Today, I would like to talk to you about coasters.
You know what I mean, right? Those little bits of tile, slate, or cardboard that you use to protect your hardwoods from the sweaty bottom of your glass?
When I was growing up, Mom had a set of fruity ones of coiled raffia-esque material. For years, she only had one of the more polite, roundy fruits (an apple? an orange?) out for use because a) it went with her Early American décor and b) our end tables were Formica, and therefore impervious to the sweat from my Kool-Aid mug or a (glass) bottle of Coke no matter how icy nor how long it sat there. However, the wooden bookcase next to the chair where most guests sat was maple, and therefore, at risk for water rings, hence the coaster.
One day I discovered that this coaster was from a set that Mom kept secreted in the drawer of the end table. This seemed like a remarkable discovery to me, and though I can’t remember the other sister-fruits, the one that made my heart race a little was a series of tiny coiled circles that added up to a cluster of grapes.
It was, ohmygosh, purple! Clearly Mom had either failed to recognize it’s majesty OR she was saving it for very special guests, like Indianapolis TV personality Cowboy Bob or, even, possibly, the president, should either of them happen to stop by our apartment in Richmond. I suspect I tried to encourage her to use it. (Mom is a great preserver of things that are “good” and to be used or worn “for something important” and I rail against this: if you have something nice, you must use it. Use it all up. If tomorrow never comes, then you’ve enjoyed your best blouse or your best teacup.) Though I don’t remember how I was alerted that this grapey treasure I’d found was off limits, the case was closed: the “good” coasters stayed in the drawer and never, to the best of my memory, ever saw the light of day.
But I knew they were there, those beautiful, unused grapes, just waiting to be liberated and fulfill their purpose in life.
I tell you this unnecessary story so you’ll know this about me: I am a coaster person. I believe in them. I believe you should try to have attractive ones that either match your personality or that are, at the very least, souvenirs from some travel/ favorite pub. Despite having been raised with those impenetrable Formica end tables, I was encouraged to respect hardwood and would no more think of putting a sweaty glass on a wooden table—my own or someone else’s— than I would take a box cutter to it. It’s barbaric.
At my former teaching job back in Indiana, each office was supplied with a set of truly depressing tan metal office furniture, including one bookcase (like that would be enough for all of my books), a rattle-y desk, and lateral filing cabinet. It was as far removed from my idea of a university as you can imagine. I draped scarves over surfaces, I covered the filing cabinet with magnets, I bought a little wooden table to put near the chairs where students would come to chat, and when my George W. Bush stimulus check arrived in 2008, I stimulated the economy by buying some not-that-expensive and only-vaguely-wooden-ish office furniture that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it instead of the imagineers at Target. I wanted to be transported to another kind of academic office—the kind where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could sit around talking about hobbits and wardrobes when they weren’t teaching. And more importantly, I wanted my students to feel welcomed there and to feel like they were some place besides the bank trying to get a short-term loan.
On the whole, I was satisfied with my creation, particularly when someone new would walk in and use the word cozy or when an old student would email me and tell me that he or she missed sitting there across the faux oak, talking about their work.
That said, I was regularly in a state of consternation and apoplexy because people—and not just students—would come in with their oversized, dripping Big Gulp cups, look directly at the coasters I had out for their use, and then choose—deliberately choose—to set the cups or bottles on the table. This forced me into a position wherein I had to decide if my strong desire for friendliness and hospitality would win out over my equally strong desire not to have water rings on my surfaces.
And this brings me to the question that has been plaguing me for awhile: why, when we see or read a character who insists on someone using a coaster, are we immediately meant to assume that person is prissy, uptight, tedious, and annoying? Isn’t that a bit unfair? Isn’t it really the guest who assumes he or she can leave their mark on your belongings who is the problem? A cretin? Maybe even passive aggressive?
I haven’t come up with an answer for this yet, but I think it has something to do with injustice and lazy writing.
Lately, as Z watches me spend hours on a one-page piece of writing that doesn’t really matter, he has been trying to direct me towards Voltaire’s Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I am a weird perfectionist in that the perfectionism only applies to certain areas. My kitchen floor is rarely clean, for instance. You can’t see the top of Melvin, our coffee table. In high school, anything less than an A in a class I cared about would have gutted me, but I was perfectly content with a B in biology because I had no desire to dissect a frog.
But writing is my Waterloo. A single sentence in an email could take twenty minutes if I let myself, and I can’t tell you the number of times Z has walked into the room and seen my face all pinched and twisted while I stare at the screen or the notebook in front of me and said, with alarm, “What’s wrong?” Nothing is wrong except the words in front of me aren’t perfect.
I’m not sure how my quest for the perfect sentence and coasters are related except I’m sure they are.
Maybe it’s self-protection—I don’t want anyone to point out that I’ve misused a word or missed an opportunity for some lovely imagery. Criticism is the water-ring on the coffee table of my writing.
Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.
We had a weekend heat wave here in Seattle, and since I knew it was a weekend-only heat situation I didn’t spiral into my Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder Depression (which Z will insist is NOT a thing and which, I am here to tell you, IS a thing). I did get completely addled from the heat though. It’s a bit like that old public service announcement where someone breaks open an egg on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun, the egg fries, and then a commanding/ parental voice says, “Hot enough to fry an egg ? THEN IT’S HOT ENOUGH TO FRY YOUR DOG’S BRAIN.”
As PSAs go, I guess it was an effective one in that even in the dead of winter I used to worry that if I ran into CVS to get toilet paper and left Mac in the car that there would be some reflection of light that might turn 30 degrees into 100 in the two minutes I was inside.
Clearly, I’ve never been that strong with the science.
If it gets over 74 degrees my brain synapses start working with the sluggishness of a sloth. I’m extra clumsy. I can’t think of words. Z will ask a simple question like Do you want a glass of water? and you’d think he’d asked me to solve a geometry proof whilst riding a unicycle. I have no answer. He makes me a drink and then for good measure brings me a wet cloth to put on the top of my head to cool my core temperature down.
At one point on Sunday, Z and I were writing out some cards to friends and family for various reasons, and I kept putting words on the page that made no contextual sense and then I’d have to invent a whole second part of the sentence that made it seem like it was all planned out that way. I was so delusional from heat that I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then even Z—who is so supportive of everything I write that I sometimes distrust his praise—shook his head and raised an eyebrow as if I’d lost my mind.
Monday, it cooled down, which was a relief because I teach on Monday nights in a room that must formerly have been a terrarium, but the heat fog in my brain was still hovering. The critiques I wrote took twice as long as usual and were likely less coherent. I sketched out some lesson plans in my notebook with my trusty green pen and discovered that what the syllabus said we were meant to be learning I’d already taught the week before. I scratched down some other possible lecture points and activities, packed my bag, and headed out the door.
Without the notebook.
Class was fine. (I am good at improvising.) I’ve loved re-discovering how much the classroom agrees with me, and even beyond that, how much I like working one-on-one with someone to get their writing to a stronger, sharper place. This group is very enthusiastic and very forgiving of my tangents, which is good, because ¾ of the way through class I looked down and realized that the green pen I’d been writing lecture notes with in my notebook was still nestled in my cleavage. It had come with me even if the notebook was still back at the apartment.
I looked at it, plucked it from it’s resting place casually, as if I were brushing a stray hair off my shoulder, and went right on with the critique. I suppose I could have left it there and hoped no one noticed, but it was my favorite pen and I write better last-minute marginal notes with it while a critique is in progress.
This attitude—this ability to improvise, to not be bothered by a snafu or poorly executed phrase—this is the thing I need to embrace in lieu of perfectionism and self-protection.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes. But also, if offered, always use the coasters.