Anger Management: Armed with Only Words

At the end of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom and Huck find Jim, who has been captured and held as a runaway slave, and they both propose plans to set him free. Huck suggests they simply steal the key and take Jim under the cover of darkness to the stowed raft, “Would that plan work?” asks Huck.

“Why cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame simple; there ain’t nothing to it,” responds Tom.

Then Huck suggests they get Jim out through the man-sized opening in the wall of the shed, and Tom suggests that instead they dig him out, “It’ll take about a week!” Then as Huck and Tom are in the room with Jim, going in and out freely, Huck notices that Jim is only chained to the bed post, which can easily be lifted up so that he can be freed. Tom suggests that instead they should saw the leg of Jim’s bed off, “You got to invent all the difficulties.”

“I wish there was a moat to this cabin. If we get time, the night of the escape, we’ll dig one,” says Tom. They steal sheets off the line so that Jim can fashion a rope ladder to escape from his single story wooden structure. Tom also suggests that Jim grow a flower and water it with his own tears.

When I teach this novel, I try to get my students to see this ridiculous scene in comparison to the opposition to end slavery. Setting people free is not all that complicated. It can be done with an announcement or the lifting of the bed post. And if you are a slave, do the details of the holdup really matter? Whether it is national division, the economy, oppression, racism, or two boys who want to have an adventure, whatever the cause, you are stuck in chains while someone else’s agenda takes precedence over your life.

And of course, Jim was already free. He was set free in Miss Watson’s will, and Tom knew it the entire time. The irony of this brings on a whole new discussion about the legacy of slavery and the nuances of freedom.

Right now, our government is Tom Sawyering the shit out of gun control. Instead of taking immediate action and working towards legislation that saves lives—doing the obvious things, like banning assault rifles, advocating for stronger background checks, longer waiting periods, increased age limits, required training, renewal processes, all things that law-abiding citizens should have no issue with and would be no real threat to their freedom, we are tying together bed sheets and digging a hole with spoons.

I have to talk about guns. Again. I already did this in Zombie Apocalypse when I tried to break down the semantics of the second amendment, but the second amendment is just a pawn being held captive, most likely at gunpoint, by a powerful lobbying group working to protect its profits and a population that lives in fear. America has a gun problem. But before we rehash this argument, the one where I metaphorically yell at the brick wall that is the NRA, I want to talk about something else.

When I was a teenager and even into my twenties, I would drink and drive. Regularly. Sometimes, I would even drink while I drove chanting, “You will have to pry my champagne flute and this steering wheel out of my cold, dead hand!” But then law enforcement started to take drunk driving more seriously, mostly because of the successful grassroots effort by MADD, so I stopped. I wanted to protect my right, because the only thing that will help drunk people get safely home is a less drunk person who can drive them. However, I did not want to get arrested. Also, a new culture emerged (eventually) post-MADD that exposed drinking and driving as shameful because it was a selfish act that put innocent people’s lives in danger.

MADD was birthed out of tragedy. Candy Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1980, and she and close friend, Sue LeBrun-Green sought answers. They started at the DMV. Three years later, 129 anti-drunk driving laws had been passed. Their efforts focused on using testimonials. They put faces to the statistics and engaged emotional appeals—they made it personal. Before the 1980s, DUI bills were failing in congress, but in 1984 Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Bill, a measure specifically designed to discourage drunk driving, especially among young adults. According to MADD’s website, then Senator Elizabeth Dole recalls talking to the president, whose top advisors were telling him that this measure goes against his states’ rights stance, and he said, “Well, wait a minute, doesn’t this help save kids’ lives?”

Yes.

“Well then, I support it,” he said.

More than 32,000 Americans die by guns each year. Seven kids or teens are killed by guns EVERY DAY in the U.S. That is more than 2,500 kids per year (See EveryTownResearch)

Should I go on? I will because I would like to talk about regulations for residential swimming pools. Let’s look at the laws in say, Florida. According to Florida Statutes, if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you are required by law to have a barrier that is a least four feet high, has no gaps or openings, and is at least 20 inches away from the pool. Your barrier must also have a self-latching locking gate or door that is only accessible from the inside. This is mainly to protect any random kids that could be wandering through the neighborhood, like maybe as they walk to the gas station to buy Skittles. I think the concept is that by locking the gate and thus denying access to the pool, then human lives might be saved. Basically, it is something that one household has to do on their own property to protect citizens they might not even know.

Of course, also according to Florida Statutes, if you have a loaded gun, you only have to lock it up if you “reasonably should know that a minor is likely to gain access to the firearm.” You have to keep your pool locked at all times because you never know, but guns only when you have a play date. And based on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, probably the best thing to do if a person does get into your pool enclosure because you have a faulty lock or left a ladder leaned up against the fence is to go ahead and shoot them for trespassing.

When something is dangerous to others, we enact laws to make that activity illegal, even if we know it is going to be impossible to completely eradicate. We make it illegal anyway. And the hope is that then people won’t commit that crime as often, like murder for example. Because jail sucks. And murder is, for most citizens, completely illegal. But we continue to sell products, over the counter, that make murder incredibly easy. Anyone can accomplish murder with a gun, even toddlers.

The inability of our country to do anything to make it even slightly more difficult to buy even the most dangerous guns is not about freedom or individualism or even the second amendment. There is an article on the website ArmedWithReason that debunks the myth that an armed citizenry prevents tyranny. Through historical analysis the article argues, “Militias are typically the gateway to tyranny, not the safeguard against it.” And the real problem for us as Americans is that as a country, we cannot agree about anything. What issue will cause us to rise up together and form a militia? When the government continues to restrict access to women’s reproductive health? When the government continues to allow Christian ideology to inform our legislation? When the government continues to actively discriminate against minority groups? I am guessing we will not agree, so if it comes down to protecting ourselves from a suddenly tyrannical government, it will be from small, disconnected, radical groups. And that sounds oddly familiar.

The real issue is that the lack of policy change about gun laws is the case of a singular group having the financial power to make their agenda more important than human lives.  If the box cutter industry had more money and better lobbyists, we would probably still be able to take those on airplanes. People would fight for their constitutional right to break down cardboard in-flight. The NRA sells fear, and fear is a wildfire. Gun sales spike after mass shootings, after terrorist attacks, after threats about gun legislation. It is a capitalist wet dream. Maybe even a capitalist centipede. Feed the fear and the people will keep taking shit. AR-15s are flying off the shelves right now after the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. Gun manufacturers are toasting their 12-ounce cans of America to the fucking profits.

And our government has their limp dicks in their hands. But they aren’t protecting the majority of constituents. Majority of Americans believe we need stricter gun laws, and we are most united in our opinion about the importance of stronger background checks. And less than half of American households have guns, broken up regionally, 27% to 38% of American households own guns, although southern whites own proportionately more guns (47% of Southern white households own guns), but black households are only half as likely to own guns, so that decreases the South’s overall percentage of gun ownership. Majority of gun owners are white, male, and tend to vote republican (see PewResearchCenter). This is interesting for multiple reasons, for starters because when the NRA became the force that it is today back in the 1970s, under the leadership of Harlon Carter, a man who at age seventeen shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Mexican kid who was armed with only a knife, and then later served as head of the U.S. Border Patrol, they did so by transforming a group that was more dedicated to hunting and sportsmanship into a fear mongering powerhouse that promotes personal protection.

Against gangs, rioters, home invaders, car jackers, terrorists, government invasion, zombies, spouses, black teenagers, and I guess even school children, movie goers, and nightclub patrons.

In Charlton Heston’s famous “Cold Dead Hands” speech, he states that wielding a firearm is the way to “defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away.” When I watch this speech, where he uses the term freedom in almost every sentence, I question what force is threatening his freedom? To what bed post is he chained? The only thing I can think of is that the haves must protect what they already have. If the individuals who already have the most power are also the individuals who own the most guns, then who should really be the most afraid?

For the most part, the citizens that support the NRA are being used as weapons—they are fired up to speak out and spread the propaganda. They get to keep their guns, yes, and they get a false sense of security—because if they have to take the gun out of your cold dead hand, then did it really do the job it was supposed to do? But people cling to this symbol of their personal freedom and protection. They put it on a bumper sticker. Just try and take my guns, they say, as the black and white drawing of a gun barrel points at me and my kids in our car waiting at the red light behind them. When a mass shooting happens, these same citizens post comments on social media about how there are lots of ways to kill people. Cain killed Abel with a rock, they say. You can kill someone with a baseball bat, they say. Great, then why do you care if someone takes your guns? Unless you own stock in a gun company (don’t get any ideas), you are losing just like the rest of us.

So why can’t we do for gun control what two dedicated women were able to do to combat drunk driving? The number of drunk driving deaths has declined by half since 1980. The citizen movement from Sandy Hook has used testimonials and pictures of first graders, so why are the photographs of these children not enough to get people to give up on a hobby and a false sense of security? What is it about guns?

Would banning assault rifles and passing stronger gun legislation save lives?

Yes.

Well shucks, Congress, then why don’t you support it?

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So the fucking Ghostbusters thing . . .

I heard about the new movie earlier this year when a male friend texted me, “They are making a new Ghostbusters with all women. I am not going to see it.”

My first thought was that I do not give a shit. Are we going to list all the movies that we aren’t going to see? Because I have more important things to do, like staring blankly at my computer screen and crying. This is also from a guy that has texted me, “Did you know the Atlanta airport is the busiest in the world?”

I just responded with an exasperated, “Yes.” And then a winky face, so I would not appear patronizing. I have recently cut this person from my life out of a conscious effort to burn down all the bridges that never should have been built.

I did not take his dislike of the casting selections seriously. He is not the barometer. But then more recently, I have noticed there is serious and actual backlash about the movie Ghostbusters being remade with an all female cast. People are speaking out. They are outraged! They are taking to Twitter to declare that this new movie has—somehow retroactively—ruined their childhoods. And then they try to mask their misogyny under the guise of being film connoisseurs by stating they are boycotting, not because of the female cast, but because it looks like it is just going to be a terrible movie (and also because there are all those damn women in it).

Then as women start to play self-defense, twitter lights up with backlash against the backlash because all these feminists have their panties in a proverbial wad. Feminists—and last I checked feminism simply means advocating for political, social, and economic equality for women—inevitably find ourselves forced into a circle jerk when it comes to defending our right to be treated equally. Someone says women should not be able to play the Ghostbusters, and then women speak out and then men act as if they have just caught us with our hands deep in the cookie jar, and they pin a big fat F to our chests. Women are just left watching men get off on their own misguided assumptions.

Obviously, anyone who criticizes the new movie because it is a crime against the original has never seen Ghostbusters II. This is the film where Sigourney Weaver’s baby carriage is possessed and speeding through the streets of Manhattan.

They cast a baby.

A review from June 1989 in the New York Daily News declares that the baby might be the only thing to save the film, and it might do better at the box office if they renamed it “Four Ghostbusters and a Baby.” Also, let’s be clear, the original Ghostbusters was not a cinematic masterpiece. It was funny because of the concept—the fact that they are Ghostbusters is the joke. It was a blockbuster, one of those summer hits that parents and kids can both enjoy, a movie that is absolutely geared towards sequels and remakes because it is not sacred. Ghostbusters is not art. It is a franchise.

I knew I had to write about Ghostbusters because the argument originates from the idea that women aren’t funny. I would have loved to let that go. I have a busy life. I need to work on my book. I need to determine if I should, or should not, go back on Tinder. I also need to catch up on The Americans, but goddammit, I have to interject. And honestly, this is the portion of this essay that I have struggled with because there is no basis to the argument, no jutting rocks that I can grasp to pull myself up to confront a platform. Women are funny. Simple fact.

I once had an intensely stoned guy tell me that we were living in the belly of a whale. The correct response to this would have been, “Yeah man. Totally,” but instead I questioned it. I looked around at my surroundings, the pine trees and the manicured back yard of a house in the suburbs, and I argued with this person. I even tried to get him to hedge his statement to just a metaphor, “You mean we have been devoured by some enormous institution?” I asked.

“No, we are in the belly of an actual whale!”

When men state that women can’t be funny, I internally run through all the women I have laughed with personally, and then a reel of funny women from Lucille Ball to Gilda Radner to Amy Schumer plays in my mind, and I know that the statement comes from a place of insecurity and oblivion, and I should just say, “Yeah man. Totally.”

But then I keep scrolling through my Twitter feed. One thread is all people arguing that this new, all female version is going to reduce Ghostbusters to an Adam Sandler flick. One tweeter suggested with a chirpy scowl that Melissa McCarthy is just the new Adam Sandler, and if they mean a big name in comedy that can draw customers to the box office, then they are right. Although, McCarthy can deliver a line and execute physical comedy, so she is conceivably two steps ahead of Sandler. He is more easily compared to someone that is a cardboard replica of himself and uses a type of humor that is simplistic enough to appeal to the masses . . . here is a news flash, boys, Adam Sandler is just the new Dan Aykroyd.

What gives the original Ghostbusters any intelligent, legitimate humor is the casting of Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery makes even the most mundane lines comedic, “I like her because she sleeps above the covers, four feet above the covers.” But he is Bill Murray. There is a scene in Rushmore where Murray is in the elevator and lights another cigarette while he is already smoking a cigarette, and then as he exits he says, “I’m a little bit lonely these days.” It is so witty because it says so much more, like that sometimes there just aren’t enough cigarettes. That is comedic genius—the ability to make your audience laugh, not at you, but with you, and he brought that to Ghostbusters, and you may want to swallow your lunch, but women can also deliver legit comedy.

Kristen Wiig can do the thinking woman’s comedy thing. What Murray offers is a variation on the straight man. His reactions to the other characters are a big part of the humor, but he is also able to play these neurotic characters that are funny all on their own. Maybe (let’s just try this on, it will be okay, everything will be okay) Kristen Wiig is the new Bill Murray. Bridesmaids is damn funny, and it is Wiig’s comedic essence that fuels the film. The scene where she meets the Melissa McCarthy character at the bridal shower, and McCarthy tells her she fell off a cruise ship, and Wiig just says, “Oh Shit,” is enough to make me excited about the new Ghostbusters casting.

There is another argument echoing through the twitterverse that suggests Sony Pictures is engaging in some kind of affirmative action campaign by casting these women, as if they are doing women some kind of favor. The idea that Sony would make any decision based on a desire to advocate for equality among the sexes makes me giddy with pleasure, but it is by far the most moronic argument in this horse shit race.  Sony only cares about making money. These women are all big names who bring in dollar bills. And Sony doesn’t even have to pay them as much! Also they want to market to the audience that is going to buy the most tickets, and you know who is going to the movies and buying lots of tickets, dragging along entire neighborhoods of people who will all spill their Cokes on her sandaled feet? MOMS!

The fact that men give a shit about the roles in Ghostbusters being played by women has made me question—life for starters—but also what sacred male traditions are they protecting here? The entire premise of the movie is that the Ghostbusters are buffoons, but they are still able to be heroes, so maybe it is hard to swallow the idea that women could also be heroes on accident, just by existing and having bad ideas. Let’s also remember that the subplot of the movie is about a team of men dominating the Sigourney Weaver character, who starts out as a somewhat harsh and serious woman, then is possessed, turned into a female dog, they save her, and by the end of the movie she is much softer and in love with Bill Murray. This led me to the terrifying conclusion that perhaps Ghostbusters represents “Again”—the ambiguous, utopian time period when America was great. Let’s make America great AGAIN! Like back to 1984 (stop it) when men could be idiots, bring mass destruction onto a city because of their own carelessness, literally suck the life out of a woman, then save the day and get a hefty round of applause. Again!

And here is the thing that matters. If a group of women playing the fucking Ghostbusters causes a stir, even a slight ripple that gently laps at the edges of our cups of comfort, then women still have considerable ground to cover. In Virginia Woolf’s 1931 speech turned essay, “Professions for Women”, she states, “Even when the path is nominally open—when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant—there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.”

I will let that linger. For just a moment.

These women were hired as actors to play ghostbusters in a summer blockbuster movie. They got the job. The path is open. And I am going to assume that by the end of the film, the ladies annihilate a shit ton of ghosts. The ghosts will be visible and thus able to be taken down with their powerful jet pack streams. But they are still battling phantoms, and as Woolf adds, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” Anytime a woman takes on a task and is questioned about her ability to perform effectively because of her gender, the phantoms are circling. This conversation reveals them like dust in a beam of sunlight. Perhaps, if we work together—cross our streams—we can dismantle a few of these obstacles.

I don’t go to the movies often because I have better things to do, like working on my next hangover, but I will set aside time and fifty dollars to take my kids to see this movie. I want them to know that women can be used as pawns in the capitalist game just as well as men. And I want to teach them that men don’t have a monopoly on humor. Women are funny. They can play the lead. And they can destroy the fucking phantoms.

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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

 

Some Bunny to Love

I recently bought some remote control panties from a line of products called Bedroom Kandi, designed by former Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member Kandi Burruss. The products are beautifully packaged, high quality, and on many levels take away the unfortunate stigma around buying personal products for the bedroom. When I purchased the panties from a sales representative at a private party, I was drunk, which much more accurately simulates the sexual experience for me. The next morning I stumbled across the receipt in my purse and had instant regrets. Who needs a man? I can do this entire process on my own.

The panties are one size fits all and, especially when stuffed with the rechargeable massager, are a little droopy in the butt and crotch area. It makes it look like I am wearing a soggy black lace diaper. That vibrates. I have considered some scenarios, like maybe wear them to a hotel bar and pass the remote to a stranger. Hey handsome, give me a buzz. It is like giving him my room key, but instead just giving him instant, electronic access to my crotch.

I also ordered a giant dildo called Bunny You’ll Love it, and a product called Helping Hand that says on the box it can be for couples or single play. It is a device that goes on a penis, something I seem to have an awful lot of trouble getting my hands on. What I might do is reciprocate to Bunny Love, just to give something back—I do not want to be a selfish lover.

When I took my new, hot pink dildo out of the box, I screamed, “It’s so big!” and then felt shy and nervous. The only other dildo I have ever owned, I drunk ordered from Amazon and then forgot about the purchase until the package arrived. “What could this be?” Oh yes, it is a reminder that I am alone. I might as well have ordered some furniture for my cat. My Amazon dildo is very tiny, although it does say on the box that it can also be used as an anal butt plug (wink! wink!), so maybe this is the one time when vibrator is actually the euphemism. Don’t worry it will just say FOR VAGINAS ONLY on the box. Completely discreet.

The sex toy extravaganza is what I am going to call phase four in the online dating process. Phase one begins with a night spent home alone drinking and realizing that I am actually not “too good” for online dating. The signing up process is much quicker than expected, it is sort of like getting the courage to ride a terrifying roller coaster and then thinking there will be time while standing in line to pull myself together, enjoy the moments I have left, and tell my family that I love them, but then I just keep winding back and forth through the maze of dividers at a steady pace until suddenly I am sitting in the front row and the harness is being lowered onto my shoulders. Wait? What is happening?

Phase two is when I thought that it might actually work. I have had a few reasonable conversations, met some people for coffee, not been murdered—all the prerequisites for life long companionship. Then phase three is when I realize that all I am really getting from these people is text messages. It is a level of hell where messages are just sent back and forth with no impetus to make actual plans or to see each other in person. In my most generous assessment, I have assumed these types of men are married, but I think they are just lazy. They would rather have their ego stroked than anything else, and messaging with me delivers, and they don’t even have to leave their house or turn off their television.

Thus, sex toys. I feel this is a relationship I can actually make last. At least until they run out of batteries. Or I lose the remote. Then like everything else they will be added to the list of things that need attention: organize desk area, call the exterminator, schedule parent-teacher conference, buy batteries for giant dildo, find the remote for vibrating panties. Phase five is the inevitable buzz kill. I have not given up online dating, though. The phases are somewhat recursive. And I am a slow learner. I just recently swiped yes to a guy holding a kitten, mainly because it seems like he knows his audience. Are you alone? Yes! Do you like cats? Yes! Swipe right and we can enter into a relationship that consists of sexting and adorable cat photos. Yes! Back to phase one.

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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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Cockblocker

I recently joined Tinder. At the age of 40 and after a disappointing conversation with my ex-boyfriend because that is how I start all my dating endeavors—as a late bloomer and as a form of revenge. What I like best about Tinder is that people can only message me if I have liked them, and it is based completely on looks. You just look at pictures of people and decide if you like them or not. It is similar to ordering off the menu at Denny’s.

I like to drink a few glasses of wine and then start swiping through photos. The more drinks I have, the more people I seem to like, just rapid fire swiping right. It says you are 42, but you look like Hugh Hefner’s grandfather? Swipe right! Your profile picture is just a tub of ice cream? Swipe right! Grown-ass man wearing a Boy Scout uniform? Swipe right! Wearing a McCain/Palin shirt while sitting on a horse? No. Swipe left. I have to draw the line somewhere, and that line starts anywhere in the vicinity of Sarah Palin.

I have not actually been on a date through Tinder yet, but I talk to people occasionally. Before I joined, I heard that Tinder was really just about hooking up, but maybe I am not doing it right. I have my age limit set between 35 and 50, and perhaps that demographic is too tired and broken. Also, they are all divorced, so they are afraid that women will just take all their stuff. Dating guys who are fresh out of divorce is sort of like dating someone who is clinging to a Styrofoam cooler after he has just watched his boat sink into the abyss. If we worked together, we could probably build a raft and make it to safety, but he is going to have to let go first.

In my new post-divorce dating life, the conversation goes rapidly from “What’s your name?” to “How long have you been divorced?” That question is the new “What do you do?” which was previously the new “What’s your major?” I guess my next question will be “What hurts?” and then hopefully, “How long have you been a widow?”

I am always surprised by how quickly people will ask me about divorce, and even after they do I am still cautious with returning the question, allowing for the possibility that maybe he is not divorced. He could still be married, was never married, or his wife could have died (call me!). However, they usually are actually divorced or divorcing (call me in six months!), and then we talk about how our exes are unreasonable assholes and how we, in contrast, are delightful loving people just trying to get on with our lives.

At least I have settled into a pattern. I pick from the menu, then I receive a message, and we chat about how divorce is simultaneously the worst and best thing that has happened to us, and then we decide to exchange phone numbers to talk as one guy put it “The old fashioned way.” He meant texting. Then we text for a few days about how Mondays suck or about how I would be perfectly happy to just go sit in a port-o-let and drink a gallon of wine, and then we never actually meet or speak to each other again.

I am probably not going to find a life partner or even a dinner date on Tinder, but I can’t seem to resist opening up the app and just swiping. And swiping. And swiping. It is sort of like playing a slot machine. Based on what I have already seen, odds are in my favor to keep going.

I have actually finished Tinder a few times. Eventually I get to a screen that says, “There is no one new around you.” It usually appears unexpectedly, as I am frantically swiping and thinking there must be some reasonable person who is not wearing camouflage or holding a baby (how long have you been separated?) that is on this completely free dating app that requires almost no effort—you don’t even have to know how to read. Then BOOM. I reach the edge and think life is hopeless, and I am going to be alone forever until I am humanely euthanized by my cats.

Then the next day I check Tinder and somehow there are all new men. Swipe right!

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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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Disturbing the Coquinas

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

Disturbing the Coquinas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waste it Wisely

This is terrifying.

This is terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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