Hillary’s Gratitude Runneth Over

At this time of year, I try to be more grateful, and have even considered starting a gratitude journal that I could do before bed after I have responded to the rest of my work emails, washed my face, brushed my teeth, put out my clothes for the next day, actually remembered to lock the front door—oh shit and put the rest of the dinner leftovers away and put my son’s hoodie in the dryer. Traditionally, I do none of these things and instead Nestea plunge into bed and pass out until one of my kids comes in to ask me something like, “Where do we keep the plunger?”

I ask, “Why are you still up? It is the middle of the night.” When it is actually 9:45 p.m.

I do believe that being grateful is valuable, and as Oprah says, if you concentrate on what you have, you will always end up having more. Maybe you just don’t remember all your shit! Every time Oprah takes inventory, I am sure she feels immense gratitude. For me it is the same. For example, I am grateful that we even have a plunger, and then I remember that I have two plungers, and then I remember that I also have a toilet snake that I purchased but did not actually know how to use, and then I remember that I was able to hire a plumber to come to my home. Then since I listen to way too many true crime podcasts, I am grateful that none of the people who have done work at my house have ever come back to murder me. Suddenly, I see how much more I have. It is like winning the fucking lottery!

Oprah also says that we can focus on being grateful for our breath because maybe that is all we have, which is depressing, but also important since so many Americans are denied basic healthcare and cannot afford to struggle to breathe. I just watched a video where Oprah said that we could even be grateful for having two hands and then told a story about a woman who had her hands amputated and how Oprah thinks of her every time she uses her two hands to count her stacks of money. I am grateful that I can use my two hands to clean my toilets myself. Then I remember I am grateful I have running water. Suddenly my bounty is overflowing all over the tile floor.

I was listening to Rob Lowe’s podcast when Oprah was his guest and these two celebrities bravely talked about the importance of gratitude. Lowe shared his newest life lesson that it is impossible to be in gratitude and resentment at the same time, and I was thinking, try me. As a kid, I had a friend over to my house and we were working on some experimental baking that I am sure turned out delicious. My friend said it was impossible to crack an egg on a plastic bowl. I said I could crack this egg on this plastic bowl. She said I could not. I smashed the egg into the bowl, it cracked and went all over the kitchen. We both looked at each other at the same time and said, “See?”

If Rob Lowe holds resentment in his heart, maybe he could take the podcast grind on the road to his favorite ski chateau and then look at himself in the mirror #gratitude. I often have resentment about teaching college students against their will and feel like my job is a joke because of my resentment against an entire system that undervalues education but then I remember how grateful I am that my job pays just enough to make me eligible for Obamacare, and it is like a gratitude golden shower. Oprah added in her conversation with Lowe that gratitude is her religion. She practices it every day. The first thing she says each day is “Thank you.” Then she makes her own ginger tea. The fact that she had to add “make my own” made me feel resentment.

I am probably not ever going to start a gratitude journal. I think it is too late for me to be one of those people who journals. I am way too fun at parties, and my bedtime routine involves having one more glass of wine and then deliberating if I should drunk text people from the couch or from the bed. If I have the energy to do anything productive at the end of the day, instead of writing down all that I am grateful for, like my breath and all my limbs, my two beautiful children, and that new everything bagel hummus I just bought, I would rather try to spend more time reading the stacks of books next to my bed or doing something even more stimulating, like watching porn.

My younger self is grateful that we can now afford sunglasses.

Drifting to Sleep to the Sound of Deadly Tornado

As a grown woman who prioritizes self-care, I fall asleep with my phone inches from my head playing a soundscape from a meditation app that I may or may not be paying for because I do not understand subscriptions. I am now addicted to the app and cannot fall asleep without the calming sounds of wind in the pines or the soothe of severe thunderstorm. The men I’ve slept with this last year also seem to be addicted to falling asleep to fake nature sounds. The most popular with divorced white men over forty is heavy rain, which I find unimaginative, sometimes noting it’s actually raining outside, and I could hear that if he didn’t snore so loud. 

The number of choices on my particular app has grown exponentially during the last year. When I first started using it, there were several varieties of rain and an equal number of ocean waves sounds—they can be crashing or calm, near or distant, you could fall asleep like you are actually drowning or as if you are in a bungalow over the ocean. Lots of choices for the wind. There was one with crickets. Maybe a purring cat, a washing machine, a train. All the sounds of nature.

Now there are dozens more choices that keep appearing as additional squares on my soundscape app probably because the algorithms are noting that none of us are actually sleeping, so they just keeping adding more choices, piling up in a Seussian frenzy. Still awake? Ok what about lightning in the distance over a canyon at dawn? How about child licking an ice cream cone?

There is a new soundscape called open plan office for people who miss falling asleep at their desks. I put it on today while working at home and there is considerable white noise, like if you work in an open office laundromat. It also includes the soothing sound of a woman talking loudly on the phone in the distance. There are also now the soundscapes city park and public museum for people who go to sleep in a comfortable, climate controlled bed but still want to connect with the experience of being homeless.

There is a lighthouse cottage that has a leaky roof, clearly just managed with a bucket on the floor and either a cat or an old man snoring. This choice was likely added because so many of the app users can only find real comfort by returning to the sound of being in a tower on a jagged ocean cliff bearing the responsibility of all the souls at sea on their hopefully still awake shoulders.

I generally stick with nature sounds, although I avoid any soundscapes that include the word “forest” because they almost always have chirping birds, which is the universal language for wake the fuck up. I like to think that using nature as a way to soothe myself to sleep is healthy and shows that I am outdoorsy, but more likely it is because there is not (yet) a soundscape that represents my comfort zones from childhood. I do not connect to the pacifying sound of city fountain.

I remember when I moved home, again, at age twenty-two and slept a hard nine hours a night, drifting into easy unconsciousness to the sound of my mom and stepdad watching whatever movie had the most gunshot sounds at a volume that would shake the kitchen cabinets. If the app adds a soundscape, aging parents in next room playing Full Metal Jacket in Dolby Surround, I could easily fall asleep wrapped in the comfort of knowing that I am an adult baby again.  

I also spent time when I was an actual child sleeping at my dad’s house in the summers when he worked the night shift, and I would lay in bed all night terrified someone was going to murder me—the soothing sounds of footsteps outside bedroom at midnight. Although, the sleep sound that reminds me most of the warmth and comfort of sleeping like a baby would be the sound of parents divorcing in the kitchen. zzzzzzzzzzz 

If we are going to keep adding sounds that actually exist as new methods of relaxation, we should think about what sounds make people the drowsiest, like my son explaining a video game, the sound of all the dances at the recital your kid is not in, a recording of a PTA meeting. Maybe the sound of shaking a bottle of Ambien.

Last night, I tried to fall asleep to living among trees but had to turn it off when tropical birds started calling to each other across invisible limbs. I switched to glacier snowfield, which sounds suspiciously just like wind in the pines. When I think of my most restful moments, like at six am, minutes before my alarm goes off, when all the noises have been assuaged, probably because my phone died, and I fall into a sleep so soothing that it’s almost ecstatic, I think, why can’t we create this ambience in an app? 

Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees and Falling

I spend time in the woods each day, wandering around with my dog looking at nature and, more importantly, hitting enough steps to feel like I have earned the right to eat food. I have been walking in these same woods for many years, but after the COVID lockdown in 2020, I started walking every day and logging more miles and even more bug bites that keep me awake at night itching and frantically applying hydrocortisone. People often warn me about walking in the woods alone—worried I could get abducted or eaten by an alligator—but instead the real danger is that I am slowly being eaten alive by bugs, and I am concerned there is a metamorphosis type scenario on my horizon, and then how will I ever find love?

When a friend recommended the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I decided to read it because I am a nature girl and an intellectual who reads nonfiction for fun. I even thought about how it will be a great book to listen to at warp speed while peacefully looking up at the leaves rustling in the breeze and then tripping over an exposed root. This book is fascinating, and I have learned that trees have friends and even mate, which made me jealous, and that some trees, like beeches, do not reach sexual maturity until they are 80 to 150 years old, just like most billionaires.

The narrator reminds me of the announcer on a ride at Epcot—the place where drunk intellectuals go on rides, pretending to our children that a ride about agriculture is awesome, but also when we get off, next stop, Mexico! The book is a well written biology text, and what I have remembered is how much I hated biology, which is why I did not become a doctor or any other job that actually pays and also why I got divorced from my ex-husband, who is a biologist. It is the reason for our dissolution: it’s not you, it’s your field. I also remembered that maybe I am not an intellectual. I am smart and somewhat well read, but I would probably trade a reasonable number of IQ points for a vanity project, like being super skinny without having to worry about what I eat.

I often come across trees that have fallen in my path, and I am amazed at how expansive they are when felled to the earth. Sometimes I see the scars where the tree’s enormous weight has cut holes into the dirt on impact, and I am thankful that I have not—yet—been murdered by a friendly, sexual tree. Trees make my walks possible by providing shade even in the summer when there is the most possibility for attracting bugs, so when I go in public in a bathing suit people probably think I have the measles. Also, the trees provide places for spider webs to connect across the trails. I take down approximately 150 spider webs per day with my face in the summer. That is how I keep my hair so thick and luxurious—it is full of spiders weaving new hair.

Besides this book about trees, I am also currently reading Falling by new author T.J. Newman. This book takes place almost entirely on an airplane and was given to me by a friend in the same manner as when somebody smells something terrible and says, oh gross here smell this. According to the back cover, this book is “a bullet train of a thriller” and “heart STOPPING!” The premise of Falling—and this is not a spoiler because it is on the jacket—is that someone has kidnapped the family of the pilot, Bill, and has threatened to kill them unless Bill crashes the plane with 144 souls on board. The kidnapper is not from America originally, but you can guess the region he comes from—it rhymes with whittle yeast.

At first, I was skeptical about the book, partly because it got published and the author was promoting the book on the morning shows, which is the only reason I write because I hope to eventually be interviewed on television. I was also skeptical because early in the book it does seem like a flight attendant manifesto to inform the public that some heroes wear polyester. They are not there just to serve us food—as if we think that when airlines stopped serving food twenty years ago the higher ups just forgot to fix the glitch and the attendants just keep getting on board—the flight attendants are in charge of the safety of the cabin and everyone in it once that plane is in the air.

Even if some of us might prefer that perhaps, especially in a situation that presents itself like in Falling, flight attendants seek help from a superior on the ground or maybe even poll the passengers to see if there is anyone onboard who has more training to deal with trauma, like a psychiatrist or a hair dresser.

Also, reading this book one might get the mistaken idea that airline passengers are not tremendous assholes who would sacrifice anyone for their own safety. I feel confident that if a person is unwilling to wear a mask on an airplane, they are probably not going to be willing to trust a pilot with a family being held hostage. Fuck you, Bill! I just coughed on a baby, you think I give a shit about your precious family?

Despite all of this, I found Falling almost impossible to put down. I kept turning pages and that is the sign of an interesting read. Even though it should be me in that clear acrylic chair across from Jeff Glor, I still recommend this book. Reading Falling has played a role in my growth as a writer. Now I know what people want, and I am going to start writing thrillers. I don’t have all the details worked out, but I think my first one will be titled Crawling, and it will involve an imminent attack by chiggers.

My protagonist taking forest selfies.

Surfing with Team USA: Dreams of a Comparatively Rather Old Girl

I have decided to become an Olympic champion surfer. I think it might be too late for Tokyo, since the games have already started, but I am paddling towards Paris 2024. When I told my mother about this new life goal, she duly noted that the next summer games are actually only three years away, which is good news because that is less time to worry about the unexpected, like injuring my MCL or getting struck by lightning. I just need to buy a surfboard and learn how to surf from YouTube.  

My passion for surfing started after vacationing at the beach and walking by a surf shop on the way to a bar. The shop had a large sign that read, “Surf Lessons” and there were people in bathing suits crossing the street, toting boards under their arms, lining up at the shop door, probably to get their gold medals. I continued to the bar and had four Michelob Ultras to officially start my training as a professional athlete. I might be a new face to Olympic viewers, but I have been dreaming of this moment since Memorial Day weekend.

After looking at the fresh faces of the USA surfing team, it is pretty clear that what they are missing is a 46-year-old poser. There are only two men and two women per country right now, and I do not want to unseat anyone, so I am willing to go as an alternate. I could be a real asset to the team because I can probably pass a drug test, as long as Xanax is not considered a performance enhancing drug, and the Olympic committee doesn’t have to worry about me having sex with anyone in the village, at least this year because COVID made it so nobody could bring their dad.

Before I set my sights on being an Olympian, I was just planning to take some lessons, but then one morning on the beach I saw a group of small children in a camp learning to paddle and riding the boards in on their bellies, and I am pretty sure I got the gist. I have paddle boarded, and I am extremely good at standing on the board if there are no waves. Also, I have never drowned in a giant wave pool, and in addition to all that, I have seen the movie Point Break

If I am going to put all this time and money into a new hobby where I could find solace in connecting with the ocean while simultaneously working on my fitness, then I should at least make it aggressively competitive. If I quit my job and move my kids to the coast and start doing two-a-day surfing sessions for the next three years and do not get eaten by a shark in the meantime, then I will probably be able to qualify for something, like perhaps a conservatorship.

If for any reason, I am not a natural water shredder, and when I looked this term up, Google made suggestions for “water shedder”, so I learned a lot about losing water weight, but if it turns out that I am not the fifth best goal-oriented surfer in the country, then I have some back-up plans of other sports that should be deemed Olympic, so I can fulfill my dream of being part of Team USA, like maybe Pictionary, the game of quick draw or Taboo, the game of unspeakable fun. I don’t even need to hone my skills—I can get on a plane to Tokyo right now, motherfuckers.

However, I feel fully confident in my Team USA surf plan. I have also considered learning to do tandem surfing tricks with my dog, the only Labrador retriever who doesn’t know how to swim, but all that means is she is damn sure not to going to fall off, even if what she really wants is to escape to shore and find a lawyer. I have not seen any tandem teams, so obviously this will add a degree of difficulty to my maneuvers, which is what I will need if I want to medal in Paris—the surfing capital of the world.

P.S. If anyone has a surfboard I can borrow please let me know.  

Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: Midnight Library, A Really Big Lunch, and Chin Music.

I’m currently reading two books at the same time because I’m a fucking intellectual. The first is Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Technically, I am listening to it as an audiobook, and I listen at 1.2x speed so the narrator sounds somewhat panicked at all times. As a self-proclaimed author, I can understand that probably someone like Haig does not want his readers to get through the book as fast as possible, like it is a chore. It probably took him at least a year of devotion to a desk, sculpting this thought-provoking book out of nothing, and I devour it in a series of fast paced walks in the woods.

Midnight Library is a novel about a woman who gets the chance to retry other versions of her life by examining her regrets and asking What if? The concept is sort of like the show Quantum Leap, which I used to watch on reruns after school. I am sure the intended audience for Quantum Leap was 13 years old girls who watch while shoving tater tots into their mouth. The main character in Midnight Library doesn’t work to set things right in history, she mostly just notices how things are often still wrong in her different lives, just in different ways.

In my own life, I have thought about what if I stayed at Appalachian State and got a degree in anthropology? In that life, maybe I would think it is acceptable to wear shirts with pockets and would be happily married to a very handsome woman. What if I had stayed in Austin? While I was there in the late 1990s, Mathew McConaughey was still single, high, and partying naked. I definitely would have played his bongos. Or anyone else’s.

Although, it is difficult to have regrets when I look at my life now. I am 46 and single with no real prospects, and I teach introductory English courses to unprepared college students who are reluctantly being fed into the capitalist machine. But in this life, I have a dog. Oh, and two children who are now teenagers and live like cave dwellers, only clawing their way out of their rooms to forage for food.

I am also reading, in actual print, A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison, which I am savoring in tiny bites because it makes me laugh, and I want to bask in his world of eating and travelling, just wandering around the woods and swimming out into the middle of harbors. Of course, Harrison’s main thread is about how he has all of this extra money from his writing career as an American poet, essayist, and prolific novelist—his novellas Legends of the Fall probably being the biggest meal ticket. I am still waiting for an offer for movie rights from my body of work. Maybe someone will want to make an epic from my essay about buying a dildo, and it will soon be streaming on Hulu and PornHub.

Harrison’s eponymous essay is about a 37-course lunch in Burgundy, France. Harrison notes that although the lunch was 37 courses and lasted 11 hours, they only served 13 different wines. I related to this leisurely lunch, thinking of my own life where I recently spent a Saturday dining on a two-course lunch in Jacksonville, Florida. I was also served one Bloody Mary, two White Claws, and then my check.

This past year, like many privileged white people, I have been reading a lot of theory (aka actual history) about racism in America. These books work well on fast speed in audio format because it makes sense for the narrator to seem frenzied as he or she tells about the oppression and murder of Black people in America since it is still happening, and fuck, we have got to get through narrating to this white lady who listens while working out her hamstrings, so that we can find some people who can actually make a difference. Harrison’s book is a definite departure—I don’t think there are any Black people in the book at all.

Big Lunch was recommended to me by an old friend, my former boss, and my one and only publishing client. His book, Chin Music, which is insightful and hilarious, sold almost a dozen copies, and he had to incur all the expenses, including me. I do not actually know how to market a book, and I don’t even do the formatting and design. Basically, the service I provide to my clients is I read the book and then make important suggestions, like maybe you should add a table of contents.

What I do not know how to do, which looking back is perhaps the most important part of the process, is to get people to buy the book. I do not know how people like Harrison get noticed initially. Maybe he just knew the right people and filled a void because we needed more books by white male authors in the 1970s. For the rest of us, it often feels like those moments in a dream when you are trying to scream and it seems impossible to make even the slightest noise. 

Harrison decided to write his first novel after falling off a cliff during a bird hunt, so I have considered that process. I am picturing a coyote and roadrunner type scenario—it is the only bird hunting on cliffs I am familiar with—I have several cans of paint and some sticks of TNT. We will see what happens. Also, if anyone reading this is looking for a publisher, I am totally available.

Chin Music available on Amazon. You should buy it.

I Am Not a Robot.

I spend time each day proving that I am not a robot. Often, I am asked to verify this by clicking a square next to the line “I’m not a robot”, which seems exactly like what a robot would do. Sometimes I have to click on all the squares that have a bus in them or a traffic light, things that any decent robot should be able to recognize. Instead they should use emotional tests, like show the first ten minutes of the movie UP and then ask me to click “Yes” if I am currently crying. Or they could show me a video of a car driving 60 mph in the left lane on the interstate and if I scream, “Move over asshole!” the very important website unlocks, and I am promoted forward to vote for my favorite dog photo.

Often as I am proving that I am anything besides a robot, I question why we are prohibiting robots from this process—why can’t a robot buy clothes online from Loft outlet? And is this my problem? If your website is being bombarded by robots then your company should be tackling this issue more directly, instead of the current solution of “How about we just ask everyone if they are a robot or not?” Genius. We did it, gang. Let’s go to Dave and Buster’s.  

For work, I have to do two-factor authentication, where they (robots, most likely) send a text to my phone, and I enter the code to complete the process to access my work account. Basically, the point is that if someone steals my computer, they should make sure they also grab my cell phone, then the thieves can get into all my work files and spend the day grading papers and responding to student questions like, “I have missed a few weeks of assignments because my cat was trapped in a well, can I still go back and make them up?”

The two-factor authentication reminds me of the movies when two people are required to enter their key for an important space launch or to open a safety deposit box full of diamonds. However, in this case, it is just me sitting alone at my desk, being my own sidekick. And then after I perform the tasks as directed, instead of launching into space or pouring out a velvet bag of diamonds and letting them sift slowly through my hand, I get to log into work.

I am also required each year to do online security training in order to keep our institution safe from online hackers. Basically, I am not supposed to open any emails. Done! If I do want to open an attachment—I don’t—I am supposed to call the sender and ask if they actually sent this attachment to make sure it is not from a cybercriminal. “Did you send this email that you just sent to me?” One of the examples they give is if I receive an email that says, “Hey, don’t forget to get me that list of all employee social security numbers,” I am definitely not supposed to respond.

Like the robot check, I feel that these security threats should be handled before they get to me. I should not be the gatekeeper of all of our data. “How about to avoid data breaches, we train our employees with a series of videos and multiple-choice quizzes so they can detect the threats at the last possible second before it becomes a real problem?” High fives! Meet you all at Applebee’s!

Nobody who knows me in real life would ever put me in charge of any type of security. My car was stolen from my driveway because it was unlocked and the keys were in it, right next to my purse on the driver seat.  My best idea for when someone needs access to my house is to just leave the front door unlocked. “It’s open!” I leave my purse in the top of the shopping cart and then turn around and spend 15 minutes touching all the avocados.

My son fired me from family security when he was seven because of my aversion to guns and any kind of violence and because I noted that I would, in fact, pay the ransom if he or his sister were kidnapped, and I expect they do the same for me. He said that we do not negotiate with terrorists because if we pay the ransom then they will kidnap more people, and is that what I want?

I wish I was a robot. Then I would not have to be so introspective or responsible for my actions. I could buy all the concert tickets before they shot up to $300 a piece. I could vote for the next American Idol as many times as I want. The fact that companies don’t trust robots, but they trust me, only demonstrates how insignificant I am. Each time I click that box I know that what I am really declaring is that I am not even a robot. Not yet.

The Salad Days

When I was a child, my mother would talk about things she thought would be different in the future. She would say things like, “One day you will tell your grandkids about how you used to be able to swim in the ocean.” It seemed ominous, especially when said as I was splashing around in the Gulf of Mexico. She also once predicted that in the future we will get all of our nutrients from a single tablet instead of having to bother with eating meals. This was probably said as I was finishing off the last of everyone’s French fries.

She never predicted any of the things that I have actually had to tell my kids, like that when I was a kid everyone in my family shared one phone and we had to stand in the kitchen—tethered to the wall—to use it. She also never mentioned that we would one day be telling future generations about life before a global pandemic, like when I was a kid people vacationed on giant petri dishes called “cruise ships”.

Many aspects of our daily life have changed this year, and it is likely that some might never go back to how they were pre-pandemic. There are some things about our new normal that I hope are here to stay, like doctor visits by teleconference and not going to work, but there are other parts of our lives that may be permanently scraped from the sidewalks of life that I will dearly miss, like body shots, blowing in babies’ faces, and salad bars.

I miss standing at Whole Foods elbow to elbow with a stranger—our breath echoing off the plexiglass—and tonging some lettuce into a brown paper box, then scooting past another person to add some edamame and approximately fourteen other unrelated ingredients and then tossing in some stuff that looks like it is already a tossed salad of some type, but with kale, and adding it on top of my independently made salad. Then I make my way up to the checkout where my salad is priced by weight and totals $37.

The salad bar at Whole Foods is the salad bar I admit that I visit, but I will also get the salad bar at places where it is completely inadvisable, even by the health department. When my kids were little I would take them to the local Pizza Hut, and we would dine inside the building. “When I was a kid we used to order our pizza for here!” The salad bar was lettuce and then just leftover pizza toppings, and I was given a wooden bowl about the size of a teacup so I had to pile my salad into a mountain covered with Ranch and then sprinkled with Baco’s.

When my daughter got older, we started going together to eat at Ruby Tuesday, especially when it was just the two of us, mainly because nobody else would ever agree to go there. I recently broke the news to her that Ruby Tuesday doesn’t have the salad bar anymore, and she gasped. I thought about all the senior citizens we would see while dining there and wondered what they are doing now for exercise. Going up to the salad bar, maybe even multiple times, carrying a plate while walking, the dexterity to work tongs, especially to grasp items like tiny cubes of ham, it could be in the Olympics. Dining from the salad bar was also a great way to show that they could still be independent. Often there would be a table where the oldest person was left behind and one of the younger diners, someone in their early eighties, would have to go get their salad for them. For that person the end is near, and thank goodness because no one should have to endure eating a salad bar salad made by someone else.

The salad that one makes at the salad bar would never be found on any kind of menu, unless it was a restaurant created by people tripping on acid. The salad bar salad is like a fingerprint. There are no two salad bar salads that are alike, and they are all disgusting. After I finish my salad I usually feel bad about myself, not just because of the excessive amount of calories that I consumed but also because of my choices. Why did I add the peas? What has happened in my life to make me think it was acceptable to add artichoke hearts and then proceed to choose blue cheese as my dressing?

I have heard that this pandemic might mean the end of the salad bar, and I am saddened about what this means for an entire way of life. I worry that one day I will have to tell my grandkids, “When I was a kid we used to order a meal and then with that meal, as a side dish, we could get something called the salad bar, which meant we had to get up from the table—where a waitress had just taken our order and would eventually deliver our other food that we only ordered because the salad bar alone was the same price as the meal plus the salad bar—and parade up to get our plates and then move like cattle down a line of chilled bowls full of delicious toppings like diced boiled egg, raw mushrooms, and banana pudding and then walk back to our tables completely embarrassed as we pass other tables with our salad of shame.”

Those were the days.

Monopoly

The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle cost $42 million. Meghan’s dress cost $508,000. I suppose that is just the price of a fairy tale. I can’t help but think of all the little girls around the world who watched Meghan—now a real princess—walk down the aisle, or at least saw pictures, and thought about how beautiful she looked, especially the little girls who are starving.

Even just the two million children in the United Kingdom who live in poverty must have been so in awe by this elaborate display. My mum has to work two jobs and we have rats in our flat, but look at Princess Beatrice’s fascinator! A family could likely eat for a year just from the cost of one of those hats. That is how fairy tales work, though. One person is plucked from the masses to live in luxury. All the other townspeople, teacups, step sisters, the other two members of Destiny’s Child—they are all left in the village to continue toiling.

Maybe this is why people seem so willing to accept vast discrepancies in wealth, especially here in America. Fairytales about princesses were the stories I grew up with, even though I did not live in a village with a large castle looming off in the distance. Perhaps because we replaced being ruled by a wealthy monarch with a market-based system kick started by violence and oppression, and a fairy tale set on the lawn of a plantation is less palatable. Well except as the venue for white people’s weddings.

We no longer have a king, but we have a small percentage of people who hold the most wealth and they still got that way by screwing the rest of us over. I recently watched a documentary series on HBO titled McMillions. The show details how this one guy stole the winning McDonalds Monopoly game pieces before they ended up in the fast food restaurants, and he gave them to friends and family in exchange for a percentage of the prize. The FBI was very upset about this. So was McDonalds. Customers are being tricked to think that they can buy a hamburger and win one million dollars and these scoundrels are robbing the McDonalds customer of this chance. It is not fair to the people!

At first, I was drawn into this thought experiment. Then I remembered that I do not give a shit about anyone robbing from McDonalds. Also, I do not know anyone who actually thought they were going to win a million dollars. One of the recipients of a stolen winning game piece was a struggling single mom. I think it is a crime that she felt like she had to choose to take the winning game piece—from her mafia wife friend–and then give half the money back to the ring leader. I was thinking, wow, I wish she got more money. McDonalds corporation has a net worth of $170 billion and they earn this money by underpaying employees, outsourcing to franchisees, and preying on the pocketbooks and blood pressure of the rest of us. This elaborate scheme amounted to stealing $24 million, which is a lot—less than a royal wedding—but still a chunk of change. Of course, it is only 0.01% of McDonalds total net worth.

By the final episode of the documentary—no spoilers—I started to imagine the exact same documentary but instead of McDonalds monopoly winners, the FBI was going after real criminals, like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, the Koch brothers, or the Walton family. On the first episode, the fast talking FBI rookie would not get a post-it note that read, “McDonalds Monopoly scam?” but instead one that reads, “Walmart entire business a scam?”

The agency would start by investigating how a company starts with prices so low and with so much inventory that they put a myriad of other local businesses out of business, not just the local hardware store, but the groceries, the clothes shops, the mechanics, the tire stores, the fabric stores, toy stores, electronics stores, Christmas shoppes, pharmacies.

Then it gets really good. Now with a newly expanded market of poor people, shopping at Walmart becomes a necessity not a choice. Walmart then further maintains these low prices by underpaying employees (more customers, cha-ching!) and then subsequently arguing that if they paid their beloved employees more then they would have to hire less employees or raise prices and you don’t want that, do you? Can you really afford to buy your diapers anywhere else?

Cut to the sharp FBI agent, leaned back in his chair explaining how he opened an investigation to look into the Walton family. The FBI is outraged! Because of Walmart, all industries are forced to compete with low prices and low wages and underemployment as way to keep benefit costs down and profits up. It is part of a nationwide, systemic increase in poverty. Parents are working overnight shifts and still unable to afford their kids’ medicine. What if the Waltons are pocketing like a million dollars each off this scam?

Picks up phone. Holds up finger to the camera for a pause. They have hoarded how much money? $163.2 BILLION? But they give to charity, right? $530 million donated from their family foundation in 2017. But that is only 0.32% of their net worth. That’s less than people are supposed to give annually to their church. Puts down phone. Ahem.

Okay, now I am outraged. This is not fair to the people.

The most expensive part of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding was for security. Supposedly they spent about $36 million for added measures of protection, but who were they protecting themselves from? The people they serve, right? Who else? Bad people perhaps. People who do not understand boundaries. But it is still the people. I don’t think they were protecting themselves from rabid dogs or locusts. They spent a thousand times the salary of the average British household to keep British citizens from crashing their wedding.

The sad part is that we use words like philanthropic to describe rich people who spend money like there are not more than 800 million hungry people in the world and give away very small percentages of their wealth to help those in need. And in most cases rich people got rich off the hard work of people who can barely afford to keep their lights on. Most Americans likely give a larger percentage of their own net worth than our richest citizens. If you think about the money you paid to your PTA, the money you put towards that GoFundMe so a child could get a prosthetic leg, the money you donated—although it wasn’t much but it was something—to help families who lost their homes in a local fire, the dollars you handed to a man on the side of the road, the time you paid for the coffee for the person behind you in line, you have likely donated a larger portion of your income to charity. The rich are not more charitable than we are. They could give billions and billions more.

Even visiting poor and ravaged areas of the world and coordinating aid—although it is admirable—is still a privilege. And not enough. If I went up to my local Walmart, I am sure I could find multiple employees who would leave their positions immediately to fly on a private jet to Africa to visit schools and hospitals. It will be hot and there are lots of bugs. Walmart employee chuckles. But wait, how do you feel about walking through landmines? Been doing that my whole life. Holding babies whose mothers died from AIDS? With open arms. Infectious disease? Do the seats on the jet fully recline?

Gaslight

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The 1944 film Gaslight tells the story of a young woman named Paula (played beautifully by Ingrid Bergman) who is deceived by her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) into believing she is crazy. His manipulation starts small. He tells her that she has these little flaws and then makes them true through sleight of hand. He says, “You know you are inclined to lose things, Paula.”

“I didn’t realize that,” she responds because she has not been known to lose things and then he gives her a broach and when she loses it she thinks, oh shit maybe I do lose things! Of course, she didn’t lose it. He hid it from her because he is an evil murderer, but Paula does not realize this and the cycle continually repeats itself until she questions everything she understands about her own mind.

Gregory wants control and keeping someone in a state of heightened nerves is a great way to leverage power. He also wants money. He murdered Paula’s aunt and then tricked Paula into moving back into the house where the murder happened—a home conveniently owned solely by Paula until they married—so that he can spend his nights rummaging around in the attic looking for the family jewels because he doesn’t have any. He eventually finds them sewn into a gown, and I found this scene amusing and willed him through the screen, Gregory, please put on the dress. Sadly, he doesn’t put on the dress but he does grab the jewels and rub them around in his greedy little hands.

Meanwhile, Paula is held captive in her own house, like the madwoman in the attic or the young wife with her yellow wallpaper or modern day moms stuck cleaning with a cartoon bald man. Gregory tells her she is not well enough to go out and then fabricates events that make her believe he is right. What is most interesting about Paula is that she is not weak. Perhaps that is why he must go to such deceptive measures. He cannot control her transparently.

In the end with the help of a tall, handsome inspector from Scotland Yard, Paula realizes that she is being tricked. Each night Gregory leaves the house and walks to the back alley into an abandoned flat and climbs through a skylight into the attic. I like that the story involves him scurrying like a rat. There is no dignity in greed. When he gets to the attic he turns on the lights, thus using some of the home’s gas and causing the lights in the main house to dim. Paula notes that shortly after he leaves the lights dim and shortly before he returns, they brighten. She knows this change is real and that factor serves as a lighthouse to her sanity.

“You know who’s up there.”

She knows. Because she is not actually crazy. He distorted her reality. He controlled information. He made statements and then through manipulation made them come true. It is how most card tricks are done (spoiler alert!) He also places her in a spiral of fear and as her insecurity about the reliability of her own mind increases she must rely on Gregory to act as her compass. This gives him even more opportunity to manipulate her environment.

I was interested in this film to get a better understanding of the term gaslighting to condemn what Trump is doing by continually denouncing the legitimacy of the media. He is attempting to distort reality by telling the American people that we cannot trust the information we are receiving. And perhaps it started small, the same way Gregory started by simply telling Paula that she was forgetful, and now it has grown into daily poorly written reports and tweets that suggest the information we receive is fake. It is a tactic used to try to unsettle the public trust and make us question what we should believe.

Distorting someone’s perception of reality can be done by inserting a single, subtle word that invokes doubt, like “You look nice today,” which usually leaves me questioning what kind of trash heap I have looked like every other day. Or maybe something like, “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s entire slogan was a manipulation. He used two unstated assumptions. We don’t even have to get into this country’s history of oppression and discuss timelines of exactly which horrifying “again” he was aiming for, the point was that by accepting the slogan, followers had to swallow the ideas that America is not currently great and that there was a time in our history when things were better. Relying on assumptions is a bad magic trick.

Trump said the media can’t be trusted throughout his campaign because as any gaslighter knows, the seed must be planted early and often. In May of 2016 Trump told Sean Hannity that Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and current owner of The Washington Post was unfairly attacking him and using the prominent news source “as a toy” (interesting choice of words, is it all just a game?) Trump suggested that Bezos, who as owner must obviously have complete control of all reportage, did not want Trump in the White House because of his “huge anti-trust problem.”

Since his first day in office the constant lambasting of any news source that does not report the facts he wants to hear is an attempt to make the American people question what we know is real. All negative news is fake news! Coincidentally, that is what I tell anyone who has ever spoken to my ex-husband. Trump is like a controlling spouse, and unlike most controlling spouses who must go it alone Trump has a posse, like his Press Bitch, Sean Spicer, and his rotisserie chicken, Kellyanne Conway, who stand up to corroborate all his attempts at misdirection.

Trump uses Twitter as a means of supporting his own fabrications. Lies! It is as if he thinks that if he tweets it, then it must be true. Sadly, I am not sure Trump is as good at gaslighting as Gregory. He does not have the restraint. His constant tweeting of easily verifiable misrepresentations keeps the majority of the public’s sanity in check. And maybe it is his overuse of exclamation points, but I always picture his tweeting persona as a giant orange New Year’s baby with his thumbs pounding on the keys in tantrum.

Usually what a gaslighter wants is control. Trump wants fame, fortune, and to be right. His grand wizard Steve Bannon wants control and to be alt-right. Under Bannon’s leadership Brietbart News has become an active participant in glaslighting America through its outrageous commentary meant to fracture and leave Americans in a state of heightened fear. Breitbart uses media as instigation. By spinning stories in certain ways, the site enrages the public, for example a search of “black on black crime” on the Breitbart site retrieves five pages of articles with 20 stories on each page. That is 100 articles. The sensationalizing of these stories seeks to demonstrate that black citizens are inherently violent and therefore any disenfranchisement is due to their own behavior and not a product of systemic racial inequality. These stories serve as a tool of the oppressor and promote othering. Breitbart is bad fucking news and now we have let its leader scurry into the White House.

Breitbart has even politicized the Super Bowl, suggesting that the Patriots comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was like election night all over again. There is an actual story that compares Brady and his football sorcery to Trump’s “win” on election night. They are both backed by evil slobs, so I can see that angle. Even the links to ads on Breitbart of other things “You Might Like” are charged, like the picture of Obama with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the caption “Obama’s IQ will shock you!” which I felt compelled to click on but never found Obama’s IQ or Donald Trump’s, although I did learn that Hillary Clinton has the same estimated IQ as Kesha and both, of course, have higher IQs than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It is important to remember that before gaslighting became a verb it was not the dimming and brightening of the lights that incited the manipulation. In the original story, the lights are what help Paula keep reality in check. They are the clue that bring her back to her own sanity. Those of us who can clearly see what these puppeteers are trying to do to the American people, that they are attempting to keep people in a state of fear and to promote their own corrupt agendas through distortion and sleight of hand, must stand firmly as the lighthouse that can help this country and all her people come back to sanity.

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?

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 as 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.

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