taking the passive out of passive-aggressive

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The tsunami has claimed over 100,000 lives and I keep trying to figure out what that means. 1 out of 5 people in my city. It still doesn't help me grasp the enormity of the situation; and yet the tsunami haunts me, the wall of water rushing to the shore.

It's bad enough when we hate each other and ourselves. But when the very earth seems to want to heave us off her crust? Come on, now. There's no rational explanation for that, nor even a spiritual one. Would that gods ruled the planet, and made these judgements on us--there would at least be some sense to it. But the instant death of 30,000 children? If an omnipotent being can watch that happen, then whatever God you pray to is either dead or being imprisoned unjustly and without charges somewhere in the American empire.

The tsunami, heart of all my dreams. We are soft little monkeys in a pointy world. We cannot hope to survive but we keep on pretending we rule this hostile planet. Good for us, I suppose. Someone's got to be in control--or at least pretend that they are.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Search terms I appear to own on Google and Yahoo (top ten!)

1. Dismay--yes, I am ALMOST top of the heap when it comes to "dismay." Type it in google. See what you get. I was BORN to own the term "dismay".
2. "Strange caftans" ???? Who searches for "strange caftans"? Who even knows the word caftan?
3. "Enron fibula" -- was this person google bombing or something?
4. "SUV windowshade" (I only find this remotely interesting because the SUV owner who was searching for a windowshade actually bothered to visit, and hopefully his or her dismay was huge.)
5. "Hilda Mae Snoops"--okay, I'm not actually in the top ten on this, but that's just 'cause Hilda Mae has such a dedicated following. Go, Hilda Mae!

OK, OK, none of this is quite as good as that time I got a visit from the search term "balls falling out of shorts"--but I'm amused by the randomness of it all. I feel like these referrers are somehow defining me, that I am only relevant when I'm combining certain pertinent words. Like a cabalist, forever searching for the combination of letters that will reveal god's true name.

At 21, when I got married, I had it all figured out. Marriage, after all, was just a word. And how could a single word define the whole spectrum of relationships that people call marriages? My husband and I agreed: the tidy little box that most people found themselves in after five, ten, twenty years would never, ever be us. Our marriage would be seat-of-the-pants, completely defined by us, flexible and adaptable to our changing and growing selves.

And then we had children.

Children change everything. People say that all the time and you think it's bullshit, a cliche, but it's true. They have so many needs, 90% of which conflict with yours. And so marriage becomes, slowly but inexorably, about the children--because everything is about the children. After a while, you almost forget your own name, in the flurry of dinners and holidays and bedtimes and the steady trickle of money out of your wallet. You find yourselves alone, and you talk about the children. You lay awake at night wondering about their school, their friends, their reading ability, the amount of time they spend watching TV, the food you feed them, and most of all, what they'll say about you in therapy in twenty years.

And so it begins, the tidy little box. Because after all, the tidy little box is actually about serving dinner at 6 pm, and making sure you're dressed appropriately when their friends stop by, and keeping the house nice so that they grow up in a decent environment, and going to bed on time so you can wake up to tend to them.

And most of all? It's about providing consistency, which you've been told is the absolute baseline of good parenting. Consistency. And what is consistency but dull, mind-numbing routine? Doing everything on a schedule. Reacting the same way, over and over again, to the same stimuli. Repeating the same messages, so they get through. Showing up to absolutely everything. Remembering to answer the same question the same way, every time it's asked. Setting rules. And following them.

After a while, you wake up and it's no longer a marriage--it's a daycare center. It's your job. There's no room for such navel-gazing conceits as personal growth. The very words--personal growth--make you laugh derisively. Oh, those silly single people, with their desire for happiness! Don't they know you have to let that go eventually?

I've begun to understand that for most people, being dull and complacent isn't a default position; it's a coping skill. It's a way of saying, I accept this. I accept that I am no longer here and present, I accept that my needs are less important, I accept the endless days of work and home, the futility of cleaning the yard of leaves, the christmas trees that all blend together, the dinners that taste the same. I will sigh myself into bed and maybe dream. Because it's for the children.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Ah, Christmas Eve! Children are bouncing off the walls in sugared excitement, the CVS is packed full of desperate men looking for last minute gifts, and everyone's preparing elaborate feasts. Except for me, since I laid low when hosting anything was mentioned this year. I'll bring the wine!

I'm sitting around basically doing whatever I want, since my 300 gifts are finally wrapped. The baby's in her playpen, my daughter's entertaining the neighbors' four year old with endless Polly Pocket games, and the husband seems entertained enough thinking about the flat-screen monitor he's getting (as soon as it makes it through the nightmare blizzard in the middle of the country. Like we needed more proof that the middle of the country is fucking it all up for the rest of us.)

Tonight we're going to a party at my friend's house, where all of us laissez-faire parents will drink more than we'll eat, and babies and dogs will hang out on the floor in perfect harmony. Tomorrow will be a flurry of wrapping paper, which will stress me out, and I will have to sit on the floor as gifts are opened, filling trashbags, or else I might get anxiety. I'm thinking that one of those packages under the tree simply HAS to be a pink Ipod Mini. Just has to be!

Friday, December 17, 2004

And so the fish drama continues.

At work, our creative director took care of the office fish, Bubba and Sprout, left over from a photo shoot. But alas, he left, and on his way out he told my office mate: "The fish are yours now." For a few days she dutifully fed them, but soon enough their bowl was cloudy, and I cleaned it. The next day, their bowl was cloudy again, so she cleaned it. By this morning, the fish were in a pathetic state, gasping for air at the surface, barely visible in their murky yellow water.

I came in early and tried to ignore them. I could tell they were distressed but I didn't know what to do. When everyone else came in, they expressed shock and dismay. "Look at Bubba and Sprout!" my officemate exclaimed. "They can't breathe!"

I consulted the bosses. They sighed. "We can't let them die," they said, "that would be horrible!" So off I went with the Amex to Petsmart (secretly glad that my bosses didn't want me to flush 'em, but dismayed at having to go through this fish drama again.)

At Petsmart, I met Jen, the resident fish expert, and explained my predicament. Jen was peculiar. She looked about twenty, but very pasty. When I came in with my cart she immediately commandeered it, saying, "We'll need this." She talked a mile a minute but didn't make a lot of sense, and kept telling me that she had a terrible cold, so as she picked out aquariums and little plants and gravel, I kept backing away from her, wondering if I had my hand sanitizer in my purse. She seemed to know a lot about goldfish but, at the same time, also seemed to have a short-term memory problem. When we got to the aquariums, I said, does it need to be heated? and she replied, "What? Heated? What kind of fish again?" I had told her goldfish three times in five miutes and she was picking out a goldfish starter kit off the shelves when she said it.

In any case, I got all the stuff back to the office and my roomie and I proceeded to fill the aquarium with teacups for about an hour, and so now Bubba and Sprout have a beautiful new luxurious home and don't have to live in the low-rent district any more.

However, the fact that I have two sets of fish to worry about is somehow very distressing.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ugh, I hate baby boomers. My whole life I've been hounded by these narcissists' latest trends and demographics--as though a whole generation of people, just by virtue of being born around the same time, could even be said to share any qualities whatsoever. After 30 years I am quite exhausted by it. "Oh look!" says the media. "The baby boomers are wearing power suits with ugly giant bow ties! (Woodstock) Now they're having fertility treatments! (Woodstock) Wow, look how the hippies turned into yuppies and started voting for Reagan! (Woodstock!) Hey--now they're sucking the life out of Social Security! WOODSTOCK!"

While I understand that all this fawning is driven mostly by lazy reporters recycling their advertising departments' market research, it still gets under my skin. First of all, I don't care about Woodstock, the day Kennedy died (or pretty much anything else about the Kennedys), peace love and understanding, Haight-Ashbury, or Vietnam. Well, maybe Vietnam a little bit, because that was an actual war, so it falls under the category of Histroy You Should Know About. But all that cultural shit was such a blip in the radar, such a tiny bump in the road of America's headlong dive back into Puritanism, that to focus on it constantly is just idiotic. Who CARES how many people you slept with in 1967? You thought you were changing the world by being a dumb-ass slut? Okay, whatever! Yeah, the world really changed! Where's your little sit-in NOW, hippie?

And besides, most of their music plain old sucked.

I keep thinking that at some point, once these assholes retire from the management positions they clawed their way into at large news organizations, this shit will stop, but I am beginning to suspect that will never happen. They will freeze their brains in jars, so they can forever relive the moment at which the world turned around and looked at them with wonder. As though their infantile idealism actually matters, as though their youth was the most important era in history. As though the navel-gazing, consumerist, depleted world they built for us is actually a place we want to live.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My daughter and I teamed up to wrap packages last night. I gave her the kid packages, because I like to make fancy bows for the grown-up gifts, and she pretty much had the technique down: wrap vertically, origami the sides, tape with small pieces, add ribbon, and make a tag out of wrapping paper folded over.

But at first, faced with the "tasteful" wrapping I supplied, she balked. "Where's the kid wrapping paper?" she demanded. I flashed back to that day at Target, when I was carefully picking designer wrapping and fabric ribbon. "What do you mean?" I asked innocently, suddenly picturing those bargain bins full of snowman paper, cartoon santas, and product-placements (SpongeBob wrapping paper? you have got to be kidding.) "You know, the KID paper," she said. I knew what she meant, but refused to acknowledge it. "This is good paper," I said. "Look how heavy and pretty! And the bows...?"

She was clearly unsatisfied, and at first I was puzzled. After all, when I was a kid, everyone got the same wrapping paper. If Mom decided it was going to be snowmen, then snowmen it was, for everyone. If Mom got a wild hair and decided this year it was all white with red bows, so be it. There was no special "kid" category, for wrapping paper or anything else. No kid movies: we watched that damn "Bridge on the River Kwai" on channel 45 on Sundays, and maybe Wizard of Oz and Charlie Brown Christmas when they came on TV. No special kid food either: I actually was told to eat what the family ate, and if I wouldn't, I either sat at the table until 11 o' clock, or was sent to bed in a fit of pique.

Don't get me wrong--I was horribly spoiled. But this product category, juvenalia, simply didn't exist when I was seven. Toys, sure, and they were advertised on Saturday morning cartoons. And cereal maybe, or even peanut butter. But whole different sets of Christmas wrap? Whole new categories of dinner, designed to appeal to the most immature tastes? Whole new designs for cars based on children's need to alpha-wave in front of DVDs all the time? No. None of that. It simply didn't exist.

If it had, back then when I was seven, I'm pretty sure my parents would have purchased all of it, just to get me to be quiet. But the fact is, it wasn't an option. And now it is, and when my seven year old asks me, where's the kid wrapping paper, I feel remiss. As though I've forgotten something--where IS that SpongeBob paper? And why did I balk at it in the store? Isn't it all in good fun, after all?

The worst part is that I'm buying into the adult version of the same thing. While there was none of that kid-centered stuff when I was little, neither were there a whole lot of options for fashionable adults. Now we have Target and I can get good-looking Christmas decor for cheap, and nice towels, and cute baby shoes, and headphones, and well-designed teapots and chopsticks and placemats and bras and sheets and.... all for cheap, built on the back of the third-world labor force, marketed directly into my reptilian brainstem, and resonating there like a gong.

Monday, December 13, 2004

We have fish. I don't know why we have fish, but there they are, in a forty-gallon tank, taking up precious counter space in our tiny kitchen. We used to have five, and they all had names, but for the life of me I can't remember them. Now we have two. Mr. T. and Bob Dylan, who is a tetra. I don't know what Mr. T. is. He is yellowish, and I suspect he ate one of the other fish, who died but whose body was never recovered.

No, I know how we got to this place. In the sad, dying days of my last office job, we had two unnamed tetras in a tiny tank brought in by a very strange intern, who then left them there with no instructions for their care and feeding. The sad little lot of us office moles, leftovers from various layoffs, tried our best to feed them and clean their tiny tank, but soon enough it became too much for us. And so, when I left to begin my exciting new career as Pregnant Mom, my friend Julie handed me the tank, ceremoniously, and told me they were mine.

This would have been fine and dandy--tetras are hardy, and don't require much, even from a dolt like me who occaisionally spaces out and puts them in cold water while I'm cleaning their tank. Really, tetras can survive anything. But one day my daughter came home from a Science Fair clutching a baggie with a goldfish.

Turns out goldfish are delicate. I thought you could just put them in a bowl, but the boy at Petsmart told us no, no way, they need a tank. So my husband hauls home a tank for "Crystal", which is what my daughter had named the fish. (Crystal! I kept wondering if she'd been sneaking Dynasty reruns on the Soap network.)

Well, we went to get Crystal out of her baggie and put her in the tank. But Crystal was strangely lifeless. Limp, actually. In fact, quite dead. My daughter began to weep. "Crystal! Crystal! You were my favorite friend!" My husband and I exchanged puzzled looks. "She didn't cry this much when the dog died!" I whispered fiercely over her head. "She knew her for a total of four hours!" my husband replied. "How do we even know Crystal was FEMALE?" I demanded.

Well, in the tradition of good (or inexplicaby guilty) parents everywhere, we promised new fish, better fish, fish with more... um... life in them than poor Crystal. After a very serious Burial At Sea (the toilet), my husband ran out and bought more fish. Three of them, actually. And a heater. And a thermometer. And special shipwreck dioramas, trees, stones, and a filter pump. By this time, we were exhausted and broke. But dammit, these fish were going to have a good home.

One fish died immediately. Was it the pH? The temparature? This was becoming tragic, a slaughterhouse of fishes. Clearly we were unsuitable fish parents, or else the sixteen year olds at Petsmart were giving us bad advice. No matter: we had three fish still to go. And then that other one died, never to be seen again. I started regarding Mr. T with suspicion, knowing he was in some way responsible for the deaths of the others. Unwittingly, we'd begun a Darwinian experiment in three cubic feet. This was no lesson for children.

Luckily, our daughter lost interest quickly, leaving us to feed and clean and otherwise slave away for creatures whose only thought was "eat". And even that, we haven't been so good at. We clean the tank--a week later it's full of algae. The fish seem desultory and weak. My husband keeps forgetting to turn the light off, and I have no idea what temparature they like--hell, I don't even know what kind of fish they are any more--and so the tank has become a scene of true despair, depressing the nanny and pretty much anyone else who walks into the kitchen. And yet, what can we do? Become ichthyologists in our spare time? Flush them to sea along with Crystal? We have doomed ourselves to a responsibility we can't deal with, and so we look quickly away from the tank as soon as we drop in the little stinky fish flakes.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Until recently, I had never hated a dog before. Sure, I'd met skittish dogs, dangerous dogs, annoying dogs--but still, I could never hate a dog. Behind each of those bad dogs was a story, after all, a story of a good dog gone wrong. And so to hate them was simply impossible.

And then I met Bert*.

Bert is the neighbor's dog, and he is not merely bad and annoying and troublesome and ill-cared-for. He is, simply put, evil. You look this dog in the eye and you know that this dog never "went wrong"--this dog was born wrong.

Bert is not a house dog. Bert is allowed to roam free at all hours of the day and night, even while his owners are at work. Never mind that on at least three occasisions, Bert has been hopelessly lost, causing much inexplicable handwringing and occaisioning the posting of thousands of posters around the neighborhood. Never mind that we live in a city, not in the country or even the rural suburbs. Never mind that Bert is known to threaten mailmen and small children with his vicious bark. Never mind that the guy down the street has pointedly sent letters to the neighborhood begging that dogs be kept on leashes so they don't destroy other people's property. And never mind that it's AGAINST THE LAW.

No, Bert needs to be free. Bert obviously cannot be consigned to an ordinary dog's life of walks or even, clearly, a fenced yard.

Or perhaps his owners also know that he is evil, and they don't want him in the house.

We have trash day twice a week. Bert knows when it's trash day. I can almost picture him lying there dreaming about it the night before. Every morning on trash day, Bert trots over to my house, knocks over my sealed garbage cans, works the lids off, and proceeds to strew dirty diapers and old food all across my sidewalk. Since I'm usually awake, I run out there in my PJs screaming at him. "GET OUT, you little FUCK!" Does Bert run away, ashamed? No! He GROWLS at me and continues to eat my garbage!

I call the neighbors each time this happens. I tell them to please stop letting him out unattended. They say sorry and then it happens again, three days later.

I came to the apogee of my rage this morning, when, getting into my car, I stepped in Bert's dogshit right in front of my house. Bert loves to go potty in everyone else's yard. He goes on my patio. He goes in the neighbor's garden. He just wanders around shitting everywhere all day long.

Not long ago, Bert was lost for the third time. Of course, his family was simply beside themselves. They went around and told all the neighbors--it was even more the Talk of the Block than it was when so-and-so's husband ran out on her. A couple of particularly soft touches helped the family go around and put posters up. Personally, when I heard the news, I was like, oh thank God. But of course Bert was returned home, probably by someone who looked in his eyes and thought, "Uh-uh, I'm not taking YOU in, Satan."

*All names have been changed to protect myself.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

When I was eleven, we lived across the street from a boy named AJ. I found him totally fascinating, mostly because he seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted, and when his parents had parties, he was sent to the liquor store to pick up the beer. His mother (like mine) chain-smoked endless long, white cigarettes on the porch, and said everything in a very droll tone of voice.

Anyway, one day AJ asked me to come over to see a movie, because he had rented Porky's, which was of course strictly verboten for most of us ordinary mortal children. I don't even remember the movie, to tell the truth, although I do remember that afterwards, I was in a state of panic. "What do I tell my mom we watched?" I asked him. He was wise, after all, in the art of deception--or so I thought. And I felt the desperate need to make up a convincing lie.

"Well," he said, very suave, "my parents watch totally boring movies, so just tell them you watched one of these." He picked up a box--the clear plastic kind with no description, like you used to get at the video store, and said, "'Last Tango in Paris'. Just tell your mom we watched that."

So of course I go home, all feeling slick and like my lie is totally down pat, and my mom says, "Did you have a good time at AJ's? What did you watch?" And I'm all, "Oh, it was boring. Last Tango in Paris." My mom's jaw dropped. But for some reason, I have no idea, she didn't say a word!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Hampden Christmas Parade was today, and it was full of things that people think are really Baltimore and things that are really Baltimore. There's a difference, you know:

Fake Baltimore: crabs (the kind you eat, not the kind you catch)
Real Baltimore: crabs (the kind you catch, not the kind you eat)
Most people from out of town think it's quaint and amusing that we eat arachnids, and generally want to make the attempt themselves, as though they are visiting a bunch of slack-jawed yokels from a country far, far away. Little do they realize that most Baltimoreans spend more time trying to get rid of crabs than cracking them open with a mallet. In fact, sitting on the sofas of strangers is known to be a dangerous activity. Upholstered products are generally the only things we Baltimoreans DON'T pick up out alleys on bulk day.

Fake Baltimore: "Hons" and beehive hairdos (or really anything else stolen from late John Waters)
Real Baltimore: Hookers who don't even bother to dress sexy, and sometimes even wear slippers
The "Hon" phenomenon seems to have been entirely handcrafted by Hampden gentrifiers, who watched Hairspray one too many times and thought "here's our marketing hook!" It involves loudly dyed beehive hairdos and cat's eye glasses, as though Baltimore fashion is actually forty years out of date instead of five. You will never see a non-ironic hon anywhere in this town. And if there really ever were such a thing, it is now their granddaughters--in sweatpants and looking bleary-eyed at 10am--who hang around on streetcorners in Hampden, either selling their "charms" or pushing strollers around. But hey, those women don't make for cute parody. Instead, they make us wonder why our city provides inadequate daycare and has such a high poverty level--which is a total drag to even think about. So let's go get dressed up in a waitress outfit, HON!

Fake Baltimore: The current mayor, the one who looks so handsome
Real Baltimore: All the old mayors, especially the one who used to scream curses at people
The new Mayor is handsome and imbued with the kind of suave charms that Bill Clinton used to have--and about as much self-control. No matter, his petty affairs are nothing compared to the true mayors of yesteryear. Shaeffer, who used to get dressed up in an old-fashioned bathing suit and inner tube, for instance, was a lovable anachronism, unless of course you were on the other end of his screaming, frothing rage. Baltimore's about as corrupt, politically, as Huey Long's Louisiana, but you'd never know it now from the way we venerate Mr. Rock N Roll, with his good haircut and yuppy wife. Bring back Hilda Mae Snoops!

Fake Baltimore: Barry Levinson
Real Baltimore: "The Wire"
Yeah, yeah. John Waters, whatever, yawn. You'd think, talking to people from out of town, that John Waters is the only resident of Baltimore City. "Oh, you're from Baltimore! JOHN WATERS!" Jesus, give it a rest. Gross-out factor or no, John Waters is closer, in pure sentimental schmaltzy bullshit, to Levinson than he is to say, Todd Solondz. Can we just take Waters off the table here? I don't fault the man his vision--it's not his responsibility that for some reason, everyone seems to accept it as The True Face of Baltimore--but I'm dearly tired of it all. And Barry Levinson, God in heaven. Have you seen one of these movies? I would love to believe that Jewish Baltimore in the '50's was as charming as a Barry Levinson movie, but let's not pretend these films are about Baltimore either, regardless of our desperate yearning for civic pride and outside validation. Instead, the Wire, the only mass-market vision of Baltimore that admits that black people actually live here--and some of them even have influence and power! A plus: no "hons". Points marked off because the accents are more Queens than Highlandtown, but who the hell cares--"Bawlmerese" is another of those fake Baltimore things, anyway.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Christmas is coming around once again, and after 30 of them, I feel as though I've bought everyone everything I could ever think of. My mother, for instance: she has everything she wants, she can afford to buy anything she doesn't have, and her house is so full of housewares that she stores half of them in the basement and rotates vases and picture frames and throw pillows on a regular basis. I have already bought her earrings, candlestick holders, bracelets, chipped in on PDAs and expensive luggage with my sisters, scoured stores high and low for unique vintage items, and even made special one-of-a-kind collage cards just to make the gifts more interesting. What's left?

So far, all I've bought this year is presents for my best friend's Boston Terrier. He's an uncritical recipient, and the Yuppy Puppy offered so many delightful gift ideas. Dogs are generally understocked on necessary items like Christmas doggy cookies, sweaters, and strollers. There's always something you can buy a dog. But everyone else? I'm perplexed.

My children have so many toys that I dream at night about dumpsters, into which I could throw all those tiny, useless pieces. I would get rid of all the Mardi Gras beads, and Polly Pocket's tiny jackets, and that sticky old Elmo that talks for no reason, every time you walk by. (Oh--wait--I did get rid of that Elmo. It was actually tragic: every time I passed the trashbag that I'd so cruelly consigned him to, he would laugh sadly--"Hahahaha THAT TICKLES!" Only I knew what he really meant. He meant it didn't tickle at all. His heart was, in fact, broken.)

You see, this is why the dumpster idea will never work. I've developed an unhealthy attachment to objects--I'm no Zen monk. And yet all of our lives are filled to the brim with stuff. Just tons and tons and tons of useless stuff. Seven hundred suit jackets I'll never wear. Ancient 3.5" floppy disks with unreadable data, held onto like talismans just in case. The boxes that things came in years ago, because it would be irresponsible to throw them away. A spare washer-dryer set. Books I didn't even like the first time I read them. Empty photo albums. Scraps of paper with phone numbers and no names. Bank statements older than seven years. Christmas cards from people I don't remember. Pieces of paper on which my daughter, as a toddler, scrawled one (obviously very impotant) mark with a red pen.

And so the purchasing of other objects, for other people, whose lives are equally crowded and weighed down by stuff, seems this year like a terrible burden. It would be one thing if I could find the perfect gift, for each and every person on my list, but the truth is I am in a rush and have to take what's available in the stores, something close-enough to what they might want. It's obligatory, after all. And so I will scour the stores again this year, trying not to think about the piles and piles of objects, growing almost organically, pushing out of closets and basements and taking over our lives.