Friday, December 30, 2011

Early Money In a Small Town

Click here, then read.


My first job was plucking gray hairs off my mother’s head, nickel a hair. I was eight. She would sit on the couch and I would stand behind her, picking through her black hair for offenders. I’d find a gray one, pull it out by the roots, and place it in the ashtray she had cleaned out just for that. Sometimes I pretended to drop the tweezers and pull one gray hair in half, making two.

Every time I had six hairs, I would cash them in for a quarter and a nickel: the nickel for the collection basket at church on Sunday, the quarter for me and our next trip to the grocery store. Seemed like a fair deal.

A machine in the lobby of the grocery store dispensed one toy for a quarter: one ring, one whistle, one fir tree magnet. These toys came in round plastic containers with replaceable caps, which I coveted as much as the toys inside. My mom would let me buy one, and only one, each time we left the store. Traversing through the aisles with her for an hour, holding on to the cart lest I be kidnapped right out from underneath her nose, I could barely contain myself through the check-out process before the toy machine pulled me from my mother’s side like some kind of poltergeist.

Some children spent their earnings on candy. I spent mine on fake tattoos.

It wasn’t long before my work ethic had been coaxed from the core of my being. My desire to work evolved quickly into need, fluttering in me like a new addiction, setting the stage for my next job: working for my father as a lumberjack. I was ten, again being paid by the numbers.

The three of us would pile into the cab of my dad’s truck and go to the woods. I wasn’t big enough to haul timber yet--my mother took care of that, dragging trees my father cut down into the bed of our truck--but I got a quarter for hauling in any piece of wood that was thicker than my leg.

I earned more for stacking logs back home: a dollar per foot of firewood in the basement, up against a wall in a row about ten feet across. I hauled it in from the big pile that my dad left in the backyard, my summer playground now a sawmill.

If I was working alone after school, it took many minutes to get ahold of enough pieces of wood to make the trip to the basement worthwhile, but if I was working with my father, he would tell me to stretch my arms out in front of me, palms up, loading me down with as many pieces of wood I could hold without pitching forward.

He knew I was in it for the money.

Teetering under the weight of cut logs, peeping through the cracks, I would stumble down to the basement and heave this load onto the basement floor before picking up each piece again to stack one against the other.

My mom wouldn’t let me stack wood if it was below zero because the open door let in too much of a chill, counteracting the productivity of the wood stove. I had to stack when the stacking was good. That it always took me two hours to build up one foot of logs deterred me not.

This was my first dependable source of income, my first taste of dollar bills.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hush

Click here, then read.

One strange day, I heard noise.
It was the day I entered a family of noisy people.
Before that, it was just the rush
of my mother’s blood around me.

43 years later I listen to buzz saws and shouting,
a neighbor’s home being demolished,
the one next to mine
shingle by shingle.

How do those people get a new house
and I have to keep living.

Neighbors gossip: They’re illegal. The dad’s been in jail.
Living in a noisy bubble, we have in sight a good mother
but are not yet seeing.

This is doing nothing for our necks,
twisted and stretched,
still looking for neighbors.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Born Without Miss

Click here, then read

One terrible time, my parents left me at camp.
I gripped my teeth and tried to make friends.
My mom had equipped me with postcards
addressed to herself.

I hadn’t been alone or by myself for years, or so I thought.
I didn’t know what alone meant.

Mail call—an uncertain term to a child’s ears,
a child trying to get used to a cot.
My worry was always about making friends
and if they would be quiet when I slept.

Would I ever hear a song again,
my older siblings’ records kept safe
now that I was at camp.

I bunched up my bones
and decided I would never miss anybody again.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Funeral Hotdish

Click here, then read.

For my dad.

My parents are both alive and well, busier now than they were before my father retired. Much of their time is still spent guiding their children back to safe territory. They’ve driven cross-country at a moment’s notice to help one daughter climb out of the abyss of alcoholism, and then zoomed back across the country when a grandchild went missing. If it weren’t for my parents, my siblings would be rudderless, and I might still be in jail.

The remainder of my parents’ time is spent assisting, entertaining, and eventually burying the elderly population of their small Minnesota town. My mom serves as a bridge substitute at the retirement home when regular members of the bridge club expire, and—during their church’s monthly senior citizen excursion to the Indian gaming casino—my parents’ heads are the only brown ones bobbing along with the gray hairs on the bus.

I don’t know exactly how they came to this role in their tight-knit community. I’m sure it was my mother’s doing. She was born to help.

Elderly people by definition do not last very long in this world, so not a week goes by that I don’t hear those matter-of-fact words from my mother, “We have a funeral tomorrow.” Most of the time my parents simply attend the funeral, but if the deceased was Catholic and attended Sunday mass regularly, my mom will volunteer both herself and my dad to “work it.”

Toiling alongside other women in the hot church basement, my mom will help to make and serve the post-funeral meal. My father’s job is to breeze through the crowd of mourners, refilling coffee cups and being sunny. He is the only husband in the parish whose wife asks him to help in this way. Working funerals does not come easily to my father, who is neither breezy or sunny by nature.

He does it because my mother wants him to.

It’s a simple equation.

With similar gusto, my dad volunteers to help my mother deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly invalids in and around their town. Their three-day shift comes up once a month and takes precedence over any funerals scheduled during meal delivery time, as feeding the needy outranks praying over the dead on my mother’s to-do list.

After stopping by the hospital cafeteria to fill up their station wagon with aluminum-foil covered meals, they drive from house to house, bringing hot food to hungry old people. Even in the midst of heavy snowstorms that erase any discernable difference between road, ditch, or sky, my parents are still out there, marshalling their meals. In the summertime, when the deer flies and mosquitoes are so thick that small children must be weighted down lest they get carried away, my parents will don their beekeepers' netted caps and forge ahead. Come hell or high water, sleet or flies, my parents cannot be deterred from delivering those meals.

Click here for new song. Long post.

Meal recipients know when a warm meal and a warm body are due to arrive on their doorstep, which is often their only social interaction of the day. Not surprisingly, many of them take advantage of this opportunity to interact with another human being, which often leads to “visiting”—another of my mother’s many fortes, and my father’s greatest pet peeve.

While my father fumes in the car, my mother will grab a meal, enter a house, and emerge twenty minutes later bubbling over with old person news, still waving at the old person from the car as my father drives off to make their next home delivery. This is enough to make my father ban my mother from ever again taking meals to the door, marching them up there himself until he eventually gets sucked into a visit, after which the ban on my mother is lifted.

My parents have also learned that delivering meals often entails non-food-oriented tasks, such as helping to find lost glasses, opening pill bottles, and jimmying locked doors.

One time my dad returned to the car grumpier than usual. “I had to wipe Frank’s ass,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

He doesn’t have a lot of choices anymore, and probably wouldn’t eat Sunday brunch at the Senior Center every week either if my mother didn’t go. The Senior Center is their town’s nursing home, where my mom volunteers to call Bingo and waltz. She likes to eat Sunday brunch there because, at $2.50 a plate, it’s a nice way to support the facility, and conducive to more visiting.

I’ve joined my parents for Sunday brunch at the Senior Center occasionally throughout the years. The least surprising aspect of this adventure is that the food is served cafeteria-style, with everyone walking, limping, or rolling through the serving line and back to the long tables with their food. The most surprising aspect is that the food is actually quite good, as if Emeril Lagasse is in the kitchen whipping up steak and potatoes, sausage and sauerkraut, platter after platter of fried fish.

Bam! I bet Emeril would like my dad. I bet my dad would like Emeril.

My father, at his sunniest and breeziest, eats heartily and rivals my mother’s visiting abilities, chatting up toothless old men about railroads and fishing lakes. Old women drink their drool right back out of their orange juice and occasionally somebody shits his pants, but none of this fazes my parents, who are usually the last to leave.

For a long time, Sundays also entailed the transportation of one Mrs. Josephine Sears from her apartment to church, from church to the Senior Center, and then from the Senior Center back to her apartment. Dad would climb the stairs to her second story home and carry her down to the car, her frail body lost in the depths of winter wraps. At the church he would escort her up the steps and into the vestibule, both arms around her for safety. Almost a year went by in this manner: my parents taking Josephine to church with them, to the Senior Center with them, and then back to her apartment after brunch, always with Josephine tucked firmly under my father’s arm.

Only the word of God and the fear of a lawsuit could have changed this routine, and both came to pass one day when Father Joe ran into my father in the hardware store.

"You can't take her out anymore, man. If she ever slips on church property, she could sue you, the church, and in fact the entire diocese for neglect. Don't take her to Sunday brunch anymore either. You don't want an injury on the Senior Center’s property."

Josephine would be taking communion in her apartment from now on, Father Joe said, which was best for all parties concerned.

Usually it's my mother who calls me with news of change or trouble, but this time my father called, upset and angry. He railed against lawsuits and liability, executive decisions that hindered the quality of a 92-year-old woman’s final days. While my mother took the situation in stride—invalidism a sad but unavoidable matter of course for old folks—my father saw only injustice. I think what upset him just as much was that he, too, was losing rights: to help who he wanted, to socialize with others as he saw fit.

My dad was internalizing what my mother externalized every day: duty mixed with empathy, mixed with the certainty of one’s own demise.

I think he wanted me to know that he expected better out of all parties concerned if he made it to 92.

***

In most parts of the country, a dish made up of noodles or rice, any combination of meat and whatever else you have in the fridge is called a casserole. In the Midwest, this is called hotdish. Its purpose is the same: to use what you have on hand to feed however many people you need to. It is utilitarian in nature, hard to ruin, and can be extended indefinitely with the addition of more rice or noodles.

My mom makes a special one that she calls Funeral Hotdish, which she says is “easily double or tripled, easily digested, and pleasing to mixed crowds.” Here is her recipe:

FUNERAL HOT DISH:

1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
diced celery and onions
1 cup Uncle Ben's Converted Rice (be sure and use only Uncle Ben's)
1 large can chicken noodle soup (family size)
2 small cans cream of chicken soup
1/2 to 1 small soup can water

Brown meat, onions, celery. Put all ingredients in small roaster. Mixture should be somewhat juicy. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking after 45 minutes to besure there is enough liquid. Add more liquid as needed.

She makes Funeral Hotdish every time somebody dies, taking pots of it with her to church basements and funeral halls, to grieving families at their homes. She leaves extra plastic containers of it in her own refrigerator too, for her husband and children, if she gets the death call and has to run out.

Funerals, for my mother, lead to the best: Godliness and a good example for her children, who need to know what to do when their own friends and neighbors start dying. She taught us to make Funeral Hotdish, a teenage rite of passage that confirmed our ability to help others cope.

Funerals have had the opposite effect on my father. With each one that he attends—an old high school friend who died early of a heart attack, another widow he helped down the church steps—his jaw sets more firmly as he compares their turn against his own, their fate against his.

By the same token, he would gladly die tomorrow if it meant not having to bear my mother’s death first.

He has taken each of us children aside and explained his wishes: “If we get old and your mother dies before I do, tell me we’re going for a walk in the woods and shoot me in the head.”

Despite my father’s occasional foolish decisions over the years and his repeated request for a mercy killing, if push came to bullet, he would have to take his own life before any of his children would agree to his murder.

The fears and regrets that live in every one of us are all directly descended from our father's good heart; it is from him that we inherited our penchant for being human.

From our mother come the ability to love unconditionally, and to forgive—even ourselves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Secret to Staying Together

Click here, then read.

Have you ever wished that your wife
didn’t have parents? That she was a leftover
test tube baby, waiting for you on a shelf,
then grown and ripened just for you
and placed at your breakfast table.

But wait: a boy from down the street wants to chime in:
I really like her and even better
since her parents died in that crash.
She's all mine.


So many years waiting for so many deaths,
deaths that we would never even admit to knowing could happen,
the very idea of them so unimaginable
to our wife. Yet there we were,
plotting. It’s going to be so much easier
when her parents are gone.


And then her parents were gone.
Your parents were gone. My parents, also gone.

We spent the rest of our lives wishing
we could give people back to other people,
wrap up a dad and stick him under the tree.
Have her mom sitting at breakfast one morning.
Surprise.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Going Home

Click here, then read.

“Mother,” I heard in my ear. A soft paw batted my cheek. It was 5:25 a.m. It was Sara.

“What!?” I said. I knew this was my child but breakfast was an hour away.

“There’s a new and odiferous plant on the kitchen table.”

“It was there yesterday,” I mumbled. “You liked it then and should like it now.”

My little black one who speaks broken English then chimed in: “Meep!” Scolding me.

It meant the same thing: I knew these girls didn’t like our new tabletop Christmas tree. They’re like me: they like nothing new. But I had to get the tree: we’re two and a half now and need to get acclimated to new items in the home. I for one never like new stuff, but—living in a new generation—I know it’s important to embrace the world.

I was a little apprehensive myself, walking out this morning to see my midget tree. I couldn’t get a word in even for hello or good morning before Sara cocked her ear towards the little tree and said, “You know it’s wrong.”

I hated her then, as one does a little sister spilling the truth. But I loved her, because she only says what I’ve taught her to say.

“Listen,” I said. “This is the best tree I could get us this year. Your sister would have stayed under the bed for weeks if this was a big one. Don’t you cock your head at me. I’m doing the best I can.”

Worlds of not being a real parent whirled in my mind. Laws that I would like to enforce dissipated. All bed-head and scrumpled, feeling the pressure of a new day, I pumped myself up.

I made coffee. I invited the children in. I put out tuna.

“What?” I said, after a polite time of waiting for everyone to come in for everything. “What do you guys want?”

They ran away, but came back in shifts, as children do.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not Yet a Fisherman

Click here, then read.

I was unaware in the 70’s that my father didn’t always go fishing because he enjoyed it, nor that the packages of venison he stored in our freezer after deer hunting season were anything more than products of his favorite pastime. Now I know that my father worked very hard—in both his profession and spare time—to make sure his family remained warm and fed. One spring when I was four, putting food on the table became a group effort: my parents took me and my four older siblings smelting.

We were living in Upper Peninsula Michigan, and though my father and some of the older kids had gone smelt fishing many times before, this was the first time that our entire family went together. After supper was over, the dishes washed and put away, we loaded up the station wagon with our galvanized metal wash tubs, dip nets, a few sets of waders and my father’s seine, then drove down to Chequamegon Bay to join hundreds of other similarly-equipped families under the stars, on the frigid, wave-beaten shore of Lake Michigan.

The campfires up and down the beach and the beams of hand-held flashlights made the water shimmer like lightning; this I remember, as I do the cold air on my face and the smell of wet sand, fresh fish and campfire smoke all mingling together. The lake was alive with millions of tiny silvery smelt, and people were scattered everywhere in the water with nets and fish buckets and all manner of sieve-like contraptions, working singularly and in pairs to scoop up as many smelt as possible before having to wade back to shore to dump their haul into picnic coolers, old metal trash cans, pillow cases, anything that would hold the fish.

My clearest memory of that night is standing knee-deep near the shore in my rain boots and slicker, hanging on to my long-handled dip net with both hands and leaning precariously as far as I could into the rushing waters to scoop up my own smelt. My mother’s cries to be careful and come in closer to the shore mixed together with the thumping of my heart, the constant splashing and the shouts of other smelters. I probably only added a hundred or so to the thousands of smelt already squirming and jumping in my family’s collection containers, but it didn’t matter—I was four years old and had just experienced my first adrenaline rush.

As any smelter knows, you can either smoke ‘em or fry ‘em, whole or gutted, however you prefer. My father had two favorite methods of preparing ours: he would either smoke them whole over apple wood chips in the rickety smoker machine set up in a shed in our backyard, or gut them out before dipping them in batter and frying them to a perfect crisp. If he chose to batter-fry them, that meant that everybody in the family (not including me, thankfully) had to gather around the picnic table in the backyard and, using sewing scissors, relieve our thousands of tiny freshly caught smelt of their heads, their tails, their innards, and their yellow, mucousy eggs.

Sometimes my family did this late at night, after we’d returned home and my father had rigged up spotlights in the back yard. If it was too late an hour and time for bed, he would put the smelt on ice and save gutting for the next day. I don’t know of too many dads who took annual leave to clean fish, but my dad did. When the smelt ran, you ran with them.

Looking back, I wonder if my parents realized how lucky they were to have five liver-loving, smelt-crunching, venison-stir-frying children on their hands. Refusing to eat what was on our plates never crossed our minds. In fact it took years for us to finally recognize, or at least admit, our distaste for certain foods. I clearly remember the day when I was 25, home from graduate school, helping my mother pack a picnic lunch for a weekend outing. She had made tuna melts—baked tuna on a bun with cheese, then chilled and wrapped in foil for the cooler. I asked her if it would be okay if I made myself a peanut butter and jelly. Now remember: I was 25.

“Of course you can make yourself a peanut butter and jelly,” she said. “But why? You love tuna melts.”

“Um, no I don’t,” I said.

She looked at me, incredulous. “You always ate them when you were little.”

“I thought I had to,” I replied, slapping together my alternative sandwich and sprinting out the door before she could question me further. The truth was that I hated tuna melts and had always hated tuna melts, from the soggy bits of cooked onion inside the tuna burger to the way the orange cheese stuck like chewed gum to the tin foil wrap. Ugh. We had chilled tuna melts every time we went on family road trips, and to this day I can’t think of Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands, or the headwaters of the Mississippi River without the smell of tuna melt always on my mind.

This is not my mother’s fault. All she ever wanted was to make us happy and take care of us, no matter how much or how little money my father was making at the time. When we could afford it, we ate out in restaurants, all seven of us. When we were a little short, bring on the spaghetti. We learned to make do with what we had, and nobody ever complained.

There is no question that my parents stretched their early family dollars to the snapping point. Just like my father pulled fishing worms apart in the garden when he himself was a boy of four—“to make more,” he told his mom—he and my mother always found creative ways to make it appear that we had enough of whatever we needed. One particular method of stretching their dollars came to the water bill.

When all of my sisters and my brother were old enough to bathe themselves, I was still young enough to require my mother’s assistance. Every other night she would run a quarter-tub full of water and take a quick bath herself. Then she would dry off, get dressed, and call for me to come in. Since she was interested in saving on the water bill, she would simply add some bubble bath to her own water and wash me up in that. My bath was never too hot or too cold; it was always the perfect temperature. Afterwards, my mother would towel me off with a big JC Penney towel, bigger than me even. She always had my pajamas at the ready, and she always combed my short wet hair into curly-cues with a kiss before sending me out into the family fray.

I still believe that my baths were perfect only because my mother had been in the tub first, warming the water for me. I know for sure that my childhood days were perfect, because I have chosen to remember them so.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Own Private Oreck

Click here, then read.

Two Christmases ago, my mom sent me an Oreck. Not being much of a vacuum cleaner connoisseur, I didn’t know what to think as I unwrapped this delicate creature and attached her neck. It was true that my old vacuum cleaner, Mr. Bagless Hoover, was messy and heavy, and he couldn’t reach all the way under beds. However, he had many attachments for all manner of nooks and crannies; even picking up bird seed and pebbles outdoors on the patio didn’t faze his durable plastic cup.

I was good to go in the suckable-mess category, and my mother knew it.

So, her sending me this upright vacuum with absolutely no attachments struck me as odd. My mother had always been an attachment woman; I remember learning about each brush and tube as she taught me how to keep a clean house. But she had recently discovered these no-attachment Orecks, and she’d been talking them up like they were the second set of hands she’d always wanted.

Who was I to say that my new Oreck was anything less than the ultimate in cool Christmas presents? My mother sharing her enthusiasm with me? Vastly better than just money.

When I called to thank her, she told me she loved me and went directly into how much she loved Orecks too: “I absolutely love mine. Honey, they are so lightweight—you’re not draggin’ around 100 pounds—and the cord is the longest cord I have ever seen in my life. I only have to move the plug once to vacuum the entire downstairs. But the best thing is that you can bend it totally flat to get under beds and chairs and I don’t know what all!”

I knew what the underlying story was here, the part my mother was leaving out: rolling around on the carpet with a three-foot plastic attachment stuck to the end of a hose so she could vacuum under a bed wasn’t as easy now as it was sixty years ago. Hauling a hundred-pound vacuum down to the basement to suck up mice droppings was probably also getting old, especially if she had to haul it back up the basement stairs to put it away. No wonder my mom loved her Oreck.

“But what about the nooks and crannies?” I asked, not quite sold. I knew my mom would never give up on a cobweb.

“That’s what your Dustbuster’s for!” she said triumphantly. Of course!

This glowing report from my glowing mother shut me up about the lack of attachments and earned my new lightweight XL X-tended Life Oreck the top spot in my hall closet. Mr. Bagless Hoover got transferred to the garage. He sits out there now with his extension tubes, waiting for the heavy-duty sucking disasters like dirt from a knocked-over plant or dried cat something. He inhales those kinds of messes like nobody’s business, then I empty his icky cup.

I could push the Oreck and her special compression bag to the limits regarding mud and dried poop because she did come with a fragrance tube, but I like to keep internal festering to a minimum, even inside my vacuum cleaners. I coddle my Oreck, only asking her to pick up human hair and animal fur from the carpet, crumbs from the kitchen floor, dander, dandruff, dead bugs after the exterminator has been here, tumbleweeds I drag in from playing outside, gray hairs I pluck out of my head, lint from the dryer, dust bunnies from the cats, sins and mistakes I don't have time to cover up.

That's all.

My Oreck worked like a charm for two years but recently she bucked; for as gently as I’d push her and for as hard as she’d inhale, she would retain little in her bag. I didn’t want to seem overbearing, so I let her do her thing for awhile without complaint. I didn’t realize the severity of the problem until my sister came to visit from Minnesota last month and kept writing my name in the dust on my furniture. “Clean me” she would write, and giggle. “Wash me.”

“I dusted right before you got here!” I kept saying, which was the truth. I had dusted and Orecked; the place should have been spotless. Instead, my furniture was coated with grit, and whatever had been on the carpet in the spare room was now on the walls in the living room: pigeon feathers and red lint from washed Christmas stockings.

In my heart of hearts, I knew something was wrong. Instead of cleaning, I’d just been moving dirt from place to place.

Frustrated, I took my Oreck to the Oreck store to see what the problem might be. The gentleman behind the counter examined her from top to bottom, as a pediatrician might a child. He picked her up gently and turned her upside down; she didn’t complain. When he asked her to jump up on the counter, she readily complied.

I can tell you that Mr. Bagless Hoover would not have made me so proud. He’s strong and durable, but he’s just…dirty. His cup drops dirty all over the place when I empty it, and his filter makes a twelve-inch high pyramid of ash-like material when I bang it against the house outside. If The World's Heaviest Smoker lived here or if the industrial cleaning of Mount St. Helen’s had taken place in my backyard, I wouldn’t expect more from my Hoover’s cup, because it would have done its job. But I don't live near Mt. St. Helen's, and nobody smokes in this house.

I’m not sure I would bring Mr. Bagless Hoover to a Christmas Party. I'm not sure I'd bring him to the Hoover doctor if his sucking abilities diminished further. I might let him go.

I stood quietly on the customer side of the counter while the older gentleman on the other side inspected my Oreck. It didn’t take him long to diagnose the problem: “She plugged. She suckin' real good but she plugged up down there so she’s blowin' it all out the back. She ain’t retainin’ a thing, see?” He showed me the near-empty bag. No wonder my furniture was always covered with dirt that used to be on my floor.

No wonder my sister had been writing my name in spewed cat litter.

“How much to fix?” I asked, using my best poor-me, I-have-no-money Asian impersonation. Probably a thousand dollars. It’s always a thousand dollars.

“Free,” the man said. “It’s still under warranty. Just let me get you a tag and do some paperwork.”

Free? Still under warranty? What language was this?

A happy flush warmed me and I wanted to hug my mom and would have waved at this older gentleman if he had been more than twelve inches away. I wanted to make a nice gesture. I looked around at the words spelled out in shreds: grt brkfst on the Oreck store’s otherwise clean carpet. Happy Hol days, with the “i” vacuumed up. “Merry Christ as” said another, the “m” neatly sucked into some Oreck, somewhere.

“Your store is really clean,” I said to the gentleman who had been helping me as he handed me a claim ticket and looked past me at the new customers coming in. Just like I had, these people had Orecks over their shoulders or swinging by the neck, hauling them in like the lightest of weapons.

"Not clean enough," Mr. Oreck said with a twinkle in his eye, bending over to bang some of the letters for "Let it Snow" out of a bottle of baby's talc. "It's never clean enough."

I totally understood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tough Girl

Click here, then read.

Today was a day of spills. It began in another time zone, as most days do, when a woman who was awake earlier than I was went to her computer and posted the following on Ratemyprofessors.com: “Maybe if you got a boob job, you could keep a man.”

I sat at my computer reading this rating very early in the morning, in my morning duds: slippers, socks, sweatpants, my old Bruce Springsteen t-shirt, my daddy’s old flannel. The zit on my chin festered; my bed-head of hair rose slightly at the roots. My voluminous but walleyed natural breasts heaved with perplexity, as if they had read my mind: Great, now the whole world knows. For however long it takes RateMyProfessors to remove the word “boob” from their web site—not to mention MY rating—God and students and my mother and all future love prospects will see right there in black and white that Professor Mohler is sagging and therefore cannot keep a man.

The wife of one of my former flames had accidentally revealed me to the world. How did I know it was her who left that comment? Because her words had the same ring of truth and good will that my ex’s did whenever he used to comment on my build: “You have the body of a seventeen-year-old.” That’s what he used to tell me back then, and I did. Now, maybe not so much.

Obviously this woman only had my best interests in mind and would now be offering me “anonymous” but helpful beauty tips on RateMyProfessors from a computer located at her work in a nearby state. She didn’t want me to know it was her because she didn’t want me to feel beholden. Awww.

The truth is, I do need a lift. Who wouldn’t, I thought, walking out the door a few hours later to lunch. You don’t carry twenty pounds around inside your chest for 43 years without one or two of them eventually wanting to befriend your belly button. And then on a documentary I watched the other night, a man said to his son, “Firm tits and a tight ass! That’s what a man wants! Doesn’t matter how nice a woman keeps herself; once the tits and ass are gone, it’s over.” I think it was a documentary on backwoods living in Texas.

So, with official and documented information, commentary from The New Wife, and the news I make for myself in my head, I drove to the restaurant. I met and ate with a retired and famous colleague, a genius poet. God looked kindly upon me during lunch: no spills. I cannot say the same for my lunch partner, who had arrived with old food on his shirt and left with new food on his shirt. “I can’t go anywhere without getting food on me!” he laughed cavalierly as we parted ways.

To live the life of a man.

I had no profound thoughts as I left this lunch encounter. I had been asked no questions; therefore, I must have been innocent. That was my line of thinking anyway.

It still is.

I left the restaurant and sallied forth down the sidewalk back towards my car, across the street. I touched South Africa and the Iraq in my mind, feeling like a cross between being green and being hardened, talented and not.

And then, I fell. Does it matter how high my heels were? Did my intentions matter, regarding being timely or clean for my next appointment? No. I was just another girl running in heels to make the light, and I didn’t make it.

I could feel the scoundrel of fate breathing down my neck, four seconds, knowing that I would be falling, trying to prevent it in a hang glider kind of way, hanging on to a stack of student papers, my purse, a Styrofoam container of leftovers. Three seconds: What might happen here, kind of knowing. Willing the universe against it. Two seconds between “I’m so embarrassed” and “Hope nothing breaks” and in the end, at one second: I can’t stop this train.

Asphalt, blue sky, pebbles of asphalt—this is what I recall from falling and then, for some reason, rolling. Fire would not have had a chance on me. I popped up brilliantly and quickly, finding my errant shoe and hurrying off the tough landscape of that situation.

On the way to my car, to the quiet and dreamish life I lead, I knew that most people hadn’t seen me stop, drop, and roll. How stealthy.

Must be the Army Ranger in me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hung Up Wet

Click here, then read.

I was doing laundry this morning…ever so carefully as usual. I picked up a damp cotton t-shirt that’s a little tight on me and snapped it hard to stretch it out. I took it by the arms and pulled them apart to accommodate my Horsewoman’s shoulders; I stuck my hands inside and stretched the front and back to make room for my Horsewoman’s chest and withers. Only then did the t-shirt get hung on a hanger to dry. Tomorrow, that shirt will fit me perfectly at the gym, where I will go in hopes of working off the few extra pounds that have turned me into Horsewoman in the first place.

As I worked on the laundry, a conversation with my niece came to mind: the last time she’d visited, we had also discussed clothes that don’t fit quite right. It started with my giving Shanna a compliment before we headed out for dinner: “Hey, I like those jeans on you. They’re very flattering. Are they new?”

Shanna replied, “No, they’re just a little tight. I forgot to stretch them out.”

I’m used to seeing Shanna in baggy pants because it is nearly impossible for my hourglass-shaped niece to find a pair that fits correctly. Her waist is so small that when I hug her hello, my arms wrap all the way around her and I end up hugging myself too. Men look at Shanna like men looked at Marilyn Monroe. They look at me and wonder when I’m going to win my first Kentucky Derby.

Shanna and I proceeded to discuss all of the various techniques we employ to make our clothes fit. I shared my snap-n-stretch approach: “If a shirt’s too tight, I whip it around when it’s wet—snap it hard—for an overall stretch, then get inside with my hooves for a more precise fit.”

Shanna shared her favorite technique: “If my pants are tight, I put them on when they’re wet and squat down. First I do the duck walk, then I open and close my knees and bounce, like I’m trying to push a baby out or something.”

“The problem with the duck walk,” I said to Shanna, “is that it cuts into your belly and doesn’t stretch the waist, which of course you don’t need. To make the waist bigger, you have to actually pull on it when it’s wet.”

You might say I have an aversion to wearing anything tight around my waist, perhaps even a phobia: even as a child I couldn’t stand to have my belly restricted (see Exhibit A). While Shanna has to wear a belt every day, I’ve never even owned one.

Last year I was pulling on the waist fabric of a favorite old pair of jeans so hard that they ripped all the way down to the knee. I had them repaired; it was the least I could do for my Tommys. I always buy quality clothing, pieces that will last for years and hold up under my brand of care. While hearing the fibers of my DNKYs, my Taharis, my Michael Kors rip a little each time I pull a 28-incher into a 30 is always painful, and I regret hurting my jeans, it has to be done. My apologies to the designers as well, especially Ralph Lauren, whose Polo jeans are—of course—my favorite.

Right now, if you looked in my closet, you’d find three pairs of damp jeans hanging there: pulled, stretched and whipped in such precise ways as to render them all exactly my fit. The ones that somehow got too short, I stepped on the waist and pulled the legs up to the white patch on my forehead. None of those pants would look good on anyone else because they are all exactly in the shape of me.

A good friend said to me once, “I’m built like a sturdy pony. You’re built like a racehorse.” At first I disagreed, but in hindquarters, I can’t deny it.

I’m a dying breed. See Exhibit B.

***

Exhibit A.
_______________________________________________________
Exhibit B.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Own Jesus

Click here, then read.

I went to a Catholic school with grades kindergarten through eighth, and while Catholic schools have the reputation of sheltering their students from the harsh cruelties of real life, the only people that my school sheltered were the white boys who got expelled from public school for being juvenile delinquents. The only other kids there were children of the teachers, rich kids from the rez, and me.

These were the last of the years when I believed everything.

I remember clearly the day when I discovered that the cast of larger-than-life holiday characters who I had grouped together with the saints became nothing more than costumes. I was eight and in the third grade, weaving an Easter basket out of colored pieces of construction paper, when Chris Whitebird, the evil boy sitting next to me, chirped, “Ay, guess what? There’s no Easter Bunny!”

I made my best “get real” face at him and replied, “Yeah, right. Who puts candy in your Easter basket then?”

“My dad,” Chris said.

What was he thinking? What blasphemy was coming out of his mouth? Was he retarded? I had to set him straight, but not before I pointed out the idiocy of his belief. I looked at Chris and said, “What do you think, the whole world’s lying to you?” That pretty much summed up the vast extent of my own belief system: How could everyone from your parents to your teachers to the people on TV be wrong on purpose?

I went home that afternoon and hung myself on the cross over my bed, where—for whatever reason—I felt most comfortable. Positioned in, draped from nail to nail, I turned a tired eye upon my mother, who dusted the wooden slats of my tomb. “Mom,” I said. “Is the Easter Bunny real?”

She hesitated in the way that mothers do at times like these, in the tradition of parents everywhere who eventually get caught between not wanting to disappoint their children, and not wanting to lie. “No,” she said. “He’s not.”

“What about Santa?”

No.

“The Tooth Fairy?”

No, not her either.

“What about Jesus?” I said, the entire world as I knew it suddenly a practical joke.

“Jesus is real! Jesus is real!” my mother responded, insistent and sincere. She helped me down from the cross and helped my brother up. Everybody got a turn in my family.

***

Many years before this, in my fours, Jesus had left Easter treats in my yard. It was a one-time event: my savior, candy, and Spring, all in my hand. I had a brightly colored woven basket and might as well have been in it. Life was good. If it sounds like a dream to you, it did to me too.

But then I slept or napped—a season changed? I remember foraging with my old Easter basket under the front bushes, looking for sustenance, still four. I found what I thought must be the perfect leftover: an overlooked candy egg, dyed the most perfect Robin-egg blue as to appear almost real, lying there waiting for me in the twigs and groundcover. I picked it up and popped it into my mouth, expecting malted milk and chocolate.

But of course it was a real bird’s egg, and out of season at that.

***

I round the corner from my living room to my kitchen, past a stack of clean dishes drip-drying in the sink, a full calendar, a pile of stamped bills ready for the mail. It’s between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., pill-taking time again. I look at the little pile of amber and white and purple that I laid out for myself earlier.

They remind me of jelly beans.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Late to the Party

Click here, then read.

I have always been an early-to-bedder. This trait flies in the face of every time I have danced on a bar, shimmied my butt on a dance floor, gotten married, and eaten pizza with a best friend at 2 a.m. Those were the late acts of my 90’s show.
The truth rests with my family—my four older siblings and our parents. Two repeated sayings from my mother led me, in the end, to acknowledge that she was right about me: “She figures out how to make herself breakfast” and “It doesn’t matter where we are. At 8:30 p.m., this child sleeps.”

I have to give my parents props on this: they did let me sleep and wake up pretty much on my own schedule. I was the happy kid who couldn’t wait for the day to begin. I consumed the days and early nights as if they were meals.

As I grew, my longing for boys became a constant, as did my new desire to look good as a feminine creature. I remember one summer that I was growing so fast, I only ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They were easy to make and totally the right thing. My hips needed those PB&J’s. I remember that summer as one that my parents could never have controlled or changed. That's how powerful peanut butter can be.

And then we moved cross-country, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, blammo. As always, it had something to do with my dad's job. The official word is that he had to save the Allegheny. My dad played cowboys and Indians for a lot longer than most, and he usually won. The unofficial word? Who knew. As a thin and skampy girl-child, I was not to be trusted.

I remember one time when my dad commissioned a county helicopter just to find out where the beer parties were.

Chop chop over the finest of clear-cut fields. "Is that your dad up there?" a fellow beer-swigging friend asked.

"Yup," I said. My own personal Vietnam.

While most kids harbor ill will regarding the 14-18 years, I don’t. My parents had turned into different people too, much different than the parents I thought I knew before. There we were, the three of us, trying to survive as a unit in our new Pennsylvania town after fleeing Minnesota. The fleeing part seems sad now. It was tougher on my mom than anyone else. Now I know.

I had never moved anywhere with my parents alone, just the three of us. We always had the older kids as buffer. But now…then…it was just me, the only planned child, and them: recovering.

While my parents had been nice to give me the upstairs bedroom, some other girl’s parents had thought to lay the blue carpet and put up the pink wallpaper. I had the girlie room I’d always wanted, but it was too late. By that time I just wanted to sip wine coolers and look for cute boys, smoke a stogie or two. I cared not about what my parents were doing or planning.

I sit here now, 30 years later, that long-off misadventure still charged, but only on my end. If my dad could name anything he wanted, I would get it for him. If I could name anything I wanted, it would be my dad. Simple equation.

I want to bring my dad to the ropes of the ring and give him the best of every coach, especially the “hang in there” part. I want every one of his new tears to reveal him as a prize fighter. I want to pour over my dad with ice packs and heat treatments. I want to cuddle my dad and rub his feet, clip him, make sure his hair is cut and clean.

I want the feathers in his mattress to be the finest, the sweetest words in his ear to be my mother's.

Filthy Living

Click here, then read.


I sit outside on the back patio enjoying my morning coffee. Fluffy white bird feathers cling to me here and there, hooking their fibers into my fibers. I shift in one of the uncomfortable chairs I purchased years ago as part of the small “bistro” set that called to me from atop a freezer case at my local grocery store. It outshined what I was using at the time: cheap green plastic chairs placed around a Shamrock milk crate.

Why make a special trip to a patio furniture store when you can get the same thing for cheaper in the frozen food section? Even then, it took me about a million trips to the grocery store before deciding that yes, this was the patio set for me, that one right up there on top of the frozen dessert case.

I don’t know why, but I often drag my feet when it comes to making what should be fairly easy home improvements. While the bistro set is better than what I had, the green plastic lawn chairs and milk crate still sit on the patio, pushed to a wall, caked with dust and mud, spider webs and pigeon crap. I can’t bring myself to throw them out: I’ll need those chairs someday, right? Aren’t milk crates good for storage? They were in college.

Now that the semester is almost over and teachers throughout the country are looking at a little holiday break, a little free time, I can’t be the only one glancing around at the filth I’ve allowed to accumulate in my house and on my property from the day school started back in August, or—if we’re being really honest—the day we decided to become teachers in the first place. I was a very clean and tidy person before I took up teaching, a clean liver, but now—twenty years into the game—the truth can come out: Filth is alive and well in my world.
Nowhere is this most apparent than on the patio.

I am out here now taking inventory of my patio’s shortcomings, top down. The roof leaks. It’s leaked for six years in the same place. Up to this point, I simply haven’t sat under the leak. Problem solved.

Another issue is that whoever nailed the top of this patio roof down in the first place used the wrong length nails, so the sharp ends of nails stick out about one foot from your head. Be careful when you jump.

The crack in the cement that is the base of my patio floor always bothers me. It’s just one crack, starting at the house and ending at the patio’s edge. I’ve tried to befriend it: “You are a crack caused by the house settling. I apologize. I still admire you. Cracks remind me of rivers that separate counties and countries.” Admitting to the crack that I would rather have it gone seemed selfish, so I tried to identify with it.

Conversations with the one crack in my patio’s cement led to other observations: my screen door has fallen off again, many empty flower pots remain empty, the filthy R2D2 of a patio cabinet still sits there, testing my patience.

My contributions to this dead space took six years. I may have been in shock after trying to love an unlovable man for too long. Forgiveness and understanding are essential. I could still be in shock.

I sit on my patio now—with a good sunset view—and instead of being calm, I am verklempt. Pavers need to be laid, shade screens installed, the roof lifted, maybe a misting system. I know it will take five thousand dollars, if not more.
Ten thousand.

What’s nice is that I get to do this alone. No matter how white-trashy my patio is at the moment—no matter how dirty—I know for sure that I will fix it and make it better.

Without a man during this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Not a Hobo

Click here, then read.

The third major writing unit in my version of English 101 is called “Persuasive Letter”. For this unit, students must choose a particular audience—a neighbor for instance, or a friend—and write a letter to that person in hopes of changing his or her mind about something significant. Most students use this opportunity to persuade a messy roommate to clean up more around the apartment, or to ask Grandma for a small loan…something safe. Sometimes the stakes are higher, but not very often. It’s almost as if students are afraid to ask for something big, to raise the specter of desire if chances are that they’ll get shot down anyway. I think plenty of my students are used to that dynamic, whether they admit it or not. For all the blustery complaints and colorful suggestions they shoot my way via e-mail and on RateMyProfessors.com, when it comes to real-life, mature confrontation, they—as a whole—write softly and carry Wiffle bats.

So it was with particular glee today, after plowing through a stack of letters to boyfriends in hopes of getting the boyfriend to stop cheating, to managers in hopes of getting a chintzy raise, and to themselves—letters written to themselves, in hopes of persuading themselves to stop procrastinating—that I found a true winner. It was written by a student to his parents, in hopes of getting the parents to stop forcing the young man to become a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion they had joined a few years back. In one particularly impassioned and well-detailed paragraph of support for his thesis, the student wrote, “Mom and Dad, a Jehovah’s Witness is asked to be and do a lot of things that people do not want to be or do. Most of those rules I don’t agree with. For example, the church preaches to not celebrate holidays, like my birthday for a good example.

We can’t celebrate my birthday anymore because in the times of Jesus, they would give severed heads as gifts to the king on his birthday. Well, that was thousands of years ago, and a severed head as a gift nowadays is very frowned upon and I’m sure not on anyone’s wish list. The church also says that the men can’t have beards. Well, in all the pictures of Jesus, he has a beard. I’m sure he didn’t have a nice looking one since there were no barber shops back then, but he still had one. I don’t see why I can’t have one. It’s just hair.”

My student had more to say than just that, since a sound argument entails much more than a simple airing of complaints. He knew his job wasn’t over until he had addressed his opponents’ concerns and reiterated his main point, so he continued: “Mom and Dad, I understand that you two believe you know what is best for me. You are trying to keep me away from bad things in life, trying to put me on the right path so I end up on the right side. I understand your reasoning. I don’t want to be on the wrong side. I want to lead a good life and be healthy. But it’s my decision to believe what I want, and I want to play football. You guys didn’t let me play my last four years of high school because you saw it as a distraction from the church, a waste of time, and a dangerous activity. But you never took the time to understand what football really was to me. Mom and Dad, I am not a druggie, a criminal, or a hobo. I just have a different idea of this world than you do. I want to do what I love. I want to be happy. I want to play football.”

After I stitched up my heart and finished my own job of reading and grading, I put down my pen and thought about it. Never before had I wanted more to push a paper up and away and give it legs, let it walk and talk and cross the street if it wanted. I didn't want to say yes or no, pass go or time's up. I wished the paper could make its own decisions, grade itself for once. I think it would have rightly taken the A and run for a touchdown.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bearded Lady

Click here, then read.

The holiday season is here, and some of us want to look our best for all the fabulous parties we intend to host and attend. But this isn’t exactly the greatest time to lose weight—demonstrated at my house on Thanksgiving Day as we mowed our way from a bowl of M&M’s through caviar, crackers, and brie, then sat down for the feast, then force-fed ourselves three different kinds of cake, finally ending a couple hours later collapsed in front of the TV, masticating an unmentionably large amount of strawberry licorice before bed. I could not have slept on my stomach last night even for a lower mortgage interest rate.

So, while weight-watching and calorie-counting are not currently priorities, the ever-important “maintaining of the complexion” still ranks very high, at least it does for me. For as bloated or vomity as I might be at any given party, I still aim to glow: I channel all of my obsessive-compulsive behaviors into exfoliating so that when it’s time for holiday pictures, I stand out as the shiniest and healthiest, at least from the neck up.

The other day, home from having coffee with yet another potential love interest, I was feeling itchy on the face as I graded papers, but not really thinking about it as I clawed at myself. I went to the bathroom later, looked in the mirror, and saw white flakes of skin standing up all over my mustache and beard area: white whiskers. I looked like an elderly dog. How long have I been walking around like this? Why hasn’t someone said something? I’ve been exfoliating, yes…this must be the day that lust and gluttony peel off…no wonder there are so many flakes. And I went shopping too, talking to people and making conversation as if nothing was wrong with me. What must these people have thought, like at the grocery store? What about my coffee date? “She’s a pretty girl but her muzzle is graying.” Jesus.

As I picked each piece of dead skin off my face, I was reminded of the only singles mixer I have ever attended: It was at a fancy Phoenix resort in the summer of ’95, when resorts would throw pool parties for the locals because tourists don’t come around when it’s 120 degrees. I was a sweaty beast as usual (having already earned the nickname “Sweaty Betty” from my girlfriends, as in: “She’s a Betty, but she’s sweaty.”) Since I was dripping with perspiration, we decided that my friend Kerry should make the first beer run so that I could stand in the shade and cool down. Lucky for me, I remembered that I had a Kleenex in my purse, so I took it out and dabbed at my face, soaking up the rivulets of sweat.

Click here; it's long.

Kerry was taking a long time, so after the dabbing I leaned back against a railing and took in all the cute guys. They were checking me out too—I was getting a lot of looks. When Kerry finally got back, carrying two huge plastic cups of beer, she took one look at me and slammed the beers down, grabbed me by the arm and hustled me to a more private spot.

“What do you have all over your face!?” she said, picking at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just wiped off with a Kleenex.”

“Well you’re wearing it, man. Look,” Kerry said, whipping out her compact mirror and holding it up. There I was, bits and pieces of Kleenex all over my neck and face and forehead, plastered on with sweat. I wondered what all the cute guys had been thinking as I stood there, gazing at them with my bedroom eyes, posing in my tight sundress, smiling through my shredded veil of Kleenex. Kerry cleaned me up, but it was too late—no guys wanted to talk to Sweaty Betty.

There was one other time when my face let me down at the most inopportune time ever. I was having acne problems in grad school, so a doctor had prescribed some pretty strong cream. It made the skin on my face very dry and tight. While I did not have a boyfriend at the time, I was always gunning for a fellow classmate named Danny, who was cute and sexy because all Dannys are. Sometimes he would let me stay the night in his apartment, but he’d never want to pass second. Of course he was in love with another girl.

I remember these as very frustrating times.

Anyway, the last night I stayed over at Danny’s place, I didn’t have my moisturizer (as usual), so we just finally fell asleep after a long kiss-fest…much to my chagrin. We stayed in bed and talked face to face the next morning, with me telling him again why we belonged together even though we never even took our clothes off. Can you believe that?

After our talk, I got up and went to the bathroom, where there hung a small mirror, big enough only to see your face and nothing else. I looked into it and saw that once again my muzzle was covered in flakes of white skin, but this time I had bled too. I looked like a hyena having just lifted her face from a bloody carcass. My skin was peeling off everywhere that Danny’s scruffy face had rubbed it when we kissed for all that time the night before, and blood had crusted over the abrasions.

I panicked, realizing that Danny had just stared at me looking this way for at least an hour…without saying anything. He must think I’m some kind of molting leper. How unattractive! Oh my God, what to do, what to do?

I left the bathroom, turned down the hallway away from Danny’s bedroom and towards the front door. I rushed out without saying goodbye, one of the only times I seemed to have the upper hand in this relationship that I had created in my mind, my two minutes of I’m done with you! glory in the two years of never even having him in the first place. Layers of fraud and treachery peeled off my face in sheets and flags that waved a bloody and permanent goodbye to Danny.

The Bearded Lady, exposed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Remain Single and Childless

Click here for the journal that just published this essay.

Fall in love early; fifteen is not too soon. If you can, fall in love with an older man, a senior if you are a freshman for instance, and make sure that he’s already in love with another girl who snatches him back when she finds out about you, so that your heart begins to develop calluses at an early age. Cry every day for six months after he dumps you. This is a good time to have your first run-in with the law: take your parents’ car, roll down the windows, crank your Van Halen tape, and drive recklessly down the back roads of your town until you are pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of a broken heart. This will also serve to prime your parents for future romantic transgressions.

Vow to never fall in love again.

During whatever is left of your high school career, channel your energy into having serial boyfriends. Establish a two-month relationship limit and stick to it. This will make you fit in with your peers, who are behaving similarly, and will please your parents, who need to know that the first relationship that ended badly did not scar you for life. In college, continue this pattern, but only until your junior year, when you will have to buckle down and focus more on your studies in order to obtain a degree. The degree is important, for if you are to remain single, you’ll have to support yourself.

Sometime between the ages of 20 and 22, against your better judgment, fall in love again, but this time fall in love with an even older man, preferably old enough to be your father, biologically. We will not call this a mistake. We’ll call it a learning challenge. Continue to behave like a 20-year-old: go to the bars with your girlfriends, flirt outrageously when you’re out with them, join a city-league volleyball team and consistently arrive on your older boyfriend’s doorstep drunk, with sand in your hair, at three o’clock in the morning. Run to your parents when your boyfriend scolds you for this misbehavior, and eventually move in with him when he insists that it would in be your own best interest. You think it would be, too.

Live with him for as long as it takes to ingrain in your memory how difficult it is to co-habitate with a man. At the same time, keep in close contact with your girlfriends, all of whom will be dating younger men within your age range, so that you are constantly aware of the fun you are missing out on. Take your boyfriend home as often as you can, preferably to weddings and baptisms, so that you can begin to train your family to accept your choices. Pretend not to notice that he has more in common with your parents than with you. Entertain thoughts of having children with this man; you know that he wants them, and you think that you might, too. Envision being forty and pushing your husband in his wheelchair to your child’s high school graduation. Remember all the stories that you’ve heard about your great-aunt who married a forty-year-old when she was sixteen and ended up taking care of him until she was eighty because he wouldn’t die. Be sure to tell your parents that you’re considering having children with your boyfriend so that you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away, so that no doubt remains concerning their disappointment in you.

When it’s time, go ahead and let the honest truth in. This will be difficult because so far you’ve been trying very hard to act as if all of this were normal. Begin to dislike not being mistaken for your boyfriend’s daughter on vacations that you take; you want other people to recognize, as you do, that something is out of sync here. Don’t fail to notice that you have more in common with his teen-aged nieces and nephews than with him. Pay particular attention to the age-related physical attributes of your boyfriend that escaped you before: hair in the ears, thick toenails, wrinkles around the eyes. Let this bother you, even though you know it’s not fair. Lie in bed with him while he sleeps and compare the skin on your arm to the skin on his arm. Eventually, revert to your old bad ways and pick up being twenty where you left off, even though you’re older than that now. When he suggests that perhaps it’s time for you to either stop misbehaving or move out, choose the latter and leave him immediately. And when he attempts to reconcile—and he will, because he knows just as well as you do that you’re young and still learning—make sure that you listen good and hard to yourself say, “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” This will become your motto from now on. Notice that you are a cocktail waitress lying on the floor of your unfurnished, one-room apartment when you speak these words for the first time.

Move far away, the farther the better, so that all your friends and family will believe you when you say that you are putting the past behind you and starting over. Get a good job that pays well; you do have the degree for it. Begin to cultivate a close circle of friends; this won’t be difficult because people recognize you as open-minded, responsible, yet slightly risqué. Besides, you’re beginning to have a cache of good stories to tell, and most people haven’t lived as much as you have.

Continue dating. Avoid upscale, trendy bars and all cultural events; the men you will meet there might be well-educated and financially secure, and you don’t want that. Instead, frequent neighborhood dive bars where you will meet construction workers and truckers, men with whom you share a love of beer, well-stocked juke boxes, and nine-ball. Become a regular, a familiar face, so that no one blinks an eye when you once again climb on stage to play the cowbell with the band: you are the cowbell girl. When you tire of that scene, become a regular at a local coffeehouse, and get to know the guitarist who plays there every Tuesday and Friday evening. You’ll like him: he has long hair, torn jeans, and enough money to buy new sound equipment, but not quite enough to move out of his parents’ home, not just yet. Eventually you will discover that he is talented, charming, within your age range, and a compatible sexual partner. For these reasons and no others, allow him to move in with you.

Learn to appreciate his quirky sense of humor—when he behaves like an ape at the mall, believe him when he says he was only pretending for the children. Don’t think twice about the increase in your grocery and utility bills—your new roommate regularly slips you fives and tens, and the immediacy of cash is enough to make it seem like he’s actually paying his share. Help him haul his guitars and speakers from gig to gig. Drive him yourself when his car breaks down. Hang out alone in the bars and coffee shops where he plays, and pretend not to notice when he takes phone numbers from other women; after all, that’s just part of the show. Call your parents and all of your siblings to let them know that you’re finally learning how to compromise, to give a little. You’re even thinking of getting married.

Listen intently when your new partner speaks of future recording contracts, of breaking into “the big time.” Be happy for him when he gets out-of-town gigs, and lend him your car when he goes to them. Make sure that you fill the tank for him before he leaves, because you know as well as he does that he won’t get paid until after the gig. Familiarize yourself with the city bus routes and schedules because he has your car now more than you do. Don’t pay attention to your friends when they suggest that he might be using you; they’re just jealous because, while they’re dating boring lawyers and architects, you’re dating an artist. Think about how talented your children will be.

After six months of this, slowly--but with increasing regularity--begin to wonder if this man is ever going to get a real job. When he complains that you are not being supportive enough, try not to raise your eyebrows and make choking noises—it’ll only make things worse. During your bus rides to and from work, remember that you’re breaking your two-month rule. Finally, listen to your mother when she calls to say for the umpteenth time that he is not “the man for you.” While you wait for him to come home on that last night, chant your motto: “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” Note that you are listening to your old Van Halen tapes and drinking cheap beer at the time. When your man arrives, run to the car and make sure that the gas tank is on empty, as usual. Then ask him to move out.

We’ll call that learning challenge number two.

How old are you now? Twenty five? Take a good look around: most of your girlfriends are still single, going to the bars, dating freely, living it up. What were you thinking living with that guy? It’s high time for you to re-connect with your old crowd, get back into the swing of things. And now that your musician has moved out, you have more money to spend on your own social life. You don’t want to fall into your old bad habits, though—you’ve played your last cowbell. You decide that while you need to get out and start having a life, you don’t want to call attention to yourself, lest new strange men recognize you for the learning-challenged individual that you are. So you decide to become a lurker.

You’ve seen them before, the people who are able to go out to bars, to parties, and hang back in the shadows. They’re the ones who stand quietly on the sidelines, in the background, watching everyone else engage freely in conversation and festivity. While they are sometimes in the company of another lurker of the same sex—a lurking friend—they usually lurk by themselves. You respect these people, because they seem at ease, and they have the confidence it takes to stand alone in a crowd without appearing out of place.

You begin to lurk.

You are a self-conscious lurker at first; you don’t know what to do with your hands, and by definition you can’t chat up those around you. You begin to drink more than you ever have, which keeps your hands busy, and gives you something to do while you’re lurking. Soon enough you’re lurking comfortably, on a regular basis, at one particular establishment. You begin to notice another lurker who frequents the same bar you do; one night you decide to buy him a drink. He ends up buying you three more and soon enough you have tossed off your lurking clothes: you are chatting freely and engaging in much festivity. Back at your apartment that night with him in tow, you toss off your real clothes. This sets the stage for learning challenge number three.

You’ve never been involved with a man quite as irresistible as this one. Even better than that, his first language isn’t English like yours is, so while he revels in your quick wit and helpful grammar suggestions, you revel in his accent and exotic good-looks. Having met as lurkers, you have much in common: you both like to be alone, you both have your guards up, and neither of you are ready to make any kind of commitment whatsoever. These similarities work quickly to solidify your relationship, and before you know what’s hit you, you are in love once again.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

After several months, maybe six, begin to envision marriage with this man. After all, you’re practically living with him already, and the cards and letters and phone numbers that you occasionally find from other women seem old, from a former life he led. Even though none of your friends think he’s “your type,” call your mother regularly and tell her that this time, you think you may just have found “the one.” Don’t tell her that what’s best about your relationship with him is the sex, though; she is a hopeful woman and still believes that you are a virgin.

Think about how attractive your children will be.

One night, when he’s working late and you’re at the house alone doing your laundry and his, listen intently to the female voice that leaves a message on his answering machine, thanking him for the roses and the “fun time.” You’ll want to pick up the receiver and talk to rose woman, but rules are rules: you don’t answer the phone at his place. Instead, drink a bottle of wine and ransack his bedroom looking for evidence of transgression. When he finally gets home, drunk with lipstick on his collar, lay with him in bed until he passes out, then sneak outside and ransack his car. There, on the front seat, you will find a slip of paper with a woman’s name and phone number on it. You know this can’t be rose woman, because obviously she was not with him tonight. Steal this piece of evidence, but don’t talk about it, especially not with your friends: it will only serve to reinforce their negativity.

Continue to date this recovering lurker; just like recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, he is prone to relapses, and you understand. You know he’s been out lurking, and you know very well what can happen: that’s how you met him, after all. Give him another chance. One night, when he’s been out with his friends and you’ve been at your apartment—where, incidentally, you’ve been spending more and more nights alone—get to thinking. Drink a bottle of wine and nurture your sixth sense. After a few hours of restless sleep, give in. Get up and get dressed, and sit at your kitchen table playing solitaire until it’s light out; no use in conducting a commando mission when you can’t see anything. Drive to his house and notice the strange truck parked out front. When you walk to the door, look through the front window and notice the purse sitting on the kitchen table. Use your key to get in, and notice the clothing and beer bottles strewn across the living room, leading into the bedroom. Step quietly into the bedroom and try not to hurt the nice lady when you pull out the top dresser drawer and toss it onto the bed, directly over the spot where her skin must definitely be touching your boyfriend’s under the sheets.

They’re awake now, and you have to leave. Before you go, reach inside the bathroom and yank the medicine chest off the wall. This won’t be difficult; it was rickety in the first place. Stop in the kitchen to find scissors and methodically cut her blazer—there it is, hanging on the back of a chair—in half. Struggle mightily when he tackles you from behind, and try not to get cut too badly as you both roll around in the broken glass from the lamp you threw at him in your attempt to fend him off. He says he’s going to call the cops, so now you really have to go. Once you’re in your car, back over his mailbox before driving away.

There has never been a better time to have your second run-in with the law. Indeed, it’s long overdue. Drive home quickly so as not to miss the police when they arrive. He has sent them to scare you. You are duly scared—after all, you started it. Luckily, your one black eye, the scrape on your cheek and the blood running down your ankle into your sneaker all help to convince the officers that you’ve been punished enough, and it’s not like anybody wants to press charges. They leave you with a warning: stay away from him.

You take them up on their suggestion; in fact, you decide it’s high time to get out of town. After you call in sick to work and get your ankle stitched up down at the ER, hop a flight home, back to your parents’ house halfway across the country. Hole up there for a week, maybe two—take as long as you need to catch your breath. Attempt to bask in all the attention you receive from the continual stream of family members who come by to see you: your sisters, your brother, all of their kids, your grandmother. The neighbor lady is a nurse and she’ll take your stitches out for you, so no problem there. At one point, be sure to tell your parents that you’ve learned your lesson, that all that bad business is behind you now, so you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away.

They hardly know you anymore.

When you’re all healed up and your sense of responsibility has kicked back in, catch a flight back and return to work. Pretend that you’re fine, just fine—eventually, you really will be. Learning challenge number three under your belt, you’re that much closer to your ultimate goal: to remain single and childless, remember? Repeat your motto every time you step out your front door.

And start to smoke. You’re going to need it from now on.

By this time, your friends are worried about you. You’ve been spending a lot of time alone, and they think you need to get out more. You agree, but since they all have boyfriends or husbands, they are mostly unavailable to accompany you as you begin to develop a social life without the relapsed lurking man. Accept all of their offers to meet available men in group situations, and be agreeable when your friends set you up on blind dates: it is imperative for you to at least appear receptive to new romantic relationships, especially since your mother now calls you every other night without exception to check on your progress in this area. You’ve never lied to her before, and you don’t want to start now.

Only accept dates with non-smokers, and if you start to enjoy their company, smoke regularly in their presence.

Buy your first house all by yourself.

After a longish period of time, perhaps when you’re approaching your twenty-ninth year and your friends have run out of non-smoking men to fix you up with, decide that the best way to both attain your goal and to appear normal is to date someone who has the least likelihood of desiring children or marriage: begin to date a much-older man. Don’t worry, he’ll come along: your friend will fix you up with him because, she says, you have so much in common outside of the age difference. As opposed to the older man you dated when you were twenty, this man—learning challenge number four—should not simply be close to your parents’ age: he should be their age.

In the best-case scenario, this man will be a powerhouse of success. He should be gainfully employed, a politician on the state level or an Olympic coach, so that you have the opportunity to see him on television when he’s out of town. His children, all girls, will be your age or older, an attribute you appreciate since he probably won’t be interested in having any more kids. Allow him to wine you and dine you—you’re living large now. Hang on his arm at ritzy parties, accept all gifts without hesitation. You’ve never been treated so well.

Travel with him. Listen to his stories—his are even better than yours. Humor him by shopping for Jeep Cherokees with built-in baby seats; he says he’s always wanted a boy, but you know that he must certainly be kidding. Fall into the habit of spending more time at his house than at your own; he has a pool, a fireplace, a gym, and his own movie theater. You have a microwave. Tell his children when they call that yes, you’re taking good care of their father, and yes, he’s taking his medication.

Even though you’re beginning to have less and less in common with your own friends—most of whom are now getting married and having babies—keep in touch with them, for you will need reassurance every so often that your new relationship is indeed promising. Try not to argue with them when they all tell you that actually, this one seems to make the most sense for you, that they’ve always known you’d end up with an intelligent, hard-working man. After a few months, call your parents and break the news gently: you’re dating a senior citizen. It will take them several months to accept the idea, but eventually they will admit that they only want you to be safe and happy, and if this is what it takes, so be it. Besides, your mother has seen him on TV, and he strikes her as a trustworthy sort. Handsome, too.

Just about the time that you’re starting to feel comfortable, when you’ve reached the point where you can efficiently maintain two households and you rarely think about younger men, hardly ever, your own particular man—this one who is generous, kind-hearted, and sincere--will sit you down on his leather couch, pour you a glass of vintage merlot from his wine cellar, take your hand in his, and reveal that he has a big surprise for you. Before he can tell you what it is, though, he needs to know if you love him.

Of course you don’t, though you wish that you did. And, though you are mostly a truthful person and not prone to lying, you don’t want to appear rude. To complicate matters, you are curious by nature, and you want to know what the surprise is. You feel that if there was ever a situation in which lying was acceptable, this is the one. So, you lie.

The surprise? He’s moving to Africa and he wants you to come along! If he’s a politician, he will have accepted an ambassadorship to a large but struggling third-world nation. If he’s an Olympic coach, one of the world powers is jealous that he has coached the U.S. team to first place, and they have offered him a position he can’t refuse. In either case, he wants you by his side as he forges ahead into this last great adventure.

Be careful.

Smile.

Tell him you’ll think about it.

Spend several nights in a row at your own place. Call all of your friends to see what they think. They will be supportive but of no real help because, while none of them have even come close to being in your position, it sure sounds like fun to them. Test the waters: call your parents and tell them you’re moving overseas. Fill in the long silences by telling them about all the fascinating people you’ll meet, the wonderful new life you’ll lead, all the great opportunities that will suddenly open up for you. Tell them they can come and visit you. Wouldn’t they like that?

Eventually, be honest with yourself—yes, it’s time for that again. Just like before, this will be hard, but even more difficult this time because you lied, and you know that you shouldn’t have. Tell the man—who, again, has treated you better than any other man ever has--that, although you appreciate his invitation, you simply can’t go. You don’t want to go to Africa. You want to stay here. Alone.

Continue to watch CNN so you can keeps tabs on him.

Repeat your motto.

You’re over thirty now. You haven’t been back to visit your family in awhile, and you’re missing out on seeing your nieces and nephews grow up. Join a frequent flier club to take full advantage of your miles, and go home regularly. Tape a picture of yourself to each of your siblings’ refrigerators so that their children will know who you are. Put a picture of yourself in a nice frame and give it to your parents, so they’ll know too.

Try not to recognize the curve of your own chin when your six month old nephew smiles at you, or wonder at how, while his eyes are still blue, all the rest of the kids have your color. Tell your mother, when she gets out your baby book to show you how much your five year old niece looks like you at that age, that sure, okay, you see the resemblance. Correct the two year old each time he comes careening around the corner, wraps his arms around your leg, and calls you “mom”—his recurring habit of mistaken identity when you’re there. Breathe deeply into his hair when he sits on your lap.

Breathe deeply.

Think to yourself that these children could be yours, and try to be glad that they’re not.

Click here. Listen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Don't Blame Dallas

Click here, then read.

Since I work from home most days, I can hear any commotion going on outside: the schoolbus rumbling down my street, people on their way to work rocketing over our speed bumps, Waste Management picking up everybody’s recycling bins and dumping a thousand splendid beer cans and booze bottles in a raucous clatter into the back of their truck. This is my ‘hood, these are my peeps.

And then, there are the dogs. Many people on my street have dogs, which is fine, but when Arizona temps finally fall from one jillion degrees to a measly 90 or so, some people get the bright idea to leave their dogs outside all day while they are at work. This lasts until late spring, when it becomes so scorchingly hot again that only morons and criminals leave their dogs outside.

Dogs left outside all day, all alone, tend to bark. I would bark too if I was left outside with no one to talk to or play with. I would bark especially if I saw a stray cat. In fact, I have.

A few days ago, I heard a dog start barking around 7 a.m. I knew which dog it was and which neighbors he belonged to, though I had never met these people. Their dog had been barking every day all day for about a week. I had grown weary of listening to him, so I crossed the street in my pajamas and knocked on the front door. I read the “NO SOLICITORS”, “NO TRESPASSERS”, and “BEWARE OF DOG!” signs while I waited. Nobody came out, but of course this made the dog bark more. I walked over to the wood-slat gate and looked through the cracks: there he was, a beautiful large mixed-breed dog, nicely groomed with a collar and tags, barking his face off. “You’re a good dog,” I said. Bark bark bark. “Can you be quiet?” I said. Bark bark bark.

I turned around to walk back to my house, but I couldn’t help but notice an odd and off-putting odor. I looked down to see mothballs strewn all over my neighbors’ yard. Evidently moths were not welcome here either.

I walked back to my house and wrote the owners a note along the lines of, “Hi, my name is so and so, I live across the street, I’ve noticed your dog barking a lot lately and was wondering if you could quiet him down a bit. Thanks!” I thought it was a nice note. I walked back and stuck it on the front door next to all the signs. I tried not to gag as I crossed back over the lawn towards my house, crunching mothballs.

Every time I passed the house that day—driving to the store, out for a run—I would look to see if the note was still there. I went out to get my mail later in the day and saw that the note was gone. Hm, I thought. Wonder what’ll happen.

It didn’t take long to find out. Around dinner time, a man appeared at my front door and rang the bell. I saw through the window that he was about 60 years old and normal-looking in all ways. He wasn’t carrying a clipboard wanting me to sign something, apparently he had nothing to sell, and he was not carrying a bible. I opened the door. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said gruffly. “My name is so and so and you left a note on my front door this morning about my dog.”

Click here, then read.

The man seemed safe enough, so I stepped out. I mentally thanked my higher power that I still had my bra on. I quickly morphed from an assertive, mature woman into a demure and innocent housewife. “Oh, that’s your dog!” I exclaimed, sticking my hand out. When the man shook my hand, I stepped closer to invade his personal space and touched his shoulder with my other hand. I hoped he could smell my perfume. “I hope my note didn’t offend you,” I purred.

“As a matter of fact, it did!” he said. “Dallas only barks when he’s provoked or protecting our house!”

“Sometimes dogs bark when they’re in distress?” I suggested, my inflection rising as I batted my eyelashes.

“Dallas is not in distress! You know what Dallas is? Dallas is being taunted by the stray cats that jump up on the wall. You know what they do? They sit there and hiss at him.”

“Oh, I know…we definitely have a stray cat problem in this neighborhood,” I said, nodding my entire body in full and complete agreement. “They use my yard for a litter box.”

“My wife threw mothballs all over the place outside, which they’re supposed to hate, and still they come,” the man said, obviously exasperated. I knew how he felt; my scary fake owl works that way too.

“And it’s not only that!” the man continued. “Drug deals go down in the alley behind my house all the time—cars pull up, kids stand on lookout on every corner, then they do the deal and peel out. I’ve called the cops many times.” The man seemed to be getting agitated, so I invaded some more of his personal space, touching elbows this time. He seemed to soften a little before adding, “And there is a whore who lives down the street whose ‘boyfriends’ sneak down the alley and jump over fence. Dallas doesn’t like that either.”

I would bark too if I heard kids dealing drugs behind my house and if there was a whore living down the street. Poor Dallas.

“Well,” I said, glad that I was not the whore in reference, “one thing that we could both do is report all these stray cats to the city. I’ll call tomorrow! We need to do something!” I looked the man in the eyes before embracing him. “Let’s work together.”

“That’s a start,” the man sighed, allowing me to rub his back while I rested my head on his shoulder. “But let’s not blame Dallas. Dallas has been a part of our family for ten years. I raised my kids here, they went to the schools in this neighborhood, and you know what? We used to get over 200 trick-or-treaters on Halloween, and this past one we only got 20! This place is just going downhill.”

Luckily I had a Kleenex in my pocket, so I pulled it out and handed it to the man to wipe his tears. “Let’s do our best to make things better,” I said. “For us and Dallas.”

The man nodded, then turned and walked back across the street to his house, his shoulders slumped, still wiping his eyes.

I have not heard from Dallas since.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Still Feral After All These Years

Click here, then read.

My black cat Lucy—three years old now, adopted from the pound—came to me with a confession last night.

“Yes Sweetpea?” I said as Lucy settled down on my chest as I lay in bed, trying to read a book. No more of that though: Lucy’s innocent and sweet whiskered face was right next to mine.

“I think I’m feral,” she meeped, looking around wild-eyed in case her happily domesticated sister happened to pounce upon this snuggly moment, ruining it.

“No you’re not,” I cooed, patting her butt, which rose into the air; there’s a butt-button back there somewhere. “You’re just shy. You stopped being feral the moment I took you home from the shelter. Remember?”

I remember sitting in a large but friendly room with about 200 kittens and other people who were there looking for good ones. I’d been instructed to let my kittens pick me, so I sat there cross-legged on the cement floor, waiting for who would come up. The first one was Sara: she was definitely not feral, simply laid off from the Flying Feline Wallendas. She trapezed into my life and has always been outgoing.

But then there was Lucy, a little pudgier than Sara, a solid color black—bused in from another district? For whatever reason, she too wandered toward me, sniffed, and climbed into my lap. She was home. She was five weeks old.

I’m sure that in some way, my cats remember their kitty-colds, their eye infections…all from being at the pound too long. I nursed them for three weeks once they were in my house, every day gently applying salve to their eyes, squirting antibiotic broth into their tiny mouths. I fed them and nursed them back to good health; I clipped their nails and started learning about their toy preferences.

But still, Lucy struggles. She continued last night with her whiskers in my face: “It’s hard for me to live with a more assertive cat, so even though I love you, I hide from you.”

“Luce,” I said, massaging her shoulders which I know she likes. “I always know where to find ya. Just because you’re shy doesn’t make you feral.”

There’s the snack issue in our house: We get snacks twice a day, fairly promptly at 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sara reminds me of this routine by leaping into the air from a sitting position over and over (she is, after all, a retired Flying Wallenda, probably a dog in a former life.)

Lucy—always most comfortable in the back of the house, under my bed—wants snacks too. She has a good nose and will conduct a commando mission from underneath the bed to the kitchen, where the snacks are dispensed, but time and again I have to follow her back to wherever she has come from before (darkness under a bed), and leave the snacks within her reach.

I lie on my back and push kitty treats under my bed. “I can’t see you, sweetie, but I know you’ll like these!”

For over three years I’ve been following Lucy around. She enjoys the sunshine patch in the middle bedroom at 10 a.m.; I make it a point to go in there and rub her belly. She comes to me when I’m working at the computer later, meeps and makes mini-dashes towards whatever sun might be shining in my house at that time. Her message is always clear: “Mom! There is sunshine that you’re missing by the back window. I want to enjoy it and share it with you! Come, Mother, and lie in the sunshine with me.”

Lucy always has good ideas.

She came to me this morning as I worked on the computer, feeling her way gingerly onto my lap. All cuddled in, she began: “It’s hard not to be feral, Mom. You don’t know the conditions I was living in before I met you. I love living with you because we play fun games, my food bowl is always filled, and I know the rules of this house. But I’m skittish and afraid, and nobody ever taught me to be confident. I’m sorry I run away from you, but am glad you find me.”

Then I sneezed and she was off again like any child would be, playing with her sis, tormenting her sis, running down the hallways of my house looking for a new adventure.

Maybe I am feral too: untrained, wild, anti-social. Sometimes I even have fear in my eyes.

No wonder these two picked me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Song Wrecker

Click here, then read.

Occasionally, stories tell themselves. They sit there like gurgling babies in the background of your life; they wait for you to acknowledge them. These patient stories are alive in your memory, if you give them the time to sing out. Often though, you ignore them so long, they are elderly babies when you finally get around to them. So you can’t blame an old memory—as good as it might have been—if it doesn’t come out for forty years.

And before this story goes any further, I would also like to remove myself from the hook, take myself out of the firing range, and remind key people that I had nothing to do with this *whatsoever*. These are the kinds of things that happened when I was three and all of my older siblings made a lot of noise and I hid from them.

However, it’s hard to hide in the backseat of a station wagon. It’s difficult to tune out four older siblings—and when I say older, I mean a lot older—who have watched The Sound of Music too many times and now want to sing Do Re Mi out of boredom on the road to North Dakota. We never knew why we were going to North Dakota; it was just something we did as a family, and the older kids sang their way there.

I’m not the family reporter so I don’t have all the facts. I was three and hiding inside a sleeping bag for most of my youth. However, I do remember this phrase being yelled inside our station wagon on plenty of roadtrips:

“Song Wrecker!”

This would normally happen when my sister Mary would try to harmonize with somebody else. The other main singer in our family was our oldest sibling, Ann. That was a fine battle until a new song would come on the radio (which our ever-gracious parents always played, urging us on, I don’t know why).

As far as my memory serves, the first song we wrecked was, “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart”. As if we could sing along with the Bee Gee’s. Not that I was singing though: I was just listening. Listening and learning, my head stuffed underneath the front seat.

I know my siblings wrecked a lot of other songs. As I recall, it was mostly Jenny and Mary, the middle children. I would have been happy playing Candyland on the backseat, but no—these girls had to sing.

Click here, then read.

There was one time when I had no idea what was happening. I’m sure my parents felt the same way; we’d been on the road forever. Our cooler of tuna fish sandwiches was empty. We were probably looking for a place to stop for dinner that would take seven wild and dirty Indians. My two singing sisters splayed themselves in the way-back of our station wagon—no seat belts, just hanging out on top of our sleeping bags—and they sang: “Hi Yi a chung a chung chung, achung achung achung chung, a chung a chung, a chung a chung a chung.

They didn’t know the words, and they were hungry. Probably for Chinese.

They would sing a lot on road trips, with Jenny and Mary in the way back, and the older ones in the middle seat. I was too little to sing so that’s why they kept me in the glove compartment. My older sibs sang and harmonized a lot. If someone messed up, they would all yell, "SONG WRECKER!!!"

Mom liked us to sing, but I don't remember Dad ever saying anything while in the car. I do remember Dad glaring through the rear view window at Ann and Craig, but not at me. I remember Dad saying to Ann once, "YOU KNOW I CAN SEE YOU THROUGH THIS MIRROR, DON'T YOU?"

Once, when no one was looking, I tuned the radio to where no one was looking, my thin and strangled arm reaching out from the glove box. I remember a Beatles song about Eleanor Rigby; I kept it to myself of course. I think it was called "All the Lonely People". I read the car registration that time.

I almost feel like I was borne of a car.

I have fond memories of our road trips, mostly of the singing we did because we had nothing else to do. It was fun. Lots of laughter at our mistakes, and a term that has stayed with us all our lives. Not only are we song wreckers, but we have become fun-wreckers and party wreckers too. We are holiday wreckers. And don’t get me started on the ruining part.

Funny how those little things keep popping up in a person's life.

My brother remembers, "Where are you going, my little one?" He says, “We sang the hell out of that song on our journeys. Oddly I also remember thinking that my singing with 'the girls' wasn't a very masculine thing to do.........perhaps if I'd have had a football in my hand while I was singing.”

I am not sure why, but no one has ever asked me what songs I sang or wrecked or even tried to sing when I was a child. The weight of a family when you are the youngest member can be squashing. But I’ll tell you now.

Nine million years ago, I was driving home from a roadtrip with yet another loser boyfriend and my radio didn’t work in the Northern Arizona boonies. So I decided to sing, and this is what came out:

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?


It was not a song we listened to on the radio. My mom played it for us on the piano. It was the only song I knew by heart.