Thursday, January 31, 2008


We've been reading some Langston Hughes this week at school. He's one of those poets whose words have a thousand meanings and his poems another thousand interpretations. So I ask the kids to make word associations with the word dreams. I get a lot of the usual responses until my sixth period, when one of my girls raises her hand and says, "Ghosts."

I ask her to explain.

She's Chinese, though, and her explanation has to do with warnings from ancestors. I understand.

I had a dream like that once. In my dream, it was my wedding day, and I was greeting guests. I had no idea who I was marrying, and I was a little panicked over the thought that I'd made a mistake. (Let's not talk about the symbolism here.) As I'm standing in the receiving line next to a faceless man whose name I can't remember, my Grandma walks up and hugs me and it all seems perfectly normal. She tells me that she knows I'll be happy and not to worry. She then disappears into the crowd.

I turn to greet the next guest and it's my Aunt Arlene. I tell her that I just saw Grandma and then, as I see the stunned look on her face, I remember that Grandma is dead. Then I push through the crowd to find her again and never do. Everyone around me is someone I love, but no Grandma. The thing is, in the dream, I was certain she was really there, and if I could only find her, I could tell her that there was a mistake, and that everybody thought she was dead, and if she just came with me, we could correct everyone's misapprehension.

But of course life doesn't work that way.

And here's the thing: I'm convinced that it was my Grandma. I think the veil between life and death is somewhat diaphanous when we're sleeping.

The good news is that Grandma thinks I'll be happy someday.

I had another dream long ago, when I was seventeen years old. This one involved my Granny, who'd been ailing for some time. It was my first week of college, and I'd just moved into the dorms. I was exhausted after an afternoon of god-knows-what and fell asleep. In my dream, my Granny came to me and told me that she was dead. She said that it was okay, but she worried about my father. He wasn't going to take this well, she said, and I should look after him.

I don't know how long I slept that afternoon, but the telephone woke me. It was my mom. "Granny's dead, isn't she?" I asked. And of course she was. She'd told me, hadn't she?

Now you can come up with all kinds of explanations about how I was expecting to hear the news any day and my subconscious supplied me with a goodbye from my Granny because I was away at school but I prefer my version.

So fine. I'm not a nutball who goes around ghosthunting or anything.

Um. Okay, I went ghosthunting once.


But I didn't really expect to find ghosts. My friends Rich and Al and I had this book, you see, that listed all these haunted places in Chicago. We loaded up a couple of cars with ten of our closest friends and lots of alcohol and ran around Chicago, climbing fences and trying to hold in our hilarity. We even sneaked into the church where the devil supposedly went to communion. What can I say? We were young.

(Brief aside: Al ended up becoming a priest. That kills me when I remember our early twenties.)

The scariest site was a place called Bachelor's Grove. It's a deserted town graveyard in the middle of a forest preserve just off the Midlothian Turnpike. We drove past but were way too chicken to actually go inside. You see, it was dark, Halloween night, and that place supposedly has a disappearing house, galloping ghost horses, and evil singing ghost-monks. It also has a sad ghost that wanders the graveyard. Here's the famous photo of her:

Yes, yes, I know. Grainy photograph. But you see, once the guys were too afraid to look for her, I simply had to see.

I told my sister-in-law Vivian about Bachelor's Grove, and she was a lot less chicken than the guys. Armed with a camera and the ghost book, we found the entrance to the forest preserve and parked our car. This story is especially funny to me now, because it happened when Viv and Brian were still a very new couple, and still she was willing to go along with me on one of my harebrained schemes. It's probably why she can stand living with my brother. He's full of them, too.

Anyway, we park our car and start walking to the road. The guidebook says we have to cross the street. As we're getting close to the street, this woman was getting out of her car, too. "Going ghosthunting?" she asked.

Clearly, we looked like ghosthunters.

We stopped to chat. She had a gigantic dog with her. He senses things, she told us. She takes him with her on all of her ghost hunts. She wanted to look at my camera and asked if I had an infrared lens. I didn't. Amateurs, we.

We went into the graveyard and took pictures of every angle we could think of, then walked to the pond behind the cemetery that was an alleged mob dumping ground and took pictures of that, too.

We couldn't stand to wait for the results of the photographs. Seriously. We were like a couple of little kids. But then they came back and we pored over every inch of them. But: nothing. No obvious ghosts. There's a slight discoloration in one of the pictures above the mob pond, however, and we decided that it was definitely the ghost of a guy who was sent to sleep with the fishes.

Jimmy Hoffa! It was Jimmy Hoffa. That's right. I'm going to go on record saying that Viv and I found Jimmy Hoffa.

Hey, allow us our little fantasies, will you?

Or, you can just tell me your own ghost story. I love ghost stories. I actually have a couple more, but those I'll save for another day.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Me Against the Machine

I discussed my speed problem with my trainer. At first, I think he didn't understand just how much this slow thing is distressing me. "But you're doing great," he said.

And I am, really. When I first started training with him in July, he would stick me on the treadmill and say, do this really easy thing for 25 minutes and let me know how you do. And I would make it 20 minutes and feel very proud. Then, when I hit 25, he'd say, do this really easy thing for 45 minutes and then tell me how you do. And it took weeks, WEEKS, for me to make it to 45 minutes. Because really, I'd spent a whole year doing nothing.

Before that, when I still lived in Brooklyn, 45 minutes would have been nothing, because I walked that much every day, going from subway to home to work to everywhere. But Chicago was different. Chicago has a sucky public transportation system, and so you have to own a car to get anywhere. Previously, if it was 8 blocks away, I walked it without a second thought. Now nothing is only 8 blocks away, and everything requires a car. If I want exercise, I need a machine.

So it was me against the machine. I gave it a name inside my head: Grendmill, and I was Ceciliawulf, the heroine who, in an astonishing feat of role-reversal, would rip its arm off and hang it from the doorpost.

For several months, the treadmill was my enemy, and time after time, I would defeat it and its time and its incline and step it up, always a little, the next time. I got to the point where I was doing 2.9 miles per hour on a 10 degree incline.

The incline, which always seemed impossible to me at first, began to be something I could defeat. But speed? It took me six months to progress from 2.5 to 2.9. And no matter what I did, I couldn't break 3 for longer than 20 minutes. I felt ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. Felt? Feel.

So anyway, now Matt's got me working on distance. He made me reduce my speed and go for miles instead. If I'm going to be walking 26 miles for Avon, my body has to be accustomed to walking for long periods of time. Okay, I get that. And I'm doing it. I started at 3, did 3.5 the next day, did 4 miles the day after that, and, well, back to only 3.5 the day after that. But okay. My body is getting used to walking for 90 minutes at a time. I'm raising the speed a little, because it frustrates me to be going backward. My hip was hurting a little the day I did 4 miles, and so he told me to reduce the speed again.

I want to defeat the monster. I could write an epic poem about it, in fact:

Hwaet! There was Ceciliawulf, scourge of many tribes,
Wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes,
This terror of hall-troops had come very far,
But that villian Grendmill abided, waiting as the feet
Pounded upon its hallowed rubber belts,
I never heard before of a monster so fearsome,
Waiting, always waiting for the heroine to tempt it,
Two, it will allow, even three, but four:
The murderous monster will prohibit
This victory of the battle-scarred queen!

(Can you tell that I'm an English teacher? I'm one of the few people on the planet who actually likes Beowulf.)

Anyway, I brought up my speed problem with Matt yesterday, and he kept telling me how well I've been doing (which is nice, because I do need my occasional stroking), but then relented and gave me a plan.

First, he said I could try sprints. Set the treadmill to a quick speed and run it for as long as I can, then step off to each side to rest a minute, then go again. I thought about that for a little while, but it scared me. You see, I have a healthy respect for the beast, and I can just see it breaking my ankle to get back at me. (Actually, I have real fear: a couple of years ago I fell down the stairs and did terrible things to my tendons in my right ankle. It took six months before I could walk normally. Ever since then, I'm afraid of anything. You'll see me white-knuckled on any staircase to this day. It's embarrassing, but there you go.)

So I asked him for another solution. Okay, he said. How about sprints along the back of the gym?

I considered this one for a little while. This one is a possiblity, if I can only get over my paranoia. I'll be certain the whole time that people will be watching me. Actually, this is not so much paranoia, because I know people watch each other at the gym all the time. We all do it. I do it. Especially if there's a really lovely man with really lovely muscles and he's doing something that looks really hard. There was a man running up and down the stairs with a football yesterday, for instance. I watched him for a good, long time.

In the end, if the problem is being winded, I have to let myself be winded. If it takes ten seconds for that to happen, so be it. That's ten seconds where I've been faster. The next time, Matt claims, it will take fifteen seconds. Soon enough, I'll be faster and I won't even know how I got there. I have to push myself until I'm hitting that point that I'm afraid of or else I'll never get beyond that point.

So okay. I want to run in the Shamrock 8K race in March, and I don't want to be the 29,999th finisher. I want to be at least 15,000th. Ha. It's like that Snapple commercial. I'm very happy being number 3.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

John Denver's Head

You always see these studies in the news about how Americans are way down toward the bottom of test scores for math and science. Back in the eighties, when we feared everybody, everybody thought that Japan would overtake America as the world's superpower. Turns out, Japan was worried because they couldn't create anything. Americans were always inventing things that the Japanese engineers perfected. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but Nokia perfected the cell phone. They were proud of how the world wanted to buy Japanese products, but obsessed with their lack of creativity.

And, like any other nation, when there's a cultural problem, they blame the educational system.

In fact, they're so interested in addressing this problem that they've set up the Fulbright Memorial Fund, a program that brings 600 American teachers each year to Japan. Their idea is that if we can have a conversation about the differences in the way we do things, Japanese teachers can learn how to make their students think more creatively and American teachers can learn how to help their kids do better on tests. I was one of those teachers.

I spent the first part of my trip in Tokyo sitting in seminars and seeing the sights and the second part of the trip in Iwate prefecture, which is in the North. That was where I really got to see Japan.

When you walk into a Japanese classroom, no matter what the grade level, the desks are all situated in rows. When the sensei enters the room, the lead student stands up and shouts something. (I never did find out what it was.) Then, the rest of the students stand and shout something back. Sensei bows, the students bow back, and everybody sits down.

I was floored the first time I saw this happen.

Another thing that killed me was the business cards. When you meet someone new, they will take out their business card and present it to you with both hands and a slight bow. You should receive it into both of your hands, bow, look it over carefully, and say their name. Then, take your own business card and repeat the process. I brought a box of 500 business cards with me and gave away probably half. You wouldn't believe how important these were – they were like gold. And when I got to the schools?

See, the kids were very rigid in the classrooms, but when it was time to go to lunch or something like that, they turned into kids again. So I'm out in the hallway with another American teacher, and a munchkin runs up to me and asks me for my card. My card? Okay. I take out my card and present it very formally and she squeals and runs to her friends with it. They, of course, line up, each wanting their own card. So I'm handing out cards just because I find it amusing and soon enough I run out. Does this stop them? No. Now they want my autograph. So I'm standing there, signing autographs, thinking: No. Fucking. Way.

That's right kids. Some people say they're big in Japan? I really am.

Literally. See, I'm 5'7" in my stocking feet, and I'm almost never in my stocking feet. I'm usually walking around in some kind of heel that adds what? Three inches? So I'm about 5'10" in my shoes and in Japan that made me the jolly green giant.

Add to that my blonde hair and blue eyes and I was probably the most exotic thing these kids had ever seen.

While we were doing our school visitations, I stayed with the Mafumi family. He was an English teacher who wanted to improve his conversational skills. Japanese teachers get an opportunity to teach for two years at a Japanese school abroad, and he'd taken his family to Poland. She was a stay-at-home mom and her two children, Miku and Taku, were her life. Taku was really Takuhiro, which they explained was not really a Japanese name. They'd made it up. The Polish word for yes was Tak, and so they combined that with the traditional Japanese "Hiro" and made up the name.

Mrs. Mafumi was a lovely woman whose command of English was limited to what she'd learned in high school. This I understand, given how well I speak French. However, I had my little Japanese phrasebook, and she had – get this – an excellent command of Polish. Yes, I said Polish. My grandparents were Polish, and when I was a little girl, I was over at their house more often than not. Anytime Grandma didn't want me to understand something she wanted to say to Grandpa, she'd launch into a string of unintelligible Polish words. Apparently, I picked one or two up along the way. When she was struggling to tell me how much she liked something, she'd say "Dobry!" and I would understand that it was good. This Polish/English/Japanese communication was something you'd have to hear to believe.

We'd gone on a road trip one afternoon to this lovely little river valley. She wanted me to go on a ride in one of the traditional flat boats, and so we climbed in. The pole man would move us up and down the river, telling jokes and singing traditional Japanese songs. You should have heard the singing, though. The river was surrounded on both sides by cliffs, and when he sang, his voice rose and echoed off the cliffs until it almost sounded as if it were the forest singing to us instead of a man.

We got back in the car and I told Mrs. Mafumi how beautiful I thought the song was. She thought it was beautiful, too, but not as much as I did. She'd heard it before. Do you know what she thought was really beautiful? Karen Carpenter. I'm not kidding. All of a sudden, she bursts into song: "I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation …" There was nothing else for me to do but join her. Yes, folks, I'm going to admit here and now that I know every word to that song. I'm not ashamed. And also? We sang some John Denver. And Barry Manilow. And Neil Diamond. Yes, I know all the words to those songs, too. (Shut up. You do, too.)

Just after we finished singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane," I turned to her and said, "You know John Denver is dead, don't you?" She didn't. I could tell this just broke her heart. How did he die? She wanted to know. I only half-remembered that it was a plane crash of some sort, and urban legend had it that they found the plane but never found his head. I have no idea if this is true, but I told it to her anyway.

That night, they put together a traditional Japanese dinner and invited some of their friends out to meet the American. Everyone was so happy to meet me: "Hello. How are you? This is a pen." (I never could figure out why everyone kept telling me about their pens while I was there, but when I returned home, I asked this Japanese bartender I was half-dating. Shu-hei said it was because that was the first sentence in every Japanese student's English grammar textbook.)

Mafumi and his friend broke out the sake and scotch and told me they were going to drink me under the table. I told them they must never have had drinks with an American before. They, however, must have had livers of steel. I do not. Oh, my.

The daughter of their friend – I can't remember her name – was an excellent student and wanted to try out her English on me. "Do you know Ha-Ree-Pot-tah?" she asked. I didn't understand, and nobody else seemed to, either. However, since coming to Japan, I realized that most words were pronounced phonetically, and they tended to drop the final consonant. Ha-ree-pot-tah. Ha-ree-pot-tah. Ha-ree-pot-tah. I figured it out. "Do you mean Harry Potter?" I asked. She grinned. I wasn't a fan, but told her I was. She loved Hah-may-nee, she said. Yes, I said, Hermoine was very smart, probably just like her. She beamed.

The adults were getting tired of the Harry Potter conversation, so Mrs. Mafumi broke in with, "Tell them about John Denver's head!"

I, of course, had no choice but to oblige. The story I told probably had no relation to the truth, but that didn't matter. This was John Denver's head we were talking about. They couldn't believe it. Not John Denver. Mafumi was the first to start singing. "Country roads … take me home …" They sang the whole song with the saddest, dirge-like quality I'd ever heard. Then they burst out into the most raucous laughter ever. "John Denver's head!" they cried.

The next morning, I returned to Tokyo. Mrs. Mafumi went with me to the bullet train platform, hugged me a million times, and wept. Wept. I felt terrible for leaving her. Meeting me was clearly one of the most exciting things she'd done in a long time. Me. This is what killed me, because really, I'm just an ordinary, average American girl. And I hugged her back, hard, because ditto.