Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The first time was an accident, really. I was maybe three at most, and accidentally wandered away from an English Department picnic that was being held in the mountains. Somehow, I remember being convinced that being lost meant that I was lost for good, and I assumed that everyone would just go home without me and I would have to live in the woods forever by myself. It's odd, because even today I sometimes have dreams where I'm driving while lost, and the road metamorphosizes from highway to gravel road, to dirt road climbing up into the mountains, into no road at all so that I end up driving into an icy river or off a mountain pass and then after that there's nothing at all . . . just blank whiteness. One of the English professors found me, though, and brought me back to the picnic. I think this is the same picnic where somebody gave me a hamburger that was, as my mother put it, cook right on grill with no protection, meaning that it hadn't been properly sanitized according to my mother's rather stringent standards. Apparently, up to this point in my life, all of my food intake was rather excruciatingly monitored, and my mother prohibited me from eating with silverware that she hadn't personally sanitized. Torn between Possible Infanticide By Unchecked Bacteria and the Japanese duty of Being Polite To Husband's Sensei Colleagues, my mother grimly allowed me to eat the hamburger. She always mournfully points out that I gobbled it right up, as if this were a personal affront to her. I'm sure I thought it was delicious. It's strange to think that I'm now the same age as many of the English professors who were at that picnic.

It wasn't until I was in the fourth grade that I was ever allowed to spend the night at somebody else's house. The concept of a Slumber Party seemed almost too delicious to comprehend . . . it seemed so exotic, like something that people did on T.V. . . . so American. (Furthermore, my girlfriend's family lived in an apartment, which somehow seemed chic and urbane beyond all belief. Very Mary Tyler Moore.) Needless to say, I worked myself up into such an apoplexy of excitement over my first-ever Slumber Party (with real sleeping bags!) that I was completely unable to sleep whatsoever and came down with, what I realized in retrospect, was my first migraine. It was a headache like no other. I was sure that I'd suddenly been stricken with a brain tumor in the middle of the night, and it seemed hopelessly rude to wake up my girlfriend's parents to ask for Tylenol, so I just lay there. The next morning I gingerly attempted to eat eggs, sunny side up, for breakfast (in and of itself an exotic breakfast experience), with my migraine swirling around in my skull like socks tumbling about in a dryer, and all of a sudden everything flipped inside out and my stomach flew into my brain, and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. Much to my chagrin, my parents were called to come and get me, and I had to forego the matinee movie, which made me very sad, because I'd only been to a rare handful of movies in the actual movie theater before. It was a Don Knotts Movie . . . The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, I believe, and I liked Don Knotts. I remember being unable to sleep one night and my father had let me sit up on the couch while he marked student papers, and I saw Don Knotts as The Incredible Mr. Limpet. I guess it must have made a big impression. Despite the fact that this initial debacle only confirmed my mother's suspicions that slumber parties were dangerous activities sure to cause debilitating illnesses, I managed to acclimate a little bit better on subsequent occasions . . . although to this day I never sleep well my first night in a strange hotel when I'm giving an out-of-town reading.

When I was in the 8th grade I went out of town for the first time without my parents for any demonstrable length of time when I traveled to Washington, D.C. with my piano teacher. I had composed a piano sonata which won a national music composition award, and I was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center. The Kennedy Center was all plush and velvety inside . . . in plums and purples . . . . like the inside of a jewelry box. My piano teacher took me to the National Gallery . . . it was the first art museum I'd ever been to. She translated everything for me in terms of music. Baroque=Bach, Impressionists=Debussy, etc. I loved it so much we went back and did it all over again two days later. It was exciting to be in a city, to see so many different kinds of people, and I tried to imagine what their lives were like. I imagined where I would live in Washington, D.C., and the seeds of escape began to take root. Now, whenever I travel somewhere new, I always like to pick out where I would live, and construct a make-believe life for myself there. Later on, during my freshman year of college, when my piano teacher was dying of cancer, she would ask her husband to call me at my dorm room. Sometimes she wasn't even able to talk, or she would be disoriented from the morphine, and so I would just talk to her for as long as she wanted. About anything. About everything. Sometimes I could hear her crying in the background from the pain.

At the age of 16, I spent a week at the University of Montana to go to Piano Camp. (Yes, the very term "Piano Camp" is oxymoronic enough to elicit a few snorts of disbelief, I realize, so please feel free to snigger away.) Ironically, although I'd been practicing eight hours a day all summer, I spent minimal time practicing the piano at Piano Camp. My roommate was a rather marvelously wanton young woman equipped with a seemingly endless supply of pot and a veritable wardrobe of string bikinis, and she was always dragging me off with her to get high. I remember being simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by a boy with complicated orthodonture involving the wiring shut of his braces. All of his meals had to be pureed for him in a blender . . . pizza, hamburgers, you name it. At the same, time, the fact that his mouth was wired shut made him come across as rather mysterious and thoughtful.

The day I left for college, I remember my parents standing by my shuttle bus in Ft. Collins, Colorado, waiting for it to leave for the Denver Stapleton Airport. I'd been accepted to the Indiana University School of Music as a Piano Performance major, and was off to make a future (or so I thought at the time) as a concert pianist. I'd also been accepted to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Sometimes I wonder if my life would have been significantly different if I'd gone to Peabody instead of Indiana. It was in Indiana that I eventually found myself as a writer (many years later), and where I found my most significantly formative writing teachers and mentors. I remember how earlier in the morning my mother tried to stuff me full of pastries, even though I felt too nervous to eat, and at the shuttle bus pick-up, she was exceptionally tense and brittle, avoiding my eyes, which meant that she was upset. Later on that night when she called me at the dorm to see if I'd arrived okay, she said that something strange had happened to her favorite jade ring. She said that when she got home, she found that the stone had fallen out of its setting, and that she was broken-hearted.
Posted by Artichoke Heart | 10:08 PM |
E-mail Artichoke Heart

Books by Artichoke Heart
Beyond Heart Mountain
Year of the Snake

Poems by Artichoke Heart
Songs for a Rainy Season
Toothpick Warriors
Snake Wife
Happy Hour
Girl With A Bowl On Her Head

Pillow Book Courtiers Of The
East Wing
Blogroll Me!

Pillow Book Courtiers Of The
West Wing
Blogroll Me!

Acknowledgments and Buttons

Oral Sex Donations Accepted