Sunday, June 28, 2009

What I really wanted was an Ivory Elephant.

A few days ago I was stuck in line, in Dunkin Donuts, behind a woman who was to my mind the epitome of all that is wrong with society. She wondered if she could order the special, a large coffee and a muffin. But, instead of coffee she would like some ice tea. Lemon, no raspberry, no on third thought, lemon. With ice, and a slice of real lemon. Lots of ice, two straws. And, instead of a muffin, would it be possible to substitute a bagel? I watched as the young woman who was serving her struggled to maintain a friendly demeanor. I watched as the line behind this woman got longer and longer. Then she wanted some water, for her son. No, not just water, also with a slice of lemon. Oh, could you dump some of it out and add more ice? And another piece of lemon. I had plenty of time to think about what exactly was making me so irritated. I am very sympathetic to people on special diets, the gluten allergic, diabetics, lactose intolerant, and others. I am not troubled to go out to dinner with friends who want to ask the waiter questions, or see if there is a way to use soy milk instead of cow milk in the latte. It was not what she wanted that troubled me so much as her apparent unawareness that the store was short staffed and that there were quite a few people in line behind her. Or was she aware?
When I got finally to order I asked for a large latte with caramel. The patient young lady brought it to me, and then rang up a regular coffee, saving me several dollars. . She winked at me. I made up a story in my mind about how I was being rewarded for ordering something off the regular menu. I accepted my bargain beverage, and wandered back out into the humidity still thinking about people who want something just a little more.
I thought of an old friend who is a contractor. He told me that people tend to pull this same stunt, only on a much larger scale, when they have work done in their homes. He told me that just recently he had built an elaborate staircase for a couple in an affluent suburb. The wife had changed her mind a few times about the type of wood she wanted, but had settled on quarter sawn oak. My friend had worked very hard to build a staircase to a standard of craftsmanship that was normal one hundred years ago but is now almost impossible to attain. He was very proud of his work. On the day he finished the wife stood at the bottom of the stairs, which curved up to a landing and then curved again . She remarked that maybe it would be better if the stairs came down on the left side instead of the right. How hard would it be to take them down and put them back the other way? My friend managed to communicate with her that while it would be possible , it would not be done by him now or ever. He also might have mentioned that should she so desire that he rebuild the stairs entirely out of ivory, , that he would not be interested in that project either. He might have made fun of her posh but put on accent, or copied her dramatic hand gestures. Let's just say it was not a meeting of the minds. But his imitation of her saying in a whiny voice "I know I said I wanted a stair case, but what I really had in mind was an elephant, a big white elephant carved out of ivory..." was quite endearing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Grandmother Explains It All

The recent uptick in the debate about gay marriage, and my jaded response, which is that it is time for us to take a critical eye to the so-called standard version, the one where they man and woman get married, buy some real estate, have some babies, cheat on each other, abuse substances, rack up substantial credit card debt, fight whose parents were the worse influence , gain a bit too much weight ( or conversely take up running to the point of anorexia) stop having sex,and eventually divorce, had brought my attention to the every more maddening attempts of the "defense of marriage" crowd to stake out marriage as their ordained hetero-turf. I had a flash of insight as I remembered one my essential moments truth about my family of origin, and their relative ability to make any sense about anything at all.
I spent most of my summers, from about five to my twenties, living with my grandparents ( and later just grandmother) at their large, moldy, partially winterized home on the ocean. My grandmother was bound and determined to shape me to be the same kind of woman as herself, no matter how much this might anger my own parents, who were not her biggest fans. It has always made me go "hmmm" to ponder how my parents thought it was a good idea to send the kids off to live with their biggest critic. To say that words flew, both to the face and behind the back, in a constant battle for my child-soul, loyalty, and class affiliation, as well as basic understanding of my gender roll, would be a major understatement. My father made no secret of his belief that his mother-in-law was a thought criminal, a person capable of remote castration using her mind alone, and also the traditional rich/bitch/witch and anything else that rhymes with itch. My grandmother made no secret of her belief that my father was a lunatic, a practioner of the dark arts, and even worse, a writer. As a result, for much of my childhood I felt like a push me pull you in a fight of magical proportions. But I gained much from this, because I could not choose sides, without being ripped in half ; I had to learn early on that not everything that people say is true, and not everything they say you have to do must be done, and not everything they say they believe is even remotely believable.
One moment of awareness came when my grandmother first heard about AIDS. She was scared, of course, because she had her hair washed and combed up into a beautiful puffy fluff, and pinned tight enough to stay that way until next weeks wash, by a man she described as a 'flit'. Gay still described pretty purple flowers on an Easter bonnet in her world. And if AIDS was transmitted by touch, then surely she could catch it by having her hair washed? No, not likely, her best friend reassured her, not unless a whole lot more is going on at the same time. Like what? My grandmother wondered. Well, um, urgent whispers. My grandmother sat frozen as her friend explained, in what must have been fairly graphic detail, what she would have to do with her stylist to be at risk. She actually turned pale. Did you know about this? She demanded. Um,yes, I had to admit, I have heard tell. I will spare you the rest of the conversation, in which is was revealed that my grandmother was literally unaware of many of the options on the sexual menu, and this explained why she put unmarried same-sex couples on opposites sides of the house during visits, but put gay couples together. She just thought they were limited to harmless cuddling. Oh, my poor grandfather.
I did encourage my grandmother to attend more foreign films, and I lent her some beach paper back novels that contained some core information. She underlined an entire scene in a spy novel where two women get freaky on a sail boat, and left it out in the hallway so that I could too benefit from this new knowledge. I was stunned that the things I had gathered from the great works of Judy Bloom while in middle school were newsflashes to this woman in her late 70's, but more was to be revealed. A few weeks into her research she sat me down on the sun porch and told me that she had been reading and she had figured out what was causing all these perfectly nice young men to "go gay". It was of course, the fault of the feminists. Feminists, as you all perfectly well know, are all heterosexual women, promiscuous, and boldly bluntly critical of their many male sexual partner's performance. In fact , they rate them in a system that is similar to an Olympic event, not just giving them a score card, but letting them know how they stand up ( or not, as the case may be) to the competition. So when Jane ( the evil feminist) sleeps with Tom, Dick, and Harry ( my grandmother really used these names, perhaps the most mortifying part of the whole conversation, where I felt I was sliding into a surreal gross joke) and then she tells poor Tom that Dick has a bigger package ( not her real word choice) and Harry knows how some better moves ( again, not quite how she put it) and so Tom of course, turns gay. And this is a good move for him because gay men never objectify each other or make comparisons, or even care about size at all. It only matters to women! Of course! More importantly I now understood the cornerstone of the "Brides must be virgins" rules on traditional marriage.