These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

I live in the panhandle of Florida, and my local news covers Tallahassee and a large area of rural Florida and South Georgia. Brunswick, where Ahmad Arbery was killed, is our neighboring region. I could drive there in about three hours. When the faces of the men who killed Arbery appeared recently on my news feed, in a short segment between new Coronavirus cases and the weather, I remembered that these were not cops in uniforms, these men are our neighbors.  

 

“If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors.”

Malcolm Gladwell from Talking to Strangers

 

I don’t run. I don’t even jog. I am a walker, which mainly just means that I wander aimlessly around neighborhoods. When I was 15, I decided that I was chubby, and similar to the way Forrest Gump stood up, ran out of his front yard, and then across the entire country, I walked out of my house, down my driveway, and out of my neighborhood. I walked across the nearest main road and entered another neighborhood—a much nicer and more expensive neighborhood, where the houses are set so far apart, and with such established landscaping, that on foot you can often only see one house at a time. Unlike my little neighborhood, this fancier neighborhood has a hilly loop, a canopy of shade, and an active neighborhood watch. I know this because I read that information on a sign as I walked off the main road, not because anyone ever questioned me for being there.

I have been walking ever since. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I would drive to another part of town, park my car in a lot that said, “No Parking”, and then walk into a nearby neighborhood. It had great hills and the houses were charming and eclectic. It was one of those neighborhoods where young families who were just starting to make good money lived next door to empty nesters. I walked here regularly for two years—as a complete stranger. Some days, if it was especially hot, I would dip into a yard to get hit by the sprinkler. Maybe put my hands out and wait for the spray of cool water and then splash it on my face. On the way back to my car, I would often go into the office complex where I had illegally parked to sip from the water fountain and use the bathroom.

I have also lived in South Georgia. For most of the year in South Georgia, it is so hot that walking at any time when the sun is actually shining is not something people do voluntarily. I have had people offer to give me a ride because they do not understand that I might be out walking around on purpose. One day as I walked through a neighborhood, I started to feel lightheaded. I was hungover. It was 90 degrees. I stopped at a house with a car in the carport and sat on a ledge—on their property—but near the street. I sat for about 15 minutes looking haggard, red faced, and sweaty. I looked like a hungover loser who was about to pass out on the side of the road. I actually hoped someone might notice me so I could ask them to drive me home. A few cars drove by, the homeowner never came out. He did not call the cops about the woman in his driveway.

Some of my time walking in South Georgia was through a cemetery, located adjacent to a part of town with a higher population of Black residents because white people do not like fields of dead bodies in their own neighborhoods. I walked hundreds of miles, weaving through a maze of headstones on narrow paved streets. I considered the cemetery a safe choice because I have always, even as a woman walking alone, considered my biggest danger to be getting hit by a car. The cemetery had very few cars. I rarely saw any people. There were a few groundskeepers who would nod as they drove by in work trucks, and I would wave and smile back. Then one afternoon, a truck pulled off the main road and drove next to me as I walked. It was an older white man, he rolled his window down and told me I should not walk in this cemetery. That it was dangerous. There could be dangerous people.

I looked around. This man, who chose to change his route, to turn into this cemetery to warn me about dangerous people, was the only person I could see.

I recently watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery, as he walks into the home under construction. I watched this particular video with a certain kind of familiarity. There are people who view this video and painstakingly relate to the danger of being a Black man. There are also individuals who watch this video and relate to the white man who called the police and other neighbors for back up because he viewed Arbery as a dangerous threat to his community. I related to Arbery as someone who exercises out on neighborhood streets.

As I watched the video of him outside the construction site home, I noted how he contemplates going inside. The hesitation. There are probably countless Black citizens who watch him walk in that house and think, you know that is a bad idea. As a white woman, I am infinitely more protected, and I am not trying to commodify our experiences, but I have probably done this with the same hesitation. I would be worried about getting in trouble or putting myself in danger, as a woman walking alone. But also, I would be thirsty. I would have gone in too. And as we see from the owner’s videos, other people—white people, a couple and some kids—go inside the site. The cops are not called on these other trespassers.

Once inside, he looks around probably because he knows what he is doing is a little dangerous. There is evidence that perhaps he goes to the back to get water at a dock. Then there is video of him standing back inside, hands on hips. As I watched this I thought, he is getting his heart rate down. Cooling off. His back is clearly covered in sweat. On February 23, 2020 the high temperature in Brunswick, Georgia was 63 degrees. That is not exactly heat stroke weather, but Arbery was running at 1:00 pm, the hottest part of the day, especially in February before the start of Daylight Savings Times. The sunset—that Arbery would never see—would occur by approximately 6:30 p.m. Also, he had likely already run about two miles—the reported distance from his mother’s house to this site.

When he leaves the construction site, he takes off running because that is what he was already out doing. Arbery did not know at this point, that a neighbor has already called 911 to report him, “A Black guy, white t-shirt.” The caller also alerts his fellow neighbors to help apprehend this neighborhood interloper. Now there are two trucks, three men—at least two of them armed—and a 25-year-old jogger who winds up shot and bleeding out right there on the street.

I am not an expert on Georgia law, although I know enough to understand that chasing someone down in a vehicle and yelling for them to stop should void the ability to claim that the shooter felt threatened. Also, I am not an expert on citizens’ arrest law, although I know Georgia has one, and I also know it does not state that the citizen may shoot the supposed perpetrator. Also, the citizen only has a right to hold someone who he thinks has committed a crime if it is a felony. If you are wondering if trespassing is a felony in Georgia—it is not.

As I have rewatched the video of Arbery in the construction site, I think about what the white man on the street saw, the man who initially put the entire crime into motion, a man wearing overalls. I think about it as like in a novel where the same scene is told by a different narrator. He saw a Black guy in a white t-shirt. That was enough for him. Also, what is not often mentioned is that these men made an ignorant assumption. They were being dumb. And they have guns. It is a dangerous combination.

Then I thought about the perspective of the people who have defended the men who killed Arbery, especially on social media. What do they see as they watch these same videos? Perhaps they view Arbery’s clothes and don’t see him as a jogger. He does not look like the runners we see on television. He is not wearing expensive athletic gear. Maybe he just felt like going for a run, in whatever he was wearing. We accept that Forrest Gump just got up and ran in a button down and khakis, but for Black citizens, a white t-shirt and long shorts are a dress code violation. So are hoodies. What is the proper attire required for a Black man to walk through your neighborhood?

When the video was released and the public outcry led to arrests finally being made, that was the start of a tiny sliver of justice for Arbery’s family, but the only way to keep other innocent people from being killed is for all white people to make an effort to change the way we see Black citizens. Thinking about the case in Texas with the female cop who shot Botham Jean in his own apartment: if she had opened the door to what was not actually her apartment and saw a white woman sitting on what was not actually her couch, would she have shot that woman? Probably not. It might have been more like when a woman walks in on another woman in a public bathroom, it’s fine.

The death of Ahmaud Arbery was a battle between neighbors. So was the case of Botham Jean. Why wouldn’t someone recognize a person who lived so near to them? Maybe because white and Black citizens are walking through the streets of America in parallel universes. As I watched the man calling the police about Arbery and then looked at him driving in his truck, he reminded me of the man who stopped me in the cemetery. When that man warned me that I could be in danger, I was a 40-year-old adult woman walking in broad daylight. Why did he feel entitled to try to protect me? It was almost as if he wanted a dangerous person to appear because that supports his narrative.

That scenario also maintains his proximity to power. White people benefit from the myth of the dangerous, armed Black man. We benefit by being able to walk down the street without being murdered, no matter what we are wearing, but also because as long as systemic racism continues to thrive, we have better access to jobs, networking, generational wealth, public education, housing, access to healthcare.

The truth is that Black citizens are less likely to be armed than white citizens. About 35- to 40% of white Americans own guns, compared to between 20 to 24% of Black Americans. Also, Black people in America only make up about 13% of the population. White men are more likely than any other group to be gun owners. Statistically, it is much more likely that a white man is armed than a Black man is armed, and there are many more white men than Black men in America. If people understood these facts, then maybe people would not feel so threatened by the presence of a Black person. Unless, the violence is not just a reaction to unbiased fear.

As a country, we are keeping this bias alive, like a four-hundred-year-old sourdough starter, passed down through generations. We still teach racism in our schools. Slave Owner is bolded in our textbooks in the same manner as Inventor or Astronaut.  It is a title, not a condemnation. The way we teach American history occasionally borders on sympathy for the people who were enslaved, but rarely do our texts promote shame for the people who owned slaves. Classroom lessons about slavery promote racism more than they denounce it. Before my son started lessons on slavery in early elementary school, in a school with a 50% Black student population, he used skin color only as a way to describe someone if he did not know their name. “The kid on the monkey bars, the one with the red shirt and the brown skin.”

In January, every elementary school kid in America comes home with their report on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Often it is a cut out of the shape of his head with important facts about his life and most importantly, he is clearly labeled in the handwriting of all of our children as “non-violent”. Teaching our kids that if Black Americans want equality, it is best not to be too aggressive. Of course, King was arrested more than 30 times. His most famous written work comes from his time in Jail, and he was assassinated at age 39. Every January, our kids are also taught that even nonviolent protest of racism will not be tolerated in America.

We can tear down statues, we can remove the confederate flags, we can defund the police, but it is like chasing fire ants around the yard. We eliminate one mound and another pops up a few yards away. From slavery, to segregation, to redlining, to education discrimination, to police brutality, to prison pipelines, to voter suppression—these are all methods created by people, like ants working diligently little by little, to keep racism intact. While we the people are working to dismantle racism, we the people are working to strengthen its foundations.

Then we the people end up on the same street. In broad daylight.

We are all neighbors. I have spent considerable time trying to end this essay—to land the plane. I have typed a bunch of bullshit and then deleted it. Racism in America cannot be tidied up into a conclusion, especially not by me. I can only observe what I see in our neighborhoods. I will keep writing and walking and trying each day to learn how to be a better person. I will try to remain hopeful that we the people can rewrite this conclusion.

In the meantime, if you see a hungover lady walking in a cemetery, just wave hello, and if I pass by your house, feel free to spray me with the hose.

 

 

***When I first started studying the story of Ahmaud Arbery, I thought maybe the original police report showed a different portrayal of events and that is why there were no immediate arrests, but it does not. This is a link to the original police report. 

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6883377-Ahmaud-Arbery-Police-Report.html

This New York Times video is well produced and adds graphics to demonstrate what happened in the time between Arbery walking into the construction site and dying on his neighborhood street.

https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000007142853/ahmaud-arbery-video-911-georgia.html

This is the letter from District Attorney, George E. Barnhill recusing himself and advising no arrests necessary.

 

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?

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.

 

Gaslight

bergman

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.

Stand up. Fight Back.

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On a hazy January morning, we started to walk with the crowds towards the National Mall, not knowing the exact destination just simply moving with the current. The dome of the United States Capitol peeked out above a line of rectangular bureaucratic buildings. The faces of these buildings were stone and unadorned. They stood stoic and quiet, impenetrable. The crowd was still loose enough to allow gaps between the women and girls and dots of men who carried signs and upbeat voices.

We made it to a cross street, and I watched the people ahead of me as they made the turn, their eyes focused down the street, some lifted phones over their heads to take photos, others just stared, but they all kept moving. As we entered the wide expanse of the intersection, I saw what they saw. We were at the top of a hill staring down Independence Avenue. At the bottom the crowds were so dense and bright there was no indication of street or sidewalk, of where buildings stopped and the tiny dots of all those people and their declarations began.

We turned and walked down the hill, small conversations and observations with the people walking with us, there was laughter and shout outs looking for a member of our group not easily visible, “Where is she?”

“Oh, there she is.”

There were chants from the crowd, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and the crowd responds, “Stand up! Fight back!”

“What do we do?”

“Stand up! Fight back!”

Above all the empowerment and solidarity there was also a cloud of everyone’s collective anxiety. Because we were not going to a festival. This was not fucking Bonnaroo. We were marching into a crowd larger than I had ever seen. We did not know how this day would unfold, where we would end up, how we would get home. We did not know if the crowds would be peaceful and generous. We did not know what force majeure awaited us. We also did not know if there was something insidious waiting in the future of the day. Nobody checked our clear backpacks. Nobody looked under my bulky jacket.

“When I say sisters, you say rise!”

“Rise!”

“Sisters!”

“Rise!”

We kept walking. My anxiety presents itself as jitters, stemming from the epicenter of my nerves and branching out. An overall sense that I might just simply pass out. I have had this experience before, when the stimulus overwhelms my capability to react. It is as if every vessel expands just a fraction and there is not enough room in my body for all my energy. My experience at this march was overwhelmingly positive and at times even fun, but I was nervous. I have two kids at home. As a mother, my life is not my own. I don’t have the luxury to be reckless. They are not my raison d’etre, but I belong to them. I breathe deep and keep walking.

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

I glance around and look for the familiar coats and jackets and pink hats of my marching crew. Everyone is wearing pink pussy hats, but I know which ones are mine. If I lose sight of my sisters, then I scan for our “Women’s Strike” signs. Black with white lettering. Unapologetic. The mood of the crowd is not somber. We talk and point out signs that make us proud or make us laugh.

Keep your god out of my bod.

Tiny hands, big asshole.

Everyone moves forward calmly but willfully. Officials in green vests stand in intersections and suggest we make turns, doing signs with their arms as if directing traffic, but instead of cars it is a mass of people—women, men, children, and strollers. Bumps into shoulders are quickly met with a call of “Sorry” and a response of “It’s ok” because we are women and we are taught to make no ripples. But on this day in January we form a tidal wave. By the hundreds of thousands, we put a dent in the center of the National Mall, making a mark on history. Our collective footprint like a space boot on the moon.

The women’s march was considered successful because of the incredible number of protesters in Washington D.C. and because of the solidarity shown around the country and even internationally. From what I could see the march was more than just white women. There was representation from women of color, maybe even more than I had expected, even though there still exists the valid concern of why white women are now finally marching out from behind our picket fences. Where the hell have we been?

This march was also peaceful. There were no arrests. No tear gas. No rubber bullets. There was barely even a police presence at all. I saw less than a dozen police, mostly standing against cinder block buildings, one knee propped up like a casual flamingo. The only interaction I had with the police was when I waved down a uniformed officer to get help for a woman who had tripped on a curb and landed on her face and suffered a cut above her right eyebrow. However, this protest was not successful because it was peaceful. Those two factors must remain mutually exclusive.

This protest was attended by women, men, and families just like me, who are kept just comfortable enough to be unwilling to storm the White House. We had the numbers, and maybe it is because a group of women would not usually destroy such a beautiful home. We had enough of a presence that we could have commandeered the White House, emptied it of all the precious antiques, and then burned it to the ground. But we didn’t. We wore our pink hats, told our bladders, “Not Today!” and took peaceful control of the National Mall. Then we left and went back to our spaces of comfort, hugged our children, and now many of us are continuing to organize in our local communities.

The march was important and successful. The night after the march, I was renewed and felt a sense of optimism about the people of this country and our precious democracy. However, the march was also benign. If we consider this march in relationship to the two Americas presented by Martin Luther King, Jr. then this march was attended by those living in the America where “People have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” We the people of this America are unwilling to throw bricks because that could substantially disrupt our glass houses. We are accustomed to silent conformity.

Also, we have been so conditioned to the idea that rioting is non-productive and only further divides groups. How many times have I heard the phrase “those people” sprout and erupt around times of rioting and violent protest? We use rioting as a scapegoat for othering. King is celebrated by the white community and we get a day off from work to celebrate him because of his promotion of nonviolence. Ask any school kid in America and that adjective will be the one that is most closely associated with his legacy.  I am still waiting for my kids to come home from school with their detailed reports on Malcolm X.

Looking more closely at King’s “Other America” speech, he talks about the use of nonviolence as a more effective measure than rioting because “A riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” and he continues to state that he cannot condemn riots without also condemning the conditions that promote them because “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was arrested 30 times for protesting against segregation. Nonviolent is not the same as nondisruptive.

As a white woman who walked into this march maybe feeling the anxiety for the first time of a possible fear of police presence, I realize that I have no excuse for not standing up before now. Maybe I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with all the marginalized voices throwing bricks into business windows. Even better, there is (as King taught us) a space between a protest with no arrests and an outright violent demonstration. We are going to have to be more disruptive to fight against a bully of this magnitude. We cannot just walk the streets and expect to be heard. My name is now likely on some type of list. A big black checkmark beside my H. And the thing is that I don’t even know if I have the courage to come out from behind the protection of my glass house. I am still questioning how much I am willing to sacrifice. As I sit here being heard, I am a parcel of hypocrisy.

My unwillingness to let go of my space of comfort is exactly what the Trump administration, headed by Grand Wizard Steve Bannon, is counting on. They are expecting that middle class white people will abandon the disenfranchised when it comes time for real protest, that the huge crowds of people will soon just be a few groups living in tents and playing hacky sack while the rest of us are at home watching CNN and tucking our children into warm beds. That is what Trump and his band of villains are using to place all their bets. Giant stacks of chips made from compressed pieces of our freedom and betting on apathy. Our gazes down as we have passed by our history of inequality and violence fueled by discrimination of anything that is not white, wealthy, and patriarchal are what got us here. Fear and division put extremism in the White House. We are going to have to use courage and solidarity to get us out. We have the numbers. We have the education. The awareness. Morality. Empathy. History. This administration thinks we are bluffing. We need to firmly demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining the rights of all the people and not just a select few.

When democracy is under attack, what do we do?

Stand up! Fight back!

Anger Management: Armed with Only Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

“Well then, I support it,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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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, 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 scored Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pietà

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netflix and Chill

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I just finished the entire series of Breaking Bad on Netflix. I started by watching an episode or two at night after the kids went to bed—it was all very casual—then after season three, one episode a night wasn’t enough. I needed more. I would watch four or five episodes at a time, until eventually I spent an entire kid-free weekend on the couch plowing through the final season. After the show came to its unavoidable conclusion, and I sat staring blankly at the credits, I found myself at the “Do you want to exit Netflix?” screen. I hesitated. I have never been good at goodbye, especially when wearing two-day-old pajamas. Then I clicked YES, and a world I had come to know and understand flashed to black. A world where education and intelligence are power, and power is the ultimate drug, and when your high school teacher asks you to cook meth with him, you should just say, “No, bitch.”

Even though people had been suggesting the show to me for years, I finally started watching after a guy I was texting with, but not actually dating in any real way, recommended it. He mentioned that I should watch Breaking Bad, and I said, “Okay!” (And that sums up my dating life. I could just stop here.) We started texting after meeting on Tinder—it was all very casual—then after several weeks, we were in the habit of texting every day. And then texting multiple times per day, until eventually it was the play-by-play of our lives, as if nothing had actual meaning until I transmitted it to this stranger. He would give me a witty response, or (cringe) an “LOL” and then the stress of my daily life dissipated just a little. Just enough.

We rarely hung out in person, even though we lived in the same town. We never went on an actual date, and when we did hang out it was usually during his work hours or in the middle of the night. Of course I assumed the obvious—that he is in some kind of witness protection program. Maybe he was picked up by a red minivan and brought here for his own safety. He has to keep a low profile because he knows too much.

As a busy adult trying to date/have sex with other busy adults, I have been indoctrinated to the idea of never having time. It is a new normal, and it left me vulnerable to believe almost anything. Between work, joint custody, aging parents, witness protection programs, ex-spouses, alter-egos, drug empires, yard work, and hangovers there is little availability for candle light dinners or even being seen together in public. A couple of cancellations barely even register as something to be suspicious about. The lives of divorced people are so dichotomous; I could probably be convinced of the validity of a second cell phone.

At 40, unless I am dating someone who has spent the last twenty years in a coma (ISO long term coma survivors, former convicts, and extra-terrestrials) they have a past. Usually that past includes children and in-laws and shared property. It also means that until a relationship reaches a certain point, a major part of a divorced person’s life lurks in the shadows. The hope is that what may seem like the shape of a monster in the closet, is revealed with the flick of a light switch to be just some golf clubs and a stack of sweaters.

I continued to be kept in the dark with this person for entirely too long. I have no business making my own decisions in the early stages of dating. I need a partner to handle distribution for me and to disable my phone after I have been drinking. I should remain behind the scenes in mystery until I have established myself as a kingpin and then after the window for being too eager has passed, I appear and demand that he say my name.

Finally, while sitting on the floor wrapping Christmas gifts for actual people I know and love, I decided to delete him from my contacts. I hovered my index finger over “Delete Contact.” I hesitated. Then in an act of bravery that can only be rivaled by Caitlyn Jenner’s willingness to appear fully photoshopped on the cover of Vanity Fair, I clicked the red letters. Then a box popped up to verify that I really did want to delete this contact. Goddammit! I squealed, clicked “Delete Contact” (AGAIN), and then wrapped an infinity scarf for my niece.

The next day I made an appointment with my therapist. I told her all about this person and the details of his life that he had shared and those that he had not, and she stopped me and said, “Oh hell no,” which is never a good sign in therapy. My problem is that I accept less than I deserve. I will sell my share in a billion dollar company for five grand. I will say, “I understand” if he never even calls me to cancel because he lost his phone. Again. It is totally cool. I wasn’t sitting here waiting. I always watch television in a mini skirt and my best pair of panties. I am fine. Really.

My kids are what keep me checked into reality. My son often asks tough questions that test my decision-making skills and reveal aspects about my character. He has asked me if I would rather know how I am going to die or when I am going to die. The gravity of that question sunk me deeper into my chair. I thought about how hard it was for me to decide where we should go for lunch, and then how many regrets I had while eating my bean burrito. I am indecisive. Acclimated to Netflix, Tinder, and interstate lunch spots, where I can just exit at any minute and pick something else. His questions of limited choices—I cannot choose not to choose—challenge me.

There is no scrolling through the menu screen for an entire evening. It is like only being able to choose between watching Caillou and Family Guy. Suddenly, Family Guy seems like the perfect show. The kind of show I should introduce to my parents, and let do butt stuff (not necessarily in that order). There is a fine line between not settling and always searching for something better. On some (every) level, even the happiest couples, the kind of couples who share a Facebook account and get to their tenth anniversary without wishing the other one would accidentally fall into a deep, dark well, are still technically in a relationship that is the “best they can do.” Brad Pitt is the best that Angelina can do. Gisele is the best that Tom Brady can do. Kanye can probably do better.

My circle of friends here in my South Georgia town is more like a semicircle—maybe even just an arc. I don’t fit in with the majority, and this makes dating difficult. I am like a copy of Lolita on a shelf of bibles. I am easily misread. I don’t go to church. I am a feminist and a liberal. I use profanity, unapologetically. I drink too much and show a lot of leg. I am a pair of high heels in a swamp of flats. If someone is local, makes me laugh, and can handle my rough edges, then I tend to hang on. Living in this desert, I have allowed myself to accept drinking from a dirty puddle.

But I did not make it this far to settle, even if it means spending the next decade only spooning my cat. I would just like to find the next Breaking Bad before I develop osteoporosis. My therapist tells me that I have got to have some sort of standards. I know she is right. I should start with only dating guys that are actually single and with reasonable baggage, like a nice duffel bag or a backpack, and not a PODS unit taking up their entire driveway. Who knows, maybe my future soul mate is waking up from his twenty-year coma as I type this, and after a little physical therapy and some spray tan, he will be ready to start texting me.

 

 

Catch Me as I’m Coming Through the Rye

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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