Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)

 

The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.

Birken-stalkings

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 2, 2016

 

Years and years ago, within the secret-gardened privilege of a liberal arts education — back when, at this particular college, there are no requirements for any sort of mathematics but four years of requirements for cultural history from Greece and Rome to the modern day — I have a professor, one of many big-time characters who help liberate me from my parochial thinking while at the same time opening the door to a lifetime of head scratching. Thank you, all you professors, so much.

 

This particular man, like many of his fellow academics with bigger and more beautiful than average minds, wears the same outfit day after day and walks the same way to get to the same office to hold the same office hours to help students asking the same questions arrive at the same answers – always making sure, of course, that they are doing it themselves, or at least helping them think that they are.

 

Some of these ivory tower types wear tweeds and bow ties, some wear elbow-patched sweaters. Professor H, call him, is in the habit of wearing very loose fitting khakis, a nondescript short-sleeved shirt, and Birkenstocks.  The way he walks is hard to forget: a deliberate and primordial stepping down – as if permanently imprinting in mud the ground of our tiny spinning planet, which hangs here delicately in a balance of not only deep space but snips, snails, puppy dogs tails, floating Greek characters, and enough ancient philosophy to bend light. Birkenstocks seem like the perfect shoe for this man.

 

At any rate, the professor is a man with a mission, a mission centered on the entrainment of undergraduate minds to better know Greek philosophers — and, more specifically, one particular concept. If you get it, and your work reflects that you get it, you score well, and get A minuses. (A’s are not given, on principal, in his classes.) The concept is straightforward, and the only thing keeping us all from simply getting it and ticking it off and writing the papers parroting back our comprehension of what he is getting at… is rebellion. You will see why in a moment.

 

His idée fixe, (which, like everything else under the Sun, is not new) is that freedom is not necessarily contained in the notion of choices. That, on the contrary, choice can limit us, paralyze us, even. That the happy life, a life determined by measured goodness and good-thinking and proper and natural adherence to rules, can create a life far more “free” than a life rife with too much choice or rebellion. Of course, at nineteen, we find it impossible not to rebel against this. Most adults today cannot conceive of it, given our modern world, which is populated by skillions of choices, that get chopped up into skillions more.

 

Today, I am thinking of this man – whom I have thought of many times before  — as I tackle a mundane task: replacing a washing machine, a brand new one with far more choices on its dashboard than I want or need, one which is so efficient in the water department that it hardly uses any water at all, so little, in fact, that it barely gets the clothes wet, let alone clean. There are too many other washers to choose from out there and too many choices within each of them. I feel paralysis set in. My free will – the freedom to choose wisely – is corrupted, even at the inch-worm level of the washing machine!

 

In addition to this burden of choosing, we are then asked to process these choices quickly and all at once. Look at this screen and figure out where you are. Pick a game and play it instantly. Look at this coffee maker and program it. Look at this phone, and figure out this week’s operating system. Pick two things to do at once, now, or seven or however many you want, there are so many! Do it until you’re giddy and fried and there is only one thing left: the bathtub. The idea of fewer choices and greater freedom? It is revolutionary. Subversive. Possibly even brilliant.

 

Recently, I hear of the early passing of an acquaintance, a novelist and screenwriter, whose habit with any kind of writing, which he does longhand, is never – not ever –to begin with a blank page. He writes between the lines of other people’s work, on the backs and fronts of bills and envelopes, on whatever comes in the mail. What I love about this is that the freehand scrawls flows more easily this way. Standing out between the rows of printed text, it quietly, and seamlessly illustrates how limitation, constraint, and fewer choices can be the beginnings of something very fine indeed.

RDHTMOM meditation

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 15, 2016

Recent sighting: a little red Chevy with the license plate RDHTMOM. Behind the wheel is a 40-something brunette with a medium bob and bangs.

Take a deep breath as you grip the steering wheel, and squeeze hard, hard as you can. Harder. Harder still. Aaaaand release. Feel the blood flow into your fingers, and then send your fingertips up, glancing at the color of your nails. Revlon, Wintermint — an icy shade of blue-green that smells delicious. Scented nails, and not a chip or flaw to be seen! Breathe in Wintermint. Relax.

Drop your shoulders and glance in the rearview mirror. Is someone driving too close behind you again? Gently signal and glide peacefully into the next lane, breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. From the lower belly, to the ribcage, then to the upper chest and throat. Just like they taught you in that yoga class.

Now, turn the AC off and open up your front windows four inches. With another deep breath, enjoy the feel of the warm wind messing up your hair. Yes, both a red hot mom and a regular mom might do this. Relax your whole regular-mom face. Take off your sunglasses. Shake your head. Remember yourself at around 8 years of age when the world was your oyster. Pretend you see your best friend coming toward you on her blue bike and smile that winning smile, ear to ear.

Turn off the radio — since you never know which station to play, anyway. There’s too much pop in country, and not nearly enough country in pop.  You have no clue what red hot music would be — and maybe never did. If your phone is on the dash, which it probably is, pick it up and toss it onto the back seat; because even if your phone does contain your life, do you need every square inch of it at your fingertips every second of every day? For that matter, wouldn’t it feel good not to have so many contacts? Or so many apps that your 10-year-old has to show you how to use? You hate Candy Crush. Your favorite app is Goldfish Pond because it sits there and shimmers, and when you touch it, it ripples. The fish glide. You can change the Japanese background pattern but that’s about all. Genius.

If you were going to design an app that was meant to make people happy, what would it be? Something like Pond. A blue sky with a random crow flying by?

Whichever way you were going to turn next, get ready to turn the other direction. Yes, you are going to go the other way. Not to the bank. Not to Safeway. Not to the school to pick up the kids. Instead, you are going to make that wrong — but very right — turn. Sink deeply into your bucket seat and adjust it back a click, letting your head tilt back with it. Say the words, “Oh yeahhhh,” just like in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” your favorite movie of all time.

Look around, noting beautiful things in this unfamiliar neighborhood. A budding rose bush. A dog sitting on a porch, wagging its tail. There is goodness here. Breathe in and out, and undo that top button of your jeans. He’d love you even it they weren’t so tight.

Of course, he thought you’d love the license plate. And the car. Because when a woman turns 40, and her two kids are already looking at her, like, “she’s old, she’s my mom,” she needs a pick-me-up. He was trying to make you feel good, tell you no need to worry. So you put on a show and acted pleased, despite the fact that you adored that 2001 white Suburban because it was smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone.

Now, your license plate makes every single person behind you speed up to check you out. And that forces you to look straight ahead, sunglasses on, as if you’re too cool for school, but really what you are is mortified. Belly breaths all the way around the block — a complete circumnavigation until you are calm.

There. Now, pull your shoulders up to your ears and let them drop. Then, do it again, only this time shrug lightly, holding the shoulders up in a lilting way, and smile that winning smile. That’s your move, Redhotmom. Shrug-and-smile.

Because then, when someone is giving you that sideways glance from the next lane, instead of being an imposter with a vanity plate that screams, “Look at me,” you’re the bright- eyed woman with the windy hair who shrugs and smiles every time, as if to say, “He thinks I’m red hot, and I just don’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.”

Path of The Country Bunny

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 12, 2015

Dear Santa,

Here’s my Christmas list.

Actually, in preamble, I have to admit that I have been thinking about the Easter Bunny lately — more specifically, the one portrayed in my favorite book of all time, “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.” Do you remember it? It’s 1939. DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, truly inspired, write and illustrate this gem. It’s a classic. Timeless. Indelibly sweet and true.

In the story, a country bumpkin female bunny — a single parent, actually, with 21 babies to whom she has ingeniously delegated all the work of keeping house — decides to vie for a recently vacated Easter Bunny position, a post notoriously dominated by males, a post almost too ridiculous for her even to consider. Nevertheless, courageously, she shows up, 21 Sunday-best bunnies in tow.

The old and wise grandfather and head Easter Bunny in charge of the competition — noting the shiny-clean order of the country bunny’s life and witnessing proof positive of all her other attributes — sees fit to elect her, in the end, to be one of his own. And because of her brilliant examples of cleverness, kindness, wisdom and speed, she is given the greatest honor of all: donning the little gold shoes to fly an Easter basket to an ailing boy on the top of a steep mountain.

Fantastic story! Beyond the giant pyramids of colored eggs in the Easter Palace and the competition on the lawn with all the naysayer jackrabbits showing off (until the country bunny speaks up and proves her mettle), this is also an early feminist tale, a tale driven by merit and virtue, the reward of which is, simply and unequivocally, the gift of service.

Now, we know very well that in the Santa Claus merit system, a good little girl or boy gets the gifts, sometimes even the impossible ones — the puppy, the visit from a long lost relative (or famous athlete), the miracle cure, the trip to Disneyland. But what if all Santa offered and all we got was…  giving? What if the greatest gift to get was the gift of being capable to give to others? To me, this feels like radically elevated thought — which may be one reason “The Country Bunny” story continues to influence me to this day.

This year — a beautiful, rich, challenging, profound year for me, in so many ways — I’d like to begin needing not so many material things (which I am an expert at doing, just like most of us are), but needing things that are both harder and easier to grasp, the idea being to shake it up, grab a person by the collar, bring her or him back to the things that matter the most. In short, to get on the path of the Country Bunny.

Here’s the beginning of my new and improved list, which I’m writing as much to myself as to you. You don’t need the buzzwords, but I do, as they sort of tack notions to the bulletin board of time.

Smiley face: The ability to get up every day and put a smile on, even in the dark, even in the cold, even after one has temporarily given up coffee, which is pretty much one’s only vice. A deep feeling for the net worth of a smile.

Deer in headlights: The ability to be stopped in my tracks by the beauty of nature. Three of four times a day would be a good start, more on particularly sparkly days.

Queen of hearts: To be a better sport at word and card games. I have no idea why my buttons get pushed here, but I am currently on hiatus for bad behavior. This is a red flag item.

Inner child: better behavior from the unruly inner-tantrum-throwing 3-year old, the one who slams inner emotional doors and marches off in an inner micro-huff. Yellow flag item.

Peace sign: more peace in my daily life. File under: acceptance and enjoyment of people as they are, deep satisfaction in the small things and gratitude for bounty, privilege and the gift of life.

Cash register: clean, clear ideas of service to others with no tit-for-tat or sense of owing or balancing accounts. Just being nice.

Windex: clearer eyes with which to see the world. A Mr. Potato Head sort of feeling that the eyes we see with can be the angry eyes, but they can also be clear and peaceful eyes. Relaxing the eyeballs.

Wax: Of course, I love candles and would take any and all candles offered me at Christmas or any other day of the year. The beauty of a candle is that it reminds us that life is a vigil, that we are here to stay awake and give watchful attention to the progress of our lives. Right?

These things may help get me moving in the right direction. Thanks in advance for any help from the office of the red and white suit.

Yours sincerely, MCW.