Tag 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.


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.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Lipstick

Most people have a sense of what kind of jobs they’re cut out for, and from my first full-time job at age eighteen, I understood that customer service wasn’t my specialty. Still, in and around cleaning and yard work, I worked customer service positions in espresso shops because they were apropos to an uneducated nineties girl. But let me clarify: I much preferred hiding in the kitchen, scrubbing the lipstick stains off the mugs before stacking them in the industrial dishwasher.

Lipstick colors define the temporal culture of women. In those days, they were earthy reds, often tinged with sunset orange or leafy browns. And they were meant to withstand hot and wet situations, as the mugs with lipstick rings emerged from the dishwasher with their kisses intact on the rims. The women who created them, if they knew, could add this to their roster of success–I’ve kissed the coffee, and my kiss has permeated this world, if no other.

But I’ve always been one to wipe away the absurdities of others. I cleaned the lipstick free from the mugs when hiding in the kitchen, as though I were a fiendish scientist foiling the plots of upstart female dictators who were ready to control the lives of the men they loved, if not the lowly coffeehouse workers they didn’t. Fiendish scientists may not wear capes, but they play integral roles in the world of vice and venom [read women].

I worked together with a pure, nineties coffee girl, whom I’ll call Sallie. And yes, that’s her real name. Sallie was the real deal–still is. She wore a beautiful shade of red lipstick that gave me the swoons. How did she do it? Nineties slacker that she was, she would wake five minutes before opening, throw her gorgeous blonde hair into a funky up-do, slap on the lipstick, tie on the apron, and be ready only seven minutes late to serve espressos topped with perfect carnations of cream [she would add, in her defense, that management tended to write employee schedules so that the midnight shift backed the crack-of-dawn shift. The non-slacker, pretend coffee girls such as myself suffered insomnia and never slept anyway, so the erratic schedule didn’t make one iota of difference.]

I wanted to be Sallie. I wanted to fling my hair up, slap on the lipstick, tie on the apron, and transform myself from backroom fiend to dictatress of grunge boys who rode motor bikes. I wanted to rule the world, any world, the one of coffee, vice, and venom [read women], which included those who talked on cells, drove shiny SUVs, and ordered skinny lattes.

Instead, I was at their mercy. One slow afternoon, a lady wearing brilliant lipstick whipped out her catalog and passed it to Sallie with a perfect sales pitch: you look like a girl who’s searching for a new shade of lipstick. I raised my hand slightly, as though I knew the correct, albeit philosophical answer. I’m looking for a new shade of lipstick, I said. The woman turned sideways to push me out of the conversation.

But I’d like to order. . . I began again. The woman raised her voice, then the back of her hand, and she laughed to make certain I caught her meaning: You aren’t the type of girl who’s searching for a new shade. You’re a plot foiler, and I can see right through you.

. . .a handgun, a few hand grenades, and a combat rifle, which means I’d actually like to order books on the history of weaponry. Do you have any of those in your catalog? Because I’d never order a stupid $15 tube of lipstick, I muttered in my pithy way. Yes, I understood perfectly.

The lipstick seller was among a group of women who visited the coffee shop on weekday afternoons, when the dining area was otherwise empty, and I was the only victim in sight. Sallie and I rarely worked together, due to the scheduling conflicts of coffee girls, and I was left alone to cope with these women’s wiles. At around five o’clock, I could spy their large, white SUVs circling the parking lot to find their perches in the branches of our yellow parking stripes.

They descended on me in unison with their peculiar demands: skim, flat, shot and a half of regular with half shot of decaf and half a shot of vanilla sweetener with a dollop of almond. Oh, and may I have a glass of ice water, please? Water, no ice. Water, half ice, half water, with a touch of boiled tea water for essence. I nodded politely and fell to their bidding, carried their orders out on trays as though the cafe were a four-star restaurant. I nodded, and I didn’t ask about lipstick, about ordering from their special catalogs, or how they managed that shade of tan in an Oregon winter, or where they had their hair done. I gave them everything they wanted, and then I left them to their conversations.

I returned to whatever I had been doing–reading about the history of coffee or writing complex syllabics and metrics on napkins, verses that might have been construed as rude or insane or terror-producing if you were an idiot who mistrusted love songs [or actually believed I was a plot-foiling fiend].

And on a day when one woman entered without the others, and I asked her if she’d had a bad day because she looked so sad, she choked a little and her voice broke as she spilled her story. And I comforted her the best I could, with my own broken words.

Later, they all complained about me to Sallie, about my lack of enthusiasm, my lack of emotion. Or maybe they didn’t like my shade of lip-colored lipstick, sans wax. I don’t know. But I’ve spent my years since buying cheap lip gloss that melts from cup rims and disappears down the drain just as my image of being a coffee girl disappeared long ago.