Katie’s y’all

that's not just any burger...
Whataburger by Mattwright on Flickr

My classmate Katie* comes from a working-class, rural background. She works three jobs plus goes to school; she has a busy family, disabled mother, and absent father. And recently, I overheard her talking on the phone:

“I want to be a college professor … I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working at What-A-Burger … If I go back to Texarkana* I’ll be seen as a failure. Because everybody’s gonna know that I couldn’t make it here.”

Her relative tells her to come back home, get a job, and enjoy her supportive family there. Katie’s in debt, can’t pay her rent, working so hard that she hasn’t got time for her classwork… Katie wants to complete school, and knows if she goes back it won’t happen.

“I have like my whole life here,” she says, “and y’all didn’t ask for any help.”

But it’s different being part of a y’all, of a family, than doing it all by yourself. She has so many needs and so little support, she has to carry it all herself.

How am I supposed to be part of her y’all?

Mongolia: Things I learned in Fieldwork

Field Notes by Luzbonita on Flickr

— Never write “crazy” in front of anyone’s name in a genealogy. This causes lots of trouble.

— If it smells bad, it might be the rotten meat.

— If someone seems like they have an ulterior motive, they probably do… and they will ask you for something. Multiple times. And you will feel guilty.

— Everybody knows everybody. Don’t piss anybody off.

— Better to ask your advisor for things up-front rather than try to save face.

— Interviews in public are a bad idea – it intimidates people.

— Interviews in private are a bad idea – it intimidates people.

— Interviews in general are a bad idea – it intimidates people.

— But just pulling out a notebook in a random convo also intimidates people!

— Secret spy tools are, unfortunately, against the AAA code of ethics.

— However, availability of Diet Coke and internet are valid reasons for picking a field site.

— If you don’t write field notes right away, you WILL forget whole events. This has happened. This is why I came home with about three stories to tell!

Interviewing in Mosques in Rural Mongolia

White Mosque

Below is one of my favorite sets of interview notes from the summer, in which Professor Sarah* took notes and I wrote about the context. We were assisted by two local women, “Sunlight” and “Flower.”

We are sitting in the side room of the mosque interviewing a man. There is a huge book in front of him, blue with Arabic lettering, maybe 1.5 feet high. He wears a faded brown suede cap and a white and blue button up short sleeve shirt which hangs from his shoulders, a touch too big. He has one pen in a shirt pocket, and his arms are wrinkly where they touch each other as they cross. He has warts and scars on his fingers. Has a broad body and a tall face. He rubs his short mustache between his fingers as he talks so you cannot see his mouth.

Sunlight asks questions, as Sarah takes notes. Flower and I are not doing much. We sit around a blue wooden table (or two desk pushed together) with green and brown legs, and sit on narrow blue benches. Strewn inside the table/desks are crumpled candy wrappers and paper towels.

The window is open and there is a stack of pastel blankets in the corner, pink and green with faded cartoon piggies. Behind the blankets is a bright purple metal coat rack with cheap gold knobblies for the coats. There is a lockbox to my side. There are bare walls here, a green sheer curtain over the door window, and holes in the wall all on one side, with two small nails at the edges of the wall, as if something large was once hung there.

Sarah is stressed at not getting in depth answers from interviewees – ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘don’t know’ – at how they speak simply to get it over with then open up after the interview, once we no longer have translators working or notebooks out. Sunlight keeps skipping questions or doing unnecessary sub-questions as we talk, not following or paying attention at all.

Gender question five: no. (Sarah just gave me a stern look for not writing).

I smell manti dumplings through the windows, and can still smell the mint we first smelled as we stood outside between the last interview and this one, looking at some marker stones in a grate. Through the window we can see low blocky white walls all over and frizzy green treelets. We get into a debate over a five year old boy who is said to have died of Kazakhstan water, two months after returning to Mongolia.

Sunlight is doing rapid fire questions and clarifiers, racing through questions and translating answers shortly – e.g. “bilmedi” (he doesn’t know) after the interviewee said something long. But what does he not know? Sarah asks. Flower answers her phone, “bar ma?,” and disappears into the hallway for the rest of interview. She comes back in, grabs her bag, and goes out again. I’m jealous.

The interviewee has a wrinkly brown pink face, brown short hair, straight chips of it with grains of gray and white. His eyelids fold over and rest on the whole of his short eyelashes, little fleshy visors for his eyes. He has greybrown hazel eyes. We can hear birds outside, ourselves shifting and writing, and Sunlight pressing the snaps closed on Flower’s cloth hat, then jerking them open, again and again at the same time as she asks questions. She rocks back and forth on her bench.

The wind blows the door open, and I pull it closed. I could feel Flower’s push from the other side, she’s doing God knows what – I don’t think she’s on the phone now. She’s in an atrium area, with benches and heating pipes that run like a frame around a large poster of the Kabba at night, shown floodlit and surrounded by people. Are the pictures true? Is it ever alone?

Sunlight sets the hat on her head, then lifts it up above her head then sets it back on her head, repeating for several minutes. The interviewee has crushed flowers stuck to the bottom of his sepia arms, pressed in little green and white dents. He has lots of veins and knobblies under his skin, too. There is one cracked white kese (teabowl) on the blue table, with red roses on its side.

Sunlight is flipping her long black hair back and forth as we finish the interview.

Mongolia: Sneaky Like a Fox

This evening, after days of pouting, Ayna* finally started translating her assignments for our research team. But then the other assistant, Gula, texted in to ask for an extension on her tasks:

7:30pm: Hi. I want to tell yu something.Burkits wife asked me to work as a [tour] guide for 6 days.would u mind if i worked them and i will work with u after that?

Ayna caught sight of the text on my phone, and exploded in anger. She told me Gula was lying.

Then Gula calls me up.

“Don’t answer it!” Ayna says.

But I pick up the phone. As I ask what’s going on, Ayna is curled up behind me, hissing in my ear, she is lying, she is sneaky like a fox, she is fox, do not trust her.

“What’s up, Gula?” I asked.

She is sneaky, Ayna hisses.

“Burkit’s wife called and asked if I could lead a tour for two foreigners, starting tomorrow,” came Gula’s soft voice.

She is lying, Ayna tugged at my sleeve.

“I’ll be back by July first,” Gula continued.

She is sneaky like fox.

“How long will it take you to finish the translations? Have you started yet?” I asked Gula.

She is fox, do not trust her, Ayna pouted.

“No, I haven’t started…” Gula said.

“So how long will it take you translate?” I asked.

Ayna made faces then stalked over to look at the boys on the street below.

“Four or five days,” Gula said.

Do not trust her! Ayna loud-whispers from across the room.

I decide there’s no conflict here. “Go on the trip, then, and get it to me by the seventh, Gula. At the latest. So that it’s ready for our professors when they return.”

I hung up and Ayna was glaring at me.

“It’s too late,” she said angrily, “She was lying. She is fox.”

fox, by epSos.de, on Flickr

A Day in the Life of a Research Assistant


We’ve been back in the province center for almost a week now. We’ll probably be staying here for another week, as Professor Rose and Jamie leave Mongolia next week… and Sarah leaves for Kazakhstan at the same time. Life in Ulgii has fallen into a regular pattern – so that’s what I have to write about, everyday life.

My Host Family

I live with a host family about a twenty-minute walk from the center of town. They just built their house last year, and it’s very nice: an entryway, a storage room, a kitchen, a nice dining room (which they rarely use), three bedrooms, and a bathroom without a toilet. The toilet is the outhouse – where else? – outside.

My family consists of Mama, Papa, and four children. Mama and Papa go to work every day and get home in the early evening. While they’re gone, Flower (girl, age 19) cleans the whole house, scrubs the floors and rugs, and prepares the meals. Happy (boy, 14) reminds me of my brothers at that age: wearing the same clothes all the time, grinning and cracking jokes at the dinner table, cheating at cards, wrestling with his younger brother. Skinny (girl, 11) is a bit of a drama queen, making faces and faking sleep when Mama asks her to work. Strength (boy, 8 ) is little but has solid fists for punching at me and his siblings.

I wake up in the morning around 9am, as Mama and Papa are getting ready to leave for a day of work. Mama works as a teacher; I’m not clear what she does in the summer, but she goes to the school anyway. Papa works as a businessman, and drives a sharp red car at high speeds along the dirt roads. I think Mama and Papa are comparatively wealthy, but we still eat a lot of rice and baursak.

As soon as I wake up, I go out to the outhouse. I’m pretty proud of myself right now, because in the past week I’ve started using the potty on my own. For the first few weeks, the family dog would bark angrily at me whenever I stepped outside, and so I had to be guarded by the elementary school children… but now that the dog seems to ignore me, I can go outside without an entourage.

The bathroom is an outhouse with two stalls. From what I can tell, families dig a big square pit in their backyard, put boards across the top, and build a little house around it. When it gets full, they cover it and dig another pit. Inside of the outhouse there are newspaper bits in a pile. I tend to bring my own toilet paper: while the newspapers are interesting to read, I’m a little afraid that if I use them, I’ll end up with some propaganda about the glorious nation of Kazakhstan imprinted on my backside.

When I go back inside, I go straight to the kitchen for breakfast: tea in little bowls, and baursak (strips of bread). Baursak is amazing when fresh, but not so great when hard. It sits in a big bowl in the storeroom when we’re not eating it, so it tends to harden pretty fast. I bought some nutella from a local store a few days ago, so when Mama isn’t watching, I spread nutella on my hard baursak.

While I’m drinking my tea, I’ll pull out my Kazakh textbooks and dictionaries, and try to study. We’ve hired Flower to be my teacher, and she’s very intent about it. She prepares worksheets for me every day, complete with pictures and fill in the blanks. She also grades the worksheets with a red pen after I’ve finished them, which makes me feel very fifth grade! I think I’m averaging about 90%, mostly because when she adds words that I don’t find useful (like elephant, or casino), I say screw it and go back to my grammar worksheets. I think she’s adjusting to the fact that she has a very uncompliant student…

The Interview Process

After studying Kazakh – and joking and practicing words with Skinny and Flower – I walk to town and meet up with the research team. We’ve tried to schedule one or two interviews a day. Usually we all walk over to someone’s apartment, tumble inside, take off our shoes, and sit around on their living room couches as we pull out our six matching notebooks and question binders. It has to be somewhat intimidating: six people (four white faces) tramp into your house and start asking what you think of migration, if you consider yourself a good Muslim, and whether the benefits of citizenship are better in Kazakhstan or Mongolia.

The interviews themselves are like playing telephone. During the interview, Sunlight rattles off the questions, slouched in her chair. She generally looks bored unless the interviewee is a handsome young man. The interviewee looks befuddled and asks for a definition, and Flower conscientiously translates each answer to perfectly match the English sentence structure of the question.

Sarah throws in additional questions in Kazakh. Jamie gets very intent as soon as we hit the religion questions, sitting stiffly, pursing his lips, nodding his head sharply, and writing as fast as he can. Rose quietly and desperately asks for translations. She doesn’t understand any Kazakh, and often when Cynthia and the Kazakhs are laughing at a response, Holly will be raising her eyebrows at the translators – this is an interview! I’m supposed to be recording this! Translations, people!

Towards the end of the interview, when the interviewee starts looking away and plaintively asking how many more questions, we smile our big American smiles and say «Thanks for the interview! Here’s a pen!»

…Yes, we’re paying people in blue pens with our project information printed on them. The pens are slow to get running, so before handing it to the person, Jamie scribbles all over his notepad with them. We learned to do this after giving out new unstarted pens, and having interviewees think that we just gave then a defunct blue pen for a two hour interview.

I’m sure that interviews don’t always go like this, and I know that we’re going to be splitting into smaller groups and using voice recorders soon, but for now I find the whole process rather bizarre.

After a few hours of interviews and note-taking, the professors dismiss us research assistants for the evening. As I walk home, I stop in a store to get food. By food, I mean Coca-Cola Light and chocolate, which is where my daily food budget seems to go.


The other day, I stopped and bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water and a Kit-Kat bar when I was halfway home. When I turned off the main paved road onto the dirt road leading to my house, I saw a woman standing and looking over a wall.

«Hello,» I said, to be nice.

«Hello,» she said, «Where are you going?» I realize she’s a policewoman, with cloth badges all down her blue sleeves.

«To home.» I stutter in Kazakh.

«Is that water?» she asked, pointing at my water bottle, which was too large to put in my knapsack.

«Yes, water.» What did she think it was, vodka? Clearly a large bottle of water, says «water» on the side.

«You’ll drink it?» She looks at me suspiciously, like there are many possible answers to this question.

«Yes, I’ll drink it.» I try to look confident.

Here, imagine a long pause as the policewoman looks at the white girl speaking broken Kazakh, carrying a bottle of water (which Kazakhs don’t drink), and walking into one of the mudbrick residential areas (where tourists don’t go).

«Goodbye,» I say abruptly, and walk away without making eye contact. I have avoided eye contact with anyone in blue shirts since.


When I get home, in the early evening, I have some tea, type up my notes, and play cards with the kids. I’ve taught them to play Go Fish, War, Slapjack, and Speed, and they’ve taught me a few games that I haven’t quite figured out yet. They also play with a OLPC (one laptop per child) laptop that Happy got from school, and a miniature pool table the size of a doll blanket.

Yesterday, Happy and Strength were playing Rock, Paper, Scizzors, and then pulled out a bunch of cardboard circles that I swear are pogs! I don’t know if you remember pogs, but I had flashbacks to third grade, when all the cool kids had stacks of cardboard circles that they collected and traded.

During tea, Mama also pulled out a bunch of sheep knucklebones, and proceeded to toss them like dice. Each side has a different name: sheep, horse, camel, goat. I know which side is which, but again haven’t figured out the point of the game.

We eat dinner around 9 or 10 at night. A few days ago we were served a huge platter of rice, and the next day a platter of meat. I kept thinking, you can’t mix these? We’ve also had dumplings, and other combinations of starches and meats. Last night we had another sheep’s head, set on top of sheep meat, sheep intestines, and noodles. As Papa was scraping lumpy white stuff out of the skull cavity, he asked if I knew what it was.

«Brain,» I said.

«You will eat it?» he asks, putting some on each child’s plate.

«No,» I shake my head quickly.

«You’re afraid!» he laughs.

«Yes, yes I am,» I told him.

And no, I didn’t eat it. I had face-meat, bone marrow and some unidentifiable stomach organ last night, so I’m working up to brain slowly.

During dinner, we all watch TV. Sometimes it’s a game show, sometimes wrestling, sometimes news from Kazahkstan. If it’s between 9:30 and 10:30, we watch a Turkish soap opera, subtitled in Russian and dubbed in Kazakh. It seems to concern a beautiful girl with numerous stalkers, a rich man with business trouble, a mother and her estranged son, and two female coworkers who get into catty fights. Somehow they’re all related but I haven’t quite figured out how. Every house I’ve visited at this time of night seems to watch this particular soap.

After dinner, I’ll play with the kids, and go to bed around 11 or 12pm. I share a room with Flower and Skinny – they sleep in one bed, and I in the other. Then… up again the next day for more research…. so… hopefully this gives you some idea of what it’s like!

Mongolia: a week in the countryside


Hey, look, I’m finally writing! I’ve been in Mongolia for more than 2 weeks now. I’m relearning Kazakh, and really enjoying my fellow teammates:

  • Sarah, my professor, turning out to be both funny and ridiculously hardworking;
  • Rose, a geographer, watchful and kind and really pulls the team together;
  • Jamie, a geography student, smart and oh-so-extroverted (he hasn’t stopped talking yet),
  • Sunlight, a local assistant, who puts on full makeup even when living in a tent without water, and corrects our interviewees when she doesn’t like what they said; and
  • Flower, a local assistant, who helps everyone without making herself the center of attention (unlike myself, Jamie, or Sunlight!)

In the past two weeks, my fellow student Jamie got quarantined in China, we missed our flight to Ulaanbaatar, were detained for 12 hours because of bad weather, flew to another province called Khovd, took a seven hour ride over bumpy dirt “roads” to Ulgii, and Jamie and I both got pretty severe colds.

After all that, we left Ulgii five days ago to do interviews in a rural pasture area. When we arrived we helped Soul set up a ger, a circular yurt that’s maybe 20 feet across. It’s built around a lattice frame and covered in cloth and felt, including old blue jeans for added warmth. Inside is beautiful embroidery. The yurt has two beds (for Soul, his wife, and their two toddlers), a low table for serving food, two cabinets, and a stove. It’s probably a little larger than my parents’ RV, but feels much bigger, because of how open it is.

After setting up the ger, we set up four smaller tents on a bumpy plain with crocuses growing in bunches. I’m guessing that’s where last year’s manure had been. The climate is high and dry, and people don’t drink water, just tea. At night we saw tons of constellations, and one morning when I woke before dawn, I could actually hear the flapping of bird wings as they flew overhead… it was just that quiet.

Every day in the countryside we woke to Soul telling us “Shai Ish!” (drink salty milk tea) and “Baursak zhe!” (eat fried bread). We drink tea at every house, along with hard candies, sugar, and butter. People eat the fried bread for most of their meals, with perhaps one substantial meal of noodles and mutton.

We got a sheep slaughtered for us on our second day in the countryside. I watched its throat get slit, and its skin peeled off, and left when they started snapping its legs to make the dismembering easier. When I returned, there was just a sheep fleece on the ground, a few legs in the grass, a bowl of intestines soaking in blood, and a stomach being scraped of its lining. I was told that I missed a great ethnographic opportunity, but… I’m pretty much fine with that!

Soon after it was slaughtered, we were served sheep head, a great delicacy. I was given sheep cheek, tongue, and other meat parts, but successfully avoided eye and brain — by keeping a piece of noodle in my hands at all times, and avoiding eye contact. My fellow student, Jamie, was given an ear, which he described as “foul cartilaginous mass covered in disgusting blackened skin and tiny fetid ear hairs.” He’s not an anthropologist, so he doesn’t have to be nice about it. Worse yet, when Soul was popping the eyes out of the skull, some eyeball juice squirted directly into Jamie’s eyes!

I did get the chance to ride a horse a little, which I really enjoyed, although at the time I was being led away from camp by Fellow, a short joking man who has decided that since he and I are the same age, we should get married. Fellow proposed a few days ago, and last night he took me for a ride on horseback. Sarah threatened to sell me to him for a few horses, which I am pretty sure that she loves more than research assistants. I think they’re joking, but only partly, and now I’ve been nicknamed Kelin (daughter-in-law, for my imminent marriage)… and Sebizgul (Carrot-Flower, for my red hair).

We left Fellow and the countryside today, slipping back into Ulgii past the quarantine guards. Yes, apparently there is a case of bubonic plague in one of the outlying towns, and as a precaution they’ve quarantined the province. I’m not sure exactly how we got past – bribes, acquaintances, an invented itinerary – but they’ve closed down all the restaurants. I’m currently in an internet cafe with a handful of grubby boys, so again… wildly inconsistent.

Love and miss you all!

Seeing Race Sideways

Explode of rainbow wold, by Matthew Fang
I’ve been talking with my friend Hannah again about race. She’s a white student in Africana studies, and talks to me about how race works in our society and what can be done to transform difference to a positive experience for us all.

Some of that comes from facing ourselves. Hannah read about whiteness for the first time as a young college student. She realized she wasn’t colorblind like she thought she was. Instead, she was blind: there was so much she wasn’t able to see. She talks about her professors in Africana studies; about whether a study of whiteness belongs in Africana studies.


A few weeks ago, I asked Robert about whiteness. “What do you think about being white?” I asked.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he answered, a bemused look on his face.

When I told this to Hannah, she exclaimed, “Yes, exactly! That’s how it is for us white people!”

But it isn’t true. Others deal from a young age with what it means to be white. I know I did.

When I was four, my parents moved from a white suburb in the midwest to a rural black area of South Carolina. When I got on the school bus, I was teased about my white skin. As I first learned how to live in society, I learned what it meant to be white – at school, at church, with friends. I realized I was poorer than the black kids: they had brand new clothes and I wore their hand-me-downs, they made fun of me and excluded me.

And being in kindergarten, I didn’t see my larger place in the world – just the present situation. So – maybe this is harsh – but I think that white people who come from nice backgrounds and all of a sudden are made aware of race are oversimplifying when they say that whites never have to think about race, are blind to it and always privileged over blacks.


And yet I am blind to race. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was a huge awakening for me to walk around with a beautiful friend who didn’t realize her own beauty, her own privilege and social capital. I could see it, but she simply couldn’t.

It’s as if I looked at the sky and said, “It’s purple.” And it really is, when I look at it. I search all the clouds, the grey line of trees, the shades of light and evening shadow – and I see purple.

Then Hannah looks at it and says, “It’s green!” and that’s really what she sees, and then thin, beautiful Lianna says, “It’s orange!” and she’s really seeing it, the intense orangeness, the bright and lovely sunset colors, wherever she directs her eyes.

What color is it? When I go out, read books, or watch TV I see the world in a certain way. I’m acutely sensitive to the ways in which some people–fat women, poor whites, Christians, entrepreneurs, nerds–are discriminated against.

But I can’t see the orange or green in the sky. I can’t see what Hannah and Lianna see. I look at the world, and I see a million beautiful and piercing shades of purple.

More accurately, I see a partial palette, and some colors more strongly than others, as the occasion warrants. The light comes at us, and our eyes prism it into an array of colors – red, yellow, orange. We see the colors that guide us across the world, north stars for every person and group, lanterns shimmering in mauve, warning lights in blinding fuschia. The colors we see tell us where we can and can’t go, the places we are welcome and the places we aren’t, the paths our lives are supposed to take.

And this is as true for the white as for the black, for the man as for the woman, for the rich as for the poor. Exclusion and generosity are real and mutual on both sides. We love and fear and hurt each other with inventive prickles, even as the consequences are more severe for some in the end.


Are we all condemned to be colorblind then? Shall I always see from my own position, defend my own group in these endless debates? Are humans meant to be in- and out-group, slurring those with privilege and negating those with less?

Surely not. Living with Lianna, I learned to see from a thin perspective, even as I knew how much of my world she could never see. I saw he slights she felt, the way that beautiful people are also negated and cut down by people like myself, jealous and hurting. I saw that her orange was real–really there. And I would like to think she learned from me to see just a glimpse of purple.

I can’t imagine a society in which everyone is equal – I don’t think it exists. I can’t imagine anyone could see the whole and full spectrum of color. But I am learning to see more colors. And I learn by sharing and listening.

I’ve never seen orange from people who yell, “Don’t you see orange?! It’s always you purples who don’t listen. Why are you negating this?”

Well, I’ve negated it because I can’t see orange, not really. I listened to you, and got my binoculars, and looked–but it wasn’t there. The sky was still purple, stronger and pulsing as you swore it wasn’t really purple.

I don’t see orange. Not the first time you say it, and not the twentieth time. The fiftieth time, maybe. Sometimes I catch it on the edges of my vision, when I stop focusing on my own purple. But the only way I’ve ever learned green or orange was from loving and prickly relationships like these. You can’t force a blind person to see, bella, or an purple-sighted person. We see when we trust each other and work to benefit all of us together, sharing the patches of sight we each already have.


Apparently I’m a Church Secretary…

A Secretary Bird
I’m studying at the local cafe, and it’s quiet this evening. Around six I heard Robert in the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans as he cleaned the dirty mugs left over from last night. A little while later, his girlfriend Natalie arrived. When I walked into the main room a few minutes later, they were sitting on the couch, she with her Organic Chemistry book open in her lap, he beside her, leaning back from his computer game, “I just got killed again!”

Earlier this evening, I heard their voices walking down the hall, “Oh, It’s just Celia!” Natalie says from around the corner.

“What do you mean, just Celia?!” I exclaim.

Then an old man in military gear rounds the corner, with Natalie behind him.

“This will do,” he says, and waves her off.

I’m seated at a darkwood laminate desk, typing excerpts from a library book onto my laptop. I look up as he walked toward me. “I just want to set this straight,” he tells me, “this is something I’ve been meaning to do … for a long time.” He’s very intent, pushing his voice forward and jerky with his movements. He smells like stale cigarettes with a side of stale sweat.

He goes to pull something out of his pocket and I freeze, is it a gun? He’s wearing some sort of beige jumpsuit, with a muddy blue hat and yellow boots, shuddery in his movements. He rustles around in his pocket — then pulls out a tri-fold cloth wallet, in forest camo colors.

I’m feeling excited, maybe I’ll get money, I think, and then I realize he thinks I work for the church next door. People get confused about this a lot. We’re in a Student Center, but shaggy-haired ladies walk in looking for the AA meeting, aunts looking for the daycare across the parking lot. .

And when he pulls open the velcro and starts messing around in the card section, I realize I won’t be getting any money. He pulls out a few identity cards, and tosses his drivers license on my desk. It lands right by my sunglasses and schoolbooks, my comb and earrings.

“I need to switch over my membership,” he says tensely, “I was at Trinity in Houston but I’m here now and I’m ready to make a commitment.” He’s talking in circles, like it’s life and death, and how he’s going on retired reserve, maybe leaving the country, going to a different city. He wants me to do something but I’m not sure what. He doesn’t know that I’m not church staff.

“Okay,” I say, “I hear you.” Years of female service work fall into place here. “Why don’t we walk over to the main building and see if there’s anyone there.”

I lead him out of the student center and around the corner to the main building. As we’re walking I ask his name but it comes out abruptly and he stares at me. He hands me his military ID card and watches me closely as we walk. I’m a few steps ahead and I can feel it.

“Let me ask you something,” he bursts out. I keep walking and nod. “What do you think about this parish? What’s the atmosphere like?”

“I’m mostly just around the students,” I apologize. I don’t say that I’ve never actually gone to the main service here. I come for the cookies and the coffee, the Episcopal students bantering and banging songs out on the piano, blasting music from their Ipods over the cafe speakers and studying in silence late at night, fixing spaghetti together and cramming for their exams.

He’s still at the edge of my vision, pulling at my attention. “What about the conflict–” he asks, “I’m sure you know about the division…”

He means homosexuality, I realize. That challenging issue that divides churches: go with 4000 years of thoughtful and heartfelt cultural tradition, or with the thoughtful and heartfelt cultural beliefs and human values of today?

I have no idea how this church feels on it. “I know,” I say, “I’ve heard about it.” I’m trying to sound sympathetic.

When I pull the door to the parish offices, it’s locked. After hours. Through the windows of a nearby building, boy scouts stand in front of folding chairs, clustered around their leader for the pledge. Beside me, the old man stands all in beige from the neck down to his yellowish boots.

“Just Boy Scouts,” I offer. “Perhaps you could check back tomorrow?”

He stops and looks at me intently, his eyes the same blue-green as his hat, cloudy and even. “Well, you’ll relay the message for me,” he tells me, “And what was the name of my church in Houston?”

I’m pissed at this. He’s testing me, I can feel it, like all sorts of customers and incidental old men do, sure that they’re the boss in a situation that’s not theirs. He sees me like some negligent secretary — he wants to check that I’m diligent, that I’m attentive to his every need.

“Trinity,” I mutter.

“Bingo!” He’s grinning at me. “Just tell them that I want to get my membership switched over, I’ve just slid away from the Houston church…” He’s rambling again, but implying that something is wrong with that church. Probably gay people.

“I’ll try to let someone know,” I say. He stares at me for a moment, nods and heads for his car… and I go back to the oh-so-clearly marked student center.

Piano Lessons from my Childhood

"Monochrome Diet Coke" courtesy of C. J. Vizzone on Flickr.

These Diet cokes, these soft crumbly cookies–they remind me of piano lessons with Grandma. Week after week in my early teens, I’d go into town on Fridays with her, from my house in the country. Every Friday morning she would honk her horn in our driveway. I was sitting on the couch, half-asleep, in my jean jacket, turtleneck, and flowered skirt. It’s shivery-cold outside, and I can see my breath. I go outside and she’s waiting in the driveway in her great squarish Volkswagon van, smoke puttering out the back. I pull open the heavy passenger’s door, and climb into the seat. The classical music station is playing, 89.9FM, and it’s on Rachmaninoff or something supposed to wake me up, but I’m grumpy and don’t say much.

I’ve got a peanut buttered slice of Sam’s Choice bread in my hands, and I pick at the edges of it, drinking from a glass of milk I’ve sat in the cupholder. My bag is filled with piano books: John Thompson’s third grade book (I’m in the 6th grade, and I’ve been practicing from this for two years), the Joy of Ragtime, and some contemporary worship music. I’m too tired to think, but Grandma is talking to me, about the news this week, and her pastor’s sermon. She asks how my church and youth group were, and warns me about the latest sex scenes in teen movies, and how I shouldn’t see them. I nod and blink my eyes. She carefully adjusts the heat.

We stop at the gas station in Marysville, halfway between my house and Delaware, where we take piano lessons. She climbs out of the van, and carefully shuts the door. The classical music is still playing, and as I sit waiting and doodling on the back of my assignment notebook, the car windows fog up. I can still see her outside, to the left and behind me, watching the gas meter. She’s wearing a floppy grey knit cap, with her silver hair pinned up under it, and a bright purple windbreaker.

When we gets back in the van, she double-checks her receipt and puts her credit card back in her wallet. She pulls a small notebook and pencil out of a corner of her door, and carefully writes down the date, prior mileage, current mileage, price per gallon, gallons, and total amount, all in slanty penciled writing, fifty characters crammed into one small line. She presses the odometer, puts on her seat belt, looks at the odometer again, and turns on the car.

We go on ahead, across the countryside, grass still frozen straight, past the junkyard where my first car would be towed when, at age seventeen, I flipped it into a soybean field, past Burnt Pond road and the industrial complex. She slows carefully to a stop at a stoplight, then mutters at some old guy in a tractor until he pulls over. When we reach the edge of Delaware, she slows down to city speed and we go on, over the railroad tracks, past small blue farmhouses now become antique shops and clothing stores, and onto the edge of the small college campus there. We turn left at Elizabeth street and she parallel parks, carefully, as near to the music building as we can get.

Then we go up the stairs, three flights, I think, in an immense whitewashed building, with long rows of offices, a piano (or at least a music stand) in each one, each desk piled high with music pamphlets and kitcshy plastic paperweights, with piano notes and instruments on them. Sometimes when Grandma’s taking her lesson, I go to the basement to peer in the vending machines, and if I have money I’ll buy Goethe’s caramels and a Snickers bar, for Grandma (but I usually eat the Snickers before her lesson is finished). I’ll run up and down the halls in the other floors, imagining I’m a princess, but I never see anyone, just sometimes hear a few notes. I read the cartoons on each door, and peer in the bathrooms, but it never changes.

On the very top floor, at the end of the hall, is my piano teacher’s room. Her name is Mrs. Hopper. She’s an old lady in a blue dress, with very fat ankles. She also has a pink saggy face, carefully powdered, pale thin lips, and powdery white hair, and I try to sit respectfully as she sort of quietly whomps across the room to her desk to check her schedule. Her room smells like paper and perfume, old building and old lady. She is from Cincinnati and skated on the Ohio river when she was younger. She is a concert pianist, Grandma says, and I must must not waste her time – I must practice every day. It hasn’t happened yet.

If I’m not running the halls, I sit outside her door while Grandma has her lesson. Mrs. Hopper’s door is made of dark-stained wood across dull glass which I can’t quite see through. There’s a yellowed comic, or a recital announcement, and always a poster of Uncle Sam, who wants me to Practice Every Day, and he frowns and points his finger at me, no matter where I stand.

When I sit in the plastic chair outside the office, I hear Grandma June playing her scales and her hymns, her ragtime and Rachmaninoff. I can’t imagine being as good as her, pounding and pedaling, with a few trills towards the end. She stops and murmers with Mrs. Hopper but I can’t really hear either of them. Instead, I’m reading the magazines Grandma checked out from the library last week: Time, U.S. News, Newsweek, World Magazine, Christianity Today. Sometimes there is an Architectural Digest or This Old Home, but I don’t like those very much. I drink the can of Diet Coke that she has brought for me, and eat one of those soft stale brown cookies – Chips Ahoy, or maybe Chips Deluxe. Once I’ve nibbled all through mine, I pinch bits off the edges of her cookie.

As soon as I hear her come towards the door, I fold up the magazines and put away her cookie. I’m ready when she turns the handle, and I go into Mrs. Hopper’s office. Hello, she says, how have you been this week? I sit down at the piano and pull out my books. I’m about five feet tall, stringy red hair and a splotchy face, wearing some flowered skirt and my prairie boots. I’m shy, but I love to read about Indian captives and imagine that I am a pioneer girl, dramatically captured by Indians, it doesn’t matter which ones. The Shoshone have a nice name, or the Cayute. I repeat it over and over in my head, Cayute, Cayute, Cayute. I imagine myself in a bonnet. When I look up, Mrs. Hopper is looking at me.

I hand her my little assignment book, with a sparkling cover, and scribbled notes front and back of each thin page. Every week she writes down the scales and arpeggios I am to practice, and we choose several pieces to work on. This week I have to play Curious Story, which I like, and some dull ploddy german piece, which I don’t like. Also my rags, probably the Felicity and the Maple Leaf Rag. I picked Felicity because it is the name of my American Girl’s Doll, and Maple Leaf because I live in Ohio, and even though it’s early March and the gutters are full of slush and icy snow, the maple leaves still peek out in patches, damp and brown, a memory of those giddy swirls of bright falling leaves, orange in the daytime and red in the evenings.

I look across Mrs. Hopper’s office at her file cabinets and laminate desk, all overflowing with sheets and books of music, dried flowers in a vase, dusty odorless potpourri, and bright ornaments and wall hanging from her students. These gifts are from all around the world, she says, the little straw men from Thailand and the woven hanging from Guatemala. Mrs. Hopper is a college music teacher, Grandma tells me, a concert pianist, and I should be very honored to take lessons with her. And it’s true, when she plays, the whole room thunders like the most dramatic sort of novel, and then the room seems lighter than ever, and I sit beside her, twitching my feet in amazement.

She has me run through my scales and rags. I place my fingertips on the smooth keys, wrists up, and then off, tangling my fingers one over the other in a meter all my own. I love the sound her piano makes, smooth or militant, soft or very loud. Louder, she says, and watch your time, and she’s tapping the pinno in the time I should be doing, and I press hard, and all of my energy goes out through my fingers and through the air, where it hits me in the ears again, note after note. When I finish I straighten up, lean back and almost scald my back on the hot water heater that burbles behind me, heat swirling through oblong painted rings, bolted to the wall. In front of me is the baby grand piano, vibrating to silence, very pretty, with long strings stretching out in the shade of the cover, toward the door.

Finally, we discuss Curious Story. I want to perform it for my upcoming recital at our homeschool group. “You’re not ready,” Mrs. Hopper says.

“But Bach is boring,” I argue, “I want to play something fun.”

“You’re ready to perform your Bach,” she says.

“I don’t care,” I say. My skin is starting to feel prickly, I’m flushing and swinging my legs into the piano.

“Stop,” she says. “Why are you coming here, if you don’t like practicing and you don’t like playing, and you don’t like the songs we’ve agreed on, why are you here?”

The lesson is over, and when we get up, she pulls Grandma back into the room and they talk.

Grandma comes out of the office again and says goodbye to the teacher, looking at me severely. We walk down the stairs again, three flights, and I run my fingers along the smooth carved wooden banisters, as Grandma admonishes me for a good ten minutes about my obligations to Mrs. Hopper. She is a world-famous concert pianist, Grandma says. You have got to be more respectful, she says, you have been very rude and your mother won’t like to hear this.

She digs for her keys in her purse, and pulls out the sandwich baggie with her cookie. She pauses and looks at it, then breaks a bit more off of the corner I already nibbled, and puts it back in her bag.

As we go out into the gardens surrounding the great music hall, Grandma starts to calm down, and I do too. It’s cold and drizzly, but there is fresh mulch around the trees, and the tips of the branches are starting to bud, and the beginnings of crocuses and hyacinth push through the slush. We walk on the damp footpaths and she points out the each plant’s growth compared to last week. I’m still tense and quiet, the way I get when my parents lose their tempers, or I talk too loud and the youth leader gives me a sharp word.

We get back in the car and drive to Mrs. Sanford’s house. She lives in some sort of nursing home, with a code or key for the door, narrow hallways, and dark walls. It’s very dark in her room, but we stop so that Grandma can wind her clock for her. She has a bowl of candy on the coffee table. She can hardly walk, so Grandma supports her down the stairs and into the van.

At the bank, Mrs. Sanford gets money and I get a Mystery Dum-Dum, which turns out to be a nasty blue raspberry. Then to the Buehler’s for her to buy groceries. She sets in a scooter-cart and discusses meat prices with Grandma, picks out some vegetables. I tag along at the edges, wishing I had money for some Lunchables. When we get back to her house and unload all her groceries for her, she always lets me take a candy from the dish, a Hershey’s kiss or Brach’s mint or butterscotch. I take four more when she’s not looking, and slip down the hallway and into the stairwell where I eat them all at once.

Grandma meets me in the hall, and I stuff the wrappers into my pocket. I’m sure she can tell, so when we get in the car, I’m silent, sweet acrid mouth, as Grandma stops to test the windshield wiper fluid. She turns and asks if I still want to go to Salvation Army. Of course I do! We drive several blocks to the west, and park in a great flat lot by the Salvation Army, across from the gas station and one block from the freeway. When we go in, we check the signs – blue tags are 50% off today. She goes to look at the old women’s blouses, and I the scarves and books. We look at shoes together and at the furniture in the back – Grandma is always looking for just one more piece so that she can rearrange her living room.

Finally, she carefully buys one pair of thick wool socks and a silk blouse – silk is best for summer she says, very lightweight – for $2.35. She already has drawers full of wool socks, all in neat little rows, and a dozen silk blouses, but you can never have too many. I buy a green cloth purse with plastic flowers on it, and then drop my last two quarters into the little red machines by the doors, and crank the handle so that nine Mike’n’Ikes drop out. The quarters came from mommy’s purse, hidden behind her coat on the yellow hooks in our laundry room. She never has change at the grocery store, and I’m always busy fingering the checkout counter magazines when she sighs and comments about it in the general direction of her five children.

Usually we get blizzards from Dairy Queen, but Grandma must know how much sugar I’ve had today. Instead, she suggests we check out several antique stores on the way home. I’m tired and dizzy – driving always turns my stomach and I don’t like to wait for Grandma to look over everything in the store – but I say yes because I like being with Grandma. There are pictures of stiff old people in large wooden frames, and lots of doilies and flowered woodware. This store has a roll-top desk, just like I want someday, and a spinning wheel. I want a spinning wheel very badly because then I could really be a Pioneer Girl, but some of the parts are missing. Also, it’s $325 and I only have $24.73 in my checking account. I tap-tap-tap with my prairie boots across the linoleum in the store, twirling my skirt carefully away from the vases, as I wait for Grandma to finish her look-see.

Lastly, we stop at the Dublin library, where I find a book about an Indian captive, and another about a girl who worked in a textile mill during the civil war. It sounds very dramatic. Grandma gets out some books about what those liberals are doing to America, and about the history of Christianity, and about how to solve World Hunger. She turned in a big stack of books and magazines when we got here, but I know she has another stack at home, with yellow sticky notes poking out every which way from the pages.

Most of the stickies aren’t sticky anymore, because she carefully moves them from book to book, so that nothing is wasted. By her reading couch there is a pile of yellow stickies on the lampstand (actually nonstickies) that are turning greyish, and a little stub of a pencil which she uses to write her notes about the books, always on leftover scraps of paper, always in cursive so small I can’t even read it.

After she checks out her books, I check out mine, hiding the one about the civil war because the girl on the cover looks suspiciously swoony. We get back in the car for another dizzy ride home. There, I run to check the mail, while Grandma stops inside to talk with mommy and see the drawings my little brothers have made.

And I don’t touch my piano books all week, except for once when I play my scales so I can use the computer, and one other time, when I flip through the pages to see where my library receipt has gone.