Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

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bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

Pietà

It is that time of the school year when I pull into the parking lot and have to wipe my tears with a crumpled receipt from my purse because I ran out of tissues months ago. But we are not done. The finish line looms, and if I squint I can see my summer like a mirage in the distance. Maybe my post-semester oasis is a murky watering hole that I must share with a camel, or perhaps it is a spot next to a sparkling turquoise pool where I will tip my sunglasses down and stare up at a waiter in pressed white shorts to order a strawberry daiquiri. Whatever comes next, I know that right now I need to breathe deep and close my eyes and remember why I am still here. And get out of the car. And stop wearing mascara.

I wrote the following piece as a spoken word poem as part of a college-level English course and performed it alongside a group of students, who read their own inspired poems, in our school cafeteria.

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I never thought I would be a teacher, especially in a high school. But here I am. I walk in the building—the beat of my heels coming down the hall are like a drum roll. Then I step into class and start the show—a show that is attended by people who do not want to be here. They don’t throw tomatoes at me or march out in a calculated exodus, although that would at least show some effort, some slight turn away from apathy, but instead they look at their phones or whisper with each other while I stand before them and try to do my job.

But when I was in high school I did not want to be there either. I had better things to do, like smoking cigarettes in the parking lot or sitting in a booth across from my best friend at McDonalds eating French fries right out the bag and just talking, our words dancing back and forth across the table in a frenzy of laughter and Oh. My. Gods.

I skipped class, feeling the adrenaline as I made it past the gates at the end of the parking area, and then the rush of freedom as the high school—looming large at the top of the hill—faded in my rearview mirror. I remember being called to the office, the quiet of the halls amplifying the sound of my sneakers squeaking on the waxed floor. I turned the corner after entering the main office and saw my mother sitting in a chair across from the vice principal’s desk. Oh shit.

But then every once in awhile I forgot I hated to be in a classroom, I forgot about the cinder block walls. And the bells that told us when to move, like cattle from classroom to classroom. I had a humanities class and we looked at slides of artwork and architecture from a time when I pictured everyone wearing togas and eating giant turkey legs. Sometimes it drained the life from me, like when we had to learn about different types of columns. And the room was dark and perfect for sleeping. We didn’t have phones, so we had to find another way to show our disinterest, and to declare ourselves: Just not that into you. As someone who generally refuses to declare lines between generations, to call our antiquated ways superior, and as someone who has no interest in moving backwards and cannot seem to understand what hopes exists in Again, I take some pride in the fact that we were experts at apathy. We chose to be unconscious, faces on a hard desk, drool on the graphite marks from ancestral students leaving black shadows on our cheeks. No snap chat can compete with that level of indifference.

But then she talked about Michelangelo. He believed that his sculptures were already there. They were trapped in the marble and his job as the artist was to set them free. Then she showed the Pietà on the projector in the front of the classroom. Mary holding the limp body of Jesus, folds of fabric made from hard rock cascading down from her lap. The hair stood up on my arms. Jesus’s anklebone, the tendons in his legs, and that fabric all from a block of marble. He just got rid of the negative space.

And now I stand in front of a class of students five days a week and try to get them to lift their heads up and be amazed—to find their Pietà. I know that my job is to get rid of the negative space. Break down the walls they have been building since kindergarten, maybe even preschool, walls built with “I don’t want to be heres” and “When am I going to use thises?” All those years convincing them that school is not cool, hardening them and trapping them inside.

My chisel comes in the form of treating them like adults and letting them write about what they know, even if it is another story about dirt bikes or about the first time in the cab of his truck, and I write “TMI! TMI! TMI!” in the margins, but I know that while they were writing about that moment, they forgot they were doing an assignment. They forgot this was a have to. They forgot about commas and coordinating conjunctions and grade point averages.

And my chisel comes in the form of moving the desks around and making them get out of their seats. And giving them candy. And making them work with someone that they would not even say hello to in the hall, but in ten years when they see that same person in the grocery store standing in front of a wall of bagged lettuces, they will hug. My chisel comes in the form of making them believe that they can do this because writing is a skill and what one man can do, they can do even better.

My chisel comes in the form of letting down my own façade and letting them see my flaws. Letting them know that being 18 is actually much harder than being 40. That I know they are at a point when decisions about their future form a cloud above them that casts a shadow a mile wide. And that it gets better. That any mistake they can even imagine making, I have probably made it, and I am still here because I just keep showing up. My chisel comes in the form of teaching them that it is better to be rejected than to have regrets.

My chisel comes in the form of knowing that they are in there behind that stone wall, behind the faces turned down and looking at their game of Clash of Clans, and that sometimes if it is the right day and the right activity they will appear to me in the marble, faces lit by light bulbs above their heads, and they are present and beautiful like works of art.

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The Austin Chronicles

When I was twenty-three I packed all of my things into an Isuzu Rodeo and moved to Austin. My boyfriend at the time helped me pack. I did not know anyone out there, and I had never even been to Austin, but I needed a change. I found an apartment online and put down a deposit. At the last minute my mother decided to ride with me, which made me feel slightly less independent, like a petulant child who wants to run away to prove a point, but her mother insists on helping her load the car and then riding in the passenger seat.

We got to town at night, and as we drove in on Highway 290 and crested a hill, the city appeared like a lite-bright display sprawled across a black canvas. I spent the first few days getting settled. My apartment was in a central location near a mall and a home for the blind. I bought a bed at a Sam’s Club and blew up an inflatable chair for my living room. I put my mom on a Greyhound back to Florida and then meandered through Dillard’s department store on the way home from the station and was promptly hired to work in the bathing suit department. Maybe it was because I was from Florida. The job mainly sucked. Bathing suits are not meant to be on hangers.

I made some good friends working there, including one girl who would later become my roommate. I also worked with a bright girl from Egypt, who I made laugh, and a serious woman from Ethiopia, who I made nervous. Looking back, I should have taken the job more seriously when I was on a shift with that woman. She had people to support. I just used the paycheck to cover my bar tabs.

I was helpful to the customers to a point. One day a lady asked me if we had a size 8 in a particular suit and without moving from my spot at the cash register, I said that we did not have an 8. I have an excellent memory, which can sometimes get me in trouble. It is not a quality men are often looking for, as if what they want most is someone who makes them laugh, gives great blow jobs, and remembers every word they have ever told her. I worked in that swimsuit department at least five days a week, racking the same bathing suits. I knew every size and style we had.

“You didn’t even look,” she said.

“We don’t have an 8,” I repeated without looking up.

“You need to go look,” she repeated authoritatively.

I just stood there. “I am not going to do that,” I said. Inside I was shaking a little, but not from nervousness, from the thrill of what I thought was a win.

Eventually, I got a job as a file clerk in a law firm and then a position as a legal secretary for a little man who specialized in tax law. He had a group of clients who got in some trouble for embezzling money, and they were most likely going to jail. I delivered some documents to their office, where their equipment had been seized, and tables and chairs were in disarray. Loose cords were coming out from walls and surge protector strips and connected to nothing. Untapped power.

I hated the job. He was a person of exactness, numbers and legalities, and I was a person of rebellion, short skirts and two-hour lunches. I also had an attitude, and I did not pretend to like him or that I wanted to be there. My actions confused him; as a middle-aged, successful tax attorney he did not know how to handle my belligerence. Then one day he told me that I needed to take the back-up disks home with me each night because that would protect all of his files in case of a force majeure. I told him—laughing—that if the building burned down or was wiped away by a giant twister, then I would not be coming back. He fired me and put us both out of our misery.

Before moving to Austin, I was working for a law firm in Tallahassee and failing out of college. I was also in a Frankenstein-esque relationship that was consistently reborn as a more sinister version of itself each time we broke up and then somehow found ourselves having sex again on his couch. It seemed like my life in that space was unsalvageable and had become a dangerous and self-destructive piecemeal version of what it should be, and the best solution was to just give up and move to Texas.

I don’t regret the experience, but it was mostly, more than any other emotion, lonely. This city had so much to offer, and I tried not to let being alone keep me from doing things, like seeing shows or dining out, but sometimes it did—sometimes the town held untapped power because I lacked the crowd to experience it. I saw Lyle Lovett play with his large band at The Backyard, and I purchased my single seat in the middle of a long row. I bought a beer in a giant plastic cup and then made my way scooting sideways to my seat as people curled up their legs in succession like dominoes. Maybe nobody noticed, but I remember being somewhat self-conscious because what twenty-four-year-old woman goes to a show like that alone unless she is a reporter or a suicide bomber?

But the show was spectacular. The large band under the stars. I went back and saw Robert Earl Keen, but at least it was general admission, which made it easier to blend. I went to see Patty Griffin at a bar downtown, where she sang on stage with just an acoustic guitar, and I stood on the side stairs, as if I had just wandered through the crowd and landed there mesmerized. I went to a show after work one night at Antone’s with the alcoholic secretary from my office and went home with a guy who was going through a divorce. I see that now as foreshadowing.

His name was Rocky—maybe I do agree with Lee Gutkind that I cannot make this stuff up. He was the perfect metaphor for recently divorced/not really divorced guys everywhere. He adored me for about 48 hours. He took me out to a fancy dinner, and then we came back to my apartment, had sex, and I never heard from him again.

After my forced retirement from legal secretary work, I landed a good job, especially for a girl with no college degree and minimal work ethic, working for an insurance company in the human resources department. Then the company was bought by Allstate and dissolved. I was laid off, and I took it as a sign. A force majeure. I packed up all my stuff, and just like with any trip, the items never fit back into the suitcase the way they did on the way out there. I went home with more baggage.

When I got back to Tallahassee, I somehow talked my way into the creative writing program at Florida State. Yes, I had failed out of multiple schools and my GPA was well below average for acceptance as a transfer student, but I sit here before you and tell you my story, and I am not leaving until I am heard.

During the spring semester, I wrote a short story for a fiction workshop about a girl in her early twenties, living in Austin, working as a file clerk in a law firm. She was lonely and desperate, and the main qualities she looked for in a friend were a heartbeat and a shared enthusiasm for happy hour. She befriends a strange set of characters, including the alcoholic secretary from her office and a blind guy who was constantly starting bar fights while his Pit Bull guide dog sat on a barstool drinking directly out of a pint glass.

My fiction class hated it. During our workshop they commented that it seemed “Sad,” and I don’t think they meant in the sympathetic way, but more in the way that sad becomes a synonym for loser. They also had difficulty finding any significance to the story. One student, after a long explanation about why the story didn’t work, concluded, “I mean, who cares?”

I sat quietly, pretending to make notes on my draft. I knew the real reason the story didn’t work was because I was trying to pass off my nonfiction work in a fiction class. As if it never really happened. There is more that separates nonfiction from fiction than just facts. Taking ownership of events becomes the thread that holds the story together, and without that connection it is just a pile of words that you can sift through, letting the letters fall through your fingers into a pile of ash. The significance to the story was the twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate student sitting across the classroom nervously clicking her pen.

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Catch Me as I’m Coming Through the Rye

 

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I see a therapist. I find this embarrassing, not because it implies I have mental health issues, but because it is a symbol of privilege, as if I am a 40-year-old Holden Caulfield. Basically, I pay someone to listen to me whine. We talk about my dating life and my divorce, all the things that my friends and family are sick and tired of hearing about. Like Holden, if the world won’t listen, then I will just find some phony who will. Not my whole goddamn autobiography or anything.

Usually she will start by saying something like, “How is it going with the guy you are dating?”

And I will say, “Which guy?” Then we will narrow it down to which half-ass, non-relationship she means, and I shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh that guy.”

We also talk about how I am 40 but still have plenty of time left and then our session ends, and we schedule the next appointment. It is sort of like having drinks with a girlfriend, but minus the drinks, and I have to pay her. I am not even sure that I want to continue these sessions, but I don’t know how to break it off. That has never been my strong suit. It’s not you; it’s me. We should just be friends. We can still hang out, but just not like before. Let’s just get married.

If I had a therapist when I was a teenager and in my twenties, my life could have developed differently. But that is a risk. If I graduated from college in the requisite four years instead of taking ten, then maybe I would be farther along in my career, rising all the way to middle management and then sculpting my hair into a helmet so that I could crash through the glass ceiling. Then after work I would unbutton the blazer of my Hillary Clinton pantsuit and take my seventy cents on the dollar to Applebee’s for buy one, get one Amaretto sours.

Instead I kept my career at the expendable secretarial level by choice, so I could remain non-exempt and still qualify for overtime, and so that I could come to work hungover. I could also disappear for hours at lunchtime because nobody really noticed or cared that I existed. Work was less of a commitment than college. And it paid slightly better. And there was free coffee.

I finally graduated from undergrad when I was 29. Then I went back to graduate school at 34 after having two kids. Now, I teach college English to dual-enrolled high school seniors. I wish I had been half as smart as my dumbest student when I was a senior. I spent most of my senior year rolling my eyes. I was angry and resentful at all those people who were trying to teach me and better my life. I wanted to just be left alone so that I could hang out at home and paint sunflowers in my underwear. I did not want “the man” or my sweet third period teacher who seemed to genuinely care about me to be all up in my business. I wanted to smoke cigarettes and make eye contact with cute guys at the library, who usually closed their books and moved to a different section to avoid my creepy stares. They moved to a spot in reference. Where there would be reliable witnesses.

Also during my senior year my mom and stepdad left me at home alone so they could take a three-week tour of nude beaches in Europe. I quickly realized that with them gone, there was no reason for me to go to school. I stayed home and worked on my painting and made occasional trips to the health food store to buy hummus. When I returned to school, my physics teacher pulled me aside and asked if I was on drugs. I just hung my head sadly and said, “No.”

I still graduated, but that was the start. The realization that I didn’t have to do anything I did not want to do. It was a spark that erupted into a wildfire, and it consumed me. I skipped class, sparsely at first, missing a Friday occasionally, until I just quit showing up at all. I lost an entire semester. An entire year. Changed schools. Convinced myself that I would actually try. Then I stopped going on Fridays and the cycle would start all over again. It was as if my college degree was floating across a windy parking lot, and I would chase it, but I could never grasp it or even catch it under my shoe, so it would continue to blow away, landing on a Buick and then drifting into a drainage ditch while I got distracted by shapes in the clouds and then said, “Fuck it” and went to a bar.

But I did not give up. My life as an office worker kept me just unhappy enough to keep chasing the dream. I enjoyed the benefits of living paycheck to paycheck—at least they bridged the gap—and getting affordable birth control with my nifty HMO, but then I would attend a meeting and be silenced, instantly reminded of my place in the pool of uneducated clerical workers. I hate it when I am at a meeting and I am invisible. It makes me depressed as hell.

I graduated from college mainly to prove a point. And so I could be heard. I have spent a lot of time looking back and trying to make all my experiences connect—paycheck to paycheck—but there are too many gaps, places where I had to leap or stay home and eat ramen noodles. And then there are even spans of years that are unrecognizable, indecipherable, like when I was married. I often try to bridge the space between my days as a rebellious young adult to my position now as a rebellious older adult with actual responsibilities, like taking care of my children and remembering to take out the garbage (both tasks I inadvertently neglect until the recycle bin is completely full). My time as a married person, also known as my thirties, is just a patch of darkness, like a section of the street that is not touched by the street lights.

When I go back to my time as a twenty-something-year-old idiot I am usually trying to figure out where I lost ground and writing from the muddy perspective of a future disappointed version of myself. It is dishonest. I am not sure I would have changed anything. I flunked out of multiple schools, and not because I was dealing with serious issues, like addiction or unwanted pregnancy, but because I wanted to just lie in the bottom bunk of my dorm room, smoke cigarettes, and listen to Lyle Lovett. I was disillusioned, lonely, and lazy. I really was.

I was also lucky enough to be allowed to make mistakes. I could walk the tightrope knowing there was a net—falling and bouncing was just as much fun as making it to the other side. The truth is that I failed out of multiple schools, and now I am fine. And maybe that is too shameful to write about. But that is also why I keep attempting it. Connecting the negative space. That kills me.

My therapy sessions are much less intrusive. We stay in the now and even consider the future, something I usually neglect, which is why I never spring for the warranty, or opt for water at last call, or clean the coffee pot the night before. The me of today is not doing any favors for the me of tomorrow. Because like I tried to explain to my daughter when she kept asking if it was tomorrow yet, in an attempt to clarify the real definition of the word, “Sweetheart, it will never be tomorrow.”

And tomorrow certainly doesn’t fill pages. Luckily, I can pay someone to help me remember that it probably exists. And to remind me that continually sabotaging the future for the me of tomorrow is like living an entire life hungover while doing the walk of shame. And to tell me that I have many years left. Good years? It’s possible. I mean how do you really know what you are going to do until you do it? I swear it’s a stupid question. It really is.

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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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Sunday Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell them I am not here,” he said.

“Goddamnit,” I said appropriately.

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

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

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

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

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

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Publish or Perish

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

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

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

“You deserve that,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“It’s really me, Dave!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love at First Sight

I was recently introduced to the never-ending entertainment that is reading the personals on Craigslist. I thought Craigslist was just where you went if you wanted to sell your motorcycle and then murder the potential buyers, I did not know about the personals. First, I love how the site recognizes that people of all sexual orientations and gender identifications can be total perverts. I also love how urgent and ordinary the ads seem, “Hosting blow and go until 3 p.m. No recip required.” There is a certain level of confidence with an ad like that, which I admire. It is similar to the “limit one per customer” marketing strategy. The deal is so good he has to set limits. The one closeted congressman that shows up can’t handle a blow and go at 3:15. That would be anarchy. Also at 3 p.m. the host has to leave to start his shift at Pizza Hut.

Craigslist personals do not even try to masquerade as commitment-bound. They are not Match.com where at least there is some curtain of mutual interest. Like you he is also into the outdoors. Like you he is also a non-smoker. Like you he is also into aerobics. Craigslist does not pretend to find subscribers deep emotional or spiritual compatibility like eHarmony. Like you he also denies the existence of dinosaurs. Like you he also thinks erections are shameful. Like you he also secretly masturbates to Joel Osteen Ministries videos. No, Craigslist is more about a 49-year-old man seeking a woman age 18-29 (negotiable!) with a small to medium sized chest for a long term relationship.  Like you he also thinks Cancun is romantic. Like you he also ends every text with a random series of adorable emojis. Unlike you he is not allowed within 500 feet of any place children congregate.

The most entertaining Craigslist personals are the missed connections. These are posted by the type of people who will romantically sprint through security checkpoints in a frantic race to stop their true love at the boarding gate where they will then, unfortunately, be arrested for terrorism. “I talked to the older man you were with today at Harbor Freight. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of you. I hope to hear from you, I was the guy with the full beard!” Like you he was buying a tarp, some duct tape, and a saw. I wonder how many missed connection posts ever actually connect. What are the odds that the girl is deranged enough to regularly check the missed connections on Craigslist? What are the odds that the older man was not her boyfriend? (Ladies, when was the last time you were in Harbor Freight with someone who you were not sleeping with?) Maybe the older man was her kidnapper and her smile was a plea for help. She is not going to respond to your missed connection because she is a sex slave now. You were her only chance.

The more realistic missed connections are by people who say they hope the person they are describing will message them or “any others for that matter.” If a man can find a connection with “the woman he saw at the liquor store looking sick in her Bud Light pajama pants”, then he can probably connect with anyone. Like you he is also into ironic loungewear. The missed connections walk that fine line between love at first sight and heat seeking missiles. They are like the unmanned drones of dating, maybe there is a potential target in mind, but more likely the goal is to get anything in the path of destruction to go down.

This essay was published in the June 2014 issue of The Funny Times.

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