Abort Mission

Sometimes I worry about sharing too much with my writing. Maybe because recently people have warned me by saying things like, “You should be more careful about revealing who you are,” or “You should probably get a lawyer.” Sometimes I worry they are right, and then I am overly self-conscious and my writing loses the cold shock that tends to make it strong. Today instead of writing I opened files and rearranged sentences on old pieces that have failed to take shape.

Then I played with a list of metaphors on scraps of yellow legal pad paper:

Inadequacy is a Boy Scout tent in the yard of a mansion.

Censorship is an old woman who refuses to put in her hearing aid.

Desire is a hungry alligator sunning in the soggy grass, eyes fixed on my quickening pace.

Impatience is engines revving. Boom. Backfire.

Then I went on Facebook for about an hour. Then I thought about how I would be represented if I were a set of Russian nesting dolls. I decided that my outermost doll would be Dorothy Parker with a typewriter, then a Wonder Woman doll in spandex standing with hands on hip, then Phyllis Diller with a slender cigarette, then Amanda Bynes in a platinum wig, then a Nick Nolte mug shot doll, and then the innermost doll would just be a naked fetus smoking a crack pipe.

Terrifying. Back space. Back space. Back space.

Then I remembered that this week marks the twenty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I felt a writing spark ignite—I rubbed my hands together gleefully, the way a mad scientist might when he realizes the monster he created is out there destroying entire villages. I have never had an abortion. Not because I was chaste, but because my mother, who found out she was pregnant with my sister during her first semester at the University of Georgia, stressed that the most important thing in my teenage life was not getting pregnant. She even took me to a male gynecologist when I was in high school—and still a virgin—so I could get birth control. I did not have a boyfriend or any reasonable prospects, but she thought I should be prepared for when that special day arrived, or that night when I just wanted to get it over with so I had sex with a boy I sort of liked on a picnic table.

The doctor took me into his office and asked me about my sexual history. It made me uncomfortable that this old man even knew that I had a vagina. I certainly did not want him asking me questions about what I had ever done with it. I still used maxi pads. I had no clue what was going on down there. After our terribly awkward conversation the nurse walked me down the hall and left me alone in the exam room to change into a gown. I considered crawling out of the shoebox-sized window above my head. I stood up on the chair and peeked out into the parking lot. I tapped on the glass and then hoisted up one leg to see if I could reach. I couldn’t. I hopped down and put on the paper gown with the opening towards the front.

Without birth control—preventive and reactive, accessible, affordable, and shame-free—we have no control. If we are kept fearful of unwanted pregnancy then we are sexual prey, caught in the yellow-eyed gaze of the hungry gator. Birth control is the front line of women’s rights. Somehow, I did not get pregnant until I was thirty years old and ready. This is why my career has never suffered because I have kids. Wait. This is why I have never been criticized for sexual behavior. Wait. This is why I am in complete control of my body, my sexuality, my life. Wait. This why being a woman is complicated.

I want to be fearless, but I often feel that I have to be careful about what I put forth in writing because I am a woman. Because I am a mother. I am not supposed to write about my tits (or how nice they are). I am not supposed to write about sleeping with someone on the first date (or before, most likely). I am not supposed to keep mentioning maxi pads (or the liberation I experienced when I started using tampons, except for that one time after going on a water slide). Maybe I write about these things because they allow me to play outside the neatly wrapped box of what I am supposed to be. If my voice is not heard—the voice that sees the line of what is acceptable and then backs up, revs the engine and fishtails across it—then I risk being silenced.

If I were to get an abortion the expectation is that it would be the biggest regret of my life. Even when women are granted access to legal, safe abortions, the act itself is still perceived as shameful. Bad. Disturbing. That maintains order. But what if women had complete control of their bodies, freely, readily across the globe? What if my Russian nesting dolls went in reverse? What if women’s bodies were not valued by how many times they were exposed? Order would be disturbed. An earthquake would split the ocean floor and a tsunami would crash onto shore, turning buildings into splinters. Disrupting misogynistic empires. Toppling patriarchal norms.

What if I felt free enough to write whatever the fuck I want?

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F the Grammar Police

I still sometimes use the word retarded, and I use it as a synonym for fucking idiot. Every time I do a person with a disability is marginalized and a baby dolphin dies, probably brutally murdered by a person with a disability who finally snaps after years of being discriminated against by assholes like me. I also say awesome, and I overuse the word interesting to substitute for saying that something is so completely uninteresting that it isn’t even worth the energy to say the “un” part, like if someone tells me they are going to try a new brand of dog shampoo. That is interesting. I also use interesting when something is so problematic that I cannot even discuss it, like it is interesting that the morning after pill is not effective on women who weigh more than 166 pounds. That is interesting. Real fucking interesting.

I overuse the word like, and I hedge my conversations by using umm as a placeholder while I gather my thoughts. I try not to do these things, but they are engrained in the way I speak. I have been speaking this way for so long that it is difficult to alter my patterns. I am improving. I am a teacher, so I get to practice my public speaking skills five days a week. The umms are diminishing. I am almost cleansed of the likes. I hardly ever use retarded out loud anymore, but it is always the term that is in my head, and I have to translate to something more appropriate, the way a native French speaker might have to translate poisson to fish, when ordering at Long John Silvers. I am not translating from another language, though, just from another time before the Americans with Disabilities Act was filed because people, if left to their own devices, are selfish jerks.

My language abuse doesn’t cause me any major problems. I still speak close enough to the way people in power speak. I speak like a white, middle class woman (my likes might remove me slightly from the center of power, a giveaway for my gender). My voice could probably be used in GPS software, except that I would too often want to say things like, “Jesus Christ! Make a left turn now you retard.” However, my way of speaking doesn’t keep me from getting jobs. It doesn’t make people think I am lazy or stupid. Maybe they will think that I have terrible morals, and that I am going to hell, but people will still hire me, even to answer their phones.

In my twenties I had an endless string of receptionist jobs, despite the fact that I am terrible at the actual act of answering the phone. I can’t even answer the phone on Bluetooth in my car which just requires pushing a singular button—the button with the picture of a phone being picked up. I usually almost crash because I get so flustered from the surprise that someone is actually calling me. Phones with multiple lines and hold buttons are a complete mystery to me. When I answered the phones in an office, instead of using the intercom, I would usually just scream down the hall, “You have a phone call on  . . . line 1?” I have terrible hearing and a poor short term memory, so often I would find myself staring at the blank message pad after the call. I would just make something up, “Socrates Morphine called to discuss your lunch plans next week, if you don’t have his number then obviously you aren’t that close.”  I also thought it was a fun game if I could recognize the voice of the incoming caller before they identified themselves, “Hello Mrs. Eubanks! Oh this is John Harris calling? Right. How are you today, ma’am?”

People let me be their receptionist anyway. I look and sound like I am from a tidy, although maybe slightly slutty, suburb. I grew up in a family—in a community—where “standard” English was the norm. The language was like dollar bills, and I was born in a money grabber machine. The rhythm of the speech that exists in all the big shiny office buildings was just blowing around me, getting stuck in my hair, clinging to my clothes—always available. I did not have to put in extra effort in Language Arts. I did not have to switch from the way I spoke at home to be successful in school or in the workforce.

I was terrible at most of the jobs I had in my twenties. I made it clear that the job, which I was not great at performing, was beneath me, and I did not want to be there. I had no real skills, except that I was smart and when I told people how smart, there was something about the way I said it that made them believe me. Now I am a college writing instructor at a technical college. I don’t want all my students to talk and write like me. I want them to believe that their private language is powerful. I want to change the ideology that how people speak or write reflects their intelligence or their value, especially if it is varied from what has been established as “standard” or “correct” merely because it echoes the way people who already have the power speak and write.  But I want my students to get jobs.

Honestly, most days I don’t know how to accomplish either of those goals: redefining the entire system of how we place significance on certain ways of speaking and writing or helping my students be successful writers in the unfair, mostly shitty world. Both tasks seem equally difficult. Generally, I just ignore everything outside of our cinder block walls. Today on a student’s paper I wrote the comment, “Ugly ass should probably be hyphenated because it modifies the noun mutt.” I don’t even know if that is correct. I encourage them to be creative. I told another student, “You are such a good writer, why do you want to go into nursing?” I probably ruined his life and the lives of all of the patients that he could have saved.

I just make them keep writing so they know they deserve to be heard, and usually when I read their writing, unencumbered by the voice of any real authority figure, I am in awe, and I feel confident flipping giant double birds to the shitty world and the grammar police. I am really not sure who left a retard, no a fucking idiot, like me in charge, but it is interesting.

Fantasy

This week for a bedtime story my son and I read Rocks and Minerals, and I learned everything I know about rocks and minerals from that book. Why wouldn’t the rock with the black spots be called a Dalmatian? I totally buy it. With my daughter I read a book called Forever After which includes four stories about Disney princesses and answers the question that has been lingering on all our minds since the happy couples kissed at the alter and the screen filled with hearts: how did they plan their weddings?

These weddings didn’t just happen sans adversity. Happily ever after might mean compromising by weaving the queen’s pearls into your veil because they are too heavy to wear around your neck, or it might mean surprising your former dog-beast prince by inviting all the villagers to the reception to show that he is loved (now that he isn’t a drooling, maniacal killer). Maybe, if you are the only black princess, it means catering your own wedding by cooking gumbo for all your guests.

I read with skepticism (and occasional eye rolling). I know too much. Usually my voice trails off at the last line of each story, “Cinderella had the wedding of her dreams,” and I close the book, letting out a sigh and putting up my middle finger. I still read her the book, though. I know it is wrong, and I should teach her to be offended, but those tiny-footed princesses make her smile. It is sort of like when a creepy meth addict calls out from behind a garbage can lid, “Nice tits,” and I am outwardly offended, but inwardly quite flattered as I look down and whisper, “Thanks for noticing, man.”  Then the rest of the day I have unrealistically high self-esteem.

Princesses get to be pretty and wear fancy dresses, and they have pure hearts, and they get to use all the animals as their personal servants, and they don’t really have to date. They don’t have to check their phone every thirty seconds to see if he called, when they know damn well that he didn’t because he is too busy boning a peasant. The first guy a princess meets is eternally devoted and devoid of personality, unless he is a monster who imprisons her, or a lying thief, or a womanizing frog, but she can change him. She must. She is stuck with him either way. The end! (Cue the floating, kissing hearts!)

The disney movies with their climax of walking down the aisle are dangerous because they deliver the message that the party trumps the partner and the entire partnership. That idea contributes to the systemic problem of how we market to girls. The Disney dudes are all just versions of Ken with different colored plastic hair. I was not into the princesses as a girl because they were too puritanical for me, but I loved playing with Barbie. Ken was usually just lying on the floor, face down and naked. I liked to do Barbie’s hair, and by “do” I mean that I cut her hair and tried to give her bangs, which never worked, but I kept trying with each new Barbie I received or that was left momentarily unattended by one of my sisters. I also liked to set up Barbie’s house with beds made out of maxi-pads.

For little girls, playing with dolls and watching or reading about princesses is tied up with the fantasy of being an adult. For me, being a big girl was about having killer bangs and a really absorbent bed. I have not made either one of those fantasies a reality. My daughter is fascinated with weddings and brides. Her favorite princess is Ariel, who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams-slash-the first and only human she has ever met. She gets her voice back, but then she has to change species in order to get married. I feel like there are some major issues here that I need to address with my daughter. For starters, I will tell her that she should never give up her voice under any circumstances, and second there are plenty of fish in the actual sea. With most major issues I like to ask myself, “Who has the most vested interest in this venture?” If the answer is, “a voluptuous octopus lady,” then maybe she should take it as a sign and gracefully swim away, tail intact.

I still read my daughter the books. I let her adore the princesses, mainly because I know she is smart enough to enjoy them without being consumed. I am going to tell her that if she ever decides to get married, she should consider eloping. Not because it is easier, but because it will be a good barometer for how she feels about the marriage itself. Does she still think it is worth it without the big white gown and party? Maybe even more controversially, I will tell her that she doesn’t have to get married at all. (Gasp! Tiny princess hands rise to cover tiny rosebud mouths. “Mouse! Go get me a paper bag! I need to hyperventilate.”) I will tell her that she doesn’t need to be rescued. I will tell her that she should not have to change herself or the person she loves to find true love. I will also tell her to avoid cursed men who attempt to trap her in a dark, damp castle filled with talking, singing dish ware. Then I will tell her that she is a beautiful princess as I brush her hair with a fork.

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Muse

A good friend recently asked me how I get inspired to write, and I said that I don’t get inspired. I just sit down and start typing. I say things like that because I am a narcissistic asshole.  Secretly there are all sorts of things I do to help me feel creative. For starters, I listen to ridiculously loud music every time I drive my car. My kids scream at me to turn it down. Sometimes they cry about it. Maybe when they start driving they will rebel by listening to light jazz at a barely audible level, like a boring old grandma, but for now they are forced to ride with me. Lately, I have also been really into songs that have the word “motherfucker” in the lyrics. Saying motherfucker is great, but singing it is truly inspiring.

The result is that I love going places. Maybe I can hear one song between my house and the grocery store, but it is enough to recharge me. By the time I hit the produce section I am feeling pretty great about myself. What a bad-ass motherfucker I am picking out this bunch of kale! When I get home and sit down to start typing I remember that feeling, and I get the insane idea that I am putting on some kind of show with my words, even if I am the only one in the audience. I love it when I make myself laugh or, even better, when I make myself uncomfortable. If I cringe, then I know it is good.

I also like to go for long walks, while listening to loud music. When I am on a walk with my headphones, I feel completely transported into the music and into my own imagination. It is an absolute miracle that I have never been hit by a car. Maybe I should start wearing a helmet. Sometimes I will get a great idea, maybe just a line or two, and I will type notes into my phone, while walking and blaring music. When I get back to the house I am all revved up (happy to still be alive), and I scroll through my notes and try to craft something from the scraps. Sometimes the notes are abstract, and I don’t know how they connect, for instance right now I have a note that reads, “I saw the Pieta in a moldy porch screen.” Then after that I have a longer reflection:

“You know when you walk through a spider web and then freak out, start swatting your hair, spinning in circles, stomping your feet and screaming, and then you fall to the ground and the spider eats you alive? That is what divorce feels like.”

There is a story there. I can see a thread between seeing something beautiful in an unlikely place and the discomfort and fear that comes with getting divorced. But I also have to make it funny. Fuck. Then I scroll down and under the spider web note I see a third entry that says, “I was disappointed there were no good looking guys in my mandatory divorce class.” Somehow the pieces start to pull themselves together like magnets. If I say that I just sit down and start typing—as if it is that easy—then it is only because every other minute, when I am not writing, I am preparing to write. That is the dirty secret that is too scary to say.

 

Florida

Funny girl writes a sad-ass poem. I’ve got some nerve. Thanks to a dear friend who shared some of her inspired writing with me last weekend, I remembered this poem that I wrote  while living in New Jersey, more than ten years ago. I wanted to share it here both for a change of pace and as an act of fearlessness. Sharing funny stories is easy. They are veiled. This is written by a much more vulnerable character.

When I wrote this, my dad was still alive.

Florida

Home was barefoot under the canopy of cypress,
Sucking on watermelon rinds, eating oranges off the tree.
His mama tucked biscuits in his pocket,
He picked sand briars out from between his toes.
He went to the grove to help the pickers,
And slept in the shed on nights when the pipes might freeze.

How could he survive after they moved him
To palm-lined streets on the wings of his father,
Abandoning one Florida wilderness for another?
He stole lobsters out of traps in Biscayne Bay.
He walked barefoot into Woolworth’s
And climbed spindly palms to escape the obstruction of a stucco view.

He worked at a gas station and dated a rich girl,
He watched his Florida disappear,
He did landscape work for a golf course community.
He tried to teach me better.
Swim, sugar! Deep into the fresh, dark water of your home.
Let the tannins course through your veins.

Paddle up the river and keep an eye out for gators,
They only attack tourists and cowards.
You’re great granddaddy cooled his feet in this river.
Yankees won’t swim here, they are too scared, but not my girl,
You swam in Lake Walk-in-Water before you could walk.
You belong here in this real Florida.

But the concrete closed in around us, didn’t it Daddy?
No Staghorn Ferns and fish beds where I am now.
People escaping south in old age don’t know what they have destroyed.
They do not see the moss dragging a line in Charlie Creek
Or Cypress trees seated defiantly in the middle of black water currents.
I’ll remember though, just for you.
I will swing out strong on tattered ropes and dive into the darkest of water.

Number Two

I have writer’s block. I squint at the glare from the white screen, not sure how to get words to appear. I need a push. My shitty office job stories have run dry. I am only left with incidents that involve people who might actually read this and be offended or, worse, flattered. I have started to write about my dad, but I need more time to make it funny. Maybe twenty or thirty years.

Writer’s block grows with inertia. Not writing now would be like packing my intestines with sawdust. I need to let it flow. I need a blog-post enema. The only solution, obviously, is to write about my kids’ bodily functions. I know they will thank me for it one day, especially my daughter. She is the youngest, so she doesn’t have a scrapbook. Also I am much more involved in the process of her bathroom visits than I ever was with her older brother. My son is a ghost pooper. He does his business all on his own with no evidence. He is seven, and he knows how to read. There could be a correlation.

My daughter started kindergarten last week and all summer we talked about how she should wipe her own butt once school starts. She agreed. Oh yes. She would do that. But she hasn’t. She comes home from school and goes to the bathroom and then yells for me, “Mama! Wipe my buh-uh-utt!” I run down the hall and swing the bathroom door open with a smile. While I am wiping, she counts my toes. I still have five on each foot. It is clear that I have made the activity of butt-wiping entirely too much fun. That is my curse.

She is an inconvenient pooper. She always has to go number two when we are away from the house. She goes at every restaurant, Target, Wal-Mart, the bathroom at her gymnastics class, the gas station by the interstate, McDonalds. I am paranoid enough to be convinced that she holds it just to make my life harder. As the waitress asks, “Who had the smothered chicken with a side of onion tanglers?” my daughter smirks and says, “I need to go potty.”

When we are out of the house, I am impatient. Maybe there are people waiting outside the door or my enchiladas are getting cold. I can see the germs filling the air—that wad of toilet paper on the floor is probably emitting gonorrhea microbes all around the room. I am sure of it. She puts her hands on the toilet seat. I scream. “Let’s hurry up,” I say frantically. She casually continues with her story about the kitten she saw in the road seven months ago. I mention that it doesn’t seem like she is trying very hard. Her face looks relaxed and natural. She asks me to hold her hand while she finishes, the hand that was just on the toilet seat and is now pressed up against the tile wall. I do it.

There might come a day when she does not want me to hold her hand while she poops.

Wanted

In high school I participated in a work study program where I could earn high school credit for getting out of school early and going to work. Some of my fellow students were already employed, but the rest of us had to fill out surveys about our interests so the teacher could place us in jobs that best matched our personalities. For one student the best fit was working the drive-thru at McDonalds and for another it was working the night shift at a gas station. For me, with my mix of intelligence, rebelliousness, and eye-rolling, I was best suited for unemployment. I remained jobless until after the Christmas break—a program record! Eventually, I was hired as a part-time kennel tech at a local veterinarian’s office.

My first job was cleaning up dog shit. That should have been a sign for me to just surrender and go ahead and get myself a homeless lady’s shopping cart. However, I remained inappropriately optimistic. In my twenties I worked many unfulfilling, low-paying, part-time jobs. Instead of putting my effort into graduating from college, I continually drifted away from campus and applied myself to jobs that could easily be handled by a well-trained housecat.

I once answered a classified advertisement to work for a man who published an addiction recovery newsletter from his converted garage. The position was part-time, which really resonated with me, and the main task was typing testimonial emails from recovering addicts into the body of the newsletter. He set me up at a spare computer nestled between stacks of papers and a shelf of paint cans. He showed me the emails and then waddled to his desk on the other side of a work bench stacked with more piles of papers.

“I’m finished.” I said.
“What?”
“I’m finished. I copied all the emails. Now what do you need me to do?”

He did not know about cut and paste. Maybe he got really drunk in 1981 and by the time he sobered up in 1998 he had missed out on many important technological developments, but it seems like he would have learned about cut and paste, especially since his job-slash-cover story was being a publisher. I showed him how I highlighted the text and then copied it into his fucked up newsletter. He could not believe his eyes. I was like the David Blaine of word processing.

He found other tasks for me to do. I organized the piles of papers and changed the printer cartridge. I took out the recycling bins. Each morning he would walk to the convenience store on the corner and get himself breakfast, and sometimes he would bring me a carrot cake muffin. We talked about how I was new in town, and I didn’t really know anyone (and nobody knew where I was). He said that if he wasn’t divorced with two kids (and probably under house arrest) he would take me out to dinner. That seemed somewhat creepy, but the muffins were delicious (how did they make them so moist!), the job was easy, and I was usually home by lunch, so I kept showing up.

Then one day I got in my car to go home and there was a single long stem rose on my dashboard. I looked up, and he was standing in the driveway. It was one of those moments when lightning flashes and in the micro-second of illumination a creepy guy with a bloody chainsaw, or a carrot cake muffin, suddenly appears, grinning maniacally. I screamed and then quickly locked my car door and put it in reverse. I never went back. I don’t usually mention this particular job on my resume, and I probably won’t unless I am applying for a position where the main qualification is “not getting murdered,” then it seems relevant because obviously I nailed it.

I would like to say that after I left this job I went back to school, and I gave up on the allure of only working until noon and living on a wage that made me envious of third world children. I would also like to say that this was the last time I worked for a man in his converted garage, but it wasn’t.

Nonfiction in Sheep’s Clothing

I consider myself unqualified for everything. Even as a parent I usually feel like I am just pretending to be in charge. All the other kids have real mothers, and I am just a babysitter—the kind that you might not call back unless you were desperate. The kind that will definitely eat all your food, and if you stay out late enough, she might drink that bottle of wine you bought on your last romantic getaway to Napa. I don’t have a good excuse for floundering; it isn’t like I got pregnant as a teenager or after sex-change surgery. I was 30 years old when I had my first kid. I was married, owned a home, and had good insurance. Feeling inadequate just comes more natural.

When I was single, I would think, I am probably not good enough to be your girlfriend, even if you did call back. Now that I am married, I am positive that I am unqualified to be a wife. I see all these other women with their mother-in-laws on speed dial and their genuine supportiveness, and I know they are good wives. Even the GPS lady is a better wife than I am. When my husband makes a wrong turn, she doesn’t say, “I TOLD you to go 800 more feet, jack nuts.” No. She just calmly asks him to make a series of left turns until he is right back where he started. I imagine her winking at me through the dash, “See, he doesn’t even have to know he was wrong.”

As I was reading David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and I noticed a trend about his fictional work, which he includes as intercalary chapters to his nonfiction essays, I thought I should write about it. Then I reminded myself that I am unqualified for such a task, but then, THEN I said, “Listen, jack nuts, if there is anything you are qualified to do, it is to write a fake review of Sedaris’s new book.” It was a good feeling—a warm blanket of useless qualification.

His fiction seems worth writing about because it is often snubbed. New York Times reviewer David Carr stated in his review of Sedaris’s new book, “His attempts to write complete essays in another voice do nothing for me,” and then he calls two of the fictional snippets, “both affected and unaffecting.” Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is the first book to include fictional essays since Barrel Fever, published in 1994. Barrel Fever includes twelve “stories” and only four nonfiction essays, but is most known as the book that includes the elf essay. “Santaland Diaries” is funny, yes. Sedaris’s perspective of his time spent working as a Macy’s elf is hysterical even. However, the fictional essays in Barrel Fever are far more provocative. (I prefer the term fictional essays because Sedaris’s fiction resembles the format of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” more so than the traditional short story). Sedaris is much darker in fiction, and often his fiction writing is just his nonfiction cloaked in a dark veil or maybe a bloody ski mask.

One of my favorite essays by Sedaris is the fictional, “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!” in Barrel Fever. The Christmas letter is narrated by a suburban housewife named Jocelyn and sums up a year that includes the arrival of her husband’s twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese daughter, the teenage pregnancy of her own daughter, and the subsequent tragedy that follows, including the death of the new grandbaby. It parodies the family Christmas letter and contains many exclamation points!!!!!!! By the end it seems that Jocelyn is not only narrow-minded but a maniacal killer. It is ridiculous, tragic, hilarious, and much more political than Sedaris’s nonfiction. Jocelyn is fucking crazy, but she is also a caricature of a real type of person, which makes her profoundly troubling. Jocelyn wishes her readers,

The Merriest of Christmas Seasons from the entire Dunbar family: Clifford, Jocelyn, Kevin, Jacki, Kyle, and Khe Sahn!!!!!
Some of you are probably reading this and scratching your heads over the name “Khe Sahn.” “That certainly doesn’t fit with the rest of the family names,” you’re saying to yourself. “What did those crazy Dunbars get themselves a Siamese cat?”
You’re close.

Jocelyn continues, describing Khe Sahn’s skimpy wardrobe and her failure to speak English, “She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words ‘Daddy,’ ‘Shiny,’ and ‘Five dollar now.’”

(Please read this essay immediately)

In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, the fictional narrators (also a bunch of crazies) collectively reflect the opposition. Read as a complete book with chapters, not as a collection of individual essays (some fiction, some non), the fictional voices serve as a friendly reminder of what else is out there. A reminder that the world-at-large is not a Sedaris essay.

I like to read about the life of a middle-aged homosexual man, even the romantic parts and the parts that speak warmly of Europe. However, not everyone shares my views, maybe even readers that are fond of Sedaris’s big ticket essays like “Santaland Diaries” or “Six to Eight Black Men.” The new book has a compelling vulnerability to it. In “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car” Sedaris tinkers with romance—in his own way—by recalling a romantic encounter on a train in Italy, emotionally describing his one who got away, “Bashir got off with his three big suitcases and became a perennial lump in my throat.” The train ride with Bashir is starkly paralleled with another encounter on a train that was messy, awkward, and involved a hefty mix of vodka and pot.

In contrast, the fictional “I Break for Traditional Marriage” is narrated by a man who shoots his wife and daughter because “if homosexuality is no longer a sin, then who is to say that murder is?” And it is miraculously funny. A tender story about love on a train is the type of writing that can be taught, but a hilarious mock essay about murder and bigotry—that is just natural born talent. At one point, the narrator listens to a right-wing call-in show where the host and a caller debate whether one could now marry a pizza, “‘There’s no reason I can think of why you couldn’t marry a pizza,’ he said. ‘Hell, you could probably even marry a mini-pizza, one of those ones made from an English muffin, if you felt like it.’”

The fictional essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls fill in the blanks that the nonfiction, which depicts an idyllic world of success, life partners, and world travel, leaves untold. The intermingling of nonfiction and nonfiction-in-disguise gives the new book more depth than his old stuff. But who am I to say? He is David Sedaris. He can write whatever the fuck he wants. (And I can continue to like it.)

David Carr’s review is from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, online edition, published on May 17, 2003.

Sedaris’s Barrel Fever was originally published in 1994 by Little, Brown. The excerpts here are from the 2009 ebook edition.

The excerpts from Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls are from the 2013 first edition published by Little, Brown.

Ennui

This morning I was listening to “Highway Junkie” by the Yayhoos from the 1996 album Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to American Truck Drivers. It got me revved up for the morning and reminded me of my dream of becoming a trucker after retirement. Before I was married, I loved being out on the road. The highway promised freedom and greener pastures in every approaching median. I thought truck driving was a great way to combine my two passions: abandoning my responsibilities and smoking. Now I am tied-down and tobacco-free, so the job has lost some of its appeal. Also, I don’t really like to drive at night, and I can barely get through the grocery parking lot in my mini-van without hopping a few curbs. Another dream down the toilet.

Before the truck driving industry allured me with the idea of being my own boss and taking showers at gas stations, I wanted to work in a skyscraper. I didn’t have a particular job in mind, just being in the building seemed like enough of an adventure. Then at age twenty-four my dream came true when I took a job as a file clerk at a law firm in downtown Austin. Our office was on an upper floor of a building on Congress Avenue; looking north there was a view of the state capitol and looking south a view of the river. However, I could not see any of these views from my office in the file room behind the elevator shaft. Being a file clerk and having my desk in the file room was super convenient—sort of like if I had a job as a janitor and they gave me a desk right in the bathroom.

I had my own cart, just like the guy from the mailroom in all the movies from the 1980s starring Michael J. Fox. I circled the floor twice a day to collect papers and files from the secretaries. Then I would take the papers and files back to the file room and stare at them until I got so bored that working seemed like a relief. The job required certain qualifications that could only be learned after completing first grade, like a working knowledge of the alphabet and the ability to read the date. Also, there was a tremendous amount of hole-punching, both of the two-hole and the three-hole variety.

The files were stored on floor-to-ceiling sliding shelves to maximize space. Sometimes I would be between rows doing some filing or napping and a coworker would come in and push the shelves back, squishing me between the rows. I would scream out, “Stop! You are crushing me!” Usually it was a middle-aged secretary, and she would say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were back there,” and then when I crawled out we would both laugh awkwardly. Then I would start deliberately misfiling her paperwork.

Eventually, I left the second most dangerous job in the world and moved to another downtown building that looked directly over the river. I worked my way out of the file room and into a deluxe secretary’s desk, complete with a high-top counter so visitors could stand and look down on me. Again, I did not actually have any windows, so I could not see the view from my desk, but I would stare out at the view when I was called into my boss’s office. I would even sketch the skyline on my steno pad while he was rambling on so I could gaze at the view later while sitting at my desk counting the minutes until happy hour, ahem, while I was typing some law office crap, ahem, playing solitaire. After four long months I was fired from my position, and I got a job at a three-story building out in the suburbs. My days of living the dream were over.

I often felt like a caged animal at the office. I remember going into the hallway to cry while working as a secretary for a small firm in New Jersey. I just wanted to run. The job was not difficult, and I only worked part-time, but I was bored, and not just for the twenty hours I sat stagnantly behind a desk, but drowning in boredom. I answered phones. I typed from dictation. I edited. I filed. I stapled things. I considered sticking toothpicks in my eyeballs. At the end of each work day, I ran to my car with my hands waving in the air and peeled out of the parking lot on two tires.

It turns out that what I do for work actually matters. I don’t have to choose between being a truck driver and a secretary. At this point, I have established some other options, like maybe I could work for Fedex. I do look great in shorts.

Princess Fiona by Day

I am currently reading-slash-devouring Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In one chapter, Lamott describes her use of the topic of school lunches as a go-to writing launch. Lamott includes her own first draft on the subject and cleverly suggests, “The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were okay.” Lamott continues, aptly narrowing her focus to the importance of the sandwich: “Your sandwich was the centerpiece.”

I thought about my own school lunch, and the sandwich that often appeared as its centerpiece. My mother used to pack a salami and mustard sandwich on . . . wait for it . . . cinnamon-raisin bread. If this sandwich was any indication of the well-being of my family, then obviously we were in deep shit. Other kids knew it, and they would comment that my sandwich was “grody,” and I only made matters worse for myself by eating every last bite— even the crust. I remember that my mom also used to put Coke (secretly generic cola, wink, wink) in my thermos. It would explode and spray brown liquid all over me and my delicious sandwich.

Writing about my sandwich-of-shame reminded me of another memory from the elementary school cafeteria. There was a girl from another class who ate at the same time as us, and other kids in my class—multiple kids—would mention how this girl looked just like me. I found this shocking, and I failed to see the resemblance. Now, I don’t usually like to criticize children about their appearance, but given that this girl is now an adult and I have already mentioned that she supposedly looked just like me, I feel like I have some leeway. If they wanted to cast an ogre on Little House on the Prairie, then this girl would have been a perfect fit. She had long, frizzy, colonial-style hair; she wore handmade, floor-length flowered dresses, had no chin to speak of and was doubly burdened with big bones and pudginess.

I remember defending myself and explaining that we looked nothing alike, but the other kids would just look at her, then look at me and clearly reiterate, “Yep, you are like twins.” I would study her to find some redeeming quality while simultaneously smoothing down my hair with salami grease and shrinking in my chair to appear daintier. Today, I have the image of this overgrown milkmaid of a girl etched into my mind. When I picture myself in elementary school, it is usually her that I see.

I wonder if Angelina Jolie questions herself when people compare her to the Octomom? Does she look at the Octomom and worry if it is a true representation of how the world sees her? With that pairing it is like the Octomom is the pre-drinks version and Angelina is the two-in-the-morning beer goggles version. I am sure Angelina knows exactly which version she is, but Octomom might not be so sure. Maybe Octomom thinks she has a shot at being the hotter doppelganger. As for me, I remember sitting in the elementary school cafeteria with my salami and mustard on cinnamon-raisin bread, brown stains all down the front of my shirt, fully confident that I was the beautiful beer goggles version.

****Discussion of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird taken from the First Anchor Books edition, 1995.