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.


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.


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.


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.

Bug Ear

One time, I got a bug stuck in my ear. Which is a funny coincidence, since I have always wanted to never have a bug in my ear.

It happened in early summer, and I was fast asleep. At some point around 4 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of a helicopter crash-landing inside my head. I, like all humans on the planet, have experienced bug fly-bys of my ears on many occasions. Bees, for example, seem to really like my ears. They enjoy repeatedly buzzing up behind me, like fat, airborne playground bullies, chasing me around the swingset. Their dumptrucky buzzing is a nice reminder that a bee is almost in my ear. I like to run around my yard, waving my hands around my head and saying, “You won’t even fit in there! And I’ll probably kill you if you try, which I really don’t want to do because you’re the future! You’re the future!” I bet this is pretty funny to my neighbors.

Generally, I dislike flying insects. It seems like they get an unfair advantage. They are already bitey and stingy and too-many-leggy and wearing chitinous exoskeletal armor over their loathsome, malevolent silhouettes. If any bug were as big as a person, we would all freak the fuck out, even if it had a lovely personality. It would take a lot of paradigm adjustment and acceptance, not to mention furniture and undergarment redesign. Twenty percent of all meditation would be to gain control of involuntary shuddering.

So, adding “airborne” to the list of pernicious insect characteristics is unfair on the same scale as granting Donald Trump the ability to make women pregnant with his mind.

Wasps, hornets, and occasionally dragonflies are all creatures I respect and enjoy, unless they are attempting to go inside my ear. I particularly dislike lurking insects, with earwigs firmly in control of the top of the chart. Earwigs are ghastly creatures, some abominable hybrid of a lobster, a scorpion, and that Wrath of Khan Ceti Eel. And they are called “earwigs,” clearly indicating their intentions. I think, if Khan had spent more time on Earth before that whole hostage situation, he would have used earwigs. Fear, struck.

I don’t know what kind of bug went into my ear, because I was asleep when it went in, and while I can identify a short list of bird calls, I am unable to identify the type of insect in question from the sound of its various crunchy bits thropping against my ear canal. It’s a skill I wish to leave unhoned.
So, I woke at 4 a.m. and shot out of bed like, well, like a woman with a bug in her ear. I jumped around, flailing my arms and tipping my head dramatically to one side, pounding my head like a swimmer with water in her ear.

Before this happened, if I was writing a screenplay of me getting a bug in my ear, I would have written me screaming like a sorority girl under a chainsaw. But in the real scene, I sort of fluffily moaned, like a fat ghost. This makes me think I need to practice what I will do if my sister becomes a vampire or my neighbor becomes a zombie, just in case my response to those nightmare scenarios is equally unexpected.

I jumped around, flapping and pounding, for just a few seconds, while the bug did a similar sounding routine in my ear. Then, I heard a sort of wet, squunching sound, followed by frantic buzzing, more squelchy squenchy sounds, then a glurch, then, silence. I rapidly deduced that the insect had struggled itself into my ear wax, and was now ensconced. This thought was equally reassuring and repellant.

I woke up my husband, who was sleep-delirious, but sympathetic, and he shone a flashlight into my ear canal to investigate. “I can’t see anything. But there’s a kind of corner there, in your ear.” He only had one eye open. “You should just go back to sleep. It will work itself out,” he said, which was a terrific suggestion for someone completely different than me in every way.

I stood in the bathroom, stock-still and waiting, for an hour, listening intently to my own ear (as a side note, I’m pretty sure this is how Frank Zappa wrote his songs). I heard nothing. Maybe my husband was right. Just wait until some errant Q-Tip swipe retrieved the unfortunate soul’s remains. You know, in a month or something. I lay down. I reasoned with myself that searching the internet was a terrible idea. I have seen those pictures already, I told myself. All I would get out of the experience was a montage of worst-case scenarios from the National Geographic storyboard team: botflies and maggots and worms, emerging triumphantly like little pioneers from every conceivable part of human anatomy.

While I could no longer hear my ear guest, I could occasionally feel it, a kind of fluttery, tickly sensation, as though my ear was haunted. National Geographic botfly nightmare in mind, I bravely ignored it for as long as I could — which was about fifteen minutes.

I Googled, “Bug in my ear: what should I do?” with a not inconsiderable amount of trepidation. (As promised, image carousel.) Many helpful souls had posted message board accounts of their own harrowing bug invasions, and I read them voraciously. They all sort of agreed on the best approach: pour warm — not hot! — oil into the ear canal, and wait for the bug to drown. The viscosity of the oil was important, since it would need to completely fill the ear and glut the bug’s exoskeletal respiration. Which, while unimaginable not even an hour previously, had become my most passionate desire.

I heated some coconut oil by running hot water over the jar until it liquefied, and then, like a frat boy with a shot of Jaeger, I raised my little glass at my own reflection in the mirror, and dumped the whole thing into my ear. The oil filled my ear canal with a gurgle, and I definitely felt squiggling motion in the deepest part of my ear. I had to keep my head keened to the side to keep the oil in there for 3-5 minutes, which is the universally-accepted bug-drowning time. I cannot overstate to you how very profoundly, entirely yucky this was to me.

What I did not do was read about the proper technique for evacuating the coconut slurry/bug remains from my ear. I think I just assumed I would lean over the sink and it would glop out into the sink bowl, whereupon I would shout triumphantly, weep, then vomit. So when the timer went off (six minutes, just in case this bug was some kind of insect Michael Phelps) I jerkily leaned over and the coconut oil sort of seeped more than poured out of my ear.

Panicked, I lurched awkwardly over the sink, bent sideways in a modified windmill stretch, to stop the oil from just running down my shirt. It came out quickly then, but in my contorted human-staple position, I could not simultaneously watch the oil and extract it. In my haste, I had also neglected to stopper the sink. I realized this as the oil poured out and disappeared. I stood there for a long time, hoping with electric intensity for the bug’s complete expulsion. “I can always do it again,” I reassured myself, picturing the bug clinging to my cochlea like a tiny Kong on the Empire State building.

Careful examination of the sink bowl revealed a small clump of buggy things, including one discernable wing, and what looked like embrangled legs. No torso. No bug head, on which assumedly one would find pinchery bug monster fangs. Here were the things I was hoping, in the order I was hoping them:

1. The whole bug was out, but its heavy pincher/torso area had slipped down the drain.

2. If the bug or any bug detritus remained in my ear, it was dead.

3. If any part of the bug was still alive, it was small, and male.

4. If the living bug torso was alive and female, it was barren.

My doctor’s office would not open for another full two hours, and since the bug ear crisis had not been an emergency when the bug was certainly alive and in my ear, it was logically not an emergency now. I would wait. There was just one little problem: it was nearly 6 a.m., and I knew I needed to get ready, because, in the round, magical world of perfectly inverted miracles, I had a job interview at 8:30 a.m.

I went through my morning ablutions, cleaning and adorning myself. As I carefully applied makeup, it occurred to me that while my life had suddenly become some facsimile of the movie Brazil, I was handling it pretty well. I congratulated myself while I ironed my pants. “I’m unexpectedly good at this,” I said to my business-clad reflection. I called the doctor, and made my appointment for 10:30.

I arrived at the job interview, and was ushered into a huge conference room with a sprawling, lovely wooden table. Within ten minutes, five different managers were all sitting around the table, with copies of my résumé and lists of questions. I was focused enough on the interview to ignore the possible plus one for quite a while, but felt something trickling down my neck. I reached my hand up, and discovered a line of coconut oil, running down my neck from my ear. I quickly wiped it away, and cleaned my hand on my pants leg. Unfortunately, it seemed that some kind of fluid tension had broken in my ear, releasing a small trove of oil to the whims of gravity. I began a furtive campaign to wipe the now steady stream of oil every few seconds, nervous that the oil would puddle around my collar, or saturate the front of my blouse like a gunshot wound, or the weirdest sweat pattern ever seen. My various clandestine, now spastic wiping techniques were relentless, and while I was explaining the ways I was intrinsically a team player, I was staring lustily and fixedly at the clean, dry napkin under my coffee mug, willing it into my ear canal. I simply could not understand how so much more oil was still in my ear.

The interviewers came to the end of their questions. The big boss asked me what it would take for me to join their team. After discussing that, the conversation veered off into ideas for improvement, previous experiences, best practices, and more coffee. Also, 13,796 covert oil wipes. The clock on the wall approached 10:20, and the looming specter of missing the doctor’s appointment and spending another day with my bug passenger was more than I could handle. Finally, I said, “I hate to do this, but I have to tell you guys something. I have a bug in my ear. I have an appointment to have it removed in ten minutes, so I really have to go.” The entire table stood up simultaneously, and I started to giggle uncontrollably. “It’s such a relief to tell you that!” I giggled. “I’ve been really trying to keep it together!” We shook hands, and I literally ran to the doctor’s office, where the doctor verified that the only thing left in my ear was ear wax, coconut oil (how was that possible?!) and tiny bits of what must have been bug detritus.

I’ll be honest with you: having a bug in your ear is horrible, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Especially since it was in there a while. After a couple hours, I couldn’t panic about it anymore. It was kind of like one of those Wile E. Coyote falling scenes where he falls for a really, really, really long time. It turns out, you only scream for the first thousand feet or so. Then you might occasionally scream, but after an hour, hour and a half, you just get used to your new life of falling, or mopping bug-infused oil from your cleavage while discussing benchmarking in a competitive sales environment.

And for the record — all hyperbole aside — if it was an earwig I would have yowled like a lunatic-banshee, and then punched myself in the face until I passed out.

The Lie

There is something about a Hardee’s buttermilk biscuit; you have to admit it. Even the ones that have been cooked for too long, left hot and dry under the culinary equivalent of a tanning lamp until they surpassed deep golden and arrived at dusky caramel, sitting puck-like on the stainless steel rack. You can eat them until your lips crack and curl, until your mouth puffs biscuit crumbs like sandstorms in a desert, they’re so tasty.

Regina simply could not resist them. Which was unfortunate, really, because she was already a big woman — more than six feet tall, and built to comfortably support her more than 200-pound weight. When she got hired as the morning biscuit baker it was a pretty good promotion, and one she had sorely wanted. But now she was alone with those biscuits every morning from 4:45 to 6 a.m., when Hardee’s opened, and a person could eat a lot of biscuits in that amount of time.

Regina came from Bartholomew, Kentucky originally, but she had moved to Lexington before her 18th birthday because she had her eye on the assistant manager position, and when one opened up in Lexington, she applied right away.

Regina had really been living on her own since she was 13, since no foster care situation lasted longer than her parent’s drinking spells, and back she’d go, until they’d get all liquored up again and then she’d get put back in somebody’s house for a couple of months until they dried up. Regina would have been the first to tell you that it wasn’t an ideal way to spend your teen years, but she’d balanced things out okay, quitting high school because there was just no point in going for a while, only to stop and transfer, and stop again.

When, at 16, Regina had turned up pregnant at foster care, she had been removed from her parents’ home once and for all and her father was locked up for doing things a father should never do to his daughter. Regina’s mom gave up sobriety for good. The pregnancy had miscarried, mercifully, and Regina was permanently remanded to state custody.

She ended up getting a job at Hardee’s where at least, for nine and a half hours every day, people only wanted her to bring them food.

With everything that had happened, Regina had pretty well finished growing up, and was as tired of talking about her bad situation as she could possibly be. She knew what had happened to her was horrifying, and tragic, and talking about it just kept it that way, like it was happening over and over and over again. So she took off, and found herself an efficiency apartment, and worked hard until this job came up in Lexington.

She thought occasionally about finishing her diploma, but she didn’t need it at Hardee’s. She could advance all the way to regional manager without it.

The promotion to assistant manager was a good one in a lot of ways. She was making more money, for sure, and she could get herself a one-bedroom apartment, which was nice. And she liked the early mornings. It was so dark and chilly when she first arrived at 4:30 or so, and when those ovens would heat up, the whole kitchen would slowly fill with a sort of round warmth, the smell of baking biscuits carried right into your bones, shepherded by the first pumpkin-orange hints of the sunrise. It was a perfect way to spend your morning.

The only drawback, if you asked Regina, was that she loved biscuits so much. She simply never grew tired of them. She’d have a couple, fresh from the oven, then a couple more as they cooled. The thing about those biscuits was the flavor changed as they cooled, the subtle iterations of salt and lard mutating in their relationship to one another with every incremental alteration in Fahrenheit. They were literally different pastries every minute.

Regina would eat 12, maybe 20 of them before the restaurant even opened.

She gained weight. She gained so much weight she had to buy a full-sized bed. She gained so much weight, she had to special-order her uniform from a uniform shop in Louisville. She was, at her best guess, a little over 300 pounds. She knew she had to do something, but she just couldn’t seem to control herself. She reasoned with herself that if she couldn’t control the number of biscuits going in, she’d just increase the number coming out. It took a while to learn how to make herself retch, but she was glad she kept at it. After a while, it was easy. In fact, it was easier than any other alternative available to Regina in the situation, and she was grateful for that.

The purging took some of the heat off Regina for resisting the biscuits, and, inexplicably, she started wanting them a little less. Knowing she could just force them right back out of her again gave her some power over the situation, and she felt like she was in control of herself again. She started to lose the weight she’d gained, slowly at first, and then, inspired by her success, she started purging everything she ate, and taking a small handful of laxatives with every meal. That sped things up quite a bit.

Only six months into her new diet plan, Regina had lost nearly 150 pounds, more than half her body weight.

At her height, she was rail-thin and sunken, but she thought she looked magnificent. She loved the feel of her ribs beneath her apron, the way her belt hung on her hip bones. She loved the feel of her jaw, angled and well-defined under the soft pad of her palm. She loved the way her fingers rested like spiders’ legs on the hollow circle of her waist. She was finally skinny. To her, it was the most beautiful she had ever been.

If you ask any fat girl who’s gotten skinny what she’d do to stay that way, she’ll tell you crazy things — cut off a finger, get a tattoo on her face … anything to keep the weight off. She’ll burn her clothes like they were covered in plague germs, like the fat will jump off them onto her again in her sleep. She’ll have fat nightmares, where she wakes up and is even fatter than before, standing naked in front of a mirror and bawling like it was the saddest thing in the entire world. Because it is, when you’re that girl. It is exactly the saddest thing in the world.

Regina was no exception. She stuck to her plan with the same rigor and attention one might devote to carefully crossing a river on a slippery log.

However, as with most bad solutions, there were some hiccups in her plan. Namely, she felt lousy most of the time, sort of dark and shaky on the molecular level, like her cells were little old women, doddering around her veins, leaning into her arterial walls to get their balance. She couldn’t concentrate well, and often forgot what she was doing from one end of the restaurant to the other.

Her regular patrons (most of whom were senior citizens who came for coffee and biscuits at 6 a.m. sharp), had become accustomed to seeing a more robust Regina, and speculated extensively about the causes of her wasted figure. Could she be sick? Pregnant? On drugs? Drugs, they agreed. She was definitely on drugs.

It was at this point that she met John.

He was skinnier than Regina, and taller too — but he was that lanky, wiry, bouncy kind of skinny that won’t ever allow for so much as a flap of skin to grab him by. He was very, very quiet — alarmingly so; shy to the point of seeming mute. Sometimes he came into Regina’s Hardee’s to get a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and black coffee. He was tan, and very handsome. One morning, around 9:30, John walked up the register to order his breakfast, and Regina had her head bowed over the counter, her hands supporting herself on either side of the till.

“Y’okay?” John asked.

Regina thought she said, “yeah,” but it turned out no sound had come out of her mouth at all. She was trying to look up, trying to focus back in on the room, but it was like she had taken one step back from herself and accidentally gotten onto a moving sidewalk, and she was whooshing further and further away from the husk of her body, the apertures of her eyes. “Y’okay?” he asked again, louder than before, much louder than he customarily spoke. Regina willed her head to the left, to tell him she was fine, to ask him if he had any interest in trying the new Sante Fe Omelet Biscuit, but the sidewalk was moving much faster now, and she could see herself far away, and the distance between them deepened, darkened, until it was everything.

She split her lip and broke her front tooth passing out.

She’d have done worse if it hadn’t been for John literally leaping over the counter to keep her from crashing her head into the cement floor. Regina’s eyelids fluttered, but did not open. John held her close to his chest, and her breath was hot against his face. It smelled, because of the purging, and the constant bile, vaguely medicinal. John called an ambulance, and the restaurant manager came in to cover. While they all waited for one or the other to arrive, the patrons got John up to speed on Regina’s drug problem. Maybe he could talk to the doctor about it, they said. Maybe he could talk to her about it, since she obviously carried a torch for him, they said. They liked her better heavy like she used to be, they said.

As Regina’s unconscious form rose and fell gently in John’s lap, he felt a crushing sympathy for her, for her pain, and her addiction. John was a recovering drug addict himself — only ten months clean. His body trembled at the thought of what she must be going through — the kind of pain she would be in soon. He had never felt so strong a connection with any human being in his whole life, and he loved her. Suddenly, and truly, and in his skin itself.

They put Regina into a coma, in response to what John said about her drug habit. They couldn’t tell what drugs she was doing, they said, but they found a lot of an amphetamine derivative in her blood, so maybe she was a pill popper. Either way, best for her palpitating heart if she slept out the withdrawals, since she might not live through them.

John stayed by her side for two whole weeks. When they brought her around, it took a while for her to get her bearings. She recognized John from the restaurant, but she was all murky and slow, and couldn’t understand why he was there. “Hey, Regina. You been sleeping for a while. You passed out at the Hardee’s, and I caught you,” he said. His voice was soft. Regina’s fog dissipated, but did not dissolve. “I’m in the same boat,” he said, “I struggle with some of the same things you do.” Her breath stuttered in her chest, and she coughed just as tears crushed her windpipe.

John shook his head, and enfolded her in his arms. It was nothing he had ever done before, even with his own family.

Regina started to cry really, really hard then, crying and crying — for the whole thing, all of it at once. It felt like her head would crack open with the force of it, all the terrible things and now this beautiful man, so warm and so close.

“I’ve been quit for ten months. I’m probably strong enough I can show you how to quit, too. If that’s okay with you. We can be friends, or whatever.” He laughed nervously. “I might have shown my hand a little already.” Regina stiffened, and her heart felt like it had fallen like a brick in a river to the bottom of her rib cage. In a moment, she knew what he thought, what it meant.

She didn’t say a single word. John thought she must be nervous about his intentions.

They were married three months later, after much careful courtship. John became a lay pastor for his church, and they bought a house in the suburbs. It was the happiest Regina had ever been, even if it wasn’t real. It felt real.

They never talked about it. They talked about everything else. John seemed to think everything about Regina was delightful. He never tired of her chatter, and watched her with a gentle appreciation that felt like sun on her skin. She knew their relationship depended upon a complicated misapprehension, one that Regina sidestepped by playing to John’s quiet nature, by saying she didn’t care to discuss it. John attributed this to the depth of her addiction, and loved her even more. But it wore on her. And as all untruths, it got more and more complicated to maintain. John wanted her to help him with the church’s Youth Council Drug Education, and she could hardly refuse. She spent a whole ten-day course pretending to be too upset to talk, telling John this was too much for her and would he please take over? She thought it would never end.

And she was getting fat again, which made matters a whole lot muddier. She tried not to, but she started throwing up again, just once in a while, if she ate so much she could feel her stomach stretching and groaning with how much she forced into it. It was hard to find a place to do it; John was always with her now, so she had to work much harder than before. She ran into gas station washrooms, the restrooms at grocery stores when she shopped. If it got too bad, she’d go down into the laundry room and lock the door, and throw up in a paper bag while the washer ran to cover the sound.

They had been married two years, almost. The worse it got, the more she needed to eat. It felt like everything was falling apart.

John came home early one Sunday afternoon, when Regina had just finished eating a whole pizza, a one-pound bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, four jelly-filled doughnuts, and a 16-ounce bottle of Powerade. He had come in just as she finished the last of the peanut butter cups, and she had enough time to stuff the bag under the couch beneath her feet. He sat down next to her on the couch, and flipped the TV on to ESPN, checking to see how basketball was coming along. Regina began to panic. If she didn’t throw up soon, her body would digest all that food. It was all she could think about, and she began to itch and twitch with anxiety and discomfort.

“What’s wrong with you?” John asked. She said it was nothing, nothing — just she was keyed up for next week. She had a job interview with a law firm, she said. Why did she say that? John turned to her, his eyebrows angled in. “Really?” was all he said, but Regina could tell he was confused.

The food rumbled in her stomach, and she said she had to go check the laundry. John told her he got it this morning, why didn’t she sit with him for a while and tell him about this new job she was thinking of? Regina was about to crawl out of her own skin. She said she needed to run to the gas station for a candy bar. John asked what was wrong with the ones in the pantry? John asked her was she really okay?

She couldn’t stand it. She stood up and marched out the door, practically racing down the stairs to the basement. She whipped the laundry room door shut behind her and locked it. As fast as she could, she vomited once, twice, three times into the trash can. There was a loud knock on the door. “Regina! Are you sick in there? Regina?” She shoved the trash under the metal shelf and pushed an old can of paint in front of it. She wiped her mouth on her hand, and stared at the door.

The knocking continued.

“Regina! Regina?” What had she done? What had she done? Oh Jesus. She flipped the lock, and opened the door. She walked out, and past her husband, who followed her up the stairs. “What is going on here, Regina? What is happening? Why won’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Regina reached the top of the stairs, and turned to face him.

She found, staring at his face so close, that she couldn’t find a single word to say. They just stood there, staring at each other.

John sniffed, and finally, he said it. “I can smell it on your breath, you know. Just that same smell as when you overdosed. It’s drugs again, right?”

She stood there, and her whole back couldn’t keep her head up anymore.

“I never was on drugs, John. I never did any drugs at all except laxatives to make me lose weight. I made myself throw up to lose weight. That’s why I was so sick. That’s what I been doing again. There never was any drugs.”

It was a terrible, terrible thing.

“Jesus.” John said. His eyes peeled into her, searching her face so hard she could feel her skin turning red from it. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his palm. “Jesus, Regina.”

Regina thought of a hundred things she wanted to say to explain, but she couldn’t. She just stood there and watched him disassemble the past two years, rewriting their history with the truth, the corrected information.

Regina felt like the whole house had been emptied of everything, like they had moved all their stuff out and the place was all echoes and furniture dents in the carpets — no other evidence they had ever been at all.

Regina wanted to ask him everything — catch the disappearing threads of all the love, all the close moments as they unraveled, flitted away. Everything just caught in her throat. She had no right to ask him anything, now.

John watched her. He took forever to move an inch. Finally, he shook his hanging head, his long fingers fluttering weary protest. He nodded, squinting at her. “Don’t be silly.” He stepped up next to her on the riser and rested his arm around the curve of her shoulders.

His inscrutable face warmed, and a slow smile started in his eyes and moved to his lips.

The Day I Jumped Out a Window

When I was 11, my best friend was Eddie Griffenbacher.* He lived with his grandma, for reasons he never detailed. (*No, it wasn’t. But even I don’t want to talk shit about someone. It’s not because I have class. Eddie would kick my ass.)

He was very, very, impressively naughty.

He came by this honestly: his grandmother was like a David Lynch character. She was short, round, and, I think, chronically intoxicated. She curmdugeoned around her house in a beige sweater-vest over a plaid shirt, khakis and fluffy white sneakers that resembled King’s Hawaiian rolls. Her hair was old-lady-did into fully-formed curl banks, but the back left corner of her head was all matted down and disarranged, like gray-hair crop circles amidst the otherwise puffy rows. She smoked endless Benson and Hedges cigarettes; they dangled eternally from her yellow fingers, the nails of which she kept painted the same bronzey-brown color for as long as I knew her. She was always drinking some ice-cubey alcohol cocktail from an amber-glass tumbler: between the yellow of her fingers, her nail polish, and the yellow tint of her glass, it seemed like everything around her was saturated completely with tar. Somehow, her entire microcosm had become the color of an old fly strip.

I grew up on an island in Southeast Alaska. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the broader world, so it never occurred to me that anything was unusual about Grandma Griff. In 1983, when I was 11, I just thought of her as very, very unpredictable. One minute, she’d be blithely smiling away, cough-laughing at the television, then suddenly, KAPOW! She’d be standing on the front porch, cussing her face off for a series of reasons I was never able to make complete sense of. They seemed to involve Eddie eating or not eating lunch, his overall commitment to the family, and his relative “little shit” rating for the day. Grandma Griff would shuffle around the deck, cussing, coughing, and leaning on things in a kind of modern baroque until she was satisfied or distracted, upon which she would return inside. Sometimes, she would emerge again moments later, and begin cuss-coughing at him anew — apparently revived by some libation or inspiration inside her house. Other times, she would come back out and just stand there, wobbling back and forth like a buoy.

Me and Eddie had a lot of good ideas. Mostly, they were about ways we could get food. We were obsessed with food, especially beef jerky. One of the two grocery stores in town carried this beef jerky that had been … what? chipped? powdered? processed? … to make it the same texture and consistency of chewing tobacco. (See, “1983,” above.) Regular beef jerky would jump off a bridge at the mere sight of beef jerky snuff it was so inferior. Somehow, the jerky-chipping process made all of the resulting fluffy beef jerky snuff 100 percent surface area. It made it a total flavor experience. Your taste buds didn’t have to do anything but lay back and wait for the magic to happen.

It was so expensive, but so awesome.

On the rare occasion we both received and managed to make it to the end of Main Street with enough accumulated allowance to buy a little container of the beef jerky snuff, we would immediately load as much of it into our mouths as we could hold and suck on it until all of the beef jerky molecules had been extracted. The remaining byproduct was the same color and texture as asbestos pipe insulation. There was only enough jerky snuff in the can to do this beef jerky soul-extraction routine three or four times, if you really watched yourself.

Occasionally only one of us would have money, and the ensuing hour after purchase would be begging, refusals, and at last, meted pinches of shared contraband interrupted by limited periods of blissed-out snuff reverie. We were budding junkies. One day, it was just gone, and we moved on to Carl Buddig Original Deli-Thin Corned Beef. I have eaten more of this product than most people have consumed water. There is actually a twelve-foot-section of my small intestine that is entirely composed of Carl Buddig Original Deli-Thin Corned Beef, and I kid you not when I say it is the most effective part of my entire GI tract. (If you ever have to eat my corpse to survive, parts of me are going to be just scrumptious. You’re going to be so glad it was me who died.)

Food was our main concern but the Dukes were our second. We shared a passion for The Dukes of Hazzard, by which I mean it eclipsed every other interest we had, all other conversation, all the time. We played it without fail — first with little Matchbox cars, then with the bigger ones with the wind-up tires whose elastic tension made them fly down the sidewalk (or, alternately, get hopelessly stuck in your stupid hair). Eventually, we just ran around, reenacting episodes of the show or making up our own. I, still at age 11, really wanted more people to see me as Daisy Duke, but Eddie laughed hysterically when I suggested I be Daisy.

I was Luke.

I didn’t even get to drive unless I was driving Bo to the hospital. And usually Bo just drove himself to the hospital and I still rode shotgun. I just had to do all the shooting at the bad guys (compound bows take two arms, really) and sometimes hold the wheel so Bo could shoot, even though he would cry out in pain from the effort. He was strong, but he was just a man, after all.

Ensconced in smooth, rust-colored velour, Eddie’s grandma’s loveseat was the perfect Charger. The arms were low enough to leap over and into the driver’s seat, just like the General Lee.

Sometimes, Eddie would be Boss Hog.

If you are a Dukes plebe, I will catch you up on an important detail: Boss Hog was a bad guy. He was this fat, gross, rich, turdface who was so greedy he would eat barbeque ribs while he watched his henchmen beat you up. That’s low. And yucky.

When Eddie was Boss Hog, we played some modified version of tag. Usually, I would be hapless, Bo-less Luke, running for my life while Boss Hog and his thugs chased me all over Georgia. (Georgia, in this case, meant Eddie’s Grandma’s house, and the woods behind it.) If Eddie caught me, he would punch me in the arm or thigh (middle-finger knuckle raised, a la the famed “Charlie Horse” maneuver). It was a motivating consequence, and I would scramble like a feral monkey to avoid it.

The back of Eddie’s Grandma’s house featured two identically-sized windows, placed on the diagonal from one another. Inside the house, one window was in the hallway, next to the first bedroom. The other window was on the landing, directly above the awning of the little back porch.

Eddie and I often clambered out onto the little back porch. It was a very attractive and vaguely risky escape route, since it was really not that high off the ground, and the ground below it was muskeg. Muskeg is basically a dense moss found all over Southeast Alaska. If you stand in one place for a few minutes, you will slowly begin to sink into the muskeg, little puddles forming around your feet as you descend, like you were standing on an enormous wet sponge. So if you fell off the roof of the porch — or jumped –- it was exhilarating, but safe. We did it a lot.

On the day in question, Eddie was on an absolute tear. He was always a little crazy, but on this particular day he was the Boss Hoggiest Boss Hog Hazzard County had ever seen. He chased me like a rabid dog all around the yard of his Grandma’s house, and when he cornered me, he never broke character.

Somehow, his feverish intensity and my resultant giddiness combined to form the most frenzied chase scene since Casino Royale. We were screeching intermittently and laughing maniacally as we raced around the house, down to the basement, up the stairs, through the upstairs hallway, down the back stairs, around the yard, and through the woods. At some point, our chaotic crashing and screeching must have disturbed Eddie’s Grandma, because she ambled out onto the back porch and starting yelling into the woods after us. “What the hell are you doing, Eddie Griffenbacher? You think I need you to make a mess of my house? Get over here and I’m going to [cussing] beat your [cussing] little white [cuss]!” Usually, we would huddle in the woods and giggle if we had inadvertently ired the Grandma. But this time, we were too far gone. We couldn’t stop. Our chase had taken on a life of its own, and we were powerless against the strength of it.

We scrambled through the woods and around the house, bathed in admonitions and increasingly vigorous (and creative) swear words, and ran back through the front door. Eddie’s Grandma made chase, trundling to her living room, and swearing at us to stop, etc. from there. Her proximity was energizing.

We ran even faster, flying over furniture, cornering on the stairs by grabbing the banister and spinning through the air like acrobats. We were on fire. Grandma made it to the front stairs and was gasping and spitting with rage, no longer even uttering complete sentences as she slowly ascended: “This minute! [Cuss, cuss]! So much trouble! Little [cuss, cuss]!”

As she closed in on us, Eddie almost cornered me in the hall, and his attempted grab/pin maneuver spun me like a top down the hallway. I was going so fast that it actually made me go faster, like a soccer ball whizzing down the field. I was unstoppable, uncatchable. I flew down the hallway, and then I jumped out the window onto the porch roof.

Except I jumped out the wrong window.

I flew through the air like a little dart, pointed at the ground. I landed with a kawhump! in the muskeg, feet first, and immediately sat down, certain I had broken every bone in my body and died. Eddie poked his head out the window I had just disembarked. I looked up at him. Eddie looked stricken — his face was pale as fish skin. Behind him, I could see the lumpy figure of his Grandma. She looked down at me, too. We all regarded each other for a while.

“Where are your feet?” Eddie croaked.

I looked down at my feet. They were, indeed, missing. I panicked. I must have broken them right off my legs.

My heart pounded, and my hands scrambled down my legs to my ankles, feeling for what were sure to be two bloody stumps. There were no stumps, however, just muskeg. I wiggled my toes. I realized I could still feel them, so they must be somewhere. Then I figured it out. The force of the fall had driven them into the muskeg up to my ankles.

They were really in there. I tried to pull them out, but I was all shaky and freaked out. I grabbed one and tugged, and it came out with a smurch. I repeated the procedure on the second foot, and then lay back on the muskeg, breathing heavily. It was a lot to process.

I looked up at Eddie and his Grandma. “They were stuck in the muskeg.” I said.

I don’t know who started laughing first. We cackled like lunatics, gasping for air. Eddie couldn’t stand up he was laughing so hard. He had to support himself with the window frame. I rolled on the muskeg, pounding the soggy ground with my fist, absolutely contorted with laughter. Grandma laughed and coughed, by turns, clutching her midsection and leaning on the window frame above Eddie. Eventually, we calmed down. Eddie’s Grandma retreated into the depths of her house. I could hear her muffled laughter and hacking cough as she descended into the living room.

I looked up at Eddie and said, “Can I just be Daisy now?”

Eddie rested his head on his arms. “No way. You’re Luke.”

Abortion Contest

In 2003, George W. Bush was running for re-election. (I don’t want to talk about whether or not this was a re-election campaign or an election campaign, after the Florida funny business. I’m just glad he’s not the president now.) The campaign was ugly. The issues were suddenly intensely divisive and personal — particularly where Roe v. Wade was concerned. You couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing ferocious, fervent diatribes surrounding the issue of legal abortion. I was accustomed to avoiding the conversation, and, hopefully, allowing each person to reconcile their own reproductive decisions between themselves and God or whomever they like to reconcile themselves to.

But it was all over the radio and television, in conversation overheard in bank teller lines and grocery stores, and, it turns out, on the playground. My son was only 9 years old. I’m not sure how the political pogwank wove itself into playground diatribe — perhaps between games of four-square and soggy rectangle pizza slices, the little ones polarized and debated the benefits and disadvantages of prison reform and estate tax in hissed, lispy whispers. Anyway. I think it was sometime around October? The campaign rhetoric was bitter, loud, and everywhere. I fielded ten kabillion questions from my son about everything from homosexuality to terrorism, providing spanky PBS answers, neatly avoiding genitals, hate, and murder. Then, one day, as I drove us to the grocery store, my son piped up, “Mom, what’s an abortion?”

There are moments, as a mother, when you feel a cold heaviness descend around you, when time briefly stops and birds are frozen mid-air, and you feel the heavy hand of God on your shoulder. “Hey,” says God. “Don’t fuck this up.”

“Well,” I said to my son, “an abortion is when a woman decides to end a pregnancy.” Not bad, right? Even-handed.

My son had obviously been told another definition (see “playground diatribe,” above). “Is it when a mom kills her baby?”

I knew I was on very fragile soil. I didn’t want to sound off on my own political views, but I also didn’t want to leave him with the impression he had. I wanted to leave his mind open, so he could make it himself when he had the maturity and information with which to do so. When he turns 36.

“Some people think it’s murder,” I told him. “Some people think it’s more important for the woman to be able to choose when she becomes a mom. When a woman ends a pregnancy, it’s because she isn’t ready or able to be a mom.”

“Why wouldn’t someone want to be a mom?” (This is a hard question to answer from your own child, because all the answers boil down to, “because you and your kind are megalomaniacal assholes an astonishing percentage of the time, and the rest of the time, the love we feel is so catastrophic, it’s hard to even survive. It’s like living with a giant bacterium, or seeing the face of God, by turns.”) I measured my response carefully. “Well, sometimes a woman doesn’t get to choose if she gets pregnant or not. And, sometimes a woman knows her body can’t make a healthy baby. And sometimes a young woman gets pregnant and knows she’s too young to be a mom.”

My son scrunched his face. “But you were young, Mom.”

Now, I was 21 when he was born, and that was young, for me. What I had meant was young young. But I didn’t want to say, “I mean like, 14, honey” because my son would’ve freaked out. I also didn’t know yet what he’d be like at 14, and didn’t want to inadvertently give him any ideas. So, I said, “Yes, I was young.” He said, “So, why didn’t you have an abortion of me?”

I knew I needed to be particularly careful how I responded. So, I said, “Well, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought hard about all the possibilities, and I just knew I wanted to be your mom.” My son smiled. “Oh.” Then we talked about what he was like when he was a baby, and the time he almost killed the daycare lady. (I’ll tell you that one later.)

So, good conversation, right? Way to field a series of very sticky subjects with finesse and love, right? Those Mother of the Year people are waiting for me on line three, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong.

Flash forward, to around May. I was driving my son to school. We were chatting about random items of preparedness (the location and status of his lunch, mittens, and homework) and dinner plans (chicken spaghetti, no cheese). At the light that precedes his school by some five blocks, my son smiled at me and said, “Mom! I forgot to tell you! I wrote a story about you.”

“Really?” I said, smiling into the rear-view mirror.


I was touched. My heart was warmed. I smiled my way through the recently greened light.”That’s so nice, honey! What’s it about?”

“It’s called ‘The Light of Love.’ Everybody had to write one. It’s supposed to be about the person who did the nicest thing for you ever. I wrote mine about you.”

“What did I do that was so great? Is it about how you never have any clean underpants?” He laughed.

If you have an ominous soundtrack on hand, this is when to cue it up.

“I wrote my essay about you because you did the nicest thing for me. I wrote about how you almost had an abortion of me, but you didn’t.”

I slammed on the brakes, whipping over the car to the side of the road. “You what????!!!!” I hissed. “You WHAT???!!! YOU WHAT????” My son had gone invisible, his skin had changed to the color of the backseat, and he had stopped breathing to avoid detection. “You wrote an essay telling everyone that I almost aborted you? Why would you do that? WHERE IN THE HELL DID YOU EVER GET THAT IDEA?”

“From you! You said you found out you were pregnant with me, you thought about all the options, but then you had me.”

And this is why, children of the world, your mother won’t answer the question, “Why would anyone not want to be a mom?” I buried my face in my hands, too simultaneously furious and mortified (mortifurious — a sort of Mom form of Zen) to do anything. “Did you turn the essay in?” I asked.

“Yes.” My son replied, his face stricken. After verifying that my son did not actually believe I almost aborted him, I found myself faced with a very unpleasant task. I would have to sit down with his teacher, a lovely woman I knew very little about save her excellence in the classroom, and discuss several very intimate and delicate matters. I walked my son into the classroom and waved her over to me. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stepping into the hall. “What’s up?”

There was no gentle way to do it. I ramble-ranted. I babble ramble-ranted. “I don’t know you, and I promise I would never put you in this position if there was any other alternative and before I go any further, please understand that I am not asking for your position on this issue, or asking you to agree with mine but my son wrote some essay for you called, ‘The Light of Love?’” She looked thoroughly perplexed.

“Yes?” She said.

“About the nicest thing anybody ever did for the kids?” I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“Well, my son wrote his essay about how I did the nicest thing for him because I didn’t abort him.”

Her hands flew up to cover her mouth.

“I have to explain. I didn’t almost have an abortion. Although, if I had considered an abortion, that would have been fine with me because I think that’s my right to do. But in any event, I sure as hell wouldn’t have told him about it! He talked about it like I sat him down and was like, ‘You’re one lucky, kid. That was a close one.’” I dragged my finger across my throat. “I didn’t almost have an abortion, although I am pro-choice and think it was my choice to make but I wouldn’t tell him that, either. I wouldn’t talk to him about any of this!” I was rattling away like a crazy person.

She stood, stock-still, hands over her mouth.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you all this, and like I said, I don’t expect you to tell me how you feel about it. But I needed you to know I’m not some monster who tells her kid he almost didn’t make the cut,” I said. “And I’m sorry I said it that way,” I said.

She held up her hand. “It’s not that.” She said. “It’s fine, of course you didn’t tell him that. It’s just that those essays aren’t here.”

Do you still have that ominous track cued up? Just put it on continuous play.

“What do you mean, they’re not here?” I hissed.

“They’re not here. We sent them away. They’re for a writing contest.”

“A writing contest?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, moving her palm to her forehead. “Ugh. This is bad. They’re being judged by local residents of long-term care facilities.”

Perfection! But of course they are. I could see it now; frail, shaking, blue-veined hands manipulating old-timey letter openers, cooing and clucking as they read the adorable missives contained therein: “Agnes! Listen to this! ‘The nicest thing that anyone ever did for me was bring me to church, where I learned about Jesus.’ What a precious angel.”

“Marjory, did you read the one about the little boy who says his puppy did the nicest thing for him ever when he licked his face after his dad had been killed in the line of duty, saving an entire orphanage? Just beautiful.”

Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, poor Margaret held my son’s hideous homage in tiny, arthritic, clenched fists. “What kind of monster would tell their sweet boy he was almost an abortion? What has happened to the world I knew? You know what? I’m changing my living will to ‘Do Not Resuscitate.’” Not only did we not win, we might have killed people. I briefly contemplated going to the long-term care facility and explaining this whole thing to them, but just couldn’t imagine how I could do it and not seem bonkers or offensive, or both.

This is the real reason I won’t allow my mom to ever end up in one of those places. I don’t know if any of those residents are still there, and I can’t be certain they won’t recognize my name.

The Inheritance

My grandmother Irene was a pitiful, crazy person. Not all the time, unfortunately, or she’d have been packed into some coarse New England institution for experiments with electrons and lithium derivatives much earlier. As it was, because she alternated her violent and impulsive behavior with periods of serenity and excellent baking, she was allowed to quietly produce one, two, three, four and finally five wards of the state, one right after the other, before she was wrangled by the authorities and medicated to death.

Her youngest boy, Fred, who she kept along with three more kids, believed that shock therapy, medication, and age had actually healed Irene just enough that she could think rationally about what she’d done. So she overdosed herself on lithium.

We met her once, about a year before she died. She looked like a watercolor version of our mother, all smeared and indistinct in comparison. We had no idea she was our grandmother. Our mother introduced her as “Irene,” no more information.

She kept touching our hair with shaking, blue-veined hands.

My mother was her firstborn. Her father was a navy sailor, and at 17 too young to have any idea what was going on with his pregnant girlfriend of a few months, let alone understand what gripped her every six to eight weeks and forced her down to the bar, gone for days with other men. Naturally, he left her. My mother was born some six months later, only to wither in a wicker laundry basket until Irene, tormented by her inability to take care of my mother, called my great-grandmother Nora and announced that she had a live grandchild, a baby girl, who could be found at St. Elizabeth’s orphanage in Lewiston, Maine, if she was interested. Her name was Helen.

Nora was in a tight spot. Her husband Carl wanted nothing to do with another child, having successfully driven his 17-year-old son away at last into the military so he could more vigorously abuse his wife. He’d be damned if he was going to pay for some whore’s kid to come begging at his supper table, especially since he couldn’t even be sure the baby was his own flesh and blood. Shit, he wasn’t even 100 percent sure his own son was his. He saw the way Nora eyed the men at the bank and he’d wager she spent some time thinking about what was inside those inseams she measured at the tailor’s shop where she worked. That was why he had written her and his son out of his will, and never had a lick of life insurance. He’d be gawdammed if he was going to pay his wife to live high on the hog after he was dead, feeding her suitors with the fat back from all his hard work. Naw. When he was dead, so was she, as far as he was concerned. That’s what “until death do us part” meant to Carl. He was a terrible man.

Nora worked extra hours at the tailor shop to send my mother clothes at the orphanage, and took the bus up to Lewiston every weekend she could to see her.

My mother lived the first five years of her life in St. Elizabeth’s orphanage. She has never said even one word about it, save the name of the place itself. My sisters and I haven’t asked about it, and we probably never will.

When my mother first turned five, the laws of adoption changed. There were so many orphans that the government had started a program in which blood family could get a small stipend for adopting a child over the age of five. Nora explained to Carl that there was good money in it for them if they took her home, more than Nora made at the shop. Carl warmed to the idea, agreeing finally when he found out that Nora would also continue working, which meant that between her wages and the stipend from the state, he could retire a little early. Six months later, my mother was adopted legally by her grandmother.

Nora drove to the Lewiston orphanage in the Buick, something Carl usually forbid her to do. It was a golden late summer day, and the sky was as close and dense with color as the flesh of a fruit. The whole world was humming and alive, and you could hear the electrical buzzing of insects even with the car window up and the radio on. My mother was dressed in the little white pinafore seersucker dress Nora had sent the month before. She had a straw hat with a blue bow that she wore for special occasions, like Easter service or for the visits of prospective adoptive parents. She stood, erect and with her small wooden suitcase clutched in both hands, on the porch of St. Elizabeth’s as Nora drew the Buick up the drive.

There weren’t many papers to sign at all; Nora later would remark that it was much harder to buy that Buick. My mother sat next to the passenger side window, in the front with Nora on the bench seat, as they made the two-hour drive back to Massachusetts. My mother didn’t say much, but she never did, so they rode in a sort of warm, familiar quiet. As they drove, Nora told my mother all about the new school she’d attend in West Upton, about the parks and the playgrounds and the ice cream parlor. She told her about the tailor shop where she worked, and how one whole side of the room was just ladies’ dresses and wraps. She told her about Boston, and the zoo where you could see a live zebra and where there was a kind of candy that looked like old ladies’ hair.

They passed through the cities, passed the row houses and the smokestacks whose pulpy exhalations sooted the eaves and corners of windows, like eyeliner on silent movie stars. They passed the ocean inlets teeming with dead fish, stranded by the tides, rotting in such numbers that the city laid lye over their corpses so the townspeople didn’t have to evacuate, the smell was so bad. They passed acres of geometric farms, parallelograms of alternating shades of green, rust, and wheat, dotted with tiny red houses. On the side of the road at the stop sign of the four corners highway divide, a woman stood behind a massive apple stand, towering with enormous, shining apples. My mother involuntarily gasped. She had never seen that many apples in one place in her life.

Nora examined her granddaughter. “Would you like an apple, Helen?” She asked. My mother froze, incapable of processing the inquiry. A whole apple? A person could just stop and get a whole apple? Just like that? Her small head began to whirl, full of zebras and old women with candy hair and farms that grew row after row of tiny white dresses and apples, apples, apples … she started to shake a little, and cry. She was so ashamed she covered her face with her hat until she could stop herself.

Nora got out of the car and bought two apples from the women behind the cart, carefully selecting apples with no bruises, firm and tight to the touch. She climbed back into the Buick and set my mother’s apple on her lap. She bit into her own apple with a juicy crunch, and said, around a wet mouthful of fruit, “that one’s all yours, Helen.” She regarded her for a long while. “We’re gonna have so much fun, you and me.”

My mother held the apple in her hands, as carefully and gently as if she was holding a sleeping dove, all the way back to West Upton. It was dark when they got in. Carl was passed out in the recliner, and Nora shushed my mother right past him and into the den, beyond which was the bathroom, and the room her son used to have, which she had made up all in buttercup yellow and organza for my mother. She set her wooden case on the chair under the window, and told her she could stay up as long as she liked, getting situated and exploring her room. She clicked on a little wall lamp whose lampshade was a tiny, pirouetting ballerina, kissed her granddaughter on her head, and gently closed the door.

My mother moved her suitcase from the chair, and carefully removed its contents. She put her clothes into the dresser with the big sloping drawers, and her hat on the vanity’s elaborate iron swirls. Then she clicked off the light, and sat down next to the window until her eyes had acclimated themselves to the thickness of this new dark — the dark of a quiet neighborhood, of the lined and insulated walls of a home. She listened for the distant static of a fan, and the creak of wood, crickets, and trees. She held her apple up to her lips at last, and ate it. She even ate the stem and seeds, licking her palms as she went. She ate every bit. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted in her whole life.


Dear Other People,

Please describe how you put your stretchy workout pants on.

I issue this request some ten years into my stretchy-pants-necessitating exercise career, having finally conceded defeat. I can’t do it. At least, I can’t do it in less than two minutes, which is considerably longer than it takes for me to put on an entire outfit of clothing made from non-stretchy materials, such as corduroy, polyester, twill, or Kevlar. (Even button-fly Kevlar.) I believe I could get into a laced-corset wedding dress faster than I can get into my workout gear, actually. Possibly a wet suit. If I’m being honest, I bet I could get into a laced-corseted wet suit faster than I can attire myself in a single pair of capri-length stretchy yoga pants. And you know what? I would rather be getting into the corset wet-suit.

In fact, I would rather put on any other piece of clothing in the universe than stretchy pants! Hair shirts? Yes. ​Why not? ​They slide right on. And then they itch like a motherf*$#er, but who cares? A dress comprised entirely of ear-buds? Sure. Won’t it be hard to remove? Oh, certainly. I’ll need the Jaws of Life. But neither removability nor wearability is what we’re talking about right now. We are talking about the donning. And the donning of anything with Lycra or spandex is somehow impossible for me to navigate.

I start out just like I suspect we all do, one leg at a time (sorry, spiders and humans with alternate leg counts). Time and experience have taught me to begin sock-free. Why? Well, because apparently, a complex particulate relationship exists between sock atomic structure and stretchy pants atomic structure, resulting in the accumulation of gravitational energy near the attracted masses.

​ If the ensuing reaction is not interrupted, fusion of the two atoms can occur, leveling your bedroom and the surrounding entire universe. Not to mention completely eliminating not only your stretchy pants, but all ​pants. So, because I’m a philanthropist, I start out sock-free.

I carefully insert one pointed toe. After years of struggling to get this pointed toe into the pants channel complication-free, I relent. Maybe I do need to take classical ballet classes. Because however I point my toes is nowhere near pointed enough to thread my whole leg through the eye of my stretchy-pants leg-hole. I’m here to tell you that from my perspective my toe, as it enters the stretchy-pants channel, is pointed to perfection. It’s like the beak of a freaking sparrow.

“Trim your toenails!” You say? Rookie. Don’t even. Really. Don’t period. Even period. Trimmed, duh. I’ll bet you didn’t think to file for both length and toe height. I did. My toenail clearance is now so much lower than my toe height that I could paint my toes as many colors as there are and they’​d​ still be recessed. And buffed? Pshaw. I have buffed the friction completely out of the ends of my toes. When I die, engineers will study my toenails for insight on future zero-friction engine parts. My toenails are as Lycradynamic as any body part can be, including the gallbladder, which is as smooth and slippery as a gallbladder.

Doesn’t matter. Because it isn’t the toes, or the toenails, or the knees or the hair on my feet that are causing the problem. Somehow, my body is uniquely geometric, and this special geometry is mathematically configured to thwart the function of stretchy pants. My legs are yin to stretchy pants yang. If stretchy pants were to suddenly disappear from the universe, my legs would also disappear.

Once inserted, one of my toes is immediately ensnared in stretchy pant, slowing the forward progress of the balance of my leg. Wiggling my toe seems only to involve the other toes in similar ensnarement, and soon, I have five fat struggling digits, writhing in stretchy pant like little naked mole rats in a mosh pit. Neither can they be retracted at this point. Pulling back, as anyone familiar with the “stretchy,” feature of stretchy pants can attest, will resulting in the pants simply accompanying the fleeing toes to whatever destination the puller has in mind. And I don’t care how limber you think you are: You can’t out-stretch the stretchy pants. They will best you, even if you Yoga like the bendy love-child of Gandhi and Gumby. (Gambhy.)

The only way out is farther in. Press on, foot! Press on. So I do. To breach the tensile strength barrier of the stretchy pants without the help of a team of tug-of-rope champions, I pull up on the pants while pushing my foot down vigorously, simultaneously standing on the bottom cuff of the target leg. The force necessary to free the toes results in the rapid ejection of the leg from the stretched fabric, and the natural position of the heel, flexed in “free-my-toes” position, fires that right-angled extremity into the opposite side of the pants leg, pulling the material to its stretchy limits around the protrusion of my heel. The jarring release and recapture of my foot, coupled with the cuff-locking position of my other foot (“spasmodic crane,” pose, for those reading this who do made-up Yoga) result in my inevitable loss of balance, and force the release of the waistband of my pants by no fewer than one of my hands in favor of wildly waving said hand to prevent me from falling.

I can no longer breach the tensile strength of the stretchy pants with just one hand, and a not inconsiderable percentage of my brain is now devoted to flailing my arm, hopping around on the not-stuck foot to attempt to re-establish a relationship with gravity, and kicking my entrapped leg while flapping my bent knee back and forth to attempt to free my heel, like a convulsing, arrhythmic Rockette.

This exacting ratio of cognitive turmoil and physical embranglement is my precise formula for deranged, psychotic rage.

My fear of falling fades away in the white-hot intensity of my fury. The control behind my steady, calculated foot trajectory similarly fades. My awareness of the objects in the room, the reason for the pants, my ability to speak English, gone. There is no falling. There is no foot. There is only the pants fight. Paaaaaaaaants fight.

I don’t have clear recollections of what typically happens next, because I’m in berserker mode, but I believe it usually involves me growling, leaping like a popcorn kernel in a hot skillet high into the air over and over while kick-yanking my way down to the fetal position. Eventually, I release the pants and relax my body, maybe suck my thumb for a while.

Somehow, the pants are on. (Every once and a while, my underwear are somehow off, which is confounding to me. I should hire those “Paranormal Activity,” people to film me, once they find those demon people.)

And this is why I don’t do yoga, the end.