Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pounding Sand: What is the Best Regional Expression?

Linguists say that in contradiction to an increasingly homogenized landscape of strip malls and chain restaurants, the way we speak is becoming more regionalized.  That is, dialects are becoming more distinct rather less so, despite geographic mobility.  Once I had to serve as a translator between a waitress from Shreveport and my father, who is from the Ottawa Valley.  Technically, they both speak English, yet neither could make sense of what the other was saying. 

Remember Bob and Doug McKenzie?  Everyone at my high school sounded quite a bit like that.  But the real expressions I associate with my home and native land are from my mom.  She doesn't have the accent to the degree my father does, but conversations with her are peppered with the marvelous similes, many of them harking back to farm life in Eastern Ontario, circa 1950.  An unfortunate girl, for example, might have legs like stovepipes. In early June days in shorts, those same gams might be as white as the driven snow.  Even worse, the poor thing might be as homely as a brush fence. A fellow who is parsimonious is as tight as bark to a tree.  A weird guy? Odd as Dick's hat. No idea where that one comes from, but I love it.

Texas, of course, has some dillies in the figure of speech area.  Once I got dug in, I heard a passel of them. Somebody who's looking rough has been rode hard and put up wet. If something bugs you, you're hacked off or it flies all over you. Dallas traffic is just a big 'ol rockfight.  If you want to beat someone up, you're going to open up a can of whuppass on them. I've been told by a boss that I was trying to sell him a pig in a poke. My response: "I don't know what that means, sir," cut no ice with him. Though I am doubtful he would know what that meant. And he would still have been hacked off at me.

Truly regional expressions frequently need considerable thought for outsiders to sort out, and translation is demanded in some cases.  I once heard a lawyer from the south side of Chicago say, "If I ask my client to do that, he'll tell me to go pound sand." Go pound sand? I called my assistant at the time, who is a native.  She couldn't stop laughing when I asked.  "My Dad's from the south side.  The full expression is go pound sand up your ass." This helped.  

Then there is my friend from Alabama, a whole other kettle of fish in terms of language and pretty much everything else. When our kids were young and we were asking our husbands if we might go out for a girls' night (this was a decade ago, for you outraged young women wondering why we had to ask) she kidded about getting a kitchen pass. My absolute favorite from her--actually, my favorite period, for now--is about fixing for a fight.  "By the time he showed up," she said about a mutual acquaintance who was later to split the sheets with her husband, "she was loaded for bear." I could tell by her tone that it had turned into a rockfight, but it took me a minute.  Oh, a shotgun. Not loaded for squirrel. 

I am endlessly delighted by these figures of speech, even more so when they must be explained to me.  So, my readers, indulge me and send me your favorites.  Translations welcome.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Swim the Great Lakes

Photo Credit: Heidi Bonner

I've been in every single one of the five Great Lakes.  Texas has few shortcomings--yes, I suppose I have gone nativ by saying it's a place and a state of mind that continues to delight and surprise me in so many ways--but it doesn't really have proper lakes, by which I mean those not dug by machine but by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago.  The still bodies of water, muddy and lukewarm, here in my adopted homeland, are Fake Lakes.  The spring-fed rivers are pretty good, though, and once I dove into the Comal and pronounced it "heaven."

Lake Ontario was first.  I was fourteen and at a cross-country meet a full two hours from the spot in the road where I was sequestered until I reached legal age.  We'd done well, my teammates and I, and we jumped into the chilly October water and managed to get home on the school bus without hypothermia setting in.  It felt so exotic to be near big water when my daily existence was filled with flat cornfields and cows worthy of Nebraska in their visual impression, if not their expanse.  Later I would sit on the slate gray rocks in Kingston, Ontario, by the shores of the same body of water asking the equally gray waves to tell me how to fit in with the bluebloods who had made a mistake and let me into their midst. Across the mouth of the St. Lawrence River was Syracuse, which might as well have been in another country. Oh wait, it was. Go Orange??

I waited a long time for the others.  Huron came when I visited my first college boyfriend, a ginger-haired pre-med student who was working as a Canada Customs agent on the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia for the summer.  On the weekend where we were getting ready to break up between first and second year, I visited him, getting on a plane by myself for the first time, and he took me down to what could loosely be called a beach.  I walked in up to my ankles, and he made a joke about toxic sludge, at which point I turned tail. To me he was a big city boy, and I took him at his word, though in the back of my mind I worried for a few weeks about what might happen to me. He's a gynecologist now, which works since he innately possessed the sense of humor that belongs to the medical profession.

Then I planted trees.  I did it badly, but then there was Lake Superior.  A gang of very dirty college kids sat in the restaurant at the Shoreliner Motel in Thunder Bay, and we looked at the Sleeping Giant, as the partially submerged islands are called.  At some point it was decided we all needed an icecream headache, and we were in, heads wet or it didn't count.  Later I flew over the frigid monster, which does touch Michigan, though in a place where nobody else wishes to touch it unless they are fishing.

Later I married, it appeared well, at least at the time.  We met the in-laws at Pelee Island.  One was from Iowa, about which she still would wax poetically, despite the fact she'd lived below the Mason-Dixon line for about a quarter century and had somehow in her Polyanna memory forgotten about shoveling snow.  The other, the fourth husband, was from Mississipi and hated all Yankees, although he seemed to find this island rather agreeable.  I liked the screened-in porch, where I read The English Patient, which I liked but didn't really understand completely, plot-wise, until the movie.   But the book made, in the circumstances, a fine companion.  The beach was lovely and really, really hot for Canada--as it turns out, it is the southernmost point in the country--but we couldn't venture far due to the riptide warnings.

Michigan was only two summers ago, with my kids.  It's a good thing we got our feet in in Evanston early, because the next day when we hit the beach in Chicago proper, some nice young people told us the Health Department prohibited us from putting a toe in due to toxins.  The people watching was pretty good, though.

My favorite lake in the world isn't among the Greats, or at least not the official ones.  It's a little one, unimaginatively named Green Lake, and it's a couple of hours north of Ottawa, which means by late August the leaves are already starting to turn. There are too many memories of this place to document here, but swimming across it and sitting on that quiet dock do more than enough.  A dear friend, along with her family, included me in many a Labor Day weekend there. I remember the quiet, the wind, the conversation, and the comfort of a known place.  The picture above tells it all.  That, my friends, is a lake.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Immigrant Experience, Diluted

There is a corner that exists in my past and my present.  When I exit the freeway on the way home from work in my present, I inevitably sit at a red light at the whizzing intersection.  On the corner, there is an odd, dumpy little house that sits up on a cement platform, about four feet above the service road.  There is a weatherbeaten wooden engraved sign, usually with grass growing around its base, that says, "Welcome to Forest Park."  Sometimes the white-ponytailed dude who lives there is sitting out with a friend having a beer, although at my usual hour for many months of the year, the sun is bearing down from the west on the elevated porch with such ferocity that Miller Time must be taking place indoors, if at all. 

This crossing sits at the top of an old and elegant neighborhood where I would later live and where the children would attend the Norman Rockwell elementary school which we'll leave tearfully in a month or so. If the corner is trying to ensure Fort Worth's Berkeley stays a well-kept secret, it's doing its job.  Across the street from the sign is Mr. Jake's, a grimy convenience store and gas station where I occasionally stopped on Friday nights for fuel and a six-pack before one evening I heard a tattooed patron ask the young clerk about how to deal with a hangover.  "I don't drink, man," said the handsome guy, whose dad is, I am confident, getting rich off people who do drink and don't plan ahead. "I'm a Muslim."  I still stop for gas, but feel weird about buying hooch from people who don't partake.

Nearly fourteen years ago, this corner was my first glimpse of my new hometown, to which I had moved, sight unseen, from immaculate Ontario.  The trip from the airport had been flat and scrubby, but the stripmalls and chain restaurants along the route had made it innocuous.  But now we were heading to see friends who lived in the city proper; they had been instrumental in getting us to Texas.  I was thirty years old--a grown-up, I thought at the time, though I had more stubborn resolve than real nerve back then, and was scared to death--with a toddler in the backseat and, was expecting another child, though this was an ill-fated pregnancy. I had a short haircut and an earnest attitude, which to say the least didn't bode well for my new life in Texas.  And this was a bloody awful looking corner.  It reminded me of Detroit, which as a Canadian who had not summered at Cape Cod or walked the streets of Manhattan, was my perception of big, scary America.

Eventually I learned how to use hot rollers and where to find cute sundresses, and the heat made me a little more relaxed.  Now if I come across as tightly-wound, I hope it's in charming Texan manner. (Okay, not exactly. But a girl can dream.)  Eventually I came to look as though I might be from here.  The freckles and English as a first language allowed me, as Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, to blend.

I did find a beautiful and quite inhabitable city which ended up looking, in my experience, quite unlike that corner, which is actually set for transformation, as so much of Fort Worth has done since I arrived. I am no longer a stranger in a strange land, and good friends and deep roots have replaced the early disorientation. But even now sometimes my gut clenches involuntarily when I sit in that spot as I as I did so many years ago. More than a thousand miles and a world away from home, I wondered, astonished, how on earth I got here. It's still like that fairly often, a kind of out of body experience where things are familiar, but I know, viscerally, that I am not exactly of this place. And yet, so many years later, I have little recollection of where it is that came from.  This, perhaps, is the experience common to all immigrants. The key, I suppose, is maybe one for happy living under any circumstances: never look back.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Diamonds in the Drawer

I know someone whose future mother-in-law mailed her diamonds from across the country.  They were family stones, as it were, and the FMIL had them loose in a box in a drawer, and when my friend's betrothed asked him mom if he could have them to have an engagement ring made, his mom was thrilled and said she would get them to him.  Several days later, there they were, to the astonishment of the couple, in their mailbox at the bottom of an envelope.  Three cheers for Canada Post.

The only ring, or for that matter the only piece of jewelery, that's ever been made especially for me was created over ten years ago.  It's gorgeous, and I have always loved the way the three diamonds sparkle in the sun when I see my hand on the steering wheel when I'm sitting at a stoplight.  But shouldn't wear it anymore, as it symbolizes a decade of a union that's been dissolved.  If the dissolution tself were amicable, maybe it would okay, but as it seems to grow more rather than less unpleasant, it's just not an option. 

I've tried, in fits and starts, to give it up over the past five years. I've taken it off when I've started seeing people and then put it back on when things ended.  I've tried to find other rings to replace it, but I never wanted to make an investment and so ended up with a lot of fake baubles that turned black on my finger after a couple of weeks.

After a particularly difficult moment a few weeks ago, I realized it was time to find a real replacement.  I wanted something simple but meaningful for my life now.  As it turns out, the Right Thing was in front of my nose: my friend Martha is co-owner of a company called Nelle & Lizzy.  They make silver jewelry that is beautiful and unfussy, much like Martha herself.  I had a ring like the one below made, with my own children's names on it. I'm not the only one who loves their stuff:  Oprah named it as one of her Favorite Things.  Have a look at their website:

I am thrilled with it.  The diamonds are safely tucked away for the day when the Girl or the Boy need them for a formal ceremony of significance, as even though the man who gave them to me is no longer bonded to me by matrimony, he is their father.  And diamonds, as the DeBoers slogan goes, are forever, even if the reasons why they are given go away.  When the time comes, though, I think I'll deliver them in person.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

One More Thing the Baby Boomers Have Trampled

At age fifteen, in the middle of a bleak Canadian winter, I decided to start running.  It was dark, nobody in my small town would see me, a non-athlete, trying to actually do a sport, and if I failed only I would know. Even in my very tiny universe, I knew people who were runners.  They had graduate degrees, gardens, and owned battered Volvos and Subaru wagons.  Once I came out of the closet, they welcomed and encouraged me, inviting me on their Thursday night runs through the snow and talking me past my mental five-mile barrier. 

We were all considered kind of weird back in those days.  Why anyone would willingly jump over snow drifts or even run along a rural highway on a beautiful spring morning? Normal people played hockey, and a little baseball and golf when it got above fifty degrees.  I loved being part of this community of outsiders.  We were not among those who could, by dint of genetically-programmed high-twitch muscles, run a hundred yards really fast.  No, those of us who did this were frequently picked last for the team, too little or skinny or timid to chase after pucks or balls.  A stubborn lot we were, though, and it was thrilling to learn that just by being so we could cover numbers of miles that were impressive to others.  Back in 1984 in rural Ontario, for example, a high school girl who could run a half-marathon was rather special.  Only 1,800 people lived in my town, so it wasn't terribly hard to be special.  But back then, even in the city, runners were considered a little strange. 

After a long hiatus from calling myself a runner, all of this came back to me when my son decided a couple of years ago to run a 5K with his school.  Now he's decided he loves the sport, so I am working to take my forty four year-old self up from my power-walking state, in which I knock out a good twenty miles a week, to being a runner again, if only to go to races with him and do the odd training run, though I am far slower than he and must catch him after he's blasted through two or three miles beforehand.

A copy of Runner's World, I thought, just sitting around the house, might be a good motivator for both of us, and indeed I read this month's issue from cover to cover.  It addresses with great reverence, as it did thirty years ago, the Boston Marathon.  Boston used to be run by a bunch of misfits.  I knew a couple of guys who qualified for it back then, and they were considered pretty strange, these skinny guys with big brains and the determination to get up at 4:30 in the morning to knock out ten miles. 

Now Boston has become the province of the first guys picked for the team.  They're older now, and to paraphrase Paul Begala, they've smoked all the drugs, had all the sex, made all the money, and had all the authentic experiences.  Except, wait!  There is this race that is over a hundred years old.  And you have to qualify.  That's what matters to the Me Generation.  It's not just any marathon, it's an exclusive club.  And they want in.  Other sports are boring: they can't win the US Open at mid-life, after all.  Only 20,000 runners can run Boston, and 58,000 qualified.  There has been the predictable uproar among the Exceptional Generation, though for those who got there first--alas, merit and money only go so far, and the guy who gets up earliest in the morning to register still beats the busy hedge fund manager whose personal assistant didn't get to the office early that day--it makes them even more special. 

My only solace is that Boston, sturdy Yankee institution that it is, will go on, riding this wave of entitled hissy fits until that generation is finally, finally in the nursing home, or whatever they will call it to forget that they are old.  My son, should he stay on this course and be a runner, might decide he wants to see if his legs can make it up Heartbreak Hill. I hope so. And I, bitter Gen-Xer that I am, will keep running, quietly and slowly, until that moment.  If I can keep my game up, maybe even I, the smallest kid in the class, can run Boston.  Because at long last, those Boomers will be out of my way.  

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Rearview Mirror on the 427

I didn't really learn to drive until I was 24.  I'd grown up cruising on two-lane highways and through  towns with one or two stoplights at the most.  Medians, let's just say, were a novelty.  Then I got to Toronto, and one day, I had to drive to the airport.  The road there from downtown is known, colloquially, as the 427.  This puppy is only 13.2 miles long and has no less than twelve lanes to navigate between two major arteries.  Almost 350,000 cars barrel up and down it in a day.  I am pretty sure that many people haven't been through my hometown since its founding around a century and a half ago.  The average speed is in the sonic boom range, given the few perching spots for those armed with radar guns and the challenge of actually stopping offenders across multiple and rapid merging areas. 

The critical mindset involves ignoring the rearview mirror. Vast numbers of cars barreling at your ass are a distraction from what's right in front of you.  Check your side mirrors only at the last possible minute, or changing lanes can be fatal.

Learning not to look in the rearview mirror on the 427 has been a powerful metaphor for me.  My work, a series of scary leaps, has meant a lot of things to think about at once.  When I remember to put my hands on the wheel and my foot on the pedal, with side mirror checks with colleagues at critical moments, things get done. 

Last week my daughter, who had taken on the role of stage manager and a limited stage part in her middle school play, was asked to assume a lead role in a rendition of Alice in Wonderland.  She was asked to do this at nine in the morning, for a play at 7 p.m.  She had limited hours to really learn a role she'd only listened to for a month or so.  Sort of like trying to drive to a destination for which one has only ever been a passenger.  But the lead--who had practiced for weeks--had been stricken by strep, and the show had to go on. 

At fourteen, my girl has the grit of a Marine. (Unless her hair doesn't go right.)  I have only one foot in her world at this point. Neither I nor her father were aware that she would be the girl to walk out on the stage and be there more than any other character, singing no less than three songs and I don't know how many lines.  She tells me she missed quite a few cues, and there were some major technical glitches, but as far as her mother was concerned she might well have been on Broadway. 

She filtered out the things barreling at her at 90 miles an hour from all directions, and reached her destination, on stage, singing and acting in front of an audience. Don't many people fear such an experience more than death?  I was, not for the first time, in awe of her. "It wasn't a big deal, mom," she asserted.  I can only imagine where the road leads for her.