Addiction

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):

  1. a $70 bottle of dihydrohonokiol-B capsules (WTF even is that? for anxiety, which I don’t have)
  2. a tiny $100 bottle of Young Living JuvaCleanse essential oil for getting rid of cellulite (extra cringey) (addendum, this oil is now $139!)
  3. $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)
  4. 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?
  5. a $6 bottle of black walnut (also from the cheap cart) that kills intestinal parasites, of which I doubt I have.
  6. 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)
  7. a $30 bag of magnolia bark for something or other, I don’t even know anymore, and
  8. 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%.

Week 4: No more excess vitamins or supplements.

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%.

Week 4: No more excess vitamins or supplements.

This dude definitely takes multivitamins.

I Found God at Cocoa Beach

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.

My sisters and me at Flagler Beach

Dear Fellow Awakening White People:

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)

My daughter Maya at the Eugene BLM protest, June 7, 2020.

Krista Wietelmann

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 don’t have a picture of Krista so I’m posting the weird moose head from my living room.

Teeth

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.

I filmed my fake jellyfish in early December and I swear on the Bible that I didn’t remember what song they were dancing to until I went to find it.

Squirrels

The other day after a squirrel head butted me, I recounted the story of the first time I’d been bitten by one to my partner. I used to like to dress up like a soldier, or at least my idea of what a soldier looked like anyway: camouflage pants with brass snaps and matching cap, leather belt with a giant “Pete Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band” buckle, black tee shirt, and white Macgregor cleats with the big protective flap over the laces. I had a number of tiny jack knives I’d found here and there, mostly at the Goodwill store or in my dad’s clothes chest. I’d stick one in my sock and one in my front pants pocket. I also had a giant plastic Bowie knife that looked pretty real and I stuck that under my belt and went out for adventures. 

The day I got bitten by a squirrel I was creeping around on the roof of my parent’s house (you could access the roof from the second story balcony) in full costume, practicing tactical maneuvers—drop and roll, stealth training, quick draw with the Bowie knife, army crawl the perimeter, etc.—and I saw this squirrel jogging along. I decided to track it. I crept along behind it, which pleased it none too much, and it scampered down the roof and jumped precariously onto the gutter that ran along the front of the house. It had nowhere to escape to and I felt like this was dangerous for a little squirrel. I felt compelled to help it out of the pickle I’d forced it into, so I sneaked up and reached out to…I honestly have no idea what I was planning to do, grab it by the scruff and set it down somewhere safer maybe? It leapt at me, bit my finger, and dashed away. I was shocked. And my feelings were hurt. It didn’t break the skin, but it wounded my warrior pride. I went inside after that and my sister Joan told me she’d seen me practicing my rolls through the window and she thought that was so funny until I reminded her that I’d seen her in the backyard pretending to be Diana from the TV show V, tapping secret codes into a white spot on the wall where the paint had peeled off the house and barking orders to her workers back on the mother ship. That shut her up.

Recalling that day got me thinking about how I used to want to be a boy. Well, that’s not exactly right. I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to be myself, and myself enjoyed a lot of things that other boys enjoyed. Playing house with barbies or skirts or makeup just did not interest me in the slightest. I preferred buck knives and fireworks and BB guns and pretending I could whittle. My daughter Maya used to call it “boylish,” which to her was the opposite of girlish. 

I was boylish. I kept my hair short (except in the back) and never wore dresses after the age of seven. I preferred dirty jeans and ripped tee shirts and catching crayfish in creeks and wondering what kinds of mushrooms I could eat. I once dug a hole behind a bush at my parent’s house and pooped in it, because it made me feel like I was living off the land. I rarely brushed my hair without complaint, one exception being picture day because we got that free slicker comb. Oddly, though I preferred to dress like one, I lived in dread of people mistaking me for a boy. Many times, kind older ladies informed me that I was in the wrong bathroom and I would either have to leave or tell them that I was a girl. It was terribly embarrassing. I remember once at Redeemer Lutheran, where I went to kindergarten, a boy named Rodney told me I had to come into the boy’s bathroom, “just for a second, there’s something in here you HAVE to see!” It was a hard, fast sell and he practically pulled me inside the door. The principal was there fixing his hair in the mirror. I’d have thought that an adult who works with kids might have surmised what happened, but instead he called my mom and told her he thought I was having “identity issues” or something like that. My mom paid it little mind, but I disliked Rodney after that, even when we met again later on in high school at a different school. He’d hit a trigger.

I remember distinctly the day I knew that I wasn’t allowed to be boylish anymore. My sister and I had some great friends up the road, Krista and Jon, and we played with them pretty much every day until they moved away in fifth grade. One summer day Jon showed me a cool set of plastic weapons he’d gotten, bow and arrows, a sword, and various knives that were begging to stab something imaginary. I went down in the basement with him and we played some sort of game with them, until his mom came down and said I needed to play with Joan and Krista instead. I understood her meaning, even at a young age, and I reluctantly left the plastic weapons and went to find the girls. Later on that day we were riding bikes and it was hot and I pulled my shirt off. Jon told me that I was too old to not wear a shirt anymore. I had zero boobs but somehow I knew he was right. I shrugged and said I didn’t care, but after that I didn’t go shirtless outside again. To this day I am self conscious of being naked in public—hot springs, hot tubs, nudist colonies (just kidding, I’ve never been to one of those)—I haven’t really felt a hundred percent comfortable in my own skin since that day. (It also might partly be my muffin tops.)

During middle school I realized that I was gay. That was a real shocker. For a while I tried to tell myself that I really just wanted a close friend. But after a very little while it became apparent to me that that was NOT the case. I decided that I would just lie. I would never, ever tell anyone. I would get married and have kids and nobody would find out. I grew my hair out long, hiding behind a thick gold wall in hopes that nobody would guess my secret. I made up fake crushes. I stopped wearing outlandish outfits, retired my aqua bike pants, stopped wearing the jean jacket with a terry cloth painting of Donald Duck on the back, eyeball key chain dangling in front. That girl disappeared. I remember when Dan D called me a dyke in the hallway in Jr. High. I panicked. I couldn’t believe it! How had he known? I felt like I’d hidden it so well.

In high school I had some lovely friendships with some absolutely beautiful souls. But I didn’t tell them. I dated a boy who was one of the funniest and most adventurous people I’d ever met. But I lied to him to save myself, and I know that hurt him. I wore a sequined dress that I borrowed from a friend to prom, even though I thought I couldn’t dance and knew I wouldn’t try. The girl I’d borrowed the dress from was probably four inches shorter than me and when I arrived at the dance someone in the bathroom told me that she could see my underwear. I tied my jacket around my waist and got shit faced on wine coolers, wishing I was normal.

It wasn’t until I left for college in Lafayette, Louisiana that I finally dropped the rock. I randomly met a girl named Sheila while working at The Real Superstore. She was bi and she started dating this ridiculously cool diesel dyke named Crystal. We started going to gay bars and I taught myself to dance to Alanis Morissette, watching myself in a full length mirror, smoking cigarette after cigarette. I had my first baby relationship with a girl I wasn’t attracted to and didn’t even really like, but she was mildly interested in me and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t even remember her name.

I cut all that hair off in one sitting at a discount hair salon. I brought a picture of Meg Ryan with me. The cut didn’t look like the picture, but it had the desired effect. I felt free and sassy. I eventually moved back to Michigan and told everybody I was gay. They all pretty much knew already.

The settling into acceptance of who I am was long and tumultuous. It’s not like in the movies where you have a good cry and things just start to get better. I’d lied for so long about who I was, I couldn’t bring that girl back to life in a year or in ten years. I felt comfortable directing the way people thought about me by creating an avatar Sue. This avatar Sue was better, but she still wasn’t real. I still find remnants of her, even after decades of therapy and self help books.

Being boylish as an adult isn’t so bad as when you’re heading toward puberty. I know how to carry myself in bathrooms now, though I still wonder if women will double take in there, especially in the airport for some reason. I’ve begun wearing clothes with color and patterns again. I’m not as afraid of drawing attention to myself, because I have less to hide now. I know who I am, for the most part, and I like her most of the time. I have an awesome partner and friends who know me almost as well as I know myself. (The other day I went on a social distance walk with these friends, one of which told us recently that he “loves our guts six ways to Sunday” and the other was afraid to leave her cell phone in the car during the walk in case I fell off of something and got hurt and she needed to call for help.) Remembering that little mulleted, jack knife loving, crayfish catching pioneer child makes me appreciate my life all the more because now I can finally be myself again, unapologetically (except the no longer zero boobs shirt thing) and I know people still love me. Even after all those years of blocking her out, I remember that girl and I recognize parts of her still in me, written in my DNA. I imagine the settling in will continue until I die and I look forward to remembering more and more.

My old squirrel tracking grounds. They ripped out the bush I pooped behind.
There she is.

Stop right there! I mean it! Don’t take another step.

The other night my family was talking about the Giving Tree book by Shel Silverstein. We were lamenting that a children’s book that encourages poor boundary setting would be so popular. We were surprised that Shel Silverstein would make a book with the message that it’s ok to keep giving and giving or taking and taking until you’re empty. After a bit of discussion my daughter Maya said “Maybe we’re just wrong about what it’s about. Maybe you’re actually supposed to figure out that the boy’s an asshole in the end.” 

This is an interesting twist. But it got me thinking… if the boy is an asshole, what does that make the tree?

Most of my life I’ve been a “yes” kind of person. I say most of my life because I don’t remember being a tiny baby so I can’t say conclusively if I was or wasn’t at that time. But since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed being able to say yes to most requests.

This yessing has a good side and a bad side. On it’s good side, I have lots of friends. People think of me as easy going (I think anyway). I am open to all sorts of adventures. If you think it sounds fun, I’m probably game to go with you. I like to help people feel better about themselves. I don’t have a lot of enemies. 

For the bad side, I’ll recount a little story. It’s about the pencil sharpener at my parent’s house. The pencil sharpener was in the garage screwed next to the door frame. This garage was full (I’m talking hoarder style full) of what-not: kiddie pools and big wheels (including the chic “Green Machine” with spin out levers), baby jumpy things, broken lawn mowers, lots of Joan Baez records, a giant freezer that contained ice cream and U-pick blueberries and dead animals that my dad found and wanted to keep, boxes full of stained glass and clay, Christmas decorations, headless dolls, paint cans, books, clothes, and one million tricycles. The garage was dark and damp and cold and it smelled like day old oysters. It was all the way at the back of the house, far away from help were a ghost of some sort to appear from behind the stack of animal skins saved for making a quilt (these skins ultimately got bugs in them and had to be thrown away. I was disappointed at the time because I thought this idea had some real potential).

The pencil sharpener was one of those heavy duty school sharpeners. Maybe it was stolen from whatever institution my parents were teaching at at the time and that’s why it was hidden away in the land of scary death. If you broke your pencil say, stabbing a hole in your spelling book from sheer frustration (it could be BOTH ANSWERS DEPENDING ON HOW YOU THINK ABOUT IT YOU STUPID JERKS! stab! stab! stab! stab!), and you had to sharpen up after dark, that was some scary shit. 

Often, my older sister would ask me to sharpen her pencil for her. As a dyed in the wool yes gal, I was between a rock and a hard place with these requests. My desire to make her happy was at odds with my sense of personal safety. Sharpening pencils is relatively loud and you have to face the wall in order to get a good rotation, subtracting two perfectly good ghost identifying senses. It also takes time to get a good point, leaving long stretches of complete vulnerability to whatever freaky yak might return to reclaim its skin and a little revenge to boot. 

But saying no was too hard. I was sure my sister would be so disappointed in me. Plus, I’d have to admit that I was scared, which was not ideal. And so I would gird my loins and take one for the team—run back, swing open the door into hell, slam on the light, sharpen for all my worth while imagining putrid and blood curdling mayhem behind me, jump back inside, slam the door on whatever horrible zombie was grasping for the fringe of my mullet, and bring that pencil safely home. It was over in minutes, but it took a toll. It was almost as bad as taking the compost out to dump in the garden, where serial killers and those aliens from Unsolved Mysteries lived. 

One day I decided to check and see if my sister would return the pencil favor, because a team is only as strong as its weakest link. I pressed my pencil hard into my spelling book once again, until the lead snapped, and sweetly asked her if she would mind sharpening it for me. 

She said no. 

I coaxed. I wheedled. I told her I ALLLLLLWAYS sharpen her pencil when she asks! I probably begged. But she still refused. 

I’d suspected that might be her answer all along, but still I was beside myself. I remember telling her to never, NEVER ask me to sharpen her pencil again, as long as we live.

But I also remember agreeing to do it the next time she asked because I couldn’t say no. The risk of her not getting what she needed from me, while I was perfectly capable of giving it, was too great. A few decades later my therapist told me that my ultra clear memory of this event likely meant it was a world building moment, a moment when I decided that others’ needs were more important than my own. 

I’m not saying that I never said no. But mostly my noes looked like me saying yes a thousand times and then releasing the fiery demons of hell upon whomever asked me for something the thousand and oneth time. Not an efficient way to live, to say the least. It’s taken me more than forty years to feel ok saying no to people. Here are the steps I took:

  1. Figuring out what I actually want in any given occasion. My decisions were all being made to avoid conflict with people and it turns out that if you constantly disregard your own needs, you can actually forget how to know what you want. I taught myself how to use a pendulum to figure out what I wanted. I hold out a pendulum in front of me and ask-should I sharpen my sister’s pencil? The pendulum spins clockwise for yes and counterclockwise for no. After I get an answer, I ask more questions. Are you saying yes because it’s the right thing to do right now? Are you saying no because deep down I really don’t want to face the reanimated yak? Is it ok if I do it anyway? Asking follow up questions has really allowed me to straighten out my convoluted and tangled up thought processes into something resembling healthy behavior. And I can always blame it on the pendulum if someone is disappointed.
  2. Having an addictive personality. This one seems a little counterintuitive, but when you can’t even say no to yourself, how will you be able to say no to someone else? Quitting drinking, quitting smoking, quitting gluten (sort of), quitting coffee, and quitting cheese has helped me to understand saying no and meaning it. Ironically, having an addictive personality can also create the opposite effect in people who are not conflict avoidant. People like this also don’t know how to tell themselves no, but since they know what they want and they aren’t afraid to ask for it, they can become more and more certain that they should have everything exactly their way, all the time, even when it’s not balanced. If you can’t say no to yourself, how will you ever say yes to someone else?
  3. Hypnosis! I tell everyone I know about hypnosis. I’ve seen three live hypnotists and done a million online sessions. I prefer the online sessions because I can listen to them and decide if I like the style or not and walk away if I don’t without any awkwardness. Here’s what I’ve learned: Almost all of our thoughts are subconscious. The subconscious mind runs the programs of our beliefs all day long. So if I learned once that I’m strong enough to do what everybody else wants, regardless of my own feelings, my subconscious takes that and makes it my program deep down. Talk therapy is great, but it takes a really long time to change that program underlying everything. Even if I tell myself “I am worth doing the things I want!!” the subconscious mind is still down there in the basement running a different code and saying something out loud isn’t enough to change it unless you say it a hundred times a day every day for a year. I read a book that describes our subconscious mind as a nightclub with a great big bouncer at the door. If you want to get into the nightclub and interact with the people inside, you have to get past the bouncer, which, in the analogy, is the mind’s security system that keeps everything running as it always has by deciding what thoughts get through into the subconscious. The bouncer bases his decisions on who is inside already, the kind of club it is, and what the management tells him to do. Hypnosis makes the bouncer veeeerrryyy sleeeeeeepy and distracts him so that you can slip by into the subconscious mind nightclub and move the furniture around and request some better songs from the DJ. (The book is called Instant Self Hypnosis by Forbes Robbin Blair).

What I’ve taken away from all this is simple. People don’t actually mind when I say no, most of the time. Sure they’re disappointed for a minute, but I think it actually makes them feel better, more like they can trust that I am doing something because I want to and not because I’m trying to make them like me. Their disappointment rarely lasts more than a few minutes, especially if I’m able to communicate why I’m saying no. I feel loads better these days. My nightclub is chill. We serve up justice and truth in there, most of the time. And I’m not going to end my life with some asshole sitting on my bare stump. It’s better for everyone, even the asshole, though he may not know it.

Me setting some legit boundaries with Poppy on my burnt cookie ice cream sandwich.

Things I’m obsessed with this week:

It’s been a long week. Time travels slowly and at the speed of light, and we are all on top of each other while simultaneously being at least six feet apart. Here are some things I’ve been obsessed with in the last seven days:

  1. Looking on eBay for vintage wind up watches. I don’t know what it is about gears and jewels and things that work without computers. I’d say I’m a prepper and like to be ready for systems failure, and that’s sort of it, but really I just love all things analog. I didn’t know what analog meant until a few years ago, when I went to a meeting with this giant, lovely dreadlocked man named Ron. I had invented a vegan cheese made from hazelnuts and I wanted to sell it in his store. Ron told me he “loved this analog cheese idea.” I pretended I knew what he was talking about and then I went home and asked my partner because she always knows what words mean. She said “it means pre-digital. It’s when something is made mechanically.” All those tiny gears! Somehow, there’s crystals or jewels or something in there! And they’re DOING things! You just wind it up and all day you’ve got a little best friend on your wrist, chattering away, jewels humming with magic earth powers, gears all interlocked and working in unity. Someday I’m going to start a wind up watch collection. Right now on shopgoodwill.com there is a WWII military issued Bulova watch for sale that was probably being worn by an Allied trooper as he swooshed in and stomped Hitler. I wanted to get it but I got outbid and I can’t go over $40.
  2. Baby squirrels. We have a squirrel nest under the eave of our house. They are heartbreakingly cute and heartstoppingly BAD AT CLIMBING SHIT. One tiny baby squirrel sat on the branch of the fig tree for fifteen minutes getting up his nerve to jump onto the roof of the neighbors house. He finally jumped and landed on the SMOOTH METAL ROOF and slowly slid down the slope. He hit the edge at about one inch per hour and exploded into a mess of fur and nails, grabbing every leaf and twig in reach, as he nearly fell to the ground for another fifteen minutes. It was like somebody had thrown a fur covered washing machine spin cycle into the fig tree. We were inside watching through the window making noises like we were at a Wimbledon match between Billie King and Bobby Riggs. There could only be one winner.
  3. Coffee metabolism. Did you know that we have a gene that decides how quickly (or slowly) we metabolise caffeine? One gene, just for caffeine! It’s called CYP1A2. (Just a really beautiful name! If I get another dog I’m going to name it CYP1A2). You can be a fast caffeine metabolizer, a medium caffeine metabolizer, or a slow caffeine metabolizer. Forty percent of us are fast, forty-five percent are medium, and fifteen are slow. It all comes down to your genetics. If you have a fast parent and a slow parent, you’ll be a medium and so on—you can figure out the rest. If you are fast, coffee can reduce inflammation. If you are slow, you shouldn’t drink coffee because it can CAUSE inflammation! Isn’t that a trip? I think I’m probably a medium, but I do know that when I drink coffee it makes my heart palpitate in an unusual way. I mean there’s normal life palpitations—when you nearly drop a seventy year old Pyrex bowl that your partner made cookies in when she was nine (it was wet! I have smooth hands!), or when you have to jump off a sixty foot quarry wall into Kentucky Lake with your whole watching family bobbing down below in a boat, or when you stop on the street and get out to help a snapping turtle get out of the road and you forget to pull the emergency brake in your manual truck and it begins to roll backward toward a trailer and instead of jumping back in to pull the brake you decide to try to stop it like Superman would do and run to the back and push really hard but the grass is too slippery and you have a sinking feeling that you’re about to be smashed between your truck and a mobile home but the truck magically stops at the last second because your used-to-be girlfriend was smart enough to scoot over into the driver’s seat and PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE!! (it was wet!! I have smooth hands!)—and there are unusual palpitations, like someone has reached into your chest cavity and is trying to milk your heart like it’s a cow teat. I recently quit drinking coffee, by the way.
  4. Coronavirus. Every time I have to go do something outside my house, I use my pendulum to tell me if I have coronavirus on me when I get done. I’ve been doing it for weeks. I hold the pendulum out in front of me and say “do I have coronavirus on me?” and it will spin clockwise if I do and counterclockwise if I don’t. Every time it says no, leading me to doubt that a. coronavirus exists or b. that my pendulum is an accurate predictor of its presence. You have to pick one because I went back and forth too many times and gave up. So yesterday was grocery day and I suited up and went out. I went to a Trader Joe’s first and then I had to go to Safeway because they have the good vegan mayo (it was on sale!). When I was done, I got out into the parking lot and pendulumed “do I have coronavirus on me?” fully expecting the usual no response. But holy hell! It said yes! Insert usual heart palpitations here. “Is it on my clothes?” Yes. “Is it on my groceries?” Yes. “Is it on my shoes?” Yes. “Do I need to go home and take off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine and bleach all my groceries?” Yes. Holy hell!! I freaked out. All the freaking that hasn’t been happening for weeks due to positive pendulum results flooded in. I rolled up all the windows so that I wouldn’t infect all the people I drove by and put the pedal to the metal. I jumped out when I got home and screamed for help. My partner, who was working on something that I’m sure was VVVVVVVEEERRRYYY important, didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation at first. “I’M COVERED IN VIRUS!!! HELP ME!!” I screamed from the front porch, ripping off my clothes. She stared at me, confused. “THE PENDULUM SAID I HAVE VIRUS ON MY CLOTHES AND IT’S ON THE GROCERIES!!” I screamed, nearly naked, glasses askew. “What do you want me to do?” she asked calmly. “HELP ME!! GET SOMETHING TO SPRAY THE GROCERIES WITH!! BLEACH!!” I screamed. So she googled the best way to disinfect groceries, while I stood on the porch in my underwear. She went to get the rubbing alcohol and started laying out the french fries and vegan mayo on the table to spray down. She may have only acted to shut me up, but it had the desired effect. My heart palpitations began to ebb as I threw every stitch of clothing I was wearing, including my shoes, into the washing machine. We went on full corona defense, disinfecting every crack of the house with alcohol, putting health shield virus killing essential oil in the diffuser, and burning the grocery bags. I pendulumed “is the virus gone?” Yes. “Are we safe?” Yes. “Did I catch coronavirus?” No. Whew. I turned to my partner and said. “Thank you for your help. I may have overreacted.” And we laughed. And now our house smells great.
A picture of a baby squirrel on my porch right before he head butted my hand and ran away and I threw my phone into the yard and screamed.

Go Susie! It’s Your Birthday!

Today is my birthday. I’m forty-four years old. I’m a huge fan of event days like Christmas and last days of school and birthdays, BUT I prefer the weeks leading up to those days, because during those times I can still look forward to them, imagine what’s going to happen, dream about the good food, and picture the people all gathered together. I always say that the worst thing about Christmas is that it’s the absolute furthest point away from the next Christmas that you can get. So I’ve been looking forward to my birthday for days and now it’s almost over and tomorrow will be back to the old mundane, which stresses me out. The minutes keep relentlessly marching forward, never to stop, no matter what. 

I remember some time, maybe ten years back, I read an article that said that Brad Pitt was forty-five or something like that years old and I felt surprised that he was so old. I felt a small gratification that, even though I’m not rich and don’t have a vineyard in France, at least I wasn’t old yet. Linear time is funny like that. Because now that I’m the same age I judged Brad for being, now he’s fifty-six (I just checked)! No Benjamin Buttons for this guy. He just can’t beat me in the age category. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about linear time lately, partly because of my birthday approach but also partly because of my alarm clock. Several nights ago I couldn’t sleep and I noticed the clock was blinking from when I turned off the electricity. As I stared at the numbers, I realized that I could compare the time that was blinking on the alarm clock (2:42) and compare it to the actual time it was (4:06 via my smartphone) and find out exactly what time I turned the power back on after I finished hooking up the grounding clamp in the backyard, because the clock starts at 12 when the power goes out and comes back on. A little mental math told me I finished that job at exactly 1:24 pm. 

I started wondering how I could use this newly discovered tool for something useful. For example, when I’m cooking and I need to time something, I could unplug the clock and plug it back in to measure how long it’s been in for (perhaps not as efficient as other time measuring devices widely available). Or if someone sneaks into the house to murder me, I could reach down and unplug the clock and plug it back in to give the police an accurate time of death (much more promising for marketing appeal.)

Mulling this over made me remember how Sipsey stopped the Grandfather clock when Ruth died in Fried Green Tomatoes. When someone dies it’s like shutting off the power. If you believe in reincarnation, when they come back, when the power comes back on for them, they are inextricably mathematically linked in linear time to any other person they’ve ever met, in any lifetime, just like my alarm clock and my smartphone. 

Incidentally, this thought process also made me want to watch Fried Green Tomatoes again, which is my birthday request for tonight, along with apple crisp and vanilla AND chocolate ice cream and pho soup with double noodles. I’m still looking forward to that, I’ll admit.

There’s a theory that in the fourth dimension there is no linear time and everything is happening all at once. It’s like if you think of your life as a giant sweet potato. At the pointy left end is your birth and at the pointy right end is your death. If you were to slice the sweet potato into rounds, going from left to right, you could pull out each individual moment—when you were born, your first day of high school, the day you retired, the day you died. That’s the way we experience time in this dimension, one split second at a time. I like to think that right now my sweet potato rounds are at the juiciest part. But in the fourth dimension, I’m a baby and I’m dead at the same time, because there are no singular moments there. Just a bunch of fat, blobby sweet potatoes, where one pointy end exists at the same time as the other pointy end forever and ever. Brad Pitt could beat me in the fourth dimension. Please don’t tell him I said that. 

As an aside, I recently read an article that said since we, in the third dimension, throw two dimensional shadows, if you’re in the fourth dimension, you’d throw a three dimensional shadow. I think that’s terrifying. Can you imagine a three dimensional shadow? And you know that it ain’t no sweet potato throwing that thing. It would be some sort of outrageous looking thing, with its insides on the outside, no skin maybe, some crazy looking fourth dimension eyeballs, but they wouldn’t be balls at all because balls are three dimensional. Maybe we couldn’t even see it, because our eyeballs are built to collect three dimensional images. There would just be this creepy three dimensional shadow that’s a baby and dead all at once. Outrageous. 

So to wrap up this weird birthday writing, I’ll say that while linear time forces us to experience Brad Pitt getting older and birthdays passing and Christmas being over again and again, one relentless second after another until we die, I also have to admit that it allows for a very specific human experience. Without it, we can’t reflect back or dream forward. We can’t see how far we’ve come or wonder where we’ll end up. We wouldn’t get to feel the growing anticipation that leads up to important events in our life. We wouldn’t feel the connections pinning us to all of those who came before us and those who are still to come, late at night, while watching a blinking alarm clock.

Therefore, I’ve decided that tonight after I slurp up my double rice noodles and watch Sipsey stop that grandfather clock when Ruth dies, and my birthday comes to a close, I’m going to try to feel both the bitter and the sweet sides of time passing and the world continuing its trajectory, rather than mourning the long distance between now and the next fun thing. Someday, when I’ve reached the dry hard point to the right side of my sweet potato, I’ll be able to look back on ALL the slices and feel content.

The Sweet Potato of Life-photo by Fructibus

True Justice is Blind

Today while I was cleaning the kitchen I was thinking about politics and karma. Karma is a funny word that we use a lot, mostly to make ourselves feel better when we think we’ve been abused and we can’t do anything about it. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that, were there really a full blown law of retribution, I would surely be in some hot water. I decided that maybe if I come clean about them, I might feel better and reduce my karmic debt. Here’s a woefully incomplete list of things I’m sorry for in chronological order.


1. I convinced my brother to ride his bike down a 2×4 propped on a giant concrete slab because I wanted to see if it could be done without getting hurt. It couldn’t. He banged his forehead on a rock and it bled a lot. The adults brought him inside to examine the wound. I ran to the bathroom to get a band aid and my dad didn’t take it when I offered it telling me “you’ve done enough here today.” I went away with the bandaid and I felt sorry for myself.

2. I stole a silver compass out of the Sunday School art cabinet. I cased the cabinet for about three weeks of Sunday Schools before I took the compass home, telling myself that nobody even knew it was there. I lost it almost immediately and felt sad.

3. I played a trust game with my sister Rachel on a rock wall. In the game one person has to close their eyes and the other person tells them where to step. I directed her off the end of the wall on purpose because I wanted to see what would happen. I told her it was an accident, but I could tell she didn’t believe me.

4. I found a cough drop on the chalkboard rim in my fourth grade classroom and I took it. I had it in my mouth a little while later when my teacher asked if anyone had seen it. I tried really hard not to breathe because the aroma would give me away. I never owned up to this. I’m sorry Mrs. Snarey, it was me that took it.

5. I put staples in Ms. Tunney’s apple in the 6th grade and got sent to the office. It wasn’t my idea, it was Mark L’s idea. I didn’t want her to get hurt, I just thought it was funny, like a whoopie cushion. I had the chance to apologize while she stood next to me in line on the way to the cafeteria but I chickened out and never spoke of it with her.

6. I slammed my sister Joan’s finger in the door of my parent’s van twice, one right after the other. She was making a silent scream after the first time and I didn’t understand why the door wouldn’t close so I gave it another go. Then I was jealous when a kind lady gave her a piece of gum to make her feel better.

7. I used one of those giant matches to light the kerosene heater in our living room and my little sister Anne wanted to blow it out. I tried to make some sparkler circles with the ember after she blew it out because I thought it would be impressive. The match was so long it went out of control and I hit her in the eye with it. I felt terrible and put some antibiotic ointment on it to make it stop hurting and it got in her eye and made it worse.

8. My friend Gretchen and I found corn cobs in a field behind her house and we lit the ends of them on fire and smoked them like cigarettes. It actually sort of worked. We knew it was wrong.

9. I stole a CD of Celtic dance music from Meijers Thrity Acre and got caught and my mom had to come and pay 10x the cost of what I stole as a penalty. It was $40 and I never paid her back, even though I said I would.

10. My friends and I tried to steal a newspaper machine to take the quarters out of it so we could get McDonalds. The security guard saw us and called the police and we lied and said we were just trying to get a newspaper and they let us go.

11. I’ve told a lot of people asking for money that I don’t have any cash on me when I actually do because it’s easier than telling them that I don’t give money to people on the street. This story has two sub points-1. I started not giving money to people when a lady told me she was out of gas in the parking lot at Market of Choice. I gave her a few dollars and then I randomly saw her again a few days later in the parking lot at Fred Meyers with the same story. We looked at each other and I squinted at her to show my displeasure (I’ve never been one for quality on-the-spot retorts). She looked away in regret (or maybe she didn’t recognize me) and I vowed to never give anyone money like that again. 2. I broke this rule one time outside of Lotus Garden. I’d paid for my dinner with cash and had my change in my hand-it was eleven cents. A man approached me and asked me if I had ten cents. I held up my hand and said “Oh my goodness I do!! Ask and you shall receive!” and handed him the dime. I thought it was an amazing coincidence but he didn’t think it was funny and I can surmise why.

12. I pre-paid for a ½ cord of mixed firewood to a young whipper snapper of a kid I found on Facebook marketplace. He told me five days in a row that he would deliver the wood the next day and he did not. I found his mom on Facebook and told on him. He pulled up at 10 pm that night in a ratty ass pick up truck and threw a ½ cord of logs as big around as my waist into the driveway and told me his mom had torn him a new one. I felt bad and so I didn’t complain that the logs were so big. He told me, “thanks for being so patient,” as he jumped into his truck and slammed the door and peeled away.

13. A boy at school answered a math question with the answer 69 and snickered. I got overly mad and I told him he was ruining math class for everyone including himself. I said “it’s like we’re having a nice party together and you’ve come along and pooped in our cake.” It was a little much and as well, did not have the intended effect of creating obedience. A very nice girl couldn’t stop laughing and I told her to, “go to the office if you think this is so funny!” She went, laughing so hard she was crying. I did apologize the next day, but it still goes on the list.

I could make this list very, very long if I tried. This was just with a little thinking back over the years. Plus, I’ve definitely omitted some things that only those who are close to me will ever know. 

But back to karma. I don’t really believe that there is a law of nature that says if you do wrong, wrong will come to you or vice versa. I believe that when I make decisions that don’t honor the values that I believe in, I stop trusting myself a little more each time. Every time I stole something or dropped my sister off the side of a rock wall or lied to someone to make my life easier or got mad and said some weird bullshit to a room of twelve year olds, I respected myself a little less and life became less enjoyable. And every time I come clean and tell the truth and do better the next time, even when it’s hard, I respect myself a little more and my life gains meaning and feels settled, something that took me decades to understand.

A great friend once said that “true justice is blind,” and that has always stuck with me. I try to remember it when I feel like lashing out at people who are doing wrong. This whack-a-doo Osho, whom I love and hate, says it best:

The law of karma is not some philosophy, some abstraction. It is simply a theory which explains something true inside your being. The net result: either we respect ourselves, or we despise and feel contemptible, worthless and unlovable.

Every moment, you are creating yourself; either a grace will arise in your being or a disgrace: this is the law of karma. Nobody can avoid it. Nobody should try to cheat on karma, because that is not possible. Watch… and once you understand it things start changing. Once you know the inevitability of it you will be a totally different person.

-Osho The Wisdom of the Sands

Cough drops I bought with my own money.