Generation X: They Fucking Forgot My Birthday

I am a member of Generation X. I had to look this up recently because I could not remember the name of my generation or if I even belonged to one at all. People my age don’t generally identify as Generation X, but maybe because when the term was first introduced—by boomers—it was as an insult. The idea was that we were slackers. Our best dance move was standing and nodding. We majored in English and art therapy. We read Salinger’s other books. We smoked weed and ate mushrooms. And it was like we didn’t even appreciate it, man. We are the middle children, doing, by all accounts, exactly what we are supposed to be doing with little to no credit.

There has been so much talk recently about how the Boomers are greedy assholes and the Millennials are awesome but super anxious about it, and I was thinking, wait, wasn’t I born, too? What is my problem? My research about Generation X yielded articles titled, “Why Generation Xers are so Forgettable” and “The Forgotten Generation: Let’s Talk About Generation X”. Even the term X is indicative of a placeholder, something you put into an equation until you find something better. The name certainly doesn’t have the pizazz of “Baby boomer”, nor does it have the metallic coating of “Millennial.”  My generation would simply let Joe Biden come in for a hug because we don’t want to be rude and our parents’ drunk friends have been doing that to us our whole lives. A millennial can just blink and be coated in the armor of backing up awkwardly but effectively.

Our oldest Xers are Jeff Bezos, Michelle Obama, and the late Chris Farley.  We are Tina Fey and Sarah Palin. We are three of the four women who broke the glass ceiling into Ghostbusting. We are three of the five women of Big Little Lies, notably not the one who actually pushes the abusive man to his death. We are Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Tupac and Biggie Smalls. We are the entire cast of 90210. Luke Perry’s death rattled our generation and our search engines as one of the first celebrity Xers to die of natural causes. I was guilty of searching for an explanation for how a man could be plucked from his youth, away from his wife and two grown children: Luke Perry + Cocaine. Luke Perry a smoker? Anything that made it seem like it could not happen to me. If I made a few minor changes.

I was born the same year as Chelsea Handler and Tiger Woods, which feels right. We are voted most likely to lose a sponsor. And to make a comeback. Our toxicology reports are complicated. As a girl, I was raised to believe that I could have a successful career, but also maybe I should put on some make-up and lose ten pounds just in case. Every night I watched my mom stationed at the kitchen sink, her hands dunked in the sudsy water. Gen X women were raised in a liminal space—it was like someone opened the cage door and we just stared at it. I admired powerful, working women on television, mostly fictional characters, like Murphy Brown, but the women I knew in my own life were working the double shift. I had no real-life model for what an independent working women looked like. Maybe this is why I work part-time, write for free, got divorced, and am never moving in with my boyfriend. It is like the collage of an actual life. I cut out the pictures that worked best for me.

Generation X deserves much more of the credit for the normalization and legalization of marijuana. The boomers are hot boxing their vacation homes and the millennials are easing their stomachaches, sadness, shyness, crippling debt, anxiety, stress, and insomnia so that they can make the world a better place for the rest of us. The massive failure of Nancy Reagan’s Say No to Drugs campaign? That was us. I thought the commercial with the fried egg representing my brain on drugs was just about marijuana. Partly because my dad smoked pot, so that made sense to me. Also, a cooked egg is not that much of a turnoff. My dad never tried to hide his reefer because he was a grown-ass man and it was none of my business what he did. My relationship with my kids is more complex. We have shared governance. They have not voted me out yet because I am the only one with a driver’s license.

Like many Gen Xers, I feel like I am playing the role of grown-up and not doing it all that well, like Tom Hanks in Big or one of the aliens on Third Rock. Our generation was expected to screw up, so we did. We would definitely drain the liquor cabinet if left unsupervised for a night or while mom was in the bathroom. We smoked in the car anyway. We were not actually at the library. We all had fake IDs. Now, I am a college professor with two kids and a home to manage. I have taken care of aging and dying parents. I am active in my community. I take the garbage out to the curb almost every week, yet I still feel like I live in the shadow of people who actually know how to be adults.

As a generation, we are doing quite well and have been deemed the “dark horse” generation. We are entrepreneurs and have the highest percentage of startup founders. Most polls show that Gen Xers identify as being happy and tend to have a good work/life balance. Some people suggest that it is because we were latch-key kids, so we learned how to entertain ourselves and make our own decisions at an early age. The decision I made was to come home from school and watch General Hospital and Donahue. Most Generation Xers were in shitty entry-level jobs when the internet arrived in the average American office, and we were the only ones who knew how to use it. You need help with that dial up? I got you, boss. Want to email someone? Scoot on over. Want to AIM chat with all your exes? I invented that.

Our generation might be best defined by the experience of spending our whole lives watching the rug get ripped out from under us and somehow still standing. Our parents got divorced. We did not know Rock Hudson was gay until we heard he died from AIDS. Our model of the perfect American family was The Cosby Show. We recently watched the Brett Kavanagh confirmation hearings and thought, Fuuuuuuuuuck. Yes, me too. We were all at that party. Even if the party was in a different zip code, different demographics, girl or boy, we were all there. It made me reevaluate my entire young adulthood. Every touch, comment, coercion. Maybe this is why we were so into M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Generation Xers know how to adapt. When I graduated from high school we did not have a computer at our house. I did not have a mobile phone. I did not personally know anyone who identified as gay. Marlboro Lights were about two bucks. Bill Clinton was serving his first year as President. The twin towers were still standing. OJ Simpson had not murdered any people as far as we knew. Maybe that is why we are less vocal than the millennials; we are just going to order another round and try not to implode. We can out drink all of you. We are here, like the middle kid sitting on the hump, shielding the oldest and the youngest from each other as they reach across—he is touching me! I was going to end with that we will bite both your fucking fingers off, but we all know that is not true. We will ease the situation by making you both laugh. A perfectly timed fart will do it. Or singing lines from Rockstar by Nickelback pretending that we like it in an ironic way. I’ll have the quesadilla. 

marcia marcia marcia

 

 

 

 

Dating Across Party Lines

In the spring of 2017, I went on a date with someone I met online. It was Bumble, the supposedly feminist dating app, which is different because men can’t message a woman unless she messages him first, so basically women are stuck with more of the work. I have been on many online dates since my divorce four years ago, and this one didn’t necessarily start out any different, but we had chemistry, and I was fairly confident we would see each other again. I wasn’t sure what would happen beyond that because we were somewhat different. We didn’t talk about it, but there were signs. I had recently marched in Washington, D.C. in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump, and he drove a big white truck with a YETI sticker on the bumper.

If we met a few years ago, I may not have gone out with him again. I might have crafted a T-chart, with things like “wears cowboy boots” on one side and “makes me happy” on the other, as if those were equivalent in importance. Luckily, I had experience dating post-divorce and after many break ups and some good therapy sessions I learned that I should not plan my entire future with, or without, someone on the first date. Maybe instead I should just have fun and see what happens, which feels like driving down a dark, canopy road with no headlights. As someone who prefers to plan ahead, I want my dating endeavors to be like doing taxes with Turbotax, “You are now 75% done!”

With this particular person, I climbed up into his front seat and just went along for the ride. During the first several weeks, I was having too much fun to perform any kind of assessment, and I never felt insecure enough to freak out because he was different than most of the other guys I had dated, meaning that he was not a jerk, married, or dead inside. We did not discuss our political opinions at the beginning, and sometimes that was a bit of a cloud, leaving me wondering if it would eventually rain on our love parade.

As a writer, who writes about my personal life and opinions, it is difficult to keep my ideologies out of the public sphere. I am one quick Google search away from being an open book. One night leaned up against a railing staring at the Gulf of Mexico, we bridged the subject. He said he did not want to be with someone who was his mirror image. I agreed. I work with a radical feminist group in Tallahassee, and when I first mentioned that I was going to a meeting, I called it “a women’s group” as if we were gathering to talk about the new edition of our local cookbook and not working to topple the patriarchy. He was not fooled and told me he was proud that I fight for what I believe. With that moment, I metaphorically inched a little closer to him in the cab of his truck.

Now, I have space in a closet he cleared out for me at his house. He moved some suits that he never wears and a few jackets to make room, but left a half-dozen shotguns. Every time I slide open the closet door, I see them lined up between my row of strappy sandals and the ruffled hems of my sundresses. They are a reminder that life is most interesting when it offers up the unexpected. We do not often talk about politics when we are together. That is why I have a Twitter account. When an issue does come up, I am usually able to at least understand why he would feel that way, unless he mentions something about emails. What I have realized is that I love him more than I love being right, and I am not sure I could have felt that way in a relationship before my 40th decade. We probably won’t ever celebrate 50 years together, unless both of us make some serious lifestyle changes, like cryogenics, but I am thankful every day that I did not meet him a moment sooner.

 

Dark Water

I am a big fan of using the steam room at my gym. I like to sit quietly in the fog until I am dripping in sweat and then leave and replenish all those liquids with champagne. If the average person’s body is 70% water, mine is often just 70% bubbles. I am sure if I do enough research I can find an important study that suggests this is the secret to longevity. If nothing else, it will help prevent death by drowning, which will come in handy because most of the time when I am near the water, I am really drunk.

The water is one of many places that can be dangerous for women, like in the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The main character, Clyde, a poor boy who is working (somewhat deviously) to move up in the social class ranks accidentally gets a farm girl pregnant. Unable to accept this fate as his life’s end-game, he decides to take young Roberta out in a canoe on an isolated lake so he can drown her. As they are paddling, Clyde internally wrestles with his decision and his intentions while Roberta sings songs and drags her fingers sweetly in the water. Then at one point she notices the look on his face, staring at her from the other end of the canoe; he probably looks as if he has just seen a ghost, and she starts to crawl towards him in a move of comfort, and then he hits her across the face with a camera, an “unintentional blow” so hard that she falls out. He stands to grasp for her as she is falling, and then the canoe tips. She gets hit in the head with the bow and since she cannot swim he is sort of like, well that was convenient.

Actually, she looks directly at him and cries “Help! Help!” and he just watches her head sink underwater with relief. He swims to shore and eventually gets caught and sentenced to death by a mostly rural and unsympathetic jury. One of the big questions from this novel is seeded in the title and begs the question about what is the uniquely American tragedy here? I am not sure exactly the answer, and I refuse to believe it is his execution, but I am willing to move towards pointing a finger at a cruel system that promotes cut-throat (or “unintentional blows” and condoned drownings) paths up the economic ladder. The tragedy most likely ends up as the systemic problem of an economy that suppresses social mobility and fosters greed.

However, what I took from this novel was that maybe I should be more careful about going out into open water with men. I have also read the book Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen where a husband pushes his wife off the balcony of a cruise ship. When she hits the water and lives, her thought is did that asshole just push me off a cruise ship? It is relatable, like when the man I was married to and had two children with bought me an iTunes gift card for my birthday. Did that really just happen?

Although I know to be cautious, like with most things in my life, I see the line that I should not cross and then I run down the dock in a bikini and jump on board! I once went on a second date with a man, whom I met on Tinder, to an isolated river where we kayaked up stream into the wilderness, far away from where people could hear me scream. I did not bring my cell phone because I didn’t want it to get wet and die—that would be absurd. It never occurred to me to be concerned until we were about an hour into our paddle, and I had a realization of panic. I stopped paddling and watched him moving forward in the dark water, leaving a momentary wake behind his kayak and then no trace as he glided forward. I scanned the banks and saw only trees. Nobody knows we are here.

But I survived. On the morning after our third date, I mentioned that although I enjoyed the kayaking, I did have a fleeting moment when I thought he might murder me.

“What would be my motive?” he asked.

A question that was both important to consider and disturbing. But he was right. I present no obstacle to his life. I pondered this because it is an important issue for women, often when domestic violence happens, it is because the victim poses some barrier between the aggressor and happiness or freedom. Like for Clyde, he just wanted to marry a wealthy girl and live happily ever after, but Roberta with her womb and her ovaries, got in the way of that dream. So she had to die.

Of course, sometimes violence is random, so he could have still murdered me while we were kayaking for no good reason, but that is not necessarily something I can guard against. I can’t live in fear of random acts of violence, then he interrupted my thoughts with a question, “What kind of wood doesn’t float?”

“What? I don’t know.”

“Natalie Wood.”

I laughed awkwardly. Then it got eerily quiet. I realized that I could probably try to avoid dates that put me in isolated areas with strange men, but also maybe men could put in a solid effort to not murder me. If something did happen, then it would likely be portrayed as me making a foolish decision. Even my children would be told that I met someone on Tinder and followed him into the woods, as if I was asking for it. The same way we justify that the girl in the horror movie who runs outside to check on the sawing noise coming from the woods deserves to die. What a dummy! While the murderer is seen as being on an unwavering trajectory to kill and unable to change or make alternative decisions. Sort of like Clyde, once they were in the canoe she was sentenced to die, and part of the interest of that section of the novel is watching Clyde wrestle with that supposedly unavoidable fact. Even though he could just as easily not drown her. Not hit her across the face with a camera. Not watch her sink underwater while she calls his name.

He could have changed the plan at any time. Even a man wandering around the woods with a chain saw could make better choices, but it is accepted that it is his manifest destiny to move across the dark forest or the misty harbor town killing everyone in his path. Slashing people up is just what he does. For the rest of us—the vulnerable characters—it is our job to stay out of his way.

Then I was drawn back into the bedroom, “Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You know two Natalie Wood jokes?”

I would like to say that this was the creepy thing that ended this brief relationship, but in all honesty, I was probably the one who made it weird. I won’t go into details, but I may have sent some drunk texts. This was during my brief but exciting skinny margarita phase, also known as January 2016.

I recently read the details about Wood’s death from the memoir by coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi. She drowned Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. He tells the events objectively, but it is difficult to read that report without feeling like there is blame placed on Wood for her actions—that she tried to get into her dingy at night without properly assessing the wind and not realizing the weight of her down jacket. She had been drinking. It is as if the take away is that she should have been more careful and because she wasn’t it is acceptable to make her death (and thus her life) into a punchline. When she died, she left behind two young daughters.

I have been taught to protect myself since I was a young girl. I should not walk alone, especially at night. I should lock the doors to my house and my car. Park under a street light. Don’t get into a stranger’s car. Don’t let a stranger into my house. These warnings are so intrinsic that defying them is viewed as in violation of common sense—she should have been more careful. But where are all the pamphlets teaching people not to be predators? Teaching about respecting women and their bodies? Teaching our boys not to rape our girls no matter what they are doing or wearing? Instead we are modeling predatory behavior as a perk of power. We have now even dressed it in a suit, sprayed it with fake tan, and given it the job of being leader of the free world.

I have heard that a man should never touch another man’s hat. The act of touching another man’s headwear is impetus to fight, but our girls should put on a sweater, get a longer skirt, or get a friend to walk them home. By doing so we are telling girls that they will remain the vulnerable characters. Men are not warned to avoid wearing hats. The warning is in the imperative: Don’t touch my hat! Lyle Lovett even wrote a song about it.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every three women has experienced violence by either an intimate sexual partner, or she has experienced sexual violence from a non-partner. 38% of murders of women are committed by a male sexual partner. Studies suggest that intimate partner violence can be reduced by improving women’s economic and social status. Otherwise they remain the vulnerable characters—they remain prey. We are choosing the ambulance in the valley instead of the fence on the cliff and just watching our girls fall. If we have different guidelines for boys and girls, especially about safety, then that signifies a problem. We can do better.

I want my daughter to be safe everywhere even if she makes mistakes. Even if she follows a boy into the wilderness. Because if she is like me, she probably will. It is intoxicating, like the bubbles that keep me afloat when all signs suggest that I should be drowning.

cropped-cropped-100_03291.jpg

 

 

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.

empire ghostbusters subs cover

 

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.

IMG_1992

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.

*******************************

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.

IMG_1992

 

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.

bench shot

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.

bench shot

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.

IMG_1992

Yes, I Like Piña Coladas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1992