Friendship


It happens every single time. You go to a wedding. It’s a lovely wedding. You might even tear up when the couple exchanges vows. And then you proceed to the reception. It’s a lovely reception. They have Ornamental Thingies on the tables, and an invitingly large dance floor laid out in front of an impressive table full of Mysterious DJ Stuff. The open bar is flowing. Things are looking good.

Then they start playing music.

It’s all the good stuff – sappy old lovelies like L-O-V-E and standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You know these songs. You dance to them every week. They’re great songs, fully of swing and sass, with killer breaks made for hitting. Your feet start to tap, your hips start to swish – it’s all you can do to not grab someone and start dancing right that instant. But you don’t. That would be wrong. The bride and groom haven’t had their first dance yet. The bride and groom haven’t even arrived yet. They’re just barely starting the warming plates to serve dinner. Dancing is a long, long way off. You grit your teeth and get a hold on yourself. You can wait. Really, you can.

At long last, after the bridal party arrives and dinner is served, after the toasts and the speeches, after the couple’s first dance, and the dance with their parents, and the dance just with the bridal party, and the dance just for married couples, and God knows what, finally, finally you can dance. You head for the dance floor, eager to flash some moves. They’re playing pop music now, but it’s marginally swingable, and all those swing songs earlier gave you an itch you just have to scratch. You look around you and discover… there’s no one to dance with. Sure, there’s lots of friends shakin’ their booty on the dance floor, but not one of them would know a swingout from a hole in the wall. If you’re a girl, you realize that you are the best lead in the building. If you’re a guy you realize that not one of these girls has any clue how to follow. Maybe there’s one or two people who kind of dimly remember that one lesson in East Coast swing they took three years ago, but that’s it. You’re dieing for one good Lindy dance (just one!), but your chances of getting that? Well, let’s say you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, particularly since you don’t buy lottery tickets. You begin to be grateful that the DJ isn’t playing swing music anymore, and settle yourself down to an evening of good, old-fashioned, non-partnered dancing.

But it doesn’t end there. Nuh-uh. See, your friends, they love you. They know how much you love swing dancing, how crazy you are about it. They’ve had to sit through enough impassioned ravings about the nuances of rock steps and demonstrations of solo-Charleston moves. They know you won’t be happy unless you swing dance at least a little. So they ask the DJ to play some swing music. And he does. He plays one of three songs: either Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Zoot Suit Riot, the Brian Setzer version of Jump, Jive and Wail, or something by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Whatever he plays, it will be killingly fast, and there will be no one for you to dance with. But all your friends are watching, eagerly waiting to see how you’re enjoying the treat they so sweetly arranged.

So… you make the best of it. You grab that one guy who sort of remembers how to lead a couple of turns in East Coast and make him dance with you. You do your best to follow whatever he’s doing, even when he forgets the rock step or throws them in randomly from time to time, even when he almost yanks your arm off on an outside turn, even when he lets four breaks in a row fly by without even noticing they were there. You don’t even dare hit them yourself or throw in the slightest bit of styling. Anything unexpected totally throws him off. Tossing in a swivel might make him break down completely. You grit your teeth, and after a small eternity the song is done.

You walk off the floor, quivering slightly from the badness of the dance. Your friends cluster around you. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “You’re really good! That was awesome!” Words fail you. You retreat to the bathroom to try to regroup. The reception is far from over. The bar is still flowing. There’s a good hour at least of dancing still to go. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe they won’t play swing music anymore. Maybe…

So I was talking to Ilse this weekend (so good to see her, btw) about life, the universe, and everything. One of the topics we got on to was my plans for the future. I’d always assumed that I would do both my BA and MA here at UD, then go off somewhere else (possibly Boston) for my Ph.D., and then teach wherever I could get hired. It’s a good plan, but Ilse challenged me to think about other possibilities. I’ve been growing and changing a lot in the last few years, and I love my life here, but sometimes I feel a little, well, cramped. Ilse thinks the answer to this is to go live somewhere else, get my MA somewhere besides UD. I’ve been thinking a little about this, and the idea intrigues me. But… where would I go? There are so many possibilities for an MA, unlike the extremely few for a Ph.D. They’re all so tempting! Anyway, this has prompted me to create the very first ever Official Just For The Halibut Poll, a special feature where you, my dear readers, can tell me what you think I should do with my life! Enjoy…

Quizzes by Quibblo.com

It’s pretty common for dancers, when they reach a certain skill level, to start learning the opposite part: girls learn how to lead, and guys learn how to follow. It helps you appreciate the whole picture of what’s going on in a dance, understanding what your partner is experiencing. Learning how to follow can help guys be better leaders, communicating more clearly exactly what they want their partner to do. Learning to lead can help a girl be a better follow, showing her what she’s listening for. Learning the opposite part is also important if you want to be able to teach. You need to be able to explain everything that’s going on, even if you’re half of a teaching couple teaching your usual part. Often the two of you might be independently dealing with particular questions, or you might need to keep the class going in its exercise while your partner is off helping that one guy who just doesn’t seem to get it. Consequently you’ll sometimes see two guys dancing together, or two girls. It usually has nothing whatever to do with their sexual preferences. They’re just working on their dancing.

The first time I saw two guys dance together it was at a dance put on by a small college a few hours away. This was the first time I’d ever traveled to a dance, almost nobody knew me, and I wasn’t dancing much. There were a set of twin brothers in the hosting swing club, both good dancers. Towards the end of the dance they danced a song together, showing off all the tricks they knew, and occasionally bickering with one another over who was leading. It was one of the most awesomely hilarious things I’d ever seen. Their dancing was wonderful – athletic and graceful. Because they weren’t being particularly careful with their partner they went for the moves with a gusto that was amazing to watch. The best was watching their faces as they reacted to doing unfamiliar things, and as they argued with one another about who was leading. I loved it, and when they were done, applauded along with other onlookers.

Since then I’ve considered it a treat to see guys dancing together. Beyond the fact that it’s usually only the very good guys who do it (meaning the quality of dancing tends to be very watchable), guys dance differently with other guys than they do with women. They become more athletic, a little more forceful. It’s like the difference between guys playing basketball by themselves, and when a woman joins the game. No matter how much a guy may intend to treat everyone equally, subconsciously they tend to tone things down a little, become a little more gentle when physically interacting with someone they perceive as smaller and potentially more vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a committed feminist – but to be honest, I’m rather grateful for this. There are too many opportunities in social dancing for both partners to get hurt. Guys being a little more gentle means I may still have usable shoulders when I’m fifty-five. Still, it’s always been a joy for me to see guys dancing with the gloves off, so to speak.

Two of the best leads in our scene are Trey and Rudy. Both of them have fairly distinctive styles, Trey being more grounded and groovy, Rudy smooth and gorgeously graceful. They are also the only two guys in our Lindy Hop scene who also dance West Coast. Trey knows how to follow, but he’s not super good at it. Rudy can follow like a dream. Sometimes the two of them dance together, especially working on their West Coast skills. It’s always a fabulous show, and attracts quite an audience. The onlookers often comment on Rudy’s following. I’ve heard more than one girl say she wishes she could follow like Rudy. One night a group of girls got together and decided that they should have t-shirts made that read, “I want to dance pretty like Rudy.” I thought this was an awesome tribute, and told Rudy about it.

To my surprise, he thought it was an insult. I was dense, so he had to explain. “Guys dancing with guys… don’t you think some people think it’s a little gay?” I blinked, and let that sink in. To be honest, that thought had never occurred to me, and I had to think a little to figure out why. I know Trey and Rudy. Both of them are completely, sometimes obnoxiously, heterosexual men. Both are involved in committed relationships with their girlfriends. To me they’re so thoroughly heterosexual that even if I saw them dressed in drag trolling for tricks in a city park I would probably sooner assume that they were pulling some kind of prank (or possibly in dire financial distress) than that they were gay. I told Rudy this, and the conversation ended.

Still, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got, not at Rudy, but at our society that considers any non-violent contact between men as suspect. When girls dance with girls, it’s hot. But when guys dance with guys people doubt their manliness? That’s just wrong. There are lots of cultures where men dance with each other. Think of Russian folk dancing, with the guys doing what wikipedia calls “traditional squatwork” – that incredible kicking while sitting almost on your heels which requires such awesome balance, not to mention monster thigh muscles. Does anybody call that gay? Heck, no! So why do we have to be all hatin’ on our guys who happen to be fabulous dancers.

Hmmph.

So the other day Liv plopped herself down in the desk chair in my room, gazed up at the many shelves of books which decorate the walls, and told me that I should lend her some books. We’ve been talking about this since I and my library moved in, but she’s been pretty busy until recently writing her Master’s thesis. I looked around at my collection, and asked her what kind of book she would like. “I have history, sociology and biography over here. That big shelf over the dresser is all poetry. Over the desk is sexual ethics, reference books, and foreign languages. That shelf is fiction hardbacks, and the small shelves by the bed are the fiction paperbacks, except for the science fiction, which is on the bottom shelf of that book case. And those shelves over the chair are theology and philosophy.” She processed this for a few moments, and then said that she would like about half a dozen books with a mix of fun and make-her-think. So this is what I picked out:

  • Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my favorite books of all time)
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (more pure, wonderful silliness than ought to exist in one book)
  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (solid entertainment all the way through)
  • The Art of Loving God by St. Francis de Sales (a book that has had a pretty big impact on my spiritual life, also easier to get through than some of the other stuff by St. Francis)
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (all about the small things which change the way we live our lives)
  • The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim (another interesting book about the ways we use fairy tales to explain/understand our lives)

Liv started on Cordelia’s Honor right away, and is devouring it gleefully (“I didn’t know science fiction could be like this!”), which makes me so glad. I identify so much with that book; it would have been very hard if she didn’t like it. (I remember how anxious I was when I lent this book to Trey last spring, and how relieved and thrilled I was when he loved it.) The other books aren’t as crucial, though I would wonder what was wrong with her if Cold Comfort Farm didn’t make her laugh.

Anyway, yesterday I told my brother Larry about this, and he asked me to make a list for him of twenty or so books that he should read. It made me think of all the books I love that I wish everyone would read. Most of them aren’t the books you’d find on traditional Must Read book lists. For instance, I don’t think everyone should read War and Peace, and while Jane Austen is a supremely wonderful author, I can acknowledge that not everyone would appreciate her charms. My book would include such works as the above mentioned Cold Comfort Farm, and Gentlemen Prefer Blonds by Anita Loos, and maybe Stephen King’s Carrie.

It’s a lot to think about, and I’m not sure which books I should put on the list. Therefore, I am now officially opening the floor to suggestions. What books would you consider Must Reads, not because of some high cultural value, but simply because they make the world a better place?

Today as I was heading out to lunch, I saw the most beautiful thing. Across the street from where I work is a large-ish, block like apartment building with a green lawn stretching down a hill in front. They haven’t mowed the grass in a while, so it’s tall, and thick with puffy, white clover blossoms. Toddling through the grass and clover was the most wonderful baby, maybe a year and a half old, with white-blond dandelion puff hair and a pacifier firmly fixed in her mouth. Just behind was her mother, who was kneeling in the tall grass, plaiting the long clover stems together to make a garland. As I waited to turn the corner, she rose to her feet and headed toward her daughter, holding what she’d made. I saw that it was a wreath of clover, just the right size to put on the little girl’s head. Just then I made my turn, so I didn’t see any more, but the image was so lovely: the mother and daughter together in the clear, golden sunshine, the quiet love between them, and the light outlining both of them against the green grass. Beautiful.

It seems like a very long time ago that I used to make clover garlands too. I was in southern Louisiana at the time, my second year with NET, a traveling youth ministry team. It was spring there, and the grass was thick and lush with the biggest clover blossoms I’d ever seen. I love their sweet, grassy scent, and would pick huge handfuls of them every chance I got. Most of the grass hadn’t been mowed yet, so the stems were long and sturdy, perfect for braiding. I don’t know how many garlands I made. I left them behind at host families, at the foot of saints’ statues, and hung them from the seatbelt supports in the team van. One time I got my whole small group on a retreat into it, and we returned from our time away wearing necklaces and bracelets and thick anklets of clover. I wrapped the dried wreaths in paper, and took them home with me. For a long time I kept them in my drawers with my clothes. I still run across them sometimes – odd little paper packets folded up around dried memories.

Memories can be mixed blessings. You don’t get to pick and choose what you remember. Associated with the clover wreaths isn’t just the hot Louisiana sunshine on my arms, the taste of cherry limeades at Sonic, the total security of having my NET Team around me. At the same time it’s also inextricably tied to the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a second year of NET, the fight I had with one of the guys on my team right before my birthday, the way the whole world went surreal when one of the girls on our team got sick and had to leave us for a while. But there’s also the memory of sitting at a picnic table in the shade on the side of a bayou, feeling the breeze against my skin as I looked around the table at the people I loved, the memory of walking arm and arm through a Wal-Mart parking lot with Isabelle, belting out “L Is For…“, and the taste of Zapp’s Cajun Dill potato chips on my tongue. I can’t have one part without the other. I guess I’ll keep it all.

I was planning this very happy-go-lucky sort of blog post, all about the gardening I did this weekend, and my new summer job working one and a half days a week for the admin of another division in addition to my regular job. (They have windows! Windows, I tell you!) I was maybe even going to mention the continued, almost-sickening cuteness of Justin and Lori as they venture deeper into mutual gooey-eyed-ness. If I’d been feeling particularly open, I would have shared about Rocco’s latest (and hopefully final) intrusion on my life. It would have been a good post. And then yesterday I got the message that Zeke is dead.

Zeke’s family went to the same small parish as mine, and attended the same Catholic schools. They live a few houses down from my sisters, a block away from my parents. However, he was seven years younger than me, so I didn’t actually meet him until he showed up one night at the Wednesday night swing dance. This was when I was just starting to learn how to teach, so the Powers That Be decided that I should get some teaching practice by teaching the Free Beginner Lesson to him, his cousin, and their friend. They picked it up quickly, and it was a lot of fun, assisted by the fact that all three were pretty darn cute. Except Zeke kept staring at me, and it was starting to creep me out. Then at the end of the lesson he said, “You’re a [Family Name], aren’t you!” I looked at him warily, very weirded out, and admitted that I was. He laughed. “I’m a [Other Family Name]!” And then I laughed too and relaxed completely, because that explained everything.

We were friends. He could make me laugh like no one else, especially when we were dancing. He would make these faces – it was like you could see every panicked thought that went through his mind as he led. It was awesome. One time I laughed so hard I came perilously close to peeing my pants. He took my odd-ness in stride, which made me want to be even a little more odd just to provoke him. It made me sad when he eased away from dancing, and then moved to another city an hour away, but I was sure I would see him again sooner or later. We still talked from time to time, and I reminded him that he had promised me a ride on his motorcycle one day. He always told me not to worry, that I would get my motorcycle ride.

And, well, no I won’t. He was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in Florida, a hit and run accident. Although he was wearing all his protective gear, the injuries to his head were so severe that he was pronounced brain dead. His whole family had flown down to Florida to be with him. They’re making arrangements to donate his organs. They think that he might save eight people’s lives.

It’s selfish of me, but I’d rather have Zeke back.

I hate writer’s block.  Especially when it seems to be selective writer’s block, only specifically blocking the one thing I really, really, really need to be working on right now.  And I was on such a roll this morning before I had to stop to go to my first class.  Why can’t I get back there now?  Arrrgh!

So I’m blogging.  Because that helps with writer’s block, right?  Right?  Well, at least it’s an attempt.  It’s better than reading Veronica Mars recaps on Television Without Pity.  Not that I’m, you know, doing that at the moment or anything.  Though it would be research for when Justin trades me his DVDs of the first two Veronica Mars seasons for the Heroes Season One DVDs I just finished.  (I still like Sylar the best, except for perhaps Mr. Muggles.  Is this wrong?)

Ok, moving on… I had a good Easter break.  I dug the vegetable garden and planted sweet peas and lilies of the valley.  Hopefully the seeds haven’t frozen in the ground by now, what with all the random snowflakes flying around, but they’re cold-weather plants, so I think they can take it.  I think.  It was one of the happiest times of the last couple months digging out in the garden under the wide, open sky.  I forget, during those months when I don’t have access to the ground, how much being outside helping things grow fills me up inside.  I don’t know how people could live in urban concrete jungles with no access to growing things.  I couldn’t do it.  I think part of me would die inside.

The Easter Vigil was fun.  I wore my new peep-toe shoes (Liv: “Peep!  Peep!”), and got to sit next to Eric, who is one of my favorite relatives ever.  (No, really, ever.)  We can’t sit next to each other in church too often.  We find the same offbeat things utterly hilarious, and can’t help pointing them out to one another.  It makes for a very distracting sort of Mass.  The Easter Vigil always starts with the lighting of the new fire, followed by the candlelight procession into the church.  After the Easter proclamation, everyone blows out their candles and sits down to listen to the Bible readings.  There are a lot of them since this is the Easter Vigil.  Eric was fidgeting with his candle during the readings, peeling layers of wax off of it, then breaking it into segments and folding it into a figure 8 which then got reinserted into the paper cuff that’s supposed to catch the wax.  This meant that when the time came to relight the candles later in the Vigil, his candle had two ends we could light.  So we did, giggling silently as we watched them burn down extra quickly.  Then I had to recite him the oh, so apropos Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (“My candle burns at both ends,/ It will not last the night./ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,/ It gives a lovely light.”)  That was pretty funny too.

The other fun thing was that I took Liv home with me for Easter dinner.  I love watching her hang out with my family, especially the guys in my family.  The thing is that she’s really, really beautiful.  However, she doesn’t see her own beauty, particularly since she pays little to no attention to her looks whatsoever.  In her book, her blond sister is the beautiful one in the family, and Liv is the tomboy that nobody looks at twice.  Plus, she grew up rough-housing with two little brothers, so she doesn’t quite understand how the same behavior that’s really annoying in an older sister could be, well, really encouraging in a cute young woman sortof your own age.  It’s a kind of innocence.  Mikey is still young enough that they can play together without worries (plus he’s the one she trusts enough to carry her from my car into the house), but it was interesting watching Larry, my oldest brother.  He had just gotten his hair buzzed really short, so she had to rub it (she rubs her little brothers heads when they’ve just gotten a buzz cut).  It was awesome watching his brain melt and dribble out of his skull right there in my aunt’s living room.

And the other good part about Easter?  I got to talk to Joe.  When I was getting ready to leave my aunt’s house I saw that I’d missed a couple of calls, one from Ella, and one from a number I didn’t recognize.  I didn’t really think it was him, but part of me hoped (I’ve been missing him a lot, and it had been over a month since I got his last letter).  So I listened to my messages right then and there.  One of them was from him, telling me that he’s in New Orleans and giving me a number where I’ll be able to contact him from now until May.  Do you know how long it’s been since I had a phone number I could dial and connect with Joe any old time I wanted?  Years.  I mean, first he was in Afghanistan, then world traveling, then sharing a phone with the whole Jesuit novitiate.  It’s been a long time.  I got myself and Liv home as quickly as I could, went directly up to my room and called 14.  We talked a long time, the first time I think we’ve been able to talk ourselves out since he left town a year ago.  Then last night I called him again, just because I could. 

Now I’m trying to finish up school projects, clean the house to make a good impression of the potential roommate who might come visiting this weekend while I’m gone, and getting ready to leave for Boston.  Yup, friends, it’s time for the Boston Tea Party!  I’ve been waiting for this since I came home from my first Tea Party last year.  I’m so excited and nervous and stressed thinking of all the things that have to happen between now and when I fly out of Columbus on Thursday.  Thank goodness this year I have a room in the actual hotel, and if all goes well I’ll actually make it out for Thursday night instead of missing my flight like last year.  I’m also registered to compete in the West Coast Newcomers Jack & Jill.  Also, John Lindo owes me two dances.

Eeek!  Just thinking about it makes me nervous.  Breathe, Bernadette, breathe.  Ok.  I’m going to take another stab at that paper writing, and if that doesn’t work, I’m doing laundry.

Jenn just messaged me that K-Mart is selling roses for cheap!   Maybe I’ll have my rose garden after all!

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