Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Serpent


The serpent comes
He fills the sky
A poisoned eclipse of silver-black scales
That eat sunlight and dreams

I wield a sword of summer dawn
A blade of starry wonderment
To rupture his foul heart
And restore the sun

But his coils are vast
And strangled my childhood
His hiss is a seismic scream of doubt
And shatters my fluttering hope
His mouth is a seductive pit where Death reclines upon a forked tongue
And beckons me to turn my neck

Every once in a while

The serpent rears high
A pillar of weeping rage
A trunk of acid anomie
That covers my whole horizon

I lunge in feral anguish
And heave gleaming Daybreak
But the weapon finds no target
It only draws him nearer

His venom burns my eyes with spiralling blindness
And rips apart my mind in a shower of frothing hatred
It swerves my hand
So the blows meant for him land on others

And then they're lethal
Bloody and boiling
And steeled with monstrous strength
The kind I can never aim at him

I'm meant to be the prince who kills the snake
It's written in the heavens
Just north of my name
Just south of Polaris

But it's hard to raise Daybreak in the middle of the night
When I see what he shows me
And hear what he whispers
And when my voice so clearly matches his

I'll fail myself and all the constellations
He'll devour me in the end

Thursday, January 21, 2016

January


Chill and serene
A word from a dream
A voice crystalline
January

Unmoving white steel
Dark grey streaked with teal
Flame cloaked in ice shield
January

The spear in the loom
The brine in the bloom
The kiss tipped with gloom
January

The silver snakes chance
Grieved winds for a dance
Sharp diamond romance
January

The clear-eyed deep sleep
The prize winter reaps
Blue sun in black deep
January

The breath braced with might
Stars fuel for the fight
A cold dawning light

January


Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Time for Reflection and...


The year 2015 was strange for me. It was a year defined by major and, in moments, debilitating struggle, but also by my ability to overcome that struggle. It was a year defined by sad recognition of my own and others' limitations, but also by a happy readjustment based on that recognition. It was the year in which, more than in any other, I determined and took concrete steps towards having my own life.

You'll notice that I did not write much here throughout the fall. My last entry, dated from October, recounted reunion with a longtime college friend, and after that it was radio silence from old BB for a full two months, longer than I have ever been absent from this site in its nearly eight-year history.

I had cause. I dealt with a terrible professor, the worst of my academic career, and when his initially unhelpful behavior advanced to vindictiveness and then outright lying about me to my adviser, I was moved to, for the first time ever, file an official complaint against an instructor. Failure to pass his class would have barred me from student-teaching and, in effect, delayed graduation and a job by another half-year. The day his final project was due, I was a hysterical wreck and reached a level of stress that unhinged me a bit from the surrounding world. Those days were a frightening blur to which I never want to return.



Starting around the beginning of the fall term, and due at least in part to the burdens of that time, my obsessive-compulsive disorder came roaring back. If this condition were in fact that cutesy preoccupation with neatness that is depicted on TV, a recurrence of it would not have been a problem. But my life isn't Monk. By October I was convinced of the inevitability of my failure, and was routinely afflicted by horrifying nightmares in which my hair and teeth fell out.

And then, at about the end of August, my hair actually started falling out. Along with patches of my eyebrows. A recurring forgetfulness that had first surfaced as early as the summer of 2014 amplified, and I began losing words, misplacing items, and falling victim to disorienting moments of what I can only call "fog." My emotions were heightened and I cried easily. My energy plummeted, and I wound up tiring out after even brief moments of exertion.

"You need to see someone, BB," my grandmother told me this summer. I'd been helping her with yard work, and about twenty minutes in just hit a wall and could do no more. I needed to sit down, and urged her to take a break, supposedly out of concern for her wellbeing but actually so I might mask that I was being outflanked by a seventy-three-year-old woman. "You're too young to be so tired. And you've been like this for years. You get winded so quickly."

After a dermatologist determined she could not help me because my hair loss was not age related--i.e., not natural balding and thus a symptom of something else--I was referred to several other doctors, and began a semester-long odyssey of blood tests and physician visits that required me to explain why, at the age of twenty-seven, I was exhibiting signs consistent with very early dementia. One doctor even asked if there was a family history of early-onset Alzheimer's.

The actual culprit does seem to be hereditary, but not so bad as all that: hypothyroidism, which runs on my father's side but which may have been missed in my case because of my relative youth and because men are affected nine times less often than women. One more blood test, to be done shortly after the New Year, should confirm the problem and justify a medication regimen that will hopefully put an end to this nightmare.


But the nightmare had a big casualty. In September, I made the deeply painful decision to cut my gorgeous, waist-length hair, which I'd spent nearly nine years growing into a waterfall of golden waves in which I took great pride and happiness. The result, though still long, falls far short of the spectacular beauty for which I'd become known in the near-decade since 2006.


When this is over, though, and this health issue resolved, I will not lose one more thing to it. Not one more word. Not one more memory. Not one more instant of clarity. Not one more day of yard work. Not one more strand of hair. I will grow that hair back, to as long as it ever was, and wear it like a flaxen badge of vigor. I will achieve that by this time three years from now, in the fall of 2018. I will have just celebrated my thirtieth birthday.

I overcame the professor from hell and pulled an A in the class I thought would sink me. I overcame the extraordinary apathy of my family and the dismissiveness of one breathtakingly arrogant doctor to finally get something concrete when I knew something was wrong with me. But there were also things I could not overcome.


This November, Our Family celebrated Our Family Day, the annual remembrance of our immigrant ancestor's arrival in the New World. Last month marked 396 years since my 11th great-grandfather set foot in King's City, Southern State, in the fall of 1619, and the party included tales of the past and somewhat dubious plans for the future.

"On the 400th, I'm getting smashed," laughed Thomas.

Towards the start of this blog, when I was a boy of twenty and Thomas one of thirteen, I made the conscious decision to attempt stamping our our father's ruinous legacy. Where David--my father--showed inconstancy, I showed steadiness; where David showed disproportionate anger, I showed even temper; where David was quick to build minor mishaps into life-defining crises, I didn't sweat the small stuff. I taught Thomas how to drive because our father wouldn't. I helped Thomas with his homework because our father couldn't. I helped Thomas plan ahead because our father was unconcerned. I listened when he needed someone to talk to, because our father couldn't be bothered. Time after time, I showed Thomas kindness that I hoped he would internalize as a way of living rather than just as an act from which he benefited. Of late, though, I wonder if I ever had a shot.

This fall, I asked him several times to pay me back the small sum of money I'd loaned him when he was in a tight spot. About the third time, he snapped.

"BB, I have a lot going on right now," he said, shooting me the look of disdain I now so often receive from him. "And paying you that money isn't my priority."

He might've slapped me. I stood in his doorway, not believing that the selfish, inconsiderate young man sitting before me with such indolence was the same person in whom I'd reposed so much confidence just three years before.

"Well, Thomas," I said quietly. "When you needed that money, it was my priority to give it to you."

Two weeks later, he put a down payment on a piece of expensive music equipment. A bit after that, he had to have work done on his car and I was happy to let him use mine. I even gave him gas money because I know he doesn't make much. And then, when I was away with family out of state and asked him to return some movies I'd forgotten to take back, he wouldn't. He didn't have $5 to cover the trip to the next town. When I told him I had about $50 in change in my room, he shrugged me off with a scornful text.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not paying for gas with quarters. I'm just not doing that."


This has accompanied increasing blue-collar mannerisms (including a maddening affected laugh), a refusal to make realistic plans for the future, a tendency towards overblown criticism that is reminiscent of our father--Thomas recently berated me, for instance, for "always doing things halfway" because I waited a bit to clean up dishes from a dinner I'd prepared for him and Pie--and a draw to heavy drinking.

"BB, you and Mom have to do something," Powell told me by telephone. "You guys have to help him."

"No, I don't," I answered. It was cold and it was definitive and it had been building a long time. "I don't have to save Thomas. I can't save Thomas. I'm not his father. I have to think about a boyfriend and a husband and having kids of my own one day. I need to have my own life."

I love Thomas, and every moment isn't a bad one. But he's becoming someone I don't know, someone so far removed from the boy he used to be that thinking of it makes me want to weep. I'll always love him. But I can't help him. And that's what I meant earlier, about recognizing not just others' limitations, but my own: I can't save the world. I can do my very best to be a positive influence on others, and to extend them what help is within my ability to give, provided they demonstrate a willingness to take that help and use it constructively. Someone who won't do that reveals themselves quickly. When I was offered help from my grandmother, I ran with it and earned a bachelor's degree. When Rowdy Cousin was offered help from his parents, he did the same thing and on graduation was hired by an accounting firm who offered him a salary that would have been generous for a person twice his age. If someone doesn't want to do something, though, you can almost never make them do it. And I will no longer waste precious energy trying.

Aunt Crazy said it best.

"Powell is a lost cause," she pronounced, her jolly face cooled by calm certainty. "But Thomas...maybe not yet."

I'm done with lost causes. My father, my mother, my stepmother, my brother Powell, all lost and never coming back. My door is closed to them. Thomas stands on a threshold whose precariousness he does not yet recognize. Pie is still a great light to me, but not my life. I will let her go, too, not to a place that I throw away, but to a place I visit in moments and with love. She has a harbor with me. Just not my most important harbor. I'm saving that for my own family, and leaving behind the siblings and stepmother who have, if we're stripping away politeness, been astonishingly ungrateful to me. I've given too much to the wrong people. Now, at least for quite a while, I'm going to give to myself.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Into the Goldlands


My siblings and I have this joke that one of the hardest questions any of us has to answer is, "Where are you from?"

Take your pick: Native City, Dirty Town, Beautiful Town, Central City, the Goldlands, Mountain Town. The list goes on. On balance, however, and especially in light of my recent discovery that my ancestors lived in the region for upwards of three centuries, I have decided that Southern State is, if not quite where I'm from, then certainly the closest I have to being from, well, anywhere. It was where I learned to drive. It was where I had my first kiss. It was where I graduated from high school, went to college, came out of the closet, and made my closest and most enduring friends. It was where I first came to believe in myself. A week ago, as I drove over the mountains and into the glory of a Southern State autumn, I was reminded why I called it home. I swear the sun shone a little bit brighter there.

As I advanced further into the Goldlands, closer to the heart where Major University lay, the physical and cultural landscapes began to change; the leaves grew bolder, the roads wider, and the mountains and fields of the lands to the west were replaced by the silver and white glitter of urban prosperity rising from the cinnamon hills. An unbroken wave of white faces speaking lilting English gave way to the hues of the entire world, to tongues from all corners of the planet. I wrapped up my business early and swung by a Korean grocery store to buy myself some seaweed.

"Hey, man," I said as Filipino Guy's sleepy voice filtered through my phone. "Listen, I got here like two hours early and so I'm already done with everything. Do you want to get lunch now?"

"Sure," he replied. "I mean, I was sleeping while you were being productive, but let me get a quick shower and I'll be right over."



The Goldlands has long been a place where I've found renewal, resources, innovation, and the means to push back borders, and so it was fitting that this was the region I went to initiate what could be a radical shift in professional direction. I've not quit the day job yet, though, and will fill you in on this potential avenue as I learn more.

"I'm sure you did well," Filipino Guy said as we sat down at a local Korean restaurant not far from where we'd gone to university. "I took the test a few years back and passed, and you know way more about all the political and history stuff than I do."

I took a sip of my soda.

"Well, if you can do it..."

I shot him a mischievous grin and he laughed in response.

"Very true, sir."

Filipino Guy is an old college friend, two years my senior, whom I met my very first week at university. I was reminded of this when discussion turned to the other members of our extended friend group, who now live as far afield as Knoxville and Texas, Washington and New York, and to many of whom neither of us has spoken in years.

"That's how it is after college, though," he mused. "People lose touch, people have things going on. It's not personal. I think it's nice to be able to see people every few years and be okay with that."

"I think it's hysterical that we're still friends after all these years. And it was so random how we met."

"That comm. class," he said.

Our eyes met over steaming soup and fried chicken, and for a moment we both felt a sudden rush of sorrow; nine years ago in the waning summer of 2006, he was a boy of twenty and I one of eighteen. In the decade that's followed, we've both changed in terms of values and direction, have both endured dark periods that in his case consisted of mean-spirited atheism and in mine of a manic spiral to suicide. Both of us are happy with different aspects of our lives, and both of us have successfully weathered our storms. But in light of those storms, the summer of youth when we first met seemed so terribly far away.

"We're getting older," he said.

"I don't know," I countered. "I think we both look pretty damn good for pushing thirty."

"Yeah," he said, eyes gleaming. "And you're white. You should be totally falling apart by now."

I laughed and surveyed his vigorous frame and the smooth, handsome face that continues to attract appreciate stares from the young women of the Goldlands.

"You're doing about as well as one would expect for an Asian."

"I am," he agreed, with a sip of his drink. "But I see it in certain ways. My hair is starting to thin."

I waved him off.

"It's probably just how you're styling it."

"Yours, on the other hand," he said, taking a handful of the long blonde hair that, since it was recently cut to just below my shoulders, is now soft and absurdly thick. "Remains luxuriant. You always knew how to turn me on."

I slapped my (very straight) friend's hand away and assured him once more. "We both have nice hair. You're as irresistible as ever."

But when we paid our bill and walked to the parking lot to say goodbye, I looked up at him and saw in the sunlight what the dim bulbs inside had concealed; across the whole of his head, the tiniest patches of scalp were visible in between spikes of black hair. The loss was evenly spread and I wouldn't have noticed it had I not known him for so long, but he was right.

And then something really hit me: I am twenty-seven years old. Filipino Guy is twenty-nine. Somewhere along the way, the flow of time to which at eighteen and twenty we imagined ourselves immune kept on going, and then one day we woke up to see the difference that had accumulated while we weren't paying attention. We're young still--but not youths. He's earning a master's degree to move from his current engineering job to one that offers more prestige and pay. I'll be either teaching or doing more media-related work in a year's time and will at last be able to stand on my own two feet financially. Somehow we've started turning into honest-to-goodness adults.

There's a little sadness to that, but far more happiness on balance. I find myself wondering how our friendship, and my friendships with others, will evolve as still more years pass.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Yields to Autumn



It hasn't happened yet. Not really. But in spirit, summer passed away this morning and yielded to cold winds that are as yet metaphorical. August 24 marked, after all, the start of the school year.

This has always been a season replete with deeper meaning for me. Fall has been the time when I've seen not death and decay but magic blooming from scarlet trees, winter the time when I've seen not desolation but white-cloaked sleep, a welcome occasion to regroup from the stresses of life. A time somehow apart from time. When the skies fade to grey and the air bites with frost, I make my home a fortress and survey the world from atop its battlements. Strange as it seems, those months of withdrawal are always when I feel richest and most complete, most disconnected from the rest of humanity but most able to let select facets of it in more deeply. It might have something to do with the fact that my personal deliverance, when I was thirteen, came in the dead of winter. It might be genetic memory (I am, after all, a Swede by extraction). It might be some primeval vestige left over from a happy childhood day long forgotten. Whatever it is, I've been this way as long as I can remember.

So the start of the colder months is something I welcome. Winter is my time to plan and regenerate. In the summers I execute, but many of the great ideas come when I'm holed away.

Today is, of course, August 24, a date to which history attaches great significance. It was on this day in AD 410, 1,605 years ago, that Rome fell for the first time in eight centuries to an enemy army. The empire had been weakening for some time, of course, and its decay was no secret to contemporaries, but August 24 shrieked to a shocked world that one era had died and another begun. Rome, the Eternal City, was eternal no more. The greatest power of the world, the queen of Europe, was merely another city to be sacked, and as such was neither a great power nor a queen after a millennium of being both. What followed, sixty-six years later, was confirmation of what the flames of August had first proclaimed: Romulus Augustulus, the last ruler of the Western Empire, abdicated his throne on September 4, AD 476, and the pathetic fiction of Roman hegemony fell alongside the Roman state itself.

Those two dates, August 24 and September 4, marked the end of the long Roman summer and the beginning of the desolate winter known as the Dark Ages, in whose howling blizzards would perish generation after generation in blackness. The impermeable night was broken only a thousand years later, in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. That event is taken by historians to delineate the commencement of the Renaissance--on May 29. Glorious rebirth. Spring.


Just now, though, the days grow shorter and the afternoon skies slowly shift from periwinkle to navy. And with the metamorphosis from summer to fall comes another that is long overdue: my name. You know me and will always know me as BB, first BlackenedBoy then BrightenedBoy (it can be argued that 19-year-old BB should have chosen a pseudonym that would age better), but the rest of the world has known me these last twenty-seven years by the name my father selected in 1987. A little-known fact is that my mother Anne, though woefully inadequate by all other measures, had the good sense to pick for me a name from Antiquity.

"I wanted to name you Your-Soon-to-Be-Name, after this Roman senator [who was by and large a horrific person but had a single redeeming quality I can't reveal without giving away his identity], but your father overruled me. He heard Your Current Name on a sitcom that was popular back in the '80s."

That's right. Anne wished to give me a name that had lasted for several millennia. David chose one that was in vogue for several months. This has been common knowledge for some time, and David freely admits the facts of the situation while completely missing the horrible light in which they paint him. No matter. I've always been able to see he's an idiot, even if he hasn't.

So on August 21, I went to the courthouse in my locality and filed the paperwork that, in about a month's time, will result in my name being legally changed to what my mother intended all those years ago.

"My father has made so many bad decisions, many of them involving me, and I just thought, 'Why should his stupidity mark me for the rest of my life?'"

"No, you're right," said Black Dress Girl, who also legally changed her name for similar reasons and after an extended period of contemplation. "It's your life. It should be the way you want it to be. Your father was always trying to make you into something you weren't."

And damn it, Anne may be a sociopathic narcissist with a penchant for outrageous lying and a slim grip on reality, but she really nailed it with that name. It just fits me to a tee. So while the fact that my mother intended this for me legitimizes the whole business, in a very real way the decision has nothing to do with her. She picked the name, but doesn't define it. She chose it, but doesn't own it. It was just always meant to be.




This will be my last fall semester--as a student--for several years, until about 2020 or so, when I am tentatively slated to begin my second master's degree, that one in Russian studies. In less than a year I will, at long last, be gone from this house, starting new under the name that should always have been mine and, finally, as my own person. No David or Marie attached. No one else's money to keep me afloat or house to keep me warm. Just me. Just BB. And hopefully, after a while, I'll have a partner to share that with. Then it'll be just us.

For now, though, I simply await the winds of fall, and give thanks for whatever God brings with them.



Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Nights

The nights are the worst
When doubt and terror tiptoe in equal measure
Alighting their razored feet upon the grooves of my ripped soul

When there rises a wall so high and so treacherous
I'm sure neither of us can breach it
Me to reach your love
You to show me a way out of the blackness

The nights are the worst
When the unwept tears carry searing questions:
How did this happen? How does a person go this wrong? Can you ever come back into sunlight after you dive into a serpent's throat?

The nights are the worst
When my heart quakes with the fear that forgotten terrors
Are lurking in the corners of my mind
Just hidden by the shadows of the ones I can remember

Of sickness and pain
Inadequacy and fear
Blood on white fingers
A child who carried the blame for grown-up evils

The hoarse voice that called me that flaming word
That laughed at my tears
The leather crack that made my eight-year-old skin scream
The spit that bathed my little boy face in hatred

The wall that knocked more air out of me than his hands
Anger welting on my back
Dignity dripping down my leg
A message festering in my mind

Wails of anguish
Then and now
The horror that shrieks with them

Unloved once, so unloved forever
Not right once, so not right forever
A ghost once, so a phantom all these dragging years
Somehow always half a person

Somehow always unable to reach you across that awful gulf

I want to give all of me to you
And take all of you in me
But I never learned how to do that
I only learned how not to

I dream of you in moments
Of passion I can't return
Of solace in arms
I'll never let hold me

The nights are the worst
When the only thing that fills me is all I never got to be
And grief at what I'll never become

Friday, May 22, 2015

Happy Days Passed and Happy Days to Come


Yesterday marked a major milestone in Normal Family: Rowdy Cousin graduated from college. I couldn't make the event, busy as I was with preparations for work and the summer sessions of graduate school, but I sent my congratulations by text message and viewed the Facebook photos of Rowdy Cousin surrounded by happy family members. This relative of mine, whom you've gotten a few glimpses of over the years, received his pseudonym in 2009 or so, when he was a rambunctious boy of fifteen. Back then, when he wasn't playing hide-and-go-seek in our grandmother's basement, he occasionally pulled me aside to ask questions about relationships and college drinking. Rowdy Cousin is twenty-one years old now, and the pictures of him this week reveal unmistakably what those close have known for a while: the boy has become a man. Broad shouldered, tall, robust, and handsome, he smiled into the camera beside his mother and long-time girlfriend. 

Rowdy Cousin long ago passed the point where I could teach him anything. He once asked me about what parties were like; now he's been to more than I have. He once asked me about how he'd know what he wanted his major to be; he already has a job offer from a prominent accounting firm and will begin work--at a very competitive salary--next month. He once asked me about dating; he's been in a relationship with a lovely girl for more than four years. Rowdy Cousin is one of those rare people who makes other people happy with just the fact of them. He's athletic and outgoing, hardworking and good looking, intelligent and accomplished and humble and courtly. On top of all that, he's pretty damn funny. He understands he's a gem but has no ego about it, understands he's a walking cliché and sends my brother Snapchats of himself on the toilet just to remind everyone that he's still capable of being an idiot. I am pleased to see this young man blossom so spectacularly, and I am very aware, as is everyone else, that his success is the culmination of the tremendous investment his parents made in his education and emotional development. Rowdy Cousin paid no tuition. He worried about no bills. He covered no cell phone. He spent four years devoted to study and, yes, fun. And it worked. 

"It's like Uncle Responsible says," my grandmother told me on the phone today. "You invest in them when they're young, then you see it pay off down the road. And now it's really paid off."

I would never tell Rowdy Cousin this, but beneath my joy at his accomplishments, all of which he has earned, there is a tinge of sorrow. I can't help but look at this person, six years younger than I am but already so strong, and see the things I'm not. Self sufficient. Successful. Confident. Possessed of striking good looks. Rowdy Cousin is a high-achiever in a family of high-achievers, and at twenty-seven and without a career, even if I'm headed in that direction, I'm not. At least not yet. 

"I guess sometimes I feel like I'm bringing the group average down or something," I joked to my grandmother this evening by telephone. I've never had the kind of parents a person is thankful for, but I am grateful every day for my grandmother. I would have been lost many times without her, and she's the one person I can talk to about truly anything. "I love Rowdy Cousin , but it's like I don't measure up. You know?"

"Oh, BB, he's never felt that way about you."

"No, I know. He's not like that. I'm saying that I feel that way. I look at what he's done and I look at what I've done. I know I'm getting there now; it's just a few years later than I wanted it to be."

"Honey, you've had a lot of things thrown at you," she said. "He hasn't. Of course he should be proud of what he's done, but it's not the same thing. You have no idea how proud I am of you."

And then my grandmother did the last thing I imagined she would do. She started crying. 

"Oh, don't cry! I'm fine! I'm really not upset."

"But you don't remember. You were so young. When you first got sick we talked to so many doctors. We were in and out of the hospital, meeting with different psychiatrists, and I read everything I could get my hands on. So I know what it does. I know what you were going up against. And I can tell you, it's a miracle that you are where you are. The recovery rate is so low."

That depressingly small number--I've seen it quoted as low as 3%--means that I ought statistically have been condemned to a very different kind of life than the one I am leading. I suppose for a while I was. And my transition around age twenty, for reasons that are unclear, into the exceptional group who are able to regain their health is something I am enormously thankful for every day. 

"You're on the right track now, and you shouldn't feel any shame. Of course it took a few more years. And when you add the parents you got on top of that, it's really incredible that you pulled it off."

"Well, I haven't pulled it off yet."

"But you will. I know you're going to be okay."

I know I am too, at least now. I look at where I was even five years ago, at twenty-two, and can see in my decisions disarray and impaired judgement, chronic confusion atop foundational disorganization. I finished my undergraduate studies with a 2.7 GPA, avoiding any discussion of my health issue, let alone treatment of it, out of shame and a desire to be viewed "like everyone else." But I wasn't like everyone else. And in light of that, maybe it's okay to give my past self a few breaks. 

"I still have hazy moments," I confided to my grandmother. "They're very quick, and no one ever picks up on it. But my thought process now, my work ethic, my priorities, my plans, everything else is totally different."

"I know it is. I can see how much you've changed."

Summer sessions start next Wednesday, and Russian lessons start the Monday after that. This fall will mark my last semester of academic work, and after a semester of student-teaching in the spring I'll graduate with my master's degree in education. Ready to work and ready to go. I'm not playing it by ear anymore, not by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, I have an eight-year plan that rests substantially on my mastery of Russian grammar.

"I'm really proud of Rowdy Cousin today," I told her. "I know you are, too. And in a year, you can be proud of me."

"I already am."