Zombie Apocalypse

“If you don’t think a mental patient has the right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you’re part of the problem.”

David Sedaris from let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.


I made the terrifying mistake of giving my students from South Georgia the writing prompt, “Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse?” The answer is YES. All of my students are armed with enough lethal weapons to annihilate an entire army of the undead. Their writing responses, supposed to be metaphoric and possibly leading to insights about who and what they value most, turned into long lists of guns and ammunition that they or their parents have stored in gun cabinets/bomb shelters.

“But why do you have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?” I kept asking.

“In case we are attacked,” they responded.

“By who?”

“Terrorists, the Chinese, our own government, that guy from down the road who shot my puppy.”

I explained calmly that in my humble unarmed opinion the zombies were the most likely scenario—after the guy who shot the puppy.

I am anti-gun, and I have even had students ask me incredulously, “You don’t believe in the second amendment?”

I tell them that I believe in it—as in I think it exists—but it just doesn’t have the same meaning to me. I have noted that “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” part is really just a clause to support the “A well regulated militia” part and is taken out of context. It is sort of like all the clauses that could come after “In case of emergency.” In case of emergency break this glass, exit out this door, abandon your car in the middle of the street, let Sandra Bullock drive the bus.

And they were responding to the needs of our country in 1791. A lot has changed since 1791. For starters, we are a developed country. We have a well-funded, organized military. States have the National Guard. We do not need private citizens running out to join the cause with the shotgun they keep under their mattress. Also there have been significant technological changes since the Bill of Rights was drafted. Advances in gun design and manufacture for example, which greatly change the meaning of the word “arms.”  And maybe most importantly, there have been major changes to the structure of our society—how and where we live—that creates new anxieties. New dangers that require us to adapt. To amend.

However, I like interacting with these bright and well-rounded students about guns because I do not think anyone in my classes is dangerous. I have no concerns that they are going to shoot up a movie theater or my classroom. They live in a rural area, and their parents have taught them gun responsibility. And most of them earn A’s in my class.

However, it doesn’t change my position. Simply because something can be handled responsibly doesn’t mean it will be handled responsibly by the entirety of the population. Compared to all the things—the nouns—that we have made illegal in this country, like drugs, counterfeit money, prostitutes, cheese, immigrants, black people, none are as deadly to humans and used in more dangerous illegal verbs than guns.

Perhaps it is so challenging to make changes about gun ownership because the opposition is heavily armed. It was probably much easier to make drugs illegal because it is difficult, although not impossible, to stand your ground by waving a bag of coke in someone’s face. Even steroids are illegal, and if the Tour de France was the Tour D’America, Lance Armstrong would probably still have his titles if instead of taking drugs he just carried a gun and shot out the competitors’ kneecaps in self-defense.

This country was founded on the fact that we fought back and gained independence (and then enslaved people). We are Americans, and we are armed and dangerous! A significant part of our patriotic ethos stems from the fact that we are fighters, and we can protect ourselves. But we aren’t protecting ourselves.

We make it much too easy to get a gun. I have to go to a doctor and get a pap smear to get a drug that gives me the power to keep from becoming pregnant with a single person, but an individual can buy a gun to murder an entire room of people with very little interference from professionals. In my state, there is a background check policy, but not if the gun is purchased from an individual and there is no waiting period. Perhaps, we should require people to get a rectal exam to get a gun—an asshole check.

Basically, by refusing to make any changes to gun laws, even simply increasing waiting periods and/or requiring more rigorous background checks, we are saying that the right to bear arms is more important than the right to not be shot. Reading the comments section from articles linked to from the NRA website, such as a recent article about Regal Theaters’ decision to begin checking bags as a safety precaution, NRA supporters continually promote the idea that by carrying guns they are adding to the safety of the environment because they will be able to stop a crazed shooter with their own gun. The response is almost always based on the idea that if the bad guys have guns then the good guys should have guns.

But shouldn’t a good guy be willing to wait two weeks or even longer to get a new gun? I had to wait six weeks to get my new passport in the mail. When I applied for my passport, I was just coming out of a break-up, and I thought the next best move was to flee the country, but by the time my passport arrived, I had calmed down and decided not to abandon life as I knew it. I put the blue booklet safely away in a drawer.

We can make adjustments without banning guns entirely, although we seem to be fine with bans on other possibly dangerous things. Things that can be abused or can make people dangerous—drugs and drunk driving for example. We do not argue that the best defense against drunk drivers is for good people to also drink and drive—that I should drive drunk in order to run the other drunk drivers off the road, like a goddamn hero. We make laws that are based on the fact that since some people cannot be trusted, we must enact zero tolerance. We declare war. We put people in jail for even the possession of illegal substances. But not guns. It is our right to keep and bear arms so that we can maintain a well-regulated militia, which is necessary for the security of a free state.

But why do we have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?

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Yes, I Like Piña Coladas

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, like when you think you found a roly poly, but it turns out to be just a bug. Or when you think the air conditioner repairman is flirting with you, but he is really just asking if your air conditioner is working properly because that is his job. Or when you answer a personal ad because YES, you like piña coladas, and then you get to the restaurant and it is the guy you are already dating, which is a real let down for multiple reasons, all related to the fact that it is the guy you are already dating.

If you watch television, then you might think getting your kids ready for school is just about leaning against the kitchen counter with a smile while your kid gets a pep talk from his Frosted Mini-Wheats. The morning routine in our house involves very little smiling and almost no nutrition, but is instead a rigorous process of pressing the snooze button and crying. Once I get the kids out of bed it gets even worse. With my daughter, the mornings start out like the movie Weekend at Bernie’s, except without the white sand beaches and the witty side kick. It is just me trying to dress and feed a completely limp body, dragging her around the house as her legs leave a trail on the dusty floor. Then I try to brush her hair, and it rapidly turns into a scene from the Exorcist.

We have thick hair in my family. When I was a child, I remember fighting with my mother about brushing my hair, and I also remember getting large knots cut out from deep inside the layers where there was probably a family of larks living and making a nest. I once had a bird chase me down the street, swooping and diving at my head because she thought she found a nest-making jackpot, just walking down the street, completely unguarded by predators. Getting my daughter’s hair brushed is the most important part of our morning in the sense that people will actually notice if it is not brushed. Nobody will know that she had a Sprite Zero for breakfast, but they will see that her hair looks like she was recently involved in a shipwreck.

I also have a son. He gets dressed by himself and is mostly self sufficient, but he complains from the moment he wakes up about the atrocity of school. He usually flings himself back onto my bed just moaning as I try to choose an outfit from my slutty professional collection. As I put on my make-up he has usually slid to the floor and is lying on the carpet telling me about how recess is only ten minutes long, no actually five minutes, actually now that he thinks about it, they have not even had recess in twenty days.

Right now we are at the end of the summer and preparing to go back to school. It is that time of year when the denial phase is waning, and I am entering into the chugging piña coladas phase. I do have some mixed emotions about back to school because there is the joy that comes from knowing my children are embarking on another year of learning and growing in the care of qualified strangers, but then there is also the fact that I am a teacher, and soon I will have to pry the piña colada out of my sunburnt hand and put on a slightly more appropriate outfit and get back to work.

I have a lot of expectations for this year about getting up earlier in the morning, being a more organized professional, being a better mother, and most importantly finally finishing the entire series of Sons of Anarchy on Netflix. But life is full of surprises. How could you ever know that the woman you have been with for years and who seems like a total bore really does like making love at midnight in the dunes of a cape, unless you run a personal ad and try to cheat on her with someone else? And it is probably best that I am not playing out my fantasy of hot sex with the air conditioner repairman with the actual air conditioner repairman (it should obviously be someone who is not an air conditioner repairman but has played one on TV), and roly polies are fascinating but frighten easily, just like my ex-boyfriend.

As I try not to let the stress of the arrival of another school year swallow me whole—by firing up the blender one last time—I try to remember that we all survived the last school year. Also there is therapy. And maybe the reason I haven’t finished Sons of Anarchy is less about my ability to finish things and more about the fact that I don’t like all the misogyny and the murder and the leather vests.

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Sunday Service

I live in Georgia. And not Atlanta. South Georgia. When I say that I live in Valdosta, people usually repeat the word back to me like they are auditioning for a part in Huck Finn, “Val-DOS-TA!” Then they tell me they stopped here once on the way to Atlanta because they had a flat tire or because they wanted a biscuit from Bojangles. Before Valdosta, I was living in Florida, and my husband at the time commuted 70 miles each way to work at the university here. Then I had a baby and decided that I could screw that kid up anywhere, so we packed and moved across state lines.

Not long after we moved into our new house, members of the local Baptist church started showing up on Sunday afternoons. The first time I was in the backyard with my son trying to blow up an inflatable pool and appropriately yelling, “Goddamnit!” Then a group of older ladies appeared at my fence. Skirts to the ground. Bibles in hand. They were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area?

I like to picture these women coming directly from some kind of a situation room. There is a wall of photos with potential members/victims and post-it notes that describe specifics about the individual that might help lure them into the well-lit, air-conditioned halls of the Baptist church, things like “Marital trouble” or “Drinks too much” or “Stupid,” and then there is a large map of Lowndes County spread out on the table with a giant red circle around my house.

I told them that we attended church in a nearby town with my husband’s family, which was technically true because we did do that once on Easter. Then I tried to act like I was really busy, “Stop splashing in the pool!” I yelled to my toddler son. Then the next weekend, after what I assume was some sort of Baptist briefing about the importance of demographics, a group of women my same age showed up on Sunday afternoon. When I saw the minivan pull in the driveway, I appropriately said, “Goddamnit.”

They told me about their kids and how precious my son was as he kicked dirt at a squirrel. Also they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area yet. I said that we go to church with my husband’s family in a town about forty-five minutes away because that is how we like our religion: inconvenient. They kept making small talk, and I just stood there in my own driveway afraid to tell them my actual stance on church, and my complete lack of interest in attending any church in the area, and not just because I would rather dig through garbage at the dump than spend my Sunday mornings attending a lecture, but because I do not believe in a god.

The next Sunday they came back. It was like a horror movie. The kind where you think the killer is dead. There is no way he can come back! He doesn’t even have a head! But then you walk outside to get something from the garage and this white minivan full of Baptists pulls into your driveway, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I can see them after church, filing into the situation room, while a man points to my picture like a football coach at halftime.

You ladies get back in the minivan, and you bring me that new family! What would Jesus do? Answer me! Would Jesus let that woman say she goes to church in another town? Would he? No. Jesus saves. He is economical. He would mention the rising cost of gas prices. He would break her down to tears, bag her, and stuff her into the back of the van. Wait. No, that is not necessarily what Jesus would do, but you get the idea. Play on her weaknesses. There are plenty. Now, line up for a slap on the ass and then get out there and get me some new members. And tell them to bring their wallets.

At first I thought maybe they didn’t see me, and I could just go inside, lock the door, and hide behind the couch. But I stalled too long. Just like the girl who is murdered first because she is paralyzed standing in the kitchen staring at the guy with the chainsaw, while all her friends have run away—past all the possible exits and ground floor windows—and are hiding safely upstairs in a closet. I walked toward the van. Just get it over with.

They would really love to welcome my family to the Baptist church. There is childcare. For a brief moment I pictured myself sitting peacefully in an air-conditioned sanctuary dressed up like I was going to be a contributor on CNN while my son was in another room digging through a box of toys marked “Mythical Creatures” trying to fish out the T-Rex. I considered it. I thanked them for visiting me again, and I said that I would discuss it with my husband. They nodded with understanding, as if to say they know that he makes all the decisions. Of course.

One of my problems is that I am eternally optimistic, which is an interesting characteristic for an atheist, I realize, but I am one of those people who anticipates getting the mail because you never know. Maybe my boyfriend from tenth grade finally wrote me that letter he promised he would write while on vacation with his family, instead of not writing and never calling me ever again. Maybe there will be a letter from a publisher with a check for a book advance. Whenever the phone rings, I jump up mid-pee with pants around my ankles to run for the phone, and then get disappointed when it is just my doctor’s office calling to remind me of my next appointment. Yes. I will be there. We will have fun.

So the next Sunday when the doorbell rang, I ran to the door, slid on my socks, and swung it open hoping to find something like a video crew and a man with a giant check. Instead I opened the door to a group of men standing in a semi-circle dressed like they were doing a photo shoot for the Father’s Day edition of the J.C. Penney catalog. They wanted to know if my husband was home. Yes! He is! I left the pleated khakis at the door and found him in his underwear on the computer.

“Tell them I am not here,” he said.

“Goddamnit,” I said appropriately.

I went back to the door, hoping to just tell them he wasn’t available and goodbye, but they stuck a tassled loafer in the door and said they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area. Their briefing must have included some kind of pact to just make the pitch no matter what, and I imagined them standing there giving the same speech to my closed door. It was a dream, really. They mentioned that my husband worked at the university. Then they listed some names of other guys they knew—in alphabetical order—who also worked at the university in the same department. The men’s bible study this week must have included a lesson on the power of name-dropping. Next week: making it relevant.

Eventually they left and went home to mow their lawns and stare vacantly into the horizon, repeating the words, “Until death do us part,” not necessarily because they want to kill their wives, but it is a nice reminder about the real promise of heaven. Then they stand in front of their grills and think about putting their clean-shaven faces right into the flames.

The next weekend they came back to my house. I had never seen such a relentless pursuit. I really did not know what they wanted from us except 10% of our earnings and our souls. But was that worth this amount of effort? Again, I opened the door. “Goddamnit.” My son was holding onto my leg, looking at the array of Dockers, ranging all the way from khaki to dark khaki. It was like Stonehenge. “We are not interested in attending your church,” I said finally, “But thank you.”

They left me another pamphlet. Just in case. Just in case I decided at the age of 32 to suddenly become a Baptist. Looking back all these years later, I regret not telling the first group of women the truth. The fact that I do not go to church. On purpose. The problem is not just that I am a confident atheist, but that I have a problem with organized religion generally, and especially the dominant church culture in the South, which imposes judgment based on their personal beliefs onto the entire population. There are exceptions, but often times the church stands as a barrier to equality and human rights and problematically responds in fear to the country’s growing secularism.

Also—and this is the most controversial of all—I have no interest in exposing my children to Christianity. I do not view being Christian or atheist as two equivalent options that must be chosen between, like heads or tails or my place or yours. Christianity is a life-style choice, and if my kids rebelliously choose that life, then I will accept them. The same way I will accept them if they choose to be gluten-free or assholes.

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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.

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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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