Category Archives: the author’s life

Memoirs Made of Dreams: The Contrarian’s Nightmare

Life was happy and, somehow, bland in the oasis of the university campus. Green lawns cascaded toward buildings colored like desert mountains: tile red, yarrow, grays and greens and dusky-sunset blues. But that’s simply to set the scape of the dream, where imagination creates, not mere desert willows, but willows that enliven their narrow leaves and pink blooms, whose pods rattle wildly in the brush of hot wind.

The blandness bled from my mind. This was my life, my dream world: children, husband, and extended family sought comfort in numbers while they tossed bread to absurdly mean geese stampeding around the campus pond. No, this wasn’t the life I had always dreamed of, but the life that filled me when asleep, which is an important distinction to make.

In due time, my father-in-law spotted the name of the game show painted down the sides of the vans, all parked together near our vehicle. We were thus enlightened to the actual purpose of my dream: The Traveling Debate Show, a PBS venture, had finally found its way to the back cactus acres off the NM I 25, and hoards of hopeful locals gathered. They were the best, the brightest, or simply wanted a stab at a TV appearance.

Dad, Dad-in-Law, and Husband mocked the show. The debaters consisted of three groups–the Default Show-Host plants, the Intellectual Elites, and the average citizenry who occasionally conquered the debates, to the chagrin of the PhDs. The three men in my life mocked the show for its falseness, claiming it was an unreality show meant to subvert average people, to convince them they weren’t capable of rational debate, even though average people stuck to arguing the established positions. And still they lost, unless the directors needed to push forward a smart Joe or sassy Nancy to further entrap the viewing audience into watching again and again, rooting for Nancy-Joe-Junior-Jones-Smith-Chavez.

“I want to sign up,” I said.

“You’d better get in line quick, then.” Husband’s voice stung me with its dry skepticism.

Feeling small and silly, I joined the throngs and added my name to the list: — In my sleeping world, I’m an unnamed individual, a blank scrawl on a signature line. With every last drop of sweat-born courage [it was June or July and HOT], I informed the registrar that I chose to enter as an oppositional debater. I would take the Contrarian position, rather than the mainstream one.

“You don’t want to do that,” the registrar said. “Average people don’t sign up for the oppositional position. The only people who win that side are the PhDs.”

Inside, my heart quailed, but on the outside, I insisted. The Contrarian was my archetype. I couldn’t play any role but that one. Being perversely obstinate came naturally to me.

“O.K.,” the registrar said, and he put pen to paper and signed me up, directed me to my debate table where I filled out a myriad of disclaimers while my Default Show-Host waited, bored.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “Average people aren’t usually capable of debating the opposite viewpoint.”

I stared at him–at his clear eyes, brown hair, at the honest and instinctual appearance of his face. At essence, he was the archetypal image of Husband. No, I wasn’t sure at all that I wanted to do this. But I would carry on with it for the perverseness of the venture.

“They’ll bring us our topics in a few minutes. We may or may not get on camera,” he warned.

My contradictory nature couldn’t decide whether being on camera would be a negative or a positive. As my gut cramped, my mind warred between I want to be famous! and I want to be anonymous! Eventually, a harried woman in a lavender suit brought us two slips of paper with our debate topics. No cameraman or equipment appeared, and that fulfilled my expectations, at least. Average No-Name with Default Show-Host weren’t where the action was at.

Much to my non-surprise, the slips of paper were both blank and bore our topics at the same time. I knew as I stared at the little words not written there that I didn’t stand a chance of winning as a Contrarian. I couldn’t debate against these topics. How could I? They were too ordinary, and I would appear a fool.

As dreams go, the actual debate, where the climax of the dream should have played out, was a blur. I lost. But the details of my failure were missing because it was the expected result. The topics didn’t matter, and neither did the syllogisms. After it was over, Default Show-Host pretended that we’d had a good fight to the finish. He practically patted me on the head–in fact, I think he did. He patted me on my golden blonde hair [my hair hasn’t been that blonde since childhood], and he reassured me: “Average people don’t ever win the contrary argument. You did fine.”

Of course, my dream self shrugged the loss aside and buried the smallness I felt. I shrank inside my Wal Mart clearance rack t-shirt and convinced myself that the topics were wrong, that going against an instinctual male would never merit me accolades, that I still possessed a deeply intelligent half to my psyche. I was still a true Contrarian.

As I write this account of my dream world, many obvious interpretations leap out at me. And yet, I wonder if the true meaning is hidden in the same way that the PhDs were hidden throughout. In my imagination, I’m able to conjure a vision of the Intellectual Elites, with their dry shirts and sharp, wicked eyes framed by wire glasses. But they aren’t in the scape. Nothing in my mind brings them to life–no rattles of pens or the shaking of paper leaves, or the seeds of oppositional knowledge meeting the desert wind.

At the finale, I left the debate show, and the extended family went off for barbecue, and I followed along behind them, unsettled. A piece of me is still left in that dream.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Positively 4th Street

Soon after we were married, Joel and I hit the road for Southern Oregon, leaving the Portland scene behind us. I quit my job at Coffee People, and he quit his at the microelectronics company. The season was fall, and the light–if visible–was gold like latticework, filigreed, taunting, disappearing. We may have listened to Harvest Moon on the way down. We might also have passed a hearse, and a woman who ran across the freeway, hands on face, screaming.

By the time we arrived, it was cold, as well as dark and unfamiliar. It was Halloween. Some friends of ours who lived in the area swung by with a fifth of whiskey and canned beer and helped us unpack the moving truck. And that was the start to our new life together, in a place distant to my childhood home. Depression soon set in for many reasons, just as the winter settled over the world. But in my mind, I erase those reasons. The genre of memoir relies on picking through the aftermath of numerous storms and discovering familiar relics–a life edited, in other words.

And so I skip to summer. We lived on 4th Street in Ashland, in the bottommost apartment of a smooth, stuccoed building constructed in 1916. Our place had at one time been a garage, and it came complete with louvered window glass. Its placement insured its coolness, so when I emerged from the land of the louvered glass, the hot southern sun blasted me as did the smell of dust and hot grapes.

By summer, after handing out my resume at multiple cafes around town, I was gainfully employed at a coffeehouse in the neighboring city of Medford. What did I do on my days off? What could I do, but hop across the street from my apartment to the 4th Street Cafe? This is what baristas do–they survive off the caffeine hanging in the air. They lap it up, breathe it in. And for my part, I carried a stack of lined paper and a handful of pens and pencils and scratched out my first novel a mano to the sounds and scents of coffee.

Back up. We haven’t arrived yet. Walk through the alley beside the stuccoed apartment building. Ashland is one of those towns connected from street to street through dusty alleyways, and these alleys not only provide shortcuts, but they supply intimate views of interior life, such that the clusters of fruit hanging from private yards become yours for the taking, as does the shade from hanging wisteria. Intimacy, summer, grapes–they blend together in delicious memories that might have been purely mental, even back then, even when the 90’s world was physical, tangible.

Steal a handful of grapes and eat them individually, spitting the seeds out as you cross through the alley, and then 4th Street, and then wander up the sidewalk until you reach the entrance to the cafe. Enter to the sound of wind chimes and native fluting–follow the call of the flautist to the back garden. Buy a cup of strong black coffee, sit and watch your lined pages ruffle in the breeze.

The flautist will attempt a conversation with you. He’s an older man with long, graying hair and beard. He’ll discuss [or, rather, talk at you about] religion and politics and inform you that his Sioux ancestors worshiped the Creator of the universe long before white men brought Jesus, and you won’t know whether he’s rejecting your religion or connecting himself with you in the way all humans are linked through a common Great Spirit. And you also won’t know how this man can sit fluting around with no real book knowledge or music lessons, but still be able to sit in the present, comfortable in himself and his abilities.

You won’t know because you’ve already exited the premises, if not in body, but in mind and deep yearning. [End Stop. I’m reentering my own memoir, thanks.] Especially when I was younger, exiting the world seemed the only way to master any subject or art form. Long before the summer, in that cold, dry winter I skipped over, I visited a music store and stared longingly at the racks of hanging violins, which chattered at me in chiding little voices. I played the violin as a child, but I never really played, and I could only imagine finding an alternate space for myself in which I would leave the world behind and become a musician. I’m not sure why this is–why I must exit the world in order to master a subject, but the necessity entangled with the impossibility has kept my life on hold for as long as I can remember. Because I’m still waiting to exit the world, where I plan to refine and master numerous disciplines, I haven’t lived. I’ve never truly lived.

The first book I scratched onto notepaper was–no surprise–about a violin player who exits her life, moves from Portland to Florence, Oregon, where she dwells in a parallel existence that enables her to reenter the world at large. I desired to be her, even though I made her homely, but she only existed in my imagination. And so, although I fashioned her to be real, she never really exited her life and, consequently, never reentered.

Places of the imagination exist in a way I can’t reach to grasp, and the same problem occurs in memoir. I’m busy working at leaving the world of my current self, who sits on my porch in New Mexico, and I’m doing this through selective memories. I’m creating positive spaces through negatives, negatives through positives, and I’m mastering nothing.

Where did I go–that girl who sat in the 4th Street Cafe? And how can I reach her? I’m lost. I’m neither here nor there, and all I have left is a day-old pot of coffee that brings me no closer to exiting my present reality. And how will I edit this moment later? Will I add flowers to the desert, stark red roofs, an unreal blue sky to cap off eternity?

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The Ultimate Essai

A few years ago, I read an article in a home-school journal on writing as a subject. According to the author, who taught at the university level at the same time that she homeschooled her children, the only important writing skill to pass on to students was the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay. In this theory of hers, poetry was unimportant because “children could just learn it on their own.” Creative writing of any sort was relegated to the child hobbyist. Only the didactic, robotic five-paragraph essay would rescue a seaworthy child and carry her through the heaving waters of college.

The article infuriated me and, as I usually do, I wrote a rebuttal letter in my head that I never sent. In the last several days, I’ve pondered what it means to write memoir and, in so doing, I recalled that little piece of editorial oddness. I asked myself the typical ranting, blood-letting questions [in which my mind bleeds out from lecherous frustration]: did that home-school teacher/professor not study history? Did she not understand rhetoric? Did she not understand that poems, in their more traditional English usage, could be called essays? If Alexander Pope had time-traveled to the oughts through a Newtonian Time Telescope, he might have had a thing or two to explain to this so-called educator.

First of all, he might have explained that poetry has a long and beautiful history. Poetry takes many forms and involves the use of complex thought and movement, all wrapped up in smart rhetoric and carefully meted rhythm. Next, he might have whipped out a copy or two of his poetic essays: Essay on Man or Essay on Criticism. When the educator inevitably shook her head at him, she might have cried, “But the author asserts opinions! And these opinions aren’t in five paragraphs! I can’t even count how many stanzas there are. And what do you call that rhyme scheme?” After the expected faint of the modern woman, Pope might have thought her unworthy, but, still, he might have given her a rundown of heroic couplets, because, after all, the author of them must have been heroic, himself.

“But who are you–you hunchbacked toad?!” the professor might have spluttered.

And it really might have been been Pope who shot through the Newtonian Time Telescope, but what if–instead–an aged Montaigne had approached a young Galileo and said, “Say there, Sonny, would you transport me to the late 17th C with your totally awesome quantum kinematics?” And then, perhaps, it might have been Montaigne who flew through time and space via the Newtonian Time Telescope [once he’d landed in Newton’s cave and introduced himself].

I’m certain Montaigne would have immediately set pen to paper and ascribed his personal feelings, musings, and ideas on 21st C life. Then he would have pronounced them essays. And why do I think he would have done such a preposterous thing? Montaigne invented the term. Back in his day, the 16th C, he called his attempts to understand the world essays [which, in his language, meant exactly that–essai, attempt].

What is my point in all this, aside from discovering how many times I can use the brand name Newtonian Time Telescope™ in as short of space as possible? Isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway–compression? In our modern education system, we’ve compressed the definition of essay into a tight, five-paragraph box that doesn’t simply contain condensed language, but condensed or compressed ideas. The landscape of ideas should involve expansion, feeling, rhetoric, and maybe even rhyme. When we insist that our children stop writing their essays in heroic couplets, as they are wont to do, we are limiting their thinking powers [all right, I did this when I was in the 8th grade, but only once, and the teacher completely ignored my rhymed lines. Or maybe she didn’t notice–and so much for my hard work].

This was meant to be an article on the nature of memoir, which, to me, resembles the original essence of essai. How Alexander Pope worked his little hunchbacked frame into it, I’ve no idea, but probably it was through the Newtonian Time Telescope. The Galilean Quantum Kinetic machine was pretty much the opposite of de rigueur by Pope’s time [so sue me. I couldn’t think of a stylish antonym].

Good memoirs are connected thoughts–essays–of a unique person’s experiences. In a well-written memoir, the reader sees the world anew through the eyes of the memoirist, through a narrative that stirs the heart and awakens the mind. And for that, I love memoirs, am, in fact, addicted to them. I have no desire to write them for publication because this blog is already the chronicling of my mind. This is it. This is my memoir, world! I’m holding to the Montaignesque tradition with my little corner of the internet. I’ll leave the five paragraph jobs for yawning professors.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Change

This is a story of numbers. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand story problems to save her life, who melted to the floor in a fit of tears and frustration at the conundrum, the cryptic-bestiary, dark-world of language. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand the language of math to save her life.

Soy yo. I am she. But I’m also a person who has harbored a secret obsession with numbers for as long as I can remember. During my school days, I counted things. I counted them until the numbers drowned out every other thought in my head. When people spoke, I counted their words rather than listening to them, and I made numerical calculations on the value of words based off the number of lines and whorls that formed them. I counted ceiling spots, and made elaborate attempts at removing the square footage of light fixtures from my totals. I counted squares on the floor and lines on the furniture and walls.

Now that I’ve admitted this, it should come as no surprise that I was a walloping failure in school. I never listened, not ever. Fast forward to my first job, and imagine for a moment an ancient cash register. Imagine the ching-ching, the whoop-whoosh of the credit card machine over carbon paper. And you can bet that the idea of counting prices in my head mesmerized me, especially to the symphony of ancient technology. Yes, I had to punch the prices into the register. However, it was gratifying to find that my calculations agreed with the machine. Furthermore, management forced the cashiers to count back change to customers so that the till would ring out exactness, down to the penny, at the end of each shift. Oh, what joy beyond measure!

By the time I took my first job at a coffee shop, tills did the work for the cashiers, although management still encouraged the counting back of change for precision’s sake. Now, this is a lost art, and it’s more usual for cashiers to give customers a blank look before shoving a fistful of money their way [Cash, what’s that? Only terrorists use that stuff].

Needless to say, I continued to count prices in my head and count back change without checking the digital readout on the register face. Numbers are beautiful. Numbers won’t steer you wrong. Prices are fixed quantities that only have so many variations. And I began new counting habits, too. I counted ounces. I understood the ounce variation of every cup we used, from paper to ceramic. I made cappuccinos to precise measurements of espresso to milk to foam. Torani shots–those had to be exact, or the customers would pucker from the sweetness.

I counted money, ounces, seconds, minutes, hours. I counted the number of words I had or hadn’t written on my days off. I counted out my syllabics, as well as the feet in my metrics. I counted customers, the in-and-outs, and those who stayed for hours. One famous customer–I’ll call him Michael because that’s his name–could drink twelve double shots of espresso over the course of an eight-hour shift.

I counted the books and words of the intellectual customers, who rarely allowed me to be one of them. In fact, one old academic coot regularly teased me with his avant-garde ways and his shocking literature. He would bring me books and chuckle at me, smirk at my lingering stoicism after having studied the sentiments of time-travelers who carried on incestuous relationships with their great-great grandparents.

This being Southern Oregon, many of the intellectuals were libertarian males who studied history and knew more about the constitution than any constitutional lawyer. Among them [albeit a minority] were the stereotypical survivalists who preferred women to keep quiet and birth children but–woe to those who gave suck in those days! I frequently caught that lamentation, especially after I was pregnant with my first child. And, yes, these survivalists were intensely academic and not of the Hollywood stupid-ass redneck variety, although I rarely tuned in to their words to find out. Rather, I counted the men, their cups of coffee, their books, their multitude of words, and just how many minutes past closing they lingered.

One time, a free-thinker among them assumed I was heeding their debate with rapt attention and asked me for my opinion. I told him I didn’t have one, since I was a woman [which was a lie, though not the part about being a woman. I didn’t have an opinion because I wasn’t listening].

And later, much later, the old coot intellectual of the incestuous literature shocked me when he handed me a sheet of numbers and asked me if I would make sense of his bank account and budget for him. He said he could tell I counted things. Wide-eyed, I agreed to do as he asked. But how did he know? How could he have known?

The title of this memoir is change because I did. I changed. After spending years calculating the ounce measurements of every cup in my kitchen and falling apart if somebody mistakenly drank from my cup of water–how am I to count ounces with undetermined swallows?–I stopped. Occasionally, I still catch myself counting things, but I’m firm with myself these days.

The world can’t be quantified this way. Behind the numbers, I hear no ching-ching, no symphony of order and harmony. And most of all, I can’t quantify myself this way. Jill is a simple name that isn’t worth much in the cosmos. It means girl. That sounds countable, but it isn’t. I’m one in several billion, a being so disordered that you might as well stop attempting to count the hairs on my head right now.

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Shoehorns With Teeth


My thoughts are scattered. In them, I see a sort of pattern, a coalescence of ideas that I’d like to gather in one net, into my basket of stars or fishes. Yes, I’m fishing for ideas.

Sadly, my thoughts don’t want to be caught. In fact, I don’t want to be caught. I want to slide out, slip free, hold onto nothing. But it’s a curse of humanity to want to capture and categorize. Ever since we gave sense to sounds by giving them meanings, we’ve defined the world according to a shaky order of ideas. Why do the symbols l-o-v-e come to be pronounced in one phonetic pattern (that actually doesn’t follow the phonetic order), and where does this phonetic pattern obtain its abstract meaning?

I have no idea, but I accept the meaning and sound of love for the sake of the linguistic history of my own idiom. But what I can’t accept are others forcing their barbed definitions onto me. You know how it feels when somebody chooses to make sense of you by expressing an all-encompassing definition. And you’re hurt by the callous, if not false, meaning attached to your core being. You aren’t a “right-wing nut-job” or a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a “strident feminist” or a “wannabe writer” or a “conspiracy theorist”–not by the narrow definitions given for those terms. Rather, you’re a complex human being who may have thought long and hard about what it really means to be a feminist or a writer, maybe even what it means to be a Christian.

But, hey, the master of definition says, if the shoe fits, wear it, even if the shoe has been forcibly worked onto your foot by means of a shoehorn with teeth.

The expression shoehorn with teeth comes from the chorus of a They Might Be Giants song. The next line says, People should get beat up for stating their beliefs. The genius of this pair of lines [He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth. People should get beat up for stating their beliefs] is in its reversal of meaning. It works both ways. The “he” of the song is an immature adult who believes in his own right to batter others for giving their opinions. But it also works against him because the next time he shoehorns his opinions on others, he might be the one to receive the divine karma.

Now I’m back to my scattered thoughts and the coalescence of ideas. Over the last several days, I’ve read internet debates on feminism, on politics, on self-publishing. Yesterday, I began reading a memoir, in which the meanness of the writer is so grating, so covered over with bumper sticker labels that I felt I was being pinned down. I was an insect on a board, a fish caught in a net, a star defined by a narrow definition of hydrogen and helium. And by the very nature of this memoirist’s status in print, she becomes the master of definition. She’s an authority. An author.

/s-t-a-r/ /l-o-v-e/ /s-h-o-e-h-o-r-n/ /a-u-t-h-o-r/ /b-e-a-t-i-n-g/. Pronounce the phonetics with me: beating, bashed, hurt, wounded. I know we can make sense of these sounds as they correlate to physicality. What about the abstracts, though? What of those? What does this mean?–> LOVE.

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