Leave the Cat

My husband and I happened upon the movie Alien the other night, and since we couldn’t agree on anything else on the 300 and some channels, we settled in.

We had missed the best scene. You know, the one where the alien bursts out of the guy’s stomach. It was at the part when the crew knows there’s some sort of alien on their spaceship (well, duh – they’d seen it burst out of the guy’s stomach), but they have no idea what, exactly. They’re tracking it armed with flashlights, a couple of guns, and… a net.

It’s not a big industrial “let’s go catch us some potentially dangerous alien life form” net, either. It looks about as substantial as a butterfly net you might give to your nephew. Yes, they set out looking for what we later learn is an enormous, vaguely insect-like creature whose blood is metal-burning acid armed with a butterfly net.

Of course, the first thing they track down isn’t the alien, but the captain’s cat. The scene is very tense. Their guns are aimed, the net is poised to catch the dreaded alien, and ROWR! It’s a kitty. So what do they do? They send Harry Dean Stanton after the cat.

Why? There is no explanation other than to move the plot along. There are a lot of crew members to kill off, so they may as well have one of them walking around going, “Here, kitty kitty kitty,” before he’s slaughtered by the really creepy, much-too-large-for-a-butterfly-net alien.

Later, when most of the crew has been decimated, the remaining crew members have realized that a butterfly net is not going to be at all helpful, and their only mission is to get the hell off of the ship, the captain hears the cat, stops getting the shuttle ready, and wanders off to find the cat.

What is THAT?

I understand that many people are deeply, deeply attached to their pets. I lovingly fed my daughter’s hamster medicine through a tiny syringe and bawled when he died, and I am aware that this is only the tip of the iceberg. However, I firmly believe that when you’re in deep space, a horrifying alien has annihilated your crew, and you have one chance to get out of there, you need to focus on your goal – living, and leave the cat.

It struck me that we do the same sorts of stupid things in our daily lives. We concentrate on the wrong things, the minutiae, and lose sight of the important stuff. Parents do it when we get on our kids’ backs about cleaning their rooms when they’re trying to tell us about something truly momentous like the bus driver farting audibly. Teachers do it when we focus on sticking it to the smirking, eye-rolling punk who manages to tip over his desk every day, when we should be focusing our energy on minimizing opportunities for punk-like behavior. Students do it when they waste time bitching about mean teachers (and let’s be fair, sometimes teachers are mean), when they could be doing their homework so the teacher won’t have anything to be mean about. We all do it – we get stuck on something that seems important and in doing so lose sight of the main goal.

Later in the movie, as I watched the captain go back, yet again, for the cat, I decided that “leave the cat” was going to be my new motto. So from now on, whenever I realize I’ve been doing something nit-picky that actually distracts me from my larger goal, I’m going to think about Alien and remind myself: leave the cat.

12 Step Program for Puffin Corn Addicts?

(Original post date: Tuesday, March 04, 2008)

I have a new addiction: Puffin Corn. My daughter asked if we could by this “different kind of popcorn” with no hulls since the orthodontist says she can’t eat regular popcorn. I said sure, wondering how they get all those hulls off…

Well, it’s not freaking popcorn. It’s more like cheese curl stuff shaped like and flavored like popcorn. Except it’s got a softer texture than cheese curls. It sort of melts in your mouth.

My first reaction was, “Oh gross.” A couple of handfuls later I started liking them. And as my greasy fingers grazed the bottom of the bag, I realized I had a problem.

This stuff is tasty, but a whole bag is something like 3,000 calories, all of it crap. Ugh, and the grease… indigestion city! It didn’t matter. All I wanted was more, more, more Puffin Corn!

I tried to fight it. I didn’t open the second bag. Someone else did, I swear! It’s not fair to ask me to avoid it once it’s open. Plus, it’ll get stale really quickly, so it’s wasteful not to eat it all. I’m nothing if not frugal.

Yet fate is cruel. I paid for this transgression. My stomach complained. My intestines punished me severely. My kids asked, “Are you coming out soon?”

I swore it’d be my last time. I walked right by it when I did my weekly grocery shopping. I thought I had it beat. And then, I’m sorry to say (sob!), I fell off the wagon.

When I head home from work at about 4:30, I am HUNGRY. It is stupid to go to the grocery store at that time of day for any reason. Processed food seems so appealing at that time of day. It’s salty or sweet or creamy or crunchy… and I don’t have to cook it. On a good day I’ll find myself trying to rationalize serving Hostess cupcakes as the vegetable with dinner. On bad days? On bad days it’s best just to go home. Make do with what’s in the house. Scrambled eggs or French toast. Leftovers or bowls of cereal. Anything will do – just don’t let me go to the supermarket at 4:30 after a crappy day.

If only we heeded our own advice. Alas.

My intentions were pure. Bread, milk, Diet Snapple. That was it. Bread, milk, Diet Snapple. The bread and milk were no problem… I zoomed by, plopped them into my basket, and headed off for the Diet Snapple.

In my regular supermarket, the Diet Snapple is in an aisle with juice and water and soda. No problem. That afternoon, however, I’d stopped at the store closest to my house. In this store, we’ll call it The Devil, the Diet Snapple is in the snack food aisle.

It wasn’t my fault! I ignored them as I sailed past to grab the Diet Snapple, but they called to me. They sang. They cajoled. They said I could eat just a handful and save the rest for another day. It wasn’t a fair fight. Filled with joy, I grabbed that beautiful blue bag of heavenly, overly-processed, grease-filled, artificially flavored, crunchy goodness.

I held off until I got home. I may be an addict, but I do have my pride. I waited until I was in my own kitchen, my children out of sight, and then I ripped open the bag and began to stuff myself with Puffin Corn. Oh, sweet abandon.

Half an hour later my daughter came upstairs to find me sitting at the kitchen table moaning and turning green, the empty blue bag pushed away and little fake-corn crumbs littering the table. “Again?” she said. “Didn’t you even save any for me?” It was a shameful moment.

I’m trying to kick this thing. Every day I tell myself, “Just for today, I will not touch Puffin Corn.”

But it’s a difficult battle.

Just thinking about it is making my mouth water.

I’m sorry.

I’m so weak.

I’m going to score some Puffin Corn. I’ll try again tomorrow.

John’ Irving’s Owen Meany: A Review

(Original post date: Friday, February 15, 2008)

Heeding the advice of an esteemed colleague and an esteemed sister-in-law, I forced myself to keep reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was tough going. Irving just doesn’t resonate with me… it was the same way with The Cider House Rules. In the end it was an interesting story, but it wasn’t a story that compelled me to keep reading… it was something I pushed through. It was this way with Owen Meany, too, with one huge difference… while I finished reading Cider House as I had begun, indifferent, I bawled at the end of Owen Meany.

It isn’t that I like the character of Owen Meany. He is, through most of the book, too sure, too unafraid. The cover of the paperback says that Owen Meany thinks he’s an instrument of God and that this assumption is correct, as if this explains Owen’s uncanny certainty. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even instruments of God struggle with doubt. In the Old Testament, Moses struggles with doubt when God calls upon him to help free the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt even though God puts His money where His mouth is with all manner of disgusting and fearsome plagues. In the New Testament, Jesus is plagued with doubt even though he knows he is the son of God and is in full awareness that his sacrifice will offer salvation to mankind. But Owen Meany, for the majority of the novel, does not appear to struggle with doubt. How can this be? Can this pint-sized, oddly-voiced character be more sure of himself than Moses? Than Jesus? Is he human? More? Certainly Irving expects his reader to empathize and even sympathize with Owen when he is ignored by his parents, manipulated by his peers, and bullied by adults who obviously have problems of their own. And yet he draws direct comparisons between Jesus, who has doubts, and Owen, who does not, and who observes that Jesus was “used,” just as he will be used. It’s a bit much for me.

For this reason, it is difficult for me to feel any attachment to this character. It is only when Owen is finally seized by self-doubt that I am able to really care what happens to him. Only then am I able to relinquish my doubt that Owen is as human as the rest of us… and that, of course, is when Irving yanks the rug out beneath the reader’s feet by yanking Owen away from his best friend, away from the woman who loves him, away from the world who never understands him, and away from the reader. It’s a sucker punch that delivers the message, “and THAT is what you get for doubting in the first place.” Ouch. It’s not that I like Owen Meany, but I do come to believe in Owen Meany, which is obviously what Irving intended… misguided messiah-complex or no.

The novel reminds me strongly of M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs, and not just because of their shared themes of faith and predestination, though these similarities are strong. They also share emotionally loaded baseball imagery and language, specifically the phrase “swing away” as advice that carries life-changing ramifications for those who utter it and those who take it. They share the unforseen death of someone young, beautiful, and loved, and the scar this person’s death leaves on everyone she leaves behind. They share clergy struggling with crises of faith and potentially career-changing doubt. And perhaps most importantly, they both address the question of predestination versus free-will by having main characters overcome a life-challenging threat using an aforementioned but seemingly unrelated skill… a technique that leaves their audiences little room for doubt that “things happen for a reason.”

Usually, if I finish a book in tears, it’s a sign that I liked the book. I wish I could say that about Owen Meany. I’ve come to believe in Owen Meany, but as with Signs, I am walking away from the experience feeling a bit manipulated. I like to come to my own conclusions about things, and neither of these stories leaves much room for that. In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it… thank you to both Marcella and Apryll for urging me to finish it… but I think I’m going to need some time to process this one.

Any thoughts from those of you who’ve read it?

Change to "I’d Like to Meet" List

(Original post date: Sunday, November 25, 2007)

Well, I’m excited to say that I’ve had to take Frank McCourt out of my “I’d like to meet” list… got to meet him and hear him talk at the NCTE conference in NYC a couple of weeks ago. I was afraid that it’d be a let down… sometimes people who write well are total duds in person. This was SO not the case.

The man talks about teaching English in a way that I’ve never heard anyone talk about it… even people who’ve been teaching it for years. If you’ve read his Teacher Man you’ll know what I mean. Or maybe not. But here’s the thing that gets me… he honestly addresses the way kids try to get you off task by getting you to tell them stories about your life. He’s the first person I’ve ever met who admits that it’s sometimes more fun than the curriculum AND that it’s not the worst thing in the world. I love when I can tell kids stories about the crazy things that happen to (or around) me; I think it’s a great way to get kids interested in a point I’m trying to make… if it’s tied to what I’m teaching. My greatest “trick” is letting my kids think they’ve dragged me off track, when I’d planned to tell the story all along because it illustrates something I am trying to teach them. Nobody ever addressed this when I took my ed classes. Not only did Frank McCourt discuss it, but he credited it with helping him write Angela’s Ashes. He said that he’d told most of those stories to his classes over and over again through the years, so when he sat down to write a book, they were largely written and revised in his head. I just love that! It gives busy English teacher’s and “would be” writers hope.

Also, he’s terrifically funny. At the end of his talk, I turned to a colleague and asked, “Is it me, or would you buy this guy drinks all night if he’d just keep talking?” She said she would, and I believe many people in the room felt similarly. Even on our teachers’ salaries. Oh, everyone except the moron who had her laptop open and checked her e-mail throughout the talk. People are such clods, I swear. Ohhh… we’re very impressed at how busy you are and at how well you multi-task. Perhaps you should work in an etiquette course at some point, though, because you’re acting like a self-important boob. But I digress (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – see above).

So… Frank McCourt’s advice for would-be writers: “Grab a bottle of wine, relax, and just scribble.” Well, I thought that was AWESOME, so I got in line again after the talk (I’d already gotten him to sign a copy of Angela’s Ashes – one of my favorite books ever, and definitely my pick for “most adeptly ended books, ever,” a thought I did share with him, BTW) and asked him to write “Just Scribble” on a notebook I had with me… I’m going to try to write again, and I thought it’d be neat to have his own advice in his own hand to inspire me when I felt like it was pointless. Yes, it’s corny on a level even I’d never experienced before, but I don’t care. Anyway, he was agreeable to it and did so, and since my two colleagues thought it was an awesome idea, too, they followed suit… and Frank McCourt turned around and said to his assistant (or whomever was standing “guard” behind him) and said, “Just Scribble… that’s a good name for a book.”

I’ll excitedly await its publication.

No more coffee apologies

I’m done being embarrassed by how sweet I like my coffee. Go ahead and stare disapprovingly as I dump in five packets of Splenda. As Pee-wee Herman, that venerable font of wisdom, once said, “Take a picture – it’ll last longer.” Knock yourself out. But please stop feeling the need to explain that I’m somehow screwing up good coffee or that I don’t “really” like coffee if I have to disguise the flavor by making it sweet. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing. I like it this way. And guess what? I’m not alone. Haagen-Dasz doesn’t make their coffee ice cream for me alone (though it’d be very thoughtful if they did).

Here’s an idea, coffee purists. Instead of saving your coffee snobbery for me, go to the nearest Starbucks and heckle anyone who orders a caramel mocchiato or orange cream frappuccino or mocha anything. Better yet, order a plain espresso made from the most obscure beans you can find, and then sit in the corner glaring haughtily at all the ignorant plebs who think they like coffee but who are wrong about their own tastes and not half as sophisticated as you.

Sweet coffee isn’t new. Well before you were around to bug random people in convenience stores, my eastern European ancestors sipped black coffee through sugar cubes held in their teeth (I’d do this if I had one iota of coordination… or if Splenda made non-sugar cubes).

I’m done apologizing for liking it that way and done trying to drink it differently because other people are giving me the evil eye while I’m fixing it the way I like it. Sweet coffee isn’t an adulteration of some pure and holy substance. It’s a fucking beverage. A yummy one. With caffeine. Now leave me alone.

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