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Archive for April, 2009

sophsinging-0011Alani, standing in the lobby of the Pontiac Marriott, is grim-faced.

“What are you doing here?” she says to me.

The lobby swarms with girls and their parents, mostly moms. They’re all here for the Access Broadway singing competition. Alani’s mom is already there, and Liz, her singing coach. Alani is scheduled to sing in twenty minutes, a Queen Latifah number from Hairspray, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” She’s worked on it for months. She’s as tense as I’ve ever seen her.

I tell her I’m here to support her.

“I don’t want you to watch,” Alani says.

“I’ve been banned, too,” her mom says.

“Are you sure?” I ask Alani. She nods curtly. “Ok,” I say. “If you don’t want me to watch, I won’t.”

Even Liz, a veteran professional performer, is nervous and flustered. I help her carry a stool and some props into the performance ballroom. “What I’m finding out about Alani,” Liz says, “Is that she doesn’t like competitions.” Liz puts down a microphone stand in a dark corner of the ballroom. “She likes auditions, but not competitions,” Liz says. “I don’t think I’d put her through this again.”

The competition ballroom is set up like American Idol, with a three-judge table facing an immense parquet floor, surrounded by rows of seating for the audience. Against the far wall, lit-up, is a gigantic “ACCESS BROADWAY!” sign.

Usually when Alani has been onstage she’s been with an ensemble of other actors and singers. Here she’ll be alone. It’s a big, intimidating space for a 12-year-old girl to try to command.

Now I’m a wreck myself, worrying about Alani. My stomach churns.
I sit down in the back row of the ballroom. It’s dark except for the lit parquet floor. I realize Alani would never know I was here, back in the shadows. I consider staying put, but decide I have to keep my promise not to watch. I walk out into the lobby and begin pacing.

Alani relents. I am permitted to watch. I sit far back. Four girls perform before Alani, each dolled-up for the performance. They are fine. Nice voices.

“Contestant Number 6” the announcer says. “Singing ‘I Know Where I’ve Been'”

Alani walks across the floor. She’s wearing one of her favorite t-shirts, grey with a white peace sign on the front, and a brown skirt. Her hair is long and brushed, but not beauty-parlored. No make-up. She plants her feet, facing the judges. She looks down. Her shoulders rise and fall once as she takes a deep breath.

The music begins and she brings the microphone up.

By the time she walks off the stage I have tears in my eyes, and not just because she shook off her fears, stilled the audience with her soulful alto voice, and wowed the judges. The sudden catch in my throat thirty seconds into her song was because I realized I was watching someone I didn’t know: the woman she would become, singing from her heart.

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Law of Opposites

shower 001This morning I make twig tea for Rachel. I pour some for myself. When Rachel first mentioned “twig tea”, I thought it was a joke, a reference to how tasteless the tea is compared to coffee. But no. It’s actually called “twig” tea. It looks like twigs. It tastes like twigs. But because I ration myself to one cup of coffee a day, from the Starbucks on the way to work, my first cup of the day is twig tea.

I carry my cup upstairs, take one half-hearted sip, and put it on the bathroom sink while I shower. The door creaks open.

“It’s me, babe,” Rachel says. She talks loud, so I can hear her above the shower spray.

She’s adjusted to our bath-and-a-half house. So have the kids. In the morning, when I’m taking my shower, they all knock on the door, one by one, and come in to use the toilet.

“Aren’t you going to drink your twig tea?” she asks.

“No. It’s no good,” I say. “For something in life to be really good, it has to have a serious downside.” Like my Starbucks dark roast Sumatra: If I drink more than one cup, I’m a nervous, caffeinated wreck. “Twig tea has no downside,” I say through the shower curtain.

“No, it doesn’t” Rachel says.

The toilet seat clunks down.

“What’s my downside?” she asks.

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My Other Wife

andrebrashopping 001We’ve hired someone to do our laundry and grocery shopping. Marie.

In the past these tasks largely fell to Rachel, with intermittent help from me. Despite a demanding job that requires frequent travel, Rachel held herself to June Cleaver homemaking standards. I first suggested domestic help a year ago, a few months into our marriage. Rachel rejected the suggestion point blank. Two weeks ago, worn down, she finally broke.

Marie started last Wednesday. That evening, after work, Rachel and I stood in our bedroom looking down at the stacks of freshly laundered and folded clothes that had magically appeared on our bed. I picked up a stack of my t-shirts and lowered it into a dresser drawer.

“This is great!” I said.

Rachel made a face. She said she liked not having to do the work, but it still bothered her to have another woman doing our laundry.

This Monday, dressing for work in the morning, , I realized I had only one pair of matched socks left in the drawer. It was two days till Marie would do laundry.

“Hey,” I said to Rachel. “Marie’s grocery shopping tomorrow. I’ll ask her to buy me some socks.”

Rachel straightened up from arranging the pillows on the bed. Her nostrils were flared with indignation.

“Marie is not going to buy you socks,” she said. “I already bought you socks.” She pointed to the dresser. Sitting on top, still in the cardboard packaging, were three pair of brand new black socks.

“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”

She jerked the down comforter up to the pillows, “Maybe I’ll ask Andre to buy me some bras,” she said. Andre is Marie’s husband, a stocky weightlifter. I pictured him at the mall, looking for a bra just right for Rachel.

“Understand?” Rachel said

I said I did.

She folded the plaid blanket at the foot of the bed.

“Marie will buy you socks, my ass,” she muttered.

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jesusrabbit-001Alani recently announced that she is an atheist. I reacted with nonchalance. It’s easy for a seventh grader to be an atheist. Teenagers believe they’re immortal – they are gods, so what do they need with another?

She later clarified. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in a god. She just doesn’t believe in the God, the one described in the Sunday readings at church.

Having read about the murderous temper tantrums of the jealous Old Testament God, I agree with her. Who wants worship such a petulant, childish deity?

She’s also skeptical of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. When she heard the story of him on the mountain top with Elijah and Moses, for example, she raised an eyebrow. “Really?” she said, “He just started glowing? I don’t think so.”

I asked her if she gets anything out of the Jesus stories.

“Um…” she said.

“Be honest.”

“Not really.”

On the other hand she read, cover-to-cover, a five volume Manga graphic-novel style story of Buddhism. She found it more convincing than the New Testament. That’s the problem with Christianity – they don’t have a good comic book. All the Jesus illustrations are so pleasant, kids lose interest the same time they lose interest in Barney.

I’d read some of her Buddhism book, and remembered a scene in which a talking rabbit (a previous incarnation of the Buddha, according to the story) offers itself as dinner to a hungry man. The final panel in the story shows the rabbit roasting on a spit.

“What about the talking rabbit?” I ask Alani. A glowing Jesus seemed to me at least as believable as a talking rabbit.

“It’s like that song we sing in church,” she says. She starts to sing: “There is no greater love, saith the Lord, than to lay down your life for a friend.”

“It’s the same thing, ain’t it?” she says.

.

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dirtypeter-001For some reason Rachel is telling me about Peter from Switzerland, a teenage crush of hers who worked as a counselor at her YMCA camp. She apparently thinks that because the encounter occurred twenty-two years before our marriage, and she never actually kissed him, it’s not adultery.

“He was older,” Rachel says. She’s mixing Aunt Jemima waffle mix in a bowl on kitchen counter.

I translate “older” to mean sophisticated. European. Perverted.

I am jealous of every man in her life before me. This includes Andy Haberman, the fourteen-year-old who kissed her in the woods after school, and Robert, the urbane wine connoisseur she dated just before me. I find something to ridicule about all of them – Andy’s pitiful eighth-grade moustache, for example, and that the wine  connoisseur insisted on being called “Robert”, instead of “Bob” – but I save special venom for the exotic Europeans, Francois from Paris and Peter from Switzerland,

“He spoke five languages,” Rachel says casually of Peter. She gets the Log Cabin syrup out of the pantry.

I am immediately suspicious. He probably faked multilingualism to take advantage of an impressionable American teenager. “Really?” I say. “How do you know?”

“Well,” Rachel says, “He spoke English at camp, and he ordered in French at a restaurant….”

That’s only two languages, I think to myself, and: What were they doing in a French restaurant?

“….and he’s from a German-speaking province in Switzerland,” Rachel continues. “In Switzerland they have. . .”

“I’m familiar with the Swiss Canton system” I say coolly.

Rachel senses my ire. She pours batter onto the hot waffle iron and tells me that there was nothing between her and Peter from Switzerland.

“I was in tenth grade,” she says, thinking this is reassuring.

“Were you past puberty?” I ask.

It’s meant to be rhetorical question, but she answers, confirming that yes, she was past puberty when she and Peter from Switzerland shared those star-lit nights in front of the YMCA campfire.

She tries to reassure me again. “Half the time I didn’t even know what he was talking about.”

I ask her what she means. She says that Peter from Switzerland confided to her that he was a Christian, and struggled with the conflict between sexual desire and his vow of chastity till marriage.

“Oh,” I say knowingly, “That’s the oldest line in the book – ‘I’m too principled to have sex with you.’ Women eat that one up.”

“No, no,” Rachel says. “He never made a move on me.”

I snort. “That was his move.”

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sawyeryeller-0011I’m reading Old Yeller to Jack, sitting on the edge of his bed. It’s a library book, and about a month overdue, but the stepfather-stepson bonding is worth the fine. He asks how much we’ve read, and I show him, pinching the pages between thumb and forefinger. Old Yeller has already saved little Arliss from an angry she-bear, and Travis from a snarling horde of wild hogs. About a third of the book is left.

“I wonder how it will end,” Jack says. He’s under the covers, in his pajamas, his face scrubbed from the bath his mom just gave him. “It could be a happy ending, or it could be a sad ending,” he says.

He’s already heard the cattleman warn Travis that there have been reports of animals with hydrophobia near the settlement, and a graphic description of the effects of rabies. Jack doesn’t know what foreshadowing is, but he senses that things may not end well for the yeller dog.

“I hope it doesn’t end like Marley and Me,” Jack says.

I finish the chapter, tell him goodnight, and walk into our bedroom.

“I can’t read him the end of Old Yeller,” I tell Rachel.

She says she thinks it will be ok, but I shake my head. “He’s five. I’m not telling him how Old Yeller dies,” I say. I tell her what Jack said about Marley and Me. Rachel’s eyebrows go up.

“You’ll have to make up a happy ending,” she says.

Rachel plays this out. Jack will be in college. A buddy will mention how sad Old Yeller was, and Jack will say, no it wasn’t – Old Yeller got married, and had a bunch of puppies. And his friend will say, “Dude, no he didn’t. He got rabies. His owner had to shoot him.”

I’ll just take the book back to the library. It’s overdue.

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notsurprise 001“I’m not surprised you’re divorced,” Rachel says. She’s looking at me over the rim of her glass of chardonnay. This comment, a contrast from her usual “I’m-so-lucky-to-have-found-you,” marks the official end of our fifteen-month honeymoon period.

“You always think you’re right,” she says.

But doesn’t everybody? If you think your opinions are wrong, you’d change them, wouldn’t you? This is what I think in my head after Rachel’s comment, but I have sense enough not to say it out loud. The appraisal in her gaze has me a little nervous.

I know I have a problem. Over the years, I’ve noticed that while I’m talking to my sisters, they will frequently roll their eyes and walk away. Oddly, this often happens when I’m in the middle of explaining something they really need to understand. This weekend my sister asked me if I liked Reeses peanut butter cups. Instead of just saying, “no,” I said, “No. Mixing chocolate and peanut butter is wrong.” Apply this personality trait to opinions about politics, the stock market, and how Rachel ought to raise her children, and you get the idea.

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