Thursday, May 27, 2010


Although I am reasonably sure that The Broadmoor doesn't actually flog employees when they make a mistake, the pretty blond woman in front of me was visibly shaking nonetheless. A ribbon pinned to the blazer of her uniform declared her to be "in training" and she had told us earlier that she had been there for two weeks. Sheila and I were quickly shaping up to be nightmare customers for anyone in the service industry as we attempted to check-in for our spa getaway. Oddly enough, we were trying our very best to be exceptionally pleasant. The young woman's distress being readily apparent, we only wanted to lessen it. I think that's what most people do, as most adult possess empathy.

"You left your credit card," the clerk said, in an accent I assume hailed from the Baltic states, as she handed over a sealed credit-card-sized envelope.

Every year at the start of the high season hospitality workers from all over the world land at the Broadmoor, many in pursuit of hotel management degrees. I've hit that window of training before, and although the service at the hotel is stellar, there are occasional stumbling blocks with the trainees. For whatever reason, we had been making this young woman perilously anxious since we'd appeared before her. I have no idea why, Sheila and I were actually two hours early for check-in, and knew it. That one of the rooms wasn't ready was rather to be expected, and far from pitching a fit, we'd both assured the clerk that it was fine that there would be a delay before my room was ready. She promised to call me when the room in question was prepared, and off we set, to tour the grounds on what was a beautiful day last week. The clerk had started shaking when she was unable to spell my rather straight-forward last name. It's generally my first name that plays merry hell with the ability of people to interpret it. However, when you think about it, for her it isn't usual, is it?

By the time we returned, the poor woman clapped delightedly when she saw us. Her joy was short-lived as the proffered credit card was actually not mine. There are a couple of things I've managed not to do in my life, although I've great faith in my own idiocy, and leaving behind my credit card happens to be one of them. So when I opened the envelope, it was with a flash of irritation directed towards myself, not the clerk. The Gold American Express card bore the name of Joe Somethingorotherski.

"This isn't mine," I said, and realized a fraction of a second too late that the young man next to the blond was evaluating her. A look of barely repressed anger flashed across his face, the blond began shaking again, and whereas I did everything I could to deflect that by making a rather large show of saying it was fine, checking my wallet and saying with relief that indeed my credit card was there and that Joe was not in possession of it, the anger persisted. In fact, I wasn't sure if I was making it better or worse, and again too late, decided to shut up before the manager beside her stuffed the woman in a larger envelope and shipped her home.

We had a lovely time, ate great food, were pampered at the spa, and came home relaxed, and ready for more of the same. That's exactly how the weekend played out, but Monday contained something different. Something we seldom talk about because approaching the subject is a sticky proposition.

I have long since known that my ethnicity is a question for some. Anyone who reads here regularly likely knows that I am actually a rather bland mix of Scottish, English, and German. There may have been a swarthy milkman somewhere in my genetic past, but I doubt it. It was just a genetic fluke that I inherited my Scottish mother's exceptionally pale skin, combined with my father's dark-brown-nearly-black hair. If you've a burning desire to know what I'm talking about, please feel free to check this post for a closeup of my avatar picture.

From the nice Norwegian man who declared that I couldn't be American because I spoke English too well, to the woman at the auto-mechanic's who asked me where I was from when standing next to a Pakistani friend, because "you have such beautiful skin" and then was visibly shocked when I replied, "New Jersey...oh! Scottish, that's the origin of the pale skin." my perceived ethnicity tends to be influenced by the context within which it is viewed. It's no coincidence that when hanging out with a Japanese friend I'm frequently mistaken for being part Asian myself. Although most of my ancestry is decidedly WASPish, I tend to trip the "Otherness" meter for some. The most common question does have to do with being somehow Asian. People from India ask me if I'm part Indian, people from Iowa sometimes assume that I must have a more exotic mixture somewhere within me. It used to be more frequent, back when I wasn't covering up any gray, and my natural hair color is actually a shade darker.

It had been an odd, but pleasant day. Sheila had to attend a conference in town, and would be checking into her hotel on Monday evening, before flying out again on Wednesday. She's not from Colorado, and therefore I wanted to make sure she had a chance to see one of the more impressive sights in the state: The High Plains. Climbing up through the Rockies, heading towards Breckenridge on 285 you round a bend and there they are. Vast beyond the telling of it, incredibly beautiful, and incongruous considering that the elevation is close to 12 thousand feet.

Of course, there were some challenges. We've been having insanely high winds, and we were accompanied by the sound of wind howling throughout. Just as we reached the plains, a small snow squall descended, plunging temperatures and proving that the old, "If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait a minute." tends to be true. Breckenridge turned out to be having some extensive road work done on their main street, so we decided to have lunch back in Fairplay, on our way back down the mountains.

Fairplay has exactly two claims to fame, and one of them is only mine. That's the town I drove to pick up my dog Puddles, and it is also the town upon which the creators of South Park based their show. It's not big, or impressive, but it's there, and it has two readily accessible restaurants. We stopped at a cafe, hungry, wind blown, slightly chilled and in the middle of their smallish lunch rush.

The food was neither good or bad, simply filling and welcome for that. At first we both admired the rustic interior, the mountain-ambiance, and the low ceiling to keep in the warmth, hold out the cold. By the end of the meal we were both glad to be shut of the place as one patron there was attempting to kill us both dead with the power of her stony stare. Unfortunately she had plenty of company in that endeavor.

She was an older woman, and from the moment we walked in, she had a new hobby: giving us the hairy eyeball. The stink-eye. An uninterrupted, affronted concentration of disapproval. What was worse was that as we sat, the cafe filled up. There was no waiting area, the waiting diners lined the walls, and three other people joined in staring in as unfriendly a fashion as possible at our booth. We weren't the only out-of-towners there. It was apparent that there were several other people thwarted by the construction in Breckenridge. The hostess hollered at people to get out of the way of the kitchen, and as locals joined the waiting throng, more unfriendly stares joined the older woman's. It was bizarre, they barely gave it a break. On the rare occasion that I looked up and She-of-the-Stony Glare was actually engaged in eating, I needed only to move my gaze a fraction before I found somebody else had taken her staring place.

For once in my life I was cowed into silence. I know how unlikely that seems, but at that point I had only one hope, that we could get the hell out of there before Sheila noticed the seething stares around us. Sheila's Filipino. Although born in the U.S. and as much a citizen as I am, with a Masters in French Literature to boot, I knew exactly why we were on the receiving end of the death glares.

As we left, the woman who had started the glare fest was departing before us. Evidently only aware that there was someone behind her in the doorway, she held the door open, and I had a moment of hope. When I thanked her, and she saw who she was holding the door for, that woman yanked her hand away as if the door handle was red hot.

Of course it turned out that Sheila had been well aware of what was going on. When we got to the car she mentioned wanting to get out of there, a feeling I shared.

Every other time in my life when someone has clearly questioned my ethnicity it has been in a friendly fashion. An attempt at inclusion by the people who have asked me if one of my parents are Indian. A simple curiosity from the people who have assumed that somewhere in my veins runs a tie to another land. It was the first time in my life I had experienced hostility. When Sheila brought that up, I said, "Well, that wouldn't explain why they were staring at me, I'm about the whitest person most people have ever seen." indicating my skin color, but my eye color and hair color have raised questions before, and I knew. I think my friend did too.

There is something ugly happening in American. A reemergence of overt racism. Jan Brewer passes into law things in Arizona that will have people within the United States forced to present their papers. A person running for Governor in the South declares that one of his goals is to have the driver's license exam given in English only. People protesting actions taken by the president carry signs depicting him in the most outrageous of racial terms. We all know this to be true.

I set out to show my friend what great beauty my state contains, and accidentally showed her the ugliness that can exist side-by-side with that.

I'm not sure what can be done about this, but we have to admit it is happening. We have to have the bravery to have the conversations. To bring up the subject. To admit that this cancer still thrives within our borders. It may have been in remission, but that is no longer the case.

Do you know why I tried to divert Sheila from believing the Cafe patrons had been staring at us due to racial factors? I didn't know what else to do.

This post is an attempt to rectify that. I knew, Sheila knew. It was such an ugly thing, I wanted to look away from it. Pretend it wasn't there, pretend it could have been anything else. It was my turn to be shaken. I was the hospitality ambassador worrying that the guest I was caring for would be having a less than optimal stay. I wanted so much for it to be anything other than what it was, that I tried to pretend it could have been.

Therein lies the road to ruin if we continue to let this grow. This isn't really about what happened in a roadside cafe in an almost absurdly small town. I should have glared back. I should have stared that first woman down. I'm actually quite good at that.

I didn't because more than anything I wanted to believe that I was mistaken. That it wasn't happening. That in 2010, we were simply better than that by now.

It's one time. One occurrence, right? Does it really matter?

As much as I want to say that it does not, I fear that it really does.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Life More Ordinary

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would like life in an HOA controlled suburb, I'd have looked at them as if they had permanently parted company with their sanity. Yet, here we are, living the most conventional life imaginable, by all appearances, and happy in it.

Although Colorado carries with it a certain panache, bringing to mind hearty souls bounding up and down mountains effortlessly, hiking trails, plunging down ski slopes, the fact of the matter is it is the Midwest, with all the attendant cliches. It's impossible to escape the taint of a lack-of-cool that goes along with that.

When we lived in the metro area, in a house that was one hundred years old, and vaguely haunted to boot, there was a certain cool factor with that. I've come to discover that reliable electrical wiring may not carry with it any street cred, but it has a lot to recommend it. As does the peace, quiet, and unvarying atmosphere of a community where the houses look oddly similar, but the people turn out to have a wide range of viewpoints, despite needing to have their landscaping approved beforehand.

I was standing by a wrought iron fence, contemplating the beautiful morning, the pleasant wind, and the clear blue sky as my dog gave a shrub a rather thorough examination with her nose. The quiet neighborhood, with people departing for work, children shuffling off to school, garbage cans neatly lining the street awaiting pickup was strangely soothing, until a decidedly unfriendly growl caused me to turn to my left. About a foot away stood a black Great Dane, one I've encountered before, usually with a sullen teenager attached to his collar, hauling him away with admonishments not to eat the passerby. Said teenager was nowhere in evidence and the Dane rather elegantly cleared the fence in one fluid motion. It would have been quite impressive, that an animal so huge could move in such a delicate fashion, and clear a five foot fence if it wasn't for the fact that he was eying Puddles like she was a Scooby snack.

At the same moment, the House of Yorkie across the street suddenly deployed all four of their furry ballistic missiles when the garage door went up. I've met that pack before, and the first time I'd seen them I'd stared in amazement as the garage churned out a seemingly unending stream of yapping killers. As if they were being manufactured within. A vending machine of furry fury.

I had been so lulled by the quiet morning that the explosion of canine aggression around me caught me slightly off-guard, and instead of reacting in anyway, I stood helpfully gaping rather than actually doing anything. As the Great Dane decided to advance, and the Yorkies imperiled my ankles, the street came alive with owners shouting "No!" in various tones of alarm. Previously sullen teenager appeared as if from between blades of grass, urged into action, he cleared the fence in an ungainly manner that I'm afraid might cost him future generations. Clutching his sensitive bits, he still managed to grab hold of his mammoth dog before the Black Knight could devour my own. Team Yorkie froze solid, quivering with the anger peculiar to all tiny terriers, but locked in place by one command from their owner. Everyone concerned spared me a quick, "Sorry! Are you okay?" and then as quickly as the serene morning had been shattered, it was restored. All the residents of the area had sensed a disturbance in the Force and had hurled themselves forward to slap a containment lid on the proceedings.

That's what I like about the suburbs. Yes, I'm sure that long lives of repression don't do a body good, but they do make for more pleasant walks. My dearly departed Scotties and I would take a morning walk also and whereas tranquil mornings frequently had similar uproars, it was far rarer for something to be done about them. In particular there seemed to be no less than five pitbulls who were all wildly skilled at escaping their yards, a fact that thankfully never ended in bleeding tragedy but did have me practicing my canine command presence, regularly. The house that was covered in Christmas Tree stands attached to every available surface had indeed presented some visual interest, but it also housed a miserable drunk who would sometimes roll forth from the house, spouting obscenities at all hours of the day.

On no less than six occasions, I exited my metro home to a street alive with patrol cars, on two occasions officers had guns drawn. I'd retreated to the basement until an armistice of sorts had been declared on both occasions.

It turns out I suit a conventional life. As much as I'd like to think myself a free-thinker, a raging individual, and someone who could never be described as ordinary, I am fully content surrounded by rules and regulations. Fewer drunks, more Yorkie drill sergeants. I happily traded visual interest for tranquility.

Last weekend my friend Cynthia stopped by for a visit, and watched as I let my dog in and out, over and over, trying to teach her about being in the garden without me.

"You're the last person I thought would like the suburbs," she commented after asking if I'd gone to war with the HOA, and I replied that they'd yet to bother me in anyway, "this just doesn't seem like you."

There was always something happening around my house in Denver, some of it fun, some of it a nuisance, most of it disruptive. Strangely enough it wasn't a good area for anyone with a reclusive bent to their personality. We knew all of our neighbors, what they did, where they worked. If an ambulance was parked in front of someone's home, the neighborhood turned out, regardless of the hour, a horde of people all murmuring essentially the same sort of things, "Is Tom all right? Do you know what happened?"

At some point being a loner started to carry with it a vaguely alarming connotation, but like most people who favor reading as a pastime, I am frequently happiest when alone with a book. Neither social, nor anti-social. I like people a great deal, I find nearly everyone endlessly interesting. I think we are all only ordinary on the surface, concealing our very individual feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams. Strangely enough, I have always believed that if you meet a person with purple hair, that individual is likely closer to ordinary than the guy in the golfing shorts. Purple hair is wearing his or her self-perceived difference as a badge of sorts, a contrived kind of personality. When you get to know people, get to know their stories, it seems no one is commonplace. They just wear clothes, drive cars, and live in houses that suggest that.

Maybe I give people too much credit. After all, I confess that by the standards of most, I am closer to being the wild-haired, oddly attired, lady in a cabin, talking to logs than I am a soccer mom. Whatever a soccer mom truly is, as opposed to what she is perceived to be.

I like the suburbs. It turns out they are less social. Although the Yorkie brigade tries to kill me on four mornings out of five, I've never exchanged more than a casual pleasantry with their owners. As far as I know each and every one of those dogs is actually named, "Nooooooo!". As I walked my dog past the recycling bins of the neighborhood, they all told a different story, but I've no names to attach to those bins, either.

I know why I like the suburbs, they are oddly distant, and surprisingly mysterious. I'm left guessing about more. It wasn't exactly a surprise the day I found out that the tree stand house in my old neighborhood contained someone consistently pickled. It made sense. It fit. Here, where so much looks the same, I know less about these distant people.

I like this life, in all its ordinary glory. The mild intrigue of a bin filled with champagne bottles, the ever watchful, distant-but-pleasant people who live here. I like guessing what is beneath the veneer of sameness.

The dog owners withdrew, and the picture of an unvaried life was restored. It is somehow more pleasant to guess at what goes on behind those doors than it is to know. Life, or perhaps Yorkies, teem.

I like the suburbs because they are strangely more intriguing.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Mind Freshly Boggled

A couple of days ago my son introduced me to one of the more awkward moments in the life of a liberal parent.

"Hey mom," he announced cheerfully, "I've been approved for Medical Marijuana!"

Well, isn't that just swell? My inner-voice supplied dryly, but what came tripping off my tongue was, "Okay. I wasn't aware you were applying. You know this carries with it the same rules as anything else, no driving while under any kind of influence, and you do understand the legal implications?"

He assured me he did. We did the entire "as a responsible parent, I tell you..." and "as a polite kid, I listen attentively and you'll just have to hope that's sticking..." verbal exchange. Every parent of a nearly full-grown adult out there knows all the steps, backwards and forwards to this particular Parental Polka.

Serves you right for voting for it, doesn't it? Ye olde helpful, inner-voice of self-questioning handily offered up, and I replied with a thundering eyeroll to myself. A tricky move to pull off, but I feel as if it was warranted.

Five years ago, at the age of fourteen my son crashed into a tree while skiing. A helmet saved him from any truly tragic injuries, but he did manage to rather thoroughly break his collar bone and the bone in the socket of his shoulder. It now requires surgery, but the Insurance Industry feels the need to try and pull out their extra-special favorite term "preexisting" to try and avoid this. We are engaged in a wrangling session that will doubtless end with said insurance ponying up the dough with as little grace as humanly possible. In the meantime my son's shoulder is in bad enough shape that a doctor approved him for weed. I feel certain my son finds reason to not exactly bemoan his fate, if you catch my drift.

In my annual phone call to my mother, before she departs the shores of the U.S. for her half year in Scotland, I informed her of this and discovered that there may be something to genetics. Her response was in line with my own, "Better that than prescription pills, I suppose." Seeing as my son can currently dislocate his shoulder with an overly enthusiastic sneeze, I'm sure it does pain him enough to warrant something. In the contest between prescribed narcotic pain-killers, sometimes referred to as "Hillbilly Heroin" or reefer, I'm going with the Chronic as the lesser of two evils.

I'm hard to shock. My mother is also somewhat difficult to shock. It seems she is more difficult to shock than I am, though. Must be something to do with age.

Prior to me telling my mom that my son would be a legally sanctioned stoner, my son ended up chatting with my mom for a length of time, and I went about my daily chores. Around the corner of the laundry room, his astonished face appeared for a moment, and then withdrew. I thought little of it. He might just have been astounded by the sheer number of words she can produce, after all. I'm a less wordy version of my mother. Contemplate that, and take a couple Advil, no doubt.

When I did fill her in, she had a bomb of her own to drop. Admittedly, it was not a bomb to her, but mine was a mind freshly boggled, and my jaw was still sagging a bit when I got off the phone.

My son went first, "Mom, did you know Grandma met the Beatles?"

Well yes, actually I did know that story. She met them before she ever came to the U.S. while she still lived in the U.K. A friend's father owned or was part-owner in a venue they played, and my mother and a friend were taken backstage to meet the Fab Four. I think one of them flirted a bit with her, causing the friend she was with to turn a decorous shade of green. My mom was really quite the knockout in her youth.

"That's nothing," I gaped, "My mother, your grandmother, watches The Daily Show!!"

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The one that recently featured a story on Medical Marijuana in Denver. The one she brought up as soon as I told her that my son had a license to toke. If I'd been hoping, even on some remaining adolescent level to shock her with my liberality, I was the one who ended up flabbergasted.

The same show that recently had a choral arrangement, complete with robes, of Jon Stewart singing the Go F&^K Yourselves hymn to Fox News for almost ten full minutes.

Even my inner-voice of helpful suggestions and self-mocking was stunned into silence.

When I told my son this, he adopted his own fish-faced expression, featuring the Goldfish Mouth of O.

"I know, right?!?" Flint also watches The Daily Show. "And Colbert!"

"Get outta here!?!"

"I never would have guessed it." I was glad that he was also halfway between impressed and astonished. At least I had company on that.

He left to meet some friends, and I continued about my day in something of a haze.

My mother has always seemed vaguely prim to me. We don't have the sort of relationship where we trade jokes, or even talk that easily. I've always put it down to our differences.

Maybe it's actually your similarities, whispers that inner-voice of self-examination. I willfully ignore it, and get back to my day.