Episodes

Boating with my Dad in 1975.

Boating with my dad in 1975.

My dad was on Judge Judy. And he lost. It isn’t necessarily something that I am proud of, but it does usually earn me a win in the pissing contest for who has the most fucked up family. My only loss is to a friend whose brother was on Montel Williams, and not as the guest they bring out first, but one of those guests that they bring out about halfway through the show as the audience boos and hisses and you think, “Why did he agree to be on this show?”

My dad was always working on some type of scheme. And nothing else. He spent most of his later years unemployed and broke. His Judge Judy appearance had something to do with a handshake deal he made with his roommate to buy his house, which shockingly turned into a shit storm when one of them slept with the other’s girlfriend, and then my dad accused him of trying to steal the house.  I have never seen the episode because I don’t want to remember him like that, probably wearing a tank top in a court room. He will look out of place, like he is standing in front of the wrong backdrop.

My dad didn’t jump through hoops. He wasn’t going to put on a tie or even a shirt with sleeves and sit behind a desk, spending his days making phone calls and stapling things.  He was completely incapable of conforming, and I don’t blame him for that. I can even relate. I struggle to sit at my computer, my hand gripping the mouse afraid to let go because I know that I am like him, and that I am just one “Take this job and shove it” away from standing at a podium in front of the world’s most famous judge, probably smoking a cigarette while trying to seek reparation from my ex-boyfriend for smashing my windshield with a bottle of Jack Daniels. It is a slippery slope.

When I worked at a department store in college, we were required to wear panty hose, but I never wore them, mainly because it gave me a small sense of control. My manager would ask me what happened to my hose, and I would just stare down at my bare legs and shrug as if they had mysteriously disintegrated into the misogynistic past. The less control I have in my life, the more I am impelled to rebel against the codes. My dad must have felt out of control for the duration.

When he died he was living in a weekly let motel with no car and no money. In his room we found six dollars and some change that my sister and I split as our inheritance. Neither of us spent our portion and we often talk about pooling our money to buy lottery tickets. He also left behind legal proceedings from a meth possession charge and a small gathering of friends and family wondering if they could have done something to save him. I want to say that I always thought the time would come when we would reconnect, but the biggest emotion I felt after he died was relief. When I see a homeless man on the street corner, I don’t have to worry if it is him. Not anymore.

The summer after my freshmen year in high school I stayed at his house on a small lake outside of Lake Wales, Florida. It was the last summer I ever stayed with him for longer than a short weekend. My dad worked the night shift at a factory that summer and slept all day and worked all night, so I spent a lot of time listening to the Violent Femmes on my tape deck and writing in my journals. I also spent a lot of time stealing Southern Comfort from his new wife’s party handler and mixing it with ginger ale, as a way to alleviate boredom. I stole whole packs of cigarettes—Winston Lights—from the carton they stashed in the kitchen drawer. I swam in the lake by myself, floating in the cool water, staring up at the clouds. Baptized from my sins.

My dad would let me drive to the gas station on the corner, even though I was only fifteen. I would hang around the kitchen to ask if he needed anything, hoping for the chance to get to take the car. He would let me go buy diet cokes or more cans of the ginger ale that were always mysteriously disappearing. I cranked the music, lit a cigarette, rolled the windows down, and stepped on the gas. My long wavy hair swirled around the front seat like a tornado.

I was five years old when my parents divorced. I remember lying awake at nights listening to yelling from the living room, and then one night he left and in the aftermath the house was quiet, like it was letting out a long sigh. He moved to Miami to live with my grandparents in a high rise condo in Coconut Grove that overlooked Biscayne Bay and was heavily mirrored. It was like living in a ballet studio in the clouds. There was a pool and an intercom system at the door that called directly to the condo. There were elevators. My dad started a new life and joined a small church that met at a ranch style house on Key Biscayne.  He remarried. After the wedding, I cried and screamed for him as they ran out the front steps towards the getaway car.

His new wife was in her early twenties with a son about my age, and together they created a life that was a shadow box of suburbia. There were family vacations and coordinated bedroom sets. There were also problems. Most of what I found comfort in—the traditional, suburban family—was just a bunch of cardboard cutouts glued hastily into an old shoe box. My dad had a manic temper and a dangerous habit of spending money before he even knew where he would earn it. He always had plans. As a kid, I saw him as eternally optimistic and spontaneous. Looking back, I think he suffered from mental illness. He was paranoid, defensive, and delusional. I remember being on a long car trip, hunkered down in the bed of his truck because he thought people were shooting at us. Another time he was convinced his best friend was hiding out in the darkness of the backyard like a sniper. I believed him. I didn’t believe in God, and I do not remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I always thought I was just born a skeptic, but maybe there was just so much of the unbelievable I could allow myself to believe. He took all I had.

Right after he was remarried, they left Miami and moved into a camper while working on building a new house on a piece of property out in the country. It was going to have an indoor swimming pool with a bridge—he had pictures and plans drawn on yellow legal pads. One afternoon he and his wife were having a fight, so I played outside running my toe through the dirt to write messages in the sand. My dad swung the door of the camper open and walked towards me angrily. He said that I made her mad, and I needed to go in the camper and apologize. “If you don’t tell her you’re sorry she will leave, and it will be your fault,” he said.

I just stared at him. He said it again, but with more seriousness and anger and then got in his truck and peeled out of the campground, dust clouding up around me. I stood outside the camper staring at the flimsy door. I finally climbed up the metal steps and saw her sitting on the banquette folding laundry. I just stood there, and she didn’t say anything. I felt choked by the tension in the room. I couldn’t speak. I was paralyzed. I might have been less terrified if I was trapped in a tiny camper with a bear. I was not sure exactly what made her mad; I was stubborn and sure that I was smarter than her. It could have been anything. Finally, I darted back out the door and ran across the campground to a picnic area by the front office. She left.

Looking back, I don’t think she wanted me to say anything. It must have been hard to be married to my dad. I don’t know what kind of abuse she was taking. She was young and trapped. She did what she had to do, and I was just collateral damage. My dad never hurt me physically.  I just dealt with a lot of silence and guilt, and I think she knew it would be that way, so maybe the most generous assessment is that it was a calculated risk. But I was only six.

And she came back. There were many other incidents where I was used—as leverage, as a weapon, as an example—and she became a more active agent, but it is hard for me now to think of her as a bad person. When I was younger, I felt like the bad person, that I was antagonizing her, pushing her because I was mean and heartless, mainly because that is what I was told. I believed. Then when I got older, I realized that I was a child and she was an adult, no matter how young. We were not equal adversaries. Now as a woman, I see her as someone who was stuck in a debilitating marriage. She once tried to shoot my dad but could not figure out how to work the safety on his gun. She finally left for good when I was thirteen. There was no meeting with lawyers and splitting up assets, she just disappeared. After my dad died, I thought it would be safe to contact her—that she might be willing. She never responded. I picture her sitting silently waiting for me to apologize as I stand in a little cloud of dirt at the door. I also picture myself opening my mouth and sucking in enough air to crumple the tiny camper like an aluminum can.

My relationship with my dad existed in episodes. We came together on weekends and summer weeks to merge our divergent lives. We went on a trip to Disney World when I was in middle school, just the two of us. We stood in line for Thunder Mountain, waiting at the turnstiles for the other riders to exit the train and watched a father and daughter laughing as they crawled out of their seats, then stopping to give each other a high five before they disappeared down the dark hallway. We looked away awkwardly, knowing that we did not have that kind of shiny, unfettered relationship. Our Disney trip was more like a business deal—I was being compensated.

After I graduated from high school, I saw him much less. He was out of work and his third marriage was crumbling. I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to his wife talk about the sad selection of cold cuts at her local Kash n’ Karry. She lit a cigarette and stared out the window, “You can only get smoked turkey if you are really lucky.” She was already gone.

My sister and I would go see him occasionally and play poker with his friends. He had a good friend who worked on the road crew for the county, another who repaired broken televisions, and others who worked odd jobs or not at all. They kept cigarettes in their front pockets and drank mixed drinks in 32-ounce plastic travel mugs from the Circle K. He would lean back in his chair and howl with laughter when my sister or I laid out winning hands and then swept the wadded up bills and change from the center of the table into our own pile. He was dependably proud of us. That is one truth I never had to struggle to believe.

Once I grew up, and I was no longer his little girl, he never understood me. I worked tirelessly to keep it that way. I worried that if he could relate to my life then I was in danger of turning out just like him. He just couldn’t get on the path. He remained stubbornly in the wilderness. As I moved slowly towards civilization, the farther I drifted from him. When I got married to the most stable and unspontaneous man I could find, I had not spoken to my dad in years.

My sister called me one afternoon while I was at work to tell me that he was going to be on Judge Judy. I didn’t ask why—what the case was about—because his entire life was a Judge Judy style dispute. It made sense, but the idea made me cringe. It was not a stretch to think of him as an out-of-work, tank top wearing defendant. We were used to that, but on national television that would be all that he was. All that he ever was. She called back to tell me about him flying out to California with his buddy who lived in a doublewide trailer a few lots down from his small house with the vinyl siding. I pictured them in the airport, then walking the streets of Los Angeles. Again, I cringed.

I was at work when my sister called to tell me that he was going to die. I had an office with a wall of windows, and I stood and stared at a vacant field across from the heat-baked parking lot in the back of our building. She was at the hospital. She said he took a cab to the emergency room because he was having chest pains. She said the doctor told her he was not going to make it. We hung up. She called back less than an hour later. He was gone.

Standing in my office, the phone held between my ear and my shoulder, I felt like I was dressed up for a role, like I was a paper doll and my heels and slacks and blouse were held on by paper tabs and underneath was just a dirt-smudged Florida girl. I felt completely out of place, like I was standing in front of the wrong backdrop. If I was an image on a screen, I would look like someone who belonged on a paved road. As if that is all I was. All that I ever was.

After he died I did not have to just be a negation. I allowed myself to go barefoot. I remembered that jeans are much more comfortable as shorts. I quit my job, had a couple kids, and moved to South Georgia. I was sliding. I also allowed myself to scheme. When he was alive my ideas scared me because what if they were no different than his delusions? Wanting to be a writer seemed just as outrageous as my dad wanting to build a mansion.  I was perpetually unhappy at work—to me the office was just a prison without the excitement of communal showers—but I would convince myself that those thoughts were part of some genetic defect. Successful people sat at desks. I was so afraid of failing by being like him that I never allowed myself to revel in his rebellion. He was at least half of where I come from, and once he was gone it was as if a weight was lifted off my chest, and I was able to breathe deep into my lungs and then exhale, letting my stories swirl up around me in clouds of dust.

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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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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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Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl

I remember being in line at the school cafeteria in elementary school and reading the menu taped to the glass. Our main course for the day was “Real Pork Chops.” As I plopped my tray on the counter and reached for a white milk I made a comment to the girl in line behind me, “REAL pork chops? What kind of pork chops have we been eating?” She smiled slightly. I tried again with the boy in front of me, “REAL pork chops!” He ignored me. I have now learned that when life presents funny shit, like the sudden appearance of the word “real” in front of a meat product we have been eating all school year, I should just pocket that morsel so I can write about it later. Thirty years later.

I wasn’t a writer then. I was quiet. I started writing when I got to high school. I had an amazing eleventh-grade English teacher who stopped me in the hall one day outside of class to tell me that I was a good writer. She put something I wrote in a student publication, and I felt haughty. I am sure whatever I wrote was not funny. I was dark and stormy in my writing back then. I kept a diary in high school, and when I read it years later my eyes darted across the page with increasing panic, and then I threw it in the trash. The girl in that diary was terrifyingly pathetic and morose. I probably should have been suicidal, but I wasn’t nearly that interesting. Mainly I just wrote about how I wanted a boyfriend, or at least just for a boy—any boy—to notice that I was alive. A smoke signal sending puffs of “You probably exist or whatever” would have sufficed. I spent four pages writing about how I wanted to get with some boy at a party, but he liked someone else. That is not a four-page story. That is a sentence. That is a clause that introduces a better sentence, “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, so I said ‘fuck it’ and drank six Solos of hunch punch and then passed out in a ditch.” No, wait. “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, probably because I never talked to him or expressed any interest whatsoever, so I am going to just laugh with my friends and not be a sorry loser.” Better.

The odd thing is that I remember being a mostly happy teenager. I smiled a lot. I loved my friends. I felt accepted. I did not date much, and at the time that circumstance apparently consumed me. The gist of my tragic diary was me trying to figure out who I was. I did not think I was unattractive. I wasn’t completely sure, but looking around it seemed there were certainly people uglier than me finding “love” (and by “love” I mean making out in the parking lot). Maybe my big hair and my quadro-boobs (in order to keep up with the growing rate of my breasts in high school I would have had to buy a new bra approximately every thirty seconds, so my bras were always too small) were confusing to teenage boys, or maybe I made too many wisecracks about meat products; there was no way to know for sure what was wrong with me. With my diary I was just trying to explore how I fit into the world around me.

I started to read humor writing when I was in high school. They used to run Dave Barry’s Miami Herald column in the Sunday edition of our Tallahassee paper. My mom would cut it out for me and leave it on the counter. I probably increased his teenage girl readership to one. When I was twenty-two I read Bridget Jones Diary, and I started to emulate her writing, usually while I was bored at work. I remember writing a few paragraphs about being home sick. I wrote that I was in bed shivering, so I kept layering on more clothes and by the morning I looked like a homeless snowman, and then I wrote “My mom came by to check on me and put the back of her palm on my forehead. It was official. I had a fever.” For some reason those sentences stayed with me. I saw that I had done something clever. My meaning was bigger than my actual words. I started to understand that writing was magic.

I went to college and studied creative writing. At first, I wrote entirely in comma splices, “I ran down the hill, the hot sand burned my feet, the sand spurs licked at my heels.” I had a few teachers that just let me write error-full prose, and I think they did me a service, but sort of like when you let your toddler explore the yard, you give him freedom, but you follow closely behind and grab him before he stumbles out into oncoming traffic. Eventually a teacher returned a decent story to me caked in red marks. I rewrote it and replaced all the comma splices with periods. I presented the edited version to a writing workshop in my senior year, and the class hated it because it was choppy and had no flow. One student demonstrated by reading the entire paper out loud in a robot voice. I credit my experience in those writing workshops with my ability to take criticism. I will stand naked before you, and we can talk about my flaws.

I started to read more, too. Nonfiction. Funny shit. When I lived in Austin I used to hang out at the Book People bookstore, next to the Whole Foods on North Lamar. I leaned up against shelves and slid to the floor, immersed in reading. They had a small, but eclectic humor section. I bought every copy of a book titled The Wild Goose Chronicles by filmmaker Trent Harris, which includes a clever mix of photos and text about his travels around the world. I used to give the book as a gift to guys I was dating-slash-just sleeping with. I am not sure what I meant by the gesture. Here is a book that is probably on your level—it has lots of pictures and is about a futile pursuit.  It was more of a parting gift, mainly because shortly after I gave them the book they would break up with me.

I stopped writing when I got married and started having kids. I was busy, sure, but I also no longer felt the need to relentlessly carve out my identity. Then I went back to grad school, but I still wasn’t writing anything fun. The writing I was doing for my classes was sometimes returned with comments like “great ideas, but your writing lacks clarity.” The fact that my writing was garbled, at times even weak, didn’t matter nearly as much as my ability to engage in thoughtful analysis. Writing was just a conduit, which to me seemed like using a framed two dollar bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. I even started to believe that maybe I wasn’t a writer; maybe I was just someone who was smart and had thought-provoking ideas about literature and the writing process. Then I got a grip. I put the gun back in the drawer and remembered who I really am. My dad was on Judge Judy. I serve beer at my kids’ birthday parties. I cannot be trusted.

Then I did a summer writing workshop with a group of teachers. We did some creative writing, and I cranked out more pages than I had written in years. I learned the most valuable writing lesson: I can write on demand. That was the missing piece. I used to think that I had to be punched by inspiration, only able to write if I was hunched over the keyboard with a fat lip. I thought I had to have something to actually write about. I don’t. I can make any moment write-worthy. I just have to put experiences into a kaleidoscope and then keep rearranging the pixels until the right pieces come into focus in a new frame. I have been wrestling with writing this piece all week, but it was not coming together—everything I came up with felt forced and fuzzy. Then I thought about the pork chop story while lying in bed at four a.m. I made a note in my phone and then got up this morning and the rest fell into place like a flight board that suddenly changes from delayed to now boarding. I just needed REAL pork chops.

The end.

Maybe this is right the place for a fucking poem? I wrote this on my phone in a gas station parking lot.

I am a dress code violator.
A head held high while the world is hunched in prayer.
A kick to your neat pile of leaves.
A laugh that echoes off solemn mountains.
You think this is funny?

The rules don’t apply to me.
Ask for permission later
or never.
Say Bullshit loud in quiet rooms.
Jump. Say “I will.”

Suffocate fear with words. Write.
Then write more. Be a rebel.
Make the world my metaphoric bitch.
Take what I need.
Tell no lies.

 close up

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.

Winning

This morning as I was driving away after dropping my kids at summer camp, I saw my son outside playing a game with a few other boys and a counselor. The boys were lined up against the wall, as if they were in a firing squad, and the counselor was standing out in the grass taking turns throwing a ball at them. When one was hit in the abdomen or in the face, the boy would wince in pain while laughing uncontrollably, and the other boys in line would howl while pointing at him. I thought about how this game would work with girls. If you tried to play this with my four-year-old daughter, she would say, “Oh hell no!” Then she would throw the ball like a missile at the counselor’s nuts and calmly walk back inside and finish her drawing of a princess standing under a rainbow.

Some girls might cry or be genuinely hurt that the ball had been thrown at them, even though that is the sole purpose of the game. I would probably be one of those girls. “I thought you liked me?” The only way I would have enjoyed such a game is if I was excellent at playing it. No matter how hard the ball was thrown, I could dodge left, dodge right, or throw my hand up at just the right moment for the perfect block. That would never have happened, though. I would have been hit in the face, probably in slow motion so that you could see snot fly out of my nose, making me pee my pants while simultaneously starting my period.

When I was a kid, I usually thought I was going to be great at sports, but I was not. I “played” right field in little league—the quotes are used because what I actually did was stand in right field, and when the ball was hit towards me, the coach would scream for the center fielder to “cover” me. Now those quotes were used because he wasn’t so much covering me as he was trying to get the ball while I stared at a cloud that looked just like a doughnut. I was also on the volleyball team for a year in middle school, but I quit because it hurt my wrists and because I never once made a serve that actually went over the net.

I had a field day experience in sixth grade that could easily be dubbed with exclamations like “BOINK!” while stars circled my swirling cartoon eyes. I did a face plant in the tires, was hit in the crotch with a hurdle, and then dragged behind my partner in the three-legged race. After it was over, I was humiliated. I wanted to get off the field fast, so I tried to jump the chain link fence and split my shorts all the way down the back.

The only place where I had any real talent was in the pool. Swimming was by far my favorite activity. I would swim in anything: the Gulf of Mexico, a pool, a drainage ditch. If it had water, I was in, usually head first. I liked to just play in the water by doing flips, touching the bottom, or diving for change, but my favorite thing was racing other kids, especially if I was sure I could beat them. I would scope out worthy opponents, and they were usually smaller and slower than me. I might ask a kid floundering in the baby pool or proposition someone as they were being rescued by lifeguards. I always won, and it felt great!

I am definitely competitive, but not the traditional type that might propel someone to strive for greatness, more the kind that just likes to show off. My son is the kind of competitive where he is absolutely positive that he is the best at everything. We played Battleship recently, and as I was setting up the game he said, “Oh, I am not going to need any white pegs.” I never thought about it, but you only need the white ones if you are planning to fuck up. The problem for him is the wake-up call that happens when he loses. Maybe I am a naval mastermind, or maybe I lined all my ships up at the bottom. Who knows, but he lost, and it was tragic. My daughter is different. I am not going to say that she wouldn’t race a handicap kid in the pool because she just might, but she seems to at least understand her limits. I can’t see her arguing that she should bring up the rear of the relay team at field day even though she has the coordination of an emu.

She isn’t competitive in the usual sense, not like my son who has the attitude that if you are not first, then you are a worthless piece of crap. I often have to convince him that it is okay to lose. At soccer, I will remind him that everyone is going to get a trophy—even his sorry team. My daughter has never played soccer, but she played t-ball one year against her will. She never wasted her time going for the ball. She was just out there, sometimes facing the batter, waiting for the game to be finished so she could line up for a snack. We are alike in this way. Life is just a series of accomplishments that lead to snacks. We are just like Scooby Doo.

For me, if you aren’t first, then there will be little opportunity for congratulations or cash and prizes. I can get just as intense about catching a free t-shirt shot from a cannon as I can about winning an award for my accomplishments. My daughter likes stuff. She has a better chance than any of us of being on the show Hoarders—she will definitely care about the prize. My son will spend an entire afternoon on the playground racing against other boys just for the reward of knowing he was faster. Unlike me, who might try to race the kid on crutches, he will try to race the biggest, fastest boy because the glory of that win is indescribable. My daughter will probably be in the bushes picking up bottle caps and cigarette butts. She is not going to waste her energy just for the satisfaction of winning. Fuck that shit.

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.

Banana Seat Bike

I forget things. When I was a kid, I would ride my bike to school, and then forget to ride it home. Often, I wouldn’t realize I had left my bike until the next morning when I went outside to get on it, and it wasn’t there. One time I forgot two days in a row, and someone from the school brought the bike into the courtyard so it wouldn’t get stolen. Now, I loved my bike, but apparently it was not, let’s say “cool.” Your bike was supposed to be a Huffy and it was supposed to be pink. Mine was a yellow banana seat bike decorated with sunshines and rainbows.

When we walked to lunch, my classmates couldn’t help but notice the bright yellow banana seat in the courtyard, and they started laughing and pointing, “Ooooh look! Someone left their bike in here!” Then I said  . . .  “oh yea, look, someone left their bike in here.” I was mortified. I thought about it all day. My bike was on display for the whole school to see. Did they think I parked it there? What kind of a weirdo would do that? Probably, the same kind of weirdo that rides a sunshine and rainbow banana seat bike.

I decided that I would wait for everyone to leave school, and then I would get my bike and ride home, and drive it straight to the nearest dumpster. I sat on the curb on the side of school. I could see my bike, but I tried not to make eye contact. Finally, almost everyone was gone. All the walkers and bike riders had gone home, and the line of parents’ cars had meandered back onto Osprey Avenue. There was just one little girl left. “Where is your ride?” I asked. She didn’t know.

“Late, I guess.” She said. We sat in silence. “Are you waiting for your mom?” She asked.

“Umm, yes. She is always late, she probably won’t be here for a long time.” I said.

“I wonder whose bike that is?” She asked.

I was getting really tired. I needed a snack. I looked at the girl; I didn’t know her. Maybe I would never see her again. I said, “Actually, that is my bike!” and I ran over to it, jumped on, and rode right past her, almost clipping her backpack. She probably thought I was a psycho. I didn’t care, though. I was free! I rode home as fast as I could, parked my bike safely in the back of the house and went inside to eat my feelings.

For Christmas that same year I got a portable radio that strapped onto my bike’s handlebars. It also had an alarm. You pushed a button on the top and it blared a loud horn, similar to what you would hear if a tsunami was approaching. I rode to school trying to listen to a radio station, but there was a lot of static, so mainly I spent most of my cruising time adjusting the dial (did I mention there were no helmets back then?) The teacher who worked the bike pen told me I better put the radio in my bag or it might get stolen. This thing was huge—like the size of a small television, heavy and red. I took it off my handlebars and put it in my backpack. During class I reached into my bag to get out my folder, and I made the alarm go off. My teacher thought it was a fire alarm, so she started to line people up to go out the door. I wanted to just get in line and get the hell out of there, but I had to admit that it was my new bike radio. I pulled it out of my bag, but it took me an incredibly long time to figure out how to turn it off. Some of the kids in the class started crying. She took my new bike radio, switched it off and put it on her desk for the rest of the day. I found that to be embarrassing.

One last thing. There was a man who worked the crosswalk that I took each day on my way to school on my banana seat bike with the giant red radio/community-wide alarm system. He had a bumper sticker that read, “Retired. No job. No Bills. No Money.” I felt really bad for him; he seemed like a great guy. One day I tried to give him a dollar.