Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Swimming suits

When it is very hot, so hot that breathing in the thick summer air feels like work, so hot that the fat flies lag and I almost feel too bad to smoosh them, so hot that the only relief in an airconditionless flat is a head-plunge into an ice-cold bath, I think about all of the very hot summers before, spent with my mom. Even at its hottest, summer in London does not compare to Missouri's swampy mug. But sometimes the early, early morning light stirs me, and I wake with the unmistakeable film of dried sweat from a damp night's sleep. Here, a tinge of humidity feels like a nostalgic kiss. Even though the memory of drought and sticky skin is nearly too unpleasant to bear, in the sweltering summers of my 20s I've learned to trick myself, to see those hot days as the good ones. As the best ones. 

I don't remember waking up on mornings in Missouri. I don't remember eating breakfast. I will, however, always remember the heavy heat that seemed to live permanently on the fringe of May through most of September. I will also always remember plodding barefoot down the stairs, on any morning of summer vacation, to find my mom in her swimming suit. Each year it was a variation of itself. Always black, always a one-piece. The backs of some styles dipped into a classic U-shape. Others were crisscrossed or racerbacked. She'd sit at the round kitchen table with the day's Kansas City Star and coffee, dog at her side and joined for a few hours by the voices of Bob Edwards or Steve or Renee. She'd cross her legs, turn the page. Read. Sip. Cross. Turn. Read, sip. Until the voices stopped or the pot was empty, or there were simply no more pages to turn. Then she might walk to the washing machine, remove the load, stride onto the back porch and clothespin the pile of tops and bottoms onto the line to dry. 

Before it got too hot, she'd unwind the hoses and set the garden sprinklers out across the drying lawn. All morning she'd weed and prune and shovel and water and plant and wonder why the deer had to eat the heads off the tiger lillies. Sometimes she'd stop for a secret cigarette. Sometimes she'd raid the fridge for a can of Diet Coke. Sometimes, instead, she'd make an instant glass of raspberry Lipton. Sometimes we'd eat lunch together — peanut butter and cheddar cheese on Club crackers was our staple. But always, my mom existed in her swimming suit. 

After lunch she'd take me and my brother to the pool. She drove a white Oldsmobile minivan. Its electric doors opened with a touch of a button and the back was filled with inflatable rafts. I put down towels to keep the leather bucket seats from sticking to the backs of my thighs. With its new-car scent long-gone, the minivan smelled like Banana Boat sunscreen year-round. Even in winter, that car felt like an escape-craft. We had the cheap membership at the country club — the one that doesn't let you golf, but lets you hang out at the pool as much as you want. My mom's favorite spot was in the southwest corner of the lounge area. The sun there was excellent, unobstructed, blistering. She'd stretch a pair of purple beach towels over a padded chaise. And that's where she'd remain. For hours, she'd drink Diet Cokes from white styrofoam cups with straws and voraciously consume whatever million-page novel she happened to be reading that week. She'd lie on her back and then lie on her front. When she'd sweated through the sunscreen, she'd walk to the pool's edge, drop her sunglasses on the concrete and disappear with a splash. She swam the breaststroke for slow, even miles. When she'd had enough, she would paddle to the south ladder, climb up, round the corner, find her glasses and return to the chaise. By then, my brother and I would be long-bored of inventing new formations to make down the winding water slide. We would have exhausted the life guards with our endless contests off the high and low-diving boards. We would have expended our snack allowance on lemonades and Bomb Pops and chicken fingers. By late afternoon, the busy pool would empty of warm and tanned bodies, and we would still be there. 

When could we go? "What else do you have to do today?" she'd ask us. My mom had a point. But it was summer and we lacked the minds and will to relish in the nothing in the sun. Still, if we bothered her long enough and if our swimming suits were dry enough, we'd pack up the oversized totebags with our books and toys and various bottles of SPF and head home. I don't remember what I did on the rest of those days — maybe a ballet class or a cello lesson or piano practice later on. Yet, I always knew to look for my mom in her studio in the basement, where she'd paint until it was time to make dinner. Always in her swimming suit.

That was years ago.

The first time I noticed it was happening, I was living alone in my college apartment on Cherry Street. The air conditioner was too loud and it didn't help anyway. And unless you were sitting right next to the screams of the Vornado, the portable fans gave little relief. So I turned everything off and opened the rest of the windows. The sun had just started to set. I poured myself a glass of white wine and walked into my studio, where I sat down at the desk to write for the rest of the evening, in my swimming suit.

That was four years ago.

Yesterday, when Tom and I awoke, the weight of summer film was there. He was running late. He jumped out of bed, hurried into the front room. I stayed there for a while, supine, above the duvet, scratching mosquito bites, licking salt from my lips, listening to the neighbors cling their plates and chatter the morning away. That was when I spotted the swimming suit, under some clothes on the wicker chair. I got up, dug out the article and slid into its lycra form — a black one-piece. On this day there was breakfast to be made, coffee to drink, a lido to visit and work to be done. And I looked forward to doing it all in the outfit of every summer. It would do. Always, it would do.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dictionary Top 10

I enjoy the poetic tension of the Top 10 words looked up this week on

bona fide

(Post idea post crimped from The Beheld)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Happy Trails

Slug paths weaved iridescent strands along the pavement. Headed in no particular direction, dozens of mother-of-pearly lines dashed east, north, south, west, refracting Peckham's rare sunlight like a slow cosmic prism. Those who made Lulworth Road part of their regular Saturday route into town, or to post a last-minute letter, or to the off-license to pay 1.50 for the suitcase-sized weekend Guardian that heaved with the promise of special issues and special editions and John Lewis vouchers, fell victim to the unexpected brightness of sky and ground. Helpless to 12-o-clock's haze of hangover and instant coffee, they squinted hard in failed attempts to squeeze away last night's last sips of gin, to mentally remain under the duvet for just five more minutes. 

Most of the sparkling threads oozed to everywhere and nowhere, their ends disappearing into thimble-sized front gardens that sprouted from concrete cracks before showing up again, perhaps having turned a corner toward Wherever's next wet, soily patch. 

There was one, though. One that fell prey to its own victims that shuffled with their eyes closed, that slowly inched towards a Saturday's equivalent of everywhere and nowhere until: Crack! The lone snail shell shattered under a careless foot. It seemed strange that a clumsy step could crush with such militaristic force. The Stomp!  followed by serial crunches and the inevitable smoosh of shoe sole and ooze and pavement — surprised the empty street's invisible occupants with its unintentionally brutish misstep. 

A later walk down Lulworth revealed the afternoon's drizzle had washed away all sluggish traces. But the shell and its sad remnants remained, clearly visible in the light of unsleep, glued to mismatched concrete like a fading jewel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Philip Glass Makes You Look Old

My latest for the St. Louis Riverfront Times:

The classical music of 75-year-old Philip Glass occupies an unlikely place in pop culture. It still attracts the same age group it did when the composer first performed his minimalist works more than 40 years ago.
This audience is ever present for the renowned artist's recent performance at the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City's futuristically handsome new complex whose scallop-like frame of steel, concrete and glass curves elegantly to join Downtown's eclectic skyline. Here, a young set of cool, bespectacled 20-somethings have made a collective effort to shower, show up and Instagram the sunset.
After all classical music performances provide ample reason to unironically wear fur and suspenders. And, like, everyone they know is here. 
But the flock isn't just here to be seen. This migration of Kansas City's youthful urban bestiary towards the theater has plenty to do with Philip Glass's extraordinary ability to relate through compositions that seem to get better with age. At a time when classical music struggles to attract young audiences, Glass continues to be one of the kids.