1,186 Days

It’s been three years since I drank alcohol. More, actually: in fact, for the past three years, two months, 29 days (counting today — I’m feeling optimistic) I have abstained from alcohol. For 1,186 days, I have not had a single drink. Not a single beer, shot of tequila — not one lone glass of wine.

Which is sort of amazing, because during the 20 years before that I drank my face off.

Typically, I drank between three and five beers a night. By the last year I was drinking, most weekend nights, I drank five. I’m not the Incredible Hulk over here, either. I’ve always been a tallish, thinnish lady, and I never had miraculous, superhuman tolerance, like Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion in that bar in Nepal. Five beers made me drunk. Which was the whole idea. I was a heavy drinker.

In spite of my volume of alcohol consumption, I’m not an alcoholic. Some of you might be thinking, “So, you just quit drinking for nothingAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH???” And I get that. I’ll give you a moment to shriek into the throw pillows of nearby Barcaloungers for a moment while you assimilate that terrible and inexplicable chunk of information.

Let me explain. First, I promise I’ll try not to be a douchebag about my reasons — I actually don’t care at all if you drink and it’s awesome and you have never been happier or more successful. That’s terrific, and I believe you. Second, reading this doesn’t mean you have to stop drinking or change anything about your current drinking situation. I’m comfortable with our individual agency and sovereignty. For instance, I have to pee right now, and I don’t think that has anything to do with you, either.

Also, when I tell you all of this, you might wonder if I neglected my kids, or got fired from jobs, or slept in drainage culverts. I didn’t. Mine is a banal story — I had a suspicious relationship with alcohol that gradually tried to eat my face. I adored my babies and my husband, worked my buns off at my job, and made art. And all of this is still true.

I never hid the fact that I drank heavily — on the contrary, I wore my heavy drinking like a badge of honor. It was a conspicuous thing I did that I thought made me bolder, more masculine, and unlike the girl trope — the Wine Cooler girls, who giggled and stumbled, whose bra straps were showing and who were seen having sex in someone’s parents’ bedrooms at parties. (Worse, the girls who had sex on the couches at parties, while the other partygoers played Mario Brothers around them.) I was very deliberately, very determinedly not that kind of girl. I drank beer and worked at a hardware store. I drank beer and drove a pickup truck. I drank beer and carried my kid on my back at my landscaping job when the babysitter cancelled. I drank beer and I could shoot guns, I could clean fish, and I could drive stick. I could fix your drippy faucet and change a flat. I drank my beer from a bottle, thank you very much. It didn’t make me promiscuous, or silly, either, and I wanted everyone to know that. (We should talk about the reasons I thought those things were bad, or the fact that there was another human in those promiscuity situations, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother essay.)

I started drinking when I was in my late teens, growing up in Southeast Alaska. I, like all 16-year-olds, was so weird. My awareness of this horrible phenomenon was oppressive, a mountainous burden under which I was snap-dancing like a chubby Molly Ringwald with spinach in her teeth and dogshit on both shoes. (Just like every other 16-year-old.) Compounding the awareness of my unsuitability for any desirable human interaction was the cliché, but no less potent, reality that my parents had just divorced, and my father, a man of hyperbolic tenacity, had divorced me entirely. This was hard to handle, having already survived years of his chaotic and violent behavior believing he loved me anyway, rather than that he loved me, well, the regular way parents loved their kids.

The way I started drinking is actually a funny story. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the guidance counselor, my favorite teacher, and incomprehensibly, the gym teacher, all gathered in the principal’s office to stage what, in hindsight, was an intervention. They sat around me in a Teachable-Moments half-circle, staring me down with sizzling megawatts of compassion. I could hardly stand to make eye contact with any of them, they were so penetratingly concerned. They had gathered to talk to me about my drug problem. It took me the first fifteen minutes, maybe longer, to figure out what in the hell they were talking about — I had never used drugs in my life. My drinking had been confined to two sips of other peoples’ drinks at parties, where I proceeded to pretend to be drunk so people would think I was cool. I was baffled that my portrayal might have been so convincing. But really, the intervention squad had good reason to suspect something was up — my grades had all fallen from A’s to D’s, I randomly left school in the middle of the day, missed whole weeks of class, and had dropped out of every single activity I used to participate in, including lunch. I also had, in fact, started smoking cigarettes, which was usually where I was going when I would suddenly walk away from the school and not return. I tried to explain myself, but I couldn’t convince them it wasn’t addiction troubling me. We sort of agreed to disagree: they agreed that I was on drugs, and I agreed to stop trying to convince them I wasn’t. The meeting ultimately ended with the admonition that I’d need to work harder, they were here to help, etc., etc. I think I hugged at least one person.

I walked out of the office and stood in the commons area, contemplating this new full immersion in shit: I’d finally run the full course from perfection to absolute failure. I drove away my father, my family, all my friends, and now, the entire faculty and staff of Petersburg High School. It was oddly exhilarating. It was like the antithesis of control, but in the same way that the two points closest together on a circle are also the two points furthest apart, it was also like absolute control. I felt giddy and eviscerated, by turns.

I flagged down a guy I knew smoked pot and drank, and asked him for a ride home. Then I asked him where I could get drunk — I’d never been, I explained. That night, I sat at his friend’s house, drinking Bacardi and singing Heart songs until I inevitably puked. It was one of the best nights of my life up to that point. Everything about me was different. So began my love affair, not with drinking, but with being the version of me that drank.

That’s the nut of it — the real reason I stopped drinking. I didn’t drink because it was fun. I never drank to celebrate or connect. I drank to become a different person.

I drank socially and often, as the years went by. I was ordinary among my peers, in my drinking. Everybody drank like me — three beers between dinner and bed. We had more if we hit the bar, and occasionally we tore it up with birthday tequila shots, but generally, we were just average drinkers. I never lied to my doctor, or anyone else about how much I drank.

And then the inevitable happened. Shit, as it is wont to do, got real.

My dad came back into my life in a big way, bearing the world’s shittiest present: Alzheimer’s Disease. It wasn’t for me, but it sucked, anyway. What in the fuck was I supposed to do with that? Even my drinking habit was nervous about what it was going to have to do to keep up.

Drinking, for me, had the added benefit of delaying any sort of emotional processing (or, say, soul-crushing emotional epiphanies that might have forced me to face certain unpleasant realities and grow significantly as a person). I have long postulated that heavy drinking is like a crude form of time travel: If you started drinking nightly in 2007, and stopped in 2015, poof! You’d be eight years older, but fewer years wiser. The knee-jerk joke is waka-waka: Hey, where’d all these kids come from and how’d I get so fat?

I’m being glib, of course, but I wish the glibness were further from the truth. The real sentence, uttered unceremoniously after a month or so of sobriety, was far more maudlin: where did all those nights go and why am I so sad? It lacks the Dangerfield sputter and zazz of drinking’s swagger, but you get the point.

Now’s as good a time as any to talk about one of the terrible hazards of stopping drinking — facing all of those delayed/dodged feelings. Ask anyone who drinks: Drinking really takes the edge off. But in times of crisis, those edges accumulate in such number that their combined bulk becomes a gigantic edge, of a different order of magnitude. Then you have to drink more to take the edge off the edge that taking all those other edges off created. It went on like this, as a kind of alcohol/emotional Fibonacci sequence for several more months, with me trying to counterbalance the veritable glacial moraine that my edge pile had become by just drinking more.

The drinking numbers on one side of the equation required to zero out the pile of things I didn’t want to experience on the other side of the equation was no longer mathematically feasible. My body was rebelling. I couldn’t sleep at night, I got hungover, and I was exhausted. I’d struggled for years with anxiety, wrestling with perseverating worry and obsessive thinking about things far outside of my control — asbestos, bird flu, cancer. Now I added night sweats and nightmares to the macabre procession of personal horrors, and after one excruciating night in which I woke up lost in a kind of panicked-Stephen-King-fugue state, I searched the internet: “Am I an alcoholic?”

What I should have been searching for was, “Is my relationship with alcohol unhealthy?” The truth was, of course, that it was. Because although I could have controlled or moderated my drinking to one night every three weeks, or whatever, forever, I would still have been faced with that pile of shit that I’d been stacking behind me. And incapable of drinking enough to subdue it, anymore. My life was producing more trouble than I could deal with — maybe even sober I’d need help — the pace was brisk. More drinking just meant more shit on the pile.

As I regarded the incredible vastness of the dump I’d created in such a short time, I realized that even though I was not an alcoholic, even though I didn’t get drunk every night or do crazy shit, I really didn’t know anymore exactly who I was without alcohol. The actual me had been subsumed by the version of me who drank. Worse, in the absence of any strong sense of who I was, I didn’t know how to handle a crisis without drinking.

So, naturally, I kept doing it. In addition to all the edge-buffering drinking did, I felt there was something brash and bold about it — something that stood up to Death. Heavy drinking is audacious and irreverent in a way that says you’re unafraid to die. And doing it made me briefly feel unafraid, too. The problem is that it really tore my brain in two, injuring and protecting — and trying to heal — myself at the same time. Eventually, doing it also made it so I didn’t experience all of my life.

In the weeks before I finally decided to quit, I imagined drinking as a kind of literal purgatory — a limbo state where I was filled with yearning and ennui, watching the life around me but neither able to join nor retreat. It was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Finally, one morning, I woke up hungover and exhausted, and I saw it clearly: what I really wanted. It wasn’t money or notoriety, vacations to places with turmeric, or even new pants. I wanted my life, with all of me in it. I wanted to pass on my taco recipe, and the wherewithal to do so. I wanted my finger to tuck a loose curl behind a little ear, as snug as two question marks, nestled together. I wanted the feel of my kids’ hands, familiarly clasped in mine as those little fat fingers grew leaner and longer, until they were big enough to swing at their sides as they crossed the street. I wanted the weight of my husband’s gaze, and the miraculous, astonishing strength of his love. I wanted to forgive my father, and love him out of this world with every ounce of love he gave me, and every ounce he didn’t.

I wanted to feel all of it, every wild, horrible, perfect thing.

For me, quitting drinking was a powerful and aggressive decision to allow my own experiences to happen to me. To start much more than stop. So I started by stopping. I really never intended to keep going, but it has felt so good, so real and so much easier, that here we are. 1,186 days later. Three years, two months, and 29 days later. I’m counting today, because I’m feeling optimistic.

A Smiter Smote a Sinner While Smitten with Smiting

Smite is a funny word.

My husband Jesse and I were talking about Leviticus (the Quentin Tarantino chapter of the Bible) last night. We don’t spend much time musing about Leviticus (lest you think we are piouser than we are) but were discussing this letter from a gentleman sardonically applauding Dr. Laura’s use of Leviticus 18:22 to rebuke homosexuality. Naturally, we began inquiring into other modern applications of less referenced lines of the book.

After discussing our own Leviticus reflections (scariest band name, ever), we started re-imagining the Christian adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jesse suggested, to comply with Leviticus, that we change it to, “Hate the sin, scorn the sinner?” We agreed this was too far from the spirit of the book. Leviticus is very specific (e.g., “How to Build an Altar in 1,347 Easy Steps”). And the truth is, it’s tough to read cubits allegorically, no matter how stoned you are.

I suggested, if we were going Full Monty, that we just go straight to “Love the sinner, hate the sin. Then smite the sinner. Usually to death.” Jesse piled on, “If a sinning sinner smites a loving sinner, that sinner should be smitten, also.”

The fuck?

“Wait, wait, wait.” I objected. “You can’t use ‘smitten’ like that. It’s probably ‘smited.’”

This seems like the right spot to give you some important information about my husband. He’s generally a very quiet, humble, quiet, introspective, quiet man. If he were to ever pen a book (say, to save a person’s life, or if that was the only way he could earn money, at all, ever again), it would be called, “Mastering Verbal Efficiency: When One Word Is Better Than Two.” (The title would be the longest sentence in the book.) It’s not that he’s shy; he’s not. Neither is he arrogant, typically. But, like all of us, there are areas of his interest that occupy his soul entirely, and fill him with such blind passion and complete immersion that he cannot be reasonable, and when pressed, he will be as irascible and ferocious as a hungover badger. Such is the case with the infinitesimal rules of language. He studied many languages, and speaks both Finnish and Swedish well. The discriminating observer might note how ironic it is for a person with such affinity for language to dislike its use so much. Well spotted, discriminating observer! That is fucked up! Where you or I might blissfully cruise past the occasional, soggy malapropism or improper verb conjugation, my husband halts all motor function while he carefully disassembles the grammatical monstrosity and reassembles it correctly, sometimes aloud, but often in the grim and machine-like recesses of his superior temporal gyrus.

So, when I objected to his use of the word “smitten,” my husband’s reaction was nearly fatal to him. His eyes twitched like a computer in bios mode, and he uttered a series of short sound bursts, which were evidently the first syllable of a series of fractious retorts: “Wuh! Buh! Fuh?” and so on, like he was a hundred haughty British men drinking port and straightening their cravats, farting righteousness into my puffy white face.

Jesse’s entire being contorted in a paroxysm of grammar, wave after wave of righteous indignation, filtered through the most enigmatic and exotic rules of language. “HUFF! HUUUUUFFFF! Participle. Future gerund, direct article! Past prefect Percy Weasley!” He said. I mean, that’s mostly what he said. Those are some of the words he said, anyway. Not in order, but it was clearly nonsense, so the exact sequence is irrelevant.

Now, because I will not be schooled on the proper use of words I use right all the fucking time, I continued, undeterred: “You can’t use ‘smitten’ like that! It’s got to be smited. Doesn’t that sound right? Smiiiited.” I drew the word out, while drawing an imaginary sword from an imaginary sheath in my yoga pants. “Smited. Feels right.”

Nothing makes a grammarian so inflamed as justifying your word choice by feel. So naturally, the gauntlet down, Jesse and I proceeded to fight-talk about the word “smite” for the next thirty minutes. Finally, my feelings about the word and his incoherent freestyle rap of esoteric grammar rules reached a draw: neither of us had more to say. We decided to defer to a third party.

Dictionary.com, while installing a shit ton of spyware, adware and voting for Republicans on my hard disk, defined the word thusly (NOTE: “thusly” is #7 on the top 25 list of words douchebags use, before “verbose,” and after mid-2000’s tabloid favorite “natch”):

verb (used with object), smote or (Obsolete) smit; smitten or smit; smiting.

I argued vociferously (#4) that the form smitten was never used in common parlance (#11) for any other reason than to describe romantic infatuation. “In fact,” I argued, while my husband continued to study the screen, “it is so saturated in romantic allusion that it’s become a word used to offer that romantic allusion to other, non-romantic scenarios, e.g., ‘The auditor was absolutely smitten with the new M-9 for exempt corporations.’ The auditor obviously was not entertaining delusions about nights rolling about in satin sheets, besmirching the integrity of the M-9s in question. He just thinks they’re super awesome, so the use of the word smitten is hyperbolic and demonstrative of the depth of his appreciation.”

“What did you say?” Jesse asked, raising his eyes from Dictionary.com.

“Fine. Use it in a sentence. In all the ways,” I responded.

Jesse quirked his eyebrows but obliged, ever willing to resoundingly, categorically win an argument.

“Sure. Let’s see. Present? Right now, I am smiting. In general, I smite. And in the future, I will be smiting at about three-thirty this afternoon, as opposed to, ‘I will smite you,’ which could happen anytime in the future.”

Since an object in motion prefers to continue talking about the grammatical correctness of obscure Old English words deployed in a modern lexicon, he continued, “The past participle is smitten. You can use that either way, actually. As an adjective, I might say, ‘I am a smitten man,’ meaning that I am a man smit by the power of romantic sensation I am experiencing. You might also use this as a passive verb in the past tense by saying, ‘He was smitten [by something].’ But I think you’d only use that one to mean something actually bonked him.”

I hate being wrong. I actually feel deeply uncomfortable when anyone is conspicuously wrong — even when I am morbidly overcharged for something (these are Red Delicious apples, not Asian Pears!) or debating actual ethics (the Bible is much less interested in homosexuality than the robes of the high priest!). It is awkward to me, on the subatomic level. All my electrons check their smartphones and my nuclei stare fastidiously at their shoelaces, praying for resolution. And I hate being wrong about words, because I love them. But I often am — particularly if the debate hinges on grammar or sentence structure. I’m almost always wrong, then. And I was certainly wrong about smitten. I smote incorrectly. I’m smiting wrong still. I am smitten with my misuse of the word, right this very moment.

I’m not usually on the “irregardless,” or “orientated,” team, believe me. But on this one, I am standing firm on my misuse until the wrong way becomes the right way. Levitican God as my witness, I’m never going to use it right. Gerund prefect participle be damned. I will smite with a nightstick, but if I get smitten, it will be by love.

Three Duluth Stories

I moved to Duluth in March of 1998. It was during the El Nino winter, in which every single human with whom I interacted informed me that this winter was NOT NORMAL FOR MINNESOTA. It came up in every conversation, which, over the course of the six months that normally would comprise one Duluth winter, provided a more vigorous facsimile of the suspended, punishing experience; only instead of shivering from the cold, I was shivering from collective dread, carefully cultivated by the city’s entire populace. In the wake of such calamitous portent, simple freezing fucking winter was actually a relief. Thus it was that I spent an entire terrifically warm winter in Duluth scared shitless, forming alliances and hoarding dry goods, waiting for real winter to come, like Duluth was some kind of folksy, sitcom version of Game of Thrones.

In fairness, Duluth is a really strange place. It was going to be strange, whether or not the winter was briefly co-opted by an exotic air current. I have a hundred examples of Duluth’s magnificent wackiness, but that’s too many for today. So here are three.

I. My First Job in Duluth

I moved to Duluth from a short stay in Minneapolis where vacancy was so low, I couldn’t find an apartment for me and my 2 ½-year-old son, let alone afford one. My sister suggested we look at Duluth, where she was going to school, so I did. I found a $350-a-month apartment literally around the corner from hers. It was a two-bedroom within walking distance of town, stores, and most importantly, the House of Donuts and Tacos. I forked over all of my savings and moved with my son to Duluth.

I loved everything about my new digs. My son and I really were just starting out, and our furniture was largely innovated: a moving box covered by an artfully draped quilt was a nightstand, pilfered milk crates affixed with GB ties were shelves, and an approximately 500-pound coffee table, recovered from the alcove of my sister’s apartment, filled the space. My kitchen table was held together with GB ties (they are really handy) and duct tape, so everyone sat down gently, like we were at church, to prevent Richter events upending the coffee.

I got a gigantic box of a TV (it was 1998) from a friend of a friend, and somehow the picture-making portions of the machine (tubes, wires, mice with tiny hammers and Bjork’s cities of electrons) were damaged, resulting in an uncorrectable darkness in the display. While this made it hard to see any scenes shot in the dark (see you later, sex scenes), it did make it possible for me to watch Scream with my horror-fan sister, because all of the murder bits were blacked out by my puritanical television. It was kind of a radio/TV hybrid experience.

One weekend morning, just a few weeks after we moved in, my son and I were lazily enjoying the bright parts of Aladdin when what sounded like a flash mob in combat boots stomped up the stairs to my neighbors’ apartment. The mobbers pounded on the door and announced they were, in fact, not dancers but police, who would appreciate the door being opened immediately. I hopped up and cracked my door open. The entire hallway, the stairs, and assumedly the upstairs landing were filled with police in SWAT gear, weapons drawn, hunkered down in what I like to think of as the “squatty-shooty” position. One officer glared at me. “REMAIN IN YOUR APARTMENT, MA’AM.” My eyes darted back and forth between his face and his gun.

“Yeeaah?” I said, skeptically.

“MA’AM, PLEASE REMAIN IN YOUR APARTMENT.” I nodded, gently closed the door, and looked at my son, who was, no less than fifteen feet away, intently watching Aladdin, apparently unvexed by the sudden introduction of possible uberviolence in the stairwell.

I felt certain the apartment, delightful and cozy as it was, was not bulletproof. “Let’s go get breakfast with bacon!” I said to my son, clicking the TV off as the police shouting changed from entreaties to open the door to plans for sudden and vehement renovation of the entryway. Our winter boots were in the SWAT-populated hall, so we wore our sneakers out the back door, down the snow-covered stairs, through the foot-deep snow in the neighbor’s back yard, and down to Uncle Loui’s Café. I wasn’t sure how long a sting-operation would take, so we stayed for a long time, during which I had the chance to really get to know our server. She explained that this neighborhood was a little touch and go, but generally good. She said my neighbors must have really done something terrible for that kind of police response. The only thing out of the ordinary I’d noted had been a weeklong dance party, which started around 8 p.m. and extended into the wee hours of the morning, and was, according to my deductive skills, attended exclusively by very heavy people in high heels with a demonstrably deep appreciation for Def Leppard’s 1980’s work. My son and I are heavy sleepers, so this was really more curious than troublesome. And certainly no clue as to what kind of nefariousness might incite this ire-storm from local law enforcement. I explained all of this to our server, while consuming a molecule-vibrating volume of coffee.

On the way in to the restaurant, I had noticed a help-wanted sign in the window. As I chatted with the server, I decided to ask for an application. I filled it out while my son colored and ate bacon. And that’s how I got my first job in Duluth.

II. Perspicuity

In 2003, I drank a record-breaking quantity of alcohol on New Year’s Eve. Not a shoulda-died quantity of alcohol, but definitely a how-did-you-get-this-far-without-puking-let’s-start-right-now amount of alcohol. I woke up, so hungover I could scarcely function. Walking made me dizzy. Food was not an option, since even water smelled and sounded like a glass of melted cheese to my tortured stomach, which had spent the previous six hours negotiating with my delirious cerebellum about whether we should spin, sleep, puke, or all three. (All three!)

Up until that morning, I had always wondered about the rustic but inscrutable aphorism, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind,” but it made gruesome sense to me as I attempted to put my sock on a foot that was comically far away from my bloodless hands. I finally just jammed my hammy foot parts into my winter boots, and prepared to walk up the hill to my mother’s apartment, where I’d left my car.

My mother loves me so much. She loves me so much she made me leave my car at her apartment after I had consumed one single Molson, pre-gaming my New Year’s Eve plans. She loves me so much she bought me the most wintry winter parka in the history of winter parkas. She bought me a human duvet cover, with an eyehole like a fur-lined periscope through which I could see the Duluth landscape, five inches at a time.

I began the uphill trudge fully ensconced in this supreme parka, stopping every 25 yards or so to literally rest my hands on my thighs, hang my head, and recover from the screaming exhaustion of every cell in my body. About two-thirds of the way up the endless fucking hill, I noticed another figure walking down. He was also enparka-ed, swallowed up by a gigantic down pouch, his face obscured but for the narrow opening left for his eyes. We probably looked, from a distance, like two human versions of South Park’s Kenny, slouching toward one another in the real. We walked slowly, painfully toward one another, and over that approximately fifty yards, I realized he was suffering as mightily as I, and I believe he had a similar epiphany. He was on one side of the street, and I was on the other. When we were within shouting distance of one another, I instinctively crossed the road, ambling slowly toward him. He did the same. We met in the middle of the street, and simultaneously unfastened our parka hoods, opening the parka portholes to allow our faces into the winter air. And then, without discussion or explanation, we kissed, like it was what we were both walking all this way to do.

Neither of us said a thing. We resecured our hoods, and simply walked away, each in our separate directions.

III. As Happy Does

There used to be a guy in Duluth who walked around my neighborhood a lot. I believe he had some form of disability, although I hesitate to call him disabled, since he was always so happy and contented when I saw him, it made me question what “ability” really meant in the context of sustained human happiness. He carried two things with him on his recurrent perambulations: an old, leather-clad suitcase and an AM/FM radio on which some country station perpetually played Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn songs. The man walked along at a ruminative pace, engrossed in the passing scenery and animatedly, gleefully singing along with whatever song was playing. Whenever I drove by him, he was almost always smiling ear to ear.

About five years ago, I was driving home from Two Harbors in my old Volvo. The odometer on that beloved car had quit at 298,000 miles (I imagine it quit with an audible sigh, like when I take off a pair of cruel shoes or sit down after standing on a cement floor for too long) about a year before, so it’s safe to say the car was really closing out its time as a viable mode of transportation. Most of the windows no longer worked, the gas gage was possessed, and the engine head was cracked. Slowly but surely, the car was dying, and I knew that all it would take was whatever the automotive equivalent of pneumonia was, and that would be that.

Driving home from Two Harbors, I kept hearing someone honking their horn behind me. I craned my neck and scanned the horizon for people I might have offended, but there was no one close enough. I concluded that someone was honking at someone else. A few minutes later, I started to realize the honking was coming from my car, a sort of tepid version of the realization Drew Barrymore has in the movie Scream, when she figures out the murderer’s calls are coming from inside the house.

I pulled over, rolled down the window, and enjoyed a righteous festival of beeps from my car’s horn. By way of investigation, I turned off and restarted the car, lifted the hood (why?), honked the horn manually a few times, and generally concluded that the horn was making its own honking decisions now. This still left the matter of getting the car home, so I set out with the idea that I would apologetically smile at people as I passed, shrugging guilelessly at them to indicate my innocence in the fervent beepstorm that was my passing.

It turns out that when you’re behind someone at a stop sign, beeping like you are pounding your horn with both fists, people will not notice your guileless shrugs. It also turns out that there is no universally-recognized hand gesture for, “my horn is BROKEN!” Try right now to do one. If you’re like me (and I know you are) you’ll point to your horn and then raise your hands to make a breaking gesture, followed immediately by the splayed fingers and raised palms of surrender. From the perspective of the beep-ee in front of you, you are gesturing threateningly while beeping furiously. According to my research, this makes other people very angry. I got flipped off at least five times as I drove home — a few people actually pulled over to let me by and flip me off. I finally abandoned my attempts to make any explanation as I honked my way home.

As I crested the hill of my home’s avenue, I saw him: the happy walker. There was nothing I could do. As I passed, he was clearly startled and frightened by the unwarranted aggression of horn frenzy, and sort of staggered backward onto the berm next to the sidewalk, sitting down on the grass with his radio in one hand and his suitcase in the other. I did the only thing I could think to do: I plastered a gigantic, loony smile on my face and waved maniacally at him. Slowly, his face lit, and he smiled back, raising one hand in a kind of shocked, pageant wave as I rounded the corner, parked the car, and turned it off, forever.


We all know the joke, and you can fill in your own punchline: it’s harder to ________ (vote, fish legally, join Girl Scouts) than it is to get an assault rifle in the United States. It’s funny because it’s so true.

Or at least it was funny until kids — so many kids — started getting killed. It’s February, at the time of this essay, and there have been seven school shootings in 2018 so far. In total, there have been seventeen firearms incidents in schools in the same timeframe, when you include suicides on school grounds, and the accidental discharge of a weapon in school. To teachers, parents, and kids, this means that every couple of days — three times a week — there is another incident where school is interrupted by gunfire.

Teachers and administrators are running drills in their classrooms as though we were in WWII England, listening for bomb raids. So, in addition to hearing news every few days of another firearms incident in schools, kids are reminded every couple of months that someone might come into their school and kill them and all of their friends.

Anyone who has ever cussed in front of their kids and eaten that cuss word in front of their kid’s friend’s mom knows that kids learn from everything around them, more by observation of what’s actually happening than by what they’re told. I don’t care how many times you tell a child they’re safe — if you look terrified, they will be, too. If you prepare them for violence, they’ll come to expect it.

There are only seven states in which zero school shootings have occurred. So right now, in nearly every state in America, a kid knows somebody who knows somebody who was involved in a school shooting — whether they’ve discovered it or not. Every child in U.S. public education who is scared to go to school is legitimately scared. I’d love to be able to tell you the specific likelihood that students will be involved, witness, or killed in a school shooting, but those data don’t exist since researching them amounts to anti-gun advocacy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the primary agency responsible for researching situations pertaining to public health, is forbidden to do. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, explicitly prohibits the CDC from providing us with the data we would need to evaluate this issue, objectively. I.e., what are the long-term psychological effects on students who survive, witness, or are adjacent to a school shooting? What relationship exists between gun ownership, mental illness, and wealth? What things make a child likely to become a shooter?

I can tell you more about the likelihood you’ll contract Ebola.

But at this point, all of those data would only elaborate on a conclusion evident in the bloody empire of data we’ve unwittingly amassed in the past three decades. It would be informative and illuminating to know more about why more people are shooting people (and shooting more people when they do), but we already know they are. We know they are male, we know they’re white, and we know what they’re shooting them with. So we really don’t need arm-deep datasets, pie charts, and infographics to tell us where to start.

Folks are arguing vociferously between two ideas: that we have a gun problem, or that we have a mental illness problem. The latter argue that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so we should focus our attention addressing the mental illness elephant in the room. On the matter of researching mental illness’ role in gun violence, I couldn’t agree more. We have a serious problem when the second-most powerful people in our society — young, white men — are willing to kill to express their feelings of alienation, disenfranchisement, and despair. I’ve heard loads of sardonic discourse on the matter, snarky comments about the way the new world of feminism, hedonism, and heathenism are breaking the morale of young, white men, and if we need to dig into that, fine. Let’s dig in so we can face it. Maybe it is male entitlement. Maybe it’s the widening chasm between what young, white men were taught to be (and expect in return) and what the world currently values. Maybe the transitioning and evolving role of men in our society is painful and complex, and not well-supported by our current systems. As a feminist, I can’t say those sentences without a small amount of ire, having lived in the subjugated role for my entire life — it makes me grit my teeth to acknowledge sympathizing with the grief my oppressor feels, losing his job as my oppressor. But I have some experience on the oppressor side of the fence, too, as a white woman, and I have been extended sympathy and support. I have the chance to learn to be better, and the resources, as well. My ugliness has a name, and a course of redress. So, painful or not, I’m not more afraid of the answers to those questions or that poignant sympathy, than I am of a generation of children growing up broken by gun violence. Or, for that matter, the constant, unbearable weight of fear readiness for gun violence imposes.

Other folks are focused on guns as the problem, listing other developed nations’ tightened gun laws as the cause of their marked reductions in gun violence, per capita, and they’re right, too. Less guns mean less violence, period. More guns mean more gun violence, period. From a data perspective, anyway, and data doesn’t care how you vote. Guns with the ability to fire many rounds successively, whether by repeatedly chambering a round expeditiously, or by bump-stock modification, are easy to get in America. And they are the weapon of choice in school and mass shootings. The “guns are the problem” argument has gotten stuck in circular logic problems regarding the particularities of individual weapons. Perhaps exhausted by the argument, the popular retort has become that single-shot rifles and even six- or eight-bullet handguns would be preferable, since fewer people would die before the shooter ran out of ammunition or was stopped. This seems like the functional equivalent of saying it would be better to give Jason Vorhees an axe, rather than a chainsaw, because the axe gives his victims a fighting chance. He’ll only have time to dismantle one or two people before the cops get there, and the others will have escaped by then. I hate to see the conversation degraded to arguing about which guns are more killy, because that materially changes the conversation from how to limit gun violence to how to limit the number of deaths by gun violence.

While I’m interested in both, a horrible truth is that experiencing gun violence, even without being killed, is terrifically violent. Twenty to 31 percent of combat veterans (varies by war) experience PTSD, and they’re grown-ups, with fully-formed coping strategies, indoctrinated and trained to kill. Imagine what happens to kids.

People always talk about how resilient kids are. About how they bounce back from just about anything. But the truth is, they don’t bounce back — they survive. Because at young ages, whatever happens to them enters their schema — their expected construct of everyday living. That means that institutional racism, sexism, refugee-camp life — whatever — becomes the norm for them. But it being the norm, and them being adapted to it, doesn’t mean that it is psychologically healthy for them, or sustainable. No one can swallow their anger, maintain hyper-vigilance, or feel acute fear for extended periods without consequences. The body is not made to endure those things for long.

The remaining kids at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Parkland — they survived, but they are certainly not the same.

Finally, the conservative response to the “gun problem” argument tarries on the possibility of arming teachers with guns with which they can defend their class. This option neglects to include the terrible reality that gun violence makes victims on both sides of the weapon. Those veterans with PTSD? They aren’t sick just because of what happened to them. They are sick because of what they had to do. Killing people, or even trying to kill people, damages the people with the guns, too. And this is why we extensively train and indoctrinate our military and police before we ask them to wield those weapons on our behalf. Those weapons are heavy, and they come with a catastrophically steep cost: many of those who are forced to use them are never the same afterward. To ask someone to kill on our behalf is not the same as asking someone to usher children safely to the school bus, to break up schoolroom squabbles and interrupt any bullying or mistreatment.

And we’ve also neglected another critically important fact: we wouldn’t just be asking teachers to kill to defend their students, we’d be asking them to kill one of their students to defend their students. While we can all likely agree that the student with the gun should be stopped, in whatever way possible, asking a teacher to not just kill, but kill one of their own is unethical, unreasonable, and represents the most profound conflict of interest I can imagine.

We know more guns cause more violence. We know more guns cause more violence, particularly in wealthy nations, so we know our gun problem has a psychological problem. So in answer to the question, do guns kill people, or do people with mental illness kill people, the answer is yes.

Poo, of the Non-Winnie Variety

I’ve really grown a lot, since turning 40. Particularly in relationship to my willingness to talk about poop.

Let me back up. (Have you noticed how, when you lead with poo, everything that follows becomes a double-entendre?) Anyway. Up until my late 30s, it was a well-known and oft-ridiculed fact that all things concerning defecation made me wildly, morbidly uncomfortable. I knew it was a natural, essential, healthy bodily function. I also realized that everyone (including me, heaven forgive me) did it. But it was so disgusting, so private and feral and ghastly, that I could not acknowledge it in anyone else’s company.

I did a lot of very silly things to avoid mutual recognition of poop situations.

I famously repaired a toilet while pregnant to avoid calling anyone else into the vestibule, lest they deduce what might have caused the trouble in the first place. For five full years, I used a restroom in a gas station next door to the building in which I worked because the bathroom at my job was right next to the lunchroom, and that was monstrous. I have had entire business trips in which my body mysteriously began apparently absorbing my waste, rather than eliminating it, until I returned home, lest I be forced to do any pooping on an airplane, or, for the love of all that remains holy, in a stall next to a client. I have left a lover’s house and driven home and back again, under the ruse of requiring medicine I did not need, take or have in my possession to avoid any implication of my defecatory habits.

I have never understood how some people are so nonchalant about pooping. Until recently, I assumed anyone who would openly, willingly discuss their own bathroom habits was either a sociopath or a lunatic. I did once work with a man who proudly sought out the morning paper or a magazine from any desk to accompany him to the staff restroom. He would nod and smile at anyone he met en route, as if to aver, “I’m on my way to poop, peers and direct-reports! Pooping! I’m taking this magazine with me because it will keep me company while I produce feces. Hold my calls!” On several occasions, he retrieved industry publications from my desk, saying, “Can I borrow that for a few minutes? I’m headed into the bathroom,” after which he would knowingly nod at me, with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smirk, quirking at the corners of his mouth. My God. He made me party to his pooping, against my very will.

I’ve also worked with people who announced in the break room that they needed to hit the head for some heavy lifting, and marveled at their evident desire for everyone in the break room to know that not only did they need to poop, but for the remaining five minutes of shared break time from which they would be absent, they would actually be somewhere nearby, pooping. Just 20 feet away. Pooping.

Why didn’t they keep it a secret? Why weren’t they ashamed? It was like I was from another planet.

Once, I walked into a restroom in bar and there was a significant line to the two stalls. A woman in one stall called out, “I’m sorry everybody. I’m going to be in here a while. I’m pooping.” After which the entire room full of strangers stood silently together, listening to her complete her bowel movement. I wish, when she finally emerged from the stall, that we’d had a chance to talk through what became a traumatic event for me. It seemed too intimate for her to simply emerge, fluff her hair and wash her hands, and disappear into the crowd.

During my late 20s, I shared a staff restroom with a woman who used to discuss potential dinner selections with her boyfriend while pooping. Why would she do that? How busy, how painfully overscheduled could she be that she would be forced to multi-task that most private and revolting of personal jobs? I vividly recall her asking her boyfriend if he still wanted fish sticks, or if she should pick up some ground beef for burgers. I remember thinking that if I had to do all my menu planning while in the bathroom, we would never eat again.

So, up until the age of 40, if I walked into the bathroom and the room was clearly heavily in use, I would leave like it was a fire drill. I would wait to do whatever I needed to do until I got home. Ten hours later. If I was in the washroom and someone entered a neighboring stall and got right to work, I would pee like it was my job and get the hell out of there so fast any reasonable observer would think Superman was changing in my stall. And if you told me about your own poo situation, or worse, asked me to examine a poo you made (oh, beloved hippie friends, with your colon cleanses and sawdust granola) I would never speak to you again. And when people asked me why we no longer hung out, I would tell them you’d changed. Which in my mind would be true, because now you’d be disgusting.

Moreover, my bathroom rules extend beyond just the necessity of absolute poop secrecy to conversational guidelines. For example, there is no talking during evacuation of any form. Once those doors are closed, and unless there is a fire, it’s business time. When we are done with that business, we can catch up on all the fun stuff happening in the office, our lives, Top Chef, whatever. But while I’m actually midstream? Quiet.

Once, my poo-hangup (which sounds like the worst closet accessory ever) forced me to violate my own ethical code.

I was out to dinner with a friend, and she had brought a friend of hers along to join us. I had never met this friend before this dinner adventure, although I had heard a lot about her. Conversation was lively, and the food was franchise faire — we ordered cheesy appetizers, and settled into our 16 oz. beers. I got up to take a call from home in the restaurant’s foyer. After I finished the call, I decided I should take the opportunity to use the restroom.

At the time I had a sixteen-year-old son, and via hard-won experience I’d learned some lessons in bathroom re-con. My son occasionally left the seat up, used the last of the toilet paper, and generally boobie trapped the bathroom seven out of eight times he used it. (In his teen years, particularly, it crossed my mind to build him a small outhouse in the backyard, so that in February’s 20-below weather I could gleefully shout out the window at him, “who’s butt is chilly now, my little friend!” but I did not. ‘Cause it’d be me that had to empty the receptacle, like an enormous human litter box, and I will do no such thing unless it will save lives.)

So, courtesy of my son, I always checked that the seat was down, and free of liquid adornment. I always checked to make sure there was TP at the ready (because I have walked, plastic army guy-style, to fetch a roll of TP from the hall closet more times than I care to recount). When I entered one of the two bathroom stalls in the restaurant washroom, I immediately ascertained that the situation was untenable — no TP at all. Shreds on a naked roll. I went for the second stall, and got busy.

I was mid-pee when I saw the shoes of my friend’s friend enter the neighboring stall, and thought, “There’s no toilet paper in there!” But what I said was nothing. Because it wasn’t talky time yet. And then a terrible thing happened.

In the approximately 15 seconds since her arrival in the stall, sounds of havoc and destruction emanated from her body. I don’t know what might have caused it, but bad, bad things were happening, and happening fast. It sounded like a hundred angry ninjas, fighting their way out of her butt.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh noooooooooooooooooooo. Now I was in an awful position. I knew something she didn’t know — there was no toilet paper in that stall. And she definitely needed some toilet paper (plastic gloves, tarp, etc.). I stood there in my stall, wringing my hands and shaking my head. What could I do? If I gave her toilet paper, she would know that it was me over here, and that I had aurally witnessed what she just did. And if I didn’t, I would abandon her to somehow get toilet paper from my stall, and I couldn’t even imagine how she would accomplish that task without another set of clothes, or one of those claw-things they sell on late night TV. I’m no abandoner! I’m a sister! Yes, I have a tampon you can borrow! Yes, I will check if you have any pee on your white pants! Yes, I will tell you if you have spinach in your teeth, your bra shows through your shirt, and if your butt looks strangely coniferous in those jeans. But I was frozen.

I fled.

I practically ran to the table. I hurriedly sat down, bright red and sweaty. Then I scrubbed hand sanitizer all over my hands and forearms, and sat there holding my arms away from my body to dry, like a surgeon.

My friend’s friend came from the restroom almost immediately. She seemed like she was feeling great, which honestly was confounding to me. I spent the entire meal silently asking forgiveness for failing her in her moment of need.

I want you to know this now: you can talk to me while you’re pooping, although I’d continue to appreciate it if that was only a last resort. Don’t seek it out. And if you settle into the stall next to me and terrible, cataclysmic things happen to your toilet bowl and your heinie, I’m here. I’ll hand you toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or the number of a great service that friends of mine have used to clean up flood damage. You can still keep the magazine.

The Trouble with Al Franken

I’m sad about Al Franken. I’ve been reading some heartfelt responses to the situation, varying in timbre from sad and resolute to forgiving and freshly devoted to the new and improved Al Franken, the one who will likely emerge from a self-imposed ethics investigation much the way he entered it: somewhat marred, but essentially a good man in the eyes of those who always thought he was a good man, and a liberal blowhard to those who always thought he was a liberal blowhard. His reputation in the court of public opinion is bent, but not really broken. He can still look most of America in the eye. Compared to Louis C.K. and the rest of them — Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore — those roiling pots of sexual dysfunction and predation, Franken is a tepid pool.

I’ll be honest — I was sadder and more surprised by the allegations against the men in my own camp: the liberals and artists, the progressive advocates who had been using their bully pulpits and mordant wits to shame and denounce the current administration and all of its gorked trappings as archaic and hateful, relics of a time before we knew that all people are people, and that other religions are equally inexplicable and sacred to the people who they are inexplicable and sacred to. So shame on me for believing that my men would be different.

I had done the math, long before the #MeToo campaign’s explosive and resonant thunderclap revealed, in the hastag, then in the stories, then in ubiquitous social media graphics (culminating in a click-and-download “METOO” frame for your profile picture) that every woman in the world had experienced some form of harassment, abuse, or assault (many of us, the hat trick — all three). I already knew that every woman I’ve ever known indeed had this experience.

Over the years of my adult life, I have traded these stories with hundreds of women. Sometimes we exchanged rueful tales of harassment at work — a boss who gave certain assignments to men versus women, or offered promotions to women he was attracted to, or gah, sleeping with.

I remember one woman telling me, at our kids’ shared sporting event, that she had left her job of 15 years. Without prompting, she detailed the most lurid and disturbing tale of sexual harassment I had ever heard. She described unbidden and unwanted gifts of lingerie, email rundowns of her physical appearance and what it made him want to do, and eventually, disdain and recrimination for her disinterest. This was a routine that cycled over and over again throughout her tenure. She attempted to stand up for herself, to tell him to back off. She tried to inform his superior, as well, but her concerns were dismissed with a more eloquent and lofty version of, “you’re pretty, and boys will be boys.” So she ate it. For fifteen fucking years. And finally, close to a nervous breakdown, she left the job to take a dramatic pay cut and, assumedly, take a minute to examine what that experience had cost her. While she was speaking, I didn’t share with her that I was dealing with a much lesser version — sort of a startup to her full-fledged corporation — of that at my employer.

My supervisor had begun to sit in my cube, on my L-shaped desk while I was at it. He’d sit next to my keyboard, spreading his legs wide to balance. I’d have to roll my chair back as far as I could get in the cube because I was essentially chest-level with his genitals. It was extraordinarily uncomfortable. He emailed me sexual jokes and told me on several occasions that he and his wife were not intimate. If we had been friends, if we were exchanging personal or intimate stories as comrades or companions, this might have made some sense, and I had attempted to frame it that way to myself. But hearing this woman talk about her experience revealed, in crystal clarity, what was actually happening. And I knew what I had to do. The next time he came into my cube, I put my hand on my desk and said, “Hey. I got you this chair.” I pointed to a chair that was wedged in the only remaining floor space in my cube, and locked him in a very hard stare. He sat down.

I had a whole speech prepared, but never gave it. I wish I could say that was the end of it, but it really wasn’t. He continued to tell me tales of his sexual exploits as a younger man, and he started to be sort of bitter and acrimonious about the work we had to do together, making passive-aggressive comments about my interest in working with him, because he was such “an old man.” He frequently commented on my physical appearance, and called me on vacation, just to talk, because he “missed me.” I still considered myself a victor, primarily because I had survived standing up for myself, and also because he never again attempted to physically get close to me. But the truth was that I was never comfortable around him again, and I had no idea how to fix that. Maybe more relevant to today’s situation, I had no idea how he could fix that, either.

On the day Louis C.K.’s apology for his actions ran in People magazine, I read the letter he wrote with the mistaken impression that what he had done was send pictures of his junk to subordinate co-workers (“dick pics,” affectionately). I read his letter with a kind of heartfelt sympathy and profound appreciation for the depth of his understanding of the position he put those women in: he clearly elucidated the impossibility of their consent, in that power dynamic. Asking a subordinate if she wants to see a picture of your wiener is not a question. The truth is that any request issued by the person with the power is always much heavier than any response, however vigorous, from the subject person in the discussion. I couldn’t believe, reading his letter, that he both understood and copped to that. While I was in the middle of canonizing him, my husband straightened me out, detailing what C.K. had actually done. For fuck’s sake.

I was less troubled by what he’d done than by how clearly he seems to have known exactly why it was so horrible to do. Maybe this illumination only arrived in latter-day discussion of his impropriety. But it’s hard for me to imagine that he, just a few years ago, wouldn’t have known at least that what he was doing was really, really wrong, even if he wasn’t sure precisely why. For the record, I was initially baffled why I had such a vigorous reaction to the idea of gently-captive masturbation versus the dick pics. It is some order of magnitude worse, obviously, but really, how far apart on the coital-ogre continuum are they? Can I show you my dick, and can I show you my dick, live?

But then I remembered that when I was 24 I was trapped, along with my sleeping son, in my apartment by a very drunk and very mentally ill male friend of mine who had decided we should be lovers. For four hours, I carefully negotiated with him to make him leave without harming me or my son. In order to get him to leave, I had to describe our first date and first intimate interlude in enthusiastic and exacting detail, to satisfy him that I was his, and would be his forever, so he could go home. Four hours. When I finally had convinced him to leave, I called the police and blockaded myself and my son in the bedroom until they arrived. He wasn’t arrested, because he hadn’t done anything illegal. He never laid a hand on me. Almost, but not quite.

In my experience, that’s what power feels like, when it’s abused. It feels like being trapped. Like being forced to smile and worm your conversation around itself to escape a request that you both can’t say yes, and can’t say no to. And underneath all of these stories, in the squirmy darkness that fills each of these women’s tales, is that same horrible truth: they couldn’t choose. That violation — the surreptitious control and elimination of their agency — is horrible.

So, when Al Franken’s picture emerged, that’s the familiar feeling I felt in my gut. The squirm.

I know and am grateful that he’s done so much for women — legislatively, he’s been a champion, helping author or sponsor many an endeavor that directly supports women’s rights and victims of sexual assault. I wonder, with equal parts glibness and sincerity, if he was troubled by his recollections of his indiscretions during those long senatorial discussions. Did he labor or obsess over whether comparable actions had hurt women he knew? Did he feel outrage, or like so many other perpetrators, did he feel or even encourage sympathy and understanding for fellow perpetrators, because he saw himself in them?

As I said earlier, I’ve done the math. If every single woman I have ever known has been harassed, abused, or assaulted (or all three), then many of the men I know have been perpetrators. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate. But it must be true, even with explosively productive predatory behavior by a large number of real monsters (like Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore).

I feel for Franken’s position, and feel heartbroken for all of the terrible lessons our society taught men, at the same time it ruined women with the resulting monstrous creations. But while I mourn his, and other mens’ misfortune in being indoctrinated into such a nightmare circus, I still feel like the curtain has been pulled for long enough that they should know better, and do better. I can forgive and sometimes understand them, but they can’t stay where they are.

Because in order to do that — in order to deny women’s agency, autonomy, and human right to choose whether to say yes or no, each of these men had to believe that, on some level, they were allowed to do so. They had to believe, consciously or unconsciously, they were entitled to more freedom than the women they violated.

At the end of the day, my issue with Al Franken is simple. Because of all of this, if I ever had to work with him, if I ever even met him, I would feel uncomfortable. And I have no idea how to fix that.

Frog Circus

Dear Mrs. Harleminn,

I realize it’s been quite a long time since we spoke. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but there is a relatively good reason for that. See, I have a confession. In 1982, I placed that four-pound coffee can full of tiny, lifeless frogs, covered in a thin layer of grape jelly, on your porch.

If you’ll indulge it, I’d like to explain.

I’ll start at the beginning. Eddy Griffenbackher and I were going to create a frog circus, wherein frogs would do short, but elegant gymnastic routines. You undoubtedly remember Eddy — he was basically notorious. I have a lot of Eddy stories myself. One time Eddy convinced me to ball up the fresh tar they used to seal cracks in the asphalt and hurl it at the backs of passing cars. Never satisfied with mere mischief, Eddy upped the ante to offer me ten extra points if I could hit Officer Cramer, who was on duty at the time. (That’s how my mom met Officer Cramer, actually. He’s a really forgiving man, and that uniform was a lot more expensive than you’d imagine. My mom knows how to get a lot of stains out of a lot of things, but gooey tar and trooper uniform are unfortunately not in that impressive number, and she owns at least one trooper uniform to prove it.)

Eddy was notably the one who tricked me into jumping out a second story window while playing Dukes of Hazzard. He was also the one who told me I got shot by a 22-pistol, when Ben and JP shot me in the hindquarters with a BB Gun. (That was an interesting story to Officer Cramer, too, and he spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating it, much to the delight of Ben and JP’s moms. You can likely imagine the ways this improved our relationships, as well, after the fact.)

Eddy was also the one who insisted that I was so good at cartwheels I could definitely do one across the top of the swing set. It was a 4×4 on top, as big as a balance beam. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do a cartwheel on a balance beam, he said. What I lacked, Eddy said, was confidence, not experience. So I did it. I think you saw that one, or at least the ambulance.

Before you judge him too harshly, you should know that when I missed the beam and dove, head-first like a portly little flesh-dart, into the packed snow beneath the set, it was Eddy who ran to get my mom, like Lassie summoning grownups to the well. And it was Eddy who sat next to me while the ambulance came, promising that I would eventually be able to move my arms and legs again, and if I didn’t I could be Bo Duke the next time we played Dukes of Hazzard.

I’m not trying to make excuses. I mention all of this so that you’ll understand that there were special rules when it was me and Eddy “playing” together. It’s fairly remarkable that we both survived our relationship.

Back to the frogs on your porch.

We gathered all of those frogs from the muskeg behind our houses. It took most of the morning. We started early because Eddy said they were slowest at dawn, when they were first waking up. I’ll tell you, Eddy was wrong about a lot of things, but he was certainly right about that. We meant to get 30 or so of them, you know, selectively snatch the best, the real frog impresarios — but there were so many, and they were so easy to catch, we got carried away. After filling both our yogurt containers to absolute capacity, we still wanted more. I ran home and emptied the coffee can my mom used for second-tier utensils (potato mashers, that giant fork thing, etc.) and we dumped the yogurt cups into there. We were dizzy with frog acquisition and increasingly audacious in our plan. As we threw frog after frog into the can, we rhapsodized about trapeze frogs, frog gymnasts, and even a special musical number with frogs riding other frogs to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” It was going to be magnificent.

Admittedly, mistakes were made.

First of all, we should never have taken a lunch break. Our furious frenzy of frog gathering took us much further into the day than we intended, and Eddy’s grandma started bellowing Eddy home for lunch. As you know, Eddy lived with his grandmother, who had openly dedicated her life to three very discrete pursuits: growing marijuana, smoking marijuana, and drinking gin and tonics. All legal at that time in Alaska, but making her sort of a postmodern Tom Waits-y grandmother. So you know as well as anyone else on our block that ignoring Grandma Griff was as dangerous and ill-advised as ignoring an overflowing toilet. In a rush to comply, we attempted to secure our frog supply for a short break.

We cut a hole in the lid of the coffee can we’d been tossing the frogs in, but Eddy, evidently inspired to uncharacteristic sentimentality by our impressive, squirming brood, was adamant that the frogs needed lunch, too. He suggested we bring them flies, which were the only thing we were certain frogs liked to eat. A quick reconnaissance of our respective windowsills yielded derisory results, so Eddy and I began to explore other fly-getting stratagem. This brings me to the grape jelly. (We voted for poop first, of course, but rejected it on the grounds that: a) neither of us had to, and b) it would take our friendship in a direction neither of us was sure of, for reasons we couldn’t really elucidate.)

We knew that flies loved grape jelly, based on our experience with church picnics at Sandy Beach. You could hardly eat your own sandwich, for the flies circling anticipatorily around your head. And we’d all seen what happened, should some poor provincial child leave their PB&J unattended — it was like fly bacchanalia. Grape jelly would bring us flies. We were delirious with the perfection of our solution. The only problem was how tightly the frogs were packed in the can. After smearing grape jelly on the lid of our coffee can, we postulated that only the strongest of the frogs would be able to get access to the flies licking the jelly on the lid. We solved our problem by putting the grape jelly directly into the can. That way, we thought, the flies would fly right in.

I’m aware that this conclusion was specious, but there’s a reason the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is cliché. It’s because so many people have left their own coffee cans full of grape-jelly-frog-corpses on their neighbor’s porches.

Maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Our second big mistake was caused by Eddy’s failing to return from lunch. In fairness to Eddy, his grandma was pretty unpredictable. Midday was usually a sweet spot in her ascension to weed and gin nirvana, and her lunches were more epic than an Up in Smoke, Pineapple Express, Top Chef montage. I personally witnessed one Dali-esque cornucopia that included taco dip, Swedish meatballs, and stacks of frozen burritos. Before you get too worked up about this, remember that Grandma Griff also thought the bus driver deliberately lingered in front of her house trying to catch a glimpse of her in her nightie, and would not be convinced it was because she lived on a bus-stop corner. It’s pretty likely Eddy was forced to play protracted rounds of UNO, or had been sent on some weird surveillance mission (see “Bus Driver,” above). I’m not trying to point fingers. Regardless, we should’ve checked the frogs much, much sooner. Much sooner.

Our last, and definitely biggest, mistake was that we morbidly miscalculated the viscosity of grape jelly.

Generally, Eddy and I relied more on inspiration than research in making our plans. If we had read even a little bit about frog physiology, we’d certainly have learned that frogs breathe through their skin. Which we can all agree is pretty hard to do if your skin is covered by a non-porous, sticky, grape layer of death — regardless of the size of the hole you cut in a coffee can lid. I feel badly about it now, but what’s done is done. It literally sealed the deal.

I waited for Eddy forever. Long after I ate my own sandwich, watched back-to-back episodes of The Addams Family and The Munsters, and got into a slap-fight with my little sister, I realized Eddy was likely out for the day. After laboring over my loyalty to him and my general fear of successive noogies (the typical penalty for insubordination), I decided he would want me to forge ahead with our endeavor, rationalizing my plan with a fantastic idea: I would surprise Eddy the next morning with a small but impressive troupe, performing some basic tricks on a popsicle-stick balance-beam I would construct.

Naturally, I built the balance-beam first, thinking that the glue could dry while I trained the frogs. I giggled like a lunatic at the thought of Eddy’s shock and delight when he angled his head into the sheet tent we’d built and saw what I’d already accomplished. He’d be so proud of me. This last, albeit short, construction project extended the window of frog-jelly immersion well beyond the survivable duration. Whatever hope remained for, say, the top layer of frogs was categorically eliminated while I lovingly placed those popsicle sticks on the lateral supports. By the time I finally opened the lid to the frog can it was clear the final circus curtain had fallen, long before it ever was raised, for all of the can’s occupants. I pulled lifeless frog after lifeless frog from the can, finally dumping the lot of them on the grass next to the now irrelevant tent and tiny balance beam.

They were goners.

In a cataclysmic fit of desperation (and a testament to the utility of offering the class to fourth graders) I actually attempted CPR on one frog, but our disproportionate lip size kept causing me to essentially insert the frog’s entire head in my mouth, and after several attempts I realized I was only desecrating and disrespecting the dead with my efforts. Also, the likelihood of me vomiting was progressively and exponentially increasing, which would have worsened an already deep transgression. Unfortunately, I found my attempts at chest compressions equally futile, being either too firm, which was messy and vivid, or too slight, which was like giving the world’s smallest and most irrelevant massage.

In my anguish and panic, I thought that if anyone could save them, it would have been you, Mrs. Harleminn. I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the time you were something of a neighborhood hero. You were the one who told us the worms Ben and JP cut in half to freak us out would ultimately become two worms. You were the one who told us that puppies and kittens would never get carried off by eagles because eagles just ate fish. You were the one with a greenhouse in your backyard. You were the most scientific neighbor I knew. So I left the coffee can on your porch and rang the bell.

I’m writing to say that I’m ashamed I didn’t stay to explain. Please understand my mother had very firmly informed me that if Officer Cramer came to our house even one more time that summer she was going to send me home with him. And, based on his thoroughness in the BB-gun incident, Officer Cramer was certainly going to investigate the death and unceremonious gifting of 300 tiny frogs. So, I split. I watched you from my porch window, though, which is why I’m finally compelled to write this letter.

I want you to know I am sincerely, truly sorry, and deeply regret the pain I caused you. I just wouldn’t feel right if you died and I never told you the truth. Not that you’re going to die or anything, although my mom did used to say your soprano solo in the church choir made her think you were.


Your Neighbor
Anna Tennis

P.S. I smacked your giant dog in the face with my alto saxophone case every school day for probably five years. He was trying to eat my cat’s food, and growled, lunged and nipped at me as I attempted to disembark the porch, so I did what I had to do. That dog was an asshole.

Two Boulders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats and Dogs

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I loved that cat.

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

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

But, I didn’t do any of that stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

“Those are Bella’s ashes.” I said.

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

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

“For THREE years?” he asked, incredulously.

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

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

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

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

“Really?” I asked

“YEAH,” he said.

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

“You think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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