One cold and snowy Monday evening in 1986, my mom laid herself down on the couch in our living room and gave birth, all by herself, to a real live super shiny pink baby. My dad was off somewhere and my other siblings were pretty much toddlers and were crawling around chewing on teething biscuits so they couldn’t help. Also, teething biscuits are very strange. They’re like tiny vanilla flavored pressed logs but I want to eat them because they’re just for babies. Is it just me?
Anyway, Joan, being eighteen months older than me, got to call 911 and I was only a little bit jealous. Ok, I was pretty green about that, but only for a little while because there was a lot going on. Well, actually I still wish I could’ve called 911 but I’m nearly over it. I DID help birth the baby, and by help I mean I mostly stayed in the other room to watch Queen Elizabeth have her own baby on a very dramatic made for television biopic. What are the odds that Queen Elizabeth had a baby at the same time and in the same house as my mom!? So funny. All I really remember about my mom giving birth in our living room was the utterly unnatural shine on that pink blob as my mom held it up to the light and made sure it was doing all the things newly minted humans are supposed to do.
My mom’s faithful friend Dawn Crowley came over because she was a nurse. The ambulance took a very long time to arrive and in the interim I helped Dawn wash some stuff off the couch cushions. And by helped, I mean I watched while she rinsed an alarming amount of what might have been blood down the tub drain. By the time anyone else stopped by, the baby was no longer shiny (thank God) and the couch was soggy, but blood free. My dad came home and we apprised him of the details of what happened as they loaded my mom into the ambulance to take her to the hospital (teachers had better insurance back then and so could ride to the hospital without thinking about their copay. I’m really thankful for my health insurance and still there’s no way in hell I would ride to the hospital in an ambulance in a non emergency while there’s a perfectly good spouse/car nearby. Once when I was in Costa Rica I got food poisoning and the doctor wanted me to ride in the ambulance to the next town and I said I can’t afford it and he looked at me oddly and said it was free and I said Oh! How novel).
So then the little blob turned into my sister Anne and my parents realized that we didn’t have enough bedrooms (we had three) for all these people (we had eight) and they decided to build an addition onto the house.
They decided on two more bedrooms, one more bathroom, and one odd-ish room that was sort of a library and a dance studio and a room to store dirty laundry and a spare bedroom. My sister Joan and I were to share one room and my oldest sister Rachel would take the other room. My parents asked us what amenities we would like in our new space. Joan asked for a ballet bar and a toe shoe friendly area because she was a budding danseuse, having starred in the yearly “Nutcracker” performance for several seasons. I asked for a deep set window that I could put pillows in and curl up like a bagel and read Farmer Boy one hundred more times. They also asked us what color we should paint our bedroom. Joan said lavender and I said camouflage. They said it was a difficult decision and after some long deliberation, they went with the ballerina bar with toe shoe friendly area and lavender. I wasn’t too cross about it. There was a lot going on. I’ve almost gotten over it. Joan quit ballet a year later. But no matter.
Handily enough, they did build a weird closet with a trap door on top that concealed a ventilation fan (to ventilate the dance studio? I’m not sure, I had never seen such a thing and haven’t seen one since either). I would climb up there and open the trap door and smoosh myself in with the fan and read my book. It was pretty quiet and nobody ever knew I was up there, so it was almost like a romantic reading nook with pillows except there were no pillows and I’d have to be careful not to let my mullet get caught in the fan blades.
During those years in our new (lavender) room, Joan and I had a tradition of listening to cassette tapes as we fell asleep. Our favorites were The Andy Williams Christmas Album and a sound recording of Miracle on 34th Street. We listened to them year round because we LOVED Christmas. It was the time of year when we were all together and merry and there were sparkling lights and lots of food and no school for two weeks and beautiful songs to be sung about snow and sleigh rides. It was romantic and Santa and reindeer were involved and life was sweet at Christmastime. I remember sneaking into my Grandparent’s bedroom one Christmas Eve while everyone was finishing up dinner. They had a wooden half moon Christmas light candelabra in their window and I sat on the floor looking out into the darkness through the rainbow bulbs letting Christmas feelings overcome me. It was such a pleasant feeling, I didn’t ever want it to end. And so we kept the thread alive through the nightly cassette tradition.
Joan and I still bond over Andy Williams Christmas songs and bubble lights (which my Grandmother always put on her tree) every season. I also still cry every time I watch Miracle on 34th street when the postmen (I’ll point out that they were all white postmen, lest you think I’m leaning too far into the nostalgia camp-though I will say the MO34THST was astonishingly female friendly for a movie made in 1947) start bringing in bags and bags of letters to Kris and dump them on the table in the courtroom. Though why they had to make that ginormous mess I can’t fathom. Surely they could’ve just set the bags down on the floor and Kris could’ve gotten to them just as easily. Now some underpaid cleaning staff will have to clean them up.
I still love Christmas like no other holiday. I start listening to Christmas songs a week before a Halloween. I start planning Christmas dinner the day after Thanksgiving. I lie on the floor in front of the glowing Christmas tree and think about that night in my Grandparent’s room, when everything was so quiet and dark except the ever shining fake candle Christmas lights. Christmas is a night of hope and redemption, when we can all be still and remember the past and think ahead to the future.
I’m not going to say that my sister Anne was like Jesus that snowy night when my mom had to give birth by herself in a house full of unhelpful animals and the wise Dawn Crowley brought gifts of medical expertise and cleaning the schmutz off the couch. And then the world opened up to a joyful time of expansive (reading nookless) rooms where the holiday celebrations were honored year round. I’ll just let you come to that on your own. But one thing I will say: this year, like all the years before it, I am settling in for a season of Andy Williams and quiet reflection and growth and hope for the future and remembering the past. Things, though they are complicated and sometimes heartbreaking and hard, are better than they’ve ever been and love is on the rise.
I’m laying on my couch, resting. Today I’ve eaten only tater tots and breadsticks and veggie pizza with no cheese. To my credit, what I lost in nutrition I made up for in quantity. I built a giant fire in the wood stove (the only size fire I am capable of making) and my living room is a pleasant eighty-nine degrees. The bread and tots in my stomach are slowly absorbing the twenty ounces of coffee I drank this morning and are gently rising like a glob of yeasted mocha potato bread dough. I’m seriously considering putting on my pajama pants.
Ok, I’ve just returned from putting on pajama pants.
My quarantine life has evolved as the months fly by. It began with a flurry and a dousing of panic and a sprinkle of fear, buying up rice and beans and $5 ketchups and many boxes of Kleenex because all the toilet paper was gone. Now things have settled into a much milder, less harried life. Things are quiet, quite literally, as the circle of people I see in close proximity on the regular (in three dimensions anyway) has reduced from a hundred down to ten. I only ever see the eyes and hair of a third of those ten.
This is the first time I’ve written more than a few sentences since going back to work teaching sixth grade. My working world used to erupt in shouts of joy and laughter with enthusiastic gregariousness bubbling over. It used to throb with waves of hormone saturated sadness at the unjust actions of others, huge crocodile tears splashing on desktops. I played capture the flag. I made a thousand fart jokes. I shouted “[fill in name] stop that immediately!!!!” across the playground at least once a week. I could feel when fractions were hanging like a pall over the room, rather than hearing about it later, when the damage was already done. It was real life in real time and I could effect real solutions in real problems.
But I also used to come home tense, with my shoulders at my ears, unable to tolerate loud sounds and intellectually spent, the after effect of witnessing the trials of so many bursting pupae year after year. Middle school is loud. It can’t help it, it just is. Lockers slamming, sneakers squeaking, and fluorescent lights buzzing are the everpresent undertones. The noise of the voices is what does it.
Children don’t seem to truly understand volume. So many times a child would be inside the classroom and shriek with joy when they saw a [picture of a puppy/kid falling off their chair/name of someone they like on a piece of paper/flying bug/rain storm/etc.] and that shriek, born from unbridled glee, would pierce into the very center of my bones and fracture them, lightning flashing across my vision. I had to restrain my reptilian reflex to flare out my dewlap like a proper monster and hiss roar while baring sharpened teeth. I couldn’t understand how the child next to them could just sit there smiling through those shrieks while I, halfway across the room, was transformed into my own mother when we had the car radio playing too loud; face red, hair sticking up, eyes crazy, angrily snorting…(sorry mom).
“DON’T EVER MAKE THAT NOISE INDOORS AGAIN!!!” I’d bellow, shocking them into momentary silence before they remembered that my dewlap was useless in battle and my spitting poison was just grumpy old people hot air. Deep down, they know that we’re defenseless against them and they could take us in seconds, if they really wanted to.
I never really understand why kids do any of the stuff we ask them to. When I first started teaching I always marveled at the fact that they came inside when we blew the whistle for the end of recess. I mean, what would we do if they all just decided that they weren’t coming in? Honestly, we probably couldn’t do much. But every day, every whistle, even the most oppositional kids come trotting up the stairs for math class. I think it’s more habit than anything else. Maybe it hasn’t occurred to them to organize.
School is such a strange thing. I can see it’s defects. We ask every kid to learn the same thing, despite their particular inborn skill sets. We make them sit down too much. We box them up and give them labels and make them compete with each other while we tell them that it’s not a competition. But I also see the flip side, when a hundred years ago, a genius thinker was stuck in a field digging up potatoes. Remote school is similar. They are isolated. They don’t have access to teachers in the same way. For some, they are trapped in a dangerous place with no outlet. But there are advantages too, as long as the home is a safe place. Students get to sleep in a little more. They don’t have the intense stimulus of the cacophony of hundreds of people under the age of fourteen all in one building. They have some quiet and some rest. They build skills at communicating with their teachers, hopefully.
As for me, I’m left to read books and look at TikTok and upload activities and research online teaching techniques and attach links and follow EOD to do lists. I’ve taken up calisthenics (though I’m skipping the cardio because I’m a grown adult and I can do whatever I want). I can do a few pull-ups and push-ups and I’m on my way to a handstand. I make really good food and talk to my three friends. I zoom with my siblings and parents on Sundays, something we never did pre-Covid era. I lay around with my partner and we crack the funniest jokes nobody else will ever hear. I plan out the meals we will eat if we have to escape in a zombie apocalypse.
Today I laid down on the couch and let some dough rise in my belly. I drank some bubbly water with plum juice in it that my partner canned up in the summer. I sat on the front porch when it got too hot in the living room. Tomorrow I go back to work. I never thought I’d say it: I miss the shrieking kids.
When I was around ten, my mom bought our family a tiny Apple IIe computer. It was an odd beige-ish olive color and it was shaped like a cinder block. I looked on Wikipedia and it said that the IIe cost $1,995, which is equivalent to $5,121 in today money. That little computer was super dope. It had a joystick and a printer and we played games on it and I’m sure my mom used it for something too. Maybe she wrote letters and printed them out with the little dot printer and the paper with tiny holes all along the side.
The games we had were all on floppy disks. We had Pac Man, Q-Bert, some money game where snakes try to bite you, Castle Wolfenstein, Lemonade Stand, and Oregon Trail. I preferred the games that required planning things, because I was never very good at chasing games like Pac Man. I got stressed out and started smashing every button as fast as I could and I then I died.
Oregon Trail was my favorite. Castle Wolfenstien was fun too, but when the SS troopers marched into the castle rooms where I was looting for keys and secret war plans they screamed at me in German and tried to shoot me and I always pooped in my pants and started stabbing the keys like I had woodpeckers for hands trying (unsuccessfully) to escape. Oregon Trail was different. You had to use your wits and your frontier skills to survive. I loved buying all the stuff for the journey-twenty pound sacks of sugar, bullets, flour, coffee. You could decide to be a banker and have more money but not be able to fix a wagon wheel or you could be a carpenter and have less money but DIY it all over the place. I liked to be a carpenter.
I’d start off in Independence, MO and make my way along the trail day by day, shooting green pixelated squirrels (I didn’t like to shoot the bears because it was such a waste of life for only 100 pounds of meat) and watching my family drown or die of typhoid. It was always such a thrill to arrive in a new town along the trail-Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Snake River, and the Dalles. At the end, which I rarely made it to, you had to decide whether you wanted to float the Columbia River where you might capsize and die a terrible death, or try your luck on Barlow Road, hoping that you wouldn’t get snake bit.
I think it’s just a coincidence that when I set off to start my life away from Michigan, I chose to start it in Oregon. But I do remember looking at the paper map (no smart phones back then) and deciding which route to take into Eugene. I felt the old Apple IIe thrill as I chose to come down through the Columbia River Gorge. I did not get any snake bites, but a bee did fly through the truck window on I-5 and stung me on my forehead. I had to take a Benadryl and by the time I got to Eugene I was very groggy. I guess they didn’t have Benadryl on the Oregon Trail.
It was here in Eugene where I met my life partner Marika and she loved traveling the state of Oregon. Honestly when we first got together, I preferred sitting in front of a computer pretending to travel Oregon over actually traveling Oregon. There are real snakes and bears and cliffs to fall off of out there. When you’re doing it on the computer you don’t really have to worry about that. If you die, you can just go make a sandwich and watch Little House on the Prairie. It took me a while to really get into the true adventure in real time. One thing that really got me excited about heading out into the wild was Campy.
About fifteen years ago, Marika found a little camper on Craigslist. It was a 1978 Toyota EZ Rider. It had two beds, a working stove, and it’s own little potty all in a quaint 17 foot floor plan. The man wanted $2,500 for it, which seemed reasonable, so we drove out to Jasper Mountain to take a look at the tiny rig.
Do you remember those miniature toys that were made to look like mouse sized Campbell’s soup cans and Saltine cracker boxes and tins of anchovies? They were just tiny bits of plastic, but shrunken down things are just so mesmerizing. I found a tiny cream of mushroom soup can once and kept it in my pocket for weeks because I loved it so much.
That’s how this camper was. It had all the things a big RV camper has (minus a LOT of storage space and an exhaust system that works properly. Oh and a radio. And air conditioning. And a working refrigerator. Everything else, yes) but it’s all shrunken down into this tiny little rendering, just like the cream of mushroom soup can.
We fell in love immediately and so failed to notice the fact that the ceiling was sort of falling down in one corner. And the tires were so old they were bulging in the center. And that the engine sounded like a World War II airplane that’s been shot multiple times. The man told us, unsolicited I’ll add, that the camper didn’t have a leak anywhere in it. “It’s totally water tight!” he told us, eyes bulging. “I’d take it to the coast in a rainstorm tomorrow! I really would!” His aggressive insistence should have jangled the red flag producing section of my brain, but alas, the camper was all so shrunken and cute, my brain had completely melted. And so Marika haggled him down to $2,250 and we left with a rickety old miniature RV with a sagging roof and tires that were probably installed by Jesus or maybe one of his disciples.
Once we got her into town, we took her to a camper repairman. He brought out a ladder and looked at the roof and just shook his head. “See here?” he pointed, even though I was still on the ground. “These are holes in the roof. Whoever sealed it before used the wrong materials. It’s all gotta come off. And it’s going to be rotten inside there. And every seam is bad. The whole thing needs to be redone. It’s going to leak like a sieve.” Unperturbed, we bought a million cans of sealant and drove on to the tire store. The man there acted like it was a miracle we’d arrived without exploding. “I’ve never seen such old tires on a working vehicle!!” he told us. “No wonder it felt like driving a boat, floating all over the road!” we said, laughing like people who have no idea what they are doing. We bought her six used tires and drove her home. I got on top and scraped and scraped and scraped for three days. Then I sealed everything up tight for another three days. And then she was perfect. And she was named Campy.
On our maiden voyage, we (Marika, Maya, my St. Bernard Bridget, our chihuahua Ziggy, and me) went to the Oregon coast. Bridget wanted shotgun the whole time, even if someone was already up there, so I had to sit in back with her behind a board. She slobbered like a slimy shoestring factory the whole way there, shaking her head and slapping me in the face with oozing tentacles. We got near Yachats, found a nook to park, and set up shop. We played on the beach, we made spaghetti on the propane stove and we settled in once the sun went down. We noticed that another rig had pulled into our nook while we were on the beach. It was a big, shiny one. We laughed at the difference between our janky old Campy and that sleek land yacht.
About that time it started raining. I felt like I’d done a fairly good job at sealing the thing, but water started pouring in from a window seam, right over our bed. We couldn’t get it to stop and we couldn’t catch the water before it soaked into our mattress. I wondered out loud if the people in the big rig might have a little something for leaks. I decided to go ask them.
I ran across the nook through the pouring rain and knocked on their door. A woman, looking slightly confused and slightly more concerned, opened the door and looked down at me, drenched in rain. Kenny G was playing softly behind her and a warm golden cloud scented of freshly buttered popcorn wafted down the stairs into the dark, cold night. “Hi there! I’m in the rig next door and it’s our first night out and we have a leak and rain is coming in and I wondered if you might have something we could use to plug it up?” I asked, all in one nattery breath. She looked totally puzzled. “A leak?” she asked, as if she’d never heard of such a thing in her life. She turned back into her mansion and called to her husband. “Honey, do we have anything that might fix a rain leak?” I heard some rummaging and a bodyless hand thrust something to her. “This is all we’ve got. Tell her she can keep it,” said Honey. She gave me a radiant smile, handed me a tube of Shoe Goo, and slammed the door. So here I am to tell you that Shoe Goo will seal an RV window leak in the rain, just in case you ever need to know.
Over the past fifteen years we’ve taken Campy to many beautiful and strange and dangerous places. I’m in charge of planning the meals and buying the dry goods we bring, a fitting job for someone trained up in Oregon Trail. And I’ve learned to love the bliss that comes with waking up under a giant monolithic stone column in the middle of the desert. Or eating spaghetti with the setting sun reflecting off of Painted Hills. Or sitting in a folding chair in the pitch black, coyotes barking closer than I’d like, watching an asteroid shower on the land where the Rajneeshees danced hysterically and planned to poison hundreds of people with Salmonella enterica.
We’ve nearly died in Campy more times than I can count on one hand. But that’s a story for the next installment of this camper series.
Recently my partner told me about a soup her mom used to make with potatoes and hotdogs. She loved it and so I tried to recreate a vegan version, based on her description. It turned out really great, but not like the one she’d had in the past, so I texted her mom and asked if she remembered the soup.
Not only did she remember it, she had the recipe written out on an index card that looked like it had time warped through the broadband directly from Brady bunch kitchen recipe Rolodex. It was labeled “Mommy’s Hot Dog Soup” and it had just a handful of ingredients, namely potatoes, hot dogs, evaporated milk, and butter. I was telling my friend about Mommy’s Hot Dog Soup and he said that all recipes from the 70s had those same four ingredients, they just adjusted the amounts from dish to dish.
80s foods weren’t much different, except they were all made by Keebler elves or the Quaker pilgrim or Mr. Kraft. The main ingredients were wheat flour, salt, corn syrup and monosodium glutamate. At least 25% of the average diet consisted of something that started as a powder in a packet that you had to add water to and 25% you tore the top off and microwaved. 25% came from cans and the last quarter was probably meat. And it sure was good until we all got overweight and the oceans filled with trash.
Nowadays everything has to be fresh from the farmer’s market, “humanely slaughtered” (whoever came up with this phrase is a diabolical genius), and you have to have at least three colors in every meal. You also have to “plate” everything and take a picture under some good light or you’re basic.
When did plate enter our vocabularies as a verb? I can’t remember. Nobody I ever heard of plated any food prior to 1997 CE. You used to just take your plate (n.) and put your food on it however you wanted to. If you were fancy, like the Ponderosa, you put a sprig of parsley and a slice of orange on there too. I just read an article that gave some tips for plating food thinking it would be funny and I was not disappointed.They said this:
Plate with a clock in mind. As you begin plating your ingredients, picture the face of a clock. From the diner’s point of view, your protein should be between 3 and 9, your starch or carbohydrate from 9 and 12, and your vegetable from 12 and 3.
Use moist ingredients as your base.
Design and create with sauces-don’t just pour the sauce carelessly all over the plate.
Place your garnishes thoughtfully.
Serve odd amounts of food. Serving 7 Brussels sprouts instead of 6 creates more visual appeal, and diners will also perceive that they’re getting more food.
I’d like to know how many people know about this clock suggestion. I generally just make a big pile of food in the middle that includes all the protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables in a one stop shop.
Please never use the word moist again.
Who pours sauce carelessly all over the plate? What kind of Swedish chefs do you take us for?
How much thought can really go into garnish placement? Anything more than five seconds and you’re probably stoned and it’s going to look and taste great however you garnish it.
They’ll probably perceive that because seven Brussels sprouts is actually more than six, you sociopath.
They end the article with some pictures of a top chef plating up his dishes with what look like surgical tools. Who are these platers? It’s sort of giving me “gateway to serial killer” vibes.
I’m actually not a stranger to food being plated. I used to work at the Four Seasons Restaurant (not the hotel) in NYC. It was veeeery fancy and expensive. I remember that a bottle of Evian water cost $11 and that was two decades ago. There was a twenty foot Picasso painting hanging in the hallway. I’m talking about the restaurant in past tense because I was thinking about that place as I wrote about hot dog soup and pretty food and I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that it closed in 2019. They sold off furnishings at an auction and someone bought four ashtrays for $12,500.
People seem to think that expensive things are better. Sometimes they are better. I think most of the time they are just different. And sometimes they are exactly the same. I was a host and a service bartender at the Four Seasons. When I first got the job the restaurant manager told me I had to wear tuxedo pants. I thought tuxedo pants were just black pants and so that’s what I wore on the first day. I got sent home because tuxedo pants actually have a satin stripe along the seam. He made it seem like if I didn’t have a satin stripe on my pants the diners would retch on the marble floor. “We have a code to uphold. We need to look polished.” He told me about a few places I could go to buy some tuxedo pants for the low price of $100. Little did he know I’d spent the last of the money I saved to get to NYC on bartending school. So I went to Goodwill in Queens and found a perfect pair for $10. When I went back I half expected him to grab me by the seat of my pauper’s pants and throw me into traffic. He didn’t even notice.
I saw people leave expensive bottles of wine half full on their table. I poured some into a glass and tried it once, just to see what $600 wine tasted like. I expected it to taste like liquid rainbow but it just tasted like wine. I accidentally made a dirty martini out of the wrong kind of gin and WAY too much olive juice for a very wealthy and lovely older woman who’d been drinking the same dirty martini at the Grill Room bar for years. She told me it was the best martini she’d ever had. I never told her why.
One night while I was hosting, I had to take a man upstairs in the elevator because he had a cane and couldn’t get up the stairs. We were entering the elevator and just as the doors were about to close, a cockroach climbed in with us.
Cockroaches in NYC are no joke. Once I came home from work and flipped on the light and I saw a cockroach the size of my thumb that had pulled a dog food into the middle of the room and was eating it. I kneeled down to get a closer look and it stopped eating and gave me the stink eye. I wasn’t scared so I got a little closer and I swear to God it hissed at me! I squashed it without feeling guilty and I always feel guilty about bug killing.
So there I was, escorting a very rich and distinguished gentleman upstairs to the grill room, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson (they are famous architects if you didn’t know. I didn’t before I worked there). In my memory, the man was wearing a top hat and a monocle, but he was probably just wearing a suit and tie. I had on my very thick Four Seasons jacket, that I believe was fashioned after this guy:
The cockroach was walking toward us. I started to get nervous because it was heading straight for the guy’s cane. Closer and closer it came as we travelled up. My heart was beating fast and I began to sweat as the cockroach made it to the bottom of his cane. What would it do next? The elevator stopped just as the cockroach swished around with it’s disgusting little feelers and I could tell it was deciding to climb up his cane. The doors bing-ed open as it was reaching its hairy beast legs up onto the rubber bumper. “After you, sir!” I said brightly, and practically pushed him out the door just before the roach got a good grip. So even expensive places have to deal with cockroaches.
Anyway, back to the Hot Dog Soup. The first version I made, which was not Mommy’s, had a Béchamel sauce base. I boiled the potatoes and dipped the veggie dogs in the boiling water before I chopped them all up. I added some homemade soy yogurt, which I add to EVERYTHING creamy; and some carrots. Then I thoughtfully tossed in some herbs and spices and it tasted great, I thought. My partner agreed, but said it wasn’t like the one she had as a child because it tasted healthy. That’s when I asked her mom for the recipe.
Today I made an exact version of Mommy’s Hot Dog Soup (except I made it vegan). My mother-in-law told me I should use a couple more potatoes and add some garlic, so I did that. It was delicious. Buttery, creamy, and straight out of Mommy’s kitchen. It wasn’t plated, it’s wasn’t photographed in the perfect light. I did take a picture though. How else could I show you?
I’m not saying that expensive meals aren’t super awesome and fun sometimes if you can do it. But I won’t pretend that a little highly processed hot dog soup isn’t just as fun, in a different way. I got to chat with Grandma about her recipes, connect with my partner about her favorite foods growing up, and reminisce about a short period of time in my own life schooling, all over a bowl of soup. We’ve got to remember to appreciate the smaller things, especially now.
It’s camper season! Camper camping is one of my most favorite things to do, so I’ve decided to do a series of writings on the topic. It’s on my mind because every year starting right around July, my partner and I pack up our stuff and jump in our camper and head East, to the high desert, where it’s hot as hell and there are dangerous animals that can catch you and eat you and you can get lost and run out of gas and die. You can also imagine yourself as a pioneer on the Oregon Trail, buying supplies from the Dayville Mercantile, fixing broken wagon wheels, and eating squirrels. I’m writing this right now up on the top of remote Hart Mountain, while everyone is asleep, and the stars are burning above like sprinkled fairy dust.
I was introduced to the joys and tribulations of campers long before I ever moved to Oregon. When I was a kid, we’d travel to Paducah, Kentucky on school breaks to visit my mom’s family. In the summers we’d pack up the campers (my grandparent’s pull-behind trailer and my Uncle Alan and Aunt Mary’s ginormous RV) and head out to Kentucky Lake to take a vacation.
My uncle Alan knows how to do life: fast and fun and slightly dangerous. He told us a story one time about how he was riding his bike around the hills as a kid. He crested a nice tall one and saw my great grandad Sam Hook and their neighbor Clyde Grubbs sitting in their trucks in the gully below, chatting through the windows. As he started down the hill and picked up speed, the chain fell off the bike. This wasn’t some fancy hand brake bike, it was old school. With no chain, there were no brakes. My uncle had to make a decision: crash the bike on the way down, or try to make it between the two vehicles, risking an even worse crash. He decided to aim between and hope for the best. I’d love to have seen the look on those two men’s faces as he shot between them out of nowhere, big smile on his face, barely missing the mirrors.
Uncle Alan is also an expert at motor souping. Visiting their house meant riding go carts or ATVs or motorbikes around the track in his field as fast as you could. To this day, he’s out in the backwoods ripping around in a sweet old hot rod that he’s spent years fixing up in his garage. I asked my mom if she knew what kind of car it was and she didn’t know so she texted him. He said “It is a 1948 Ford Super Deluxe two door sedan. The engine is Oldsmobile 355, similar to a 1968 Cutlass 442 with about 325 horsepower.” Just as I thought. (jk I don’t know anything about cars).
You can bet when he picked a camper to buy, it would be awesome. Their RV was nothing short of miraculous. The beds were comfy, the bathroom was clean, and the views were fabulous. The fridge was always stocked with cold Cokes and milk and the cabinets were filled with Chef Boyardee raviolis, Little Debbie snack cakes, and the world’s best cereal: Frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious. At least that’s how I remember it— a magical cozy tour bus containing all the best cuisine the 80s had to offer. You could basically drive it wherever, park it, and start a new life, dependent on no one.
Those camping trips were the best. The smell of the lake and the bonfire, the delicious snacks, the adventures with my cousins—it was my favorite time of the year. Well, maybe a close second to Christmas.
One year I bought my cousin Pat’s old orange skateboard off him for $10. It was called a Variflex, or something like that. Pat had graduated on to another board and I couldn’t even do an ollie yet, but I went with him to skateboard around the campground. We ended up in a covered picnic zone with a smooth concrete floor and we skateboarded all around in there, trying to kick flip the boards into the garbage cans to knock them over. A bigger boy came over to check out our boards and to establish his dominance. He looked at Pat’s new board and said it was cool. He looked and mine, shrugged his shoulders and said, and I’ll never forget it, “everybody’s got to start somewhere.” I understood kid language and I knew that the boy was actually being sort of nice. He could’ve said “what a shitty $10 board you’ve got there,” but instead he included me in his boarding family, just a little baby who can’t ollie yet, but still, a part of the family.
The boy left and Pat and I saw some leaves under a bridge and we decided to jump over the side into them. We sat in the leaves for a while, chatting, until we saw deer ticks crawling all over us and we ran back to the campsite to pick them off because they carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a disease that frightens me more than dangerous animals that can catch you and eat you. That name! Plus it makes you dyslexic, if you don’t die, and that would really be terrible.
The next day I accidentally hit Pat in the head with a shuffle board stick that I was trying to lodge into the rafters of the covered picnic zone so I could swing on it. It fell and somehow Pat was standing exactly the same distance away from me as the length of the shuffle board stick at exactly the same angle that the stick fell. The black plastic shuffle horn basically stabbed him in the skull. I’m sure it really hurt and when we went out to go skiing on the lake later (my uncle also had a motorboat that he pulled behind the RV) he fell asleep on the bench of the boat instead of doing ski tricks. It’s a good thing we were young because a strike like that in your forties could cause a serious brain injury. He forgave me quite easily. He’s a good guy.
On another great camper trip at Kentucky Lake, Pat and I were bouldering along the water’s edge and I saw a tiny turtle bobbling along. I reached into the water and picked it up and it was the weirdest turtle I’d ever seen. It had a soft, bendy shell and a long tubular snout. It was adorable. Just about the time I was deciding the turtle was adorable, something that felt like a pebble smacked into the side of my head. I looked over and saw Pat looking up into the trees and followed his gaze to see a giant paper nest hanging from a branch about forty feet up with a blur of hornets swarming around it. “RUN!” Pat yelled and I hotfooted it out of there like Pre Fontaine, still clutching the weird turtle. I got stung in the crack of my elbow and it swelled up so that my arm was the same diameter from shoulder to wrist because I’m allergic to bee venom. I kept the turtle in a bucket and brought it back home with me to Michigan. We fed it turtle food and those moths that get into your bags of rice and turn them disgusting. It lived for several years, which surprised me. I still have the scar in my elbow crack from where the hornet’s stinger went in.
I also remember a time when we were traveling in the back of that RV and we were watching Children of a Lesser God on the T.V. I didn’t want to admit that I get motion sickness VERY easily, because I thought that was super nerdy. As those who get motion sickness know, watching a movie in a moving vehicle, especially one that is making a lot of curvy turns, is a recipe for disaster. I felt it coming on and was still unwilling to ask for anyone to turn off the scintillating movie. All the way up to the split seconds before stomach evacuation, I tried to pretend nothing was happening. Finally I knew I was at the point of no return and, as the chunks rose up my gullet, I ripped the top off an empty Big Gulp cup and hurled into it, filling it halfway up. As I was finishing up, my little brother grabbed the Big Gulp cup and filled it the rest of the way with his own stomach contents. Everyone screamed and my uncle stopped the tour bus and we dumped the cup out into the woods. They turned the movie off after that. I was embarrassed, but recently my cousin told me he thought it was amazing that my brother and I were both put together enough and had good enough aim to puke right into the cup instead of on the floor, so finally we have been exonerated in my mind.
Another funny gross story was when the camper potty broke in the middle of a trip. Uncle Alan had to go underneath to fix it and the whole tank emptied on his head. He popped out covered in toilet juice, steam coming out of his ears. My Aunt Mary snapped a picture of him, which did not make him feel better. We then went on a harrowing rage ride to the camper parts store, kids huddled in the back trying not to laugh too loud, taking turns like a runaway locomotive (emphasis on loco), cans of Chef Boyardee flying out of the cabinets and floor littered with Twinkies. It was awesome.
My favorite camper trip was when we travelled to Myrtle Beach for my other Uncle’s wedding. Uncle Charlie was one of the coolest cats that ever lived. He had long brown braids, lambchop sideburns, a ridiculously awesome moustache, and he made giant cast iron sculptures for a living. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was sure strong. One time I was picking my little sister up and chucking her around for fun and my uncle came over with a little infectious giggle, set down his cold beer and cigar, picked me up, flipped me upside down, and jiggled my gizzard. I was sixteen and I have never been a small person. I was probably close to a hundred and eighty pounds and he picked me up like I was a feather. I mean, he did bend iron for a living.
My Uncle Charlie didn’t talk much, he was just a cool dude. For his wedding in South Carolina, my mom drove us down from Michigan in our little old minivan, which had zero cold Cokes or Chef Boyardee in it. We got there and met up with the rest of the family and I got to sleep in the ginormous RV. I remember sitting in there at the table with my cousin after a day at the beach, third degree sunburn scorching holes in my aqua Panama Jack tee shirt, drinking cokes and listening to Whitney Houston’s first album, discussing whether or not she was hotter than Hallie Berry. The wedding was the night before and that party was a rager. They served those cute, tiny bottles of Perrier and we got a bunch, dumped them out, and refilled them with Sprite because we wanted to look sophisticated but Perrier is gross. Late in the night we went down to the beach and watched my Uncle Charlie throw fireworks into the ocean because back then people still did shit like that. Then we all went back to the RV to sleep. It was the most fun ever.
Although some of these memories might seem mildly traumatic, to me they were adventure after adventure (except maybe hitting Pat in the head with a shuffle board stick. I felt pretty bad about that one, but it DOES make a good story), recorded in my family annals as solidly as special birthdays, new sibling arrivals, getting my driver’s license, and graduation. As time went by; we stopped camping together at Kentucky Lake, but these adventures (and many others) molded me and solidified my desire to have my own camper someday.
More to come in the Camper Series part two, growing up and getting my own RV!
I ordered a $39 bottle of supplements from Amazon on Monday. It had three ingredients in it-vitamin D, vitamin B12, and algae omegas. After it came in the mail my partner pointed out that we already have vitamin D and vitamin B12 and that we can get omegas from flax seed, of which we have a double quart jar under the kitchen sink.
But this bottle was so beautiful, glass, not plastic. Classy. On the info page there was a picture of a man with no shirt, casually stretching his quad muscle. He was looking over his shoulder with an almost bored look on his face, as if his vitamins were so good that exercise was really more of a formality these days. He’d be just as shredded without it, due to the optimal performance of the omegas and the synergistic bioavailability of the vitamin D in each capsule.
The reviews were glowing—more energy, greater focus, sex life is booming, immune system on fleek, skin is great, Alzheimer’s is fading to nothing, irritable bowels have calmed…
My name is Sue and I have a health and beauty aid addiction.
Some supplements I have purchased that were bad ideas (not including hair or skin products):
a $70 bottle of dihydrohonokiol-B capsules (WTF even is that? for anxiety, which I don’t have)
a tiny $100 bottle of Young Living JuvaCleanse essential oil for getting rid of cellulite (extra cringey) (addendum, this oil is now $139!)
$30 Vegan Fat Burning herbs for energy and stamina (these were buy one get one free…my stamina had been suffering a lot when I ordered them)
a bottle of important sounding alpha lipoic acid that was in the cheap cart at the grocery store. I didn’t even know what it was for. It was only $2.99, but who buys a random bottle of mystery medicine on the off chance it might treat an ailment they’ve got?
a $6 bottle of black walnut (also from the cheap cart) that kills intestinal parasites, of which I doubt I have.
a mixture of essential oils that stimulates my vagus nerve (it’s on the back of the neck you sicko) for well being and immune building and a host of other death defying benefits (I’m not gonna lie, this one is actually kind of cool)
a $30 bag of magnolia bark for something or other, I don’t even know anymore, and
a $39 bottle of vegan multivitamins that I already have most of in my VERY FULL medicine cabinet.
Tomorrow I will be dropping off a one month supply of vitamins at the UPS for a return from Amazon.
I joke about having a HABA addiction, but I googled it, and apparently it’s a real thing. I saw one article that gave a four week plan to break supplement addiction. I thought the nuts and bolts part of the plan was kind of funny:
Week 1: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 25%.
Week 2: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 50%.
Week 3: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 75%.
If only all addictions were so easy to break!! I do know, though, that I need to watch this tendency in myself. I’ve had my fair share of addictions, behaviors that allowed me to take a break from reality. I’ve always been really good at escaping the world.
When I was younger, I’d save up whatever money I could find and walk up the road to Rite Aid, where I’d buy a one pound bag of plain M&Ms and some weird clear berry seltzer soda that I thought had a pretty bottle. Pretty bottles are a real trigger for me. I’d bring that bag of M&Ms home, get a book, pull up my hood, and lay in bed for hours reading and eating. I’d take three M&Ms out of the bag, put one in each cheek and one in the middle and let them melt then get three more. Every so often I’d take a sip of berry seltzer to wash it all down. I read and reread my books again and again—Farmer Boy, My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Cold Sassy Tree, Hardy Boys, Life in the Leatherwoods, all the James Herriot books, Reader’s Digest, The Happy Hollisters, Encyclopedia Brown, and the McGurk detective books—three M&Ms at a time, over and over. A steady stream of sugar and stories as I slipped out the side door. I can still smell the inside of that bag and the musty pages of those old books.
Later on sugar turned into cigarettes and coffee, then when cigarettes became déclassé, it became beer and wine, burning the candle at both ends. That fun time ended pretty early on in fits and spurts, some years better than others. It was unsustainable. I realized I was being a huge asshole and my growth was majorly stunted.
From there I tried kombucha. I started slow, a little Synergy bottle here and there. It was so expensive I decided to make my own. After a few short weeks I was brewing it by the gallon and drinking a quart or more per day. My partner gifted me a weekend at Breitenbush hot springs and as I packed up eight quart jars of home brewed kombucha and clinked my way down the driveway to the car, I wondered if I might have a problem.
I had scobys coming out of my ears, so many I started to dehydrate them with soy sauce to make jerky (scoby jerky has the exact same consistency of what I’d imagine human skin jerky would have. 1/10, not recommended). Then when I found a passel of white worms floating around in my gallon jar, I knew it was time to let it go. I buried my scobys and dumped the worms in the yard.
I recently quit drinking coffee because the caffeine really messes with my body, but then I started drinking a quart of watermelon chunk tea every day. Each time I move forward, I reduce the harm my addictions can cause. Watermelon chunk tea and too many supplements? Not too bad, but still. Who knows, maybe someday I will be totally free of my burdens, a slave to my own desires no more.
For now, I will just study this remarkable four week plan:
Week 1: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 25%.
Week 2: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 50%.
Week 3: Reduce your excess vitamins or supplements by 75%.
Once when I was in my early twenties I decided I was going to walk from Daytona Beach to the Keys of Florida.
The idea was born while I was laying on my back in the grass at Central Park, having suffered a major break up and contemplating a move from Queens back to Michigan, depressed and lonely. I’d been reading a book called Conversations with God, which is about a man in an emotional transition in his life, who has a chat with God that goes on for like, five books. The book was laying in the grass next to me, both of us watching the clouds roll by.
I got to thinking. Why did this fellow get to have such a great chin wag with the old guy upstairs? (I still thought of God as a man back then, due to all of the world saying it all the time). I’ve never even had a hello, how’s your day, much less enough chit chat to fill a thousand pages.. Come to think of it…I frowned. I don’t think I even know God very well at all. Maybe that’s why I’m so lonely. I mulled that over for a while. Suddenly some words popped into my head clear as day.
“You could have a connection with me. But you’ve never really tried.”
There it was. Words from on high. It was true. I’d never really tried. How do you cultivate a relationship with God? I prayed a little here and there, but it always felt like I was trying to get brownie points, so I’d stopped. What I needed here was a gesture. Something big. Something wild. Something unexpected.
And so I decided to buy a motorcycle and drive it across the country. I saw myself, flying free, hair blowing in the wind, saddlebags filled with the bare necessities for a life on the road: tent, can opener, sleeping bag, jack knife, and of course, beans. And somewhere on that ribbon of highway, I was sure I would find my connection to God.
So I moved back to Michigan with a plan of action. My first problem was that I didn’t have a motorcycle. My second was that I’d never ridden a motorcycle. I had $2,000 in my bank account, ready to spend and my little brother’s friend Travis had a crotch rocket he said I could take for a spin round the block if I wanted to. I thought I really should start to get the hang of this thing before I go spend $2,000. I got on that speedy red bike and headed out onto the pavement.
Everything was going great at first. I was flying free and my hair was blowing in the wind just the way I thought it would. I was getting the shifting down without too much trouble. But then an old man turned in front of me. I grip locked the brakes and the back tire left the ground. For split second, there I was, in the middle of Dixie Highway, balanced perfectly on the front tire of a red crotch rocket like Harry Houdini. I locked eyes with that old man as he passed in front of me and he looked very impressed, as if I was doing it on purpose. Just as fast, the back tire came down and I stepped my foot back on the ground like nothing doing, heart beating from my knees to my eyeballs.
Against all odds the motorcycle dream survived this harrowing event. I blamed it on the crotch rocket. A heavier bike will handle better, I told myself. I found a bike I liked the looks of in the classifieds. I decided to give it a test drive. It was shiny and black and big. I got on, drove down the driveway, and into the road, clicking the gears like a champ. This time my hair never actually even got to blowing. I got to a stop sign and I was slowing down, or maybe I was speeding up, it all happened so fast, and the bike started to wobble. It was just a little at first, then it grew and grew until I felt like I was on a like a mechanical bull that bucks sideways instead of up and down. I bucked along with it turning this way and that, over correcting, under correcting, over correcting again until finally by some miracle, I got it stopped. But the bike had stopped mid wobble and was now at a 45 degree angle with the ground. Motorcycles are HEAVY. I could just see me coming back after a test drive having scratched the hell out of this bike. I somehow got myself off the bike without dropping it and crouched down to put my shoulder into it. It took everything I had to get us back to 90 degrees. I took that bike right back.
I rode up the driveway with dirt on my pants and a grease stain on my shoulder. My muscles were jelly, both because of my near death experience and because of the heavy motorcycle. My hair was sticking out every which way. I was sweaty and red faced. My mom was there, bless her heart for coming with me, and she asked what I thought.
“I think I’ll change my motorcycle trip to a walking trip,” I said, handing the keys back over.
And so I hatched my plan: In the summer I’d go down to Flagler Beach, Florida, twenty miles north of Daytona, where my sister lived. I’d buy a rucksack and a tent, and set off on foot, wind in my hair, foot loose and fancy free. Once I got to the Keys, maybe I’d take a job tending bar on the beach where they played Jimmy Buffet and Journey and the Eagles all day. Surely somewhere along the way, I’d find God.
I started out early one summer morning, all packed up with my essentials (of which the list had grown considerably-sun block, bug spray, shampoo, money pouch, rain gear, etc.) and a freshly shaved head. I thought the head made me look tough and also would be cooler in the summer heat. My boots were cinched tight, my pack was well organized, and off I went, happy as a jaybird.
I set my schedule to walk about ten miles per day for the first few days. I could walk on the beach where there were no bugs and beautiful waves, but it’s way harder to walk in sand with a heavy pack.There’s a road (A1A, beach run avenue!) that runs nearly the length of a Florida, but stops here and there for inlets and cities. I could walk this road and see the ocean and avoid bugs, but I’d have to cut inland as well, when A1A ran out. I decided to walk the first bit on the beach to enjoy the waves and the sun, but I forgot that there’s a long stretch of beach that’s undeveloped and there’s no access to the street for a mile or so. Once I started walking down there I had to keep going until I reached another set of stairs.
About a half mile in I saw a man lying butt naked on the beach, all baby oiled up and the same color brown as Secretariat. His arms and legs were spread wide like he’d just fallen from the sky and landed there, never to move again. I knew he wasn’t dead though, because there was a tiny radio stuck into the sand by his head with some tinny AC/DC playing and he opened one eye as I schlepped past. I guess he thought nobody else would be dumb enough to walk that far into the no access area.
I made it my first thirteen miles to Ormond Beach and found a little area where there was some construction happening. I set up my tent tucked in behind a bush where nobody would spot it from the road and then I called my sister. She wanted to know where I was each night. I told her and then settled in for the night. Fifteen minutes later I heard her and her (then) husband tramping around calling my name. They’d driven the short way to my camp spot to check it out and make sure I was safe.
That morning I woke up early, broke down my tent, and went down to the beach to watch the sun rise. I met a woman and we got to talking and I told her my adventure. She asked me if I wanted to come back to her house and take a shower. She seemed nice enough. I didn’t really need a shower yet, but I decided to take her up on it because it was fun. The shower went fine, but I realized a mile up the road that I’d left my shampoo there.
The second night I stayed at a $20 hotel in Daytona Beach. After that I had to get off the beach and go inland because the Ponce DeLeon inlet cut across A1A making a dead end. As soon as I left the beach, things started to get weird. First it was the mosquitos. As I was walking a wall of them would form just at the edge of where my deet cloud ended. These things were vicious. As soon as the deet sweated off enough and started to fade, they would dive bomb me all at once. I kept the deet in my hand for easy access so I could throw off my bag and spray the crap out of myself every thirty minutes. I checked my map and I saw that I was walking along the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Reserve.
I wandered into a town and found an abandoned field with lots of trees and tall grass that I could hide in. I passed it by a couple times, trying to find the right way in. On the third pass I decided to just go for it and stepped off the sidewalk, just as a police cruiser rolled by. I jumped back on the sidewalk and immediately knew I looked ridiculously suspicious with my big pack and my tent. He paid me no mind and so I went in and tunneled out a sweet spot.
That night I lay in the eerie blue light of my tent, surrounded by green under the purple pink setting sun, feeling lonely. I called my little brother and chatted with him for a few minutes and felt a little better. I drew some pictures in my journal and ate a can of beans. It was quiet and I eventually fell asleep. I woke up several times, thinking the police were swarming in silently, setting up to eject me from my camp. They never came. I guess they knew I needed to be alone.
The next few days passed in a blur. One morning I brushed my teeth at a spigot I found in a city park. I heard some odd splashing in the water of the Halifax River and looked down to see three manatees swimming in circles. A man came down with a hose and hooked it up to the spigot and gently sprayed them. “They love it,” he said. “The fresh water.”
At one point I was walking on a barren strip of land between towns. I’d walked many miles already and I couldn’t make it to the next town before dark. I didn’t want to set up my tent out in the open and I didn’t want to hike too far off the road. I decided I’d try to hitch a ride into civilization. I stuck out my thumb for a while. The first car to stop rolled up next to me and the man inside took a look at me and drove off in a puff of smoke. I decided he’d thought I was a boy from the back and took off when he saw the front and realized I wasn’t. I was glad he left. The next guy that stopped was driving a giant pick up truck. He seemed ok so I got in. Nearly into town he looked over at me.
“You’ve got really nice…boobs.” I looked out the window. “How much would I have to give you for you to show them to me?” he asked.
“Um. I don’t want to do that.” I said. “You can drop me off over there.” To my great relief, he did. As he drove away, I realized I’d left my mosquito spray in his truck.
I hiked on, keeping to my ten to twenty miles a day. My feet were sore and my pinky toenails started to turn black. I made it to Titusville and decided I’d take a bus to Cocoa Beach because I’d made plans to meet up with an old friend there and I was running late. As I sat on the bench, waiting for the bus, a sweet old couple drove up and asked where I was heading. I told them and they asked me if I wanted a ride. I was totally surprised. The man saw my face and smiled.
“We saw you waiting while we were getting gas and we thought you looked nice.”
So much for looking tough. I jumped in the back seat of their minivan and off we went. On the way there they told me all about their kids and their grandkids and their beach house and about the time they’d lived in Michigan. The man’s name was Harold, same as my grandad and the woman’s name was Wilma, same as my mom. I told them a little about my trip, but left off the boob guy. We pulled up to Cocoa Beach thirty minutes later (me painfully aware that that would have taken me two days to walk). I thanked them and shut the sliding door. As they started to pull away, I realized I’d left my water bottle in the seat. I jumped forward and knocked on the window frantically. I saw the fear in their eyes as they stopped, wondering if I was going to kill them after all.
“I forgot my water bottle!” I said. They laughed with relief and handed it back to me and I packed it up.
The night after I met with my friend I decided to stay in a dingy hotel instead of setting up my tent. After I dropped my bag off in my room I walked across the parking lot and got a Whopper value meal and brought it back. There was no table or chairs in the room, so I squatted down and leaned my sore back against the wall and unwrapped the food. My romantic notions of eating beans like a hobo under the stars were completely gone. Hot french fries were the way to go. I squatted there in the dimly lit room eating my whopper, cars whipping by on the street outside, red gold glow filtering through the curtains from the hotel sign, and I thought about God.
Suddenly, I realized that I felt a presence. Not like there was someone else in the room, but that I wasn’t alone. I felt a deep and sudden connection to a higher being. It wasn’t a man and it wasn’t a woman. It just was. Well how about that, I thought to myself, smiling. My grand gesture worked. For the next few hours I didn’t feel even a tiny bit lonely, not while I was eating. Not while I took a shower. Not while I watched tv and not while I lay in bed falling asleep.
The next day I called my sister and asked her to come pick me up at Cocoa Beach. I’d realized the goal of the trip. I was tired and my toes were fucked up. I wanted to get back home and get back to school and have a life not on the beach in the Keys with Jimmy Buffet.
For the next few days, I’d check in every few hours to see if the presence was still there. It always was. I don’t check it anymore, I’ve just come to know that it will always be there as long as I keep trying.
We are in the midst of a civil rights movement. This movement is new for some, as old as the hills for others. When I look online and around me, I see so many people grappling with a deluge of information and I’ve struggled to place my own thoughts on anything that might be helpful to add. For the black and brown people, I have nothing except to say I’m sorry, I see you, you are awesome, and I’m standing up with you.
This is a message to white folks.
The road to uncovering and dismantling personal racism is long and painful and is a life’s work. I wanted to share something that has helped me immeasurably in this work and it’s something that might seem at first to be counterintuitive, blasphemous, and maybe just wrong: For me, my true uncovering began when I gave myself permission to have biases against others.
I grew up in Bridgeport, Michigan, a tiny hamlet of 1,400 people just to the south-ish of Saginaw. My town was diverse in race and ethnicity, as well as in financial classes. My elementary schooling was in a special program called Quest, a school for gifted and talented students that had to score a certain number on an IQ test to attend. Despite the highly varied make-up of my town, nearly all the students who attended this program were white. This wasn’t questioned, at least not by anyone I was hearing from, and for me, did not seem unusual. It merely supported a barely subconscious understanding that white people were smarter than brown people. That belief worked for me because it placed me above others, something I felt comforted by. In elementary school we were taught about how white people enslaved Africans and destroyed “Indian” communities, but it was taught in such a way as to allow for a distinct separation from us. That was an atrocity that happened many years ago. There are still racist people, but they are few and they are bad, obviously.
Jr. High was a mishmash of hormones and difficulty for me. I began to understand power struggles more explicitly and history took on a different angle as we learned about the Salem Witch trials in history and watched Gone with the Wind in social studies. I began to understand “isms,” and knew that they are very, very bad and should not happen. I saw myself as a good person. I still believed I was smarter than most people, and by most people I meant the people who didn’t talk like me, dress like me, or behave like me. I understood racism as an external behavior of other people that are stuck in the past. I heard my grandad call professional basketball players “monkeys.” I heard the N-word casually tossed around in my circle of friends. To me, these were islands of racism. They were good people who were doing bad things. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t challenge it. Underlying my behavior was a barely subconscious understanding that these acts cemented my own self image as being better than and to challenge them would mean rocking a boat which was my ride to success. I knew that I wasn’t racist. In safe situations, I told people as much.
During this time I started going to another special school called Center for the Arts and Sciences. It was a magnet arts school that was a half day. I was in the theater class with all grades ninth through twelfth, but I was allowed into the class in eighth grade because of scheduling issues at my homeschool, which I attended in the mornings. One day I was listening to some older students argue about racism. They were talking about the Constitution. I don’t remember the exact conversation. I do remember interjecting caustically, maybe trying to look cool, “well, where were the black people when we were writing the Constitution?” I was trying to intimate that these people shouldn’t be complaining if they didn’t help out with the plan. One of my older friend’s mouth dropped open and quickly turned to a sneer before she said “they were in the fields, picking cotton!” Oh yeah, I thought to myself. I forgot. The other older kid helped me out and said “what I think Sue is trying to say is just that if more black people had been involved with writing the Constitution, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” or something like that. I agreed with him that that was what I meant as they moved on. How could a fourteen year old, educated human being ever, EVER make that mistake? They can only do so if they’ve veiled themselves in a cloak of superiority that dismisses the reality of the experience of others. I’m normal! I told myself. When other people spoke, I viewed their words through my lens of normalcy. Wow, other people sure do make a lot of mistakes! I thought, dismissing the possibility that their views of the world were simply different than mine.
In high school I started freshman year riding the bus. I lived near a row of low income housing apartments called the Complex and an area called the Gardens, where poorer people lived. I was the only white person who rode my bus. Sometimes I could disappear into the window seat. Sometimes I got dealt some shit. Every day I was relieved to arrive at school. The black kids were loud and screechy and they scared me, all bunched together like that. I begged my mom to give me gas money for a friend to pick me up, which she did. For the next two years, until I got my license, I didn’t ride the bus again. I never told anyone why.
Once I’d gotten my license, I was driving home, passing through the Complex and I got pulled over. The white cop asked me if I’d been drinking and held up a large empty Colt 45 can. He said he’d seen it fly as I drove by and he thought I’d thrown it out the window. I wondered briefly if he’d thought I was black driving in this area in my Cutlass Supreme. I told him I wasn’t drinking and added, overtly conscious of my meaning, “that’s not my brand of beer.” I practically winked at him. I knew I was using our race to tie us together against people who drank Colt 45 and I was a little ashamed, but not too much to try. I don’t think he got what I was saying, but he let me go anyway.
In order to get to the Center for the Arts and Sciences, we had to drive through the East Side of Saginaw. The East Side is a strange place. Once the city of Saginaw was wealthy and teeming with dollars. The East Side was where the rich automaking families built their mansions. As time went by and automaking went south (literally) the mansions emptied. For a time, you could buy a mansion on the East Side for $50,000. I’m talking ballroom, carved staircases, chandelier style mansions. Of course, they’d be dilapidated, but still. The East Side was also dangerous, or at least it seemed so to us. We’d heard tales of drug deals gone wrong, drive bys, and beatings that happened there. My friend’s car broke down in the heart of the East Side once, on the way to school. We felt like we were in mortal danger. We got out of the car and ran for the bridge that separates the East from the West. We didn’t wait for each other. It was every man for himself. I was somewhere in the middle and I remember the relief I felt as I crossed over the Saginaw River. Safe from whom was never mentioned. We didn’t talk about it.
My sister and I were once pulled over by a white cop in this same area. We weren’t doing anything wrong, he’d just pulled us over to ask us what we were doing there. We told him we were going home. He told us “be careful, this is a dangerous area.” I retold the story a hundred times, my words dripping with derision. How dare he pull two white girls over to tell us that that was a dangerous area! He’s racist.
I’d created a world where people of color were somehow both equal to me, but not as smart and also not very good at not getting in trouble, but definitely equal to me, if anyone asked. In that world the black and brown people I knew were ok because they were kinda more white, so I could accept them and they were smart and good. But the ones I don’t know were scary and probably dangerous. I was extra good because I knew that racism was bad. That cop was wrong. And I knew it.
It wasn’t until college that I started to even have a glimpse of my own hypocrisy. I majored in Religious Studies at Central Michigan University. At that unlikely spot I met two professors who would pinball shoot me in another direction. Dr. Robin Hough and Dr. Merlyn Mowrey: both white academics, both incredibly brilliant and obsessed with their topics, and both committed to offering different ways to view the world. I won’t say that I took a good hard look at my own racist tendencies, but I will say they introduced me to the problem and some people with solutions. Dr. Hough was into Candomblé and jazz and Capoeira and Yoruba religion and Billie Holiday and civil rights. He taught us about “Coon Songs,” the terribly racist and heinously popular music around in the late 1800’s, performed by white people in black face, made specifically to detract from human rights achievements in that century. Dr. Mowrey was into women’s rights and the history of subjugation and black women’s theories on race and relations. She introduced me to Beverly Tatum, Susan Faludi, and belle hooks. I learned all about the culture and music and wisdom of generations of black people and I read literature by black activists and philosophers and researchers and teachers. After sitting with these teachers I couldn’t live in the world I’d created anymore. Reality didn’t match. I had to smash it apart. Between the two of these teachers, I cobbled together the next phase of my uncovering: white guilt.
I understood now, on a deep level, that something very bad had happened. A whole group of loving, creative, intelligent, feeling people had been, and are still being, silenced through brute force, intimidation, and psychological warfare. And as a member of the community of people that did it/are doing it, I am complicit in the act. I was defensive. I’ve never owned a slave. I was always kind to the black people who I felt comfortable around. I didn’t benefit from being white…did I? I’M NOT RACIST. I’M NOT. I can’t be. I’m nice. I’m liberal. I felt torn between being embarrassed about it all and denying it even existed for a long time. I wished I was black so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I would just know I was ok.
I graduated college and moved to Eugene, Oregon. I didn’t know the gruesome racial history of this town until much later. When Oregon entered the Union, black people were forbidden to live here, the only state in the Union to make such a claim. A burning cross was placed on the butte that you saw as you rode the train into town, to remind you who was in charge here. The KKK had deep connections to the schools and businesses all around Oregon. Oregon refused to let black people vote until 1959 and didn’t ratify the 14th amendment until 1973. Therefore, Oregon has remained a fairly white state.
I took a job teaching middle school at a small, non-profit charter school. I loved and hated teaching. Children are mirrors, showing you every moment the places where you are lacking. I did a pretty ok job, noticing the places where I said “we,” as if I were talking about humans but really meant white people. I made my people drawings a light brownish color so students could all see themselves in my pictures. I thought my colleague was genius for having a conversation with her class about “flesh colored crayons,” being many different colors. But I still viewed myself as more a part of the solution than part of the problem.
Everything started to unravel about four years ago. I read a story during this period about a black farmer who once delivered produce to an affluent neighborhood. He decided to stop because it wasn’t the white supremists who were going to kill him, it was the “nervous white women in yoga pants” who would call the cops on him and take him away from his daughters. This story really got to me. A long list of black people were already dead at the hands of white cops. It was undeniable that there was a problem and we weren’t getting to the root of it. And here was a black man telling us that “so called progressives,” of which I considered myself to be one, were more dangerous than white supremists.
The administration and faculty at my school decided to start an equity and inclusion committee. I volunteered to sit in on an interview with someone we were thinking about bringing on to do a professional development with our largely white faculty. His name was Johnny Lake. In the interview he told us that everyone has biases because everyone grew up in a community of peers. It’s what you do next, he said, once you realize you’ve got them, that matters.
My mind was blown. Back to back I’d been informed that yes, progressive people can be racist and further, all people have biases. My white guilt started to turn into something else: a need to make real change. I started to look at myself differently. What if it was actually normal for me to be frightened of difference? And what if instead of spending time feeling sorry for myself, I spent that energy identifying my prejudices, no matter how hard to admit, and took steps to change them?
I started analyzing myself. I let some of the memories I spoke of earlier bubble to the surface. But a real eye opening moment occurred when I was hiding someone on FaceBook. I realized suddenly that during my decade or more on social media I’d hidden only three people and all three of them were African American women. Out of the hundreds of friends I had, only three had bothered me enough to hide. Three black women. I had friends who posted terribly offensive things about Muslims and Barack Obama and even gay people, of which I am one. But I kept them and hid three black women.
I immediately unhid all three women and examined why I’d hidden them in the first place. Why did I do it? Because my bias kept me from accepting their experiences. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t relate to them. And I didn’t like what they were saying. So I crossed them off. This was the first of a string of realizations, not just about black and brown people, but trans people and Asian people and even white people.
Soon after we were into February and African American history month. I stood in front of my sixth graders and told them the story of my biases. The words stuck in my throat. I didn’t know how to say it out loud. Once you admit out loud that you’re fallible, you can never go back to being all powerful. I’ve gotten better at saying it over time: I’m a racist but I’m trying not to be.
This is the thing, white people. We can’t assume that because we are progressive or fair minded or nice or colorblind or have black friends that we are ok. We have to look for all the places that we benefit from racism. Don’t tell me you haven’t benefited from it. If you’re white, you have, even if you didn’t know it. Maybe your great grandpa came back from war and got a GI loan that was only available to white people and bought a house, allowing your grandma a place to grow and prosper, which in turn allowed your parent to go to college and earn a degree, which benefited you (this is an approximately true story told to me by a colleague at work). Go back in and you’ll find it. Maybe it was as simple as that you weren’t put into juvenile detention when you got pulled over at age seventeen because a cop “thought” you threw a can of Colt 45 out your window. We have to look for all the places that we have, consciously or subconsciously, placed another person in a box. It’s the hardest step because we have to see out of someone else’s eyes and admit some hard truths. And then we have to change.
You have biases and it’s ok. You don’t have to rail against it or prove your innocence to anyone. Be honest with yourself about your feelings. All people have them. Somebody crosses the street when they see you coming, no matter who you are. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s only once you’ve admitted it that you can change it.
Everybody loses when we pretend that race implies intelligence or ability or worth. What has been happening to black and brown people for the last SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS is deplorable. It’s time to start a new era of active honesty. Maybe in a few hundred more years, and after reparations, we will find ourselves trustworthy again.
(Thank you Robin Hough, Merlyn Mowrey, and Johnny Lake)
Earlier today I was uploading remote assignments for my students and I typed in the date and a little thought flashed through my mind. Today, May 19th, is the birthday of my oldest friend, Krista Wietelmann. I haven’t really spoken to her in thirty years, save a few letters, so it was sort of weird that her birthday popped up in my memory so clearly. I’m lying here in bed, trying to think of something to write about, and she came back up. So today I will write about my oldest friendship with Krista Wietelmann.
I don’t remember meeting Krista. It’s like how you don’t remember meeting your siblings, they just sort of show up when your memories start. We lived on the same street with one house between us. Our families couldn’t have been more different. My parents were both hippie artist/writer/teachers. Her dad was a Lutheran minister and her mom stayed home to raise her and her brothers. I didn’t really know what a Lutheran was. Krista told me that her parents told her that Santa didn’t exist from the beginning. I asked her why they told her that and she said it was because they didn’t want her to love anything more than God. It was a real testament to the kind of person she was that she didn’t ever spill the beans until we all already knew. I would’ve told every living soul I could find if I had that kind of intel. That’s the kind of kid I was.
My house was free and unfettered by rules and regulations (except when it wasn’t, which wasn’t a fun time). Our clean clothes lived in a towering heap on the counter in the green bathroom. I preferred to never change clothes, rather than look through the pile to find something that fit. Books were stacked on every spare surface. My mom had various art projects running all the time. She had boxes of stained glass and a potter’s wheel in the family room, a kiln in the garage, and printmaking supplies anywhere you might look. At one point there was a full on taxidermied moose head in our living room, which she’d borrowed from the art department at school to practice drawing. With six kids in the family, being alone was practically unheard of. I shared a bed with my sister Joan for forever. One time I didn’t want to get up to use the bathroom and I thought there wasn’t that much in me, so I went ahead and peed in bed. There was much more in me than I thought. I spent the rest of the night trying to keep my sister from rolling into my very large pee spot, more because I didn’t want her to know what I’d done than that I didn’t want her to get pee on her.
I remember once, in kindergarten, having an opportunity to be alone at home and taking it. I rode home everyday in a car pool. On this day, the mom who was driving couldn’t remember if she was supposed to take me home or to the babysitter’s house. Our babysitter was named Dorita Beal. She was an ok sitter but I’d rather be home alone, no question. I hatched a plan on the spot. I told the carpool driver that I couldn’t remember either and maybe she could take me home first and I could run in and see if someone was there. If not, she could take me to Mrs. Beal’s house. She thought that was a good idea. I knew full well that it was a babysitter day, but I prayed that my plan would work. She drove up to the empty house. I ran inside, waited a minute, then ran back out and told her someone was home. She was satisfied and drove away and I went in and sat in the good chair and watched whatever I wanted to on television for a blissful two hours, giggling at my sister who was stuck at Mrs. Beal’s house, probably wondering where I was. My mom got home and found me with my feet kicked up. As I’d hoped, she was too relieved that I was alive to be too mad at me. My dad came home a little later with a bag of day-old jelly donuts, which you could get for a dime a piece from the donut shop on Dixie Highway. I said I wanted a blueberry one. He started to hand it to me and my mom said “she told the carpool mom that I was home when I wasn’t and stayed home alone for two hours!” My dad gasped and tried to pull back on the donut, but I already had a handle on it and I ran off to hide so I could eat it with nobody to bother me.
Krista’s family probably didn’t eat donuts. Their house was always neat and smelled like pot roast and cookies and clean laundry and pencil erasers. She had her own bedroom and her own bed. She probably wouldn’t dream of peeing in the bed rather than getting up, but if she had, she could have rolled over and fallen back to sleep without worry.
One time Joan and Krista and I decided to write a novel because Krista had a typewriter. We got a couple of chapters done before we lost the thread. It was titled “Call Me Rebba,” and it was about a girl and her disabled brother who lived in a box on the street after their parents died. I remember Rebba was trying (unsuccessfully) to get them some money so they could buy a can of beans to eat. I’m not clear if her name is pronounced like its spelled, or if we meant Reba and were trying to be edgy.
Krista was a lovely person. She had long straight blonde hair. She looked a little like a mom, stuck in a kid’s body. Her features weren’t kid features. I don’t remember her losing her teeth, though I’m sure she must have. Krista was always the best at everything. She was the fastest girl in class (she once told me her secret, it was that you have to hold your fingers stiff and wide while you run, like a petrified starfish. I tried it and took a few seconds off my time. It was a good tip). She won the science fair every year with projects involving plants and light bulbs and batteries and science. I remember two of my science fair projects. One was “do hermit crabs make good pets?” and featured my two hermit crabs. The other was “which bubble gum blows the biggest bubbles?” which got an honorable mention, due to the fact that I’d written to Hubba Bubba and they wrote me back, telling me that they can’t tell me how they make their bubbles so big because it’s a trade secret.
Krista and I both played trumpet and she was always first chair, leaving Steve Samoray and me to battle it out for second. She got the part I wanted in Babes in Toyland AND The Sound of Music. In my mind I saw myself as the quintessential Gretel, but when it came time for the audition I froze. I remember my audition. I tried not to look at Bob Klump, the director, instead locking eyes on my own reflection in the glass of the sound booth, stiff as a board, face drawn in fear, whisper singing the Andy Willams arrangement of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, which was the only song I knew all the words to. I knew it hadn’t gone well. But Krista nailed it and went on to give what was likely the best Gretel performance probably ever, just the right amount of sassy and sweet.
I didn’t hold any of that against her. She worked hard and she played hard. She deserved her accolades. As for me, this was the period in my life where I learned that if I didn’t really try that hard, I’d have a ready made excuse if I failed. That and the fact that I really only enjoyed playing hard and resting hard allowed me to have a LOT of fun and less accolades, which was fine for a while. But it was good for me to see someone who worked hard and had success. I needed to see that so that I knew what it looked like later in life, when I was less content with just having fun.
Krista moved away in the fifth grade. She went somewhere in Ohio and I never saw her again. We wrote letters to each other occasionally. Even though it’s been thirty years, I think about her pretty regularly, sending out a little happy thought to her. She’s not on social media so I have no idea where she is. Happy Birthday Krista, wherever you are!! I hope you’re still nailing it. I’ll bet you are.
I’ve never been much good at transitions. I don’t like changing and I don’t like sitting in situations that make me uncomfortable. When my first front tooth got loose in first or second grade, I couldn’t stand it just being loose. It either needed to be stationary or out of my mouth. No in between. I yanked on it every second of every day until I ripped it out, leaving behind a gaping bloody hole. The grown up tooth behind it wasn’t close enough to the surface because the baby tooth was removed so prematurely. The gum healed up and that grown up tooth remained wrapped in skull and tissue, immobilized by my impatience. It still hadn’t come in a year later and Dr. Mallek, the old man dentist we all went to, had to give me a shot and scalpeled out a hole for that tooth to come down through. That’s why the gums on my front teeth are uneven.
As an aside, isn’t the word gums so funny? Why is it plural? Is each little half moon really one gum? And gums are really weird. Soft but hard. I can’t imagine chewing on gums. I mean, I can but it’s super gross, which is silly because gums are so proximal to teeth. My mom used to make us eat beef tongue when it went on sale at Jack’s Fruit Market. Eating tongues just seems wrong on so many different and complex levels, just like chewing on gums.
OMG. I just looked up gums in the Encyclopedia Britannica and it fricken actually says this:
“Gum, also called gingiva, plural gingivae, in anatomy, connective tissue covered with mucous membrane, attached to and surrounding the necks of the teeth and adjacent alveolar bone.”
They call them teeth necks!?! Encyclopedia Britannica, you’re telling me my teeth necks are tightly wrapped in mucus covered flesh scarves, holding my teeth heads in place? This has got to be a mistake. Now I’m picturing my teeth heads going caroling because they are wearing those scarves. I’ll bet they can really harmonize, spending so much time in close quarters, despite the obvious handicap of half of them hanging upside down. I hope I get a chance to hear them sing O Holy Night someday. That’s my favorite carol.
I used to have braces. I had them for around five years, because my teeth were so jacked up. My mouth was too small and my teeth were crammed in there like fifteen Pez in a twelve count dispenser. I had to have an expander, which is this super fucked up thing that looks like a bionic insect. They wedge it into the top of your mouth and glue it’s metal legs to your teeth. You have to stick a key in a hole in its stomach and crank it once a day so it grows and it cracks your skull in half so the Pez can clack into place. That is, if you haven’t prematurely ripped your own baby teeth necks from their caroling group, trapping a Pez in mucosal membrane.
The baby tooth! That’s what I was talking about. Transitions. I’m not good at them. I just want the hard part to be over.
A couple years ago I bought two round plywood circles, thirty-two inches in diameter. My friend Justin cut them into quarters and we’re going to screw them in the corner to make shelves to house all the weird stuff that accumulates in our kitchen—a nice row of white wine bottles my partner got for $34 from an online sale, my Brød and Taylor foldable bread proofer that I use to make vegan cheese, millions of tincture bottles, a tiny fake light up aquarium with fake dancing jellyfish, scores of pretty bottles we can’t force ourselves to recycle, a glass Avon candlestick that has a removable top and women’s cologne inside it, a soda stream, a vintage Centennial Oregon plate made in 1959, tupperwares that don’t fit in the drawer, a vase with three year old dried flowers, and a forty pound box of baking soda to be specific. Yesterday I was trying to access the corner to finally get started putting in the shelves and instead of moving all that crap, I just leaned over it all. I had a Lord of the Rings themed zoom meeting with my sixth grade class shortly. I was just getting the first little bits done. Why move it all when I was just going to have to leave in a little while anyway? I knocked over two wine bottles and they didn’t break. I had to move a cd shelf that we repurposed into a Mason jar holder out of the corner and I opted to not take the jars off and to pull it from the bottom to get the better of gravity. A pint jar fell on my head. It didn’t break either, the blow being softened first by my cranium. It clattered the carolers but I kept on pulling.
My partner stuck her head out and asked me if I would please move the things before I started working. I explained to her that I had to do something else soon so why move it all? She gave me a long look and then said, sagely, “You could use these fifteen minutes to move everything safely out of the way, and you’d be all ready to work when you come back.” But what fun is that? Who doesn’t love a good Mason jar to the head? Or a scalpel to the gingiva? Rip that shit out and be done with the hard part, to hell with consequences.
Sometimes we get to choose whether we can escape the hard part. We can choose whether it’s worth it or not. We can weigh our options and make a decision, based on what might or might not happen.
I did end up moving the rest of the stuff out of the way, the wine bottles, the soda stream and the Brød and Taylor. It was sort of meditative and I found a HUGE dead spider that I would have otherwise missed. But when I was done measuring and had to put it all back until tomorrow, I pushed that cd shelf back into place with all the chattering jars on it, praying that nobody would see me and that I wouldn’t break anything. After I got it back in place I felt foolish, because I knew that I was rushing when all I had was time. I remembered a story I heard, I don’t recall who told it to me, but the picture is blazed in my mind. The story was about a man who climbed up some folding attic stairs with wet Birkenstocks on and he slipped and broke his neck and was paralyzed. How many people’s lives change like that, in a split second? How many people would give anything to go back in time sixty seconds?
My theme for the coming weeks will be slowing down my transitions, trying (again) to learn to sit in uncomfortable situations without making poor choices. I’ll work on this feeling grateful for the opportunity, because so many people don’t have that option. I’ve tried this before, but never under these specific circumstances. Who knows what might happen? Maybe I’ll emerge from this pandemic a changed person.