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.
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%.
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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.