Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Curious Incident of the Fire Alarm in the Night Time

Dorms all have the same smell: wet concrete, must and overripe fruit, a cocktail created over years of feeble attempts at living independently. So it is with Dewey Hall.

Dewey Hall is the quintessential "residence hall" with its echoing stairwells, dingy indoor-outdoor carpet, mismatched lounge furniture and cinder block walls. Why do they call it a residence hall? An oxymoron if I ever heard one. Who would want to reside in a hall? It makes me think of the middle ages. Drinking wine out of goblets, watching people do stupid human tricks. Dorms are nothing like that. Oh wait...(remembering undergrad) yeah they are.

Anyway, this is where I found myself, back in a dorm room after 11 years.

The room was unremarkable (as dorm rooms usually are). It was eerily similar to the jail cells you see on A&E prison specials. Twin beds attached to the walls. A desk. Two chairs. "With little to recommend it" as Jane Austen would say. Jane Austen would have been miserable here. Or maybe not. It IS Vermont. Lots of writers.
My roommate is Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor, more specifically). She is frazzled, hardened and driven in exactly the way that a woman would be if she were being stalked by a terrible cyborg from the future on a mission to kill her.

I like her.

Around midnight of our first night, Sarah Connor was already asleep (presumably conserving energy for the next day's mission to stay alive) and I was reading. Occasionally, the ancient, paint-peeling radiator next to my bed groaned and screeched like dial-up internet. Then exhaled some dry, hot air for a few minutes before succumbing to elderliness once again. It was highly ineffective in keeping me warm.
Yet, somehow I managed to fall asleep...for a few minutes.

Then the fire alarm went off. Not just one, every one in the building. At 12:41 a.m.

Obviously confused, I jumped out of bed and turned to Sarah Connor, who was groaning and jamming her feet into a pair of fuzzy slippers.

"This happens. We have to get out."

She didn't respond, already yanking on her jacket and muttering about needing some sleep. I followed suit. Downstairs, we were joined by Drew Barrymore, Robot Santa, Carlton and Edna Garrett (the mom on The Facts of Life). The security guy, Sam Elliott, hustled us on outside.

Even when topped with a down jacket, my pajamas were no defense against the biting cold. We stood on the steps shivering. Carlton was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Robot Santa's pajama shirt was only buttoned at the top, revealing his bowl full of jelly. Then, out of nowhere, it began to snow.

I'm not talking about the It's-A-Wonderful-Life kinda snow either. I mean real live blustery snow. Whipping-around-your-head-and-sticking-to-your-eyelashes kinda snow. The stupid kinda snow.

It took us 2 whole minutes to decide to wait just inside the door. By then, the number of displaced dorm residents had climbed to 9. Robot Santa and Carlton found themselves amused by the whole ordeal. They began exchanging elbow-nudge stories and laughing. The rest of us took turns repeating the same phrases of incredulity. "This is ridiculous" or "I can't believe we're out here at 1 in the morning". Sarah Connor slid down the wall with her knees pulled up to her chest, occasionally muttering to herself. She was pissed.

It was entertaining, though inconvenient.
After about 10 minutes, the firefighters, fully-outfitted, arrived. They barged past us with axes in hand to chop down the alleged doors of the rooms containing the alleged fire. As it turns out, there was no fire... or discernible smoke. Apparently the residence hall is outfitted with ancient automatic fire alarms that are extremely sensitive. In lieu of regular smoke detectors in individual rooms, there are finicky smoke sensors that trigger the alarms in the whole building in the event that there is a fire, or smoke, or someone uses a blow dryer, or someone shakes out a dusty blanket, or coughs.
After a thorough investigation of every room in the building, the firefighters cleared us to go back to our rooms. At 1:30 am.

Only in Vermont.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Adventures in Grad School - Pt 1 of ?

I'm in Vermont, a state I never even thought about before researching low-residency graduate school programs. Until yesterday, here's everything I knew about Vermont:
  • It's next to Canada
  • It's really cold
  • Maple syrup
  • Ben & Jerry's
  • Gay marriage
  • Art community

That's it.

Now I'm here, standing out like a chocolate chip in scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's like being in another country.

Apparently, Montpelier (pronounced Mont-peel-ee-ur... no, not the French way) is the smallest capital city in the United States. Population 8,000. (7,995 of whom are totally bohemian or artists or students or all 3).

It's like walking into that show on IFC, Portlandia.

So far, it's great.

Today was the first day of the actual residency in this program. I met the other students in my cohort and my faculty advisors. I swear I couldn't invent more colorful characters. For the purpose of this blog, all names will be changed to famous people or other people I know to whom these characters bear a striking resemblance.

Faculty Advisors:

  • Female Fred Armisen (she looks just like a woman. I'm so serious)
  • Rev. John Turner (Carissa, I swear he reminds me of your dad). My program advisor.


  • Drew Barrymore - young natural science chick
  • Bad Santa - obnoxious-yet-endearing older guy
  • Linda Hamilton - my roommate
  • Carlton - the only black guy in Vermont
  • House - cynical, tall guy who looks EXACTLY like Hugh Laurie)
  • Larry the Cable Guy - named based on his flannel shirt and trucker cap
  • Kid Rock - cool guy, long hair

There are more, but I have a feeling that these are going to show up in more posts.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with the Reverend, several seminars and then I have to work on my powerpoint presentation with Kid Rock and Larry. Good times ahead.

Stay tuned.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Waking Up

Waking up from a coma in real life is nothing like what happens on TV. In the movies, the person's eyes flutter open. They whisper at first, voice a little raspy. Within minutes, they're asking for pizza, crying and kissing people.
Doctors say that the process is much slower, less romantic. Besides, who really wants to kiss someone whose mouth has been closed for months?

In emerging from a coma, there are brief moments of activity. A few reflexive movements, maybe a moan. Once the patient is conscious, confusion and and even agression are considered good signs. The brain is beginning to function again, both physically and emotionally. It takes weeks of therapy for the patient to learn how to walk, talk and feed himself.

And so it is with the end of the school year. Like coming out of a dense fog, fraught with action plans and lesson plans and grading, meetings and exhibitions, moments of immense pride and preternatural anxiety.

The last few weeks of school are cyclonic. So much is going on outside of you, it's hard to know what's going on inside. The world closes in on itself; the last few days are all that matter. It's beautiful and fervent. But the smoke is beginning to clear.

Glimpses of summer flash like a doctor's penlight over closed eyes. There are spontaneous movements: concert tickets purchased, book clubs joined, bikinis brought out...then put back.
Gradually, I'm regaining consciousness. I'm suddenly aware of myself as a person who is not just an overachieving teacher. It's at once confusing and frustrating. How did I get here? What happened to my life?
It's coming. Slowly, surely, I'm waking up.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

I am [not] my hair

I never thought I really bought into the myths about natural black hair. It was never ugly to me. Just something slightly a nose ring.
I gradually, then suddenly, grew tired of treating my hair with chemicals to make it do something it was never going to do anyway; be long, silky and flowing.
It was simply an acceptance. Not of Afrocentrism, but of the futility of punishing my hair for growing a certain way. Much like a mother who finally accepts that her daughter is gay and stops setting up dates for her.
I stopped. Cold-turkey.

But today, bored with my mid-sized 'fro, I decided to straighten it with a flat-iron.
An hour and a half later, I actually SAW myself in the mirror, the one I had been staring at the whole time. Through a wispy cloud of scorched hair smoke, I saw what I was doing.
Straightening my hair because I thought my honey would like it better. Straightening my hair to say "See, it's not really as short as it looks!" Pulling, combing and burning my hair to prove that it could still be long, silky and flowing.
I touched a handful of pressed hair. It crackled in my fingers.

My daughter, who had been playing "beauty shop" with her dolls on my bed, poked her head into the bathroom.
"Mommy, I like your bangs."
I frowned through them.
"Feel it," I said.
She petted a flattened place on my head.
"It's kinda rough."
Yes, this whole thing is kinda rough, I thought.
"What about this part?" I guided her hand to an unpressed section.
"It's floofy!"

I got in the shower and washed away over an hour's worth of work, twenty-something years of bewilderment and centuries of disdain.

It felt...natural.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Street Songs

Fall is here. Sort of.
Well, the spirit of fall has arrived. And on the not-so-cool breeze came a gentle reminder of this story, written 4 years ago.

Street Songs

The air is filled with the sound of the city. Cell phone ringtones, crowded streets, busy people. All of them so caught in the chaos of their own lives, they no longer feel its rhythm, hear the music. All except one. Sitting on an overturned milk crate, under a street sign, he mumbles to himself. Nodding his head in time to the footsteps passing by, he bends over and gently lifts a violin from its case. Whispering to it, he holds the violin up to his face like a baby.
He runs his stubby, stained fingers across the glossy wood lovingly, lifting the instrument to his cheek.
"Do you remember?"
His brow furrows. A troubled mind searching for something.
A single, hazy memory.
A song.
He hums a simple tune, holding the last note out long. A single string responds. It moves for him. He watches and smiles. Then reaching down again, he takes the bow from the case, turns the violin to rest on his chin, and draws the bow across the string.
She moans.
The sound rises above the city and echoes through the streets.
Each note dances. Each one sings.

A young couple pushes parallel trails through the crowd, their footsteps oddly out of rhythm. It is hard to know whether they are even going in the same direction. They move like strangers. But there is something between them.
A certain heaviness.
Unspoken anger and resentment strike a chord of discontentment. What once was love is replaced by duty. Conversation leads to argument so often...
There is nothing left to say.
Turning the corner, they are met with insistent song. The sound rises from the street and draws them in.

The haggard man plays on. He doesn't even notice the couple standing in front of him. His eyes shift from left to right, left to right as if seeing the notes, but there is no music there to read.
The song finds itself.
It draws at the soul.
The young man and woman stand there, wataching his bow glide across the strings. Ti is as if time has stopped. In the stillness, they hear what he hears. In each note...
The memory of their own love surrounds them, carried in song.
When the last note fades, the young man tosses a handful of coins into the worn case.
A small price to pay.
He turns to his wife and offers her his hand. As they walk away, their footsteps make time with their hearts. An uncomplicated beat.
No words are necessary.
There is nothing left to say.

The street fills once more with the sound of the imitation of life. The violinist lets the bow rest in his lap, his eyes finally still, fixed on a point in the sky. Then whispering to it, he holds the violin up to his face like a baby.
Remembering love, he hums the tune once more, holding the last not out long.
A single string responds.
" found me."
He tucks the violin beneath his chin and starts to play.

revised 10/01/09

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unpredictable - (part 2)

I consider myself a risk-taker. Spontaneous. In spite of the fact that I was at the same Starbucks I always go to...for the second time that weekend...having passed at least 6 others on the way there.

So I did what anybody in my situation would do.
I waited for her to undo it herself. I waited as if my mere presence and the fact that I had gotten up to stand in front of her would somehow trigger her fine motor skills.

She just stared, shifting in her seat and disturbing the thick air then surrounding us both. I tried not to breathe.
I knew the moment of truth had come. I had to commit to the task, to this woman, in the face of [relative] danger.


I remembered the conversation I'd had with my boyfriend on the way back from our day trip to SeaWorld the day before.
He'd said something about not being sure about the institution of marriage; something about not knowing how it would turn out.

So I told him.
"You don't even have to worry about it because I wont marry you!"

The words echoed in the car, in my head, expanding and heavy.
He said, "You might as well add 'even if you asked' to that."
I'd purposefully left that part out.
"I'm not the bad guy here", he shrugged.

"I didn't say you were. I just said I wouldn't marry you." I pointed at passing cars. "I wouldn't marry that guy either... or that guy...or him."
The unwittingly spared drivers whizzed by, probably on their way home to or away from irrational partners.

There was no such escape for my boyfriend. He was stuck with me, the woman who had just preemptively turned down his proposal.
I realized that this was probably what he'd meant about not knowing what would happen next. I can be pretty unpredictable.
Love is like that.
Love is like hovering over a strange woman at Starbucks, especially one who has just asked you to help her take something off. It's risky...for both parties really.

I could have been the crazy one, prone to random head-patting, lap-sitting or stabbing. But I'm not. Not really.
Although I might have responded to the woman by loudly refusing to marry her, and then turning to point at random passers-by, refusing each one of them marriage.
Clearly, this was well within the range of possibility. It's a good thing she didn't know that.

I unhooked the clasp of her necklace. My fingers grazed a fold under her neck and nothing significant happened. She was just a woman, a little off, but not a raving lunatic.

I went back to my chair to finish my phone call and read (and to watch other people read). A few minutes later, a young African woman came out of Starbucks, clutching her over-priced coffee. She, too, was on the phone.
Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed her being beckoned over by Necklace Woman, who had been busying herself trying on other necklaces and bracelets pulled out of a wheeled carry-on suitcase by her feet.

I couldn't really hear what they were saying above the two men fervently smoking and arguing in Arabic at the next table. But I watched African Chick's eyebrows draw together as Necklace Woman gestured widely, pointing down the street, her eyes wide and jowls bouncing. She finished talking and the corners of her mouth sagged.
African Chick hesitated then said something to the person on the phone. I imagine it was something like "Hold on. This woman's about to stab me." Then she pressed the phone to her chest.

African Chick led Necklace Woman over to her car, opened the back door and hoisted the carry-on inside. Necklace Woman waddled around to the front passenger side and struggled to squeeze herself into the narrow space between the door and the adjacent car.
African Chick resumed her phone call, presumably to have a witness should she later be found head-patted to death in her car.

I laughed to myself. Bet she had no idea that would happen, I thought.
As the two pulled off in the car, I caught African Chick's eye and smiled, wishing her all the luck and unpredictability in the world.

Unpredictable - (part 1)

"Excuse me miss. Can you undo this?"

For a second, I imagined that the voice belonged to one of the Spartan warriors from 300. He was referring, of course, to his leather shield strap. The buckle had inconveniently [for him] slipped around to the small of his back. A bronzed back, rippled and glistening. I'd be happy to oblige him.

But the voice was a little too high, though a bit gravelly, too plaintive. Definitely not sexy.

It belonged to a rather large black woman in her mid-to-late 50's, dressed in a floral crepe skirt and top. The kind of pattern you'd expect to see as wallpaper in the early 80s.
She was dark-skinned; lighter than Aunt Jemima, but darker than, say...Oprah.
Her hair, un-permed, stood in a coarse, chunky 'fro, blackish and scattered with patches of a color I call "dirty squirrel"...a failed attempt at gray coverage.

We were at a Barnes and Noble Starbucks. Outside.
I was on the phone with my cousin, Dexter, detailing the events of my birthday weekend. The woman sat at the un-umbrella'd table (brave, given the heat), riffling through a clear plastic purse whose contents included a crumpled Wal-mart sack, some pens, receipts, unwrapped sandwich cremes and a wide-toothed comb (clearly unused).

Slip-on sandals clamped like man-made leather traps around her doughy feet, both of which were covered with flakes of dead or dying skin and dusted from shin to toe with a thick layer of ash.

I'd seen her when I first sat down, muttering to herself in the way that homeless people and writers usually do.
And now she was talking to me.
My hesitation to acknowledge her was born of two things.
  • Fear
  • Selfishness

1. What if I walked over there and she seized the opportunity to grab me by the wrists and pull me down onto her lap? She'd pat my head and call me by the name of some long-lost loved one or soap star. What if she stabbed me?

2. I came to Starbucks to read, to be seen reading and thought an intellectual, and to eavesdrop on the conversations of others (who had obviously come to be heard).
By muttering to herself and appearing to be crazy, this woman had made herself useless in my pursuit of these goals.

I had not come to undo the trappings of ambiguously homeless people.

I would have ignored her, but it was too late because I was already looking at her.

"Excuse me?"

I made my voice polite, yet firm. It said, "I'm a nice person, but don't try anything crazy".
She pointed to her neck.
"Can you help me with this?"
She was wearing a two-strand, beaded necklace. It did not match her outfit.
I lowered the phone from my ear, pressing it to my chest, which supposedly keeps the person on the other line from hearing what you say.
The woman's rheumy eyes searched my face.
"Here, undo this."

I didn't want to touch her and it wasn't just because of the waves of noxious fumes rising from her chair like summer heat dancing above the pavement.
Hers was a smell that my brain classified as "hot garbage", "fermented sweat", "poor lady" and "Damn".

But that wasn't it. It was more about the fact that I could not predict what would happen next.
Any number of outcomes were possible.
  • Lap-sitting
  • Head-patting
  • Repeated stabbing
  • "Thank you"
  • "F**k you"
  • or nothing.