Monday, December 30, 2013

Sooner Swim Club

All coaches quickly learned never to put my brother with me in the same lane. We would race each other and then try to pass each other, grabbing an ankle and pulling backward, or pushing down on the flat of the other’s back and swimming over.

I was a competitive swimmer with all heart and no talent.

My brother was a swimmer who was forced by my mother to join in the interest of weight control and hygiene.

No matter how hard I tried, my sister and brother breezed their way to ribbons and medals and “A” times, while I immersed myself in “The Physics of Swimming,” watching swim meets, and fantasizing about going to a transformative swim camp in Florida, and hopeful fictions of growing my petite hands and feet into retractable flipper-like appendages.

Needless to say, I was not able to genetically or biomedically engineer myself, but I did learn how to deal with disappointment, and how to lose races – gracefully and ungracefully. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Little Red Wagon

My brother was back at our parents’ summer cabin in northern Vermont.  He was unable to walk on his leg after being in a terrible bicycle accident that resulted in the handlebar going through his knee. He was rushed to the Lancaster, New Hampshire hospital and spent two weeks there, in a semi-private room, shared by an older gentleman who died one night. I remember when it happened. It was tough on a 12-year-old to witness such an event:

“Mother, Mr. Glandeville died last night,” he said, muffled voice.
“Oh, that is sad. Well, that sometimes happens,” said Mother.
“But he was my friend. We played checkers,” said Paul. Mother continued hunting in her purse for something and did not really pause.
“He’s in a better place, probably,” she said.

He was finally released from the hospital and deemed well enough to stay home, but he could not put any weight on his knee. Paul was glad to be back and camp, and to sneak into his stash of C-rations and start to work on regaining the weight he had lost in the hospital.

It was not to be.

His only way to get to the cabinet where the C-Rations were stored was to use our little sister’s little red wagon as a wheelchair. When I realized what he wanted to do (and my parents were out), I rolled the wagon across the room, then in full view, opened up the cabinet, extracted a pack of C-Rations.

“Hey! Those are mine!” he shouted.
“I am hungry and want something,” I said.
“You can have the four-pack of cigarettes, but that’s all,” said Paul.
“I don’t want the cigarettes, and I don’t want the Kleenex packet either,” I said. “I like the fruitcake and that’s what I’m eating.” I said as I pulled out the can and prepared to grab the can opener.

Unfortunately it was precisely at that moment I heard the crunch of wheels on gravel and the return of adult supervision. I hustled the materials back into the cabinet, wheeled the little red wagon back to Paul’s bed, then left him to stew on his own new set of revenge fantasies.

If only I had been able to carry out my designs – grab, devour, gloat – right in front of him, it would have been great practice for the future. I would have been a much better wife and mother, and potentially even a captain of industry.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bicycle Races

Here’s the scene: Racing to bicycles the minute the final bell rings in grade school to jump on and pedal as hard as I could so I could beat my brother back to the house.

“I have a head start! I’m going to beat you!” shouted Paul. Unfortunately, I knew this to be true. His classroom was nearest the bike racks. I had the further impediment of being unable to resist the siren’s call of teacher flattery / compliments. If my teacher wanted to say something to me, I immediately brightened and stopped. It was almost always on my excellent work in reading and science. There was only one nine week period in which I earned “Needs Improvement” on behavior. I think it was for sketching and writing in my diary instead of paying attention to student presentations.

On the days my mother volunteered at Bethel Baptist Church library, my brother and I had a bit of freedom to raid the refrigerator and eat whatever we wanted. The winner would run inside and lock the other out of the house.

“You lost!”  Raspberry PopTarts are my favorite!” He taunted me through bay windows and patio doors.
“You cheated!”
“You are slow!” laughed Paul as he opened a second pack.
“I need to eat! We have swim practice in 2 hours!”
“Mother will be back in an hour. You can eat then,” he said.
“I’ll get stomach cramps!”
“Haha – isn’t that too bad,” he continued. “Now I’m going to eat my Chef Boyardee macaroni and cheese.”

Like 99% of the other times, I lost. I finally learned to bring money with me and to simply ride my bike down to the Li’l Red convenience store on the corner, where I would buy Butterfingers and Chick-o-Sticks.

Salad and fish fillets were better fuel for swim practice, but I did what I could.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Barbies and Army Men

My brother and I both played with dolls.  Of course, he would not like to see it that way. After all, I had a very elaborate collection of finely wrought dolls garbed in mid-Victorian and
American antebellum dresses which I arranged carefully in the window seat of my bedroom. I also had a collection of Troll Dolls, along with Barbie and Midge, whose little high heels and metallic cloth dresses made me jump up and look into the mirror and wonder what I would look like when I was 25.

Paul’s dolls (okay, “action figures”) were not very elaborate; they were formed of molded plastic, probably a low-density polyethylene, and they were designed to position in strategic formation. So, while I was busily arranging my dolls and ordering their worlds for battle on the dance floor and for the attention of men in the beau monde, my brother was busy unpeeling Black Cats (small firecrackers) to harvest their powder to make something powerful enough to blast out an entire battalion and launch dirt clods into the air. The tiny figurines were expressions of our inner lives, and an opportunity to enact games of omnipotence, or at least explore all the ways why you could just never know everything, nor could you predict how, why, and when things might fall apart.

His improvised explosive devices were often unpredictable. The could be duds, or they could blow up. There were times when he was lucky that no one was around except me, and obviously I did not count, having had my own frustrations and disasters with my dolls, my little proxies, whose hair did not grow back after I cut it, and whose outfits were limited to my fledgling skills with a small sewing machine and a great imagination.

Perhaps we should have changed places and I could have experimented with tunneling and blasting and my brother could have role-played social scenarios in Barbie’s Beach House rather than the mass carnage “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” types of bravado-infused stories and enactments.
Hard to say.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lightning in the Clouds, Antique Golf Clubs, and the Whitey Bulger Trial

I've been reading a lot of Wodehouse these days, and enjoy most of the works. They are amusing.

I am in Tulsa watching lightning in the clouds.

The other day, I caught a glimpse of my neighbor in Norman, the quadriplegic who was paralyzed after an accident at some sort of moto-cross race. I was worried he had died. I wonder if he got sort of close to death. He looked very wasted.

This weekend is a retreat weekend in the woods of northeast Oklahoma. I think it’s a stone’s throw from where three little Girl Scouts were murdered in June, 1977. The murders were in the headlines, which made me think of summer camp at Camp Cimarron for Campfire Girls, Camp Kickapoo in Kerrville, Texas, and Camp NunnyChaHa in the Arbuckle Mountains -- all summer camps I had enjoyed when I was young. It was very sad. Later, I worked in Tulsa at the Amoco Research Center one summer when I was an undergraduate majoring in engineering.

Post Oak Lodge always makes me think of the murdered Girl Scouts.

I am pigging out tonight. I’m sort of in the mood for it. Full moon. Foul moon. Storm  and all. Have been enjoying P. G. Wodehouse novels. They make me laugh out loud.

I’m reading The Clicking of Cuthbert now. I like the way that golf reveals one's inner landscape and brings to the surface the true self. Tennis is the same. I discovered all kinds of things about myself -- things I would prefer not to know. One, I hate confrontations, and don't really like playing in matches. I freeze, and feel weird about the opponent's emotional flow (usually negative) and the overt competitiveness. Consequently, I play at a much lower level in matches than in practice. I was somewhat better with doubles, where potential reprisals and anger of teammates forced me to really scramble. Nevertheless, I become tentative when playing matches. I suspect I'd be a poor boxer as well.

I have a hankering to take up golf and play with antique clubs. I love the names of the clubs – my favorites are the “Mashie Niblicks.”

On a different tack…

I think that libertinism is a shortcut to a passionless Puritanism. Abstinence driven by desensitization.

What can one think of the Whitey Bulger trial??? He murdered a Tulsan, Roger Wheeler. What is interesting about this is that Wheeler was a neighbor of the woman I rented a room from in 1978. So, I lived almost next door to Wheeler, and it was possible that I may have unwittingly rubbed shoulders with underworld types.

What intrigues me about the Whitey Bulger trial is Bulger’s perverse adherence to some sort of code, as though it matters and anyone really cares. The Mexicans and the  Russians ruined the old Opera Buffa routine for everyone.

On another topic…

I hate the idea of useless, heartless libertinism, and I would rather run away from it. The utter senselessness of all of it just makes me sad.

I want meaning in life. However, nothing in life can withstand too much emotional pressure. Life itself starts to crumble away, when it's pressured to much. In that case, one's idea of life reveals itself to have been all about sensation-seeking.

No one should have to wake up with their pillow wet with tears.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Boy and His Dog

Rex was the runt of the litter of black German Shepherd pups on a farm east of Norman that housed a clutch of screaming women and water moccasins under a rowboat. The screaming women turned out to be peacocks, but the water moccasin was indeed a venomous snake, only about a foot away from my hand as it flipped over the rowboat while I hoped for a quick spin around the pond. I’d like to say that Rex melded the finest attributes of screaming women, peacocks, and water moccasins, but he was his own dog, so to speak, and, as my mother was to find out, much too intelligent to obey simple commands. He had to do everything his way. She tried to “yard train” him so he’d poo only in one tiny corner of the yard. He would, but not in the tiny corner she designated, but one on the opposite end.

She tried to discourage him from digging under the gate to get out and menace the mail carrier. Instead, he learned to climb chain link, and rather than simply greeting the mailman at the porch, he took to jumping into the mailman’s truck. Finally, after the neighbors complained about the dilatory and infrequent delivery of the mail, she electrified the chain link fence.

The five-foot high electrified chain link fence enclosed the back yard, and it represented a substantial investment, given that the lot was just shy of an acre, and the fenced-in part around three-quarters of an acre.

Encircling the yard with wire that buzzed, hummed, and made your hair stand on end as you approached it certainly worked as a deterrent to intruders.  I’m not sure what it did to discourage canine (and adolescent) malfeasance, but it soon became clear that subjecting oneself to a daily barrage of electric shocks would do something to a dog’s personality. After five or six weeks of daily electroconvulsive electric fence shock treatments, Rex would amble about the yard, and bark nonsensically at airplanes passing overhead and the occasional squirrel, who was staggering in its own right after a jolt from the fence.

Rex would get shocked at least twice a day. At first, it seemed he would get shocked in the pursuit of freedom.  But, if you observed him closely, you’d start to see that he was lining himself up for a shock when things started to get a little bit boring.  No squirrels? No airplanes? No meter readers? No visitors?  That meant it was time to run to the low part of the fence where the buzzing and vibrating was the loudest, and where he’d race along the side of the fence and the brush the shiny, matted fur over his rib cage along the fence.  He’d emit a little yelp, more like a “Yelf-YIPE!” and gallop along the fence. Then he’d double back and gallop the other direction and get a charge on the other side of his rib cage.

I do not think my mother had any idea of what was happening with Rex. She did, however, start to wonder if the settings were too high. Each day brought a new harvest of stunned and temporarily paralyzed birds, squirrels, and even a lizard or two. I had been shocked a couple of times, and I was surprised that we did not see the occasional playmate of my brother, knocked out cold on the ground, after having been “accidentally” pushed into the fence. Young boys can play rough.

For some reason, my mother expected Rex to bond with her after her huge investment. She also expected him to respect her as his master.
It was a dream doomed to disappointment.

The truth was, Rex had no master. Rex was Rex. He would continue to be a loud and a very bad neighbor. But, for some reason, my brother loved him, and it was a good thing he did. Never a sleek show dog, Rex’s appearance was taking a turn for the worse. It was probably due to toll that electroconvulsive therapy (even though he practiced it as something of a hobby) was taking on his body. His matted fur was becoming even more matted, and very thin in spots. His tail was half-bald with crusty mange, and one side of his face drooped and one canine incisor was perpetually bared in a half snarl, half drooling pout.

Paul was blind to Rex’s hideous appearance, or, perhaps he liked the contrast: Rex’s “Beast” was foil to Paul’s “Beauty.” Well, perhaps not. Neither one paid any attention to their appearance, much to my mother’s chagrin.

After a few years, the constant upkeep became a headache. My mother de-electrified the fence. I do not think she ever really contemplated the potential liability. It simply no longer met her personal risk-reward metric.

Did living in a yard surrounded by an electrified fence exact a toll? Undoubtedly so, but it might take time to tease that out from all the other mediating influences in one’s childhood.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Scary Pet Zone

Pets had a dismally poor life expectancy once they crossed the threshold into the house on the park-like three-quarter acre lot that adjoined the wilds of Imhoff Creek. One might wonder why we needed pets at all, given the number of “freedom pets” that lived around us. There were cardinals, robins, thrushes, sparrows, squirrels, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, frogs, box turtles, “horny toads,” snakes, and even the occasional rumor of an alligator snapping turtle or coyote.
No. I wanted a pet I could cage and control, who would love me and I would love it, unconditionally and forever (or at least until it met its inevitably premature death). I had the requisite gerbils and hamsters, all with names, which I tried to expunge from my memory as soon as I could after yet another met a tragic fate. Gerbils had a way of plunging to their deaths after I thought they’d enjoy scampering on the top of the piano, and another gerbil lost his battle with the vacuum sweeper as I tried shortcuts in cleaning the litter from his cage.

Fish fared no better. Neons, goldfish, etc. usually died within the first week or so from some shock either brought in from the pet shop or inflicted upon them as I attempted to decorate their tanks.

Perhaps the saddest were the Easter chicks, gaily dyed and jammed together in little crates at the TG&Y store on Main Street. They were cute, and I bought pink and green ones. No one spoke of avian flu, but I can’t even begin to imagine how these conditions could be anything but ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and the cute little chickies were perfect vectors of pestilence.

Now for the big question: Why were people buying the sad little things in the first place? We weren’t exactly an agrarian community: in Norman, Oklahoma, the main employers were the state’s largest research university and the state’s largest mental institution. Well. Perhaps I answered my own question. Our house was so close to the university we could hear the marching band practice and also the cheers of the crowd in Owens Stadium on game days. We were far, far from Central State Psychiatric Hospital, which was on the east side of town. That was the side of town where many of the chimps lived who were being raised by professors to learn sign language, or to consider themselves human beings and part of a human family (University of Oklahoma psychology professor Maurice Temerlain’s tragic experiment with Lucy was well documented on radio and in a book)...

I never wanted to have a chimp. Gerbils were fine until I became consumed by a sense of the tragic and decided I did not really like to have “pets.”  It was just too painful to see their innocent little faces as they looked out of their cages, their sad, meaningless little lives punctuated only by the raw fear (and bruising) of a ten-year-old girl’s ungentle man-handling as she dressed her gerbil in a Troll Doll dress, or taught the neighbor’s cat to drink whiskey from the tiny little airplane-issue bottles my dad would bring back with him from trips.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Post- vs. Neo-Industrial Cities: Beijing

The facial recognition software makes going through immigration and passport control a breeze, and the “nothing to declare” door opens smoothly without a single ripple in the flow of people.

I’m on the road in a taxi at 1 am, and I’m heading to a place at least an hour away in the foothills, so pollution should be at a minimum. But, the cottony “fog” is smog, and it has a vaguely plastic smell. It makes me wish I could time-travel and visit Pittsburgh around 1950, when it was an industrial hub, and nowhere near the “Best Place to Live!” award winner it is today.  Industrialization, job growth, and job obsolescence have high price tags. De-industrialization has its own high price tag, but that’s a meditation for another day.

Smooth sailing through the airport was not exactly what I was expecting in Beijing, although I was prepared for neo-Industrial newness, and a reshaping of identity, self-reconstituting in response to the push and pull of purchasing publics on other sides of the globe.

I have been conditioned to think of Chinese manufactured items as being nicely packaged and high-tech. Now I see the best is dedicated to export; much of the cheaper, poorer quality material stays in the country for domestic consumption. Makes sense. After all, everyone will earn more in exporting things.

Walk, wait, watch.

I don’t have much to say at this point. It’s my first encounter with Beijing.  I love the energy and then sense of potential and promise. Yet, the question is, how far will the balloon actually stretch? Are there limits to market growth? China seems to test all the assumptions of sustainability.

I remember when Happy Faces first came out. They were on everything, ranging from t-shirts to stickers to notebooks. I loved them, and bought Happy Face stationery around Christmas at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City. My dad would take us to a mall where we would go shopping, and I remember the way the shining merchandise, the music, the sense of the eternal “new” (and the sense that “out of fashion” was constantly nipping and biting at one’s heels), all had an impact on my sense of identity, and compelled me to think that I should always be in a state of transition, of emerging, and in the best of all possible worlds, of self-shaping, self-fashioning.

At times I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as vampiric. That's a western view. Question: Can China actually live without the lifeblood of external markets?

At other times, I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as the ideal (ironically) of the Hamiltonian, Federalist model of economic governance; they protect themselves with a wall of adroit protectionism, while counting on Most Favored Nation status, etc. from trading partners. At the same time, I notice how well the government invests in infrastructure, and also creates conditions for growth. In addition, the government acts as a partner in corporate growth, and encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. The government also encourages outside investment, but limits the rights of the investors.  It’s smart and it has worked.  The only question is how long?

To give Jefferson his due, I do think that local control and “states’ rights” can work, and they can encourage innovation (along with a lot of quackery). Extreme individualism is appealing, at least to those who rate high enough on the social order to be considered a fully franchised individual (in America’s South, that meant land-owning, male, citizen, “white,” etc.).

The view from the Sinopec Center was impressive – it was on the edge of a mountain overlooking Beijing. The view from the “Climbing Mountain” just behind it, through brass gates, was even better. You could climb the 400 steps up to a little weather-battered pagoda, and then follow a trail along the hogback, to another set of small steps down the steep side of the mountain.

I found going down harder than going up, but I think that’s something in my brain that tends to see all inclinations as level after I’ve focused on them enough. Clearly, the vision issue also applies to my overall take on life, and on perception itself.

Do all brains work that way? Well, I digress.