String on the Bow
I am the type of person who wants the instructions. Tell me what to do, and I execute. This, of course, reveals my small-mindedness. How narrow would life be if we all followed the same instructions? More than anything else, books taught me that the bow of humanity has many strings. Or, to put it more colloquially, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
I will read any book, provided it is honest. I have no desire to hear, for example, the life story of someone who never made the wrong choice, was never tempted, never struggled, and never doubted. There are such books. They are false, and easily identified. But there are other books, essays and poems, which, upon reading, one feels like a tuning fork in the vicinity of another. Feeling the vibration in another fork, I find myself quivering with something true, something akin. Fiction or nonfiction, we make sense of our experiences through stories, and those stories have opened worlds to me.
Impossible, then, to say that one story most affected the way I move through life. There have been many that influenced me in different ways. A recent one serves as an example.
In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote readers a “permission slip” to write. He wrote that words have weight. His own work illustrated this. Mr. King was the prolific master of suspense, a genre I scorned when friends described the implausible premises.
Then I read his books. Like a frog dropped in warm water and gently heated, I did not realize I felt terror until the slow burn had started. By then, it was too late to escape. Upon reading his memoir, “On Writing,” I realized that he was just as talented when expressing humor, when giving practical advice, and when recalling in painful detail his early efforts and rejections as a writer.
I did write, surprising myself by unwittingly becoming published on Amazon, the result of a writing contest I entered. I did not win the contest, and you are part of a limited audience who knows I have written a published book. It is not my best work, but it lit my desire to do better.
Now I write as a practice. I realize now that I’ve always seen the world through the filter of my own perspective. And yet, when I try to recognize my point of view without writing, it is like trying to jump over my shadow. The recognition eludes me. So I embarked on writing a memoir. It is, as yet, unpublished, a story of foibles and trials. Some are humorous, some are pitiful. Some will make you wonder if I am making it up. I assure you I am not. It’s just my story, another string on the bow.
Once Upon A Time in Hamlin. . .
Hamlin is not the kind of town where you set out to live. My family only ended up there because Hackensack had such a drug problem, and, as immigrants, my parents didn’t have the social mobility to rise up out of bad neighborhood. So we moved to Hamlin, a sleepy little town that modeled itself off of Plasticville, USA. It reminded me of the train set in the window of the secondhand store, tiny houses all in a row, little coal refineries that blew real smoke, and, unbeknownst to my parents, a drug scourge that was so large it could have eaten Hackensack’s for breakfast.
I was only eight years old at the time. People thought I was dumb because I lacked confidence in my ability to speak English. I stuttered, which made people snicker at me or tease me for being dumb. My way of coping was not to speak at all. Perhaps that was why, when I first saw him, I was so mesmerized. I knew with a deep and abiding longing in my heart that no one had a gift of speaking like that without also having a fork in the tongue. I can hear him in my head now, the right-hand man of Robert Whitcomb, the portly real estate magnate set on securing office.
Pietro was his name. I don’t recall the last, but the media called him Piper. He and Whitcomb were an odd couple. Whitcomb, the beefy-handed, red-faced brash politician, and ever at his side, Piper, with his mellifluous voice and snakeskin shoes. There was a story to their oddness. Whitcomb said that in order to rid the city of the drug scourge, he had brought the child of a friend from his days in the ghetto, and that was Piper. I was skeptical. As the child of immigrants, I knew that Whitcomb had no friends in the ghetto. He carried himself carelessly, unlike the people I knew, who clutched change-purses unconsciously at their belt or chests. He couldn’t differentiate between those of different nations. Latino or Asian, no more specific than that, and that was how I knew it was all a big lie.
But Piper was different. No one really knew what his background was, so it was hard to dispute Whitcomb’s backstory, even though we all knew it was manufactured. Piper’s head was shaved and he had tattoos, three tiny teardrops at the corner of his eye. He had light green eyes that seemed at odds with his dark complexion, and his voice was quiet, like a harp. When Whitcomb shouted, he would lean back, with a look of wry amusement on his face, and his tongue would slip out of his mouth and lick his lips as he whispered to Whitcomb about what to say.
It was all about the drug problem, of course. Hamlin was filled with immigrant families, who just didn’t want to have to tell their children why spoons and needles littered the alley. They didn’t want their daughters to prostitute themselves, and they didn’t want their sons to carry shivs in their socks. So the campaign centered on that, and it was highly successful. Whitcomb was angling for the national stage, having succeeded in politics at the state level. He promised to clean up cities like Hamlin, and my parents’ eyes, for the first time in years, had the light of hope in them.
They spoke about him at dinner. We would eat in front of the T.V. Piper had no fear of any drug lords, and when he met “V,” the drug lord notorious in our neighborhood, he put his arm around him and whispered in his ear. Piper smirked then, and there was something about his smirk that was unsettling to me. Three days later, “V” was found shot to death and bleeding out in an alley near Lassiter Street. No one had stopped to help him. No emergency vehicles had responded.
This I found terrifying, actually. The prospect of being in a new neighborhood, so cold that a person could have the lifeblood drain out of him with no one caring, was a terrible kind of knowledge that I could not seem to distract myself from. What was worse was the graffiti that followed. “Die, wretches,” it read in fuzzy black spray paint on the alley above where “V” had been killed. Then others were found. Minor players, small time dealers, who were suddenly, just . . . gone.
The mood changed drastically in Hamlin after that. It seemed as though the townspeople instinctively knew that without the drug problem, windows wouldn’t be broken, and graffiti would stop. Shop owners invested in cans of paint, and could be seen planting flowers, throwing away trash, transforming the town on the outside to match the cutting of the cancer that had already occurred.
It wasn’t enough though. Where there is vulnerability, domination only lies in wait, and that was when Whitcomb and his henchmen began to comb the town. Piper was nowhere to be seen, but he seemed to have been replaced by two heavies, who made rounds to the stores and collected the “crime-free tax,” for having cleaned the city of its vermin. My mother and father did not own a store, but my mother worked at the bodega. Her hands shook when she had to cover on a Friday night, because that was the day that the “tax” was due. My father said not to worry, but he came home one day with a small handgun, and when I went to bed, I could hear him playing with it, loading and unloading the chamber, testing himself on his own facility with it.
My father said that the shop owners were taking a stand. They wouldn’t pay taxes for protection anymore. The drug problem had been dealt with. Now they wanted to go on about their business. Whitcomb began to comb the neighborhood again, accompanied by Piper. But Whitcomb didn’t seem to be himself. Gone was the confident walk, replaced by a pitch in his voice that gave away a raw nerve, and yet Piper seemed to be only emboldened. He danced alongside Whitcomb, telling him what to say and literally prodding him along with a sharp dig of his elbow.
I remember the day that the children went away. It was like a dream. It was Juarez’s day. We had gone to school filled with joy and hope, for on Juarez’s day there would be fireworks, games, dancing and good food. It was March and the sun was white hot, unusual in the state of New York. Our teacher told us that we would have a special visitor, Senator Whitcomb and his Chief of Staff, Piper, would come to the school for an anti-drug demonstration.
We had assembled in the gym. Whitcomb was onstage in a big pinstriped suit, sweat circles forming even through his jacket. Someone had informed him that it was Juarez’s day, and he and Piper had arranged for a big party in the school yard to follow the anti-drug demonstration. Piper had stepped lightly through the aisles, almost effeminately, passing out handouts and candies. There was something sinister in his walk, in the way he seemed to take joy in prancing up the aisles like that. When he came to me, he took my hand and caressed it with his finger. He saw me draw back, surprised and disgusted, and he stared at me with his piercing green eyes, with a look that seemed to go all the way through my own eyes, and which left cold goosebumps on my arms.
My sister pulled my hand and told me that we were going. I didn’t like this. We were supposed to go right home to help our mother with dinner and cleaning up. But I went. And the rest was a blur. There was music, there were fireworks and there was a haze of sweet smoke at the party. I ate a little candy, it was sweet and indescribable, and the next thing I knew my head was swimming. The other children were gone, following Piper in a line toward his car, where he was handing out something, some sort of sweet treat, I imagined. Then I saw him take one child around the neck, just as he had taken “V.” I knew that something terrible, something unspeakable was about to happen.
A man came and carried the child off, took him to the dumpster, where, even above the thumping music and sounds of fireworks, I heard the child scream, a bloodcurdling, high-pitched involuntary scream. The scream of someone who has not the presence of mind to register despair. It was a scream of shock and horror.
He saw me then, Piper did. He saw my dark eyes widen in fear, and he took me by my neck. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I pulled in air again and again and tried to scream, but nothing. He laughed then. He through back his head and laughed the most demonic, hideous laugh I have ever heard. He knew I couldn’t speak. He let me go, watching as I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back home.
I don’t know what happened after that. My mother says I came home white-faced, and that was when my parents took me to the psychologist. It would be a year before I learned to speak. I still have no memory of what happened that day in Hamlin, but I will never forget that silver-tongued liar who showed me that vengeance is a sword with two sharp edges.
Epstein Didn’t Commit Suicide
“We all have a purpose. Look to your life to find out your purpose,” he’d said. Hmm. I’m a lawyer in administration, I thought to myself. Then I woke up.
I’d had a recurring dream. I had gone to some place that seemed familiar, a place where everything seemed middle-of-the-road: where they served chicken breasts poached, where Lewis Capaldi played on the radio 24-7, and where the water pressure in the shower was meh. That is to say, nothing seemed terrible, but nothing was really great, either. It was only when I spied angel wings on the man who was interviewing me that I began to suspect that I was in the middle place.
I really thought that I should be in Heaven. I catalogued some of my better qualities:
“I bought a pair of TOMS shoes, which means that I donated a pair.”
The angel in my dream had rolled his eyes. “That was a status purchase.”
“I gave my mom that expensive perfume last Christmas.”
“Yeah, so that you could get the free tote. Your mother doesn’t even like perfume.”
“Well, what about what I do for the family?”
“You mean sampling the cookie dough ‘to ensure that it’s edible?’ That doesn’t count.” He frowned. He paused and appeared thoughtful. You really need to think about your life. “What is your true purpose? How are you using your gifts to accomplish good in the world?”
“What kind of a question is that?” I asked. “I manage an office. I hold meetings. I occasionally direct people to other people who are helpful. Isn’t that enough?”
The angel looked annoyed. “What would you want people to say about you if they found you in a car crash?”
“How about, ‘look, she’s still breathing?’”
* * *
So, apparently, I had to do something for the good of mankind, something that would make the world a better place. And I was supposed to use my gifts, as evidenced by the talents that had helped me to prosper during my earthly existence. Easy-peasy.
* * *
I couldn’t recall how I’d found myself on the plane. I was sitting in first class. When I asked the flight attendant when we’d touch down, she told me that we’d touch down at Palm Beach International airport at approximately 6:05 p.m. Palm Beach, I thought. That sounded like a great place to use my gifts to redeem myself and finally accomplish my life’s purpose.
I was working on the crossword puzzle when I smelled cologne. This wasn’t Old Spice, this was cologne. The kind that you just catch a tiny sniff of when a classy person passes by, but then you have to breathe in again, deeply, because you want to take it all in. He was tall and handsome, with salt and pepper hair. I could tell by the narrow tailoring of his clothes and the way he knew the flight attendant that he flew this way often.
Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve seen someone before?
I suddenly had that feeling. His face looked so familiar to me. My German teacher from college? No, too wealthy. Was he a celebrity? Nah, seemed kind of shy and understated, actually.
Hmm. So familiar. I had seen that broad smile, the strong chin and the heavy eyebrows before. He caught me staring. His dark eyes slowly lifted from his Investor’s Weekly. He held out his hand with the gusto of someone who is about to have his hand cut off.
I held grasped it with my own. “I’m Amy.”
Something about that soft, cold hand touching mine sent a long shiver up my spine. I went back to my crossword.
He ordered a drink and flipped through the in-flight catalogue. I put on my sleeping mask and peered out at him from under the edge. I saw him flag down the flight attendant and point out an item in the catalogue.
Something about Jeffrey seemed so familiar. There was a tiny gold ankle bracelet that he was pointing to in the catalogue. It wouldn’t have fit around the ankle of an adult. It was a child’s anklet. I heard him mention to the attendant that she should charge it to his account. He was purchasing it, apparently. Must have a relative, I thought. I looked at his fingers. They were smooth and buffed, like a doctor’s. He continued to leaf through the magazine. He was flipping to the personal care items.
I’d never met anyone who actually purchased anything from the in-flight catalogue. I wondered why he’d purchase in-air, especially when we were on a domestic flight. I wondered where he lived. Then it came to me. His face on a black background in a glossy magazine. Yes, yes. I recalled it now!
In fact, my friend had interviewed him for the magazine she wrote for. She had called me crying after she submitted the story. She told me that there were victims, “survivors,” she called them. She told me that parts of the article had been edited out, and she had wept for the survivors, because the article made it sound like he was just a jet-setting executive, when actually. . .
My heart skipped a beat. Now I knew who this man was. I bristled. This man was a danger! He was flying to Palm Beach, probably where he lived in the big mansion featured in this glossy magazine. He’d just purchased a child’s ankle bracelet. Who knew what would occur when the plane landed? I had to do something to stop this! This must be my mission. I was to make the world a better place. My veins turned to ice.
I had to off him. Ok, then, how would I do this? I was on a plane. That would make it a federal crime, wouldn’t it? No. No. Wait. I was supposed to do only good. Offing somebody would probably negate the good. And also, killing someone sounded messy and would probably be complicated.
No, no, that couldn’t be what I was supposed to do.
I thought some more. I knew the future. I knew the basis upon which Jeffrey would be prosecuted, and it wasn’t good. In fact, it was very, very bad. I had to stop him before he ruined other lives. But how?
I could out him. I would tell everyone about the terrible things he had done, no would do, or, intended to do? . . . No, wait. That wouldn’t work. I had no evidence really. What would I say, that an angel from the future had told me to get rid of Jeffrey so that the world would be a better place? That I had a strong gut feeling that he was going to do something very, very bad, but I couldn’t say to whom, how, or when? If only I could just get rid of him some how, just jettison him. . .
Hmm, I thought, for a moment, distracted. Maybe there are others I should also jettison in order to make the world better. . . I could think of a few candidates. No, no. That’s not really me, and besides, I was getting distracted. What was I supposed to do? Use my gifts?
Yes, I was fairly certain that I was supposed to use my gifts, learned during my lifetime, to make the world a better place. “Think!” I told myself. In my former life, I was a lawyer and an administrator. I looked down at my clothes. I thought that I usually wore better clothes than this. I was wearing a brown uniform with a name plate over my right shoulder. Weird. I apparently worked for the Florida DMV now.
Jeffrey caught me staring at myself perplexedly.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Um, ahh. . . ” I stammered. And then, a flash of insight!
“Actually, yes. I do think something is terribly wrong.”
“Do you have your RealID?”
“No. I use my passport.”
“What?You mean you don’t have RealID?”
“No, but it’s never been a problem.” He smiled.
I put on my best authoritative voice, a gift from my past life. “Oh, no. Jeffrey, it is most certainly a problem. You should have gotten your RealID before you got on this flight.”
“It’s fine, really.”
“It is not fine.” I had put on my voice of authority again. “I am putting you under a citizen’s arrest.” I stood up. I raised my right hand and placed it on Jeffrey’s shoulder. “You are under citizen’s arrest.” I bellowed.
The other passengers continued to listen to their earbuds. I was uncowed. This was plenty familiar to me from having used my gifts in the past. At least Jeffrey seemed to be somewhat concerned. Or was it embarrassed?
Jeffrey shifted in his seat. “Ok. Fine. Sit down, please. I’ll take care of it.”
“This is important,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I’ll make sure I get it next chance I have.”
“Oh, no! You have to get it now. You and your little friends might have difficulty with international travel if you don’t.”
He looked at me strangely.
“Wouldn’t want anything to come tween you and your social escapades, if you know what I mean.”
He cocked his head at me. “You just want me to get a RealID, right?” he asked.
“I want you to start now and don’t do anything else until you complete the process.”
He stared at me.
“Okay,” he said. “Fine.”
“Thank you for being part of our ongoing effort to improve the integrity and security of state-issued Driver’s Licenses.” I beamed.
“What do I have to do?”
Dear Reader, you are not going to make me tout my own special gifts by detailing them here, are you? Lawyers and administrators are criticized for not getting things done, for creating mountains of unnecessary paperwork, for spending and causing others to spend time and money needlessly. Oh, those myopic critics! I simply harnessed my talents as a lawyer and as an administrator to direct Mr. Epstein on what to do. I didn’t actually do anything. My talent lies in facilitating.
Suffice it to say that Mr. Epstein had a phone call to make first. Option number 16 is for those who are interested in hearing about RealID. Option 27 is for those who would like to pre-register. I could direct him to both telephone numbers. He might be placed on a brief hold. What if he became frustrated? He could always try the website. I’d be happy to direct him there. But really, he’d ultimately have to appear in person. It would be necessary to complete a little bit of paperwork. He may have to wait in a line--just briefly. Well, unless the DMV was understaffed. Or our people were on break. No worries. I was pretty sure that there would be at least one teller working. Of course, she’s the new one. . .
And that is how I saved the world from Jeffrey Epstein.
Those memes that say “Epstein didn’t commit suicide?” They are one hundred percent correct. Epstein didn’t commit suicide. He’s still at the DMV, suffering a fate that some would characterize as worse than death. I, however, like to refer to it as “saving the world,“or, alternatively, “using my talents.”
You want to know about my fate? Well, I’m back in a familiar place, and let me just say that only today I facilitated another meeting. No need to thank me. It’s all in a day’s work.
Serial Killer 2020
They were everywhere. They had large black bodies and exoskeletons that crunched if you stepped on one. The children were disgusted. "They are everywhere!" Tanya had shrieked. "Can't we do something about them?" Robert complained. I had grown tired of bickering with the family over watermelon juice that slowly dripped onto the floor, the pink lemonade powder that had spilled into the corner and had somehow gotten tracked all the way across the kitchen floor, out onto the covered back porch. I was disgusted myself. "We need an exterminator!" I had finally yelled in response. The husband, ever calm, ever cool and collected, after researching on the internet, had intervened.
"They are carpenter ants," he'd said. "They live on the trees that abut the house. Our options are to get rid of the trees, hire an exterminator to drill and bomb the perimeter, or . . . try this home remedy."
"How much for the exterminator?" I wanted to know.
He told me. "Call him," I said, without hesitation.
But a week passed. The exterminator had not called back. We were to have guests over, and each time I opened a kitchen cabinet, each time I slipped into the little powder room off the kitchen to wash my hands, they were there, crawling, leaving a trail of ant pheromones behind them. This apparently was a chemical that called to others to join the party. I could just imagine the little chemical messages. "Delicious! Someone cut a ripe mango over here!" "Anyone want some peanut butter? It's on this knife that's just sitting on the counter top."
This was how I got my first thirst for blood.
They say that the lust for death is sometimes preceded by a desire to purge. Such was the case with me. I did something radical, something almost unheard of in my house. I removed all chairs from the kitchen, and I scrubbed. It started with the countertops. I scrubbed with the energy of a scorned woman. I scrubbed the stovetop, cabinets, handles, even the sticky nether regions of the floor that had only been brushed by soft wet mop fibers once in a blue moon. And it felt good.
Where surfaces had been sticky, they were now smooth and clear. No more was my sponge hung up on a clear mass of -- what was it, jelly? Jell-O? Egg white? The kitchen smelled clinical, like Clorox, like a clean laboratory.
For just a moment, I felt a pang of conscience. Was I creating a superbug by having a kitchen so sterile? Should I have used the organic cleanser? The pungent smell of chemical clean was strong. I suddenly felt strong, too.
What kind of a woman uses organic cleanser? I asked myself. The kind that can't put her foot down, I told myself. The kind who is controlled by peanut-buttery knives on countertops, the kind that has no power, I told myself. This is the new me. Clorox and antiseptic everywhere. I smiled to myself. I was beginning to enjoy this.
The next step was to create the toxicant. If Mr. Exterminator refused to come, then I would have to take matters into my own hands. I scoured the internet for solutions until finding the top-rated elixir. It was a mix of--well, I'd tell you, but I fear that it might, uh, change you. Suffice it to say that I had all household ingredients handy, and, with the dear departed dog having gone to the big farm in heaven, and only teenagers in the house now, I was safe to leave the elixir at floor level, in one of the four olive oil dipping dishes that we had been given by some well-meaning friend.
Moo-hahaha! They were the perfect size for the elixir.
The internet said that the taste of this elixir was so palatable to the ants, that they couldn't help themselves. They left their trail of pheromones, calling the others to join them. The poison then destroyed a necessary enzyme in their digestive system, shredding their insides and offing them cleanly, efficienty, effectively.
I was skeptical. We had been sweeping ants outside, crunching them under our feet for weeks now. The exterminator would have been at least a few hundred dollars, and we couldn't even get a call back. Could this simple elixir make a dent into our infestation?
In a word: yes.
I had put out the pietri/olive oil dishes out at noon, by four o'clock there were several dead ants lying in the clear liquid at the bottom of the dish. "Well, look at that," my husband said. "We got some."
I felt a surge of satisfaction. I was winning the battle. Those little buggers had gotten the best of me for so long. They thought they could control me, I smiled smugly. "Look who has the upper hand now," I thought to myself.
By five o'clock, a strange thing had happened. There was a long, dark line extending from the sliding glass door into the pietri dish. Interesting, I reflected. I hadn't realized that we had a gap that was allowing the ants to enter the house. The long black line was a parade of ants, all of whom were apparently drawn to the elixir. They marched into the dish and crawled out again, wanting to trace their steps back to their home. They never made it, however. On the way were ant carcasses littering the floor. In spite of this, the others kept coming.
"Look at this!" I called out. The children came running. "The ants! I've got them now!"
Tanya looked at me. "You are a little too excited about this."
Robert rolled his eyes. "Can I buy a video game?"
My husband appeared. "Great, hon, looks like we are making some progress."
The next day I refreshed the dishes. The ants had suffered a great loss in number. At least 75 had died as a result of the kitchen pietri dish. "Terrific!" I thought. I think I can get more with fresh dishes and fresher elixir.
I set out four dishes that day. One in the spot in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, one hidden under the fridge, and one on the back porch.
"Why do you need to catch ants that are outside?" Tanya asked.
"Because they are horrible creatures that deserve to die," I smiled.
The weeks progressed. The record number of ants I'd caught so far was 150. Yes, I had counted. Those little bastards were mine now. I knew how to get them. It was so simple. I'd even perfected my ratio of serum. The problem was, my numbers were dropping. I informed the husband.
"Well. sweetie, that means you accomplished your goal," my husband said, reasonably.
But it wasn't the same.
Truth be told, I felt less accomplished at the end of the day with only two ants in the pietri dish.
"I declare our ant problem solved," the husband said triumphantly at dinner one night. "What's wrong?" he asked upon seeing my face fall.
"Nothing," I said, which is what I say when something is very clearly wrong.
"Sweetheart, let's talk after---yyyyyiiaaaaa!!" he said.
We had been interrupted by a loud buzzing.
A long black body whizzed past the husband's nose.
A large wasp had flown into the kitchen from outside.
"No problem!" I said, suddendly buoyed. I felt a surge of electricity. I was alive. I had a purpose. My smile returned.
"Let me handle this."
It was a good joke, and I couldn’t help chuckling to myself to think about how the Fates must get a kick out of watching us. I was re-reading my goals and resolutions from last year. I had planned to run the Boston marathon in April. That rug was pulled out from under me early due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Erie marathon, which I’d also signed up for January first of ’20 was cancelled next. We then cancelled the family vacation. We were to go to an amusement park and historical area. It became just an unrealized plan, a daydream, like the others. Now I was sitting before a blank page with my pen poised above it, trying to think about what I should write for January 2021.
The surprises of the pandemic were things I hadn’t written about. In January of 2020, I had no idea that instead of watching the kids play lacrosse, we would be playing family games of foursquare, complete with smack talk, so delectable that I raced home from work and we finished dinner early so we could start, and then play team Canasta next. I didn’t know that I’d strain my hamstring as a result of jumping around from side to side during the foursquare game, and that the injury would take the sting out of missing my races. I didn’t know that as a result of being injured, I would see, really see, the gorgeous farmland that is only a mile or two from my house, because I walked it and didn’t run it, and I could hear the birds and the crickets without listening to my headphones. I didn’t know that because I couldn’t run, I’d embark on a mission to build up my core by listening to Cassey Ho, whose blogilates workouts burned and shredded and made me stronger.
I hadn’t known that the kids would laugh good humoredly at me when I turned up the volume and Cassey talked about her wedding stilettos. I hadn’t realized that I was acting just like the middle-aged mom in those Disney movies that we would watch as a family, because during the pandemic, I suddenly realized that the kids were getting older and we only had a little time together, and I was nostalgic and wistful for their childhoods, and they were willing to indulge me now. Maybe they knew I needed it.
I vowed to learn from the pandemic, not to waste any time, and to spend a little more time in thought and to stop worrying about meetings that were unnecessary, pleasing people I didn’t care for anyway. I learned that I could really pare down, I mean really pare down, and that the results of such paring down were good. And then our state moved back into the green zone, and I was elected Treasurer of our state organization, and there I found myself again, calling meetings and generating reports. Were they really necessary? And why was I doing this all over again, when I promised myself I wouldn’t?
So, January, you will not fool me twice. I will not list the things that I will accomplish. I will not have such hubris, such determination and doggedness to get things done. Besides, I learned a few things with my new companion, Curiosity. How did I know that my teenagers would be fun and spend time with us if I only did some of the things that they wanted to do? We learned how to play Canasta. We ate well, shrimp and steak and home-cooked meals, thanks to the others who had cleaned the shelves of pasta and rice when we all thought that the world was ending.
The Fates and January 2021, you wanted me to learn that I am more than my marathons, that our family vacations are just the mode of spending time together. My page is blank and my pen is poised because never before, in my years of writing, had I spent time on who I really wanted to be. I was always preoccupied with the things I wanted to do. January, you will not dupe me this year. I am looking out at the bright blue sky. I will be curious. I will be courageous. I will be flexible. I will be appreciative. Take that, Fates, I think to myself as I see the sun glinting off the sparkling snow, lying on the front yard. I put my pen to paper and I start to write.
Love One Another, Enjoy
Is Ben in the crowd? Dr. Horton? Mom and Dad, you there?
Thanks, everyone, for coming.
Hopefully, you are all out there. I can’t take the pressure of being insightful, so I’m just going to be myself. (OK, funny boy in the back, turn around and walk back to your seat, you are a captive audience, remember?)
What I want to tell you is that this is it. This is all there is. After forty-five years on this planet trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do, I finally discovered the secret, and I thought I’d let you in on it, too. The secret is that you should love one another and do what makes you happy. Yeah, yeah, I know, I sound preachy, but hear me out.
When we are small, we are led. This happens with the best of intentions. Our teachers want us to learn the things that all children learn, basic things about how to get around in the world, how to add, how to read, what the scientific method is. We are little sponges, and we take it all in without really having the wherewithal to evaluate it. If we are driven, we get really good at becoming valued according to the commonly held standards. We learn to be polite. We are neat. We don’t let people down.
Has anyone in the crowd ever done something because someone else wanted you to? Ever been a passenger in the car with someone who was too inebriated to drive, but you didn’t want to cause a fuss? Ever take a job even when you knew you really had something else in you, and you were only lukewarm about the prospect? Ever spend an evening doing something that you didn’t want to do—and then regretted it?
What about the flip side? Have you ever awakened in the morning and sipped coffee and watched the sun rise and just thought to yourself: who am I that I get to see this beautiful, magnificent display of changing colors? Have you ever listened to the chorus of birds and thought to yourself, I get to wake up to the sweet sounds of spring and summer? Have you ever seen the metallic beauty of a dragonfly, or looked at the stark relief of a gnarled old tree against the winter sky, or just enjoyed the warm hug of your child or the smell of coffee or the feel of your clean cotton sheets when you go to bed?
When these things are absent, I miss them, but when they are around I am sometimes annoyingly oblivious. I don’t think I’m alone in wasting my time in all the conventional ways. I work extra hard sending emails, attending meetings, calling meetings, preparing agendas, saving for vacation, going to things that I feel lukewarm about, saying things that I don’t always believe, and why?
Well, one day I woke up and realized that it was up to me how I spent my day. That’s right, it took me over forty years to come up with that little insight. Stop snickering, you! This is my moment!
But seriously, why should I be so concerned about impressing people that I’m not even such great friends with? Do I always have to do a stellar job? Honestly, sometimes I’m better off doing a half-assed one, with time to spend doing the things I love. And those of you I called for in the crowd? Just wanted to make sure you were there, because you (and others) have carried me when I had nothing else. Ben, you ate breakfast with me every day when I was at my worst. My friend who called every day. That’s what mattered. Not what we are “supposed” to be, not what people expect us to be, not what we think we need to aspire to be in order to be a good, successful person. What is wanted from us is what we see glimpses of in our everyday life—the squeeze of the hand, the just listening conversation, the walking or running in a beautiful setting, the writing or painting or singing or kickboxing or laughing or whatever it is that you do that brings you pure joy. Turn up that feeling in your gut and start to listen to it, there is no “supposed to” do anything in this world.
So what will I do, you want to know?
I will run. It makes me feel free and strong. I will do it in the sun and in the rain and with friends, and alone and listening to music or a podcast. I will bake my zucchini-almond flour-raisin-apple-walnut muffins so that they are still a little underdone in the middle, because they are most delicious to me that way, and I don’t care if anyone else thinks I’m a Granola, because I make them all the time and I’m the only one who eats them. I’ll listen to my Go-Go’s while I wet mop the kitchen floor, and when no one’s looking, I just might borrow my daughter’s fedora and practice Michael Jackson’s moves in “Smooth Criminal,” because it’s fun—ok, and because no one is around. (I have not completely arrived, I suppose.) I will hit that golf ball with the torque of my whole body and with my hands finishing high, because it feels so good. I’ll read Nabokov and Lauren Groff and nonfiction and popular books and literature because I read voraciously and there is so much to learn, even if all that I learn is how not to write. (Yeah, yeah, you are telling me to keep going, I know I have a lot to learn, Smarty!) I will redo my house because even though I’m forty-five I think the hipsters have a really great thing going with this minimalist style, and besides, I’ve always loved plants, and they clean the air, and it goes with the hygge lifestyle that I love. Candles are nice, so I think I’ll always keep those burning in the winter, and I love herb tea, so I think I’ll be drinking that, too. With sugar. Not artificial sweetener. (Yech.)
In the winter, I’ll be skiing with the family, and I’ll sing along to the pop songs on the lift, because no one can hear me and because I’ve always done that because it’s fun. And when we are done, the whole family will go to Starbucks and I’ll order the hot chocolate with whipped cream and I won’t even care that it’s over 500 calories because it’s so freaking delicious and besides think of all those calories we burned when we were schussing down the hills.
Also, I like campfires, so I think I’ll be having a few of those. And hot dogs are so good over campfires. Crunching through leaves: very fun, no matter how old you are, so I will be doing that. Also, I have a guilty pleasure—slapstick comedies. I know it’s not completely appropriate to watch with the kids, but they are so darned hilarious. Who doesn’t laugh at the Over, Over part in Airplane? Which reminds me, I do love a slow burn film noir or those psychological thrillers. Mesmerizing. Of course, I want to cuddle up next to the huzzy when I watch, so I’ll be doing that. That’ll probably be in my workout clothes, which are so soft and comfy, but I want to leave some room to buy a really great dress. You know the kind—more than you ought to pay and worth every penny because you feel like a movie star every time you wear it. So I guess that entails some gussying up, which is also OK, because when I get my hair or makeup done, it reminds me how much of a skill it is to do that stuff and how luxurious it feels to have someone do it for me. What’s that, shallow? I don’t care, I’m doing it my way this time!
You are falling asleep. You think I’m preachy. Well, maybe I am, but I’m not going back. Too much wasted time. We’ve only got a little on this earth. Love one another, and also, enjoy!
Nice to meet you, Dion. May I call you Dion? Ok, so there was the time that I had a little too much to drink. . . I'm nickering already because the idea of a school-wide college formal dance is, in itself, kind of funny. Let me tell ya, Dion, we do not grow out of that awkward stage. Even after puberty is a distant memory, it is and will always be awkward any time formal wear is involved. And that includes your wedding.
Anyhoo, the guy in my German class asked me, and he showed up at my apartment in suspenders. Funny, right? I was side-eyeing him because my formal dress was full and sky blue, but tight at the bodice, so together we looked like Pinocchio and the Swiss Miss. No doubt our German IV classmates would take notice. When in Rome, right? So we started out by drinking some biers. Er, beers.
At the pre-party, we listened to The Police and every time they sang "Roxanne," we drank. (Dion, it's a lotta Roxannes. Too damn many to count, and way more than anyone should drink to.) And that is exactly why I was a little distracted when we stepped out of the party and onto that heating grate where my heel got stuck. Those metal bars bit the spike right off my heel, and from then on, every song we danced to was a waltz for me. The Stones? I waltzed it. The Connells, more waltzing. Coolio? You get the idea. I probably should have taken both shoes off, but then I would have slipped on the gazpacho, so, in hindsight, I think I made the right choice.
It was a long night, made longer by drinking a Screaming Alien, which I was sipping because my head was already spinning from the hopping up and down on my heel and from drinkint to all the Roxannes. By the end, I was tired and I felt pinched all over, despite never having been pinched all evening long. (Probably a function of the unflattering dress. Note to self: skinny cocktail dress next time.)
When my date asked me to help him at the football game the next day, I'd just had too much. I was honestly swearing off drink at the time. So I went to bed. And I promised to drink water. Only water. Nothing else. And be in a dark room. Preferably, a cave or a darkroom.
The next day the sun was shining annoyingly hard and when I walked past the frat house, my friends were calling to me from the lawn, "Davis! Davis! Come and join us!" There they were in the sunshine, dancing to a live reggae band, steel drums a playful hypnotist saying to me, "Davis, go, have fun! Look at the people sandwich dancing to the reggae band. Doesn't that look like a great idea?"
Now, a more enlightened person probably would have felt compersion. I, however, am apparently still in my samsara. So. Much. Fun. And I was missing out. Well, heck, it's not like I was ditching my date. This was a whole new day! Besides, everyone knows that it's the hair of the dog that bit you that brings the cure. Or, at least some adventure. So, the next thing I knew, I was gyrating on the front lawn with my buds and laughing and having a good old time.
The rest? Um. Well. Ah. . . Stop, it Dion! You know I don't remember. But the Greek and I had a great time. As a matter of fact, that was the day that he invited me to his frat formal the following week. . .
Iterations of Love
Happy: a text that you can't wait for tonight
Joyous: brisk run, sun over wet grass
Joke with me, camaraderie
Good fortune, a surprise
Gratitude for your generosity, kinship
Doting: dinner with the children
Enthusiasm: a party with the girls
It gets late.
Of all the iterations, quiet is my favorite
Just us, simple as that.
There is an elephant inside of me.
Graydon Carter, the journalist, said that elephants bear the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness and social intelligence. But the way they are treated is reprehensible.
There must be an elephant inside of me.
Memory like an elephant, they say. Mine is abysmally accurate. Unconsciously, I remember all the slights. I've catalogued them while wanting to let them go. Do you remember when you excluded me? You moved me away, put me where I'd have the least contact, hoping that I'd wither. Do you remember when you sabotaged my opportunity? You persuaded me to do the wrong thing. For three years that followed, I suffered silently, until the toll began to manifest physically in my body. I developed an ulcer. I grew thin. I berated myself for my own stupidity in listening to you. I don't want to remember it that way. But that's the way it happened. No whitewashing this memory, try as I might. Do you remember when you blamed me for something you did in front of the group? You held the position of power. You knew I couldn't respond. And I didn't. And like the elephant, I knew that there was something in you some feeling, some weak trait of human behavior that you couldn't shed that was making you do it. And I felt sorry for you. A little.
A waste of my time to try to figure out why, I'm smart enough to know that, at least. The elephant inside me lumbered along, because that's what I've done/what I do/push on/mind my business/act like it never happened/try to erase it.
I'm living it.
Do you think that the others don't see you for what you are? Do you think that because you close your eyes to it, all are blind? Do you think that your shallow slights aren't seen by the group? I'll let you in on a secret. When you pulled that trick of trying to fault me, blame me, humiliate me, they knew. His eyes met mine as I opened my mouth and closed it again. You didn't see that part, did you? And you didn't count on me, but that sabotage act that caused my ulcer backfired, didn't it? It makes me chuckle now. People said to me, "you look like that cat that ate the canary."
I wanted to tell them that I was. That's right, I executed an Axel Paulsen edge jump with no training whatsoever. It must have been those words you asked me to say to the others. They saw with unclouded eyes. Mmmm, that canary was delicious, though!
I try to keep it low key.
I like to think I have enough social intelligence and awareness to know that being smug is not becoming.
I'm not afraid of you.
Do you want to know what I see inside of you? It's an earthworm.
Clings to the earth. Eats dirt, shits dirt, becomes dirt.
I see you, worm.
I Bear Witness
I've been moulting. Since the start of the pandemic, actually. I couldn't access my dermatologist, so I just stopped using my prescription face cream. My skin began to peel, tiny bits of translucent deadness, falling off as I detoxed. I didn't realize there was something alive underneath. Underneath, the skin is pink, tender and fresh. Having seen it, I know I will never return to unthinkingly slathering on my prescription. There is too much to which I've now born witness.
What are these things? They are things that surrounded me every day, that I never thought to explore. On my walk this morning, grand trees that stand firm in the ground, they have bark that is
gray brown but tinged with poison green lichen
and their leaves are of
green and white
dark green fragrant with peach colored tulip flowers.
They have stood sentry before the pandemic and will remain. What deity has made this world that I have never seen before with my eyes? Who could be so powerful as to make a sky that changes color by the hours, clouds that are pinkwhitegold and fluffy or lavenderneonorange and flat? Who could build a planet that self sustains, with rain that falls from the sky, part of a light and sound show thunderstorm on a hot summer day? When the sun shines, I feel it now, on my walk. I know that when I walk through a shadow it will be colder, but warm again when I emerge. I know that there are creatures that fly through the air in different ways
birds that fly
butterflies that flutter
hawks that soar
bees that zzzzoom
insects that hop and leap
kestrels that dive
flies that land and fly and land and fly and land.
I never saw them before. Well I did and I didn't. They were lumped into a category called "Nature" that I spent a passing second on before thinking about how the workday went and what time practice would be and who would get the kids to their annual doctor visit and what we should bring to the picnic and whether my coworkers pissed mood was about something I did or something else entirely.
But now I bear witness.
Unlocked, I have time to be curious, to try new things. First, a papaya, long and sweet and floral. A spaghetti squash, which is bright orange and filled with thousands of strands, sardines filleted in olive oil, rich and salty. Theses were things that were not part of my routine before, so I never noticed them in my shopping-fugue.
Curiosity only fed my hunger for more. There are books to read, music to hear and study, history to learn, all have always been available to me. If I'd only cared to make inquiry. How did I have the audacity to live in this miraculous world, so ripe and abundant with color, sound, sensation, texture and yet block and close my eyes, my ears, my mouth in the name of
doing what everyone else does.
No more. I have my pink, raw skin and I will never go back to being dead. That grey coral inside my skull has brined in the warm bath of the pandemic and found it life-giving.
I won't be worrying any more about who I may have pissed off or whether or not I'll know what to do with that strange fruit at the grocery store. I am unlocked now. I bear witness and I will taste and explore.