Publish or Perish

I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird about as often as I change my air filters, so basically I haven’t read it since last summer, but one of my favorite chapters is the one on publication. She writes about how it seems like getting published is going to be the biggest day of your life, “You will wake up to your phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel.”

When in fact, as Lamott points out, and as I quickly realized, it is not like that at all. Getting published is sort of like dating. There is a lot of checking your phone because maybe the ringer is off or you went suddenly deaf and then being disappointed. Then telling yourself it is cool, and you know deep down that you are awesome, probably they just didn’t read your essay yet/actually like you as a person. It is fine. There are more words to write. Shorter skirts to wear.

One of my issues with dating is the difficulty in finding someone who likes me as much as I like myself. When my last boyfriend and I broke up, I said, “I just want to be with someone who is more into me.”

“You deserve that,” he said.

He gets credit for not saying, “Good luck,” which is probably what he meant, and what I said when he told me that he really wants to be with someone who is less smart than he is because that would make things less complicated.

Really—obviously—he wasn’t the problem. If I didn’t think I deserved the Blue Angels flyover every time I walked in the door or showed him my new panties, then it would be much easier for me to be happy in relationships, but it would probably make it much harder for me to be a writer. There is a lot of ego in writing. First, I have to assume that people want to know what I have to say enough to actually read. And I have to send my work to publishers and ask them to decide if I they want me, and when they say, “No thanks,” I have to assume it is them, not me, and I have to keep on writing.

Sometimes, I might drink a bottle of wine and browse through their latest edition criticizing all the writers they did accept, even though I know deep down that those other writers are just as good, if not better, and it is really just about making some kind of genuine connection. Then I decide to open another bottle and dance around in my underwear to “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar and tell everyone to suck it.

And of course, Anne Lamott is talking about actually publishing a book. For me, it is just publishing short essays about living alone and being a remedial parent in a monthly humor newspaper. When my first piece ran I thought the phone would definitely ring. Dave Barry would probably call to discover the real identity of this fresh new American voice in humor. I would pretend that I didn’t believe it was really him, “Who is this really?”

“It’s really me, Dave!”

We would laugh. Then he would give me the name of his agent and next thing I knew I would be on Dave Letterman, and he would flirt with me like he does with Julia Roberts, “Oh Dave!”

My dreams were really just a big Dave orgy, probably Dave Mathews was also there involved in some kind of endless jam that went on for so long that I had to take a nap in the middle. When I wake up, Sedaris is sitting in the corner autographing all his best-sellers with the inscription, “Welcome to the club,” and then at the end of it all, I find myself cuddled up with Dave the founder of Wendy’s as he spoon feeds me a Frosty.

In reality, nobody called me. I had to call to get a free copy sent to my mom just so I could get the adoration I knew I deserved. But then I knew I just had to get back to work. Not because I thought it would actually get me anywhere or allow me to quit my job and spend my days going on books tours or reading my essays as the opening act for The Foo Fighters and then letting Dave Grohl run his fingers through my hair backstage, “Oh Dave!” but because I actually like to write.

I like the process of starting with a blank screen and being terrified, and then feeling like I am going to die because I am not clever enough, and I barely understand how to use commas, and then saying, “Bitch, please,” and just starting to type. A few lines ticker back and forth across the top of my screen that are guarded and dishonest, and then I get up and go for a walk. Sometimes I cry when I walk but maybe because I walk through a local cemetery, and then I get an idea, type it in the notes on my phone, jam out to a few more Sturgill Simpson songs, and then come back to my computer and start the process all over again.

Writing is sort of like preparing an enormous, Thanksgiving style meal before you know if you will even have any guests. And it gets messy. You have to stick your hand all the way up that turkey’s ass, even though it seems scary, and you are not sure what you will find or how it will make you feel, but then eventually you pull your hand out, get rid of all the junk, and cook that beast. Then you clean up, line it all up on the buffet, and hope—pray—that people will actually show up.

Your mom will be there, of course, and maybe a couple close friends, some of whom will tell you how great the food is even though they didn’t actually seem to eat anything, and you try not to quiz them too much. That random middle-aged guy from Sacramento. He is there. And maybe a writer you have heard of, at least after you look her up, and she has an actual Wikipedia page about her, so that is something. She shows up and tells you she likes your work, and you take that little leftover home and put it on the table next to the new computer that you don’t even know how to use, but you bought because you are a famous writer now, and you just sit down and keep typing.

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Disturbing the Coquinas

This is an essay I wrote last year in response to a call for submissions for memoir from the journal Creative Nonfiction. It is not a humor essay, but it was important for me to write. I did not make the issue (I gave Lee Gutkind a virtual wedgie, imagined myself pushing him in the bushes and stealing his lunch money, and then moved on), so I am posting it here. I like this better. I am in charge here. My story. My voice. My way.

Disturbing the Coquinas

Sometimes when I come home from the beach house, I have so many sharks’ teeth that I find them in the bottom of my suitcases, and they fall out of my pockets and rattle around the dryer like forgotten pennies. The tiny black teeth litter the beach in front of my family’s home. They are not difficult to find; I just have to slow down and look closely at the sand. Usually they are no bigger than a fingernail. I was on the beach with my stepdad a few years ago, lingering and talking as he wrestled a PVC pipe into the sand for evening surf fishing. I leaned down and picked up a small shark tooth, dusted off the sand and held it out for him to see.

“I don’t ever see the big ones out here anymore,” he said.

I wandered around on the beach, just surveying the sand, kicking at shells with my big toe, and then I spotted a tooth the size of a silver dollar. I picked it up and placed it in the interior of my palm, hurrying back to where my stepdad stood tying on a lure, “Like this?” I asked, showing him the tooth and laughing. People find things they shouldn’t on Manasota Key.

Last summer I left my husband in Georgia and took my two kids to the key. I wanted a divorce, but I was scared. I could not see through to the other side, so leaving felt like jumping blindly into the fog. I loaded the kids and our suitcases into the van, slid into the driver’s seat, and took off my wedding ring. I dropped the ring in the coin compartment where it clinked against accumulated change and then looked over my shoulder at the kids strapped in their seats before I backed out of the driveway. Five hours later as I drove over the north bridge, I caught my first view of the Gulf beyond the bright and tidy parking lot of the public beach. I sobbed.

I remembered playing on that beach when I was just a little kid, hot feet hopping sand bags, weaving in and out of sun-tanned adults holding cocktails.  I built sandcastles. I witnessed houses burning down. New ones rising. Grandparents lived and died. I found buckets of sharks’ teeth. All of this prehistory was here before I ever considered getting married. I knew it with one glance at the sparkling turquoise water.

My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a ranch style house on the beach side of the key. The house had a deck on the roof and a modern pebble patio. They also owned a home with a pool across the street on the bay, and I never understood why they chose to live in the smaller house with no pool.  The allure of the Gulf had not yet yanked at my childish tides. They used the bay house mainly for entertaining, and my grandfather kept the garage fridge stocked with cans of soda—Seagram’s Ginger Ale and 7-Up—that he would let me drink, straight out of the can. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the fringes of parties, loud laughter pouring in from outside the bedroom where I sat on shag carpet playing Legos. I remember the smell of liquor as I darted out to steal a Triscuit.

I have memories of visiting the key with both my parents as a baby, then I remember being there with just my mom and sister, and then my parents got divorced. My mother must have felt the sanctuary of the key. I played with a little tow-headed girl whose grandparents lived two houses down. We fluttered down the beach, playing house on the sandbags. As adults, we still flutter around each other, kicking up sand. I remember going to the door of her grandparent’s house, asking if she could play. I had no idea that I was knocking at my future, declaring myself a part of the family. My mother eventually married her uncle. Her grandparents became my grandparents. Her cousins became my step-sisters. We were a gaggle of girls, trying to make our own parties in tucked away rooms.

During the day we roamed the beach. We sat on our knees where the tide comes in and dug full fisted into the wet sand. We exposed a rainbow of pastel coquina shells, then watched as they squirmed diligently back under the protective blanket of sand. We moved further out into the breakers and dug down for sand fleas. We brought our hands up with heaping mounds of wet crushed shells and let it filter off slowly to reveal the little grey pearly backs, legs kicking frantically, trying to burrow into our palms. We put them in buckets and declared them families. The largest was a father, then a mother—we named them Sandy and Danny. The smaller ones were their children. We swam out to the sandbar and played like Porpoises, squeaking to each other. When our grandmother came out for her afternoon dip, she held out her arms so we could jump over, perform a trick, and then circle back around to catch a fake fish.

Manasota Key is located on the Southwest coast of Florida. The northern portion of the key—my portion—is in Sarasota County and retains a jungle-like quality, thick with mangroves and dark green vegetation opening onto a fickle beach. Some days the Gulf is calm and wide with clear water that makes the Caribbean ache with jealousy; sometimes it is raging and oppressive, pushing against banks, mocking self-righteous homes who gamble with the tides. Sometimes the waves lap gently, sometimes they crash triumphantly, but the beach always reminds me that I am not in charge. Letting my toes sink into the soft wet sand, staring at the horizon, noting the curve of the earth, I remember that I am standing small on a planet.

The southern portion of the key is in Charlotte County and opens up to concrete and a series of rectangles. Passing over the county line from the north, I squint and reach for my shades as I exit the protective thicket. I am instantly exposed, like exiting backstage into the blinding lights. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a duplex at the Charlotte County end. My older sister, who was in high school, was forced to take the bedroom upstairs next to my mother and stepfather, and I was given a makeshift bedroom in the enclosed garage. There were sliding glass doors on one side and at night raccoons would scurry by or, worse, stop and scratch at the glass. On the other side of my room there were towers of boxes in a space used primarily for storage.

One morning I woke up and scampered up the stairs to find a deserted house. I ran up the next flight and stood in the doorway of my mother’s empty room. My ears rung from the quiet. I ran back down two flights to my storage room, just as my mom and stepdad were coming in through the door, weaving their way through the maze of boxes.

“Where were you?” I asked. My sister was in a car accident. She fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from a date with her boyfriend in Sarasota. Her car went into in a ditch, but she kicked her way out and then pounded on the door of a man’s apartment, blood streaming down her face. At the hospital, she had to get 72 stitches in her head. If she had fallen asleep seconds later, she could have gone off the North Bridge into the intercoastal. I stood at the end of the path of boxes. “You left me here all alone?”

My school bus drove over the South Bridge every morning and afternoon, and sometimes we had to wait for the drawbridge to open for a sailboat with a tall mast.  When we stopped, I climbed up on my knees, dropped my window, and hung my head partially out to stare at the water. There were usually small boats anchored in the shallows, rocking from the wake of the sailboats and yachts passing through to open waters. Sometimes there were porpoises. I knew my route was special, but those instances of recognition were fleeting. By the time I was in junior high, I stopped going out on the beach. I would ride my bike on the street and play in the elevator at the new set of condos built behind our duplex. When we moved off the key and into a smaller apartment in town, I wasn’t sad. I was happy to be out of the basement.

My mom and stepdad still did most of their socializing out on the key with family. As an adult, I see the attractive nuance of that arrangement. My mother’s parents moved away and into a condo down in Key Biscayne, so we spent most of our time at my step grandparents’ home. Our car would crunch into the gravel driveway, and I would run inside to find a hiding place to play, usually with my sisters and cousin. The adults would find cocktails and stand around laughing. That is what I was taught about family. When I interact with other families, those that sit soberly in rooms and talk quietly or not at all, I feel claustrophobic. The generations have shifted, but this is still how we connect. We have cocktails. We don’t sit down.

They started construction on a new home about a half mile down the beach. My cousin and I ran between the houses on the road, pretending we were spies. When a car approached, we hid in the bushes or scampered up the dense tropical driveways, hiding from unsuspecting drivers. We never went on the beach—certainly the most efficient way to walk between the houses—instead we walked the narrow shoulders of the curving beach road. The beach was for tanned old ladies in padded one-piece swim suits. We were girls of the jungle.

One night, my mother and stepdad loaded us into the car after a New Year’s Eve party. Before we got to the south bridge, we were hit head on by a drunk driver. I had a bloody nose, and I smeared it all over my face. I was sure I was dying, so I did my multiplication tables silently to convince myself I didn’t have brain damage. People filed out from the dive bar across the street to help. I remember a lady reaching in the car to pull us out; she lined us up on the curb, little girls caked in blood. As bad as it looked, all of us kids were fine. My mom broke her ankle, and my stepdad shattered his femur bone. He was stuck in the car. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with my sisters as he looked out the passenger window. When they fired up the Jaws of Life to get him out, I covered my eyes with blood-stained hands. I knew even at that moment that he was glad that it was him. My family book-ended the key with accidents. Moments of survival.

After the accident, I was forever tethered to my own mortality. I learned to be afraid, and I applied it to everything: cars, planes, elevators, emotions. When I got home from the hospital, I wouldn’t look in the mirror for several days—I had no lasting injuries—my face was just bruised and puffy. I was scared to go to sleep because I was not sure I would wake up. One night, I dozed off in my mother’s bed, and when I woke up it was completely dark. I thought I had gone blind, so I just silently searched the room for something I could see, and when I found a square of light on the floor coming from underneath the door, I caught my breath.  I wandered around numbly for days—in shock. Eventually I snapped out of the funk, but I was scarred with an odd sense of hypochondria. When I am stressed, I become paralyzed by the fear that I am going to die. Not with some long-standing illness, but that I am just going to drop dead. In an instant. Hit head on.

There were stretches of years between teenage angst and twenties lethargy that I never set foot on the beach. I never touched barefoot to sand; I never dug deep into mud for colorful coquinas. I continued to visit the key to see grandparents as they aged inside the big house on the beach, which had grown quiet, like Gatsby’s after the parties came to an end. The walls sighed slowly, heavily. Outside the windows and open doors, the waves relentlessly swished, gentle at times, roaring at others—waves of seven reminding me: I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. I will always be here.

My absence from the beach meant that it could be rediscovered. I remember staying on the key the week before I was married and taking a friend for a walk on a particularly calm morning.  She walked with wonder. I saw the sanctuary with new eyes. I stopped and looked out at the horizon, smudged gently into the sky, and remembered the magic. We never passed another person on our walk, and we stopped occasionally and waded out into the clear, tranquil water. A few days later I was married.

Once we had kids, I took them to the beach often, and I sat in a chair—the sun baking the tops of my thighs—and watched my son ride the waves, swirling in the middle of foam, momentarily disappearing beneath the surf, causing me to lean forward with my breath held until he surfaced closer to the shore. He stood up, rubbed his eyes, and then leaped back out over the breaking waves to stand with his body facing the shore, looking over one shoulder for the perfect wave. My daughter knelt in the sand at my side playing with collected seashells, calling them families and building sandcastle estates. Occasionally she fluttered to the edge of the breaking waves to rinse her hands or to collect water in colorful buckets, and sometimes she sat and let waves crash over her legs, digging her hands down into the wet sand, disturbing colonies of coquinas.

At sunset, the adults found their way onto the beach, and we all mingled in the sand, ice clinking in high ball glasses, the kids weaving in and out like they were doing a Maypole dance, kicking up sand. Then we wandered back up to the house and stood around in the kitchen, grabbing at food, refilling our drinks, loud laughter pouring into bedrooms where piles of sisters, brothers, and cousins lay on blankets across the floor, watching movies. The waves crashing outside triumphantly.

I stayed at the beach with my kids for two weeks before I went home and filed for divorce. My family came and went; we celebrated the Fourth of July. Before they arrived, everyone knew that I was trying to decide whether or not to pick up the axe, to chop down my family tree. Word had spread, not insidiously but like a whisper of “timber” that rustles the leaves, and the trees nod, knowing what they must do next. With each conversation I became more confident. My cousin and I walked within sight of my kids playing in the surf, keeping the fossil collector’s pace, our heads down, looking for shells. She told me she was sorry. I bent to pick up a seashell. “Look at this one,” I said, holding out my palm. As she examined my shell, I added, “I just don’t love him.” We looked out towards the horizon, squinting into the sun, not needing to say anything more.

Later I walked the beach with one of my sisters. We dodged a wave, our feet synchronously searching for more compact sand, and I confessed, “One day I was standing in my closet, hanging up clothes, and I thought that I might have a chance for a better life if he died.” The thought terrified me when it had happened, maybe a year before. I remember clutching an empty dress, not sure who I was anymore, saying it to another person made me shudder.  She stopped and looked at me, wiped a strand of brown hair away from her face, and hugged me. We kept walking. The Gulf ebbed and flowed at our side.

The day before I packed the car to head home to Georgia, I stood on the beach, my toes sinking in the soft wet sand. I watched my kids running towards the surf and then darting away from incoming waves, just like sandpipers. On that particular day the beach had a wide trail of crushed shells set between the soft sand and the wet sand from the lapping waves. I walked back and forth, head bent down, picking up sharks’ teeth and dropping them into my own cupped hand.  I stood up straight and looked out at the horizon towards a line of dark clouds that interrupted the otherwise seamless blue. I closed my fist tightly.

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Waste it Wisely

This is terrifying.

This is terrifying.

Sometimes I have to use the men’s bathroom at the school where I work because I don’t have time to wait the 90 seconds it will take for the women’s bathroom to be free, and I feel like this could be a symptom of a larger problem in my life. When I was younger, I prided myself on always being punctual. I was usually even early because my life was empty and meaningless, and I was completely unsuccessful. Making time to go to the bathroom was not an issue. I remember I had a boyfriend who chose not to drink excess liquids before taking road trips because he did not want to waste time stopping to use the bathroom. He would tell me this as I slid into the passenger seat slurping the last sips of my 32 ounce diet coke.  Road trips, like legislation, are based on the lowest common denominator, which is often me, so really he was just delayed and thirsty.

I recently took an online quiz called “How Productive Are You?” demonstrating on its own—just by logging in—that I am not productive at all. One of the key areas that need improvement for me is that I have too many distractions. The website suggests I keep an interrupter’s log, which intrigues me, not because I think it will make me more productive but because it allows me to put the blame on others in writing and in chart form. The log asks for the name of the interrupter, the time, and a box for me to check if it was a valid interruption. I find this so exciting that I might quit my job just to spend all my time cataloging my daily interruptions. 6:34 p.m. the cat “jumped” in the bathtub with my son and then frantically skid across every dry surface in the house interrupting my game of Trivia Crack. Not valid. After a week of keeping the log, I am supposed to analyze and conquer my interruptions. One way to conquer interruptions is to pre-empt the interruption by holding routine meetings. This way instead of interrupting me, the people/cats will learn to save all non-urgent issues until this meeting.

I made all my students take the quiz, too, mainly because I did not have anything else planned for the day, and they all scored higher than me. I told them they are liars and they must have cheated, but then I realized that they just don’t have that many distractions. Mainly because I let them go to the bathroom in the middle of class. Sometimes I will ask a compelling question and then one of them will raise their hand, and I get excited thinking that an engaging discussion will ensue, but it is just a kid asking to go to the bathroom. They are extremely efficient. Also, I am not sure being in my class keeps them from accomplishing their life goals There are students who could be running multi-million dollar companies on their laptops (or from the bathroom) while I draw diagrams on the board of the two houses in Wuthering Heights.

There is a guy I work with who likes to say, “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day,” and I usually try to do the math because I feel like I am wasting a significant amount of my 24 hours. For starters, I am asleep for at least six to eight of those hours, and then I am at work for another eight hours monitoring other people’s bathroom visits, and then I need to subtract the hours when I am drunk or on my phone, which leaves me with maybe five good hours a day. Then I have to find time to schedule meetings with my kids and the cat and then pray that there is enough time left after all the interruptions have been clearly checked as not valid so that I can watch Netflix while curled up on the couch crying about how nobody will ever love me.

The real issue—that leaves me in a general state of panic—is not the allotment of time per day, but the amount of days that I have left, divided by the number of things that I have yet to accomplish. I am not an expert mathematician, but I think this comes out to a negative number or a radical. In a few short months I will turn 40. At this point I have to make some important decisions, like how much of that precious time do I want to waste standing in line for the bathroom? I have to start thinking about my lowest common denominator. I have a job, two kids, and a bladder, so I have to figure out how to make all of these things fit in with my current life goals, which include finding a meaningful relationship, making something out of my writing career (like maybe a fleet of paper airplanes), and fulfilling my dream of going to a swim-up bar (which really takes care of the bladder issue on its own).

Another goal that I plan to accomplish on my 40th birthday is getting my first tattoo. My main reasons for not getting a tattoo up to this point were more related to commitment issues than preserving an image, but when I am 40 there is only so much forever left. I also apply this to my dating life. Commitment doesn’t seem quite so scary now because I don’t have to promise my whole life to someone, just what’s left of it. It is only like half of forever, and if we do the math . . .

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Precious Cargo

Whenever I see a headline about somebody that drove their car full of kids into a lake or some other body of water, I never wonder what could possibly compel them to do that. Every time I drive with the kids and I do not end up in a large body of water I take it as a small miracle or as a really terrific coincidence. Most of the time, driving around with my two kids reminds me of that scene in Tommy Boy where the dead deer in the backseat wakes up and thrashes around the car, kicking out windows and sticking his horns through the soft top, except the deer yells, “Mom!” and then tattles on his sister.

I have tried telling the kids, “Don’t make me pull over!” because I have seen that on television, but none of us really knows how that will help. I think the point is that I would pull over on the side of the road and beat my kids into submission, but I feel like that is frowned upon and that I would eventually regret it. I have considered pulling over and just getting out and hitching a ride that is less taxing for me, like with an old blind lady in a Cadillac or with a middle aged white guy with a mustache driving a van with blacked out windows and an axe in the passenger seat, but I never make it more than a few feet away from our parked car. I have found myself a couple of times standing alone in an abandoned parking lot while the kids press their little faces to the window and watch me, knowing very well that I have no clue where this is headed. Realizing their mom might really have gone crazy is the one thing that seems to bring them together. They aren’t stupid, so I think they clearly understand my value, which is that I am the only one of us who has a driver’s license.

Raising kids is hard. And like wild animals, it becomes even more difficult when we choose to bring them inside, especially if they have siblings. My kids sometimes get along. They know how to make each other laugh, probably more than anyone else, and when I hear them giggling uncontrollably in the other room, I start to think that maybe I should keep them both. Their animosity comes from the fact that they are fighting for the same resources. Space in our house. My love and affection. Food. My daughter gets frustrated by the sound of her brother’s voice and for once in her life she would like to listen to “All about That Bass” without him talking through the entire song. My son thinks his sister is a great target for Nerf darts. Neither has any interest in sharing their popcorn. Not one single kernel. I tell them that deep down they really love each other and they assure me that is not true and then they lunge at each other the way a cheetah might lunge at a tiger who has just eaten her cubs or at least just turned off the bathroom light while she was obviously still in the bath tub.

Putting them together in a car is not a great idea. For several years I drove a minivan, which was basically just a DVD player on wheels, and something about the padded headphones and the fact that my son, sitting in the back row, was so far away from me that even though I could see his mouth moving in the rearview, I could not hear him. “Sorry buddy,” I would say as I pointed to my ears and shrugged, turning up the radio. After I got divorced, I traded in the van for a crossover SUV, which more accurately represents my current lifestyle by making the statement that I am almost 40, and I buy a lot of groceries. Once I got the new car, the kids had to learn how to be human in a motor vehicle again. “You just look out the window,” I tell them. They also have to sit on the same row with only a leather arm rest with two cup holders between them, taking turns using the IPOD and Kindle.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I sat three across (best case scenario) in a 1984 Honda Accord, and on long road trips we had to ride in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top. Our travel plans never included layovers at roadside motels, instead we traveled like refugees, leaving at odd hours and sleeping in rest area parking lots, eating what seemed like at the time as one meal every few days. We did not have movies to watch—we only had three to five Cabbage Patch Dolls per person and some am/fm walk-mans that we could occasionally tune to a static version of Eddie Murphy’s “Party all the Time.” The truck had one of those tiny windows between us and the cab that locked from the inside. If we wanted to talk our parents, we had to knock on the window. Sometimes they would open it, but more often they just made a series of unproductive gestures and then shrugged as if there was nothing they could do.

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To-Do List

The best part about being a divorced mom with two kids is definitely the dating! The only downside is that I no longer get to have the list of people I would have sex with if I was granted monogamy immunity. Having a list was a great way to remind myself that I can really do much better. I could have sex with Don Draper (the fictional character) if I wasn’t already bound by the confines of this marriage. Of course the reality is that if I could get within 20 feet of Don Draper’s boner then I probably would not be married (to you). After the divorce my list lost its appeal because I could no longer use marriage as an excuse. If I could not land Paul Rudd then the only things left to blame were my looks and personality. I need to create a new list of much more accessible men, like Bill Clinton, or the even more realistic, Bill Cosby.

I was not necessarily great at dating before I had kids, if I was then I probably would not have gotten married. Now I have two kids, an ex-husband, and all the things that I can list as major failures in my life since I was last in the dating pool, like marriage for instance. Also, when I was younger, my future was full of hope and promise. Maybe I was going to have one of those careers that allowed me to afford nice things, like insurance. Maybe I was going to give birth to some of those kids who would eat kale. Maybe I was going to be one of those wives who would give blow jobs. Who knew? Now my future is much less hopeful and much more in present tense. My daughter had gummy worms for breakfast this morning. Also my abs look like the “before” pictures from tummy tuck surgery.

When I first got divorced I tried to date in the natural way, as in meeting people and forming some kind of connection in real time and then going on a date in two weeks when I have a free weekend without the kids. Then I decided to try online dating because I just don’t have that kind of time. Dating with kids on the every other weekend schedule is sort of like dating in dog years. One day for me is like 14 days to a regular person. I will be in a nursing home before we get to the travelling together for the holidays stage. My boyfriend will have to visit me for our Thanksgiving luncheon at 10:25 a.m. in the Azalea dining hall. This is why I think divorced people should get a pass on the no sex on the first date policy because who knows when our schedules will align again—when there will not be a sick kid in retrograde or a work conflict in my seventh house or a perfect ex-husband shit storm?

With online dating I am able to fast track the process through a rigorous process of texting that involves asking deep questions like, “What do you do for fun on the weekends” and “How long have you been divorced?” and “Why do you have trust issues?” Then I analyze the responses and try to determine how much I like this person and how likely it is that he might murder me. Then I consider how much I really care if I get murdered. Then I send a good friend his contact information (just in case), straighten my hair, and I am on my way. The only awkward part of the date is usually the first entire date. It is sort of like a job interview with alcohol (note to self: get drunk before next job interview).

Most dates end in the parking lot with an awkward hug or even more awkward: no hug. I only had one date that did not end there. We went to another bar and then back to my place. I will let you know how that ends. If you never hear from me again then just assume I have been murdered.

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Asshole Matrix

Because I have a voice . . .

I recently watched a video where a man, with a gun in a holster on his hip, explained his guide to women using what he likes to call the hot crazy matrix. The chart looks like the basic graph that would be shown in an economics class: there are two axes, one for a woman’s level of crazy and another for how hot she is. The crazy axis starts at a four because all women are at least somewhat crazy. The hot axis is a standard scale of zero to ten, but according to the expert, any woman who is below a five on the hot scale is a “No go.” The key is to target women at the appropriate level of hot to crazy. She should be between a five to seven crazy and above an eight hot.

After watching this informative video, I came up with my own matrix for men called the “has a pulse to asshole matrix.” My asshole axis starts at a four because there is no such thing as a man who is not an asshole unless he is dead, or a little baby, or has Downs Syndrome. The has a pulse axis is simply from 0 to 1. Either a man has one or he does not. The key then is for women to find a man who is both alive and relatively low on the asshole scale. This matrix does not have a “No go” zone, but it does have a “Regret and shame” zone that exists whenever a woman dates anyone who is above an eight for asshole. This generally includes all guys who work for Merrill Lynch, many members of the NFL, and guys who make charts generalizing women based on a hot to crazy matrix. Above a ten for asshole is the “getting the shit beat out of you in an elevator” zone and the “getting shot while you are in the bathroom” zone, which women should certainly try to avoid.

Finding a man with a heartbeat—even if it is irregular or even if he is in some kind of chemically induced coma—who is also between a five to seven for asshole is a difficult task, but we must be diligent. Of course, this only applies to women who are above an eight for hot and between a five to seven crazy, the rest of you can just stay home with your 27 cats and your poster of Corey Haim because you are not even eligible. Men who are only assholes half the time are there ready to date us, and to under appreciate us, and to leave us with more than our fair share of the housework, and to get paid more for doing the same job. They are there to decide our value based on how we look and to label us “crazy” when we fail to be complacent to their terms. However, since all men can easily be categorized using a two-dimensional chart, we now have the knowledge we need to get up on that sweet, sweet action, and if we pay close attention and stay in the target zone, they might not even beat/rape/murder us.

asshole matrix

The penis represents the asshole/has a pulse line. It is your responsibility, as a woman, to keep this line in mind and to make smart choices. Men can’t be expected to do this, so you might not want to wear a low-cut tank top or a short skirt unless you want this line inside you.

Chasing the Carrot (With Ranch Dip)

My nephew recently bragged about eating 35 chicken wings at an all-you-can-eat wing event at his local Hooters. I argued that 35 wings is the meat equivalent of about one-half of a chicken breast, and I suggested that I could easily eat 35 wings. I only stop eating wings because I get bored or feel a sense of shame, not because I am too full. I believe that the act of eating the chicken wing, especially with the constant napkin use, the dipping in the blue cheese, and the sweating from the heat, burns at least enough calories to offset the wing itself, so the activity could probably sustain itself in perpetuity until I get hungry and need to actually accrue some calories, and that is why they created French fries.

I don’t eat to live—I eat to fill dark holes of despair in my soul, so it would really be a step up to eat for cash and prizes. I recently watched the Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest, and I was confident I could be a top contender, but I would never actually enter because I do not want to be shown on national television shoving wieners into my mouth. Also they weigh you and then display your weight on the screen, which would make it much harder for me to argue that the camera added ten pounds and about 45 wieners.

Maybe an eating contest would be like my version of The Bachelor. If they ever did a season of The Bachelor for the over-thirties, I could probably win because I am a great girl, and my default attire is usually dressy-casual-pool party, and I put out. But they will never produce such a show because people over the age of 25 are gross. My best chance for going on national television and humiliating myself would be on a show about food. Maybe Woman Versus Food where I try to conquer all the eating contests that Adam Richman failed. When I watch his show from the comfort of my home, while starving because I had a side salad for dinner, I yell, “Come on, MAN! You only have 37 bites left. Grow a pair, ok?” That could be my tag line. I would say it as the credits roll, and I am shown puking in a parking lot.

I sometimes make smart choices about food, and I exercise with a crazed sort of passion that more closely resembles the way an alcoholic has to have a drink than the way a healthy sane person tries to make time for a jog, so I am not overweight, but I never get too cocky because I know that I am always one emotional breakdown and three large pizzas away from buying all new pants. I have never made any claims to having a sensible relationship with food. I have very few sensible relationships, so I am not going to waste one on hamburgers. I will always choose the wrong hamburger—one that is completely unrealistic or on someone else’s plate. Maybe even a turkey burger. Or a truck driver burger.

When I am planning my next meal, I don’t just open the fridge and pick something out—I stalk my food first, and then make a decision based on vanity and impracticality. Yes, there is the rest of that turkey sandwich, but all the bread and mayonnaise is sort of fattening, instead I think I will make some stir fry, which requires going to the store first, and then washing and chopping vegetables for an hour, and then usually involves me getting bored and drinking two beers, eating the rest of the sandwich, and an insanely large portion of stir fry, feeling guilty, and then crying myself to sleep. The next morning when I open the fridge and see the stir fry leftovers, I just feel remorseful and dirty.

If I am already only using 10% of my brain, I am using at least 4% of that to think about my next meal and 5% to analyze what I did wrong with my previous meal, so I am probably only using 1% for everything else at any given time. When I am actually eating, my “thinking about food” brain usage spikes to max capacity, especially if I am eating pizza, and I have to remember how to decipher a pie chart. With pepperoni. 25% of the chart represents the amount of the pie that I should reasonably eat (equal to the amount that I will tell people I ate), and then after that the pie is divided into a rainbow of tiny pie slivers that reflect various levels of emotional instability as I eat more and more pizza. Then at the end the entire pie chart disappears because I ate it.

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Parenting Wins

The single most difficult moment in parenting happens right after your kid draws the gingerbread man card in Candy Land. When my son was little he would sob uncontrollably, and I would have to spend my entire afternoon rocking him to calm him down. My daughter just screams and then sweeps everything off the board like she is Godzilla terrorizing a sleepy fishing village. I have considered removing that card, but then I feel like I would be cheating them of a valuable lesson. Also, it keeps me from dying of boredom while playing.  As my kids near the candy castle, I wince each time they draw a new card, and then let out a sigh of relief when the card is a single orange square. When I draw the gingerbread man, I exaggerate how accepting I am of my fate. I shrug my shoulders and say that it is just part of the game, “Oh well. I can still catch up, or whatever, King Kandy is not really my type. ” It is very similar to the way I act when someone dumps me. “I totally understand. Good decision. There are still a few good years left before I just give up, move to Florida, and become a crack whore.”

A similar parenting danger zone is when we play a game and I win. This happens all the time because I am smart and great at games. Also I am 39. When my son was little I took him to a child therapist because he was so competitive and would get crazy mad whenever he lost. She played a game of Uno with him while I watched. She let him win. “Oh,” I said. When I was growing up my mom never let me win, and we weren’t playing games like Candy Land or Uno. We were playing Spades and Gin. She knew every card that had been played and what was still left in both of our hands. “You know the Ace hasn’t been played yet, right?” She would say. No, I did not know that because I was five. After my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I played a game of Gin Rummy with her and my mom. It was my mom’s idea, and I was not sure it was a great idea because my grandmother had spent most of the afternoon telling me to get the baby out of the bathtub, which was terrifying until I remembered we did not have a baby. My grandmother won, and then she lit a cigarette and fell asleep in her chair.

After you have survived watching your children deal with the pain of being a loser, everything else in parenting is easy, as long as you can get a good night’s sleep, which is never going to happen. Before you have a baby, people warn you about the sleep deprivation. I don’t blame them. It is sort of like if your friend survives climbing Mount Everest, and you mention that you are planning to attempt a similar quest, he doesn’t just say, “Meh. No biggie.” He shares his experience to prepare you for the physical and mental challenges. Maybe the impetus to share is based a little more on bragging than sincere concern for your well-being, and maybe he is a little bit of a condescending asshole, but he survived, and he earned it. However, what people do not tell you is that you may never actually sleep through the night again, the way someone who recently climbed Everest might not mention that there is not actually a bar with tank top wearing models serving ice cold Coors Light at the top.

Yes, sleeping with a newborn is tough, but as kids grow they just continually reach new milestones that interrupt your sleep. There is the crawling out of the crib stage, the bed-wetting stage, the scared of the dark phase, and then there is the stage after your kid learns about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, and she is too terrified to sleep, or you really slip in the parental control department and your kid watches The Hangover 2 and has nightmares about one crazy night in Bangkok. Then apparently there is the stage where you don’t sleep because your kid is out driving around doing all the things you definitely did while driving around as a teenager, and you question how you could get that lucky twice.

In my house, we are currently in the nightmares and fear of abandonment stage. Earlier this week both my kids were in my bed in the middle of the night, like a couple of 50-pound newborn babies. My son had a bad dream. He said, “You know the conductor from Dinosaur Train?”

“Say no more,” I said.

My daughter whimpered in the background, “I can only sleep if I am with someone.”

“Say no more.”

I led them back to their rooms and spent time passed out in each of their beds. We all switched places multiple times, our three paths crossing up and down the hall like our own little disoriented trail of tears—mainly mine. Finally, as my daughter stood in the hallway holding her blanket, sucking her thumb, I just got up and shut my door. In her face. I found her the next morning in her brother’s room. There will come a time when I am no longer around, and they will have to take care of each other, and maybe that time is 3 a.m.

The next day I was tired, but that is just the parenting new normal. Maybe we will get through this stage soon, but there is just another one gearing up right behind it. I remember when my daughter used to bite people, mainly adorable little babies. She would grab their cheeks and then just go in for the kill. When she was in preschool they moved her up to an older age group class because those kids were better able to defend themselves. I told everyone she was just really advanced. I tried a lot of different methods to get her to stop: I removed her from the situation, I bit her back, and then I even resorted to something I like to call “deliberate ignoring.” This is my favorite style of parenting where I just pretend like nothing is happening. I like to think that it keeps the kids from getting attention from bad behavior, but also I am pretty lazy. Eventually she stopped biting, and we moved into a new difficult phase. I know that eventually my kids will not care about winning Candy Land. They will move onto bigger and better games, and it will be even more exhilarating for me when I win.

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Turtle Envy

I just moved into a new house in my same town. I started by moving the important things, like my ceramic zebra. Next, I moved all of my sharks’ teeth, most of the art work, and none of my clothes, dishes or beds. For a brief, beautiful time, my new house was only full of the things I really adore, like my collection of Martha Stewart Living magazines dating back to 1997 and my vintage tablecloth collection (all rectangular!) and none of the things that I actually needed like the files full of all the important documents that prove I exist or shampoo or underwear.  It was sort of like living in an Ikea showroom, but eventually I had to move all the stuff that makes an actual life, like my children.

There are things I have collected that I love for no practical reason. Moving them was fun, like being a museum curator, but then after that, moving everything else made me really question my life choices, like do I really need plates? Maybe it is just society dictating to me that I need blankets and rugs and every single thing in that damn closet in the bathroom. What if I only had one colander?

Moving has also made me realize that I have almost no skills that are helpful to the moving process. I am not especially strong. I can’t work a drill. I don’t have a truck, and asking someone to help with a move is one of the biggest favors a human can do for another. It goes like this: donating a kidney, giving someone the gift of life, and then helping someone move. If my kids ever ask me to help them move, I am going to tell them that I already did that when I single-handedly moved them from my womb into the world. I started to notice people were scared to look me in the eye, especially people with trucks. They would see me in the grocery store, waving my arms and sprinting towards them with my cart, and they would just pick up the pace and disappear down the dog food aisle. I thought about lurking around the front of Home Depot, like a hooker. Hey handsome is that your truck? You looking to have a really terrible time?

This move is also about starting over. I went through a divorce this year, and moving is really about creating a new life for me and my kids. And because of that there has been a lot more crying this time than I remember with previous moves. I had to keep reminding myself, “turn around, don’t drown” every time I went to pack another closet. It really slowed the process down. I am reading a book right now by Todd Snider about his life as a musician, and he was told to try and always be fifteen minutes away from being able to pack up and leave. I am about three weeks off that time frame.

Freedom is just another word for not having any solid white serving platters. In the transition, as items were displaced from their posts at the old house and before they were secured in permanent positions at the new house, I saw them as momentarily unnecessary. My attachment to objects (except for all my magazines and that matching set of ceramic owls and my collection of colorful aprons) was relaxed. When I loaded up most of my belongings into a friend’s truck—now I am eternally indebted to him, so I really hope he has excellent kidney health—he did some finagling with straps, said it should hold, and then looked at me with an expression of, “Right?” I said if anything falls out, like the coffee table, the mattresses, or me, then just keep driving.

Maybe I could go to Mexico and live in a dirt floor hut and spend my days doing peyote thinking about how happy I am I don’t have cabinets to fill. Then when the drug cartel raids my place, I will just spend fifteen minutes packing up my Martha Stewart Living magazines, my KitchenAid mixer (with attachments), my set of four gold-leaf champagne flutes, and my grandmother’s light-up ceramic pineapple, and I will be out the make-shift door!

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Making a Comeback

I have made a life out of second chances. I spent almost two decades somewhere along the spectrum of “going back to school,” which always begins with failing out of school, something I had perfected with the following method: apply on an impulse after an intense existential talk at two in the morning, spend hours planning the perfect schedule with a killer spreadsheet, never actually go to class, then repeat! I am also in the process of getting divorced and feeling hopeful about my future. My life is overflowing with wadded up pieces of paper that almost make it to the trash can (still perfecting that rim shot). When I pen my self-help book to reach out to other adult losers, I will probably title it, Second Chances are for Losers (Like You!) and then there will be a mirrored sticker on the front under the title. It will be a best-seller and will make an excellent Christmas gift.

Try first, figure out how to fix it later. My highly successful secretarial career was built on this motto. I started working in a law office when I was nineteen years old. My only real skills were painting sunflowers and making epic mixed tapes, but anytime I was asked to do something, I just said, “I can do that!” I can prepare legal documents. I can fix the copy machine. I can change your carburetor. This was before I had access to the Internet, so I couldn’t just find a YouTube video to teach me. I had to figure out how to screw it up all by myself.

Once my office hooked up to the internet and I got my first email account, I started to actually enjoy working, and by working I mean sending out emails to my friends and family. I also found that email was a helpful tool in my dating life. Any shyness or sense of self-control that I appeared to possess in person did not exist when I sent out emails. The email version of me straddles the very thin line between being unwaveringly confident and being a creepy stalker.  And being a cyberstalker is somehow worse than being a regular stalker. A regular stalker might be a dangerous psychopath, but at least she is getting out in the world, maybe occasionally aiming the telescope up to gaze at the stars or smelling the gardenias in the bushes she is using for cover, but a cyberstalker is mainly just home alone, probably eating an entire Papa John’s Pizza.

I should have been applying to potential colleges, writing the great American novel, or actually completing the work I was assigned, but I found it more rewarding to send out emails to my ex-boyfriend like, “Remember that time you diced a habanero pepper and then you forgot to wash your hands before you took a piss?” The next thing I knew I was making out in the cab of a pick-up truck. Now that I have started dating again, I am dealing with a whole new arsenal of electronic communications, and I don’t even have to be at work, which is unfortunate because I was rarely drunk at work. Now I can sit on my couch halfway through a magnum of champagne and think that I really should get in contact with that guy who dumped me six weeks ago. And I should totally send a picture. For me, “Send” is just another way to say “Fuck it.” Usually halfway through my internal dialogue about how I could preserve my self-esteem and not embarrass—SEND! Then if I start to feel remorseful, I just follow up with a winky face.

As dangerous as instant access is, there is always room for a second chance. For starters, maybe he never got the first message. I can respond honestly and just admit that I am a flawed human being who is trying to figure out what the hell she is doing, or I can send a more provocative message, like the emoji of a sideways pointing finger aimed at the emoji of a hand doing the “ok” symbol. I have also tried to learn the value of getting it right the first time. What if I was less impulsive and did not always need a second chance? Sometimes I try to give myself a moratorium on sending out messages, like maybe I should sleep on it and if it still seems like a good idea in the morn—SEND!

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