Normally over Winter Break, my big "me-time" outing would be going to a movie by myself in the afternoon, seeing something that neither Rich nor the kids would want to see, and which I would thoroughly enjoy partly because it's such an indulgence, to sit alone in a movie theater in the middle of the afternoon. However, that was obviously not happening this winter break, so I had to find a new way to indulge myself.
The solution was to lose myself while following the recipe for a sausage-apple pie from Amy Traverso's "Apple Lover's Cookbook", which was a Christmas present from my mom. The cookbook promised an hour of prep-time, but I spent over two hours putting the whole thing together.
That's okay, because the other part of the indulgence was to have on "Working Girl" - the 1980s classic, while I baked. This was one of my favorite movies back when it first came out, and while it's still charming, I don't know that it's aged well into the #MeToo era. I mean, Melanie Griffith is harassed and objectified, yet her main enemy is the only female she encounters who happens to have any power. Meanwhile, she Griffith get ahead because Harrison Ford finds her attractive and the other guy, Trask, finds her plucky. Plus, there are a lot of gratuitous shots of Griffith in her underwear.
Yet, I still found myself rooting for Melanie Griffith and singing along to Carly Simon's "Let the River Run" and laughing at the film's many funny moments, most of which include Joan Cusak. And perhaps this means I'm truly middle-aged (though I have been for a long time) but the comfort of revisiting a film from my youth while creating something homey, authentic, and delicious, brought me a happy kind of peace that I don't often feel in this day & age.
And the pie was DELICIOUS!
View from above - Crust & Sausage with a few apples peeking out.
Fresh out of the oven!
Constructing the pie - the apples were supposed to have the skin left on!
A little over four years ago, I promised Pauline, my daughter who was six at the time, that we would soon have our first female president.
Then, that damn New York Times election needle that kept moving in the wrong direction. I had a sleepless night and had to break it to Pauline the next morning that Trump would be our next president.
I went to school and saw the scared, deer-in-headlights expressions on my students’ faces. They were sure that they and their families would be deported soon. One of my favorite students literally rushed into my arms and cried on my shoulder. Later that day, I cried myself. It was during my fourth hour, reading a story to my Creative Writing class that had nothing to do with politics. A man who has regrets, who has made mistakes and who feels lost describes a dream he has: “I was running around that floor from one face of the skyscraper to another, frantic, looking through those big sheets of glass – trying to find a way to protect Superman.” (Coupland, Life After God 89)
I tend to choke up anyway, when I’m reading aloud writing that is powerful and so, so good. But that day, I felt that I couldn’t protect anyone from what was coming, and those words were a trigger. I wept.
“Ms. Osterkamp, who’d you vote for?” One of my students dryly asked.
We laughed and the moment passed.
Months later, I attended the Women’s March in Minneapolis. Three days later, I fell on the ice and shattered my elbow. I would need surgery. In the ambulance, the medic asked me the basic questions. “What is your full name?” and “What day is it?” and “Who is the president?”
I started to say “Obama,” but the realization hit halfway through, and it came out as, “O…My GOD!”
The medic shook his head and said, sympathetically, “Yeah.”
Physical therapy and the Russian probe followed.
My elbow healed but will never bend like it used to. The metal plate the surgeon inserted will always cause my arm to ache. And Mueller wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. And Robert Barr should be ashamed.
Then there was the Stoneman Douglas school shooting. I chaperoned students who wanted to protest at the capitol, and planned to bring with me my son, Eli, who was in middle school at the time. Pauline was upset, wanting to go too. “I want to do what’s right,” she said.
Months later, I picked her up at school, and she told me she’d learned about Abraham Lincoln. “I want to be like him,” she said. “I want to make the world a better place. When I grow up, I’m going to be mayor.”
Months and years passed. Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed. AOC was elected. Trump was impeached over his dealings with the Ukraine, and Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi were my temporary heroes.
Pauline had four birthdays. She grew, she formed opinions, and she still plans to be mayor. When George Floyd was murdered in our city, she cried, and helped me write letters to our elected officials and select which social justice causes we should donate to.
Covid 19 kept us isolated. Trump insisted it was a hoax, or that if we just drank some bleach, it would all go away.
“Vote like your life depends on it, because it does!” That was not hyperbole.
Everyday, I grew sure. We would be doomed if Trump was elected again.
Pauline and I would go for walks in the afternoon and look at all the yard signs. They were all for Biden & Harris, with a few RGB memorials thrown in. “What will we do if Trump wins again, Mom?”
“We’ll turn off the news,” I replied.
“We could just build a protective bubble around our house,” she added.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Trump isn’t going to win.”
On election night Florida goes fast for Trump. I have a sinking feeling I will need to tell Pauline I was wrong, again. I warn her when I put her to bed. She seems unfazed.
Then, thank God, Wisconsin and Michigan go for Biden the next day.
Pauline and I ride our bikes through the neighborhood, looking at the yard signs for what might be the last time. Biden and Harris.
“Do you know what we’ll have if Biden wins?” I ask her.
I laugh. “Sure, we can have cake. But I was going to say, we’ll have a woman vice president.”
I am glued to the television for the next three day and I look at Twitter so much I pinch a nerve. I am still in pain.
But by Friday we’re making our victory cake. It falls apart when it comes out of the pan, but the next day when the election is finally called for Biden. Pauline and I scoop the broken cake together and paste it up with sweet, buttery frosting.
We eat it while watching Harris speak. She says that little girls should know they can grow up to be whatever they want to be.
Pauline squeezes my hand.
I’ve never been the type to carefully read instructions. I don’t have the patience. Or, maybe it’s more like most of the time, I don’t understand. I’m not a visual, step by step sort of person. I’ll just assume I know what I’m doing enough to figure it out, that through some combination of instinct, common sense and magic, everything will come together.
That strategy worked in the Before-Times, back when there was room for human error because there had also been room for human interaction, because massive human error hadn’t all but eliminated human interaction. But I realize there’s nothing to gain from dreaming about BEFORE. I wish I’d known several months ago that everything was about to change, that I should prepare and I should say goodbye to sitting in bars and drinking G&Ts with friends, to my niece’s pink princess-drenched birthday parties, to travelling for work and staying in a Holiday Inn Express, and to impulsive shopping trips – braving the stores when they are crowded just so I could find the perfect sparkly top to wear on my date with the guy I met on Tinder. Speaking of which, I for sure have to say goodbye to dates with guys I met on Tinder, and to dates, period. Anything that might cause those tiny droplets to spread is a no-no, and I’m left wondering, is there anything worthwhile left?
The loneliness is what gets me now. Alone in my apartment, I’ll only leave by descending the fire escape stairwell, trying to hold my breath and trying not to touch the handrail the whole way down. Coming home is worse, having to climb fourteen flights of stairs, praying I don’t encounter anyone on my long trek up, and that if I do, that person doesn’t cough or sneeze on me, and please God, let them be wearing a mask.
I rarely leave anymore, but it’s not like I’ve given up. I ordered a treadmill with this screen that simulates beach scenes, so it’s almost like I’m running along the ocean waves. I have my food delivered, salads with goat cheese and walnuts, or Asian noodles steaming in the carton. I subscribe to all the streaming services, so I can watch the latest Netflix show everyone is talking about online, and I have a Kindle, so I can read any book I want with one-click ordering. And of course, there’s social media. I can keep up with old friends from high school or college, or with all my co-workers who also now work from home.
But despite it all, I am so alone. I can’t remember the last time I touched someone, or when someone touched me.
I thought about getting a pet; my building allows cats. But every single person has the same idea. The humane society is out of animals, and so are all the pet stores. Even if they weren’t, it’s not like you can have a conversation with a cat. Well, at any rate, I don’t want to be the type of person who would have a conversation with a cat.
I know what you’re thinking: how is it any better, to have a conversation with an AI than with a cat? It’s not. Just so you know, I don’t claim to be any better than a lonely, crazy cat lady. We all have needs and I was simply trying to get mine met. So when I saw the ad, it seemed too good to be true. You Can Still Belong to Someone! Find the Love You Deserve! Open your Eyes to a Better Mate, a Better Life, a Better World!
The AIs weren’t cheap. But I’d recently inherited some money, after my grandmother had passed. When she died, she’d been alone in the hospital and we couldn’t visit her because of contamination, etc., so I couldn’t really process the fact that she was gone. Yet, my bank account increased around 300,000%, and why not spend it on something that might save me from diving head-first off an emotional cliff? After all, there was no end in sight. The goal post kept moving, and for all I knew, this was how things would be for a really long time. For all I knew, relationships were now extinct, an antiquated artifact we would talk about one day: Can you believe people did things this way? How strange…
So, I ordered myself a mate. The website said they were fully customizable. I needed to choose its physical characteristics upon ordering: height, weight, build, race, age-range, defining features. But the rest of it, the selecting of what would comprise his soul, that would be up to me. I just needed to read the instructions and follow a few, easy steps.
Yet, the instruction manual was like a high school biology textbook, the type of tomb that had weighed down my backpack, sending me to a chiropractor before I’d turned sixteen. It was not simply a few, easy steps. The steps were difficult and layered, not unlike the navigation of the real-life dating world, and the real-life pitfalls of finding a romantic partner.
The “Handling Precautions” alone were entirely overwhelming.
· This AI, while sturdy, is still a delicate machine. Do not subject it to excessive force or rough play.
· The AI is not waterproof and cannot be used underwater. If you accidentally immerse it in water, contact the AI Service Center immediately.
· Never leave the AI near a strong magnetic field such as an electric motor, nor near radio waves nor any appliance with a large antennae. Doing so could destroy your AI’s programming data.
· If your AI is suddenly brought in from the cold to a warm room, condensation may form on its internal parts. In such a case, it is necessary to open all external valves and let the AI dry and relieve itself of condensation, a process that could take as long as five hours.
· Do not touch your AIs electrical contacts with your bare hands. This could cause corroding.
Even though these warnings gave me tremendous pause, making me think that I might be getting in over my head, I didn’t package him up and return for a full refund. That’s partly because just getting him back in the box and taping everything up, and then getting him to the Post Office - all of that would have been a major headache. But mostly, I wasn’t able to give up on the dream of having the perfect companion. So what if he’s a little delicate? All relationships require work.
I was determined. I downloaded the app on my phone that would act as his control panel. I went through all the steps choosing vocal qualities (though it was easiest to simply use samples from James Franco movies) and I selected the personality traits that seemed obvious at the time. Good listener? Check. Empathetic? Check. Patient? Double Check. Slow to anger? Of course. Why would I want an AI with an attitude problem?
I wish now I hadn’t skipped over the page in the instruction book with this segment:
While it can be tempting to select purely mild-mannered qualities for your AI, keep in mind that without balance, a low-energy AI with reduced drive may result. We suggest you include what some might see as “flaws” when building your AI’s personality, otherwise, your experience may not feel authentic. When surveyed, most clients respond that being challenged by their AI from time to time lends to an authentic experience, making their relationship with their AI more human-like.
I’d made him perfect in every way. Perfect looks, perfect build, perfect mind. He sounded like James Franco and listened like a therapist. He did whatever I asked of him, and he never got mad, not even when I’d lose my patience, yell and swear at him, releasing my anger at the world onto his unsuspecting artificial existence.
“This sucks!” I would yell at him. “You aren’t even real! Tell me what I’m doing!”
He’d cock his head, his eyes crinkling with warmth. “I see you and I hear you. I love you. Tell me how you feel.”
“I feel like I should have held out for a cat, one who might pee on my furniture or accidentally scratch me, so when he’d purr and let me pet him, it would be like I’d won.”
I went back and read the whole instruction book, but not until after I’d already selected his “human” qualities. Turns out that once formed, AIs are incapable of change, and I realized that I am incapable of happiness if I’m not also feeling challenged.
Now, I keep his power off, and I got on the waitlist for a cat. My AI makes a great scratching post.
If you teach high school English, I expect you've seen this list before. I'll bet you even showed it to other members in your English department, and you all shared a good laugh one afternoon, as students left the building and you braced yourself for an hour or two of essay grading before you headed home.
That's how it happened for me, when I saw this list for the first time, but that was toward the beginning of my teaching career, before there was Facebook. Since then I have seen it posted numerous times, most recently this morning. Here it is:
For instance, take #11: The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
What high school students know about 30 year marriages disintegrating due to infidelity, or for that matter, surcharges at ATMs? This simile reeks of life experience.
Other analogies in this list suggest a familiarity with tedium that many high school students do not have to deal with. Like #14: His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free. As an adult, it took me a while to understand the importance of using fabric softener, and I still don't know that I could create an apt comparison regarding thoughts and alliances.
And what about #9: Her vocabulary was as bad as like, whatever. That sounds like it's making fun of a high school student, not written by one.
Anyway, many of these analogies are actually really GOOD.
How do I know? Well, I once found a "bad analogy" writing contest and I tried to come up with a good entry. I struggled. I consider simile and metaphor writing one of my strengths as a writer, and I used to write comedy long ago, so you would think it would come naturally to me. But it totally did not.
So, hats off if these were actually written by high school students; they are more talented writers than me. Hats off to whomever wrote them.
One more thing: The only funnier analogy than the ones listed here that I've come across recently is from the movie Knives Out, when Beniot Blanc said:
A doughnut hole in the doughnut's hole. But we must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the doughnut hole has a hole in its center - it is not a doughnut hole at all but a smaller doughnut with its own hole, and our doughnut is not whole at all!
Now, I laughed hard throughout that whole movie, but my husband thought I would have a fit when the doughnut hole speech happened. I guess as a writer/reader/English teacher I have a real love for good analogies, or for analogies that are so bad, they're good. I feel that doughnut hole speech alone is reason enough for it to have been nominated for best screen play, and it only reinforces my point, that writing something so bad, it's good, takes skill!
We all have quarantine stories to tell; this is mine.
In a time of loss, we must find joy.
This might be too easy for me to say. I’ve had it good, comparatively. I haven’t lost my home, or my livelihood. My loved ones are safe and healthy, as far as I know. For me, the loss that came with quarantine was secondary. On the Monday of the second week of March, I got news that my dad had suddenly died (not from Covid.) My brother, stepsiblings and I told ourselves that he would be with my stepmother now, and that he would have been at very high risk for suffering and probably dying from the Corona Virus. We wouldn’t have wished the prolonged pain, the fear, and the isolation on anyone, and especially not him. Still, it hurt that we couldn’t travel to Tucson to mourn together, memorialize him, and get his affairs in order.
By Friday of that second week of March, the country had gone on lockdown, and the biggest shock/loss of my life was now overshadowed by perhaps the biggest shock/loss of the century. My family, like so many others, cancelled plans. My husband Rich and I had been excited about our upcoming trip to Ireland to celebrate. My son, Eli, had been looking forward to travelling with his high school robotics league to Detroit for a national competition. My daughter, Pauline, was thrilled to have been cast as Ed the hyena in her 4th grade class’s production of The Lion King. As for me, I was looking forward to another spring of helping my high school students graduate, partaking in end-of-year activities, and enjoying spending time with my mom and stepdad, who always came to Minneapolis in the spring for April and May, staying in a month to month rented apartment.
Of course, none of that happened.
Instead, Eli and my stepdad worked on robotics together, over the phone. Pauline and my mom had tri-weekly Facetime sessions where together they read books about fairies and novels with strong female protagonists. Rich moved his photography business to our basement while helping Pauline every day with distance learning, and I moved my classroom to my office/closet in the spare bedroom, connecting with my students every day via Zoom.
We cancelled our gym membership, and Rich converted our garage into our own private gym, equipped with weights, a battle rope, and punching bag. We did a Marvel Movie marathon, and Rich and Eli took me through each film, basically in chronological order. Once the weather got warm, we installed an 8-foot Intex pool in our backyard, and now we’ve been swimming in it just about every day. But still, we were going stir-crazy.
So, when a friend told us they’d found two abandoned kittens that they couldn’t keep, Rich and I threw caution to the wind and said we’d take them. Eli and Pauline had wanted kittens for years, but we have an older, cranky cat who we didn’t think would take well to kittens. Plus, we have guinea pigs, which are prey animals, and yeah, we didn’t want them to get eaten. But suddenly, those concerns seemed small. Every time we’d thought about getting a kitten in the past, it had been shortly before we were about to leave town. We had no trips on the horizon, but we craved joy and excitement like how you crave aloe after getting sunburned.
I suggested we just take one of the kittens. “But they’d be so much happier if they had each other,” Rich countered. He firmly believes that if you’re going to have a pet, it’s on you to give that pet the best quality of life possible. “Plus, if we got them both, we could watch them play. I don’t want to miss out on that.”
So, we welcomed two tortoise shell calico sisters into our lives, and we named them Toffee and Pixel. Toffee is boisterous, with a loud purr, one elegant black paw, and an adventurous spirit. Pixel is more classically beautiful, and it’s like she knows how good looking she is, for she seems to think the world will come to her. It’s true that Toffee usually does. They love to wrestle with each other, but usually it’s Toffee who guards Pixel, sleeping on top of her, or grooming her, while Pixel stretches out luxuriously, and accepts what she believes to be her due.
Here, Toffee is guarding her sister (notice the black
paw) while Pixel naps.
It’s not all smooth sailing. We had to move the guinea pig cage to the basement and line it with mesh, and still, I worry the kittens will wreak havoc. Bunny, our older, cranky cat, doesn’t like Toffee and Pixel, and hisses every time she sees them, right before she runs away. And of course, Eli and Pauline get into arguments about the kittens all the time, finding something to be bossy or dramatic about, several times a day.
But Rich was right. Watching the kittens play is amazing. They leap, pounce, and roll around with each other. Then, they’ll groom each other or snuggle up together in a tight space, and nap. “It’s like they become one cat,” Rich says. We look at them and can’t distinguish where one cat ends and the next begins.
Their curiosity and playfulness are exactly what our family needed. And in this time of social distancing, I take joy in seeing two creatures who know no boundaries, who love each other more strongly than they love themselves.
I'm a high school English teacher and novelist. I love boots, chocolate cake, cooking spicy food, running, and BOOKS! I live in Minneapolis with my husband Rich, son Eli, daughter Pauline, our kittens, and guinea pigs. This blog is about life, love, and all things literary. Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter!