled to the dog and yell “mush!” Then watch her look around. Lick a paw. Lie down. Roll around.

…in the interest of retaining the attention of my three dedicated readers, fast forward through:

Mittens, hats, socks, snow pants, drying in rows over the heating vent. Hot cocoa powder from the giant box of brown paper packets. The little balls of ice stuck between the pads of doggie feet. All reporting back, by dark, to the warm part of the kitchen.

Snow Day 2007:

This is me reporting live from an adult snow day, December Fourteenth Two Thousand and Seven, the year of our lord. I am at my desk. There is no Nintendo here. Or back to back episodes of The Price is Right. What I wouldn’t give for even one glimpse of that tiiiiny little microphone…

This particular snow day started yesterday. A snow two-day. A couplet of bliss! In its usual staunch resistance to common sense, Boston Public Schools ignored the doings of EVERY OTHER school district in the area and kept students in school all day. At the last minute, we got a call that buses were leaving the bus yard thirty minutes early. (Again, a classic BPS move, which is a good old fashioned “oh shit.”) After a few Sisyphean attempts, the bus opted to wait at the bottom of the ridiculous hill our school sits atop. It was only twenty minutes late at this point. So we tell our students, who are cooperative angels and accept unexpected schedule changes with grace and patience, to bundle up – we’re walking down the hill. You would think we told them we were going to tie our wrists together, form a line, and swim the English Channel dressed in giant lizard outfits. Eventually, one teacher (ahem, me) and all of our students waddle out the door. The boys are fine, sliding to the beat of whatever’s on their iPods. The girls are pregnant and walking very very very slowly. We make it to the bus. They get on, I wave through the blizzard at them.

My car is a cocoon of danger, parked at the bottom of the hill so as to avoid (another) sliding accident. I turn it on, and whatever radio station I had on that morning blasts John Mellencamp’s (sans Cougar) “Hurt so Good.” Bad omen? Perhaps.

I’m still cheerful. I got to leave work a few hours early. It’s almost Friday. Singing along, I wipe the blizzard from my little car. The snow is light and fluffy and flies into the air with flourish! Within minutes, the heat is working and the windshield is becoming less and less opaque. Things are progressing. I will make it home.

The snow is really coming down. Every window I clean is covered by the time I clean the next one. It becomes clear that my insistence upon ONE HUNDRED PERCENT visibility is going to have to be compromised. I feel a little bit of the nervies coming on.

I drive at about four miles per hour out of my parking spot and into the street. I. Am. Going. Very. Slowly. It. Is. Tedious. But. Also. Frightening.

The cars behind me are more concerned with the tedious part and less moved by the frightening. Honking happens. Who the fuck honks in a blizzard?! Then, out of nowhere, traffic stops. It just stops. We aren’t moving. No one is moving.

From the same Boston drivers who brought you honking I give to you “The Impatient Ass Hole Gridlock.” This is a phenomenon found only among the most impatient and inconsiderate cultures of the world. It occurs when people REFUSE to sit still on a green light and drive into the center of an intersection, thus blocking traffic moving in all directions, and leaving everyone else waiting through several lights. So we all end up in this white-washed clusterfuck of biblical proportions. I call some people. I eat a banana. I listen to five or six cds. I listen to NPR tell me important stuff. I get out of the car and pretend to do something to the windshield wipers, just to get some air. I get back in. I feel the need for air.

Hal the Hyundai was so named for alliterative purposes but also for Space Odyssey jokes. After the first forty-five minutes on the Eliot Bridge I started feeling trapped. Akin, I’m sure, to being stuck in a pod. In space. Dark, indifferent, cold, scary...space. I considered abandoning Hal. Hal says, “Without your snow helmet, Kelly, you’re going to find that very difficult.”

This portion of my commute is directed by Stanley Kubrick. In short, I start to FREAK OUT. All those stories of the storm of ’78 come back to me. People freezing to death on the highway. Pipes bursting, pools of water up to the waist. Abandoned cars stolen after the melt. (Rationality check in: I am, at this point, about ¼ mile from my house and in exactly 0% real danger.)

Hal says, “It’s cold, Kelly.”

I try to engage the driver trapped beside me in non-verbal communication. She’s on the phone. I feel a rush of hatred for her.

Hal says, “I’m almost out of gas, Kelly.”

This time, Hal wasn’t fucking with me. He really was below “E.” My face looks like one of the twins at the Overlook Hotel. I start mixing up my Kubrick movie references. Things are getting wacky. Snow is covering signs. The world looks unrecognizable.

Time check: 1.5 hours in the car.

Miles traveled: .8

Just when I start to resign myself to getting stranded on Memorial Drive, we start to move. The next turn is a slight incline. I have been less than impressed with Hal’s snow ability thus far, and figure I can only make it if I get a little bit of a head start to propel him up the slope. This means I have to allow the car in front of me to advance without following directly on his bumper. This is something so insufferable to other drivers that I fear for my safety. I turn up my music and block out the horns. Finally, I have enough space. Hal fishtails his way up the incline and onto Mt. Auburn without incident. I’d like to say this all happened without me rolling down a window and informing the other drivers near me how they could use certain parts of their bodies to do certain things to other parts of their bodies. I would like to say that very much.

Time check: 2.7 hours in the car.

Miles traveled: 1.3

The evening consists of red wine, sweaters, early retreats to bedrooms. (Not before shoveling the sidewalk.) I change my alarm so I’ll have extra time in the morning to dig myself out, and go to sleep.

By morning all evidence of the night’s shoveling is gone. Unless you count the ache in my lower back as evidence. I start negotiating what I think is a good balance between “warming Hal up enough” and “not running out of gas.” I am sweeping the snow off the top of the car when a neighbor walks by toward the hospital. He’s wearing scrubs.

He says, “Woah. You got a long way to go.”

I smile a smile that I hope conveys the message “No shit ass hole” with plenty of sweetness and grace.

I did have a long way to go. And when I thought I was done, and tried to back out of the driveway, Hal the Hyundai informed me that no, I in fact was not done. By the time the little guy got his wheels onto the street that young man in scrubs had already read three charts, given advice for somebody to ignore, and flirted with like six nurses. Traveling at about six miles per hour, my little four door accident box swished its way to the nearest gas station, a chorus of unsafe drivers honking in a union of impatience alllll the way. When I got there I realized that the gas tank was covered by a protective shield made of ice. Chipping away with my key, a fellow driver felt that I was not using my time at the pump wisely and said so. With his horn. So I killed him.

Noooo. I didn’t. In real life. In my mind, however, mister “long way to go” in the scrubs wept over how totally impossible it was to extract my keys, complete with the thingy that gets me sale prices at Shaw’s and a Kentucky Derby 2006 Collectible Key-Ring Jersey, from his unbelievably tight little bottom.

When I get to school I realize that I had left out one very important part of the potential snow day ritual. I had forgotten to CHECK TO MAKE SURE SCHOOL WAS NOT CANCELED. Since many BPS students had suffered 4-8 hour commutes home the night before, the district had decided to give them the day off. Thus the following Extreme Rarity in my life:: 1988 beats 2007 (in this one, ultra specific category.) Needless to say, I spent the day in my classroom, alone, writing blogs and spinning in my spinny office chair. No stoves. No couch. No Nintendo. Bollocks!