Two Boulders

Shortly after my daughter was born I watched the movie 127 Hours and had a totally revelatory experience. I’m probably not the only person to have a 127 Hours revelation — the movie is pretty impactful. In it, Aron Ralston, a lone-wolf mountaineer, is forced to cut off his own arm to save his life. It’s memorable, even if you’re not nursing a newborn.

At the time, I was profoundly sleep deprived in the way only new parents and cannery workers can be. I was probably legally crazy. Plus, it was before James Franco got busted attempting to hook up with high school girls. It actually was a time-delayed revelation — a kind of revelation landmine that I stepped on much later, when I reread an essay written by Albert Camus about Sisyphus — a Saturday Essay of sorts, I guess. (“Camus on Sisyphus” sounds like either the awesomest or absolute worst pro-wrestling matchup of all time.)

We all know the Sisyphus story, in part or in parcel, right? Sisyphus angers the Gods (he’s Greek) and they punish him by condemning him to an eternity spent laboriously pushing a gigantic boulder up a mountain.

In his essay, Camus postulates that Sisyphus was no unhappy prisoner of fate. No doomed and “futile laborer of the underworld,” Sisyphus was neither witless nor despondent. The assumption in the punishment, Camus asserts, is Sisyphus’ awareness of the futility of his efforts will really crush his soul; the knowing that his work will always immediately be for nothing, evinced every single day by the prompt return of the boulder to the bottom of the mountain.

The Gods, bent on revenge and punishment, insure that Sisyphus knows every detail of his fate. This, Camus argues, doesn’t mean Sisyphus can’t be happy. But it’s a sort of sardonic, existential happiness. A Sienfeldy happiness. Our Sisyphus knows he’s fucked, and the knowing allows him to see the bigger reality, in which life itself is absurd and futile. For this reason, Sisyphus can relax and find contentment in his rock-shoving life, since it’s no more or less absurd than anyone else’s. In fact, at least he knows what to expect. As the rock rolls down the hill, he is triumphant over his punishment, because he knows his shit lot, but he’s rolling with it like a boss. In fact, Camus’ essay ends with the conclusion that, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Every day he wakes up, knows his job, and does it.

I imagine Sisyphus like one of the Landmark Forum alums, evangelizing about the transformative power of accepting a life in which all meaning is assigned and arbitrary. The complex and magnificent allegory of the aphorism, “Shit happens.” Add, “ad infinitum,” and you’ve got the CliffsNotes to the One Unifying Theory of Everything.

The horrible suspicion I have is that Sisyphus’ fate is no worse than yours, or mine. We are simpler in that we are largely unconscious of the pointlessness of our efforts. That unconsciousness requires us to labor under a significant and important misapprehension: that we might create something lasting; that our goodness will protect us. But even with a literal God to worship and obey, we shake off the world in which we have so carefully selected our granite-look Formica counter tops and had our perfect babies. We die and leave everything behind; our houses are someone else’s houses, our bodies, irrespective of the formaldehyde aftershave, eventually return to the dirt. We are gone, as certainly as we were ever here.

So, if life is meaningless, but humans endlessly search for meaning (necessitating an entire cult of self-help retreats in which attendees might discover what meaning is assigned and who is doing the assigning), it begs the question: why do we keep searching for meaning? Evolution? Is the only reason we search for meaning because searching for meaning makes us more likely to live longer and make more meaning-seeking babies? Because that would be the definition of irony, and super fucked up. Delusional belief in the meaning of being confers greater survival potential? Jesus. That goes in the same category as the Fermi Paradox — a kind of meta-despondency in which hope is promptly transformed into proof of the inherent futility of hoping.

In the moments in which I alternately do and do not believe there is anyone to whom I might direct a strongly-worded letter on this matter, I’m tempted by Camus’ sardonic comfort. Fuck it, I’ll do it. I’m captain of the futile labor team. I am a proud member of the suicide-averse fatalists: I’m not killing myself because life is bad enough for me, thank you. I’ll cling to this shit show because there is no other shit show. Plus, here there’s cilantro.

I promise I’m getting to the part where Aron Ralston cuts off his arm. Bear with me.

So I was watching that movie. Ralston goes on an independent hike in Utah and gets trapped in a deep canyon, his arm pinned in an intractable way underneath a literal boulder. Over the next 127 hours, he works it out, his role in his own destiny, and the terrible, impossible thing he must do. He cuts off his own arm. It’s so viscerally palpable it inspires a kind of sympathy-induced synesthesia. You can feel his pain. Not necessarily in your arm, but in more powerful, ephemeral locations — like, in whatever you prefer to call your soul.

Before he saws off his arm (after breaking two arm bones using his bodyweight and the boulder as leverage, Lord have mercy) he has a crystalizing moment in which he realizes categorically that he chose his fate by remaining utterly independent from everyone who would love him. “This rock … this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. In its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago up there in space. It’s been waiting to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the Earth’s surface.”

Rereading the Camus essay, I remembered this scene from the movie entirely and it hit my addled brain like a bolt of lightning. The two stories wove together, Ralston and Sisyphus, two entirely different but equally heavy boulders. Both stories are impossibly evocative, and darkly beautiful. Neither was entirely satisfying to me on its own, but together they finish a broader picture.

Ralston’s life is no more meaningful or explicable than Sisyphus’. Neither climber escaped the boulder — both made their peace in the only ways they could. Sisyphus abandoned a freedom that was defined by ambition and accomplishment, and Ralston abandoned a freedom that necessitated the sacrifice of intimacy. Both relinquished a different aspect of control, to preserve joy. They both returned to the climb, whatever that would be, different than before they’d embarked.

In the end, it’s the union of the two narratives that is the most interesting to me. Because it’s not really about the boulders. It’s the rack-focus between futility and meaning. Not the meaning of life — the meaning of meaning. Ralston was under his boulder because he never told anyone anything, and Sisyphus was under his boulder because he told everyone lies, and they both believed their actions put them under those rocks. They both considered that each individual decision they made to get them to those canyons was possibly part of some larger, unknowable whole. Camus’ Sisyphus concluded that the whole is random, meaningless, and absurd, but makes his meaning in each moment he lives, now. Ralston saw his foibles, his fallibilities, his ego and his selfishness as the causes of his disaster, and he believed himself the architect of his own tragedy. Ralston concludes the whole is comprised of each decision he made, leading him to a tailored destiny in which he might learn an important lesson.

I think both things are true. Lying there in the half-light of the TV, I thought the isolated events in our lives might indeed be meaningless, but we can’t make decisions about them unless we assign meaning to them, and maybe to the events that precipitated them. The meaning we assign, as much as the decisions themselves, are all part of how we demonstrate free will, or exhibit agency.

Either way, Ralston’s boulder was coming for him, or whomever was in that canyon at that moment. Ralston assembled the story of his life, the meaning of his experience to include a destined boulder. If it had been another person in that canyon, the movie would have been very different. I wonder what I would have read in that boulder. How much I would have been willing to leave in that canyon. What would my movie have been? Same scenario. Same rock. Different fate, entirely.

And Sisyphus’ boulder was coming as well. Sometimes shit happens, apropos of nothing, and it’s fucking horrible. It isn’t because we weren’t good enough — our goodness does not protect us. Our worth, our culpability, our intrinsic value don’t protect us. The rocks are coming, the meteors are forming, hurtling through silent, roiling galaxies to the canyons we’re convinced we’re discovering. We are chosen by the gods for pain and destruction, for envy and despair. We shoulder the burden, however heavy, and live in whatever space is left between the effort of lifting and the descent down the mountain.

It’s ordinary to be doomed. We’re all doomed in some way — maybe not until the very end, when, however peacefully, all of our perfect, beautiful silliness will disappear to somewhere unknown. It is, even in its gentlest form, catastrophically unfair. So are the unbelievable gifts we’re given. One sunrise, one baby, one wild blueberry is ridiculous abundance. We are cursed and we are blessed in impossible, unbearable ways.

Ralston and Sisyphus’ stories have been made allegorical by what they did, but I think that’s a mistake. Because your fate is much less determined by what you’re willing to do than what you’re willing to think.

Sometimes, in that brutal space in which harsh truths lurk and strut, I think about something G. Gordon Liddy said. Liddy held his hand over a candle flame until the flesh crackled and burned. Someone asked him what his trick was. “The trick,” Liddy responded, “Is not to mind it.”

And sometimes, in that same space, I think instead of Henry Moore, who said, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

Cats and Dogs

My old neighbor — we’ll call her Tonya — verbally abused her pets. It was like living next door to a David Lynch biopic of Joan Crawford.

One summer, I was digging a fire pit in my back yard. It was the middle of a nice, warm day, probably in June. Suddenly, over the fence that encloses my back yard, I heard a woman’s voice talking reasonably to what sounded, inferring from what she was saying, like a small child: “Autumn, remember what we talked about? You promised to play on this side of the yard, away from Callie’s sandbox. If you don’t do what you promised, we’ll have to go inside.” Huh. I must have neighbor kids. Cool. I kept digging my fire pit. Three feet in diameter? Four? I tabulated the number of edging stones I would need. The voice from over the fence started up again. “Autumn! You stay away from Callie’s sandbox, like we talked about!” I had hardly dumped my shovelful of dirt before she started up again, this time plaintively, “Autumn! You are ruining this for both of us! I said NO!” And not even five seconds later, crazy time. Full scream. “AUTUMN! Come back here right now! I told you to stay away from that fence! I TOLD YOU TO STAY!! AWAY!! FROM!!! THE!!! F#*KING!!! FENCE!!!” She was almost roaring now, she was screaming so hard.

“AUTUMN! YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING! YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! WE CAN’T EVEN BE OUT IN THE G%$DAMMED YARD FOR FIVE G%$DAMMED MINUTES BEFORE YOU F#*K  IT ALL UP! WE’RE GOING INSIDE! INSIDE AUTUMN! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? ARE YOU? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???!!!???”

I called 911. The dispatcher asked for my address and said, “ohhhhhh. That’s Tonya. Those aren’t kids. She’s got some kind of pets over there. We see a lot of her.” I was relieved. Although I don’t think it’s right to derogate your animals, I was hopeful they understood more about their owner’s relative emotional state than, well, English.

I should cop to something right away: I am not a huge animal person. I don’t understand them. I think they are interesting and other, which is nice, but not critical to my experience as me on the planet. I’m happy to see them but not anxious to. That said, if you leave an animal in my care, I will eventually come to love the creature. But I will never spontaneously take pictures of it, or celebrate its birthday. I’m sorry about this, but it’s the truth about me.

I inherited a cat (who my neighbor rescued but was too allergic to care for) about 15 years ago. We named her Bella. Bad things had happened to her — she had half as many teeth as she should have had, all broken in half on one side of her mouth. The vet thought it was an abuse injury, since a car couldn’t have done damage so precise, but a boot could’ve.

Perhaps because of that injury, Bella got what I affectionately referred to as “the tax return infection,” or “TRI,” every single year around tax time, forcing me to spend all that hard-earned money I had loaned to my government on boring things like life-saving feline antibiotics, for which she thanked me by removing most of the skin on my forearms when I administered them. (I went through one pair of oven mitts a year, for exactly that reason.) Every year I owned her, the vet said, “I don’t know if she’s going to make it,” when she’d get the TRI. She’d stop eating, lose so much weight that we called her the Karen Carpenter kitty, and lay around, looking like the kitty embodiment of Morrisey lyrics. And every year she’d rally, responding to the antibiotics as though they were dehydrated capsules from the river of life, flipping the Grim Reaper the bird while sock-hunting and packing on the old lb’s, until she blew past Karen Carpenter and most resembled Marlon Brando. She would get so fat she would lean back on the couch and, with her little stick arms out to either side, lick her upper belly area. She got so fat she bounced off the radiator, trying to leap up and enjoy the afternoon sun.

But one year, she didn’t respond to the antibiotics. She got thinner and slower, and finally just lay in the corner, crooning and mewing. We did everything we could to save her — most of it crap our parents, friends, or other animal enthusiasts recommended. We gave her ice cream. We gave her lard. We gave her olive oil in a dropper, and in a last fit of desperation, we even put olive oil in her kitty butt. Finally, we realized our efforts were bordering on things they did at Guantanemo Bay. So we called and scheduled an appointment with the vet to end her life.

That turned out to be a really, really big deal. I had no idea.

When we got to the vet, we had a long conversation about what we would or wouldn’t be willing to do to save or extend her life. The conversation, while sympathetic and compassionate, was pretty brass tacks. Would we want to run $3,000 worth of biopsies and diagnostics, knowing there was a 50/50 chance she wouldn’t live through the tests? No? Would we want to do $500 worth of blood work, knowing the results would probably indicate the $3,000 worth of biopsies and tests were necessary? Before I had this cat, I scoffed at people discussing vast, expensive medical procedures they had done on their pets. Spleen transplants? Hip replacement? Really? If you had told me then that you were going to spend $3,000 trying to figure out what was wrong with your cat, I would have been replaying Jackie Kashian’s opinion of designer pets, “You know what you can get for three thousand dollars? Three thousand cats.” But now, standing in the vet’s office over Bella’s shivering body, I was mentally calculating how much space was on each of my credit cards.

I didn’t know I would feel like that. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do — what Bella would want me to do, if she was capable of “wanting” anything in the way I thought of it. What was the value of her pain? What did her life, her death mean to her? Was I taking something away from her by ending her life before she did? I needed to know these things to make the right decision, and there was no one to ask but Bella. And she couldn’t tell me. It was kind of like every other critical decision I’ve ever made in my life — decisions in which no matter what I choose I’ll always wonder, always revisit the whole situation and make the decision over and over again, because it never feels right, never settles itself. And, in those situations, every phone call I make to get advice, counsel, or reassurance just rings and rings. Nobody ever picks up. I kept looking into Bella’s eyes, and the phone just kept ringing.

We went ’round and ’round with the vet, asking a hundred different versions of, “will that save her?” and getting a hundred different versions of “probably not for long” until we all kind of arrived at the answer we knew in the first place. We knew she was going to die — now, or very soon.

And in the absence of any new information, we would do what we could to make that suck as little as possible. “We have to let her go.” My sister said.

She was so skinny by then that her body felt like one of those rabbit’s foot keychains, all whispery-furred and hollow. We held her paws, touched her face as the medicine began to work. Her body relaxed, her chest stopped rising and she was gone. It was almost immediate.

All those things — her love of my socks, her wild-eyed destruction of our couch, her fat belly rebounding off the radiator like a bad layup, the years of purring and warm fur against my feet — gone. That’s what we get to know about death — that it removes all of those connections, all of those threads tying that being to the world, and pulls them through the eye of a needle, the other side of which is beyond our vision. It seems impossible for so many threads to just vanish, but they do.

We stood there with her body, crying and petting her, and then her body became her “body” — not her at all. It wasn’t hard to leave her there, because she was already gone.

So, I loved that cat.

I told you this story, because I don’t want you to think I’m a monster when I tell you the rest of the story. Or at least, I don’t want you to think I’m that kind of monster.

The vet called me two weeks later to come pick up her boxed ashes, assumedly to bury them in some shady corner of my yard, with pomp, circumstance, an acoustic version of “In My Life” by the Beatles, and somber prayers to Rascal, the kitty version of Jesus. (Duh, God would send his only cat to die in place of billions of cats so they could live forever.)

But, I didn’t do any of that stuff.

Instead, I put the box in my trunk. It made the most sense. The box was clearly marked, “BELLA O. REMAINS.” What was I supposed to do, buckle it into the front seat? I just kept having visions of getting into an accident on the way home and the box exploding all over the inside of my car, like Mt. St. Helens. There I’d be, with ash outlines of my sunglasses, coughing and sneezing Bella dust while I exchanged insurance information. (“No, my car’s not on fire. These are just my cat’s ashes. No! She was already dead.) The trunk was a better idea. It was February at the time, and the ground was frozen solid. So, when I got home, I left it in the car. Not her, the box of ashes. And then I forgot all about them.

I will be the first person to admit that this is horrible.

I didn’t mean to do it, but I just kept forgetting they were in there until I needed to put something in the trunk. Which was usually groceries. I would open the trunk, see the telltale black box, and say, “Sh*t! Bella’s ashes! I have to remember to bring those inside!” And then I’d angle the Totino’s Party Pizzas between the box and the jumper cables. I’m not proud of myself. And anyway, it was winter and the ground was frozen, so I couldn’t bury her even if I did remember the box, although I didn’t, so it doesn’t really matter. And then we cleaned out our basement, and I began driving around with every soccer item my son had used from 1998 to today in my trunk, piled on top of the box. So, I put my groceries in the back seat of my car, and Bella’s ashes became a distant memory.

As a result, I drove that cat’s ashes around for three years.

One day, my son and I dropped the trunk stuff off at Goodwill, and he spotted the box. “What is this, mom? Does it go in the bin?” I want to point out at this point in the story that I could have said, “yep,” and been done with it, no shame, no ‘splaining, but I am better than that. Not bury-my-beloved-cat-in-a-timely-fashion better than that, but don’t-donate-my-beloved-cat’s-ashes-to-Goodwill-to-avoid-telling-my-son-they’ve-remained-in-my-trunk-for-three-years better than that.

“Those are Bella’s ashes.” I said.

“MOM!!!!!” My son said, in a combination of horror and disgust. “Are you kidding?” I was not kidding.

“It was winter, and the ground was frozen!” I pleaded.

“For THREE years?” he asked, incredulously.

“For part of the three years …” I said, finally.

He held the box of ashes on his lap on the way home from Goodwill.

“Aren’t you worried if we crash, the box will explode all over you?” I asked.

“The ashes are in a plastic BAG, Mom!” he said.

“Really?” I asked

“YEAH,” he said.

“Ah. I see. We should bury them,” I said.

“You think?”

My son went out and buried her ashes in the corner of the vegetable garden, which I said nothing about (even though now I feel like the zucchini is going to taste like cat ashes or make us all get mad cat disease or something) because I had lost all ground to offer direction when I took the cat’s ashes on a three-year road trip. Sigh. In a way, Bella got the longest funeral procession of any cat, ever, including those Egyptian asshole cats, who were buried with live humans to protect them from evil and bring them whatever the Egyptian version of catnip and Meow Mix were.

I want you to know that I had and continue to have the very best intentions. And, although it may come as not inconsiderable reassurance and no surprise to you, no pets.

The Large Hadron Collider, or, I Have Never Met Father John Misty, Irrespective of What This Essay Might Imply

I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad got sick, then my husband got sick, and I became a lot more curious about the nature of being than I was before. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Large Hadron Collider. In case you are not also wedged firmly between a rock and a firm location, devouring particle physics literature like a Kardashian hoarding Us Weekly, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It’s the largest single machine in existence, built in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from around the world.

Maybe I have felt, over the past two years or so, a little sympathetic to the lead electron at the nose of that high-speed electron beam, roaring around an accelerator ring at nearly light speed, every lap incrementally nudging closer to a head-on collision with an opposing electron beam, traveling at equal speed. But, less dramatically, I’ve been thinking more about what scientists have found.

The intent of the Large Hadron Collider is to investigate the structure of the atomic nucleus. (I copied that from the LHC website). But it’s been doing more than that. Like any scientific investigation of the unknown, it has the potential to change everything by altering our perception of the nature of stuff. If, for example, the LHC reveals that energy becomes matter in describable and predictable circumstances, or becomes matter by describable and predictable mechanisms, it would radically change how we see the universe. It’s literally an infinitesimally tiny change, but it would be a boundless change, philosophically.

We already believe/theorize that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, which basically means that everything in the universe was always here, in some iteration of either matter or energy. Everything that you are always was, and always will be, in one form or (maybe and/or) another. You are, and always have been, infinite. You probably knew this already, deep down. It’s the kind of thing you can feel, even if it takes you half your life to put it into words, or the words you finally find are from the Large Hadron Collider website.

Everything I am has been recycled (making Solomon’s “nothing new” comment a little more empirical than prophetic). Everything you are was something else before it was you, and will eventually be something else after. Nothing new comes from anywhere. It was all here, just shuffled around. We’re all eternal. There is no past, no future. It is and has always been now, according to our composition of stuff.

There is a line in Michael Ende’s book, Momo, when Guisseppe asks Momo how old she is and she replies, “As far as I know, I’ve always been around.” Us, too.

Since the dawn of science, pretty much, humans have been searching for one unifying theory of everything — one set of rules to describe how the universe works. Pure science often distances itself from “WHY?” The more ruminative or philosophical science community tarries on “WHY?” but returns first to “HOW?” as the first answerable question, since “WHY?” is a dependent variable. So far, most every new determination in science has been used to take the magic out of “WHY?” to make it explicable, intelligible, and rational. Crashing these electrons around and finding, in the resulting measurable detritus, the field in which energy becomes matter, is the scientific equivalent of finding the body of Christ, withered and carbon-based, behind a very solid rock. It means to many there is no unifying force of creation. No sentient or, more importantly, benevolent force orchestrating the matter and energy of the universe. No God, loving us individually.

This is confusing to me, in the same way evolution somehow disproving any creation stories confuses me. In fact, I can’t believe one without the other. I feel closer to understanding the organizing force of the universe when destruction and transformation are part of the magic, too.

As Lex Luthor said in the latest Superman installation, “If God is all good, He can’t be all powerful.” And that’s bumper-sticker simple, right? But it’s also gorgeous. Choose your nomenclature — God, Allah, Gaia(aiaiaiaia), the Universe — in the way that resonates with you, because that’s important. But the rest of the sentence is fine. The cancer is part of the magic. The dying is part of the magic. It’s not the end, or the tailings pile, or the dregs. It’s as much a part of the system as the fucking, the cheeseburgers, the birthing, the poetry, the fall of the Berlin wall; it’s as real and intrinsic to being as your beating heart. It’s not the shadow to the light — not the opposite of life or the other side of the coin. Scientifically, there is no opposite of entropy.

Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. It’s a scientific measure, not a philosophic discussion. But if it’s a tumor growing in some dark, secret part of your perfect, faithful, kind-hearted, altruistic body, entropy becomes philosophical. It leads a person to consider the infinite life of his or her stuff — the matter and energy that make her or him.

If entropy is an essential, inevitable part of being, and being is meaningful, then entropy must be meaningful, too. Moreover, because I’m intrinsically related to the Universe, I’m comparably connected to you, to your husband’s cancer, to Rwanda, and to Philando Castile. The space between us is expansive at the same time our connection is connate — definitive, part of the fundamental laws of the universe. And, for some reason I still don’t understand, I have the ability to willfully operate my own little world-builder. I have the ability to decide.

Our thoughts are made of the same stuff of the universe — of space and hotdogs and nebulae. We are organizing and sending our own patterns of stuff around the universe all the time. We are touching everything, in our regard of it, all the time. And everything, every new pattern of thought that corresponds with our own experience, our own soul or mind, was something else before, and will be something after. This makes me wonder how much of what happens to us is primarily ours alone, not yours, but mine, particularly? How much do we share? What of me is you, too, right now? What is the subatomic delineation of “we?”

When I think about the electrons in my body, responsible for the communication of thoughts to action, and how enormous they are, compared to the much smaller particles responsible for the creation of matter, I feel suddenly aware of how powerful that ability to decide is. I can make meaning. I can love, forgive, create. If I want to change the universe, all I have to do is change my mind. The force of my intention is a literal force. This is tremendously comforting to me.

We have such power over each other, and such importance to each other. It breaks my heart with precisely the same crushing strength that it uses to open me wide, like a nascent star.

Because it was always and still is now, according to our matter — but the conformation of now we’re creating and experiencing doesn’t need to include this hate machine or that constellation of shared sorrow, which are using the building materials that might otherwise be devoted to moons or oceans or miracles.

One electron, at the head of a roaring stream, circling faster and faster, edging closer and closer to collision. One tiny particle, breaking apart the fabric of the universe, revealing a billion smaller universes within it. No control, but so much power. The world happens to us, but we happen to the universe. And in the end, we share everything.

Flackers and Kombucha

I’ve been eating pretty conscientiously lately. I have good reasons, so don’t get douchey. (Although, now that I think of it, when do people eat conscientiously for bad reasons? “Eff it. I’m gonna cut back on meat and sugar to really stick it to my mom. That’ll show her.”)

Some of the stuff has been pretty revelatory. For instance: spaghetti squash is better than pasta for pesto, in my opinion, and while pinto beans can still go straight to hell, cannellini beans are like little butter bombs full of protein and velvety goodness. I could drink olive oil, and 36 percent of my adipose tissue is actually guacamole. (My love handles are deeeeeeelicious.) Parsley is a vegetable and makes everything better, and although I respect you, vegetarians, grass-fed, farm-fresh ground beef is probably a good enough reason to at least seriously consider killing a cow. (Although, I’m not sure I could do that—they are really tall. Much taller than you’d think.) Kale chips are mouth-watering, Swiss chard wants to kiss your face (yes, with tongue) and don’t even get me started on what eggs can do. Don’t even.

However.

Have you ever had “Flackers?” or “kombucha?” Both are very strange.

Let’s start with Flackers. Flackers are a trademarked brand of crackers made of flax seed. Think of them as cracker facsimiles or “cracksimiles” for those who enjoy the occasional serial portmanteau. They are sprouted and blessed and prayed for by endangered owls or whatever. But mostly, they are flax seeds. Google “Flackers” for a picture of them, in case you’ve never been compelled to eat them. I can see why you might never be compelled to eat them. I would likely have passed them by, too, were it not for the ultra-restrictive “cleanse” diet my husband and I were on. While we had ventured back into dairy, we still were not eating wheat, and wanted a snack vehicle. I spied Flackers as possible diet-friendly vehicles for cracker accoutrements. So we got them, along with some squishy marvelous cheeses.

I want you to know that I will continue to eat them, even after this discussion, but not because they, in and of themselves, are yummy. They are suitable, nutritious vehicles for cheese and other tasty cracker riders. Their flavor is savory and earthy, and they are salty enough to do the job. But their texture is soooooooo weird. It’s something akin to eating an entire mouthful of tiny insect carapaces. Like, maybe weevils or cigarette beetles? They are cemented together with some kind of clear, edible netting substance. It looks like maybe the teeny beetles had even teenier glue guns and just glued together all the corpses around them. (I don’t know why the teeny beetle craft enthusiasts were surrounded by corpses. I have only made up a little bit about their society.)

The flax weevils are stacked, with some relative uniformity, about three deep and 37,189,750,708,715,807 long. When you bite into a plain, unencumbered cracker, the flax weevils are spontaneously released from the glue web, and immediately dissipate into your mouth, most of which end up nestling gently into the space between your teeth and gums. This is fun for a magnificently long time afterward. The ovoid shape of the flax seeds makes them nigh impossible to dislodge with floss, and while you can absolutely brush them out, they just slide right back in. There’s probably a military application for this, but I haven’t thought of it yet because I already stopped thinking about it as soon as I said the sentence. The balance of the flax weevils become very slimy and slippery and seem to literally flit about your tongue, which is terrific if you’ve always wondered what it would feel like to eat 37,189,750,708,715,807 live weevils all at once, but not great if you haven’t.

The only reasonable way to consume them is with cheese. The cheese absorbs all wayward flax weevils and escorts them with a firm, creamy hand to the sharp, chewing parts of your teeth (rather than the cave-like, must-be-extricated-by-a-dentist parts of your teeth and/or gumline) and then, in a rich, speckled blob, down your throat and into your Omega 3 processing lab, where all of the Chicken in a Biscuit crackers you previously consumed are destroyed and replaced by four extra minutes of life or a more lustrous, manageable cerebral cortex—whichever you wish for.

So, I keep eating them. And every single time, I try one without cheese, just to see if I’m mistaken. I’m not.

Worst case scenario, I know I could survive on a bug and cheese diet. I am having some trouble imaging the scenario that would necessitate such a diet, but should it materialize, I’m ready.

The second weirdest thing I continue to consume on purpose is kombucha. Kombucha, according to Wikipedia, is “a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks that are commonly intended as functional beverages for their supposed health benefits.” Fermenting things is all the rage. You can buy fermented anything at Trader Joe’s, which has really helped me out, buying wedding gifts for people I don’t really like. (Enjoy the box of lacto-fermented Mike and Ike’s, Paul and Tammy.)

On the whole, fermented stuff is yummy. Sauerkraut, beets, kimchi … yummy. Plus, it’s supposed to heal your guts, or, in layperson’s terms, “make you poop appropriately.” Who doesn’t want an appropriate pooping life? So, as a consummate fan of fermented goods, I started my relationship with kombucha already sold on the idea. Everybody kept telling me about it. “Ermaglerb, kermbercher …” etc., etc. So I finally picked some up.

First, after minutes of careful examination, I realized all of the kombuchas were rotten, each with a gigantic, 1/4-cup snot glob lurking along the bottom of the bottle. I’m as interested in disturbing gustatory experiences as the next person (see “37,189,750,708,715,807 live weevils,” above), but 1/4-cup of snot is just too much snot. (I’m not actually sure what my snot ceiling is, but I am certain one-fourth of a cup exceeds it. And here’s to never having a more precise answer to this question.)

I asked the staffer nearest the kombucha whether this snot stuff was supposed to be in there. He averred, explaining that this gelatinous, goo-blob was called a SCOBY, or “symbiotic ‘colony’ of bacteria and yeast,” which is the cutest acronym for the grossest thing I’ve ever heard, beating MRSA and C-Diff by a landslide. This SCOBY, he explained, was largely responsible for the health benefits of the kombucha. Because I wasn’t about to spend all this time trying to buy unrotten kombucha, only to go home and do a bunch of research about science, I resigned myself to somehow imbibing it. I chose what sounded like a delicious but unlikely flavor for a fermented item, something like guava kiwi, or strawberry fripple, and cracked the seal. Upon air exposure, the kombucha facsimilated an eighth-grade science volcano experiment, and powerfully overflowed the bottle. I was immediately doused in what smelled like someone had somehow distilled a burp into a concentrated perfume.

I cautiously took a sip of the 2/3 liquid that remained in the bottle. I want to say I’ve been fooled by olfactory hallucinations and subterfuge before. You know how cheese smells revolting, but the flavor is plum delicious? Or how liverwurst smells scrumptious, but tastes like lukewarm assholes? Not my first rodeo. But kombucha? Kombucha tastes just exactly like it smells. It tastes like a distillation of manifold burps. Dessert burps, banana burps, cheeseburger with mayo and Dijon mustard—all in one, like some horrible Willy Wonka gumball catastrophe. Kombucha tastes like what your burps would taste like if you could eat burps.

Because I already owned the entire bottle of kombucha, I took another sip. Same. Then another. Yuck. And another. Why was I still drinking this? Pretty soon, wholly without explanation, I had consumed the entire bottle. Huh. I regarded the nutrition label: one bottle, two servings. Twice as healthy, right?

A feeling of warmth and well-being washed over me. The people walking by my car in the parking lot were more attractive. The sun came out, the ice melted off my windshield, and my favorite song came on the radio. My ex-boyfriends all missed me, my sister gave me that one sweater I love, and my mom and dad got back together. Just kidding. My mom and dad would never get back together. But I did feel really good. For a while.

About an hour later, my guts began to rumble. I didn’t worry too much about it until the sound was audible to people adjacent to me. I was at the mall at the time, and knew I was in trouble when the cashier at Old Navy offered me her granola bar. I began to locate the exits. When the grumbling and groaning in my guts was producing visible tectonic changes in the flesh of my abdomen, I drove home like a bat out of hell. (On a related note, one time I gave my toddlers Fiber One bars. AS PROMISED FIBER ONE. As promised.) I literally bolted up the stairs to my bathroom, at which point kombucha taught me a lesson in moderation that tequila, Natty Ice, Totino’s Party Pizza, and marinated artichoke hearts had been unable to teach. Respect the kombucha. Or the kombucha will fetch a pound of flesh.

Here’s the kicker: I still drink it. It tastes horrible, explodes all over me, and then occasionally shaves my dignity down to a kind of dignity flattop. High and tight. But between the glugging and the regrets, there is the glowly postprandial elation that only SCOBY-juice can provide.

And there you have it. I’ve succumbed to the hippie rhetoric. I’ve drunk the fermented Kool-Aid and partaken in the flax-seed wafers offered by the church of erudite but dietarily responsible snacking. I feel like a traitor.

Between you and me, Chicken in a Biscuit crackers and cheesy garlic bread potato chips are no less inexplicable.

Pornography, or, “Worst First Dates”

In 1999, my ex-husband gave me a computer. I was pretty glad to get it. I had mastered emailing, and was ready to move on to the really exciting things, like AOL and internet porn.

Let’s get this clear right away: I’m not a huge porn fan. My porn experience at that point was limited to the following:

1. A couple of magazines unearthed by a 13-year-old me, in ~1985 in my mom’s friend’s attic. They were evidently from the 1970s. My suspicion was based largely on the unusual prevalence of mustaches and floppy boobies. (Throw in a headshot of Spiro Agnew and my argument is airtight.) They were disturbingly graphic and unaltered. Sans digital enhancement, the naked people all looked like slabs of pork tenderloin. With mustaches and floppy boobies.

2. A porn movie a boyfriend rented to watch with me. Everyone seemed really, really angry in it. With the volume down, their sexing faces all looked like they were watching Newt Gingrich pole dance in assless chaps and an American flag tank top. (He has bootstraps tattooed on his inner thighs, by the way. Interesting tidbit.)

3. My parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, which was hidden under some sweaters in my dad’s closet. Finding that book in that spot was the single best abstinence education any parent could possibly provide. The idea of my disgusting parents contorting their old disgusting bodies into those disgusting and inexplicable configurations was enough to keep me from so much as holding hands until I was 16 years old.

So, my experience, such as it was, seemed anemic. But now I had a computer, so I needn’t remain so provincial. I was ready to be educated.

It took a long time. There’s a lot of porn. At first, me and a couple girlfriends searched for the basics: “boobs,” then “big boobs,” and eventually, “colossal boobs.” Rapidly boring ourselves with women hosting breasts as round and tight as giant tan boils posted on their chests, we started to search for things we’d always heard about but disbelieved: “Crazy fetishes,” “LITERAL horse lovers,” and “Diapered and 40-Plus.” All there. In plenitude! We had to choose which sites we looked at, there were so many results. So, we got even crazier. “Blindfolded sex with big nosed ladies on the hoods of Le Car, model years 1984-1986” and “llama mustard fetish.” Still there. The results got increasingly disturbing, and, in spite of the wine we’d consumed, less funny. There is a guy out there, pining away for one other soul who is only aroused by a woman riding a llama covered in spicy mustard. He wants to talk. He wants to relate. He made a webpage. And that is too much for me to worry about. So we wrapped up with high-fives (universal hand gesture of the morbidly uncomfortable) and the uneasy feelings that accompany a large-scale porn investigation.

It was like The X-Files, only instead of Area 51 we found a secret warehouse of sexual deviants so weird that Area 51 seemed like a Gap Outlet in comparison. Seriously, those people don’t want to know what genetic secrets the alien corpse is keeping. They want to have sex with it. And a donkey wearing fishnet stockings and a fez.

Anyway.

Well, over the course of the next few months, my computer starting behaving strangely — opening up windows full of gobbledygook, refusing to shut down, and generally acting like I had shoved a PB&J sandwich into its floppy drive (which existed, and was approximately the size of a carport — it was 1999). At about the same time, I began dating a man who specialized in computer coding. He was one of the HTML front runners, schooling himself in the dark recesses of his apartment, fascinated by ASCII. He came over one night during our initial courtship to watch movies. For the purposes of this narrative, let’s call him Stu.

At this point in our datinghood, we hadn’t even kissed each other. We were in preliminary nest-circling mode, evaluating what things the other found important enough to incorporate into the infrastructure. Stu was a quiet guy. He was not a particularly overt fellow, and generally preferred the company of computers to humans. But he thought I was nice, safe — a good person to joke around, listen to music, and discuss computer things with.

While we were watching our movie, I mentioned that my computer was behaving strangely. He offered to look at it, and I gratefully agreed.

If you were planning to stop reading before the story inevitably degenerated into me burning everyone and everything to the ground while standing in front of my eighth-grade English class naked and clutching a picture of Andrew McCarthy, this is your chance to jump off.

Stu started up my computer, brows furrowed and finger tapping as the initial “Safe Mode” message flashed on and off the screen. “Weird,” he said. “Yeah! It just started doing that!” I replied, enthusiastically. Stu hit “Escape” a number of times, and evaluated the resulting screen of green text carefully. “Something has corrupted your DOS kernel,” he said. “We might have to re-stage your machine.” Or something like that.

“Great!” I said. “You can do whatever you want to that kernel. Stage it, re-stage it, whatever.” Stu laughed. (Wasn’t I cute? And innocent? So uncultured I don’t even know what a DOS kernel is? Tee hee.)

Stu downloaded some things from a disk he had with him in his bag, and a black box with a large green progress bar began rapidly listing files, directories … and then it started. One after another, internet browser windows began popping up, filling the screen with a high-speed montage of the most disturbing pornographic images I had ever seen (which, at this point, was really saying something). Hundreds of screens, one after the other — a lady riding a donkey in a non-classical equestrian pose; a guy and a donkey, similarly engaged; two donkeys, a goat and a fat lady with a pinwheel, perhaps celebrating?; a lady with a stiletto shoe in a place which indicated a particularly vigorous disagreement with someone who had, until the disagreement, been wearing at least one stiletto shoe; two men in enormous diapers, hands on their hips, staring sultrily at the camera; and a bunch of guys in black leather porketta-roast-looking get-ups, eating what appeared to be, well, poo.

Stu sat, hands frozen over the keys like claws, his eyes wide, watching the seizure-inducing procession of horrors. I sat behind him, hand clamped over my mouth, cryogenically frozen somewhere between mortified and fascinated.

“Whoa.” I said.

Stu said 10,000 years of icy silence. A conversational glacier. He turned to look at me, and he was suddenly looking at me the same way he had been evaluating the computer. Did I expect … this?

There was no way to really explain. I could tell him that my porn exploration had been 90 percent ironic, or that I hadn’t been the only one at the helm when “donkey SEIKO farmer handjob” was typed into the search bar. Here are the things I thought of saying: “We were drunk!” = not better. “We were curious!” = the same could be said about the farmer. “We didn’t know it would do this!” = ditto. “Haven’t you ever looked at porn?” = inappropriate timing. Like asking the Ted Bundy investigators, “Haven’t you ever had that urge to just freak out on somebody?”

What I said was, “Can you fix my computer?”

“Not right now.” Stu said. “I need to figure some stuff out.” I’ll bet he did. I don’t blame him. That’s a whole lotta first date.

Now, I limit my porn exploration to what I accidentally read on my cable guide. Teaser: if you are looking for gooey encounters with human life preservers, get into plumbing or DJ-ing.

To the Battlements, Wherever and Whatever They Are

I think about September 11th a lot. More, lately.

I was working at Duluth’s now-defunct Ripsaw newspaper at the time, and we were confounded for the first hours. Do you remember the world in which an attack on U.S. shores was impossible? The idle impenetrability of the United States? We invaded. The world was our bully pulpit. But that day, the paradigm shifted as surely and as immediately as that of a new mother, who, in the second her child leaves her body finds her heart, her worst fears, vulnerable and exposed to the worst the world has to offer. You could almost hear it, the snap of collective consciousness as the reality became apparent, over the day. One hour at a time, our perceived security, the luxury of our superiority, rolled away like so many layers of fog.

My sister came and picked me up. We drove around, listening to the soundtrack from the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and tuning in to the news for updates. We smoked a million American Spirit cigarettes. We felt scared.

Later, I stood on the balcony of my third-floor apartment, on the phone with my best friend. “We’re going to war,” he said.

“Definitely,” I replied.

I tried to comfort him — of course we were going to war. We were a country founded in rebellion and dissent. Our history was written in blood. From our arrival on these august shores, every new version of us was achieved while standing on a field of bodies that dissented or resisted. It made sense, I explained. When you establish a government that assumes and protects disagreement as a staple of every decision, whose presupposition is that every citizen has equal right to and protection from his or her government, coupled with a right to vocal dissent and to bear arms, you can expect blood. Every inch of territory claimed was taken from or in spite of indigenous people, over their dead bodies. Order and authority were created with no less bloodshed and acrimony.

The United States wasn’t like the moon, empty and waiting in the sky. We didn’t discover anything. And still, as I said all of this to my friend, I felt the swell of emotion and fire in my chest that I’ve since come to recognize as patriotism. I’m sorry for these things; I mourn and regret and attempt to make amends for them, but I continue to love both my country and its inhabitants. I understand why someone would attack us, but am filled with indignation and fury if they dare do so.

Deep down, I know that we are not better or different people for our allocation of resources. We are the most powerful country in the world, but we’re not better humans. My love for us is conscious and judicious, a sometimes confounding combination of hope and cynicism. Because they are equally warranted, based on the empire of data provided by our relatively short history. I love us, but I know us, too.

In the days following the attacks, every permutation of the phrase, “we stand united,” was suddenly plastered across every surface — T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards. As the next months unfolded, through Anthrax attacks and a seemingly endless series of blurry night-vision aerial shots of what looked like a bunch of water towers, chatting over coffee, we marched to war. Weapons of Mass Destruction, Pre-Emptive War, the Geneva Accords, Saddam Hussein — all entered the everyday parlance of gas-station America. We were savvy, but we weren’t united. We were deeply divided. The one thing we were united in was our horror — whatever shared experience we might have had in that moment, whatever somber reflection and collective, “We Are the World”-ing that might have occurred was beaten out of us by our leaders. We never even got to have a conversation. We never got the truth. We had been inexplicably and silently stripped of some aspect of our freedom.

It made me so angry. Not just because I am so deeply and passionately anti-war, although that is certainly true. I was angry because we didn’t get to talk about it. I felt duped and coerced and spoken to like a silly child. For the first time in my adult life, I thought, “we aren’t running this country anymore. What we think doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I can now: at some point, our representative government became leaders, rather than representatives. While I want and respect leadership skills and qualities in my representatives, I am both capable of and legally endowed with the ability to make my own decisions. I expect this handsomely-compensated and carefully-selected group of politicians to not just know how to do politics, but to do them on behalf of their constituents.

As we steadily marched to a war whose reasoning and justification were specious, under the direction of a group of leaders who showed little concern for the desires of the people they were selected to represent, I got madder and madder. I felt every bit as strongly as they did, but differently. I was no less American than they were, but what I thought didn’t matter. I kept picturing those first responders, rushing into the twin towers. I kept hearing the voices of the rebel passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.

I was ready to go to war, too. But not that war. Not that way.

I felt in every moment of banality — choosing the cheapest ketchup from the grocery store, vacuuming the living room, folding towels and watching TV — that somewhere else, those buildings were falling, over and over. The world was on fire, burning to the ground, and I was folding towels. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t count.

In March of 2003, we went to war. Bombs started falling that night. I was at a concert in Minneapolis — Godspeed, You  Black Emperor. Before the band got started, its members stood on the stage and talked about the war that was just beginning. They lamented the call to arms, and derided first the U.S. government, then the American people — for who we are, for our violence and our power. At first I was ashamed of us, but then furious. How dare they speak to us about our country like that? It was like somebody else was yelling at my kid. This country was mine. For the first time it occurred to me that my disenfranchisement was my problem. If I didn’t count, it was up to me to change that.

Because I was a telemarketer and a single-parent, it occurred to me that what I really needed was agency. So I enrolled in college, thinking my degree might garner me both the right to speak to power and the money to be taken seriously. It was terrifying to me. I’d always thought I was reasonably intelligent, but college seemed impossible to me. I cried in the admissions office, I was so ashamed. It was a little like I was in a confession booth, admitting I had rejected college not because I sincerely rejected the institutions, but because I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough to do it. Two and a half years later, I graduated. I was the first woman in my family to finish college. I designed my own degree so that I would better understand the problem I was trying to solve, and I worked at it like a lunatic. I graduated, and, as soon as I could, I applied for graduate school.

On one of the first days of my first graduate classes our professor asked the class about September 11. Where were we? What did we feel? There was a remarkable difference in the responses of the students. We varied in ages from early twenties to late fifties. Many of the younger people didn’t remember where they were. They had never lived in a pre-9/11 world, in their recollection. They came into awareness in a post 9/11 world. Many of the younger students, and all of the older students, including me, had near-universal clarity on what (exactly what) we were doing that day. We related our stories, now over five years old, with solemnity and heartbreak. Each and every one of us had reacted the same way. We had all rushed literally or figuratively to war, all summoned by those same burning buildings.

While we completed our coursework, we held down jobs, raised families, and worked like dogs to change the world. We volunteered and interned for political campaigns, we phonebanked and door-knocked and attended city council meetings. We debated and discussed, wrote letters and attended a thousand rallies. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. Whether or not anyone agreed with him politically, his victory was significant for another reason: Obama was not a millionaire white guy. It seemed like maybe the political system was changing. Average people could elect a president, even with all that money floating around. I told people, sincerely, if they didn’t like Obama they could simply vote him out of office. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect and agree with Obama — I certainly did and do. I believed that Obama’s election signaled the end of the ruling elite. The end of the radical partisanship and money-mauling that had run our country for the previous several terms. We had elected a person. Just a person. Our work was done.

I see now I was fooled by the same rhetoric I had been so critical of. I allowed myself to believe a terrible myth: that the party of ascendancy was a real and lasting indicator of persistent social change, and that progress, including progress toward ideals in which I did not believe, was an organism whose growth would organically continue from inception infinitely forward. I stopped talking to people, and I stopped listening. While I grew angrier and angrier at the increasing prevalence of corporate interests in our government, the influence of the economic class (that 1 percent), I did nothing to stop it. I bit my tongue in mixed company, like a secret agent, carrying those conversations in my mind, but saying nothing in each moment.

I had naïve and unfounded confidence in our government, rather than confidence in and relationships with my brothers and sisters. I allowed myself a relationship with my allies and family, like some kind of social Darwinism had happened, and all of the troublesome and vexing lesser adaptations had been selected against. They would eventually die out. In the eight years of a president with whom I agreed and in whom I found considerable inspiration, I did the thing I most abhor: I did not compromise, I tolerated. Because my party was ascendant, I ignored the horrible ways the system that had made that possible operated, the things it was doing to everyone outside my circle, and the danger on the horizon.

We are responsible for our change in leadership. We fill the pipeline. If we elect partisan ballbusters, then that’s who runs our country. If we elect representative leaders, who, because every single constituency in the nation includes diverse political opinions, compromise and creatively problem solve in ways that include even diametrically opposed perspectives, then we get representative policies. Our country reflects not one winning party or the other, but instead the blended results of a diverse and vocal (and well-represented) constituency. Political party affiliation isn’t meant to be determinative — it’s meant to be indicative of shared missions, visions and values. The “platform” we hear about so often. Instead, it has boiled down to two inflexible positions, with leaders at the heads of each equally committed to all or nothing. It’s usually nothing, isn’t it? And everyday people, the working and middle classes, are paying so much for health care that we can’t pay for our food, amassing heroic credit card debt and living further and further beyond our means until we are working to service debt. We are richer than almost everyone in the entire world, but we’re terrified our kid will need to go to the emergency room, or our furnace will blow up. Because what in the hell would we do then?

Meanwhile, the partisan amalgam of power and money blame us for the problems that are killing us. They tell us why to hate each other. They put us in little cages to watch us fight. Republicans elected a maniac because they’re all so ignorant. Democrats bankrupted our country because of all the welfare recipients that use all of our tax dollars. Republicans are responsible for the very educational failures that made them so stupid because they cut education funding. Democrats are responsible for unaffordable medical care because of Obamacare’s socialist medicine costs. Republicans elect zealots. Democrats elect zealots. Everyone is wrong, there is no solution, and you can’t do anything about it. Meanwhile, the richest people in this country pay no taxes, the poorest people can’t physically work enough hours at the wages they are making to feed their families, and corporations are people with more of a safety net, more welfare and more rights than the actual people of America.

It’s not us failing. It’s not Republicans. It’s not Democrats. It’s brinksmanship and concentrated power. They are distracting us so we won’t realize that we are enough to change it. We don’t need to fight each other. We need to fight together.

We’ve been led to believe that there are just two ways of doing things, like some massive country-wide reenactment of the Hatfields and McCoys. But the truth is that most of us are part Hatfield, part McCoy. Our leadership is forcing a false dichotomy, a fraudulent ultimatum. Choose one thing or the other. Choose Donald Trump or choose abortion. Choose Hilary Clinton or choose racism. Are there really only two ways things can be done? For example, is there really no other alternative between pro-choice or pro-life? Is there really no other option between single-payer health care for all, or relying on the juggernaut corporations to offer their employees health insurance? Why couldn’t we, for instance, have access to single-payer health insurance that allowed users to choose whether or not they want to subsidize abortion, birth control, or other services? Is it all immigrants, or no immigrants? Do we deport anyone here illegally or let everyone stay? Don’t get me wrong, I am 100 percent OK with women making choices for their own bodies, immigrants continuing to grow this country, and single-payer health care. But I am 100 percent uncomfortable making everyone else do what I do because I think it’s a better way to be. That’s neither fair nor representative. I know these are hard questions. That’s why it’s hard to be a representative leader.

Many of the leaders we’ve so carefully selected are not good at representing us anymore. They are the ascendant leaders of either Clan Hatfield, or Clan McCoy. They are not particularly good at politics, either, or there wouldn’t exist such a profound and misrepresentative delta between our galvanized factions. It’s not like that in my life. My Republican friends are normal human beings, with whom I agree as often as I disagree. If we remove the buzzwords and trigger phrases we’ve been trained to parrot at each other, we can talk about anything. Really. And within my own political party, among the very people I have been polarly identified with and labeled as, I disagree as often with what’s being said as I agree. You know what? We can talk, too.

We were never enemies. Our differences make us stronger, more complete. When I think back to 9/11, and why I started to care so deeply, it was never to eradicate the voices of dissent. It was never to win. It was because America was under attack, from enemies inside and out. It was because I believed there was enough for everyone, and because I believed that Paul Wellstone was right: we all do better when we all do better. It was because I believed I was America as much as any of them. I believe all of this still. What I want to say to you is that I think you are America, too. America is an idea that only exists with all of us. For the people, by the people. We’re the people.

I will never abandon my fellows again. I will never think my opinion, no matter how strong, is right because mighty people say so. I will always fight for a government that represents us all, as long as I draw breath. I will never let tolerance replace compromise and acceptance. I will make room for you, hold space for you, and listen to you. Will you help me? Can we stand together? Otherwise what will we do? Go back and forth every 4-8 years? At every change in command, we undo everything you did, and then you undo everything we did, and nothing improves. Rural America continues to be lied to and misrepresented. Farms continue to go out of business, manufacturing jobs continue to leave the country, small schools lose money and small communities pay disproportionate taxes for the services they receive. College kids graduate with more debt than a mortgage would cost them and little hope of a proportionate income with which to pay it. The old and the sick are more and more vulnerable, and their families are less and less able to help them. Meanwhile, the poor get poorer, work more hours for less money at worse and worse jobs so the corporations can thrive. And us? We don’t talk anymore because we believe we’re so different. But we’re no different than our parents or our parents’ parents were.

There is no such thing as trickle-down progress. We go together, or not at all.

So today, I keep thinking about the incredible power of our collective voices, the force of us all standing on common ground. We share so much common ground — much more than we don’t. While these buildings are burning, but before they fall — here in the chaos and clamor of the moments between attack and retaliation, here in the eye of the storm, here, in the fever of our illness- we have to find each other, again. We’re right: it is us or them. But we have been desperately wrong about who “us,” and “them,” are.

There is a moment as a woman is giving birth when the contractions of labor change. The world is still, and eerily full of portent. The pain rests for a moment between a crushing, building internal pressure, and a bone-grinding onslaught of power and motion. The pause is chilling and paralytic. The next part, the pushing — it will be absolutely agonizing and terrible; brutal, transformative and so hard. But she has no choice. She pushes forward, or she and the baby die. Now, we have no choice. The world is waiting to be born.

Disfluency

All names in this story have been changed, because this is the internet. But not because of you. You’re wonderful.

If you had told me five years ago that a life could be forever altered by a toddler’s stutter, I would have rolled my eyes deep enough to dislocate my optic nerve. Maybe that’s a little melodramatic. My point is, I wouldn’t have understood. Like so many things, there’s often a pretty good delta between experience and imagination. I know a little better now, because of my own experience, and while this isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, it actually did change my whole life. This one little thing. A stutter.

I remember how, a week before my second daughter, Lilly, was born, I was thinking about how, in the new Pooh movie, Piglet lost his stutter. I had a little internal dialogue about the ridiculous, reactionary nature of helicopter parents, so sensitive to anything that might hurt … someone … that we couldn’t even joke around anymore. They had probably driven the change in Piglet’s fluency. Except I didn’t know to use the phrase, “change in Piglet’s fluency,” yet.

The night Lilly was born, our family was gathered at my sister-in-law’s house for dinner. I was having erratic but harbinger-y contractions, unaware I was dinking my way through early labor. I was sitting on the floor with my older daughter Rose, tickling the beans out of her. Her tickle laughter is utterly contagious: a litany of tumbling, discrete giggles — like fat little circles that bounce and burst around you while her face scrunches up in complete delight and abandon. “When I was a kid,” my very Finnish father-in-law said, “they used to say you shouldn’t tickle a kid too much, or they’d develop a stutter.” We all laughed about how silly that was. How old-timey. I tickled away.

About eight hours later, Lilly was born. Rose came to the hospital with her aunties and uncles, looking anticipatory and a little frozen. She bounded onto my lap with the new baby, and I attempted to facilitate a warm introduction, including a terrifying “hold the baby” moment. When I think about it now, I wonder what I did when she first came into the room. Did I smile at her first? Why didn’t I send everyone else out, so she could be there with us alone for a while? Why didn’t I give Lilly to her father and cuddle and visit with Rose alone? What could I have done differently — better — to lessen the impact the arrival of her sister was going to have on her? Probably a million things. It doesn’t matter. I can’t do them now.

One day later, we came home. Auntie walked Rose home. We all visited, staring at the baby and talking about the birth. Rose was glad to see us — a little hyper, but she seemed happy. She’d had a great time at her cousins’ house, and you could tell — her hair was a wild rats’ nest, she had chocolate milk on her jammas, and she had a million things to tell us. But when she started talking, she kept doing this crazy thing with her tongue, rolling it wildly around in her cheek, making “loll … loll … loll” noises and looking up at the ceiling. We thought she was imitating someone she saw on TV.

Our daughter, at 2½ years old, was incredibly verbal. Lyrically verbal. She told long and delightful stories, rife with lisping, misused word tenses and pronouns, but utterly comprehensible and coherent. She was smart, funny, and learning a mile a minute. So, we thought she was screwing around. Then, once she was done flipping her tongue around, she started speaking with a pronounced, comic stutter. We laughed at her joke. She looked at us, her eyes darting back and forth between us, and forced a hearty laugh along with us. She tried to speak again, and the same thing happened — tongue flailing followed by a five to fifteen second stutter before she could get a word out.

“She’s been doing that all morning,” my sister-in-law said.

A few hours later, we were tired of her game. It was getting annoying, and we were tired and freaked out — how was she going to react to Lilly? Was she going to get jealous? Angry? Would she regress in her potty training? We truly had no idea that this stutter was her reaction to Lilly.

We angrily demanded that she cut it out. I spoke to her harshly, using the sharp, loud tone that I reserve for discipline or danger. She shook her head, trying to speak. She was hung up, incapable of producing a word, for what seemed like a minute or more. That’s when I realized she wasn’t pretending.

We looked it up online. We asked our neighbor, whose father is a wonderful child psychologist, to consult him about it. We Googled away — every resource said the same thing: normal. No big deal. Ignore it, and it would probably go away — in six months, six years … eventually. Suddenly, everybody knew somebody whose cousin/neighbor/stepson/firstborn had a stutter when they were little. It was fine. I shouldn’t worry. We relaxed a little — if this was normal, we’d treat it that way, and get back to the exciting, hairy business of parenting three children.

As each day passed, she struggled more. Not just stuttering on the first word of a sentence anymore, she began hanging up on the first word after every breath, then on each word. My lyrical daughter locked eyes with me, struggling to tell me she needed the potty. She abandoned sentences and began using single-word commands, “Milk!” “Potty!” “Help!” More painfully, she used the same imperative single-word declarations in place of our formerly robust, intimate conversations: before, she would have told me, “I like that dress. It’s pretty. I want a pretty dress. Do you want to wear a pretty dress with me?” Now, she pointed and said, “pre…pre…pre…pre…pre…pretty.” As she struggled to force the word out, her whole face began to turn red — she shook with the effort, shaking her head, clenching her fists, passing gas and spitting as she tried to say one word.

All the stuttering websites recommend parents and caregivers ignore the stutter, keeping their faces impartial and engaged. I was sure trying, but it was getting harder and harder to do. When she was speaking (or trying to), I could see in her eyes that she knew she was struggling, and that awareness hung between us like a side of beef. It felt ridiculous to ignore it. She knew something was happening. She knew she was sacrificing what she wanted to say in favor of what she could say. And I was standing there, a big stupid smile frozen on my face. I felt like I was the monster version of her mother in a nightmare, like Neil Gaiman’s button-eyed “Other Mother” in Coraline: “What? Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. This is all just how it should be.” And she was smiling along, terrified, waiting for her real mother to show up and rescue her.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was parenting a teenager and a newborn. At least, I was arguing with a teenager, and feeding and kissing a newborn. Mostly, I was a hologram of myself, there but not really there, repeating the same words, the same actions over and over again in an endless loop. I felt helpless. And Rose’s stutter was getting worse and worse.

At Lilly’s two-week checkup, after briefly making sure our newborn was alive, we spent the entire appointment talking about Rose. (“Yeah, yeah … new baby miracle of life yadda yadda. Let’s talk about the toddler…”) Our doctor referred us to a local speech program. We called, but the assessment lady was on vacation for two weeks and couldn’t see us until she returned. The administrative assistant, apparently in the know, assured me over the phone that this was normal. Common. She reaffirmed the techniques we should be using between now and our appointment — speak very slowly, limit the questions we ask, wait patiently for her to get through her word or sentence, show no sign that anything is amiss … check. We would keep doing these things until she could come out and tell us how to fix this.

A week later, just three weeks after Lilly was born and the stutter began, I put Rose down for her usual afternoon nap. I put her fan on, for white noise, in case Lilly got too loud. And, because my big girl was 2½ years old, I didn’t bother to put the monitor on. I hadn’t used it in months. About two hours later, I thought, “gee, Rose has been sleeping a long time.” But all was quiet upstairs, so I dismissed it.

About an hour later, I suddenly had a terrible feeling that something was not right. Sometimes Rose slept for three hours — it was certainly not unheard of. But I had that awful bone-deep feeling you get as a parent that something was really wrong. I gingerly opened Rose’s door, and saw her, sitting on the edge of her bed. Her face was blotched and swollen — she had clearly been crying for a long, long time. She started crying again the minute she saw me — reaching for me and sobbing. I lifted her up and she looked at me, her eyes panicked. Then she tried to say it:

“Mmmmmmmm…mmmmmm….mmmmm” her face turned beet red and the veins stood out on her little forehead. I knew then what had happened — she had woken up, and tried to call to me, and couldn’t say “Mama.” She had just sat there, weeping, silent. I don’t know why she didn’t scream, or break the rules and climb out of her bed to come get me. She just sat there, weeping, her alien mouth locking her brain out.

She stuttered and struggled, her lips pursed around the sounds that she was stuck on, and then she started hitting herself in her mouth with her little fist. I held her arms and clenched her to me. She raged, screaming and crying and then, she relaxed against my chest, weeping. She couldn’t say a word.

I started crying right along with her. I realize that one of us should probably have acted like a mom, but I just fell to bits. I offered weepy utterances of assurance, undoubtedly more alarming and unbelievable than comforting. Who believes “everything’s gonna be okay, honey,” when it’s emitted from the snotty face of your bawling mother? And it was a lie, really. I didn’t think everything was going to be okay. I was scared shitless, utterly confounded, and viscerally sad. She was like Baby Jessica, stuck in the well, and we were all just standing around, staring down at her, smiling and saying it was all just fine, nothing to worry about, as she slipped further and further down. It occurred to me that she might disappear completely. Maybe this was the beginning of some development regression or illness, and she would slip and slip and slip away entirely. “Stutter,” didn’t describe what was happening.

You know what to do if you’re experiencing a mild cognitive break? If your paradigm has endured one too many Nagasaki-style attacks, and has gotten weird and Bjork-y? Watch Yo Gabba Gabba. Your life will always make more sense than Yo Gabba Gabba, and the wacky synchrony of your internal disharmony and, say, two carrots, a handful of peas and a chicken leg singing a little ditty from inside the belly of a green furry troll thing with spider legs will get you back on track.

I clutched my little girls: my newborn to one side, nursing, and Rose to my other side, sucking her thumb and hiccupping the sharp intakes of breathe little children do after they’ve been crying hard.

When my husband got home, I went to pieces, following him around the house while he changed out of his work clothes, opened a beer, and tried to settle in. I was carrying Lilly the whole time, too, nursing and walking. I began the conversation by immediately bursting into tears, saying, “This has been the worst day. She can’t talk at all!” I told him about what had happened, crying my face off. He got colder and quieter with every word I said. He turned to Rose, and his face broke into a huge smile. He spent the next two hours before her bedtime playing, laughing, and roughhousing with Rose, ignoring me. When Rose was tucked in upstairs, (monitor re-installed and turned up to jet aircraft engine volume), he sat down across the living room from me, and turned on the TV. I finally asked him what was wrong, if he was angry with me. He blew up. “I feel like at any given moment you’re going to fall apart! I need you to be okay! I need you to be okay, be happy, and sell it! I need you to make Rose believe it!”

Sitting there, nursing Lilly (doesn’t it seem like that’s all I ever did? That’s because it was), swirling in the postpartum delirium of the first couple of months, I wondered if I would experience a nervous breakdown. I postulated that if one was on the way, this panicked, rootless fugue state certainly was what I imagined the onset of “bananas” would feel like.

“Do you believe in me?” I asked my husband. “Do you still believe in me?”

“No.” he said. “Not right now I don’t.”

I stopped thinking. Not on purpose, but my whole cerebral cortex sort of shit the bed, totally overloaded by the surge of conflicting processor information: the schemas of our life together, our roles as father/mother/wife/husband, ideas about parenting, and thronging, throttling waves of emotion. The room smelled like ozone. Then, from a place inside of me I both cannot deliberately locate and definitely can’t touch, a crazy wave of electric laserbeam rage exploded, like I was channeling the spirits of 150 gospel ladies. Sarah Palin calls it her “Mama grizzly bear,” and although she can go fuck herself, that’s not a terrible description. I felt a crazy passion, a firmness of being and constitution that I have only felt right before pushing a baby out of my body. I knew that I would never give up on my baby — any one of my babies — never allow them to suffer alone. If she was in a well, I was going into the well with her, and I would stay there as long as she was there. It didn’t matter what that cost me, didn’t matter if I was afraid, didn’t matter if no one else went with me. If Rose was going behind a wall of silence, I was going with her. Period.

“Okay.” I said. “Listen. I’m not going to have a breakdown. You can trust me.” In hindsight, I should have said “By the way, fuck you, motherfucker,” too, but I was shaken up. (I’m on my game now.)

And then we watched Supernatural. I realized, while Sam and Dean Winchester, the male protagonists, had their eponymous whiny arguments about whether or not one should be allowed to: a) die, b) save the other one, or c) have a normal life, that I had done a great deal to make my husband believe I could not handle deep shit. Pregnancy isn’t exactly the time to establish your reputation for emotional stability. Teletubby-caliber satisfaction and joy, yes. Brittney Spears-style meltdowns, yes. Number one pick for the keep-calm-and-carry-on squad? Nope. And I’m a talker. So I had spent the better part of a year parading my husband through the wormiest, shakiest parts of my psyche, blubbering and shoving Hawaiian pizza into my mouth with my psychologist and my OB on speed-dial. There was a pretty good reason my husband didn’t trust my strength, even if he was ungentle in sharing that with me. I think back on it now, and it’s probably the best and most important honest thing anyone has ever said to me that I will never forgive them for.

The next day, I woke up determined to save everyone. Including me.

I called back the local speech therapist my awesome doctor had referred us to. The admin answering the phone asked me to describe Rose’s current symptoms. “She can’t really talk,” I said. She asked what we were doing in response. I explained. “You’re doing everything right,” the admin said. “I know it’s hard to see it right now, but you’re doing everything right.” It was the first real comfort I had felt. We made an appointment and two weeks later Nora walked into our living room.

Nora is a more-than-20-year veteran of the speech program. She’s a small-framed, middle-aged brunette with delicate features and a penchant for vests. When she walked into my living room I would have had a difficult time describing her to a composite artist, she’s so understated in appearance. Of course, then we started talking and that changed everything. Everyone’s appearance is transformed by his or her actual self; some for the better, some not. Nora is already an attractive woman, but when your kid is the one she’s helping, she is luminous. Then you’ll see her the way I do — as one of the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful women in the world.

She comforted me, praised me, and then showed me how to do what I had been trying to do, better.

She taught me to slow my speech to Mr. Rogers’ speed, forming my thoughts into great lumbering mammoths who’d get there when they got there. She taught me to insert pregnant pauses wherever they could be inserted, making me sound like a caricature of a politician — I was pontificating at 12 words per minute. If my voice was deeper, it would have sounded like Barry White, delivering some news about the easy way to make a blue snake out of PlayDoh.

The signs for “please,” “thank you,” and “milk” all re-entered our daily exchange, along with a host of improvised signs.

Rose’s doll house was her favorite toy. I would watch her silently play, without the constant chattering and in-fighting of the dolls (I don’t know about your doll population, but ours is like the cast of Real Housewives). I would watch her face change, all of the dialogue happening inside her head. I could tell what was happening, which dolly was the perp, which one the victim, which one the righteous and hell-fired Mama, putting all those rascals in time out. Sometimes, I would be so overwhelmed with sorrow and aching for her that I would go into the other room and cry for exactly long enough to get my shit back together. But that laser-bolt steel-spine gospel squad was right there. It wouldn’t let me cry, or feel bad for long. Every obstacle seemed to make it stronger. It was as if the harder it got, the stronger I felt, the happier I actually was. I realized, with no amount of wonderment and a smattering of disgust, that “fake it ’til you make it” was based on empirical proof as much as folk wisdom.

A stutter. Such a small thing. But it changed us all.

As Rose slowly but steadily became more fluent over the next six months, I saw my family with different eyes. My mom was a rock. She mommed me really hard those first few weeks, helping me face the situation with love and her characteristic no-bullshit clarity. My in-laws, with whom I have been so fortunate to enjoy close friendships, rallied around us like a band of warriors. Nothing got through. I realized that we were actually family, not just close friends.

My surly, sullen teenage son, more interested in computer games, sarcastic repartee, and Ramen noodles than any other thing on the planet, revealed how much he had grown up without my knowing. When he was a little boy, I was constantly battling the differences between us. It took him ten minutes to accomplish a standard human minute. He looked like he existed on a different plane. I was like an old movie, flickering by at 55 images per second. And there he was, loping through the frame like a shaggy-haired tree sloth. “Mom,” he used to object to my urgent appeals for him to hurry the hell up, “Mom, I’m going my slow and steady pace.” The “slow and steady pace” was something that entered household parlance, i.e., “CHRISTOPHER! We don’t have time for your slow-and-steady routine if you want to make the bus!” Or, “You’d better get up at 4 a.m. if you want to accommodate your slow-n-steady routine and still get to work by 6.” Now, when speaking to Rose, Christopher’s slow-and-steady pace set the tempo for the whole house. He was born knowing how to talk to her. Rose became fluent with him first.

And then it was now, the way it is when you have children, or live in the world. And you can hardly tell any of it ever happened. Rose chatters away, so much so that I catch myself thinking, “talk faucet = ON,” and other normal maternal ruminations. I have the luxury of doing so, because she is okay. She might have another mondo episode during development spurts (i.e., puberty —won’t that be a hoot?), and she might just continue on like she is, fighting her way through the occasional sentence, but usually no more noticeably stammery or stuttery than anyone else.

In hindsight, laying softly in my memory without the detail of retelling it, it just seems like another thing that happened to us, like the time we got a flat tire driving through Minneapolis on our way to Omaha. But in the retelling, I am washed with the intensity of the experience, and how changed we are because of it. It’s remarkable. I struggle, during struggle, to find gratitude and comfort. I wrestle with indignation and a brutal feeling of unfairness and entitlement. I glare balefully at the heavens and challenge God and everyone around me to prove their love. It’s probably hilarious to watch. But this time, I didn’t. And the truth is, it was just another thing that happened to us.

And that’s the deal, I guess. She has disfluency. It might get better, it might get worse. But we’ll handle it with love, and with each other, just like everything else. That’s good to know.