Thursday, July 15, 2010

Candlewaxing Nostalgic

Today, while listening to Stevie N doing Landslide I got to thinking about the things I used to have that I don't have anymore. Probably because I used to like to try to play that song on my old guitar that I also, don't have anymore.

I never could play Landslide all the way through without making a mess of it. But I tried.

Believe it or not, but once upon a time, I had a couch. I also had some "art" that I composed myself. It was truly horrific and amateur and would most likely get me banished from most art-loving societies, but it was my own bad art so I hung it with reckless and nonsensical abandon. I owned a rickety piano that I rescued from a friend. Ancient and fiercely upright, it fought me when I played it like a petulant child-- stubbornly refusing to stay in tune. After months of pounding and fuming, I eventually learned to play it as it wanted to be, and one day we simply stopped fighting.

And one day, I simply started writing music again.

I used to own an apartment full of painstakingly refinished furniture that I trekked all over Los Angeles to yard sales, and estate sales, and thrift shops. I became the proud owner of a monstrous pink, antique desk that I purchased from a manic furniture artist named Claudia who lived in Venice beach and wore nothing but paint-smeared caftans that billowed and ballooned like psychedelic clouds around her enormous and frenetic frame.

Thanks to Claudia's sheer force of will and an inherent inability to comprehend failure, that desk made its way into my second story bedroom window via a series of precarious pulleys and gnarled ropes that creaked and moaned as they heaved the gargantuan thing up into the light of a dying Los Angeles afternoon.

I still remember the day I bought it, and how excited I was that I would finally have something substantial to sit behind as I wrote. How the desk made me feel like I had finally made it, as a writer. "This will make you famous one day!" Claudia beamed at me, her blue eyes twinkling behind reigns of smeared mascara as she stood triumphant and bold beside the hulking monstrosity now holding court in my bedroom.

That night, as I sat there at my new desk, I hoped she was right.

Of course when I moved to my next apartment, I left the desk in that second story bedroom. There was no place for demonstrative furniture it in my new home. Some things are meant to be left behind I guess.

But then I bought a chair. A white chair so enormous and cloud-like and magical that I never wanted to leave it. I'd melt into that seat for hours, writing blogs with my laptop perched upon my knees, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine into the forgotten hours of early morning.

I called it my writing chair.

When I left Los Angeles, I sold my magical writing chair to a woman up the street, who also purchased most of the furniture in my apartment. Her name was also Tara. "It's like you were in my head and knew exactly what I was looking for!" she shrieked the day she drove up to my yard sale and hopped out of her SUV.

"This is exactly everything I need and want! You have my everything!"

Sad as I was to see my everything go, I was comforted by the knowledge that my things would at least get to stay together, if not with me, with some other Tara who loved them.

Every once in a while I wonder about the magical chair. And the big pink elephant desk. And the ornery piano.

Today I remembered how, every once in a while, I'd turn off all of the lights and ignite every candle in my apartment and sit with the things I had accumulated and worked for during my life. I'd glance around at my stuff and remember how we all got there, and at what cost. In the dim and flickering shadows, somehow it all came together. The bad art, and the writer, and the piano and the dreams. 

Sitting here  in North Carolina with only the clothes I showed up with and not much else, I don't really miss the things that much.

Not really.

Except the chair.

I do miss the writing chair. I wish I could buy it back and I am sorry that I sold it.

Some things are just meant to keep. Even if it means dragging them across the country. Even if they're a big pain in the ass to haul. They're worth the expense, and the pain and the irritation.

Not because they mean anything on their own, or have any intrinsic value just sitting there...but because they remind you of what you can be.

And somehow, they inspire you to be it.

Tara Callahan

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Manufactured Life

Today, while getting ready for my job as a hostess at a chain restaurant that entails me pulling on a uniform that makes me look like I should be scanning your Tampax at Target, I got sucked into a favorite movie from my youth: An Officer and a Gentleman.

For those of you too young to know, (and I can’t believe I have friends too young to share this knowledge with me)…but the actor Richard Gere used to exist without gray hair. He used to be kind of gritty and dirty and vulerable in a real enough way that made him believable in this life-changing part as a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who does right and becomes a charming Naval Officer.

But I’m not here to talk about how good Gere was in this film and how he went from being an Officer to a Gentleman, even though he did a great job at being both.

I’m here to say that as I stood in my bedroom in my own uniform, flat-ironing my now-graying hair, I heard the young Debra Winger character say something to Richard Gere ‘s soon-to-be Officer character that stopped me in my tracks.

She was talking about the factory in which she currently worked with her best friend. A factory just outside of town. I don’t even think the screenwriters ever tell you what it was the factory manufactured. Just that it was a factory where people worked their lives out, and where they presumably toiled until they died.

The line that stopped me was a line I’d never heard before, even though I’ve seen this movie approximately 15 times in my life. The line was:

“My mom is almost thirty-nine years old and has been working in this factory for her whole life.”

I know writers are always yammering on about how someone’s heart stopped. How her heart stopped, or his did, or the cat’s did or the whole world’s did.

And I know it is cliché.

But mine did too. As I stood there, almost thirty-nine years old, stepping into black, hideous, non-skid shoes, a pair of tan pants, and a threadbare red t-shirt, on my way my own factory… mine did too.

I hadn’t heard that line before, or cared much about it, because it wasn’t relevant to me, and now, suddenly, it was. And it made me view that film in a whole new light. Not as a hopeful, young and naïve girl, waiting for her hero to come to the factory to sweep her away from the hopelessness, but as a 38-year-old woman who knows better.

This woman who knows better finally understands that no officer or gentleman, or soul mate, or pr-job, or overseas adventure, or 401-k plan, or god for that matter, can ever truly change the rules of the game. A woman who knows better knows that no matter what happens, the compromised life she climbs into is hers, and hers alone, as long as she continues to choose to climb into it.

The Officer and a Gentleman movie now made me mad and irritated and snarly,  for all of the right reasons---which is how most truths tend to come at you. Truth tends to rise from the shit festering way out in left field, where the seepage and roughage of life tends to settle.

And from there it beckons and taunts and dares you to wear it, like an armor.

And if you are courageously dumb enough to do so...that shit might one day, when you are not even looking for it, when you are not even caring about it,...when you are not even remembering why it even existed in the first place... but that truth, cloaked in the most foul-tasting shit, may set you free.

One day.

Tara Elizabeth Callahan

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It is a slow, and a quiet thing.
Life does not instantly leave us in an abrupt and fatal finale. It recedes, like an ebbing tide.
Last night during my shift at the hospital, one of our patients died and I was asked to help my friend with that patient’s post-mortem care.
It was the first time in my life that I have ever touched a dead person.
As we methodically removed the labyrinth of lines and tunnels of plastic tubing connecting him to this earth and cleansed his body with warm soapy water, I wondered about this man.  Raising his slightly-muscled arm, I noticed his personal tattoos and wondered how old he had been when he received them. I wondered what kind of man he had been, while he was alive. What sorts of things he had seen in his life. How he felt during his last breath.
I hoped he felt safe, and strong, and loved.
We carefully removed and changed his bedding, tucking him into fresh linens so that he would look clean and restful before his family came in to say their final good-byes, and we waited.
That was the worst part. Not the death, but the living beings left behind to keep their heads above water in the wake of it.  I will remember the face of one woman entering that room, for a very long time.
Grief for a loved one is a more terrifying and emotional thing than death, any day.
I know that now.
 After the family finished and departed, we prepared our patient’s eyes for organ donation.
The eyes we irrigated with saline solution may once see again. As my friend and I stood there holding his lids open during the procedure, I wondered who might receive these eyes that ceased to have life and light behind them.  I wondered if those deceased eyes would ever remember anything they had seen thus far.
I wondered if organs have any memory at all. And for some reason, even though I didn’t know this man---but for some crazy reason--- I sort of wished that they did.  I wanted what he had seen, to help in some way.  I wanted them to serve as a guide and maybe protect the person who would peer through them next.
As I held his hand in mine and carefully washed it, he felt warm. And strong. And vital. And alive.
But that too, eventually faded.
We later transported this man’s body to the morgue…which sounds like a scarier process than what it truly is, because what we were transporting was simply a husk of what once was.
A deceased body is a container of life. Not a life itself.
We as human beings are ultimately greater than the sum of our parts.
But those parts do eventually wear out…
And so do we.
It is an intimate experience, death.
I feel honored to have been a part of it.
-Tara Callahan

Saturday, December 19, 2009

You Can't Get There From Here

As I stood in the checkout line at Walmart, in Garner, North Carolina I felt like a very small universe imploding upon itself. The fact that I was even standing in a Walmart in the first place is evidence enough to finally prove the controversial Big Crunch theory.

I’ve been working on a dynamic mathematical equation to prove my point.  It looks a little something like this:
If a =You messed up
And b=You are screwed
And c= Now you’re stuck and moving backwards in time and next year instead of living in your parent’s home you will be living as a single undifferentiated cell in your mother’s left ovary.

Then…a+c=b.   It works even if you square it, which works out nicely for everyone.

Lest someone bring up the point that I sound like a thankless child who does not appreciate a good thing when she has it, I would like to go on the record by saying yes I do.  I appreciate every single thing my wonderful parents, sisters and friends have done in their valiant attempts to pull me out of the quagmire I’ve somehow fallen into by choosing to leave a truly great job in Los Angeles in order to pursue creative and idealistic endeavors.

The dream of becoming a published writer and photographer with a fabulously small but somehow ultimately efficient and spectacular apartment in New York City somehow morphed into the reality of me walking dogs through urine-stained snowdrifts in New Jersey, in leaky Target rain-boots and working at a yoga studio, struggling to make ends meet and pay rent on my tiny and remarkably draft-ridden basement apartment in Jersey City crippled with heating bills that rivaled the national debt. That somehow morphed into me moving in with my friend Sarah, her boyfriend and her beautiful daughter in Sarah’s lovely and, thanks to me, then-cramped and one-bathroomed home in Hoboken.  Which then spontaneously combusted into me leaving the Northeast altogether and moving to North Carolina to live in my parent’s extra bedroom while attempting to get into nursing school along with the other 600-thousand other applicants somehow trying to do the same thing in this country---all while secretly wondering if I really even want to be a nurse in the first place or if I’m just petrified that I am going to end up living beneath a crack-soaked  freeway overpass …eating someone’s leftover Carl’s Jr. ,  all because I watched too many medical shows like ER when I was younger and somehow never completely grasped that being a nurse doesn’t magically come with its own riveting and catchy theme song and sexy doctors like George Clooney.

All within a 17-month period.

But I digress.

During all of this running around and in the midst of all of this confusion, and self-ploding, I realize I have actually done some things.

 I’ve met a special medical instructor who survived breast cancer by fearlessly opting to take on some of the most terrifying anti-cancer drugs imaginable. That teacher now makes me laugh and challenges my ability to think on my feet on a weekly basis.  I’ve met individuals who came to the US knowing less English than I knew at age 2, who are now competing against me for spots in Bachelor’s of Science nursing programs.  I’ve come into contact with pet owners who would throw themselves in front of 12 lanes of 18-wheelers in order to save their dogs from harm. I have dressed those same dogs up for Halloween parades in costumes far more extravagant than anything my own mother ever concocted for me in my youth.

And I have thumbs.

I’ve sprawled on my side on a mat, in the middle of rooms-full of prenatal mothers and silently shared poignant yoga experiences with them, as an un-mother interloper.

I’ve helped strangers eat when they could not feed themselves and helped them unwind themselves from IV tubing and critical and annoying THIS IS HERE TO SAVE YOU wiring that neither of us truly understands. I’ve walked around after more than nine 15-week old puppies and scraped their watery bowel movements from the pavement…and hugged and praised them for going outside.

(I hugged and praised them even when they didn’t.)

I was bitten by a dog when I did not have health insurance that covered the cost of a rabies vaccine.


This week I donned a medical suit made  of lead and peered over the shoulder of a surgeon in an operating room as he performed a heart- catheterization on a man, wondering if the lead would ultimately protect my as-of- yet, unneeded ovaries,  and if the catheterization would save this one man’s very much needed, life.

I watched as someone had a pacemaker installed.

I took my own mom’s blood -pressure while practicing vital signs for a class and realized it was potentially high enough to cause a stroke.

My mom has since visited her doctor who put her on new medication.

 She hasn’t had a stroke.

I watched my little sister learn how to play the guitar and learned that she has a beautiful voice to go with her beautiful soul.

I cart-wheeled on a North Carolina beach with my niece and was there the week she discovered books. Real books. And how much fun they are to read. Out loud. With inflection.

I have waited tables. Stood on tables. Picked up shit. Wanted to throw shit. Hosted restaurants. Walked dogs. Dated dogs. Taken names.  Taken temps. Taken photos. Held hands. Taken notes. Taken a few deep and cleansing breaths. Shaken paws. Written it down. Sucked it up. Documented the record. Covered my ass. Cried my eyes out. Laughed myself silly. Wondered what happened.  And more than once, I’ve been mad enough to spit nails.

But when I think about how I can’t wait to get back to Los Angeles, which I will, soon---I do not regret what I have done, where I have gone, or the direction I went.

Really, there was only the one direction to march towards.

The one I chose.

-Tara Callahan

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Open Road

The petulant visitor worried the deadbolts on the front door as she sat in the close and airless room---a tinny Glenn Miller track trilling.

"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.
Anyone else but me.

With anyone else but me..."

She stood up and checked the locks. Then she checked them again. And one more time. Just to be sure.

He was sneaky, this snake-oil-slinging swashbuckler poised outside her door. He was also unexpectedly patient. More patient than she could ever hope to be.

The trembling tip of her cigarette leapt to life with each reckless inhalation as she contemplated his infuriating endurance.

Hiding inside the inky darkness she remembered the time he knocked on her window in Denver, and how, by the light of a waning moon, he somehow convinced her to move to Los Angeles, California where she didn't have a job. Or friends. Any home. Or a plan.

It would not be the first time she'd crumbled.

"Just pack your stuff. Just go!" he'd harangued her as the moonbeams puddled at her bare and frigid feet that stood in an apartment she could no longer afford, when he convinced her to move from New Jersey to North Carolina.

"Just one thought, can change your life."

And so, she left. She always left eventually. Even after "sitting on her hands" like her friend Debbie Devito had taught her to do whenever she contemplated saying or doing anything incredibly stupid or juvenile.

She sat on her hands a lot.

She also did a lot of leaving, because her gentleman caller was charming and alive and he smelled like the beaches in San Felipe and the hotel rooms in Europe, and cross-country Greyhounds, and vast open spaces and how you'd think think freedom would smell, if it had a scent.

The grandfather clock ticked off the fading moments of indecision as she wondered if she had finally outgrown him. If the fanfare and the new had somehow lost its lustre, or allure.

"Be fair to me and I'll guarantee...
I won't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but you, till you come marching home."

She placed one hand, upon the door.

-Tara Callahan

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Skin Deep Beauty

As I stood at a gas station eking out its squalid existence on a stark stretch of road just south of nowhere, I glanced up to see a billboard sign emblazoned with a six-foot-tall elk head. Under the unfortunate head the sign read:

Taxidermy--1/2 Mile.

The ancient gas-pump coughed and whirred, its dingy mechanical digits heaving skyward as I propped myself on the hood of the car to ponder this macabre omen.

It was all very The Hills Have Eyes meets Night of the Living Dead and as I watched a discarded Diet Coke can rattle across the parking lot, I was fully prepared for a team of lurching zombies to burst out of the men's bathroom armed with a rapidly mutating virus and gargantuan elk heads.

I'm always fully prepared for something plausible to happen.

As the hairs leapt to attention at the base of my skull and the goosebumps on my arms sprang to life, I got to thinking that right about now would be as good a time as any, to own a gun.

Thankfully the gas tank filled and I hopped into my ride and sped away before I was forced to fend off any infected undead or homicidal maniacs. But my manic brain couldn't leave the taxidermy sign alone and while fishing around on the internet a few hours ago, I stumbled upon a website that was in some ways, creepier than the shiftless little zombie-infested service station.

"Learning Taxidermy the Fun and Easy Way---on DVD! 40% off the perfect beginner course!! Four-DVDs including Deer, Fish, Duck and Squirrel!"

Grotesquely intrigued, I clicked onto the informational link where an audio clip of a waxen and lifeless looking gentleman (pictured here)
informed me that whether I was simply looking to save hundreds by doing my own taxidermy---or looking to make thousands of dollars by starting my own taxidermy business, this was the course for me.

That audio must have been recorded right before his business partner turned him into a bipedal mount.

Now, far be it for me to find fault with someone else's hobbies. I mean, I have some whoppers of my own so I try not to be too judgemental. Or mental.

But taxidermy? I don't know. I think that might be a deal-breaker. Like, say I was asked on a date by a super good-looking guy who shared many of my dreams and aspirations, who didn't have any ridiculous emotional baggage and happened to be the head surgeon at Duke with a summer house in Vermont that he flew his biplane to every other weekend.

Say that same guy asked me out on a date and we got along like peas and carrots and laughed until our sides ached.

If that same guy brought me to his home and shared this little hobby with me?

I'd shut it down. Post haste.

It just seems that the next logical step after skinning an animal and stretching its chemically- treated flesh over a stuffed semblance of that same animal---- is skinning a date, and stretching her chemically treated flesh into some sort of suit jacket.

Call me crazy.

-Tara Callahan

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Inside Out

"Well honey, the yard certainly needs weeding," my mother informed me over breakfast on the back porch just yesterday morning.

"Look at them. They're taking over the yard. The situation is out of control."

I glanced up from our daily Garner, North Carolina newspaper, otherwise known as "The Baptist Manifesto," and stared into the legion of trees flanking the lawn.

"You know what? I don't see any weeds Mom."

This wasn't the rhapsodic response she'd hoped to illicit. I could tell. So she tried again...

"Oh don't be silly honey, they're right there. How can you possibly miss them?"

We've been having the 'weed conversation' for approximately 3 months now, and seem to possess entirely different views on what constitues the nature of a weed. Where she sees a weed, I see an innocent sapling trying to sprout out of a maliciously shorn trunk. Where I see an innocent tree, she sees an invasive interloper hell-bent on making a mockery of her prudent pièce de résistance---aka, The Yard.

What I did not know until I moved into my parent's home a few months ago, is that my mom's diabolical definition of a weed is anything she didn't actually plant in the yard herself--- be it a rogue wildflower, a tangle of tulips, or an entire cluster of crape myrtle trees.

Against my better judgement and because this is not my house and I therefore do what I am told without asking questions--- today I donned a pair of raggedy gardener's mitts, grabbed a rusty hedge trimmer, and set out to singlehandedly rid the yard of unwelcome vegetation.

My Dad threw out a bit of local wisdom, just before jumping into the car and driving away--

"Remember, if it has three leaves, leave."

That bit of color commentary was supposed to prevent me from getting into a tussle with one of more than a thousand poison ivy patches dotting the perimeter.

It was at about this point that I started thinking about my former life as an adult, in Los Angeles, California. And my gardener who would show up every Wednesday evening to blow leaves from my stoop, pull actual weeds from my shrubbery and water the dusty pavement.

Now, somehow, I am the gardener.

I'm not a tree hugger by nature, simply because I don't have what it takes to actually put myself behind any sort of cause for more than three seconds before feeling that the cause is asking too much of me.

But today, I felt for the trees. And the flowers. And well...the weeds. Because they were simply trying to do their thing.

Manicured lawns and razor-edged driveways and woodchip-lined walkways never really made any sense to me. It's like systematically trying to make the outside of the house, be the inside of the house.

"Here is the carpet. We call it the lawn, but it's really the green carpet. We like the lawn to be approximately as long as the carpet fibers in the livingroom. Can you do that? And trim up those edges. We need a straight lines."

The guy next door mows his lawn so precisely that I'm convinced he's devised an exit strategy to prevent footprints.

But again, this is not my home. And when my services are needed, I must comply. So I trimmed. And I tore. And I traumatized not a few young tree-lings.

The morning sort of went as such:

"I'm sorry..." snip.

"I know, I should seriously consider growing a backbone..." clip.

"Why did I ever decide to go back to school? I hate school..." rip.

"Please don't hold this against me. Look, I'll save you. Let's just cover you in a bit of mulch. You can still breathe right? Just don't move ok? You can still photosynthesize through that one free leaf, right? Don't try to SPROUT for christsakes. Stay put. For the love of God, she's watching."

Euclid would be proud. We are now far more geometrically consistent than we were at 9am this morning.

I however, am not proud. But I can't deal with another fall now anyway.

--Tara Callahan