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Out of the Blue


Happy National Short Story Week, everyone! In honor of this most esteemed week, I am going back in time to 1999 when a young, fresh-faced girl living in Washington , D.C. heard that her short story, “Out of the Blue” had won a fiction contest and would be published. I remember getting the call and immediately telling everyone around me, “This is what I want to do with my life.” And while life has taken many different directions for me, if you were to put a Wonder Woman lasso around my waist and ask me, I’d still say “this is what I want to do with my life.” There is nothing, just nothing, like writing. It is my happiness, my sadness and the most treasured piece of my mind. And so, in honor of that fateful day in 1999 and the millions of words that have come after, I offer you that first piece. And a piece of my heart.

illustration for “Out of the Blue” by Juliette Borda
copyright Juliette Borda

Out of the Blue

by Katie Mauro

“God has spoken” was Grandma’s way of explaining things that didn’t need explaining. If the bread didn’t rise or the milk was sour before its time, God definitely had something to do with it. God had his hands in the middle of everything. He was a meddler, messing with everyone’s business for some higher purpose. When I wanted explanations for things like not getting asked to the prom or first getting my period, my adolescent curiosity could never be satisfied by Grandma.

“Don’t ask too much of Him,” she would say. “He’s busy with someone right now.” Like a personal secretary up there in heaven, Grandma knew all about God’s schedule and never let you bother Him in the middle of a meeting. So when the painter up and died like that, there was no need to wonder. It was just God making an executive decision.

Billy had died in the middle of painting Grandma’s old house a bright cornflower blue, and she didn’t have the heart to hire another one. So there she sat, out on the porch of that big house, with great strokes of blue across its weathered white boards. It was like a canvas some impressionist had given up on years ago, right in the middle of painting the blue, blue sky.

Mama and I had tried for years to talk her into painting that house. We hated that faded oatmeal color and couldn’t wait to go visit her in a house that was freshly painted and inviting. Mama and I spent hours clipping out pictures of blue houses with white shutters from Better Homes and Gardens, leaving them posted on her fridge like family photos. We just knew that a house like that would always smell like Pine-Sol and that no sadness could come in at all.

“Don’t want a blue house. Wouldn’t go at all,” she said. Perhaps referring to the mismatched vinyl furniture or the oil paintings of fish that Grandpa painted all those years ago. Grandma lived under the assumption that whatever you got, God gave you, and anything else just wasn’t worth wanting.

When Grandpa met Grandma, she was all blue eyes and hips and a voice like hazelnut custard. She had three brothers who all worked in their daddy’s furniture company; making chairs and beds out of the pines that surrounded their house. Father and sons working for years over a beautiful piece of pine like it was a woman.

Daniel and Jack, the older boys, loved the work. Loved the curve and smell of the sanded wood. Earle, who was only a year older than Grandma, wanted more than a circle saw and a staining rag. So he turned to Grandma and told her all his dreams of women and life. Through her starry-eyed, strong-armed brother she learned the secrets of men and that the chase is all.

“Don’t you ever want to catch ’em?” she asked Earle one day as they sat outside sipping water out of an old thermos.

Earle thought for a minute and scratched his arm where a mosquito bite was just starting to show. He took his fingernail and made a little cross on top of it, just like their mama had shown them to do to stop the itching. “Well, sure, honey,” he said, grinning from under his old blue bandanna. “We just want to make sure that the prize is worth it. And sometimes men gotta run a long way to figure that out.”

Earle talked like he spoke from experience. But she thought maybe he was just talking about the women who lived in his mind while he worked. She wondered if she would ever be the kind of woman that a man would turn his thoughts to while he sanded a particularly beautiful piece of pine; who had a song written for her about the sky and maybe a little bit about a porch swing and kisses sweeter than wine.

Handsome like the devil, Grandpa Max had always been the ladies’ man of the county with a broad smile that took up his entire face whenever he laughed. And he laughed most of the time. Always bubbling over with that throaty mixture of mirth and masculinity. According to Grandma, every girl in town had her eye on Grandpa. And I believed her. Not like Auntie Olida, who told me the same story eight times over about how handsome Uncle Tyler was in his day, and how lines of women would form outside the post office where he worked. Because I had spent every Christmas for as long as I could remember sitting across from Uncle Tyler at the dinner table, and he had crooked teeth and pores on his face that looked like they had been stretched open by tiny little hands. But I never let Auntie Olida know I doubted her. Because maybe to her, in her pea-green housedress and flip-flops, Uncle Tyler was still lining women up outside the post office.

I believed Grandma, though. She used to say that when Grandpa would walk through town, young ladies would press their powdered noses up against the windows of the fabric shop and just watch him walk. In Grandma’s photos I think he looks like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — dashing and patriotic; like a Boy Scout with his back straight as a ruler and his eyes tilted upward as if he were saluting something American and grand.

Grandma first met Grandpa down at Mattie’s Bait and Tackle. On that particular day, Grandma was situated in Aisle 4 with the fishing line and nightcrawlers. Some women would have avoided Aisle 4 and those nightcrawlers at all costs, but Grandma could bait a hook like she was threading a needle. Men used to come down to the pond and watch her bait those lines with her pearly fingernails and just sigh to themselves while looking through the reeds at such a beautiful woman doing such a simple thing.

Grandpa watched Grandma down there at Mattie’s from behind the bottles of beer down the aisle. Her hair was brushed back in a rubber band that hung low at the nape of her neck. She had a wide mouth, and her eyelashes curled out from over her eyes like a canopy as she read the labels on the cans of bait. And he smiled. He liked her arms and her hair and the way she stood with one foot on the ground and one resting on the bottom shelf, her small shoe left on the floor and her painted toes tapping absentmindedly. And for one brief moment she looked up from those labels, put a stray piece of hair behind her ear, and looked Grandpa straight in the eye. According to Mattie, who was watching the whole thing, Grandpa just about knocked over every bottle of beer in the place.

Grandpa used to paint pictures for Grandma and help her hang them on their bedroom wall. He painted ships out on the ocean with mermaids all around them and another one of a woman sitting on a hill with a big straw hat on. And to me, it looked like the woman in the picture was waiting for her lover to come walking by with a broad smile and a new compliment.

Even late in his life Grandpa would take this beat-up easel out into the front yard every Sunday after church and paint. This all started when Grandma and Grandpa went over to Auntie Olida and Uncle Tyler’s house for barbecue one Sunday evening — sitting around on the back porch with the heavenly smell of smoke in the air. “Beautiful barbecue, Tyler,” my Grandpa said, leaning way down in his chair with a wide grin.

Tyler smiled. “Nice to have you folks over tonight,” he said. “Haven’t seen you since the wedding.”

Auntie Olida and Grandma looked at each other and laughed. “They’ve been busy, Tyler,” Olida said. “Doin’ what newlyweds do.”

Tyler blushed and wiped his hand over his thin blonde hair. Grandpa laughed and took Grandma’s hand in his. Olida, who had always thought Grandpa was something of a looker, watched his fingers stroke Grandma’s hand on the armrest of the chair.

“Max,” she said, “you have got the most handsome hands I have ever seen. Look Tyler, aren’t they something to behold?”

Uncle Tyler, not too keen on estimating the loveliness of another man’s hands, concentrated solely on the barbecue and grunted something like “humph.”

“Well, they are,” Olida said. “Just handsome hands. Saw a picture once of that artist Renoir and his hands were just like yours. Long and heavy. Why, Max, I do believe you have the hands of Renoir.”

Grandpa Max shook his head, laughing. “And you, dear Olida, have the face of Venus de Milo.” Olida, who really had no idea who this Venus gal was, but liked the way it sounded when Grandpa said it, giggled and slapped his knee with her hand.

The conversation eventually turned to Rodney Waystrap’s new double-wide or May Lamberton’s permanent wave, and the notion of Grandpa having hands like Renoir seemed lost. But Grandpa liked the idea of having the hands of a great painter who had things hanging in big galleries all over. And after a little thought, he took himself on over to the corner store and bought some paints and an easel; hoping maybe the hands God gave him would prove to do more than hold Grandma tight.

There’s about 20 of these paintings still up in Grandma’s house. “The Gallery,” she calls it, with all the pride of one of those New York City dealers with Picassos in his foyer. To her, these paintings are like love letters she can read even when company is there.

After they were married in the Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue, Grandpa took Grandma in his arms and they made love with the windows open and the smell of pine in the air. I never liked to think about my grandparents making love. I guess I thought that my Grandma, with her warm, inviting bosom and gray hair up in a bun, was not someone who could ever do something like that. But as I got older and had kissed a few men out in their Silverado trucks, my hips and elbows digging into empty cans of tobacco, I understood for perhaps the first time that my grandmother is a woman. And a woman making love to a man she adores is just about the most natural thing in the world. For Grandma, making love to Grandpa was like breathing. It was strong and natural and necessary to their continued devotion.

When grandpa passed, Grandma’s house changed. Mama would bring flowers and stories, and Grandma would smile, but Mama knew how hard it was for her to go to bed every night without the smell of aftershave on the sheets.

Being a strong-willed lady, Grandma kept the house just the same for years. Most of all, she didn’t want to repaint the outside. It had always been the color of oatmeal and apparently it would always stay that way. Until Billy Watson.

Billy Watson was a neighbor kid from down the street. Kind of a rebel, with a cigarette behind his ear and long hair. And I thought he was just about the sexiest thing I ever saw. He drove a motorcycle that was beat-up and rusted, but still made that glorious sound of popcorn popping when he started it up. He would ride that motorcycle around town, proud as a peacock, with no shirt on. I hoped that one day he would ride up to me while I was doing the wash, and he would grab me around the middle and pull me onto that machine. We would just let our long hair blow together in the wind, and I would sing songs like “Amazing Grace” at the top of my lungs. And the notion of burning my calf on the stainless steel engine seemed almost romantic. A fiery tattoo of Billy and our ride.

Billy Watson had about a thousand girlfriends with names like Sarah Marie and Naomi; they wore Daisy Dukes with little half moons of their butts sticking out from under the hem. Everyone said he had sex with them out behind the bleachers at Montgomery High, since that was the only place he could get them alone. And you couldn’t really lose your virginity on the back of a motorcycle. Though I often thought about the logistics of it before I went to sleep.

So when Billy Watson came strolling up to Grandma’s porch asking if she wanted her house painted, we were shocked to find that she accepted. I think Grandma just decided she needed a little color after all. And she even agreed on a bright, beautiful blue that spoke of summer skies and exciting company. Blue walls, white shutters and a red door — “just like Elizabeth Arden,” Mama said.

Billy came every morning and I would watch him from the top stair, as I’m sure Grandpa watched Grandma down at Mattie’s all those years ago. Grandma would bring him a sandwich and a beer in the middle of the day, and they would chat about things that I never thought someone like Billy was capable of talking about. I figured his vocabulary was limited to words like “axle” and “gasoline.” But he and Grandma talked and talked over sandwiches and beer, and she would laugh and touch him on his sleeve.

Mama wasn’t too thrilled with the way Billy was painting the house. Instead of finishing up one section at a time, he roamed around, painting wherever his fancy took him. So the house ended up looking like a patchwork quilt in progress. But Grandma never complained about it. I guess she figured Billy had a way of doing things that would eventually work out. As if the colors would suddenly learn to run together on their own.

On a Tuesday night, Billy was riding home from Hollie Anne Wilson’s house when he ran into a tree and died. One minute he was making out with Hollie on her front stoop, his hands everywhere and her Mama peeking through the window. And the next he was gone. They had a big write-up in the paper the next day with this great picture of Billy that his Dad had taken of him on a fishing trip, and he’s smiling this mischievous grin, with his elbows resting on his knees. I cut it out and keep it in my jewelry box.

At first we figured Grandma didn’t want to finish painting the house out of respect for Billy. For her, having someone finish the house so soon after Billy’s death was like a widow remarrying in a fortnight. And we all agreed that it was right. But it wasn’t just a temporary thing. She just decided to leave it that way. We thought the house looked like a bunch of Okies lived there. We thought she was just being stubborn. But no matter how much time went by, Grandma was set in her ways, and God had spoken.

You can still see the house from the new road they put in off of Highway 62. It sneaks up on you and suddenly it’s all you can look at. Families with little kids in the backs of their station wagons probably titter about who lives in that preposterous house. Couples driving along must wonder at the strange house that is half blue and half oatmeal colored. But they really shouldn’t wonder at all. They really shouldn’t wonder about a house sitting there, like a canvas. Like the painter just took a break for a cup of coffee or a nap and he’ll be back soon. I promise.

Katie Mauro, ’95, MA ’96, is a publicist in Washington, D.C.

Originally published March 1999 in Stanford Magazine

http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=41477

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My Life as a Geek: Defining Moments


My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…

My Life as a Geek: Defining Moments

Just this week, the United States National Science Foundation released its annual report listing the “geekiest cities in America.” The findings were less than surprising. Hello, San Francisco! Great to see you, San Mateo! How’s the weather, Boston? A few dark horses threw themselves in here and there (Nice to meet you, Destin, Florida!), but for the most part the so-called “geekiest” cities were just about where you’d expect them to be. What was surprising about the report was the definition of “geek” as detailed by the Foundation. According to them, a geek is “any worker with a bachelor’s level of knowledge and education in science or engineering-related fields or workers in occupations that require some degree of technical knowledge or training.” Now, granted, this definition of geek works specifically within the parameters of the Foundation itself and is meant more as a broad term for those engaged in the technical or scientific professions. But then are they really geeks? Aren’t they, to put it in Stanford terms, just “techies”? Perhaps I’m dating myself but “techies” and “fuzzies” were the two factions during my tenure at Stanford and I was just about the fuzziest person ever to walk the hallowed halls of the Farm. (My unfortunate perm and untamed eyebrows didn’t help..) But despite how you fell on the techie/fuzzy spectrum, you could still be a geek.

I’m a geek. Not a technical, scientific, Destin, Floridian geek, but a literature buff, Monty Python quoting, New York Times crossword obsessive, Cabbage Patch dancing geek. Which makes me wonder…just what is the definiton of a geek?

I asked my husband just this question at dinner last night and he responded with “isn’t a geek someone who is socially awkward?” Wow. And here I am with a blog entitled “My Life as a Geek.” Should I just rename it “My Life as a Social Misfit” or maybe “My Life as a Women who Once Used the ‘Doctor Who’ Theme Song as her Ringtone”? Painful as it was to hear, I understood his point. Stereotypically, when one thinks of the word “geek” one does envision pocket protectors, Members Only jackets, sweatshirts with binary code on them and, yes, a fair amount of donkey laughs and knowledge of when Pi Day is. (March 14th, for those of you who are interested.) But once you scratch the surface of that…once you get over the “Revenge of the Nerds” references and really start to consider what the ingredients of geekdom are…it gets a little blurry.

Is “geek” one of those words that is fluid; offering varying degrees of translation depending upon the individual? I decided to poll a few of my friends to see how they would define geek and the results were fascinating. One of my dearest friends told me that the word refers to someone who is “super smart and has suffered teasing due to that intellect.” The fact that, to her, teasing was the true hallmark of a geek really interested me. I honestly hadn’t made that connection, and yet my first of these columns detailed my ridicule at the hands of a rather nasty seventh-grade girl. Whether I was aware of it or not, I used teasing as an example of my evolution as a geek. So does my self-proclaimed geekiness stem from specific incidences of teasing? It may very well be so, since those first few instances of teasing, while certainly painful and Depeche Mode inducing, still led me down a path of acceptance of my own unique qualities. Being teased for being smart was, perhaps, one of the best things that happened to me since it simultaneously told me how the world saw me and then allowed me to figure our how I felt about that designation. It took me a while to get there, but I did.

Another friend of mine defined geeks as “those who aren’t afraid to say the smart things when the dumb thing is most popular” and I ADORED his answer. With that one sentence, he perfectly captured the choice that geeks make to be true to their minds despite the popular vote. This fearlessness, this willingness to use the brain in their head is, for me, what defines a true geek. I am a geek. I embrace my geekdom and the definition that I have for it. I didn’t start out that way. I did my fair share of crying in the girl’s bathroom because I raised my hand too much or got extra credit for dressing up as an Egyptian Scribe for my 7th grade oral report. But now, as a 37 year old woman, I am utterly confident in my intelligence. Not in some Mensa, never-make-a-mistake, aren’t-I-amazing sort of way, but in a way that I don’t ever question the quality of my mind. Lord knows I’ve questioned just about everything else  – my appearance, my sense of humor, my cooking, my parenting, my weight, my place in the world – but I will never question my brain and what it holds. I’m proud of this brain of mine and will continue to throw the geek word around with great abandon and self-assurance in the hopes of removing the stigma attached to it. And also in the hopes of proving to each and every kid out there who thinks the dumb answer might be the better option to think twice and never, ever apologize for your mind. We are all defined by the moments in which we reveal our true selves.  So shine on, geeks and say the smart thing.

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Installing the Compass


Installing the Compass – my latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…

my second grade class picture

Seems you can’t read a newspaper or listen to the radio lately without seeing or hearing about Amy Chua and her Wall Street Journal piece “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”. I firmly believe that quite a bit of Chua’s goal in writing the article and in including such incendiary comments, was to create a stir in the press (which she did with flying colors). And whether you find yourself agreeing with her or nodding along with David Brooks who, among other things, said that Chua may be putting her children at a disadvantage not because of her strict parenting but because he wishes she “recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is most intellectually demanding that the library” (hear! hear!), I think the take-away from both of these pieces is that it has opened up a worthwhile dialogue among parents. How we parent. How we discipline. Are we too easy on our kids? Too demanding? Do we expect enough of them or are we praising them into complacency? And while I do not think that there is one common denominator in parenting – no magic bean that anyone can plant to grow the perfect child – I do think that it is an absolute necessity for parents to sit down and talk about how they want to raise their kids.

 

My husband and I have never been parenting book types of people. Yes, we bought “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (mostly because we were told it was a vital part of the birthing process…like an epidural) but we’ve never really taken advantage of the many parental self-help books available. And I’ll be the first to admit that part of this hesitation stems from an inherent distaste for the genre. Please don’t get me wrong. Books are wonderful. They are vital to life. And self-help books offer much-needed assistance to millions or people worldwide every day. And I do believe that out there in the publishing ephemera, there are many really fantastic and legitimate books that can solve many of the problems of the world today. That said (phew!), I’m just not one of those people who wants to be seen on the Bart reading one. I find the majority of them preachy, even overzealous – as if by following “these six easy steps!”  you’ll have a life of eternal happiness and peace. Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe I’d be a walking-talking bastion of self-love with one on my Kindle, but it’s just not my bag.

But, in a moment of weakness and curiosity, we did recently read “”Bringing up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-up-too-fast World” by Marybeth Hicks. And, amazingly, I was kind of hooked. It was a bit like red licorice at the movies – you like it well enough and then before you know it you’ve eaten the whole box. Suddenly, I had finished the book – and could actually see a bit of myself in it. So, the introductory gist of the book is that the word “Geek” can be seen as an acronym for “Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids.”  Admittedly, this turned me off. Seriously, we need to turn “geek” into an acronym? But I stuck with it. And, despite a few meanderings into religion which I secretly skimmed, I fundamentally agreed with most of her points. Those being:

  • imbue a love of learning in your children and it will stay with them forever
  • let your child be “uncommon”, meaning let them be who they are and embrace the many facets of their emerging personalities as unique and special
  • don’t be in a rush to have your children grow up too fast – and adopt behaviors before they are ready

and, perhaps most importantly,

  • don’t fall into the trap of letting making your child care about what is “cool” instead of what is “right”

That last one really stuck with me. And I think it’s an idea that needs more fleshing out, more dialogue. This whole idea of coolness filtering down into our children scares the living daylights out of me and we see the repercussions of it daily in the news in terms of bullying, teen depression, violence, suicide….Already in my sons’ elementary school I’m seeing the distinct patterns of cliques and groups and posses and have overhead some pretty mean things being said between different types of kids. And these are GOOD kids! With great families and support networks and afterschool activities. And still the cool factor is wrecking havoc on their minds and hearts. It worries me because I have been privy to quite a few parenting decisions being made on the basis of “cool” versus “right.” Even growing up, there were those parents who seemed to be almost proud or titillated by the antics of their children. “Oh, Danny stole the car last night and ran into a tree? Har de har har. Boys will be boys!” or “So, Suzie came home last night at 3am! And her curfew is 11pm! She’s just like me at her age! Ha ha!” And deep within those disturbing statements is the feeling, on behalf of the parents, that it’s better for their kids to be cool than uncool. Better for them to be stealing the car with the posse than be the kid who’s reading in his bedroom.  Better for them to break curfew with the cool kids than come home at 11pm like they’ve been told. And to this, I say “no.”

Granted, parents make decisions for a wide variety of reason and I don’t claim or care to make severe judgment calls on another’s choices. All I can do is work on my own family and infuse ideals and values that make sense for us. And, for me, I’d rather my children be whimsical and imaginative and self-assured and utterly individual than cool. Because who dictates what is cool? Can’t my son, who can quote entire lines of Roald Dahl and announced to me yesterday that he wants to be a college professor of history so he can write a book about JFK, be the cool one? Can’t my younger son who sings Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” at the top of his lungs at all times of the day and who chooses to do math problems for fun be the ringleader? Can’t we turn “cool” on its ear and open up the doors of coolness to not just imply a certain stereotype? Let every kid be cool in his or her own way and define that coolness by their individual talents and interests. Let their rebellions come as a means of expressing themselves and with the necessary repercussions to remind them of what is right and what is wrong.

Now, I’ve never been much of a rebel. I did go along rather unwillingly in high school to steal a license plate in the middle of the night during a sleepover, but I honestly hated every minute of it and I was that kid who kept saying things like “don’t you think we should go back” and “i think i hear a siren”…I didn’t drink in high school and had my first drunken moment as a freshman in Branner during the ubiquitous “progressive” on the 3rd floor. After the fourth Sex on the Beach, I leaned up against the wall, slid down to the floor and announced to my friend Karen that “everyone looks really attractive to me.” I’ve never been tattooed. Never bungee jumped. Never took off in the middle of the night on a motorcycle with nothing but a change of clothes in a backpack. I did date a guy with a motorcycle once upon a time, but when he took me for a ride along Highway 1 I spent the entire time singing Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs to avoid certain death. And the one and only time I tried to smoke a cigarette, I didn’t know how to hold it (up near my head, or down near my legs???) so I held it midway and consequently burned the back of a little person’s neck at the bar. And if that isn’t a sign to lead a nicotine-less existence, I’m not sure what is.

All this is to say that my rebellions were relatively tame and came later in life. I wasn’t necessarily the cool kid in school. And I wasn’t perfect, either. I had teen angst. I wrote bad poems. I quoted DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Price on occasion, telling my parents they just didn’t understand. And yet I always, always knew what was right and what was wrong. My husband and I have talked about this quite often, for he, too, felt the ever-present moral compass in his own heart growing up. And we ask ourselves, how did our parents encourage that? How did they manage to instill that sense of decorum within us while still allowing us to become who we are? And I don’t think the answer is easy. I don’t think we can turn ourselves into Amy Chuas, nor do I think we can just cross our parental fingers and hope for the best. I think we, as parents, need to be present and be able to admit that there is not only one definition of cool. Not one stereotype you must inhabit to walk proudly through the world. That we are all cool and all geeky at the same time. And that we, as parents, are more vital to the emotional well-being of our children than any paperback self-help book or convenient acronym.  We need to be aware and need to be willing to perform the sometime painful operation of inserting that moral compass within our children. For despite the side effects of such surgery, the outcome is good.

 

originally published January 19th, 2011

https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/blogs/post-view/?ciid=25253&success=true)

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Couples Skate


And here’s my latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…

me circa 1986 - please note visor and vans

Does anyone else remember “couples skate” at the roller skating rink? The lights would dim. That kid in the corner would stop “shooting the duck”. The disco ball would fall from the ceiling and, suddenly, the early chords of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” would begin. That or Chicago’s “Glory of Love”…and for one brief moment you’d think that the really cute guy with the pulled up Izod collar and the pegged acid wash jeans was actually skating in your direction, until he put his toe forward to brake and exited from the carpeted rink to go buy a hot dog from the concession.

 

Well, for those of you who do remember, please pause for a moment of reflection. For I, too, remember. And my memory was jogged this morning in my continual quest to organize my closet…when I came upon my journal of poems from the seventh grade. And there, in between one entitled “Summer is Over” and one aptly named “Winter Formal Blues”, I came across “Skating Rink” and, now, I share it with you…please forgive the awkward rhymes. I was just beginning…

Skating Rink

by Katie Mauro (age 12)

The people around me all stand in a trance

As the music rolls on, they wait for their chance

Girls on one side, boys on another

Too embarrassed to even talk to each other

The skate with a boy is the ultimate goal

But no boy wants to take on that “ask the girl” role

The slow song is playing, the lights they are down

The wheels on the roller skates goes round and round

The only people skating are couples from the past

Skating together, making it last

The song will not end now for quite a while

So I’ll just stand here with my painted on smile

And hope for a dream before it is gone

To take someone’s hand while we skate on and on.

 

And there you have it. Teen angst at its finest. And I can still remember the smell of the boiling hot dogs and the squirtable nacho cheese and the elevated booth for the DJ (who, of course, had a killer mustache) and how magical it all seemed. And despite the lack of a partner for couples skate, life does go on…and the roller skate wheels do indeed go round and round.

 

 

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Notes from a Small Island


My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog, “My Life as a Geek”…

We call it the “Zeigler Family Manifesto” and it’s written on a wrinkled piece of lobster-juice stained paper thumb tacked to the bulletin board in our office. And it has been, by far, the most effective, inspiring, useful piece of familial organization I’ve ever seen. Confused? Let me backtrack a bit… Every summer, we have the luxury of visiting my husband’s family’s house on an island off the coast of Maine. It is, by far, the most spectacular place on the face of the Earth and, as we tearfully float away by boat at the end of every summer, we faithfully begin the countdown until next year. It is the place where I feel most at home, most at peace with myself and my place in the world, and a place where time seems to have stood still…With no electricity (except for the few renegades who have installed solar power on their cottages) the gas lamps and gas stove and gas-powered refrigerator mean three things: 1) don’t light the broiler if the gas has been running for too long or you’ll burn your eyebrows and most of your hairline off, thereby bearing a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I. 2) the little popping noise that gas lamps make is the perfect soundtrack to eating fresh lobster on the back porch and 3) with no electricity, you and your children will literally unplug and have more fun than you’ve ever thought possible. No television. No video games. Just ocean, sea glass, boat rides, reading books, drawing pictures of osprey, playing Parcheesi and allowing your inner clock to slow down just a bit and embrace life at a simpler and more enjoyable pace. As you can imagine, it is here that most resolutions begin. Like a midsummer New Year’s Eve, this particular island inspires new beginnings: pledging to fit into a smaller bathing suit by next summer being one of those that seems to roll over (no pun intended) into each year. Others include: spending more time playing card games as a family, watching less television when we return home, eating more shellfish (although we’ve committed to not eating lobster anywhere outside of the state of Maine unless, of course, it’s in some sort of bisque in which case all bets are off), exercising more, learning how to water-ski, diving off the high-high dive (infinitely more impressive than the lowly high-dive) and just generally taking things less seriously. This past summer, we decided, as a family, to sit down and actually go through these resolutions together. Right there, on the back porch overlooking the ocean and the occasional hum of the lobster boats. And what came out of this picturesque family meeting was (drum roll, please), The Zeigler Family Manifesto. We decided to come up with five “pillars” for our family. Five things that are most important to us as individuals and as a group and to commit to those five things for a year. Spurred by the overwhelming feelings that sometimes plague families: too many sports, too many classes, too many social obligations, too many commitments, too many lobster rolls (is that just me?)…we figured by articulating these five pillars, we might be able to say “no” more often to things that really aren’t all that important to us – and thereby focus our family a bit more as a collective. That said, the five pillars of our family are: 1) Family 2) Education 3) Responsibility 4) Art 5) Fun Or, FERAF for you acronym-obsessed folk. Once we had those established, we let the boys brainstorm what they thought should fall under each pillar – things they like to do, people who are important to us, goals we have for the future – and it was utterly amazing how excited they were about this process, how much they wanted to each come up with their own ideas, their individual “ownership” of each pillar. We wanted to make sure that they knew that one person’s idea of fun may not be another’s, and that’s alright – we may think differently about what falls under the “art” pillar and that’s just fine… Family was easy – spending time with those we love. Learning more about our family’s history and genealogy. Coming back to this island we love and seeing our cousins and second cousins and third cousins twice removed – all of whom we just call Aunt and Uncle for simplicity’s sake. Education included both mind and body – school, homework, reading, sports, karate, basketball, learning new things, cooking, going to the library, learning how to drive Uncle Niv’s boat…It was an amazing thing for the boys to see that education isn’t just school – it goes way beyond it and can encompass all the things we are passionate about. Responsibility included “do you best” (perfect for my older son who is a Cub Scout), knowing the rules and following them, doing the right thing, helping others, serving the community and, as my five year old said with great dignity, “picking up trash on the ground.” Art has always been something my husband and I have held dear – in its many iterations: theatre, dance, music, painting, etc. For this pillar we wanted to continue our love for the arts – visiting museums, taking the boys to different theatre productions, piano lessons, and for my older son, “watching “So You Think You Can Dance.” And then there’s Fun. Reading Books. Visiting open spaces. Taking walks. Riding bikes. Having friends over. Taking time to invest in our friendships – new and old. Taking a moment from the business of our lives to really laugh and giggle and make fools of ourselves. And as anal as all of this may seem to some, the effect it has had on our family is profound. We took the boys to see Bill Irwin in Scapin at ACT in San Francisco and on the way there, my 5 year old said, “This is awesome. This is the Art Pillar!” On other occasions, the boys like to see just how many pillars we are fulfilling at one time. “This is Responsibility and Family and Fun and Art!” (as they put their napkins in their laps while we eat together at a restaurant and draw silly pictures on the napkins.) That sunny afternoon on our little Maine island has brought focus to our otherwise manic lives and has allowed all of us, my husband and I included, to really prioritize what we hold most dear. The Zeigler Family Manifesto, as ominous as it stands, will continue on as a living document to be amended and edited and revisited as we, as a family, grow and change and develop. And the fact that this little piece of paper has brought us closer together is exactly what we hoped for. The fact that it’s stained with lobster juice is just an added bonus.

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Is that a Moia or are you just happy to see me?


There is, perhaps, no better example of my life as a geek than my dating history. Before we take this particular walk down memory lane, let me first give thanks to my darling husband. Not only is he witty and wonderful and handsome and kind and tall and just about every adjective that I once came up with when daydreaming about my perfect man (you remember my imaginary boyfriend, Chess, don’t you? Ah, yes…). He makes me laugh like no one else and he balances me out when I become, as my grandmother Deedles put it, skeewampus. He has great hair and a great smile and he knows how awful I am when I’m sick and he even puts up with me telling the same joke 17 times without remembering that I’ve told it 16 times before. Like the line from The Simpsons when the teacher, Edna Krabappel, gets tired of Ralph Wiggum and tells him to put his head down on the desk and go to sleep and Ralph says, “Sleep! That’s where I’m a Viking!”. He’s heard that one before. (Stop me before I tell it again.) He makes unbelievable chicken pot pie and the way he drives a boat makes me swoon and he’s just the all-around best guy I know.

I’m also thankful for him in another way, which is that he somehow managed to dislodge me from the runaway train that was my love life before him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Strewn through the romantic adventures of Miss Katie Mauro were some lovely, lovely gentleman. Truly marvelous. In college and even afterward when I lived in Washington, DC, there were men whom I loved and who loved me and there you go. But, along the way…there were…shall we say…obstacles? Bumps in the road on the way to bliss?

Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I offer

Exhibit A: I once met a man at a nightclub in Washington DC, where, for all you econ geeks out there, a band named Standard Deviation was playing. What, you ask, could a band named after a widely used measurement of variability or diversity be playing? Why, early 80’s cover songs, of course! The best of which was a rousing rendition of Squeeze’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” Epic. At any rate, this particular young man was standing next to me in the dark and we made eye contact a few times.  He seemed nice. Normal. Had a clean haircut. So we went on a date that ended back at his house so I could see “something in his backyard.” Now, before you pass judgment, I do realize now that this was terrifically creepy and I should have run for the nearest Metro station immediately, but just wait til you hear what that “something” was and you’ll understand that, had I not seen this “something in his backyard” I couldn’t retell this fantastic story right now. Upon arriving at his house, he immediately took me around to the backyard. And there stood…wait for it…a fourteen-foot-tall paper mache Moai. Are you familiar with Moai? No, you say? Remember the large statues on Easter Island? You got it…Moai. And here was one made of newspaper and flour paste and decorated, quite charmingly I might add, with little twinkly Christmas lights. Herein ends Exhibit A.

I offer Exhibit B: I once had dinner with another fine fellow who, upon trading e-mail addresses, informed me that his e-mail moniker was “cheeseman”. Of course, inquiring minds want to know, so I asked where this delightful little name came from. Again, ignorance is bliss, for I then discovered that this gentleman regularly dressed up as a piece of Swiss cheese for Mardi Gras. He even had a web site. Herein ends Exhibit B.

I will also bring forward to the court Exhibit C. He was a barista. It was a match made in non-fat latte heaven. And he was even British. And he wore cute little Benjamin Franklin glasses that were constantly falling down his nose and he’d push them back up with a wink. It was like dating the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins. Until, one evening, I realized he was rather more Poppins than I’d hoped. Let’s just say that, in one of those ill-fated conversations in which you reveal one little secret about yourself to someone you’ve just started dating, he quietly confessed to a preference for female undergarments. And, my dears, no amount of sugar could make that medicine go down.

And then, magically, I met my husband. In the least likely of places – on 80′s night in a crowded dance hall, after unsuccessfully lambada-ing against a wall.  Long story. He said “we could either stare at each other all night or I could introduce myself.” And in one moment the clouds parted and here we are.

So, what’s my point in all of this? Well, give me a minute while I try to flesh this out. So, for all these years, I’ve looked back at this menagerie of fellows as strange. Freaky, even. As if I had some sort of freak magnet lodged deep beneath my spleen that would instantly draw a certain sort of individual into my path. That perhaps I let off peculiar vibes…like those whistles that only dogs can hear. But, then, upon reflection, I thought of something else. What if I was strange in their eyes? What if there are a number of gentlemen out there today who are blogging about this same topic and using me as an example? For all I know, I could be the freak to their magnet.  Trust me, I have my share of stuff. Shall we present that evidence as well? Here’s goes.

Exhibit A: I once worked at a think tank in Washington DC and there was a handsome young man from Oklahoma whom I thought was just the bee’s knees. But instead of doing what perhaps a normal person would do, I decided to write him a poem, sung to the tune of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” and e-mail it to him.  Don’t believe me? Let’s revisit the chorus shall we?

“Yeah, I’m not fond of hippy fellas

Or guys named Brock from cheap novellas

Yeah I’ve got my eye in Okie places.”

Exhibit B: About two weeks after I began dating a certain World Bank employee, I thought it would be really adorable to send said economist my resume. Not my normal resume with my education and work experience and words per minute. No, being the clever gal I am, I decided to create a “dating resume” detailing all of my little quirks and cutenesses. Like, “I sing Aretha Franklin at the top of my lungs in the shower” and “I can recite the ‘to be or not to be’ speech from Hamlet.” Impressive, say you? Well, let’s just say, I was promptly let go.

Exhibit C: My freshman year in Branner I had become a little flirty with another guy on my floor. You know the deal. Back massages in the hallways. Sharing a Domino’s pizza at 3am. Having the 45-year old freshman who lived upstairs drive you to Ernie’s on El Camino Real to buy Bartles and James’ peach wine coolers. It was paradise. During one of those deep conversations (much like the aforementioned women’s undergarment episode but with must less elastic) he told me he liked my perfume. Well, what would a girl like me do with that sort of information? A girl like me would steal into his room while he was at class, and proceed to spritz the heck out of his pillow with my Liz Claiborne perfume in the blue triangle bottle. Sadly, the results were not stellar. Romance, on his part, did not continue. Blinding headaches? Yes. Romance? No.

So, although my stuff may not be a foam suit of Swiss Cheese or strips of wet newspaper in the form of monolithic human figures, it’s stuff nonetheless. We’re all freaks in some way. The trick is to find your fellow freak who shares your love for 1970’s Dustin Hoffman movies and who doesn’t try to stop you from doing “the sprinkler” at a cousin’s wedding. Because it’s all just a matter of perspective. I mean, I love cheese, just not as apparel. But somewhere out there I hope, for his sake, there lives a woman who likes to dress up as a Ritz cracker.

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Searching for Diana


My latest for the Stanford Alumni Association blog…enjoy!

Years ago, when I was little and would spend the night at my grandparents’ house out in the country, I would pretend that I was Anne of Green Gables. I’d lie upstairs in the little twin bed next to the window, listening to the tiny green frogs hiccuping against the open screen, and dream that I had long red hair and a boy named Gilbert Blythe who loved me and that I lived in a white gingerbread house on Prince Edward Island. At one point, around that same time, I apparently announced to my parents that I wanted to renounce my American citizenship so that I could become Canadian and move to Nova Scotia. This wasn’t the first of such announcements. Others included legally changing my name to “Katie Blue” which my mother quickly put the brakes on since she thought it was eerily similar to Cher’s son Elijah Blue. Another was that, at the ripe old age of 10, I announced I was deeply in love with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a fact highlighted by my registration in the Tom Hulce Fan Club. My parents, I think, learned to embrace each new pronouncement with patience and a smile, all the while knowing that another, even more surprising, one was right around the corner.

At any rate, my Anne of Green Gables mood lingered for quite a while. My grandparents, at the time, lived in a big white house out in the country that could only be reached by driving down a narrow lane lined with eucalyptus trees. I used to ride my little bicycle with the banana seat and the streamers on the handlebars up and down the lane creating Anne-ish scenarios in my head. My bicycle might accidentally fall into the irrigation ditch that ran the length of the lane, but that was alright! Gilbert would arrive shortly to rescue me. Or perhaps I was carrying fresh cream scones in my bicycle’s basket to deliver to my, as Anne would have put it, “bosom friend” Diana.

Now the “bosom friend” thing was quite a bone of contention for me. I was never the child who had a “best friend.” I had lots of friends, girlfriends who invited me for sleepovers, to play “light as a feather stiff as a board” with. To play “Prom night for Barbie” with…but I always wanted what Anne and Diana had. This unspoken agreement that they were, and always would be, best friends. Oh, how I wanted that. There is a scene in Anne of Green Gables when Anne and Diana are spending the night at Diana’s aunt’s house and they’re making tons of mischief and, at one point, they fall back on the bed laughing. And, for some reason in my little poetic heart, I wanted just that. Someone who would giggle with me about nothing and who knew that no matter what might come our way, we had each other and we were best friends.

I didn’t have one in elementary school. I didn’t have one in high school and, to be completely honest with you, I started to wonder if maybe it was because I was too dorky or too shy  or too quick to quote Life of Brian at inopportune times.

When I got to Stanford, I was immediately so envious of those girls who had a best friend back home. Worse yet, were the girls who had 6 best friends from home. And they always had a name, this group of girls. They were a “posse” or a “crew” or, even more impressive, “the 6-pack.” I didn’t have a six-pack. Heck, I didn’t have a one-pack. I didn’t have that one girl whom I had known since preschool who knew my every moment; who knew that my first kiss was with a guy who played the trombone in a marching band or that the first time I danced with a boy it was to Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” or that I, at one rather embarrassing time, had an imaginary boyfriend whose name was Cheston Anton Harris. (I’m really not kidding).   I wanted a friend who was a witness to my life and to whom I, in turn, could likewise be a witness.

But then, I started making friends – lots of them. Who were just like me. And there started to be faint glimmerings that maybe having lots of friends was good, if not even better than having just one really good one. But still, I kept thinking that without that one best friend, there was something wrong with me.

Even after college as I moved across the country, I made very good friends with lots of different people and we traveled together and had our hearts broken and walked home late at night from crowded bars laughing about how we couldn’t necessarily remember where we’d left our winter coats, and I loved them dearly. We had monthly dinner parties where we’d try to cook fancy things with fancy names from fancy cookbooks that sometimes tasted fantastic and then, more often than not, tasted a little too fancy – so we’d hop on the Metro and eat at the all-night diner. I felt connected to friends in a way that I had never felt before. Like this might be my posse, just discovered later in life. And yet, I think I was still searching for that one person. That Diana to my Anne. Because, in a way, I felt like time was running out. Like if you don’t find your best friend by the time you’re 25, you might as well hang up your coat and settle into a nice long life with many cats.

Then, of course, is the bridesmaid thing. I’ve never been a bridesmaid. Other girls I know get so tired of all of the atrocious, ruffled, turquoise, Jessica McClintock, sequined bridesmaids dresses they’ve had to wear over the years and I smile and laugh sympathetically, when really I’m a tad jealous. Jealous that they were chosen. Jealous of that purple frock with the matching hat.

Now, as a married woman with children of my own, I’ve grown up a little. I’ve given up on my search for the perfect friend and yet in doing so, I have opened my heart up to a whole collection of remarkable women with whom I share my life. The fall after I married the most wonderful guy on the planet, I met a girl who was so like me in so many ways. She had just recently been married, too, and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time – going through similar events with the same sense of excitement mixed with terror. We found in one another what we still refer to as “non cool cucumber-ness”, which means that we are not of the “cool cucumber” class of women who always seem to float above the rest with perfect shoes. Who never seem to spill an entire non-fat latte into the crotch of their jeans (me).  Who never drive off from a pizza restaurant with an entire pizza on the top of their car (her). And who never, ever, have an overnight maxi pad fall out on the floor from her purse while on a date (can’t remember if this is me or her…). And this imperfection that we found in one another was like a revelation for me. Unfortunately, this dear friend of mine moved too far away for either of us to even mention and we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. And we try to maintain a “Beaches” like friendship – channeling our inner Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey and sending each other letters and phone calls and missing each other desperately. And there are times that we’re disconnected and there are times that we annoy one another and it’s OK. I mean, Lord knows I’ve been in enough long-distance relationships with men for me to have learned that distance, while at times romantic and poetic, is really just hard. And the same goes for long-distance friendships. But when I’m sad I call her. And when I’m happy I call her. And when I’ve just almost run someone over at the ATM because I didn’t put my car in park, I call her.

And she is just one in a wonderful array of friends now. And I’m learning that you don’t just need one. If I were to put all of the friends in my life together in a room, you would have talents and accomplishments that include:

  • a painter and illustrator i’m secretly jealous of
  • a woman who, no matter what the time or place, always, always, always can make me laugh
  • the most in-shape woman i have ever seen who can wear a denim shorts jumper (which would make me look like a trailer park Holly Hobby) and look unbelievably amazing
  • a doctor
  • a lawyer
  • no Indian chiefs yet, but there’s still time
  • an art history major who, in her spare time, took all the pre-med classes and is now a renowned gastroenterologist
  • teachers whom i would be honored if my children had for every grade of their entire lives
  • a pastry chef
  • a professional singer
  • a professional dancer
  • a non-professional therapist whose advice i treasure more than any professional therapist around
  • a photographer
  • a woman who owns every Pez dispenser ever made
  • a b’hai spiritualist with her own skin care line

and

  • the only woman i know who can make a perfect pie crust

These are my best friends. Notice that I’m at peace what that word being plural. Did I find my Diana? Maybe not. But then maybe that was just an adolescent longing gone haywire. Maybe the lesson in all this is not to search for the one while ignoring the blessings of many. Had I known this then, I would have perhaps slept a little more soundly, listening to the frogs outside my window. But, then again, the journey away from Diana certainly wouldn’t have meant so much.

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