Friday, February 22, 2013

Marmalade thighs and Maxwell House eyes

Truj wrote this morsel tonight: "Tom Waits is like that girl in high school who never knew she was pretty, but then went to college and realized she was beautiful just the way she was."

As a 19-year-old musician at Emerson, Truj is the only human I personally know who plays the ukulele—as in seriously plays the uke—in a classical fashion, not in a Tiny Tim demeanor. She appreciates soulful music that makes you think, that makes you feel, that makes you feel about a thought, as Yip Harburg would say.

Well, her post made me think of you, Mr. B., and how you once looked at me dreamily on a second-story moonlit porch that faced a narrow alley and mothy windows of other $300 a month city apartments. We sat on well-worn wicker with gaps of missing teeth. Candle nubs flickered citronella, and Tom played on a cassette player in your naked living room. (Furniture marked the effects of commitment, just like owning a car, and you were not ready for either.) You looked at me through thick lenses and charmed me with lines of how I symbolized the siren in Ghost of Saturday Night, and this here—this wooden balcony of escape—was Napoleone’s Pizza House.

As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes /
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair.

How could a girl not fall for such charm that deftly masked a bad complexion, an Army desertion, and a college walk-out? You guided me through the intricacies of investigation, of manning up to cover South Philly, to call Vince Fumo and ask tough questions -- even though I had not yet established credentials. You were a writer, one in a series, who would take me beneath your wing and convince me that I, too, would grow to love language, to make it my own. Awards littered your career, but clearly you were no Mr. Pulitzer, nor were you a Stephen Fry.

Fry’s words speak to me like no other: Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my check-out girl... language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple, it's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from a old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair, it's a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, it's a half-remembered childhood birthday party, it's the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl."

Luring me like Tom Waits came rather close to the dew on a fresh apple.

But like the apple, it too evaporates. And the next week when she walked into the newsroom wearing the Temple sweatshirt I forgot on your porch, I shook my scrambled yellow hair as the core of my fruit turned to rot. I had already known I was beautiful; I simply was someone else’s muse.

People will come and go, but language remains my doxy with Maxwell House eyes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Occam's razor cannot trim a toupee

As I sat in the pew at St. Elizabeth’s, my eyes rapidly shifted--from the narrow stained-glass windows reaching a dozen feet to the earthy rich beams stretching across the ceiling to the silver urn perched upon the altar where my aunt’s remains stood.

It was here—this faded grandiloquent church from my childhood—where I was to marry Mr. Pulitzer in 1999. I had not been back to the village parish since then—“then” which was a consultation with the toupee-wearing monsignor who was to conduct our nuptials. I hadn’t personally known the high-haired priest other than through reporting assignments, community engagements.

But Monsignor Toupee and Mr. Pulitzer had forged a bond over a two-year period when the church leader shepherded a pilgrimage to Kosovo. Mr. Pulitzer had accompanied the missionaries, chronicling their work in the war-torn republic where poverty and hopelessness held ground in what was deemed the first humanitarian war. His startling photos of vacant orphans left shell-shocked in shelled buildings dotted my walls. Through our years together, he developed strange ailments of pained limbs, sore joints, and jarring headaches that he blamed on chemical fallout and polluted waters.

Yet through this experience, Monsignor Toupee and Mr. Pulitzer became friends on some level, and even though I didn’t entirely trust a member of the clergy with a head rug, I agreed to have this man marry us.

Of course, this exchange of vows would never happen, and my life is better for it.

But returning to St. E's for Millie’s memorial reminded me that life moves on, that we sometimes make things out to be bigger than they are in the whole scope of existence. A funeral, as her priest suggested, reminds us that we not here solely to mourn, but to celebrate the spirit, that we are passing through to the unknown and shouldn’t get caught up in the trappings that foolishly define us on this leg of the journey.

Afterward, in the receiving line, I spoke with my cousin, Nick, an accomplished runner. My aunt was his grandmother, my cousin his mother.

We talked about my training and his training—well, mostly his. I no longer see him at area races because he has moved to Colorado Springs to run in higher altitudes and better prepare his body for competition. For a while, he had been trying to break his marathon PR of 2:58—which he hit twice both at Marine Corps and at Boston—and he figured he was ready to do so in 2011 at New York. 

However, something went wrong. He crashed, burned, crossed the finish line in a miserable 3:18.

He thought of retreating, throwing in the towel. But the move to Colorado inspired him to try once more. This past October he hit Chicago and finally landed it with a 2:53. Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to know some incredible runners, and I’ve heard enough stories from people with much more impressive results. But my cousin is my cousin, and while he’s not going to make a top racing team, he’s a pretty cool guy.

So I asked: Are you doing Boston?


No? Why not? You’re more than 10 minutes ahead of a 3:05…

It’s overrated. You do it once, and you move on. There is too much left in life to worry about one race and whether you qualify or not.

And so now he’s training for Ironman. Why?

To see how far I can push myself.  To see what else is out there because life is about so much more, it’s so much more than wearing a Boston jacket.

As I left, I thought about what he said, about how he—at such a young age with a promising career as a doctor and a decent corporate sponsorship for something that is “fun”—has become a man before those old enough to be his father: humble, down-to-earth, honest. He is real. He is someone that Monsignor Toupee—king of embellishment and master of fa├žade—could never be.

He hasn’t set out to impress other people. He doesn’t wait for approval. His ideals, as uncomplicated as Occam's Razor. He is the salt. He is my kind of people, he is my family.