Saturday, December 25, 2010


They were big people in every way, two corpulent fun-seeking missiles shagging their way up and down the Carolina coasts whenever the mood struck them. They ended their nights at home or on vacation with big sloppy kisses for each other and any friends within grabbing distance as the party broke up, as all good parties must. They loved big food, big drink, big trips on big cruise ships and big, boisterous laughter of a kind that tends to ratchet me straight up a wall. Still I liked them. They were grand, drawn to grand things, and in that way we had something dear in common.

They followed us in a long line of homeowners to care for a graceful gingerbread belle of a house, with a wrap-around porch on a corner lot, a white-painted porch swing, giant oaks to blanket the yard in leaves every fall. Screen doors on three sides, slamming as screen doors should to announce arrivals and departures, barked poetry into cavernous rooms. We couldn't afford to really furnish it, but expanses of hardwood floors, arches and high ceilings were almost enough. Warmly lit at night, it winked promises of a hundred years' worth of treasure tucked into secret nooks under the stairs and oak framing hard and solid as rock.

The house was so inspiring that it evoked its own ritual. In the course of its century on earth, it came to be that a sepia photograph of the family who built it was ceremoniously passed from one heartbroken homeowner to the next. (So far as I can tell, no one has ever wanted to leave it.) The women in the photograph especially stand out, snapped in 1898 laced up in their white turn-of-the-century dresses, silhouetted by a mud yard that had yet to be seeded with grass. The Victorian beauty that would become home towered above them. A shy three-year-old girl gawped at the camera, wide-eyed and surely trying to understand the strange turn of events her life was about to take in her new home.

As the photograph was passed to my young family, and we solemnly swore we would not take it with us should we move on, we were told by the previous owners that they had located and talked with that little girl. She was elderly by then of course, and died by the time we might have had the same chance.

The photograph is forever linked in my mind with November 2, 2004, several houses later. This structure was a funky George Jetson-type contemporary double A-frame, built by an architect in 1959. Slick, jewel-tone purple kitchen cabinets made you want to make sure no one was looking and then lick them, to see if they actually tasted like grape (or black cherry?) lollipop. (I admit it: painting the cabinets glassy black-purple was my George Jetson-ish update.) A long, long length of chain draped a stained-glass lamp from the cathedral ceiling to the kitchen table, splashing shards of Picasso-esque color all over the dining-living room combination. Dark teak flooring gleamed. Once I'd taken an artist friend's excellent advice to "get those damned wool rugs off of there," they made you feel you were walking on Hershey's chocolate bars.

People buy houses for so many sensible reasons, but for me a home has to be worthy of containing a million-and-one dreams. It is my inner world and my refuge. A screen door that does not slam is broken, so far as I am concerned. Yet there, in that house on the eve of November 2 and the morning of November 3, too many of my dreams were shattered  --  so many that something died in me. I wonder as I write if anyone really needs a description of how crushing it was, to have the last vestiges of hope in something as big as America snapped away. To watch as George W. Bush and the Republican machine perpetrated the most astonishing and obvious swindle in U.S. history, in real time. Now, I applaud all those who continue to fight the good fight, and I will always work elbow-to-elbow with them. I am as passionate as ever about the causes I have always held dear. But this old reporter reads little more than headlines to this day in 2010. I smile wanly as my husband and many old friends encourage me into the old heated, passionate debates. The size and audacity of the scams no longer surprise me. I am too deeply aware of both the scores suffering injustice and the utter brokenness of our system. I cover my ears and shout on the inside I know I know I know already. I would very much like to know how it is that others keep their hearts from being slashed to ribbons.

"Oh Judy," a friend said to me once since, with no small amount of disgust for a comrade lost to the depths of despair. "We'd seen stuff like that before. And we'll see it again."

All true. I can only explain it this way:

Faith in my government I lost a long, long time ago. That night, I lost faith in my people.

Therein lies the rub.

*  *  *

I was plenty old enough to have had soul-killing lessons stack up over the years, preceding that heinous miscarriage of justice late in 2004. Years before, for example, I'd learned that the big-living people who bought our grand and gracious old house were not there anymore. They had not wanted to leave any more than we did, but their reasons were far sadder than ours. We moved when it became entirely too obvious that the house could not contain our growing family. By comparison, death eventually left the next woman of the house a widow too soon. She sold in quick desperation at a bitter price because she had to.

As she told me the story on the street one day some months later, still in the throes of grief, I thought of something that might give her a moment's happiness.

"What did the new homeowners say when you gave them the photograph?" I asked.

She smiled as if to thank me for the memory.

"Oh, I kept it. I just couldn't give it up."

I don't remember what year I heard that the little sepia girl in a time-yellowed pinafore and leather, lace-up boots, who lived at one address for a hundred years, had been unceremoniously stripped of her purpose. I do remember the election of 2004 all too well. The feeling I get is precisely the same in either case.

Monday, December 13, 2010


(continued from Dec. 11, 2010)

"This one's going to be trouble," I said as our farrier crouched under the electric fence. I remember the words as certainly as anyone does from the charged, slow-motion moments that precede a tragic accident. I had my mare on a halter and lead in a pasture adjacent to where Trevor had just trimmed our other two horses' hooves. I conveyed the message in the quietest, calmest way that I could, knowing that human control of a powerful animal 10 times her size and weight is 90 percent bluster. That they can "smell fear" hardly begins to describe just how smart horses are, how perfectly keen on reading the body language and voices of their owners.

Trevor raised himself upright inside the pasture, and I couldn't draw my whip quickly enough. The mare bumped me off-balance with her shoulder and attacked him without further preamble. In seconds the scene flashed from me using all of my weight to hold the mare's head down as she reared and struck, to Trevor and her locked in a shoulder-to-shoulder, life-and-death battle. Her hooves sounded like well-drilling equipment pounding the ground. He happened to have been carrying a heavy metal mallet of some kind, and he used it with the force of a man fighting to save his own life. He may well have saved mine in the process. Nothing short of real, furious, relentless pain would have gotten that mare to back off. Trevor was not killed after all. And if you think for one second I have ever thought since, "aw poor baby horsie"    you've got the wrong girl here.

Horse people for some reason or another love to lay blame    that old human need to believe we can be insightful enough to control anything, I think. I've been over and over in my mind how I was duped into buying this horse, and what replays above all was my over-willingness to trust another mother. I had ascertained that the woman knew horses well. When her four-year-old daughter climbed into a small enclosed stall and not only crawled under the mare's belly and all around her legs, but handled the mare's weeks-old baby    I admit, I was duly impressed. While I would never have allowed my own young child in a stall like that, no mother would risk her own daughter if she didn't have complete confidence in the animal in there. Right?

Now I have three experts in agreement on this:  The mare was almost certainly drugged initially, and just trained enough to stand for the health inspection by a vet a little later. All of which is completely moot now. Once I saw Trevor fighting for his life, once I'd imagined another human being    as worthy of his human existence as my own children    dead on that pasture floor, I myself wasn't getting in there with that animal again. Maybe nobody was.

*  *  *

Whenever Tom Petty sings "you be the girl at the high school dance," I conjure a memory of the girl I was in the 1970s. She's pretty cool because, you know, you can do that with memory. Tightly wrapped in that young woman, though, are the confidence and the skills I learned growing up with and showing horses. They are less malleable than memory and more fixed in my mind and in my life. All I ever needed to know, I learned with horses, beginning with "I can take on something bigger than myself." Most especially on behalf of my children, I have been capable of mallet-wielding rage or bluster, as necessary. If I've been wrong about myself all these years, it's a damned good thing I didn't know it. But one newly acquired horse has called everything I ever thought I knew about myself into question. The consequences of being wrong could potentially kill someone.

For a possible answer (and if you're inclined toward long, strange trips), fast-forward from the 1970s dance to 2005, when I read a magazine piece that has rattled around in my head ever since. Lately, it's been knocking hard. For the original scientific article, go to your library or online and find  "FETAL MICROCHIMERISM IN THE MATERNAL MOUSE BRAIN," BY XIAO-WEI TAN ET AL. For Scientific American's distillation, see: Updates since 2005 I leave to individuals to find.

Here's my synopsis:

During pregnancy, stem cells from fetuses cross the blood-brain barrier, set up shop in the mother's nervous system and (in humans) live there for at least 27 years. Then the cells-- what? Isn't that the most fascinating question? Scientists are still working on that, but found that when they "chemically injured the mouse brains, nearly six times as many fetal cells made their way to damaged areas than elsewhere, suggesting the cells could be responding to molecular distress signals released by the brain." Makes perfect sense for the babies' long-term survival:  if Mama's not happy  --  or healthy  --  ain't nobody.

Forget that, though. Paradigm shifts are afoot. We may have found a biological explanation for what is called, in less polite or technically picky company, possession. And I have found a powerful filter through which to consider what happened to the young woman I once was. I've had five children. By my calculation, I have no brain cells of my own left.

I wish those scientists would come talk to me, as they proceed in their work to fully understand what it is our babies' cells are doing in our brains for 27 years. (But no, they're all concerned with implications for how the cells might repair damaged organs.) Suggesting they confirm that the phantom pain I quite literally feel when one of my daughters hurts    even when she is thousands of miles away    is probably out. But other aspects of motherhood might be more measurable. I would tell them to look for differences in the way mothers' auditory lobes work compared to all others, for example. Why is tuning out the crying baby or the whining adolescent akin to poking a stick in your ears? And why is it that, against all reason, I continue to bend over and pick up the socks, the slack and the tab, long past the time when I should?

Perhaps most interestingly of all, what happens to maternal / child welfare    and even a larger, universal welfare    should the stem-cell delivery system fail? Maybe a woman would risk her own child to make a sale. Maybe some other mother's child gets killed as a result. Maybe someone loath to do so must even consider the possibility of putting down the results of the sale.

*  *  *

Whatever the answers in XIAO-WEI TAN ET AL's particular realm, I've got mine. I'm not the same, because I've had children. In the Nature-vs.-Nurture debate, however, I argue that neither gets ascendancy. We can use our big brains to harness one and effectively subordinate the other. I press on. Demonatrix the Mare has gone to a professional trainer, one who in our first telephone conversation quickly assessed this baffling turn of events in my recently resurrected horse life and asked, "You're a mother, aren't you?" (To which I did not respond, "Is your name Xiao-Wei Tan?") I think we can safely say this trainer has no fetal stem cells living in his brain, and that for now, he may be a better match for this horse.

Hang in there with us, Trevor. We may all look the same, but the next time you come here, you'll be working with different animals.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dialing Cool

Tom Petty has power over this household of five women, ages 15 to 46. If one of my daughters wants to change the estrogen-fueled mood around here, she uses the power of the CD player and it works, buddy:  you've got five of us deeply engaged in karaoke, an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance" and a phantom drug trip, all at the same time. Somehow dinner gets slopped together. I can only imagine what my more bookish, introverted husband sees through the kitchen window at night, from somewhere between the detached Model T garage that is his reading retreat and the kitchen door. Most people try to keep our kind of dancing behavior below-the-belt in the car, so strangers don't stare, and the police don't consider the possibility of a seizure behind the wheel.

I feel a little sheepish admitting to a love of Tom Petty, something to do with a 1970s understanding of what "cool" means. The word was thrown around just as much then, but its true, awe-inspiring expression was, I believe, more carefully dialed and harder to achieve. Before we all parted ways with high school and the decade, the elusive "cool" meant showing off a deep working knowledge of two extremes  --  rock's founding artists and the more obscure bands of the period. It included a disdain for anything too Top 40; "well-known" could be cool but no test of a person's coolness. In a roomful of the coolest people, you didn't gush about a band any old classmate could discover on the radio.

I've since teased out what makes me love a musician or a band, vs. just appreciate one. I've gotten over the "cool" litmus test. A little. On my list of must-haves in personal favorites is, first, the artist has to be able to dance. (Watching Phil Collins on MTV taught me this. Don't ask me how it is that he's a great drummer and can't dance, but he's Judy-textbook for explaining the difference between appreciate, and love.) Second is, give me a song that tells a story.

So look again at Tom Petty, a master of the short story, a longtime magician with what has more recently been termed flash fiction:

"Me and Del were singing, Little Runaway ..."

"He met a girl out there with a tattoo too ..."

"You be the girl, at the high-school dance, I'll be the boy, in the corduroy pants ..."

Here at last  --  in the way that can only be found in blogs without benefit of editorial direction  --  we come to the point of this one. Which is, the girl at the high-school dance. Who is  --  in the way that all literary characters are to their readers  --  me.

And we come to my burning question.

What the hell happened to her?

(To be continued.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Seasoned Life

Let us begin with a moment devoid of inspiration, on a day I couldn’t place in 2008 or 2009 exactly, in a place where, for entertainment, you go to marvel over the perfect, razor-sharp shear of the commercial carpet. Let us begin with checking Daughter #4 out of a routine orthodontist appointment.

Seasoned mothers—those who long ago lost that ooo-how-much-has-my-baby-gained-now enthusiasm—will know what I’m talking about. (They're the same mothers who hand over pages of important paperwork at the pediatrician’s office with nothing but a child’s name, birthday, and a quarter-size pool of mother-drool on them.) Very little in life is more milquetoast than the orthodontist’s office, or the orthodontist for that matter.

I’m looking down over a high counter on Receptionist Donna, who is blinking expectantly, wearing a periwinkle lab coat with Dancing Teeth all over it. She is waiting for an answer. I am scuffing my feet on that amazingly flat carpet, thinking shit shit shit and carefully forgetting something that will make the next appointment a month from now a vessel-buster. I feel like Charlie Brown banging his head on the wall to remember something, or Wile E. Coyote sliding over a cliff like a warm oil slick.

“Uh Wednesday!” I say. “Wednesday the 14th at 4 p.m. Yes, that will be fine, I’m sure of it.” In reality, I'm as sure that somebody I love very much is getting married that very second. Maybe I’m the matron of honor. You don’t ask too much of poor Donna’s dead glazed eyes, though. If I call back to schedule later, when I have some wits about me, a computer system programmed to issue appointment cards and school excuses at the same time will die. And if that happens, an entire township of adolescents will have crooked teeth. For life. More fearsome than Donna’s eyes are the mothers who would burn me alive for destroying their children’s social lives.

I hold my tongue about my doubts, then witness something extraordinary. Because suddenly, Dr. White Rice bursts through a door I never noticed before, slicing the office-filtered air like an albino porpoise on a Navy Seals mission. “Donna, I’m not going to tell you again,” he snarls through pursed lips. “I want the plant here.” He reaches to the counter and forcefully moves a calla lily I hadn’t noticed before two inches. Not three; two.

He stomps off. Donna looks at me with a tight thin smile and I hear her words inside my brain, though she remains silent: I’m in hell.

But not me. Now I know! Now I get it! Orthodontists go into orthodontia to ease their inborn Obsessive Compulsive Disorder! One more of life’s mysteries solved.

Leaving, I hook an arm into Daughter #4’s and give her a kiss. “Thanks kiddo,” I say. I could explain that I mean thanks for being a fourth set of goggles for this extraordinary view of the universe.

But I don’t. She’s used to non sequiturs.