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.

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.

Bug Ear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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