Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Brief Word About "Our" State Bird

If you hold to the belief that the sighting of a cardinal is a wondrous, singular event, a rare moment akin to glimpsing the Northern Lights, a brief but amazing encounter with grace that will place the stamp of luck on your day, and you want to keep holding to that belief, do not move to east central Illinois. To put it simply, the cardinal runs rampant here. On any given day, at any given time, the pert, crested red guy with black mask, and his just-as-pert orange-tipped, beige-gray gal, can be seen anywhere you glance -- in country or town, on fence or tree branch, in woods or back yard. About as unusual around here as a tornado warning or a chicken-fried steak.

Matching the cardinal's sheer plenitude in these parts is its incredibly vast repertoire of calls, the rarest of which can only be heard at 4:30 a.m. in the bush outside my bedroom window: Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Now! Then there are the more famous lunchtime calls: Burrito-Burrito-Burrito-Eat! And, a holdover from the cardinal's days as hailer of confused drivers crossing the state line into Wisconsin: Cheese Here, Dodo! Cheese Here, Dodo! When the cardinal is feeling a bit more "impressionistic," there is the "Cary Grant": Judy-Judy-Judy-Who's She? And, in a more "international" mood, the cardinal is known to utter the obsolete Scandinavian phrase Fjord-Bjorn-and-Sven-IKEA!

Because a thousand cardinals surrounding my house every single day of my existence wasn't enough, a few Christmases ago I bought a mechanical one to have inside the house. My very own cardinal boasted "natural movement" of head, beak, and tail, cleverly triggered by a motion-activated photo sensor, and "authentic song" thanks to actual recordings provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- or, three different clacking and jerking motions and two different "tweets" every single time I walked past. Good thing the natural and authentic off button was easy to find.

A quick bit of online research reveals that the cardinal is the state bird of no fewer than six other states: Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. So much for feeling special. At least we can claim Abraham Lincoln. (If you hold to the belief that the sighting of Lincoln paraphernalia is a wondrous, singular event, do not move to east central Illinois.)

Even after having lived here for eleven years now and having seen more than my allotted share of red guys and gray gals, I do still consider the cardinal, both male and female, a thing to behold. And when I suddenly spot a single fat one poised on my privacy fence or a trio of trim youths chasing through the maple, I still feel slightly luckier than I had the moment before. I still perk and look up when I'm walking the dogs and hear any one of the cardinal's clear, liquid calls from high in a pine or oak. And the other day, turning at just the right moment to see a fleeting wisp of red amidst the all-white furniture on my neighbors' patio, an appearance as subtly striking as a brushstroke of red in the waves of a Winslow Homer painting, I still felt I'd witnessed a wondrous event. Then I fluffed my pillow and went back to sleep, on the couch.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Just Waiting for My Badge and Hat

A few days ago, on Facebook, an old college friend of mine wrote the following on my "wall": "By the way, I never got to wish you Happy Birthday. We both know how old you are; I'm not gonna write that number here. So welcome to the club!" Well, thanks, Bill, for not writing the number -- very kind of you -- but now EVERYONE knows it's something really old. I'm also a little unsure about the exuberance of that exclamation mark. Didn't you really mean Come here, my pretty, let me wheel you in...? Yes, thanks, Bill. Thanks for the reminder I didn't need.

Or maybe I do need one. Some days, the "me" inside my head is still wearing bangs and a ponytail, red Keds and a boy's striped T-shirt, still jumping the fence after school into the field next to our house, befriending the insects and garter snakes, hiding deep in the long grass until my mother calls supper. Other days, I'm the same girl, but now on the edge of the couch, rolling my eyes and sarcastically mouthing my mother's words as she doles out chores, getting sent to my room until she calls supper. (I did get out of vacuuming, though.) Or, I'm still on the edge of twenty, just before I slide into the current of bad decision-making.... Whoever I am in my mind, though, I'm not a woman of (10,530 divided by 5 minus 2,076 plus 20) and, most certainly, never ever ever -- I'll try to say it -- a luh-luh-luh ... lady.

So before I turned "it" and joined "the club" this past September, I really had no qualms about turning ... "it." I was still young, still a kid. Still weighing ballerina, fire-fighter, rock star, or lion-farm owner (I had just watched Born Free, okay?) for what to be when I grew up. But something happened between 11:59 p.m. of September 28 and 12:01 a.m. of September 29, 2009, as I rounded the corner from (7 x 5 + 13) to (add two more)....

I took it surprisingly hard, especially when the AARP and Medicare notices started mysteriously arriving with my name attached. (Not to mention a brazen offer to participate in the "Senior Final Expense Program," which cheerfully invited me to "return this card within 5 days to receive your FREE copy of the Memorial Guide Book." A bit disconcertingly, the return address was in Granite City.) I instantly tossed them. Must have me mixed up with someone else, I clucked to my inner girls as the crumpled, unopened envelopes joined the catfood-can lids and coffee grounds, some other Elise Hempel who was -- poor, dear thing -- getting old. But still those notices haunted me for the rest of the day, as I made my hundredth check in the mirror or felt my sciatica acting up again.

And suddenly I hadn't achieved a single thing in my whole waste of a life. The gorgeous, kind daughter passed through the house unnoticed. The house itself began to get hazy (but cleaner!), dissipating into dream. All of my published poems had been printed in invisible ink.

Also, a certain desperation now took hold of me. I dusted off my mini-stepper. I bought myself new glasses. I stopped drinking alcohol. I started lying about no longer drinking alcohol....

Having recently passed "it and a half," it's somehow getting a little easier. I'm not quite ready yet to fling off my denial like an airborne bra on "How to Look Good Naked," but somehow I'm feeling a little bit better. Perhaps it has something to do with my recent foray into Facebook. Where else could I apologize to my sixth-grade boyfriend for giving him the cold shoulder in junior high, joke with my brother scatologically, reminisce with a college friend about our old singing days, and chat with my former colleagues all in one place? I'm seeing my life more as a continuum, rather than a disconnected series of "snapshots," more as the perpetual Facebook news feed than the separate moments of the photo albums. The people from my past are strangely mingling with the people from my present, all of them, all of us, members of "the club," a club, believe it or not, I'm actually, just a tad, starting to want to belong to. And all of my dues are already paid up.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An "Incremental" Education

Here in central Illinois, my 14-year-old daughter attends what's called a "middle school," as opposed to what I attended back in the seventies in suburban Chicago -- a junior high. I'm still not quite sure of the difference, but I've been told that a middle school takes a more "cumulative" approach than a junior high, gently reminding students over the course of two years of all they've learned in grade school, providing them with a warm and pleasant transition into the big, tough world of high school. Whatever the difference, I do know that the separation of students into "teams" is still there -- Orange team and Red team, in my daughter's case, while we had Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. And as much as both types of school will claim that these teams have been randomly assigned, I know that every single kid in each seems to understand which team has the "smart kids" and which the "dumb."

I also know that, in contrast to my own junior high way back when, my daughter's school does not provide instruction in foreign languages or, to my ongoing dismay, a final grand field trip like the one to Washington, D.C., that my sister and I had the honor and privilege of experiencing in our own sophisticated and history-conscious 8th grade.

Unfortunately, the main things that I remember from that glorious trip are that my sister threw up and had to go home early; my best friend, Judy, and I almost missed the bus as we frantically ran down the million steps of the Washington Monument; we met a cute Englishman who used the word "pricey" instead of "expensive"; and ... I peed in my pants.

I seem to have come late in life to everything -- intercourse, marriage, child-bearing, divorce -- and peeing in my pants was no exception. When we got off the plane in D.C. and boarded the bus that was bound for our hotel, I sort of had to "go," but only a little bit, so, when the last invitation was made to anyone who had to use the bathroom before the bus's folding door clapped shut, I got cozy in my then-dry seat and said nothing, confident I could hold it for the short trip to the hotel. Little did I know that the "short trip" (a figment of my naive imagination) would turn into an hour or more and I would soon be trapped on the Ride from Bladder Hell.

I don't know exactly when it happened -- my own less-than-pleasant (but literally warm) transition from relative comfort (gazing out the window at the passing lights of Washington) to intense, excruciating pain. Before I knew it, my bladder had filled with an ocean and instead of pondering museums and monuments, I was using monumental control to relieve my pain little by little, in the smallest installments possible without dampening too far my red-corduroy bell-bottom pants (hey, this was the seventies) or being detected by anyone else on the bus, namely Judy, who was sitting right next to me. I don't think Judy and I conversed, my job of releasing tiny pee-increments taking the whole of my concentration, leaving me, probably, with just a far-away stare. Needless to say, my "plan" failed. By the time we arrived at the hotel, my seat was slightly pooled, my pants were soaked and stuck to my legs, and there was the very real possibility that Judy herself was moist. Thank god it was November and I was wearing a faux-suede coat long enough to cover at least part of my "relief."

I don't really remember what happened after that -- in what fashion I maneuvered myself off the bus and walked with my drier classmates to the hotel lobby, what excuse I must have made to my roommates for suddenly needing to change clothes, what exactly I did with my shamed corduroy pants. I'm not sure either if Judy, so precariously close to my disaster, even knew what had happened, as she never said a word about it during the whole trip and still has never mentioned it once in thirty-seven years.

I'm looking right now at the landscape photo of all of us (minus sis) gathered before the capitol building on the final day of that trip back in November 1972. All the girls with their long hair parted in the middle; all the boys with their bangs and nerdy glasses. There's Sue Heller and David Malter. Jerry Levy and Linda Wexler. Todd Cohen and Ruth Fink. There's my namesake, Elise Stern. And there I am too -- in that faux-suede coat, my savior, not looking at the camera but staring strangely off, in a somewhat suspicious way, toward the other side of the group. Perhaps I'm looking at Judy, standing for some reason far away from me at the other end, a big smile on her face.