blogging

Echo of the Ephemeral

There’s a wonderful scene in a Chevy Chase movie where a family has just completed a journey across America to see the Grand Canyon. Having finally arrived, the family gets out of the station wagon, walks to the edge of the abyss and, with their arms around each other, they collectively heave a great, appreciative sigh, then shrug their shoulders and get back into the car to go home. The moment is great comedy because who can’t relate? When something is too overwhelming for words—too intangible, out of reach—even when it is right there in front of us, there is no way to capture it; no amount of drinking it in that can solidify the experience or make it more real. You just can’t eat it. There it is. Time to get back in the car.

There are some images that can just not be described with words alone—the giant gumdrop of a California sunset as it melts into the Pacific Ocean; the smell of Georgia pines after a rain storm; the life and energy of Times Square after the theaters let out; wisps of hair on your shoulder on the first warm day of the year. In trying to describe the ineffable, one relies upon the reader’s own history to fill in the blanks.

Likewise, there are experiences that are so utterly subjective that one can never truly share their worth. And there is always the difficulty of a culture-gap. Manhattan is a concept which is so totally alien to my relatives in rural Texas that, after feebly suggesting various stretches of their imaginations, I often end my explanations with the tired phrase, “You’d have to be there to understand…” I have the same problem explaining the beauty of listening to country music while driving all night down an old, dusty, two lane highway to folks from New York City …They just can’t get it. There’s no point of reference, and the experience is too elusive to capture with mere language.

What I’d most like to capture and be able to recreate in a way that would resonate for the universal reader is the sensation of a Southern thunderstorm. In attempting to define such an experience, words can only wrap their way around the invisible forces of nature—outlining in the sketchiest, loosest way what is transient and filled with power. Words can describe the warm, salty taste of a gulf breeze, but they cannot convey the electric thrill that every Texan knows when that breeze begins to cartwheel across the shore, damp and full of potential and warning. I can tell you in words of the clouds—rich, blue and gold—slowly gathering into larger, heavier and deeper blue-black and silver groups, crowding each other into cauliflower bunches across the steel-gray sky, rumbling and growling with intensity and a promise of force. But I cannot make you feel the spark of fire that catches when the first flashes of lightning explode inside the clouds and illuminate their edges. I can’t truly capture the sound of those first heavy drops of rain as they land on the windshield of a van or the rhythmic hissing as the wind blows the downpour across the roof. I mean, I can tell you, but if you have no shared context, the images may not come to life for you—no matter how true-to-life.

I can tell you what it’s like to be drenched to the bone, but I cannot reproduce the sensation of wet feet inside of wet shoes, or the smell—warm and weedy. For me, the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of a Texas thunderstorm are co-mingled things, inseparable, incapable of true translation. The oil in the Gulf of Mexico lends the air a thick brownness, salty and flavorful. The wind carries silvery currents back and forth across the road. There are times when it is impossible to see anything beyond the beating streams of water on the windshield. Traffic stops. Gutters overflow into the streets and barefoot children scream at the thunderclaps and run to catch crawdads in the overflowing ditches.

The storms can last from a few seconds to a day or more. When they leave, the air is crisp; the ground is littered in pine needles and leaves. The flood waters run off into the bayous and rivers, and the birds come out of hiding to celebrate the sunshine.

Inside homes, people turn from the Weather Channel back to their soaps and realty shows. The watches and warnings have moved on to another part of the county and life—for a while filled with danger and noise—returns to routine. One neighbor might call another to ask if any trees were downed in the storm or to share the story about the thunderclap that like to give her a dadblaned heart attack.

A Texas thunderstorm is a miracle that for me, as a writer, remains elusive and breezy. Unless one already has a point of reference—a similar memory of salt and wind and sound—there is no way to convey it with mere words. It is a living thing, vibrant, explosive, willful and majestic. It can be tasted. But no matter how hard you try, you just can’t eat it.

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Dysfunctional Dining

Our family has eaten dinner in front of the television set for the past two years. Strangely, we are all comforted by that, and to propose that we do otherwise would cause a major upheaval in our house. Aside from the 45 minutes to an hour or so that we spend together watching a show and eating, each of the four of us pretty much revolve in our own little universe, behind closed doors.

My 9 year-old daughter is working her way through the entire Harry Potter series and is addicted to educational computer games, Disney preteen sitcoms where everybody is sarcastic and rude to each other, and collecting Pokemon on her DS.  My 13 year-old son received a space-ship-like computer for his birthday last year (not from us—from a way-too-generous family friend), and we have hardly seen him since. My husband spends his days and nights doing temp work from his computer in what used to be the formal living room/music room but has now become his office. I spend most of my life on the third floor, in my attic office, writing, reading or playing with my mini-recording studio. Okay, I smoke up here, too. Shut up.

My husband and I take turns cooking dinner (lately, my daughter has been helping out in the cooking department, as well, having received several kids’ cookbooks for her birthday last year). When dinner is almost ready, we scream upstairs for the family to come down, and we set placemats on the coffee table and two TV trays placed in front of the easy chairs bookending the sofa. We scream a few more times until everyone is finally in one place, then we serve the food and commence to argue about what to watch. Sometimes, this argument lasts until we have all finished eating, and we clear the plates and send the kids back upstairs to wash, brush their teeth, or finish their homework.

We frequently binge-watch an entire series over a month or two. I was introduced to and followed the saga of the various Dr. Who’s throughout the entirety of last year before we moved on to Sherlock. When we watch movies, it often takes us a week or so to get through them, bite by bite. On the weekends, we will watch a film straight through, but during the week, we’re bound by school schedules and bedtime routines, so continuity is compromised.

Speaking during a program is discouraged, but my kids and husband are incapable of not speaking for more than a few minutes at a time, so we always have the mute button close at hand, so as not to miss any dialogue. Sometimes we have to rewind and watch a scene several times because of random interruptions by one or more of the four of us. When this happens, we scowl at one another and sigh loudly.  Dinner conversation is limited to what we can fit in during commercials or pauses.

I am aware that this sounds sad and dysfunctional. But it is what comforts us.

There was a time when we indulged in sit-down meals at the table, like the Waltons. When the kids were little, we’d snap them into their booster chairs, cut their food, dab the sides of each little messy mouth with a napkin and giggle over the cute things they did and said.  They loved our company then and even had fun teasing and playing with each other. I felt a swell of pride every time I put steaming platters of freshly cooked vegetables and meatloaf or home-cooked gumbo on the table in front of my family. This was me being a mom—a real mom. It was a role I embraced with the pleasure of a child playing dress up. My mother had never cooked (she wasn’t allowed–it was the 60’s). Sit-down meals were TV dinners in foil packages with peel-back tops. TV trays were metal things that pinched your fingers when you put them in the corner.

None of that nonsense for my family. Look how far I’ve come, I’d think, on my own, without anyone showing me how. My family is sitting at a table eating food I cooked for them.

We have a formal dining room with a massive Oak, claw-footed table which we pile with mail, backpacks, books, packages, and other debris. Twice a year—at Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Day eve, we scrape the table’s contents into cardboard boxes, clean the oak with a sponge and a dry rag, then adorn it with one of two thrift-shop lace tablecloths, a centerpiece candle, and mostly matching, shiny flatware. We dig out the mismatched gravy boats, salt and pepper shakers, and as many unchipped China plates as we can find in our kitchen cabinets, and we sit down over a turkey or ham dinner, like civilized people.  The kids hate this and are antsy and uncomfortable with no safe place to put their elbows and nothing civil to say to one another.

We have a long pine farm table in the kitchen, and this is where we eat together on the rare occasions the cable is out or we have a sleepover guest. The kids eat breakfast at this table when they make it down in time and aren’t about to miss the bus. On weekends, this is where we eat soup or drink hot chocolate with marshmallows after coming inside and kicking off our snow boots.

The rest of the time, the table is empty.