partings welded together

I’ve been gone for two months, an unprecedented blogging hiatus. Things are changing here at carrots headquarters. That means that we’ve been running by the seats of our pants. The cats are restless. The carpet needs vacuuming. And I’ve been staring into the pantry, unwilling to brave the grocery store, trying to devise dinners out of instant rice, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn.

In the words of Bill (or Ted?), strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

First, I got a job. That deserves an exclamation point, and perhaps italics. I got a job! After four years of sending out dozens of hopeful application letters, producing what my advisor claimed was a hysterical number of sample syllabi, composing pages-long lists of small talk topics for campus visits — “So, I hear that cicadas migrate through this part of the country each spring! How do you deal with stray exoskeletons?” — and coming in second place more times than is healthy for a vulnerable, freshly-minted PhD, I suddenly found myself deciding between two wonderful offers from two wonderful schools. I felt so very lucky and so very overwhelmed. I know that uttering even a syllable of discontent about that situation in this market merits excommunication from academia, but I was baffled to find myself facing a  choice. I don’t think I’ve ever logged so many hours on the phone with family and advisors, or burned through so many pencils scrawling pros and cons lists, or asked the same questions of myself and Danny so many times.

I talked and reflected until words started becoming nonsensical — Seussian or Learian or Carollian — and then I made two terrifying phone calls. And so. In the fall, I’ll begin a position as Assistant Professor of English in New England — a huge change, but a choice I feel great about.

Phew. I am leaving Houston, people. LEAVING HOUSTON. For a JOB. Whoa. I better start eating some serious Tex-Mex, and fast.

After my two offers but before my two phone calls, however, Danny’s dad, Bert, died very suddenly. Anyone who has met Bert knows what a huge life force he was, and it is still impossible to imagine him gone. I drove Danny to the airport, our conversation wavering a little drunkenly between job one and his family, job two and his last visit with his dad, job one again but maybe job two and how is his brother dealing with this? Total excitement and total confusion and total grief.

Things are finally starting to settle down, though there is still this strange vibration throughout the apartment. Sometimes it’s difficult to disarticulate the joy and excitement from the vestiges of confusion and the sadness that will certainly be sticking around for awhile. And they weave together, the warp and woof of this what’s happening next for us.

Bob emailed me an appropriate Dickensian quote: Joe Gargery in Great Expectations recognizing that “life is ever so many partings welded together.”

And then there’s Paulo Coelho: “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen at once.”

Preach, Paulo.


sliding into home

I’ve updated my masthead to include four disturbing, anthropomorphic carrots and updated the carrots ipod feature to include two new songs. Enjoy!

Last weekend, I traveled to Charlotte to visit the inimitable Mike “Boots” Ford. We did the things Fords tend to do when gathered in groups of two or more. We ate delicious steaks and ordered dessert, even though we were stuffed with said steak. We made fun of television personalities. (Boots does not share my extreme distaste for Matt Lauer, but he has a burning yet inexplicable hatred of Alex Trebek.) We ended the visit by fighting off the aggressive attentions of Eddie and Lucky, the two enormous dogs of the Ford-Shipley household, while watching a movie that does not demand much mental acuity.

Morning Glory. Mediocre, as expected.

Of course, no visit to Charlotte is complete without a visit to Southpark Mall, a pilgrimage that I always think I can avoid but end up making, anyway. This time I was accompanied by Lilian, a grad school friend who once taught at Country Day and now has relocated to Asheville. As we lovingly caressed the beautiful but out-of-our-price-range clothes at Anthropologie, I began to experience that weird returning-home feeling that strikes when I’m about 24 hours into a North Carolina trip. The sense that this place should somehow recognize me. That it should not make any significant changes to the landscape of my adolescence without consulting me first.

This feeling began during my pilgrimages between DC and Charlotte during my undergrad years — a time when I was a little anchorless, living between the transience of a dorm room at American and the indignity of a suitcase at home. The prospect of a drug store closing or a new addition to my high school was simultaneously humdrum and a little unsettling. This is very self-centered and ridiculous, of course, but I feel like a stakeholder in this city somehow. I have invested a lot of teenage angst into the echoing, perfume-scented corridors of Southpark. I spent many hours polishing off some waffle fries while discussing with Bee, Erin, or Noel the tense negotiations of an IM conversation with a pseudo-boyfriend. And I’ve tried on oh-so-many homecoming dresses in those ill-lit department store dressing rooms.

The feeling has faded a little since I’ve outgrown my nomadic undergraduate life (sort of), and it’s mitigated by the fact that my dad no longer lives in the house where I bumbled through PSATs and calculus and school uniforms. But it’s never completely left.

Future trips to North Carolina will probably entail a trip to Lake Lure, where my family is buying a cabin. I am excited about Lake Lure’s fame as the setting for Dirty Dancing. If so inclined, you can put up near the site of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray’s log-dancing scene. You can even stay in cheekily-titled rooms and suites, like Baby’s Bungalow.

Dad, on the other hand, is excited about the prospect of a pontoon boat, which he plans to dub the HMS Sick Puppy, captained by Boots, Esquire. He insists both that captaining said boat earns him the honorific “esquire” and that he be piped on deck.

I am considering purchasing him a tricorne with a jaunty feather.

tracing faces

On a book revisions day, I allow myself one television show per afternoon — 45 minutes of mindlessness while I eat my turkey sandwich with lettuce and red onion and spicy mustard. (Sigh. My life has become predictable and a little sad in its summer monotony.) Lately, I discovered Brothers & Sisters is available on Instant Netflix, so I’ve started watching the series from the beginning, yelling at the characters when they make unwise decisions. I know with the certainty of a regular watcher that things will not turned out as planned.

On a side note, my friend Melissa calls Brothers & Sisters, appropriately, Incestuous Siblings. Strangely, lots of pseudo-interbreeding, all supervised by Sally Field as Nora Walker.

One of my favorite things about the show is the artlessly cluttered interiors. (Maybe I should add “set designer” to my list of shadow careers? I could spend a few weeks locating the right coffee table for Nora Walker! Something that screams uptight mother with a dash of California wine country.) I particularly love the main staircase in Nora’s house, lined with photos of the Walker clan — a portrait in miniature of the entire series, as that clan that keeps growing as the family owns and disowns sundry illegitimate children.

Inspired by Nora’s staircase, I’ve been considering creating my own wall of family photos. I always love visiting a home that has a wall or hallway dedicated to snapshots of sunburned brothers on the beach, babies crying on Santa’s lap, 50th wedding anniversary parties. I haven’t lived near my extended or even immediate family for years, and maybe this pull toward documenting my history of brothers and parents and grandparents and cousins is some sort of compensation mediated through interior decorating. Or maybe it’s a way to procrastinate.

In any case, the project might take awhile, in part because I have to find an appropriate wall. Danny and I do, after all, live in an apartment. No staircase, unfortunately. And because space is limited, I want to choose photographs that say something interesting about my family. Because the Fords and the Smiths — we have pizazz!

I’ve decided on a few already. (I’ve included them as a slideshow at the end of this post.) I prefer action shots or informal portraits to the posed variety, although certainly a few of the latter will make it into the mix. Currently making the cut: Mom pulling my brother, Todd, and me (in my strawberry snowsuit!) on a sled through the iced-over streets of Illinois. I think it’s a great photo, but I love it mostly because it includes so many props of my childhood, objects that recall an entire constellation of memories and sensations: that rickety wooden sled, my brother’s knit hat, my mom’s snow boots. While I consider myself a native North Carolinian now, it’s good to remind myself of the often snowy landscape of my elementary school years in the midwest.

And then there’s a photo of Danny’s grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Sterling, cradling his daughter and Danny’s mother, Martha, and flanked Phyllis and Lynn, Danny’s aunts. I love the sense of a posed photo gone a little imperfect: the striking father’s face squared at the camera and the crying profile of baby Martha. The photograph is also startling because Danny so resembles his grandfather, especially when I see a picture of Philip in uniform. When Danny was born, his father, Bert, took one look at his new son’s chin and remarked, “The colonel has a say in everything.”

That’s one of the purposes of the wall of family snapshots, really — to display a sort of photo puzzle for yourself and your guests, a collage of images where you can locate yourself amid all of those familiar noses and ears and eyes. I love the photo of my mom with my brother Matt, in part because she both looks so familiar — herself and me — and because I”ve surpassed her in that photo. I grew past my mom. And my Dad with a flat-top haircut is just… well… irresistible. My grandma had this photo of him hanging in her bedroom.

While I love the older photographs, I need a few newer snapshots. I plan to hang a favorite picture of my nephew Andrew, taken on my dad’s birthday a few years ago. It’s rare to catch a really genuine smile in a photo, and this one reminds me of Andrew really having fun, not hamming for a camera. (Don’t you kind of want to squeeze him? I might be biased, of course. I usually want to squeeze him.) It’s strange to think that, in my little solar system of the Ford family, he’ll be the oldest grandchild. I’m one of the youngest in my generation, and I remember many summers in Maryland admiring how grown-up and sophisticated my cousins seemed.

And then, of course, pictures of my current little Houston-based family. Danny in Army uniform, looking out a helicopter window. Standing at the front of the church after our wedding.

Of course, while tracing faces — finding the resemblances among all of those generations — allows you to see the continuity of your history and mark the moment when your tight-knit clan finds someone new. An exciting hiccup of brunette, maybe, among that crowd of redheads.

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smell my feet

Danny has never been trick-or-treating.  His mother disliked Halloween, so the holiday didn’t figure much in his childhood.  His family usually spent that evening at the movies, enjoying overpriced candy from the concession stand rather than mini Snickers bars out of a plastic pumpkin bucket.

While a childhood without trick-or-treating is a little incomprehensible to me, I’m pretty indifferent to the holiday these days.  No children parade through our apartment complex, and I avoid campus this weekend as Rice students indulge in the irresponsible and ill-advised debauchery of the annual party aptly dubbed NOD, or Night of Decadence.  I don’t mind a little creepy, but the campiness and the fake gore turn me off.  I prefer Halloween as a marker of fall, a sign even in 95-degree Houston that I can bake pumpkin pie.

My mom was a little anti-Halloween herself.  She believed, rightly, that the holiday gives adults and children alike license to do stupid and sometimes dangerous things.  We did, however, go door-to-door in costume, and I remember quite a few years when she helped me assemble pretty impressive costumes.  She managed to sew together a Figment costume, complete with bright orange wings, when I insisted on planning my Halloween attire around a cartoon character baseball cap I’d purchased at Epcot.  And the Ford Family Kermit Costume, which has been passed down generation to generation, won me a small trophy in a neighborhood costume contest one October.  (Pictured is my nephew Andrew in the costume, transformed into a frog prince.)

Of course, while I was standing on the makeshift first-place pedestal, ready to receive my award, I was whacked smartly on the head by the pitchfork of a little devil (quite literally), who was angry that his arrowed tail hadn’t merited higher recognition.  Halloween, I found, kind of hurts.

And then there was the haunted house my Franklin, Tennessee neighborhood would set up each October in the patch of ground past the pond and near the swimming pool.  In my memory it’s a creepy lean-to, a building with its own halo of dark even at two o’clock in the afternoon.  I never ventured through the haunted house.  We moved from Franklin at the end of my second grade year, long before I gathered my Halloween wits.

And, in any case, I was convinced that the actor posing as a maniacal surgeon would terrorize me with a real human kidney or heart, because my brother told me he watched as medical professionals packed human organs into ice-filled coolers at the end of the night.

one ice cream truck to rule them all

As I have previously mentioned on the virtual pages of running with carrots, I am currently leading classes of high school students through J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  (These classes are, I will note, the reason why I have been terribly remiss in updating.)

In a way, Tolkien’s novel is about family, about relationships between generations.  Frodo, through no fault of his own, inherits a demon ring from his Uncle Bilbo.  Frodo is just kicking back and enjoying the Shire, eating his six meals per day with his friend Sam, perhaps artfully arranging his foot fur, when he finds himself the troubled owner of an evil piece of jewelry that watches him like an eye and demands an impromptu vacation to the Cracks of Doom.

my studly dad

Sometimes, the material world has a way of haunting a family.  For the Baggins clan, it was a supernatural ring.  For the Fords, it’s an ice cream truck.  But this might require some explanation.

When my dad was growing up in Silver Spring, he drove an ice cream truck.  This is one of many odd jobs that comprise my dad’s career history, and sometimes the details of these jobs are part truth and part apocryphal.  In any case, I can imagine him puttering around the streets of Maryland, wearing a white uniform, a starched cap perched on his flat-top haircut.  He pauses here and there to distribute Popsicles and Drumsticks to local children.  These children smile and use phrases like “Golly gee!”  Everything is sepia, of course.

And yet his ice cream truck days were not idyllic.  His ice cream truck — it was robbed!  For some reason I recall that there were baseball bats involved, although I don’t think my dad was injured in protecting his frozen goods.  But imagine: a hot July night, orange sherbet dripping onto the pavement, and his daily haul… gone!

Years later, my father, a man with a troubled relationship with ice cream trucks, has a little girl: me, a girl who loves ice cream.  Like Frodo in Tolkien’s novel, I am aware of the legend that connects my family to a certain degree of trouble and distress regarding the mobile dessert industry, but I never imagine that these misadventures will come to haunt me.  And so, one afternoon, I perk up as I hear the winsome tones of our own local truck, grab a dollar, and head out the door.  I am looking to score a Mickey Mouse ice cream pop, or perhaps a Choco Taco.  I don’t exactly plan on using the phrase “Golly gee,” but I am certainly looking to have a positive ice cream truck experience.

I make it within a block of the truck.  I see the gentleman at the wheel peer at me in his rearview mirror.  He doesn’t slow down.

I fall and break my arm.

The driver, in my memory, laughs at me.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  He laughs at me and drives away.  I spend the rest of the summer — sans ice cream truck ice cream — nursing a fractured radius bone and using empty bread bags to protect my cast during baths.  The plaster is hot pink and, conveniently, matches my summer dance recital costume, but this is an inconsequential perk when you consider a summer without the local pool, plagued with the smelly-itchy-arm conditions that inevitably accompany a cast.

I am optimistic that the ice cream curse ends with my generation.  I feel I paid our dues in doctor fees and pain and suffering.  I have, if you will, thrown the ice cream truck into the Cracks of Doom.

Perhaps, if Danny and I have kids, they can have a normal relationship with ice cream trucks.

My Tomtoddy icon is crying because I am wide awake, which is unusual for me after 11:00 pm, since I am a premature curmudgeon.  I think I’m wide awake because my system is full of the caffeine-crazy painkillers I took to kill the Worst Migraine Ever.  Thus the Worst Migraine Ever not only ruined my sleep and well-being last nightbut will ruin my sleep schedule for the entire week.  Thanks a lot, Worst Migraine Ever.

So I will blog.  But be forewarned.  Nothing interesting is going on in my life.

The summer hasn’t been very productive thus far.  My 12:30 to 5:30 schedule at Career Services is less than amenable to dissertation progress, even though I’ve been up at 7:00 or 7:30 every weekday morning to get in a few hours at my desk before heading to campus.  By the time I get home in the evening, it’s nearly impossible to make myself work.  It’s not that I’ve had a particularly hard day at the office — if anything, they don’t have enough for me to do, which is sometimes worse — but sitting in front of a computer screen at home after sitting in front of a computer screen at the office is repulsive to me.  I’ve been trying to save less arduous tasks for the evenings, but it isn’t really working.  So even though I started the summer with high hopes for pumping out my Stevenson chapter draft within a month or two, it’s looking bleak.  I’ve written one section so far, which amounts to about 20 pages out of what will probably be at least 60 or 70 before I’m done.

BUT the section I have drafted is about miniature presses in the nineteenth century and the toy press Stevenson gave his stepson in California.  It’s a pretty interesting and quirky, actually, and I’ve discovered lots of fun advertisements, like this one

in which carrots once again writes of creepy dolls

When I was six years old, I visited Babyland General Hospital.

Babyland General Hospital is a tourist attraction dreamed up by the makers of Cabbage Patch Dolls.  It’s housed in a clinic building from the early twentieth century in Cleveland, Georgia, and many of the original hallways and examination rooms are still in place.  The spaces that were once filled with real patients are now filled with tableaux of posed cloth-faced dolls with yellow yarn hair, with ticket counters and gift shops, with smiling mothers and daughters winding through velvet ropes, guided through the life cycle of your typical Cabbage Patch doll from birth through elementary school.  Apparently once a Cabbage Patch Doll hits about second grade, its development stalls and its life is a cycle of simple mathematics, fake peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and recess.

This is not a factory tour but instead an elaborate means to perpetuate childhood illusion.  No doll limbs waiting to be sewn, no bins of tiny pinafores, no factory line.  Dolls, in the world of Babyland General, emerge from amid the intense green leaves of plastic cabbage heads situated around a magic tree.  Their births are announced over a loudspeaker so an audience of doll enthusiasts can rush to the garden.

I went to Babyland General with my mom and my grandma during the Cabbage Patch boom in the eighties.  We were probably traveling in Georgia for some business function of my dad’s.  He was still working for Kraft Foods at the time, and once in a while we traveled as a family throughout the southeast, staying in hotels with ugly floral bedspreads, wake-up calls, and sample-sized shampoos and shower caps in small, flimsy cardboard boxes.  My mom, my brothers, and I would spend the afternoons at local tourist attractions while my dad talked cheese in some hotel ballroom.  Hence, Babyland General.

As a six-year-old, I was so excited about Babyland General that my entire body was in tremors with the idea of touring the nursery, of witnessing a live Cabbage Patch birth, of owning my own preemie, smelling of baby powder and new plastic, with a genuine Xavier Roberts signature across its bare bottom.

There is definitely something campy and creepy about Babyland General.  The impending births of new dolls, for example, are anticipated with a series of updates about how far the lucky cabbage has “dilated,” and the leering, oversized animatronic “Colonel Casey” stork looms over the newborn dolls in the nursery.  A swarm of “bunnybees” hover over the cabbage patch, waiting to help the doctor “decide” whether the new arrival is a boy or a girl.  Babyland General is a cultural studies dissertation waiting to happen (if it hasn’t already) — the center of an examination of something like heteronormativity and the enculturation of young girls to motherhood before they’re out of the toddler department.  Maybe even a chapter on the ethical stakes of prematurely determining the gender of intersex babies.

In a way, I wish I hadn’t looked at the Babyland General website.  I Googled it out of curiosity to see if it was still around and all that I remembered.  The pictures don’t align with my memory.  Things in Cleveland, Georgia seem shabbier and tackier.  The Cabbage Patch displays have aged twenty years since I was there last and their popularity has waned, so I’m sure things are a little down at the heel since my visit.

But I think I’ll delete the site from the history of my browser, anyway.