Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.
Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:
The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.
My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.
“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.
The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”
My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”
She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.
“He’s dead, right?”
“And he killed himself, right?”
The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.
If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.
(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)
When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.
If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?
The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.
My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.
Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.
And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.
And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.
Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Exciting neighborhood drama! (Thankfully, not really.)
I was helping my neighbor Cathy look for her lost cat this weekend. Buster disappeared while they were out of town. He’s an inside cat, but was once a feral kitten, so he’s always interested in getting out. Some other neighbors were feeding Buster and Skittles, Cathy’s other cat, but they weren’t really cat people and didn’t notice that Buster had slipped away. And Skittles didn’t say anything, because he was eating both meals. (And, he is a cat and can’t talk, also.) A professional pet sitter was coming to empty the litter box and eventually noticed that only one cat would come to greet her. After a lot of back and forth over email with the various pet-sitters, Cathy’s husband Bill called me in as some sort of “cat expert.” He coached me through breaking into their house, and I searched the place top to bottom.
Buster was gone.
Cathy and Bill did what they could do from out-of-state, then left their vacation 12 hours early to drive cross-country and start the hopeful, helpless process of looking for a lost pet.
Late last night, I was walking my dog, and I spotted a black cat with white feet–Buster!–leaving Cathy’ porch. Despite the late hour, I phoned her, and she came out to meet me. Turns out, it wasn’t Buster–Cathy had been watching silently from inside–but rather Buster’s nearly identical brother, Buddy. I’m pretty sure Cathy let her toddler name these cats.
Buddy and Buster are from a litter of four feral kittens that I discovered under my porch a few years ago. Before I could bring them in, their mommy moved them. We eventually pieced together that two kittens got squished by cars, leaving perhaps two survivors we could save. (Usually only 1 in 4 feral kittens survives to adulthood). Cathy set out food and was eventually able to grab Buster and bring him inside as a pet. And I was able to TNR Buddy: trap, neuter, and return him to the wild. I TNR’d 8 other cats as well (and also caught 2 possums, which are so cool!), becoming our neighborhood’s go-to Crazy Cat Lady in the process. Even though I have zero cats and 1 dog.
I talked to Cathy for awhile. They had been driving all day, then she searched for Buster for hours. She was despondent. There had been a Big Cat Fight in the neighborhood Saturday night. Usually this means one human woman screaming at another human woman about staying away from a human man. A bottle shatters, other people yell out their windows to shut the fuck up, some gentrifying stroller-mommy calls the cops, everybody runs, and then by the time the police roll through, they find nothing but shadows and silence. A long time ago, when my neighborhood was an open-air drug market, the cops referred to it as “The Hole.” Because suspects simply melted away in the alleys, closed-in porches, and homes of neighbors they’d known all their lives.
If a human being can disappear like that, imagine how easy it would be for a cat!
In this case, “Big Cat Fight” meant actual cats. This one was epic. I heard it, my dog heard it, she and I discussed whether to intervene, and then we snuggled further under the covers instead. Because it sounded terrifying. Turns out, our neighbor Jessie saw the whole thing. Jessie sees everything. He doesn’t work and has a recurring substance abuse problem, plus right now he’s undergoing chemo. (Colon cancer; so far he’s doing well, thanks!) Jessie’s house doesn’t have AC, so he sits in the doorway of his enclosed porch all day, every day, and long into the night. If you want to know what’s up, ask Jessie.
Two cats went at it in Cathy’s yard, one climbed a tree to escape, the other went up after it, then they both plummeted to the ground and continued to tussle. Jessie reported that one of the cats was black like Buster. I pointed out that 7 of the 9 cats I TNR’d were black, so in the end Jessie’s ID meant nothing. Keep hope alive! Still, Cathy feared Buster was critically injured somewhere, dying, unable to respond to her call. She was really tearing herself up about it.
It felt familiar to me, that dawning realization that the world is dark, dangerous, and fucking enormous. It’s a feeling specific to losing a pet to the Great Outdoors. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child.
Cathy was giving up hope, which kinda made me wonder about her commitment to this animal. There were so many reasons to be optimistic! I pointed out, Buster wasn’t a regular, indoor kitty. He had spent the first 3 or 4 months of life as a feral, so he knew how to be outside. And he had gotten out before. Eventually he would come around for food when Cathy would call to him. (Though it did take days.)
“Chances are,” I told her, “he’s somewhere nearby. He’s probably listening to us right now.”
In searching my memory for reference points that might comfort and inspire, I eventually pieced together the story of how my own cat got lost, and how we found her. I hadn’t thought about it in years. It’s kind of a funny story, if you know me, because I guess I haven’t changed that much.
This was back in grad school, probably 1996 or ’97, when I was dating Cheesefart but before I moved in with him. He had two cats, Hannah and Chloe, that were identical stripey tabbies with green eyes. They were gorgeous and fun and silky and wonderful, and Cheesefart and I had been together long enough that they felt like ours–not his, ours. But in reality, they were his, predating our relationship by less than a year. When Cheesefart dumped me for another woman, he refused to separate the cats, and I had no formal claim. Losing Hannah and Chloe made a devastating experience all the more so.
But the story of losing Chloe was years before the breakup. At that time, Cheesefart lived on the second floor of a subdivided rental house with no AC. The windows were crap and had no screens, so we used adjustable fold-out screens in them. The screens that fit most securely side-to-side were not very tall, but we preferred them because the cats liked to sit in the windowsills. Foreshadowing!
Cheesefart had a roommate named Crackbaby. That was really his nickname, and it was because he had some kind of facial tic and was very odd. He was probably on the autism spectrum, or maybe was just a quiet, brilliant weirdo getting a doctorate in engineering in his early 20s. The other thing I remember about Crackbaby is that all he ate were bowls of high-sugar cereal like Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks. And by “bowls,” I mean mixing bowls. And by “all he ate,” I mean, that is all he ever ate. We wondered with our friends if perhaps the facial tic was his body’s response to all the sugar.
Cheesefart went out of town and left Crackbaby alone with the cats. I wasn’t living there officially, but had keys and was over there a lot. And yet, it was uncomfortable if I dropped by when Cheesefart wasn’t there. So I played it cool. I stopped by under the pretense of picking up some baking pans, but really I was checking on the cats. I knocked, and Crackbaby answered. He peeked at me through a crack in the doorway, like he didn’t want me to come in. He offered to retrieve the pans for me, so I never made it past the door. I didn’t force the issue, because I knew what he was up to.
He had made the Great Nest.
There was another weekend, when we walked in unexpectedly and learned, to everyone’s embarrassment, what Crackbaby did when he had the apartment to himself. If he was confident we were gone for the day, he would take a sleeping bag, all of his bedding–sheets, blankets, comforter–and every pillow in the house, including the couch cushions, and make a Great Nest on the living room floor right in front of the TV. Then he would lay inside it wearing nothing but his underwear, eating nothing but chocolate-frosted sugar bombs from a mixing bowl, and watch cartoons for hours on end. Which is, in its own way, AWESOME! I love to think that Crackbaby is now a six-figure-salaried engineer living in a spartanly furnished $300,000 house somewhere. And his most luxurious weekends are spent this way.
Still, finding a grown man in his tighty-whities with his head in a giant bowl of cereal in a Great Nest is a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough, that I took Crackbaby at his word when he said the cats were fine. Because I asked him:
“How are the cats?”
And he answered, “The cats are fine.” So I left.
When Cheesefart got home two days later, he called me in a panic. “Chloe’s gone!” he cried.
I was shocked. “What do you mean GONE?”
“She fell out the window, three days ago, and Crackbaby hasn’t seen her since!!!”
I was livid. That’s why Crackbaby didn’t want me in the apartment–he didn’t want me to know she was missing! That, you know, and his weird underwear nesting habit. In a childlike way that belied his actual adulthood, Crackbaby naively hoped that Chloe would magically return on her own so that he could pretend it never happened. But that was highly unlikely, for a very practical reason: Chloe had never been outside before, and her first foray into the Great Outdoors was falling out a second-story window. So how on earth would her walnut-sized brain ever piece together that the way home involved climbing an exterior staircase?
As for how she fell out a window… well, it’s one of those things where, at the time, I thought Crackbaby was a ridiculous fuckwit. But with maturity and hindsight, I can see that living in a ramshackle house with a couple, who were completely obsessed with their cats, was probably not much fun for him. Crackbaby just wanted to open the window wider, so he procured a taller adjustable screen from his bedroom and put it in the living room window, oblivious to the fact that it was wobbly and insecure. When Chloe leaned against it, right in front of him apparently, it gave way, and she fell out of the house with the screen. Crackbaby got to the window just in time to see her disappearing around the corner of the foundation, but by the time he got down the stairs, she was gone. (No idea if he was in his underwear, but… probably!)
By the time Cheesefart got home, Crackbaby had dismantled the Great Nest and taken to his bed. Cheesefart said getting the story out of Crackbaby was like pulling teeth; he was almost catatonic (LOL). We searched for Chloe a few hours, then I went back to the apartment to find a photo and start making “Lost Cat” signs. I stood in the doorway to Crackbaby’s bedroom and verbally eviscerated him as he curled tighter and tighter into a ball. The only part of the speech I remember is the great finish:
“If that cat has to spend another night outside, then so will you.”
I wasn’t kidding. We were walking the streets, knocking on doors, rallying the neighbors, doing all the pre-Internet things you do to look for a lost pet. And if those efforts didn’t bear fruit by nightfall, I was mentally calculating how long it would take me to dump all of Crackbaby’s belongings–all of his clothes, all of his cereal, and all the makings of the Great Nest–into the yard. I had no legal authority to do this, of course–he had a lease, and I didn’t even live there!–but I spoke with the terrifying moral authority of a crazy woman whose catbaby was missing. Crackbaby knew well enough to heed me, and he remained in bed, in the fetal position, the rest of the day.
As the memory of that event came flooding back last night, I conveyed all of this to my neighbor Cathy. With an eye towards indemnifying the kindly neighbors who accidentally let Buster out, I conceded that it wasn’t really Crackbaby’s fault Chloe escaped. But I was mad and wanted someone to blame. Cathy said her husband Bill was taking the worst of it from her, though he wasn’t even in the same state when Buster took off. Every story needs a villain, I guess, but sometimes there simply isn’t one. Cats just like to run away.
(Though, again, I’m sorry, but Chloe didn’t actually run away. She fell out of a second-story window right in front of a human adult, who did nothing to find her for two days, and also lied about it. That is not ok.)
We found Chloe not long after my outburst to Crackbaby, and how we found her is the whole reason this came up with Cathy. (Keep the following in mind, if you’re ever looking for a lost cat!) We were approaching Chloe’s disappearance like she was a person, invoking the geography of our neighborhood from the perspective of sidewalks and cars and property lines. The target search area was quickly enormous, as we imagined all the places she might have gone, as though she had set off on a Disney adventure.
But no. She was a cat, and she was terrified. We should have been thinking in terms of places to hide.
She fell out a second-story window, landed on her feet, because cats are fucking amazing, and then she hugged the foundation of the house as she ran for cover. We knew this, because Crackbaby saw her right before she turned left at the corner. At the next corner, I bet she stopped. Turn left again, and head through the day lilies, which provided an obstacle but no real cover? Or go right, 10 feet across open ground to the neighbors’ porch? She went right, slipped under the porch, then crawled to its furthest, darkest corner. And stayed there. (We caught a break in that it rained all weekend, so I suspect she never ventured out.) We didn’t see Chloe on our first pass. When we went back with a flashlight–always use a flashlight when searching for a cat, even in the daytime–the light caught her glowing eyes. Then it was just a matter of finding the right tone and the right treats to lure her out again.
Crackbaby got a reprieve, Hannah got her sister back, and I got a good lesson in how to track cats. I told Christine not to give up hope, that Buster was probably nearby under somebody’s porch.
“Get a flashlight,” I said. “And in the morning, start looking under every house.”
“Do you think I should get people’s permission to go on their property?” she asked me.
I was stunned. Here she was, a grown-ass woman and a human rights lawyer to boot, wondering if it would be okay to look for her cat in other people’s yards. That is one way to go through this life. And then there’s me, Crazy Lady who threatened to evict a lawful tenant from an apartment I didn’t even live in!
“I wouldn’t,” I said gently. “Better to beg forgiveness, and all that.”
My last post was about the power of being reasonable. It has its time and place. And then there are situations that call for crazy and relentless. In my mind, a missing fur-baby qualifies.
Cathy stayed up another hour, walking the streets and alleys in search of Buster. She finally embraced her inner Crazy Lady and sent the call into the night: “I’m here, and I won’t give up on you!”
Buster heard her. He came home, mewing for breakfast at the back door, a few hours later. He’s fine.
Tips for Finding a Lost Cat (or Setting Traps for TNR):
Think like a cat! They hug walls and foundations when they travel.
Look under things. You cat is not traveling; it’s hiding!
Keep calling out. Your cat is probably nearby!
Cat-bait Pro Tip for setting traps: KFC. Srsly.
Keep a good, clear photo on hand, in an obvious place, in case you need to make signs and send out emails.
Get to know your neighbors! They might have valuable intel.
Microchip your pets, put breakaway collars on cats, and for chrissakes, spay/neuter your animals!
I am thinking about jumping into the Wayback Machine. No, not the Internet Archive, more like the WABAC Machine from Rocky & Bullwinkle. “Jumping into the Wayback Machine” is what I call “using the Internet to reconnect with people from your past.” In any case, I’ve been thinking about an ex boyfriend. He is much younger than me, and I have no (nor ever had any) illusions about a future for us. So I am not looking to rekindle anything. But I am curious how he’s doing, and I don’t like how we left things.
Also, I’m bored.
The Wayback Machine is a funny thing. Jumping in usually leads to disaster and humiliation, like when I travelled to visit a high school crush a few years ago and got so drunk from drinking in a hot tub for six hours that I was hungover for two days. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to drink in a hot tub! How did every single person in the world get this memo except for me? The hangover wasn’t even the worst of it. The tears! The drunken tears!! It is mortifying in retrospect. I unfriended him on Facebook a year later, after we got into an email pissing contest over whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. During our Wayback Rendezvous, I accidentally peed his bed, then lied about it, and I’m kind of glad, because honestly. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my case:
The Wayback Machine is a threat to basic human dignity.
On the other hand, I have a friend who met her husband that way. She got in touch, out of the blue, with her old college boyfriend twenty years on. They flirted, he traveled to meet her, he booked a hotel room that he never used. They dated long distance, he moved here, he moved his children here, and they made a family. They’ve been married a year, and by all accounts seem blissfully happy. In fact, they write each other a love poem every day. It’s kind of nauseating. And amazing!
I haven’t yet reached out, but through the miracle of Facebook, I was able to glean a little of my ex’s life, namely that he still likes hockey and that he’s lost all his hair. Clicking on “Message” brought up our last correspondence, which ended abruptly in August 2010. He was back in town for the summer, and I tried to get together, but he blew me off a couple of times, then returned to law school without ever seeing me. I called him out on it, it didn’t go well, and then I cheerfully and abruptly unfriended him.
I regret it. He was fun and funny and a good person. There was no reason not to keep him on as a friend. But my feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to see me, and I was disappointed that when I nearly died (truly), all he could muster was a two-word text: “Be well.” I wish I had handled the whole thing better, but I suppose I did my best. I could do better now.
I haven’t decided whether to write to him, but scrolling back through our last few exchanges in the Facebook Message app, something curious caught my eye.
It was a year before I was up for tenure, and I was working furiously on my book, which was moving through the publication process at a glacial pace. I was worried I wouldn’t make it–that the book wouldn’t be far enough along, that I was creating an argument for my colleagues to vote against me. No tenure means you’re fired, I had just assumed a mortgage, I was nearly broke, and I had never had a grownup job outside of academia. I was scared.
Meanwhile, my ex was struggling to find his first job after law school and had suggested, only half-joking, that he might become a bike messenger. In commiseration with his frustration at an uncertain future, I wrote:
Sorry to hear about the lousy job market. If law school doesn’t pan out, I suggest nursing. That’s my Plan B.
I have no recollection of thinking about nursing at the time, though much of that year is a blur due to some major health problems that landed me in the hospital a few months later. I don’t know, in retrospect, if I was kidding about nursing, or serious, or both. I had long joked that my Plan B was to join the Army, and I paid attention to the maximum age for enlistment, making note a few years ago when I aged past it. Nursing has for years been in the news because of the anticipated shortage, so I’m sure I was aware–and envious–of the choices nurses have for employment. I have also thought about second careers in social work (not enough money) or police work (not enough patience). If I were a social worker, I would likely lose my house. And if I were a cop, I would definitely lose my temper–and then probably get shot with my own gun.
Even if I was kidding about it, I was thinking about it. Because there it is in a message I typed at 11:21 PM on October 10, 2009.
It wasn’t meeting J* in 2014, who also turned to nursing late in life, or reconnecting with my friend from high school, who graduated with her BSN last year before returning to her previous profession. (Unfortunately, that’s not an option in academia. Leaving the professoriate is a one-way trip–what a friend likened to leaving a parking lot by driving over the tire spikes. You can get out, but you are FUCKED.) No, those friends didn’t give me the idea of becoming a nurse as a second career. They just demonstrated that it was possible.
To an extent I didn’t realize, until I saw that old message in my personal Wayback Machine, I have been thinking about this for a long, long time.
If you’ve been watching the Democratic convention this week, you’ve seen a lot of women in the audience with tears streaming down their faces. On my Facebook page, several female friends have commented that they have been crying too. I’ve lost it a few times. In fact, last weekend, sitting in a theater watching the “Ghostbusters” reboot with my niece and nephew–who were enjoying it immensely, totally oblivious to the transgressive nature of an all-female cast–it happened again.
What is going on?? We can’t all be on our periods!
At the same time, I’ve noticed in public discourse, and especially among my students, a distinct ennui. I think Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye so long, and women have come so far, that many people–especially young people–regard her candidacy as an inevitability. I thought about pointing out the historical significance of her nomination in my own classroom this afternoon, and trying to explain all the tears. As a humanities professor, it would be mostly within bounds. But in the end, I didn’t want to incur the heavy sighs, eye rolls, and negative online comments that would surely result. I kept silent.
This is what I would have told them:
When my mother went to college in 1959, she had three career options reasonably available to her: secretary, nurse, or teacher. Back then, college for women was regarded as a fall-back in case they didn’t get married. My mother became a teacher. I wonder what she might have done if she’d had more choices.
When my sister was a little girl, her class took a field trip to the local firehouse. The boys were allowed to climb on the big red truck and sit in the cab, but the girls were not. Because, the little girls were told as they watched the boys play, you can’t become firemen when you grow up. (Not firefighters, firemen.)
When I was in fourth grade, our class did a big unit on the Middle Ages. There were many assignments and academic opportunities to earn points. The student with the highest number of points would become “king,” which conferred certain privileges in the class. I worked my ass off, and I bested the nearest competitor–a boy, Jim J*********i, whose name I will never forget–by 10 or 15 points. On the verge of me–a girl–becoming “king” of the class, my teacher decided that a leader should also be able to demonstrate strength–physical strength. The entire class was marched down to the gym, where we all had to demonstrate how many pull-ups we could do. I did 2 or 3 (I was not an athlete). Jim did over 20. With each additional pull-up, the class cheered him, and I watched the value of my academic success diminish. Jim became king, not me. I felt betrayed and bereft. I can’t imagine how the girl in my class with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t even reach for the bar, must have felt.
When I was a junior in high school, I had a picture of Janis Joplin–a famous nude that I cut out of an anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine–in my locker. Some boys broke into my locker, tore up the picture, and scrawled “dyke” all over the door. My friend Alicia saw them do it, and she told me their names. I reported them to the disciplinary officer, who did nothing.
Also in high school, my health teacher–a man charged by our state with teaching young people about sex and relationships–announced on the first day of class that he would be assigning seats. He said, out loud, to a room full of boys and girls, that he would be putting all the pretty girls in the front row. And he did it. (Yes, I sat in the back.)
My senior year, I was repeatedly and aggressively groped by a hulking sack of shit named Kurt F*****n as I walked in the crowded halls of my high school. I did not report it, because why would I? In fact, at the time, I didn’t really understand that there was something wrong with what he did–that my body was mine, and no one had a right to touch it without my consent.
In college in the early ’90s, I was the only woman in a class in a male-dominated field. One woman, in a class of ninety. I had two majors and took a million credits, and yet I only had 7 or 8 female professors in four years of college. At present, I am part of a faculty in which women are well represented, but I have also worked on a faculty in which women were just five of forty.
(There is no way, in an age when a majority of doctorates in my field go to women, that that number is not the result of systemic discrimination. Two years after leaving there, I was approached by a female faculty member who was considering a lawsuit over equal pay.)
In the workplace, I have dealt with harassment in a few contexts, including my present job. Every time my former dean inquired about my dating life, discussed pornography, talked about my body, stared at my breasts, or patted my head like a dog, I felt angry, humiliated, and powerless.
I once took an inventory of my friends and realized that the number of girls and women I know who had been sexually assaulted ran into the double digits. Eighteen months ago, I added myself to that list. Only one of all those cases was reported to the police, and none of them resulted in prosecution, let alone someone being convicted of a crime.
This is my inventory, after just 44 years. When I think back on it, I feel sad and angry, but mostly just weary. I and my mother and sister and most of my friends–we are middle-class white ladies. Women decades older than me, poor women, women of color–I can’t imagine the inventories they must have, the indignities they must have endured.
Why are all the ladies crying?
We are crying because we are thinking about all the times we felt afraid, objectified, degraded, diminished, and powerless–because we were women.
And we are thinking back to the girls we once were, and to the women who came before us. We are crying because we thought we might never live to see this day.
And we are so fucking proud–politics aside–to finally see a woman standing up there.
The driver in front of me was uncertain and plodding as he or she cautiously navigated a windy, two-lane road strewn with potholes and slicked with rain. As we approached the light, I hoped I would be the only car to go straight, the only driver undeterred by the rain, flash flooding, and an unlit road. Sure enough, the other cars broke right and left, and I forged ahead into the darkness: a rural, wooded stretch that I love to drive for its twists and turns, its clever delivery at the far side of the city in record time, and, sure, I admit it, its potential for mayhem.
I was perhaps only two hundred yards into my shortcut when I saw something light-colored dart in front of me. My mind flashed on, then eliminated, the possibilities: fox, cat, giant rat. Too furry, too clumsy, too big.
It was a dog.
I slammed on the breaks. As my car fishtailed to a stop, I saw that it was a 15-20 pound mix from what I call the “bedroom slipper” family of breeds–Bichon, Shih Tzu, Pekingnese, Maltese, etc. Its light-colored fur had grown completely over its eyes, and it looked altogether like a frazzled mop or unkempt wig skittering across the road.
But no, it was a terrified dog trotting in that way new strays do–a quick, nervous gate designed to create the appearance of having someplace to go, when really, they have no idea what to do next–the doggy equivalent of fronting. The fact that this dog was out in the rain crossing a road after 10 PM suggested to me that it was new to being alone in the elements. My own dog, a shelter mutt, survived for weeks in the woods as an abandoned puppy, and even now she retains vestigial traces of what she learned there: sunset is the time to find a place to hide, and pure darkness is the time to stay there.
In the seconds it took for the car to skid to a stop, I reconnected briefly with a former version of myself–the bleeding heart, the rescuer. I opened my door as the dog darted back into the oncoming lane, oblivious as to whether there were more cars behind us. Thank god there weren’t, or I might have gotten us all killed.
“Hey puppy,” I called in my sweet, doggy-come-hither voice.
It kept on going. Then there was a fraction of a second’s pause, when I had to decide my next move.
I ditch the car in the middle of the road. I step into the rain and continue to call out. The dog looks over its shoulder at me, then keeps on going. I go back to the car, move it to the shoulder, and grab some of my dog’s treats. I chase the stray into the waist-high weeds, where it lets me get a little closer, but not close enough. I draw it into the tall grass by the side of the road. I keep calling, it keeps slowing. We do this dance for half an hour. Cold and soaked and filthy, we eventually connect, I eventually win its trust to pick it up, I take it back to my car where–oh, shit, that’s right, I have my dog in the car. Holding the stray in one arm, I move my dog to the front seat, make a training lead out of my dog’s leash, and clip the stray to the back seat, hoping it won’t strangle itself to death on the drive to… Right. Where am I taking this dog again???
I knew what would happen, that by pursuing the dog I was committing myself to potentially days of hassle, as I tried to find its owner or get it situated in a no-kill shelter. I didn’t have it in me. I got back in the car and drove away.
I tried, but only a little. The old me would never have given up. My heart used to be so full and tender that I would never let an animal go. But over the last 20 years, it’s happened more and more.
The mewling I maybe heard, but didn’t investigate, because the last thing I needed was a basement full of feral kittens to re-home.
The dog I maybe saw at 70 MPH on the highway that I might have chased for an hour while my own dog sweltered in the car.
The wounded bird I surely saw as I was on my way to meet friends. I calculated: put my dog back in the house, find a box, find the bird, collect the bird, find a wildlife rehabilitator on a Sunday, deliver the bird… I had theater tickets. People were waiting on me.
“Yes, a cat or car will get the bird tonight,” I reasoned. “But we’re not going to run out of robins any time soon.”
Old Me would be appalled. Time, mud, theater tickets, standing people up, the maddening complexity and hassle of trying to resolve the intractable problem of the stray–I used to be undeterred. I didn’t care what it cost, how long it took, who else was inconvenienced.
There have been many easy saves–dogs with tags that you can return within a day–over the years. And many hard ones too.
There’s the kitten my friend and I lured out from under a shed at a garden party, then re-homed after a lengthy campaign of signs on bulletin boards in literally every vet’s office and pet store in town.
There’s the 9 feral cats I TNR’d after I failed to rescue 4 kittens from under my porch. It wasn’t my fault–their mama moved them, and we didn’t know where to until it was too late: two kittens splayed lifelessly in the gutter after being hit by cars. A neighbor took in one of the survivors, and I managed to trap and neuter the fourth, along with 8 other ferals in the neighborhood. I am very good at trapping wild cats, by the way, and accidental possums too!
There were the two dogs I picked up at the side of the interstate as my friend John and I returned home from a road trip to Branson, Missouri, where we practically invented hipster irony in the summer of 1994. John was furious. I nearly killed us, then I brought two elated but flea- and tick-infested dogs into my Civic hatchback, then I delayed us further by procuring pet supplies and making phone calls to shelters–not easy, in the days before cell phones and the Internet. A few days later, I delivered the dogs to the Humane Society in my home town, where I made a hefty donation (for me, anyway) with the understanding that the dogs would be quarantined, then put up for adoption. A week later, when I learned they had been destroyed, I was devastated beyond description.
And then there was Jessie. Sometimes I rescued people too, especially elderly people in distress. They are unlikely to murder you if you give them rides, and doing so on very hot days might save their lives. I was staying with my sister after my first year of grad school, and my summer career plans–barista and professional dog walker–had fallen through. During the day, I would bum around the city, then I would pick my sister up at the train and drive us both home. If I didn’t show, she would have to walk a long, hot mile in her work clothes. She appreciated it when I made it. She did not appreciate it when I didn’t. And since I was living in a group house for very little money at her invitation, I felt obliged to accommodate her needs.
That day, it was about 1000 degrees and humid, so I spent the afternoon cooling off in an airy, downtown art museum. Just before closing, I used the restroom near the lockers. As I came out, there was an old, old woman fussing with the security guard. She was in her 80s, stooped from osteoporosis, and dressed tidily in the flowing layers of a lady artist. As I recall, she was wearing a floppy sunhat that, like her, must have been fabulous back in the day.
It quickly became apparent that Jessie had lost the key to her locker, which contained her purse, which contained her wallet, and she had no way to get home until she found them. The security guard was not-so-patiently opening every single locker in search of her belongings. It was a fascinating little drama, because the guard was clearly unconvinced that her purse was in any of the lockers. Suspenseful! I decided to see how it played out.
I was also acutely aware that it was hotter than blazes outside, and this old woman did not seem capable of making her way to the exit, let alone to an outer suburb. I was worried for her.
Eventually they did find her purse, and the guard took his leave. I followed her out of the building and into the harsh sunlight, where she looked around as uncertainly as any stray. She had no idea which way to go. I approached and asked if she needed help.
Over the course of the next hour, Jessie and I got to know one another as I addressed her immediate needs and tried to figure out where she lived. She was a widow and an artist and had painted President Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, she said, though years later I could discover no concrete evidence to support such an astounding claim. She was also hungry (that I could believe) and dehydrated, so I procured snacks and water. As we sat in some shade, I tried to make a plan to get her home. Since I was unfamiliar with the buses, I suggested we take the train to my stop, fetch my car (and pick up & drop off my sister), then I could drive Jessie the rest of the way. But she was reluctant to go with me, and she could not remember her exact address, just the name of the complex she lived in. She preferred the bus, and I demurred, being 23 and reluctant to impose my will on an actual adult. We wandered around from bus stop to bus stop trying to find one that seemed right to her. Eventually we found what she surmised was the correct bus, and I waited with her until it came. I helped her board, I paid her fare, then I asked the driver if he could make sure she got off at the right stop.
“On or off,” he charged dismissively.
“What?” I said, completely flustered.
“On or off?” he said again. I realized he meant me.
“Ok, but can you just make sure she…”
“On or OFF!” He was nearly yelling as he cut me off.
The driver was clearly a no-go, so I quickly turned my attention to the sweaty commuters spread before me. “Could somebody please make sure this lady gets off at [such-and-such stop]?” I pleaded.
“ON OR OFF!” the driver bellowed once again.
I quickly did the math: If I stayed on, I would end up in a far flung part of the city with this old lady, entirely unsure of where we were going. If I ever did get her home, I would then have to find my way home as well. I didn’t have enough cash for a cab. And with every passing minute, my ability to retrieve my sister from the train station receded as a possibility. I could only imagine her wrath if I failed her on such a miserably hot day.
I got off the bus.
My sister was home already, and furious, by the time I arrived. I was desperately worried about Jessie, that she might collapse in the heat and die because I had abandoned her on the wrong bus. (I would search her name in the obituaries for weeks after, but I never found it.) I was so upset, I poured out the whole story to my sister. She listened but was unmoved–only exasperated with me for making her walk home.
In a way that’s inconveniently trite for this essay, my sister settled firmly on dogs as her metaphor du jour. Old people who can’t take care of themselves should not be venturing into the city, she lectured me. Because “it’s a dog eat dog world out there.”
And then, with a patronizing weariness that was tremendously unflattering to her 26 years, my sister concluded:
“You can’t save every stray dog in the world.”
She said this, without irony, about an 80-something year old human woman. I think about that statement now, as we argue over how best to serve our mother, an old woman who has lost all independence and who–if she ever starts to wander–will require the kindness of strangers to find her way home again. But that night, in the summer of 1995, my mother’s illness, our parents’ mortality, even our own middle-age seemed further in the future than jet packs and time travel. The issue at hand was this: a selfish, naive, hopelessly idealistic little sister needed a lesson in what mattered.
I left that conversation horrified–and certain. Jessie might not have painted Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, but she certainly drew a clear line between my sister and me. “Maybe you can’t save every stray dog,” I told myself. “But you can try.” I quietly vowed that I would never give up on my impulse to care, to help, to save; that I would never privilege propriety and deadlines above service to vulnerable creatures of all kinds; that I would never be like my sister.
And yet here I am. I let a sad, scared, soaked little dog run off into the night, because its fear of my gentle hand was convenient to me:
It was late.
My primary commitment was to my own dog.
I just had my car cleaned.
I couldn’t be less a person I respected when I was 23 if I supported legislation to legalize recreational whale torture. I look back on that girl and marvel at how strong and dumb and powerful she was, at how little she knew and how much she cared. She thought she could change the world, even just a little. Now, two decades on, the world remains all aleak, as though no one lifted a finger, ever. She’s tired and tied-down, but not by things that matter: a mortgage, work deadlines, and unsavory obligations that keep her tethered like a yard dog. Yet, with no kids, no husband, no boyfriend, not even an Internet date on the horizon, and a family tangle of sadness and recrimination–in her relationships, she’s untethered like a stray, trotting nervously at the social margins in order to create the appearance of direction and purpose.
“I have a life,” says the stray.
I have people, I’m not out here all alone.
I don’t need to be rescued.
It’s the lie stray creatures tell themselves when they are too scared to accept the lifeline right in front of them. That dog slipped into the darkness as though it never existed. Jessie waved to me from the bus window before disappearing without a trace. Marie looked over her shoulder one last time before she left for good.
Every minute of this life, we perch uneasily on the brink of catastrophe and at the cusp of salvation. We are all rescuers and rescued alike. Somehow I knew the world at 23, but now I am learning it all over again. There is no line between saving and being saved.
The last few weeks have been exhausting for a variety of reasons, good and bad.
For Memorial Day, I attended an actual memorial, for a friend who died of cancer last year. It was an educational, weird, but ultimately affirming experience. I was often reminded that weekend of something my dad always says: “Visiting family is not a vacation.” It is doubly true if you’re visiting someone else’s family, and triply true if that family is kinda dysfunctional. But it is also triply true that I loved spending time with my friend’s widow, who is also my friend, and a dear one at that. And I got to meet my dead friend’s best friend, who told me stories that brought my friend to life in my imagination. I felt his presence in the cabin where we stayed, looking at the gorgeous lake he used to paddle on, and in the epic mound of pulled-pork barbecue I ate to the point of meat intoxication. I could hear his laughter again, and I am so grateful to have been there.
After flying all night, I landed, retrieved my car, and went to class, where I crushed an Intro to Nutrition midterm. Then I fetched my dog from my parents and gave my dad another computer tutorial. I finally arrived home at 4 PM, a full 27 hours after departing the site of the memorial service. I lay down for a quick nap… and awoke at 2 AM. A few hours later, I met another friend at a surgical center, where she was having her lady business removed. It made me nothing but happy to be there for her, as she has so often been there for me.
Eventually, I got a full night’s sleep that actually happened at night. But since then, I have pulled several all- or near-all-nighters, to complete a paper for the class I am taking, to prepare for the class I just started teaching, and to provide material to a publisher for a project I agreed to write. I am tired.
This past weekend, I retreated to a friend’s house in the town where I went to graduate school. There was a brisk breeze that cooled the whole house, and a verdant lawn with a shady hammock. Three dogs slept soundly on the floor beside me, hypersensitive to my every move. Going to the bathroom was a crazy, collective endeavor! I love going there, because my dog has so much fun being part of a pack, because my friend takes such good care of me, and because time slows down–no traffic, no demands, no one to disappoint.
As I made the long drive to and from, I thought a lot about my last post, my current relationships, and how I feel about myself. I spent 11 years in that town, as long as I have lived anywhere, and though I was in my 20s and early 30s, it was the most formative period of my life. Most of my closest friendships were forged there, and I think I was the happiest I have ever been when we all lived near one another. For the last three years, as my friendship with my host bloomed anew, I have returned every couple of months. I find myself wishing that people who know me in other contexts–work friends, city friends, boyfriends–could know me there. With each passing mile of the drive, I become a better version of myself.
The last post was also about traveling, and burning bridges as I go. I am very good at it. But in fairness, I can be ok at mending them too. I try to recognize my part in a conflict and to render an apology that matters. It’s hard, though, because I have a history of being too quick to apologize–I said the words “I’m sorry” more than any other during my longest, most fraught relationship–and I can be too slow to stand up for myself. I tend to go from zero to “Release the Kraken” when standing up for others, or when I am just losing my shit. There is a tension there that I am only beginning to understand, but I think I’ve almost got it:
Not setting boundaries and articulating my concerns when I should leads to toxic levels of resentment that then seep out as vicious and deeply unproductive anger.
Basically, to borrow some language from my Introduction to Nutrition class, my consumption of other people’s bullshit often exceeds not just the Recommended Daily Allowance, calibrated to meet the needs of 97.5 percent of the population, but also the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, which is the highest dose that will not lead to toxicity in a human being. I have to accept responsibility for what I put in my body. Just because Tootsie Roll Industries makes Tootsie Pops doesn’t mean I have to have one (or five) in my purse at all times, and I certainly don’t have to eat them. And, just because people spew bullshit–and let’s face it, we all spew bullshit–doesn’t mean I have to consume it. I’m allowed to close my eyes and mouth. I can pull out an umbrella instead of a spoon.
With my recent conflicts, I am doing ok. I continue to protect my time and interests with that publisher, in order to disrupt my usual self-destructive spiral: hiding >> blowing deadlines >> imperiling other people’s work >> feeling horrible about it >> more hiding >> more blown deadlines >> Repeat Until Fired.
Negotiations with my Friend With Benefits have yielded no benefits, but we are still friends. No one in my family has spoken to me in days, and there are no plans on the horizon to see my sister and her kids. I fear that I have crossed some kind of Rubicon, with no bridge behind me for the retreat. I just have to trust that it will all work out ok. On the plus side, not seeing my family has dramatically reduced the frequency with which I feel like a worthless piece of shit. I am learning, slowly, to chart my course towards people who appreciate me.
As for my fight with J*, I think we did ok. We are both volatile people, and we are both learning relationship behaviors that other people seem to have mastered long ago. In the hours and days after my outburst and then his, we texted and talked, sorted and shared. It was good. Nothing changed in our dynamic, except that we demonstrated the ability to work through conflict. If nothing else, we are practicing productive communication for when we meet the people who will be our people. In the meantime, all I can do is try to be a good friend to him, though I often wonder what that means. I can’t tell where we are headed or for how long, and I don’t know what kind of snacks to pack for the trip.
This is true of all of my relationships, I suppose. Should I bring a sweater? Should I jump from the car? Who is driving, anyway? Did I leave the oven on?* Where is there a safe place to pee? And who will I be when I get there?
I know the answers to these questions when I make the long drive back to my grad school hometown, because I have traveled that road many times. But for the other journeys I am on, who knows? I guess I’ll just look out the window and enjoy the ride.
*I did not leave the oven on, because my oven hasn’t worked for nearly two years. To repair or replace? The issues associated with that decision created such a renovation conundrum that I simply set it aside. Not having an oven has not really been a problem, because as it turns out, the only thing I bake is frozen pizza. And now I know how to cook frozen pizza using a microwave and a skillet. Like so many facets of my life, the process isn’t pretty or efficient, but the end result is good enough. It’s not how you get there, but that you get there, at least as far as frozen pizza is concerned. And I really shouldn’t be eating frozen pizza anyway.
It was one of the purest emotions I ever felt: crystal clear, exquisitely painful, and easily translated into words. “I miss my friend.”
Last May, my friend M* died of cancer, diagnosed just nine months before. What is the difference between a memory and a dream? I’m not sure. I had memories of sitting on a porch laughing with M*’s wife and our friend C*, the funny foursome we used to be. And I had a dream of revisiting those golden moments on a different porch, after they all moved away. M* died, the dream died, and the memory became tinted with sadness.
“I miss my friend,” my heart cried out, as I explained to other people who he was and why the world should mourn him. Someday maybe I will try to explain it here.
But today, and most days, I just miss my friend. M*, but others too.
I miss pouring a stiff drink and working my way to the bottom while talking on the phone to my friend from grad school. Now, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I haven’t spoken to him in years. Instead, we play Scrabble–for 8 years straight–and the sum total of our discourse is, “Nice bingo!”
I miss my friend picking me up in her obscenely American muscle car and driving around town smoking cigarettes from the stale pack she kept in the glovebox. We still meet for “date nights” every few weeks, and I love them, but there was something great about back then, when we lived in a smaller town and had loads of free time and the best days unfolded spontaneously.
I miss stopping by my friend’s office and convincing her to go outside and throw a disc with me in the grass, even though both of us were wearing skirts. Now she works in a fancy building with a security desk. It would take hours to get there and park, and there’s nowhere to throw a disc in that concrete wasteland anyway.
And so many others. My heart cries out, “I miss my friend.” I wish they lived closer, I wish we were closer, I wish we had more time.
For good or bad, M* led me back to J*. I was so close to being done for good, because I had grown accustomed to thinking of J* not as a friend but as a memory–someone I used to know, someone I used to care about, someone who had caused me a lot of pain, someone who would not be allowed to do so again. But when my heart cried out “I miss my friend” in the wake of M*’s death, I realized I had heard those words before. It was the exact phrase J* texted me about 10 days after we broke up. I was struggling to function. I asked how he was doing.
“To be honest, I miss my friend!” was his reply.
Four months later, I heard my heart speak those exact words. I reached out to J* again.
“You were right,” I texted him the day M* died. “I am never going to see my friend again.” (Having worked with critically ill patients, J*’s assessments of M*’s condition were always maddeningly rational.)
“I’m sorry,” he replied. Over the next few days, we met, we met again, he texted and called to check on me. It was kind and necessary, because I was falling apart. Over the next few months, we pieced together a very odd friendship. Despite all the baggage of our previous relationship, despite him moving away, despite both of us being totally nuts, it endured.
I saw J* today. He texted, we made a quick plan, we met up, drove around, talked. It was everything I miss about friendship now that I’m in the throes of middle-age: intimacy, spontaneity, simplicity, fun.
I haven’t posted in over a week, in part because I have been SUPER busy, with work, more work, and school, including two Anatomy & Physiology exams (lecture and a lab practicum) in the same week. It turns out, one cannot master the entire muscular system in a single study session that begins at 4:30 AM. I still don’t know my extensor hallucis brevis from a hole in the leg*, but I knew enough to eke out a B on the test. I am proud of that.
I am also proud to have been featured as an editor’s pick on WordPress Discover, which indeed resulted in many new readers discovering this blog. Your visits have been duly noted, your follows are most welcome, and your feedback has been truly humbling. Thank you for joining me here. 🙂
As a college professor in the humanities, my job requires constant creative output, yet at the same time scholars maintain an icy nonchalance about their work. It is considered gauche to crave public attention, and we are not supposed to need positive feedback (let alone compensation) for most of what we produce. Indeed, I have published an entire book, into which I poured my heart and soul, and it generated less attention in several years than this blog has gotten in a single week. (Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my book, because I have to write this blog anonymously, lest I incur the enmity of my peers. Academia is a little like a cult and a lot like a gang. If I get jumped out, I want it to be my choice!) According to the culture of academia, I should be nonplussed by your interest in my writing. But I’m not! I appreciate and value your visits to this space and the time you have taken to read my words. And the kind words you have written about me, my family’s situation, and my writing have lifted my spirits like a warm spring day. I am grateful.
On the other hand, positive feedback is a little scary, especially in this format. My new audience of readers is free to come and go at will, unfettered by the hassle of climbing over other people to make their escape from the theater. There is no post-purchase regret to guilt you into reading through to the end, nor is there a teacher demanding a cogent analysis of the contents. If I don’t entertain you, you’ll drop me like a dull elective class. And I will watch the bar graphs that track my views diminish like a glass being drained from the bottom. Hence, the other reason I haven’t written recently: I don’t want to disappoint my new readers.
I’ve thought it over, though, and I’ve decided, “Screw that.” The project of the blog remains: This is a space for me to figure stuff out. Hard stuff, like:
If I do flee from academia, like a rebel pilot fleeing the exploding Death Star, where do I land? What do I do for a living? How do I finally get a dishwasher for my kitchen?
If I stay in academia, how do I make teaching and research meaningful again?
In my personal life, how do I nurture my family through my parents’ final years?
How do I meet a nice man who wants to have adult wrestling time in addition to, not instead of, taking me to dinner?
If my life stories are so interesting to other people, why am I so bored?
And, most urgently, what will make me happy?
If I wrote this blog like I’ve lived much of my life, I would remain paralyzed by indecision over what would irritate a bunch of strangers least. Or, as I put it in a plaintive Facebook post during a low ebblast year, ” ‘I don’t want to let you down’ has been the operating principle of my life, but I’ve never actually said it to myself.”
I am going to keep writing. And I am going to keep writing for me, because that’s all I know how to do. I can promise honesty. I can promise stories. They won’t always be interesting, but they will be interesting often enough. That’s just how life is.
Though, my mother used to say that my life is like “The Perils of Pauline”–a cliffhanger at every turn. My dad used to say I was a shit magnet. In fact, he said it again last night.Sigh.
As I look back on the last 30 or so years, I do seem to have had a lot of drama.
That’s ok! I don’t mind being compared to Pauline. Whether you’re talking about the original 1914 silent serials, the 1933 serial remakes, or the 1947 film that charmed my mother as a little girl, Pauline is always a plucky, adventurous single woman whose dire straits are the natural consequence of trying to lead an interesting life. She survives dangling from a hot air balloon, being tied up in a burning house, being tied to railroad tracks, and hanging from a cliff–always just long enough for her beau to rescue her.
I can relate, except for that last part. I am usually the one who gets me into trouble, but I am always the one who gets me out. This blog, like the undergraduate courses I’ve been taking, is the present manifestation of that process: a bobby pin to pick the lock, if you will, or a shard of glass to cut the rope. That buzzsaw has gotten awfully close, and it may yet cause me a few split ends, but I am getting out of this sawmill one way or another!
Because I don’t want to let me down.
* Speaking of a hole in the leg, remind me to tell you about my one-legged criminal boyfriend sometime. He was (and looked) so much older than me that he pretended to have lost his leg in Vietnam! In fact, his best friend shot him on a drunken hunting trip. It strained their relationship, sure, but they were good by the time I met them. In fact, my boyfriend was impersonating the best friend–something about arrest warrants–when we met. The one-legged criminal was the first of two men I have dated who claimed to be someone else. Like I said, stories…
We were just two friends having a friendly drink at the bar. At the time, I did not understand what was happening: I was with a man looking to cheat on his wife.
We met at a conference a few weeks prior. I was in my third year on the tenure track and still in that hopeful, terrified stage of a young academic’s career. A dear colleague of mine was very ill. He was a mentor, a kind and encouraging dad-like presence at my job, who also happened to be nationally known in our profession. We knew he was in the hospital, and we were on tenterhooks awaiting word. His prognosis was not good, and yet we were hopeful. No matter how cynical, how cerebral we are, hope stirs us. But often we only realize its supreme presence in our lives when it is finally gone.
I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to a conference when I got the email. My colleague was dead. I was sick at heart and considered hopping in a cab and going home. But then I thought about what he would want for me, about how much he believed in me, and how foolish he would regard any maudlin displays of grief. I got on the plane.
This was one of those conferences that’s by invitation only, there were fancy people there, and it was all paid for–a real boon to the CV for a junior scholar trying to make her name. When my flight landed, there was a guy with a sign with my name on it waiting for me, just like in the movies. We were ferried around like that for a couple of days, staying in a nice hotel, then being driven to various sites for tours and talks and dinners. It was, professionally speaking, a Big Deal.
Unfortunately, I was not in quite the right frame of mind to capitalize on the opportunity, which began with cocktails and dinner in an upscale steakhouse, the kind whose bar is filled with leather chairs with brass studs and oil paintings of cowboys. I am shy and introverted by nature, so a party at which I don’t know anyone is challenging. Make it a party that’s 90 percent men, most of whom are middle-aged or older, in a professional context, and you’ve created my nightmare scenario. Normally I handle such situations by clinging to a wall, carefully observing, and spending lots of time in the ladies’ room. It gets you nothing, but it costs nothing too. In this case, though, I was still in shock over the death of my friend, so I tried a different coping strategy: booze.
I am a lightweight, and it only takes two drinks on an empty stomach to get me drunk. By dinner, I was pretty toasted. I barely spoke to my table mates and focused instead on the many challenges of not looking drunk. I struggled to stab those pesky cherry tomatoes, chasing them across my salad plate with my fork as the guest speaker droned on. The little tabs of butter in foil wrappers likewise befuddled me. It’s a wonder I didn’t require stitches from trying to cut my steak.
Eventually they herded us back onto the shuttle bus for the return to the hotel. I was so eager to leave, and so disinterested in talking to anyone, that I was first to board. I took the front row, the one with an expansive view of the road, and rested my head against the window as the other conference goers filed past the empty seat beside me. Despite myriad alternatives for seating, a man sat down next to me. I stirred from my reverie to acknowledge him.
I don’t recall if there was an opening line, but I do recall a moment where I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon and thinking, “What the fuck do I care? I’m gonna see if I can make it across.”
He was an officer in the Air Force, about 50 but fit as hell, handsome, and clean cut, like he had been poured into a mold labeled “ideal white masculinity circa 1960.” He was wearing a natty suit and projecting just the slightest air of nonchalance. I could smell it.
“I’m not really into this conference,” I said. “I feel like I am somewhere else.”
It was an enormously risky thing for me to say, because no one was wearing name tags. I did not know who was who at the conference, meaning I had no awareness of who could help–or jettison–my career. Showing human frailty in that situation was an invitation to judgment, not just of me as an individual but of all women in my field, who labor against the usual offensive stereotype that emotions cloud our reason. And it was personally risky, to display that kind of vulnerability. Rejection, even from a total stranger, only serves to deepen the well of loneliness we are drowning in.
On the other hand, I am also aware that when you are brave enough to reach out, fate often provides a person willing to reach back. I learned that lesson in the most powerful way years before, when I was in graduate school. I was going through a horrific breakup that taxed my ability just to breathe, let alone keep my teaching job. One day I taught my class, returned to my department for office hours, and found my recent ex–the one I had been living with after four years together–and his new girlfriend–the one he had cheated on me with–flirting loudly in another office two doors down. I shut my door so I would not have to hear their voices and promptly dissolved into sobs. Just then, in the midst of a silent hyperventilation, there was a knock at the door. Delusional in thinking that my ex had come to comfort me, I opened it with a rush. Instead, it was one of my undergraduates. He looked shocked to see the person he regarded as his “professor” standing there with hands full of Kleenex and a face wet with tears, smudged mascara, and snot. I was horrified. I tried to compose myself and do the right, professional thing.
“Um, I was just… Come in!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside so he could enter, but he didn’t move. “Please,” I coaxed. “Come in.”
“No,” he said. “It’s…ok.”
There was an awkward pause while he stared at me and I stared at a spot on the wall somewhere behind him. Mortified and beyond recovery, tears continued to pool in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I don’t remember much about this kid, other than that he was Joe Average Undergrad, a white, middle class boy of privilege who, from my vantage point at the podium, was no different than the rest of his peers–that is, totally preoccupied with binge-drinking and shirtless volleyball. (This sounds a little like I went to grad school at Top Gun University. I assure you, it was just a regular university.) But then he said something that made me think, “My god, out of all the kids that could have been standing there when I opened this door on my actual, crumbling, embarrassingly broken state of mind, it can NOT be an accident that it was him.”
“No, really, it’s ok,” he explained. “My sister died last year. She had cancer. And it was really hard. Sometimes I would just fall apart…” His voice trailed off. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I know he said, “So I understand,” even though he never asked why I was crying. After what he had been through, he was wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. Before he left, he also said, “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything about this to the other students.” Which was exactly the fear that shook me when I opened the door and saw him standing there–that I would return to a classroom full of sniggers and undermining comments. Such is the workplace dynamic of the young female instructor when students equate authority with age and masculinity. Instead, his words freed me to focus on caring for myself, and they showed me that there are decent people in this world, at precisely the moment when I was losing faith.
Now, a few years later, grieving the death of my colleague and feeling overwhelmed by my precarious professional situation, I was sitting on a bus revealing my vulnerabilities to a total stranger.
“A friend, a colleague of mine, he died today. I found out right before I got on the plane,” I explained. “So I’m not really feeling present at this thing.” I gave a halfhearted wave at all the suited people nattering enthusiastically behind us.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “My daughter died last year. I know that feeling, of not really being where you are.”
I offered my condolences and asked what happened. His daughter was in her early twenties when she was killed. She was embarking on a career in the Air Force, following in her father’s footsteps, and learning to fly. There was a training accident, a crash. She survived, but with horrible burns. She spent several months in a burn unit at a VA hospital, disfigured and in agony, alternating between hope for recovery and for relief from the pain of this world. During that time, her dad–this gentle gentleman sitting next to me–took leave from his duties to tend to her. He told me about how close they got, and how it changed him. He was politically and socially conservative, with a strong religious upbringing that he had conferred on his children. His daughter was a good girl, he told me, but she was also an empowered young woman who had boyfriends and adventures that were supposed to be just part of the catalog of experimentation we all acquire before we settle into ourselves. Instead, they were all the life she had to reflect on at the end, and so she shared it with her dad–all of it. He said it was uncomfortable at times, that dads don’t want to know all the risks and sadnesses and illicit triumphs their daughters experience, but that he felt privileged to learn about her true life and to be there with her at its end. She died while he was holding her hand.
He conveyed all of this to me, and I listed intently, over the course of a thirty minute ride back to the hotel. His grief was towering, and mine so small in comparison, just like the kid outside my office back in graduate school. But, just like that kid, he never made me feel diminished, which is the mark of a kind and knowing person. Instead, he made me feel understood. And I think he liked being around me, because I reminded him not so much of his daughter–she was about a decade younger than me when she died–but of the freshness young women exude, like a warm breeze scented with flowers and watermelon. Young women are unaware of it, of course, because they are usually conditioned to criticize and hate themselves. But men–especially older men, especially men with daughters, especially older men with daughters they will never see again–are absolutely intoxicated by it.
The mood lightened as we debarked from the bus back at the hotel, and we settled into a pattern of wry banter that carried us through the rest of the conference. He asked me to join him for a nightcap at the hotel bar, but I demurred. The next morning, he was waiting for me at the door of the bus as we boarded yet again. This time, he was in his Air Force uniform, a blue suit with lots of embellishments that made him look like a 1950s bus driver. I made a joke to that effect, totally unaware that this is a common dig made so frequently at Air Force officers’ expense that it is effectively a cliché. But come on–they really do dress like bus drivers from the 1950s! It wasn’t until later, when we received the program and everyone at the conference was seated in front of their fancy place cards, that I realized he was a general in the United States Air Force, and a multi-star general at that. Looking back, my youth, my vulnerability, and my lack of deference to his rank were probably an alluring combination. (I also had a bangin’ body back then.) But at the time, I was totally oblivious.
The conference finished with little of note, but the general and I did exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Work periodically brought him to my city, and he said he would give me a call the next time he was in town.
He did, a few weeks later, and we met–just two friends having a friendly drink at a friendly bar. At the time, I did not realize that he wanted to sleep with me, and perhaps neither did he. It was all very chaste. There were some hints in his compliments to me, of course, but most of the evidence lies in the negative space of what didn’t happen after. He never called again.
We met, I thought as friends, and I reiterated that on the date. Over a drink, just one, we chatted about how “totally normal it is,” to have friends of the opposite gender, with a big age difference, who live in different cities and meet quietly from time to time. Totally normal. I was wary enough to ask pointedly about his wife, and he told me a little about her. They sounded like a great couple, I said, and it would be nice to meet her next time.
Had I flirted, had I been silent about his family life, had I put words to the unspoken chemistry between us, I think it might have gone differently. But in terms of what did happen, there was really, truly, nothing untoward. We stood together at the precipice of an affair, and then we went our separate ways.
I suspect he didn’t really know why he was there either, though the crisis within his family had clearly led him to me. I suspect he realized, when he saw me for that second and final time, that we would never quite be able to recapture the simple elegance of our original connection–two strangers sitting quiet and still, alone but together with their grief, while the world spins on and on around them. I suspect he realized, as we talked, that the fresh breezes that waft from young women are best appreciated at a distance.
You know the old saw: sometimes you get the elevator, sometimes you get Shaft.
Shaft seemed great on Tinder–funny, smart, attractive in an accessible way. He played guitar in a band, he liked my sassy mouth, and he owned his baldness in his profile pictures. All in all, I was psyched to meet him… not so much because he was relationship material (which I would not recognize if it bit me on the leg), but because I figured he would be fun. New people, new adventures, a reason to put on big-girl clothes and leave the house. I count those as successful relationships too!
We made a plan to meet for dinner in his neighborhood a few days hence. I had bronchitis, though, and was feeling pretty bad as I was getting ready for the date. Just taking a shower had exhausted me. How was I ever going to get myself together, drive to the train, ride the train, walk to the restaurant, be all sparkly for dinner, and then make the long trek home? As I was drip-drying on the toilet trying to muster the strength to straighten my hair (that ship has now sailed), he texted.
“I’m not feeling well,” he wrote. “Can we reschedule?”
Periodically I would cough so hard I would pee myself, which really puts a crimp in your date-night underwear options. I realized that rescheduling was probably best for me too. Plus, I thought he meant it.
I’ve mentioned that I’m pretty dumb about dating. In fact, I’m pretty dumb about people in general, because my cabbage-headed, Midwestern sincerity means that I take it for granted that people are telling me the truth. Turns out, people lie all the time! Despite my hard-nosed cynicism in other areas, this still catches me by surprise.
I took Shaft at his word that he was sick, because, Hey! I was sick. It happens. If he didn’t want to meet me, he would just find a nice way to say that, right?
With that sad set of assumptions in mind, I reached out a week later and suggested we try again. I was going to be in the city near his work getting my ‘do done. Maybe we could meet for lunch? He wrote back enthusiastically that he was game for meeting me. I took that to mean, “I would like to meet you.” I left the house correct: ass jeans, no food stains on my sweater, full yet light makeup, and shitty hair–because soon it was going to be Salon Hair. It was on.
While I was sitting in my stylist’s chair, less than an hour from date-time, Shaft texted to tell me that he had to cancel…
Because he had dropped his wallet down an elevator shaft.
“Gee, that sucks,” I thought, as I texted him with sincere concern.
“God this woman is dumb,” he thought, as he deflected me once again.
He said he didn’t have any means of paying for lunch.
I said it didn’t matter, I’d be happy to spot him.
He said he didn’t want to be “vexed” (full disclosure: I still like that he used that word!) and ruin our date. So he just cancelled it forever instead.
Part of me knew he didn’t want to meet me. But the hopeful part of me would not be silenced. For all the sturm und drang surrounding my fraught relationships, my low self-esteem, and my professional dissatisfaction, I am at times a ridiculously optimistic person. Hope rises in me like a buoy, ever springing back to the surface no matter how hard life tries to push it down. And when my dark humors seek to drown it–you will look foolish, you will be hurt, just let it go–I settle the debate with this:
I have to do me.
And doing me means erring on the side of other people’s sincerity and decency. Someday this annoying tendency is going to pay off.
Someday! But not that particular day.
I wrote Shaft a day or two later, asking whether the wallet ever turned up. I have a hard time crawling into the mind of person who can’t muster a simple sentence like, “You seem like a lovely woman, but I’m not interested in meeting you after all” to extricate himself from an unwanted engagement. What was he thinking when I wrote to him yet again? If I were such a person, someone incapable of being forthright, whose default mode is to dissemble, and who lacks the moral courage to be unliked–even by someone he never planned to see again–I might think that this lady asking about my lost wallet was trolling me.
She wasn’t. Part of me really thought, “Maybe it turned up, and we can go out now.”