At Least You’re Not Svetx: The “I’m Okay; You’re Okay” Blog of the Post Nineties Era

It was the seventh 30-minute recess of the first grade when I began suspecting I was odd. Actually, one of the teachers told me, “You’re odd.” She formulated this assessment just after I confessed that I hated recess. I just wanted to stay inside and play with the Baby Jesus doll in the toy bin. But I always attracted negative attention for being overly possessive of the Christ child. Often, I was forced to surrender him to the powers that be. This was a special trauma since every god-fearing five-year-old knows what happened to the Messiah the last time one of his friends surrendered him to an authority figure.

Still, crucifixion of a loved one could never rival the horrors of the concrete jungle and, of course, the iron jungle gym, a tool clearly engineered by parents of unwanted children. To a homesick, Baby Jesus-stalking-five-year-old wearing corduroy koulots and untied shoelaces, 30- minutes felt like a day-long New England church sermon spoken in Old English.

It’s significant to note that I started school a year early, and I didn’t know how to tie my shoe laces yet. My mother died when I was four and a half; my father often worked as an electrical engineer in a place called “Hollywood, Kentucky,” and my grandmother was in charge of all the safe deposit keys at Valley Fidelity Bank in downtown Knoxville. No one was home during the day, so my dad and grandmother prematurely deported me to a place that strictly enforced recess. There, I learned fast that the concrete jungle is no place for a child with loose laces.

The teacher assigned to guard the prisoners during that dismal half hour of doom, the same teacher who deemed me “odd,” simply did not know this. It wasn’t her fault. What six year old doesn’t know how to tie his/her shoes? How was she to know that I was a barely-five-year-old masquerading as a normal first-grader? So, when I beseeched her assistance with my shoelace predicament, she assumed I was lazy. She accused me of being just another attention-hungry white child trying to get folks to do everything for me.

I felt grossly misunderstood, a perception that was growing increasingly familiar to me. Conversely, she felt unfairly saddled with naive, blonde, koulot be-clad Aryans forcing her hand to shoe tie as a way of upholding a long-entrenched social structure fraught with evil, inequality, sorrow, and subservience. She felt grossly used and underestimated. A perception that had already been long familiar to her.

Ironically enough, recess taught me to be everything but attention-seeking and dictatorially dependent. Survival depended upon keeping a low profile. Attention was never something for which one should strive in a land of posturing jump-rope divas and bullying little boys pretending to be Gene Simmons. And I knew damn well that low profile maintenance requires self-sufficiency. So, I was desperate before I sought help. Naturally clumsy, I needed to eliminate any potential risks, and undone shoelaces were a major liability especially if I found myself in need of a quick bipedal getaway. Which I did. Soon after I got chewed out for being a spoiled, narcissistic whitey. I was just minding my own business, nursing my bruised ego following teacher-rejection when Shannon Green “declared war” on me for no good reason other than allegedly brown-nosing the recess warden.

She charged her blood-thirsty, brainwashed minions to run me down, a herd of salivating hyenas corraling supper. I fled toward the front-most middle swing set pole, which I knew was “base,” that locus of safety considered neutral ground. But I didn’t make it. I tripped over my shoelaces, fell, and skinned both knees and hands. The teacher felt terrible, dispersed the rabid mob, and sought band-aids for me immediately. They had Snoopies on them. I couldn’t fully bend my legs for nearly a week. But my dad taught me to tie my shoes that very night. So, I at least ended the day empowered. Plus, I got to watch the Gong Show & play with Mr. Potato Head before bedtime.

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We thought it was a pot roast

Sometimes I feel narcissistic for believing that weirder things happen to me than to other people. Surely, we all have morose encounters of a nerd kind. Some of us are just more thin-skinned about them than others, yes?

“No,” my friends say. “More bizarre things happen to you and with FAR more frequency than what befalls most sentient beings.” It’s my freak pheromone, they tell me. Like a drag queen to Coty’s Emeraude All Over Body Spray, it attracts odd cosmic coincidences, general catastrophe, crazed stalkers, and the sort of items, left by previous apartment tenants, that no one should ever have to discover in one’s freezer.

My friend, JRo once promised to write a biography about me and my famed pheromone. She was to entitle it, “At least You’re not Svetx: The ‘I’m Okay, You’re Okay’ Book of the Nineties.”

At the time of the pot roast incident, I was getting a divorce. Our house was on the market, but I wanted to remain in my cozy, quirky berg by the river.  There was a rental available, one of the original mill houses on the far side of “town.” There was no central heat or air, but there was a wood stove, a lovely back porch perfect for a hammock, and a retro charm that dwarfed the fact that little barrier separated home dweller from wilderness dweller, including some Rodentia but mostly exoskeleton bearing biting beasts — crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Several of my friends had lived there previously. Rugged pioneer, green-living sorts whom I immensely admired. “That’s a tough house,” one of them told me. “The bathroom’s the coldest indoor space I’ve ever experienced,” warned another, one accustomed to sleeping on the open ground at bus stations as a way to afford navigating the more travel advisory laden zones of South America. The house had loads of character, however, and terrific neighbors with good taste in beer. To live in a great place, one must make concessions.

I hadn’t known the previous tenant. I’d only heard distasteful rumors, but since there had been no recent abductions or disappearances reported, I had never suspected that my predecessor was the Blair Witch. Dust bunnies the size of pregnant hippos rolled across the floor like giant tumbleweeds. Black handprints and crayon scratches covered the walls. There was a used, stained mattress on the back porch. Three of the six windows were either outright broken or significantly cracked. You don’t want me to tell you what the bathroom was like.

In the backyard, I found half-buried action figures strewn randomly through what may have once been flower beds or vegetable gardens. Sticky, rotting trash littered the patchy expanse. Odiferous refuse floated on three feet of standing water held stagnant by a large blue garbage can.

I called the landlord and offered to paint, clean, and, of course, smudge the place if she’d reduce my rent for two months. I didn’t plan to move in for another three weeks, and this would keep my mind occupied as I avoided dwelling on my separation — the expanding sense of void that made me feel like I’d just lost an arm and was learning how to live without it.

She agreed, so I set to work. I went bold — reds, greens, and aquatic blue wall colors that relished the outdoor adventure theme the house exudes. Neighbors helped. I was contented until we finally decided to open the freezer. The power had been off for an entire month. What we found there topped all freak pheromone-induced encounters I’d experienced to date. It was a bleeding, rotting pot roast only loosely wrapped in thin plastic. My neighbor, Kerry, slammed the door closed. We simultaneously wretched at the lingering stench. She continued wretching for a full six minutes.

A nurse, she managed to keep her wits about her following her wretchcapade. Kerry walked to the counter and pulled out some rubber gloves and a new hefty, hefty cinch sack. “You wanna grab or hold the bag?” She queried. Acknowledging my weaker constitution we agreed that I should go with bag holding. Fortunately, I had a truck well-suited to hauling rotting pot roasts to the downtown dump.

After we returned, I was not yet ready to confront the freezer with Clorox. I didn’t think I would be ready for at least another 72 hours. I wrote to the landlord and informed her of the undesirable condition of her kitchen appliance. I apologized all over myself for not thinking to check the freezer sooner. I was so sorry that I had discovered a rotting pot roast in its cavernous depths. I just didn’t want her to think that I had been the one to do this to her freezer.

What I received in reply was forwarded from the previous tenant. It read (brace yourself. Really, be sure you’re seated with barf bag in ready reach): “DO NOT THROW AWAY THE POT ROAST! IT’S NOT A POT ROAST. It’s my five-year-old son’s placenta.” Her phone number followed. I refrained from calling.

There it had lain: an ephemeral human organ, a bio-hazard. Right there between the ice trays and the t.v. dinners. I thought recovery had been difficult when it was still just a pot roast. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey Dahmer would do. He’d probably wretch too. Then he’d say something like, “Oh yeah, Doll, you have GOT to get rid of that fridge. That’s too gross even for me.”

It’s a small town, and how could I not alert the neighbors? What would they do if I offered them ice for their sweet tea or mint juleps some humid summer afternoon?

It took me 5 hours of pacing and ranting to neighbors for me to formulate an emailable response explaining to the Blair Witch that it was too late for her to preserve her giant, rotting block of biomatter for the ol’ scrapbook. She had moved to DC. What? Did she want me to put the thing on ice and have it helicoptered up to her? And how does one keep moving one’s placenta from apartment to apartment over the span of half a decade and then just walk off and forget it one day?

Moreover, who the heck does this kind of thing happen to? I bet you don’t know ANYONE else who’s found a human placenta in their new freezer. The only thing weirder is when my friend, Mel got bitten by a bat at her Grandma’s house in Michigan.

My landlord claimed that the fridge was salvageable with a little disinfectant and elbow grease, but I wasn’t woman enough to handle it. I went to the nearest Habitat Home Store and purchased a replacement appliance. God knows what had lain dormant in that used contraption, but whatever it was, at least I hadn’t smelled it.

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Hello world!

We Thought it Was a Pot Roast” is merely a structured excuse to sit on the sofa and write something on Saturdays. I run a rural non-profit, so don’t expect to find prolific posting here. I’m too busy trying to fundraise in an economic downturn.

As you may surmise from my posting about first-grade playground traumas, I’m one to be more concerned with basic survival than with winning. (Note that though I played tennis for a decade, I still apologize when I win a shot. Pictionary is an exception. In that arena, I grow bloodthirsty and gloating).

The pen helped me survive recess. In the third grade, I wrote my first story about a red dragon that loved to play Atari, especially the game in which a poorly rendered yet valiant knight must capture a gold chalice from a fire-breathing reptile.

Soon, I began collaborating with my best friend, another recess reject who could produce spot-on Yoda impressions, on adapting our stories for the stage. All of the playground’s prima donnas wanted to be superstars. So, as long as we had a play in the works, we felt protected.

I’ve often allowed every day demands to block me from writing. This is surprising. Considering the mundanity of the everyday demands in my life, one would expect me to use writing to procrastinate, not the other way around. But things have not worked out that way. I now realize the potential for blogging to lend me the focused time & safe outlet I need to reconnect with my keyboard. Perhaps this will help me better navigate the political intrigue and perils I face in the small town non-profit milieu.

Oh, and I also like climbing trees, scuba diving, ghost stories, inner tubing with the Bynum Union of Transcendental Tubers (B.U.T.T.), lemon custard ice cream, weird human tricks, and otters.

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Dolphins at Play

If I were a dolphin, I’d be one of those loner ones that leaves the pod at an early age. I would fear the frozen smiles that never fade while my kind gang rapes each other, commits infanticide, and bats around baby sharks like volleyballs. Of course I’d see the good in my peers too. Sometimes cetaceans mourn loss, and sometimes they rescue members of other species. And everyone knows that dolphins milk a lot out of living. Perhaps more than any other mammal, they really know how to throw down.  But this wouldn’t convince me to abandon my guard. I’d strike out from the crowd just to get a little clarity, to block out the weird psychic static and the behavioral contradictions. I would seek freedom, the occasional more meaningful connection, and just something better. It would be safer. It would be good judgment. 

One of my friends, newly involved in something called re-evaluative therapy, had grown convinced that all adult hang-ups could be resolved by “going early,” as she called it. “When was the first time you remember feeling this way, seeing yourself as a loner dolphin?” 

“Oh. Well. It was first-grade Show-and-Tell,” I told her. 

I reached way, way back and dusted off long abandoned thoughts of my then best friend, “Wally” Bealer. Wally was out sick that day which left her open and vulnerable to ridicule. It could have been any one of us who had fallen, but today was her day because she was not present to defend herself. And because Show-and-Tell allowed our teacher, Mrs. Sutherland a long, lingering smoke break, there would be no one to disrupt our inevitable descent toward a Lord of the Flies free-for-all. 

I’d started school a year early because my mother had died, and my dad worked and needed a place for me to be during the day. It was a gritty, downtown schoolhouse by the train tracks. First grade is the singular time in my life that I have felt truly urban. The only greenery on the property included a few blades of grass pushing through pavement and a tree that scattered helicopter seeds over the see-saws. Chip Baker once told me that those seeds are where babies come from. Seeds. That was logical. But I argued, “No, babies come from our mother’s bellies.” 

“Gross!” he cried before running away.

It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t fit in with the other kids, but I was a bit on the fringes of first-grade high society. Ours was a small class, and nearly all of the other kids’ parents were divorced or separated. My classmates were child souls bound by broken homes, but broken home by mortality didn’t count. I wasn’t picked on; I just wasn’t really picked

Anne Crenshaw was suddenly made hyper-popular by virtue of becoming the most recent product of domestic fracture. She was cute, smart-mouthed if not a little aggressive, and wore red tops that matched her mom’s. I didn’t know the term for it then, but Anne’s mom was hot — shapely, tall, poured into Gloria Vanderbilt denim and clearly putting herself out there. “Oh, and already,” my Grandmother drawled while driving me home in her giant green LTD one evening. Anne’s mom’s hair was frosted like Farrah Fawcett’s, and the sprayed mass of it flicked across her shoulders like curled claws every time she nodded. She came to class one day to issue invitations to a sleepover for all of Anne’s female schoolmates. “Maybe she could meet my dad and be my new mom,” I’d considered. 

It was at Anne’s overnight that Wally picked me out to be her friend. Call it pattern recognition. She was a loner dolphin and she must have spotted the loner dolphin in me too. This made me feel special in my lonerness. Most of my best friendships have begun in this way.

It’s not always positive though, this loner dolphin pattern recognition. Not surprisingly, it’s magnetized a stalker or two. You read about how the wrong kind of loner dolphin sometimes can’t handle the isolation and will try to force itself on unsuspecting scuba divers. So, you know, it’s bound to happen when you’re out there exposed and vulnerable flashing unmistakable loner patterns at the more predatory brand of fellow loner.  

But overall, the loner dolphin thing has had its merits. 

I was lucky to be Wally’s chosen one. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but I imagine a confident Wally striding up, putting her arm around mine and saying something like, “Stick with me kid.” At various points during Anne’s slumber party, things alternated between boring and frightening. Anne orchestrated Barbie shopping sprees; Shannon Green divided everyone up into teams to run around and pretend-kill each other in mock wars like the ones she famously instigated during recess.

In these moments, Wally always knew how to find the best escape hatch. She’d invite me to a Stretch Armstrong tug-of-war while the others helped Barbie find tiny plastic shoes to match Ken. Barbie was fine and all, but she wasn’t filled with something you could spread on your favorite sandwich if you sprung a leak from her arm. 

Wally had pet hamsters and a fanciful gurgling stream that ran across the back of her parents’ property. I went to her house for playdates often, and we nearly always caught salamanders. We kept them in her aquarium where we watched them grow. Sometimes we took very rudimentary notes on their behavior. Wally was cool as shit. Anyone could see that. But actually, they couldn’t. 

On Show-and-Tell day, Paul Miller showed and told about his favorite KISS album, Hotter than Hell. This was the same presentation he had done twice before because it gave him cause to thrust his tongue out appreciably at the close of his talk. We had positively conditioned him to repeat his antic by increasing our awe and approval with every performance. For the occasion, Paul liked to apply his mother’s coral-colored nail polish and lipstick, which he claimed made him more like Gene Simmons. “Nunh unh,” said Shannon Green who felt that these adornments only made him resemble his mom. But Paul was an alpha kid, and as the only one of us who could get away with giving the same “show and tell” speech three consecutive times, he was also able to pull off pre-adolescent cosmetics for very young males. 

Then Anne told us about how it had been her Dad’s weekend, so he took her shopping for any two toys she wanted. She got a new Weeble Wobble tree house, which I thought was really great but would have been better if it was big enough for real children to play in. Anne also got a large inflatable Incredible Hulk shaped like a Weeble Wobble. It was designed so that the airy monster would fall backward when you punched him and then quickly right himself so that you could go in for another wallop immediately. 

Chip Baker told us that he looked down the stairwell adjacent to our classroom and saw the glowing orange eyes of the devil right there in the basement. Unsupervised, some of us walked to the doorway and looked down, but the demon must have been taking his afternoon nap.

Gene Simmons, Weeble Wobbles, and the Dark One in the basement would be tough to top, but I was sure that my presentation would be the envy of everyone. What I brought was alive and an homage to Wally Bealer, the coolest kid who’d ever lived. I’d never have guessed that I would be the one to arouse the classes’ inner beast and to trigger such rapid social decline. 

I’d brought a glass mason jar with holes in the top. It contained fireflies likely gasping for air, desperately clinging to life although Wally’s although Wally’s sweet mother had assured us that they would be fine. I trusted that they would.

I told everyone that Wally had taught me how to catch these creatures the way that she taught me how to catch salamanders and frogs. Then, I unveiled my unquestionably fascinating theory that fireflies and fairies were one and the same. My dad or someone had told me that fireflies inspired the character of Tinker Bell. As much as I wanted Tinker Bell to actually be a tiny winged woman, this news had not really diminished my fascination with fairies but rather had enhanced my fascination with fireflies.

“BUGS!,” Shannon Green screeched as she climbed atop her chair. I never understood this phenomenon of other females scaling furniture and cowering at the sight of insects, mice, or anything really awe inspiring. I’m sure someone told us that this is what we’re supposed to do, that this is “proper behavior befitting a lady.” But such reactions seemed wholly counter to my instincts. Mice were furry like puppies. If we were to be lucky enough to encounter one, shouldn’t we get busy trying to scramble up a rodent wheel and some toys for it?

“I hate Wally!,” announced Anne. “She’s a Tomboy! She even has a boy’s name; she should just be a boy. I can’t believe that you go to her house. Eeew.”

Foul accusations flew and carried a subtle subtext wholly incomprehensible to us all, yet we each knew that whatever that subtext was, it was very, very bad. I stood strong and defended the honor of my best friend for whom I was so very grateful, “Wally is not a Tomboy!” She was a Tomboy, but that was beside the point.

“Wally’s great. You’re just mean!”

This was met with more collective bedlam through which I could no longer decipher individual commentary.

“Wally’s magical. Wally helps baby hamsters survive birth!”

It was to my further shock and disbelief that my irresistibly inspirational, heroic even, calls for love vs. hate utterly flopped. The entire class morphed into a barbaric mob of the sort built on decades of fomenting animosity. If Wally had been in the room at that moment, I’m certain that she would have been knocked to the floor and prodded with pointy sticks. I was darned lucky to survive.

I continued to bellow Wally’s attributes, “Wally’s nice! Wally likes Stretch Armstrong!,” but no one heard my pleas through their fearsome rage. I sort of knew that when Wally returned, everyone would treat her the same way as before and act like nothing had happened. But I wouldn’t be able to act like nothing had happened. What most bewildered me was not the other children’s unbridled unkindness but the fact that they couldn’t see in Wally what I saw. And anyway, what was bad about Tomboys? Who wouldn’t want to hang out with a girl who could catch frogs and salamanders with her bare hands and coo them into a state of comfort and trust? 

I had stood up for my friend, something that would prepare me for a few other events in my future. But I didn’t feel proud until much later. That day, I just felt like the pod wasn’t for me. Instead of the usual recess war play, Chip Baker led a labor gang in an effort to dig to China where we would be able to “see the devil.” Apparently, Lucifer had discovered better digs than the schoolhouse basement.

I kept quiet, grabbed a stick and dug. 

Tail/Tale of Two Tushkins: Getting to the Bottom of the Tushkin Presence

To understand the Tushkins, you must first understand their homeland.  Amidst a frenzy of roadwork and planned developments, Bynum stands out like an extra five pounds on a supermodel.  Now an artists’ enclave and natural oasis, Bynum was first settled by a family of yeomen in 1779.

We moved to Bynum in January 2001.  Like many others, we chose this area because we love the sound of birds, rushing water, and rustling leaves more than we love the sound of traffic and sirens. Some people don’t recognize its beauty right away, but to us, Bynum is paradise.

We discover something new each day that we explore this town of 250 residents just 10 miles south of Chapel Hill.  It was during one such exploration that we made our find.  A bunch of friends were over for our housewarming party.  It was near midnight, and we were sitting around a lovely blazing bonfire.  We’d partaken of some frosty beverages, which must have bolstered our collective sense of adventure as well as our vulnerability to peer pressure.

Consequently, we decided to take a moonlit stroll down to the river.  We were standing on the sad, sagging, old bridge, now closed to traffic. We listened to the rush of the Haw River before someone noticed the dark silhouette of the old mill shrouded in a light fog. We had an enormous Maglite with us.  Naturally, we seized the moment made apparent by our rare state of impairment.

What we saw there looked eerie under the atmospheric conditions.  Dark brick columns and ash surrounded the burnt out ruins of a once solid pillar of a once vibrant community.  We were to learn later that it required five tries for a mysterious arsonist to reduce the mill to this unseemly condition.  It was also one of those nights when the clouds pass swiftly across the moon.  For some reason, those sorts of scenes always give me the feeling that something big is about to happen, and that night, it did.

Having not yet done our historical “homework,” we were wondering what the purpose of the mill had been, what they might have made or stored there before this place fell to cinders.  So, we started stepping through all of the debris, sleuthing for clues.  We found pottery shards, some clothes that people had dumped, that sort of thing.

Then, I shone the flashlight onto something that didn’t belong, something I will never, never forget.  I remember somebody saying, “What the . . .”  We moved closer.  There were zillions of them lying there.  All these smiling, happy little – well, you can imagine.  I picked one up.  “Look,” I said.  “They’re jolly little bottoms with feet.”

Our friend, Lancie located the boxes that once housed these inexplicable artifacts.  The title read: “It’s Tush, the Squeezable, Scented Greeting Card.”

We ascertained that these had once been air fresheners bearing some sort of Hal-mark style adage like “Happy New Year and Bottoms Up!”  What was particularly striking, however, was that several ethnicities were represented in the Tushkin fold.  There were African American ones, Anglo ones, Latino ones, Jewish ones, but no Asians.  “Yeah, what’s up with that?” a friend from Calcutta interjected with indignation.

We glanced back at the disaster-ravaged ground around us.  Some of the Tushkins were scorched; some had lost their stylish straw hats.  Yet even more of them were tragically pinned beneath cinder blocks, and a whole mess of them were, in fact, surrounded by yellow police tape.  It was one jolly bottom graveyard.  It gave us pause.

We felt we should at least observe a moment of silence.  Then, we began feverishly stuffing Tushkins into our pockets.  These could make a mint on E-bay.

As we retreated up the block to our house, I grew overcome with guilt.  “Don’t ya’ll sort of feel like we’re tomb raiding?,” I queried.  My friend, Joy offered a wise perspective/justification.  “No, don’t you see, Molly?” she responded.  “These were creatures intended to go forth into the world and explore the beauty all around us, but they were thwarted.  This is our chance to liberate the Tushes!!”

“Free Tushie!” we chanted all the way home.

It turns out that someone else had already liberated hundreds of Tushkins about a decade prior to our own effort.  The next morning, which we now refer to as “THE DAY AFTER,” we wandered into the Bynum General Store.  I asked the store owner, Jerry Partin, “So now, Jerry, what exactly was it that they had down there in that mill?”

Jerry waited a moment and then smirked, “Well you know about the Tushkins, don’t you?”

I told him that I perhaps possessed some casual knowledge of the Tushkins, but I’d like to hear more from him.

“Well, the mill started out as a textile mill.  Most of our families worked there back when Bynum was bustling with its own movie theater, five stores, school, restaurant, game room; it was full of life then.  When we were kids, we’d eat at each other’s house.  If we got in trouble there, our parents would know about it before we reached home, and we’d get another spanking.  In the later years, they began to make those large ceramic desk lamps you see in motels.  Then, they stored models of the Roman Coliseum or something like that.  And then came the Tushkins.  I don’t really know where they were made, but they definitely were stored in Bynum.”

Several of us simultaneously asked the obvious, “Uh, what were they for?”

“No one knows,” said Jerry.  “But a while back, somebody broke into the mill and stole box loads of those things.  I guess when they opened the crates, they didn’t like what they saw, because it seems they tossed each and every one out the car window. For years, Tushkins were found scattered all over the highways and byways of North Carolina.”

I imagined what it would have looked like if Hansel and Gretel had left a trail of Tushkins instead of breadcrumbs.  “I’ll have to take a load with me next time I go for one of my treks in the woods,” I thought to myself.

After talking with our neighbors about this fascinating topic of Tushkins, we learned that they have been one of the village’s best-kept secrets until recently.  Now they are finally beginning to enjoy the fame they are due, and they are, as Joy predicted, seizing the day to become world travelers at last.  My friend, Josh has a photo of his Shirpa holding a Tushkin at base camp on Everest.  My friend, Jodie has tourist shots of Tushkins at every major monument in D.C.  Tushkins are just one of the many things that make Bynum special.  Aloha, you great Tushkin adventurers!!  We miss you back home.

P.S. Supposedly, the mill once stored praying pig figurines as well.  My friend, Dan has one, but that’s another story.

Abilene – another ghost dream

It was the kind of dream that I enjoy visiting. The place looked like I remembered it, only with a few new perks, like the fact that it was still there. We were just passing through, my grandmother and I, hand in hand, touring the house on Rivercrest Drive.

Outside of my subconscious, neither of us had been there in twelve years. Grandmother sold it in 1997 to a nice couple who promised to treasure the “history of the place.” They vowed to restore it and preserve it as the space that housed generations; this gave my grandmother solace. She sold it at a third of its worth, and within five years, the couple tore it down to erect something bigger, newer. “We gave it a try; we really did,” they wrote us. “But it just wasn’t working.” The couple still sends a card to the private nursing facility at Christmas, and they have my Grandmother’s full forgiveness.

But there, in my dream, Grandmother and I were together, suddenly in the present moment, standing in the study. Sun highlighted dust in the air, where there was only a brief silence and emptiness. I used to explore the peach trees and the Rose of Sharon bushes that flanked the house like rare tropics in the dry west Texas dust bowl. Here, in the “dream” house, Rose of Sharon grew straight in, absent of window panes to trap it outdoors. It leapt inward in 3-D, the purple blossoms hyper-rich and as much a part of the room as the bookcases and old rotary phone.

We were looking about us but never at one another. Through the arched entry to the formal living room with its old-timey velvet sofas, slick, shiny green dominoes lay scattered across a card table. Bacon crisped in the kitchen. There was activity there, but no signs of life driving it.

Grandmother’s space on the sofa was empty as was the chair behind it where her mother once enjoyed cornbread and buttermilk in aqua disco-era glasses. Until she died, I called my great-grandmother “Mom Murphy” and danced with her in the living room, the one with the dominoes. We shared our last dance when she was ninety-seven. I was thirteen.

She liked to wear her favorite pink polyester dress, take me by both hands, and sway me around to Lawrence Welk on 8-track. Sometimes, it was Jim Neighbors instead. At nap time, we’d sink deep into her egg crate mattress, where she would tell me stories of our ancestors’ adventures settling the wild west. Then, without fail, she’d remind me that a good nap a day is the key to a long and happy life. Of course, I could never sleep. I’d marvel at the false teeth she soaked in Efferdent, their hard gums the same color as the dress she wore for dancing. The room smelled of baby powder and White Rain hairspray.

But Mom Murphy’s chair was just a mutual acknowledgment. A stop on the way. It was my Grandfather’s easy chair that caught our steady focus. Granddad was lucky in the way some men were in the thirties. He didn’t have many choices, and so he didn’t want any. He married his high school sweetheart, got a job he liked, had two beautiful daughters, and spent his weekends at a small cattle ranch with them and a few horses.

He rode in rodeos from time to time, though I never saw him in those days. By the time I arrived, the horses were gone, and he just had a few cows to feed. We’d ride out to “the place” in his big Ford pick-up truck. It was the same powder blue as their dining room, and it had a rack for the rifle he carried as protection against rattlesnakes.

He’d gas up in Merkel and let me pick out enough penny candy to fill a small lunch bag: candy lipstick, fake cigarettes, wax lips, licorice. Then, we’d greet the cows by the water tank and give them a salt lick. I could never get close enough to pet them, but I wanted to. I loved their giant brown eyes that hinted at more longing than I’d been told cows were supposed to feel.

When Grandmother joined us, she’d take me treasure seeking. We’d step through cacti and crab apple bushes, finding old pink “fancy” glass and boot spurs, surely remnants from a lawless saloon. I treasured the old shoe buckles most and then the horseshoes, buttons, and especially the arrowheads. I still keep them in an old shoebox in my dining room hutch.

But his blue valour easy chair was leaned out with the footrest engaged. I used to climb up in that gaping seat when I’d sneak away from nap time to watch Yogi Bear and the other Hanna Barbera cartoon animals. I was too young to care much about longevity anyhow.

But now the chair was open for use, but no one was there to watch the huge, oak television set or to reach across and grab my Grandmother’s hand to tell her how lucky he still felt after 65 years. In his retirement, when he wasn’t painting in the summerhouse or feeding cows, this is where my grandfather spent most of his time. And he was happy.

Standing there together, the absence was all right with my Grandmother and me. The dusty air was all right. The near silence even felt fine. There was only the sound of the bacon. No dinner table chit-chat at Christmas-time 1976, stopped short by a gunshot blast from upstairs. Not the kind of silence they must have experienced before rushing from the table, then finding their daughter like that.

To be honest, I always expected her room to be haunted. And even though I can remember her in it, remember her brushing her thick black hair, letting me dress up in her old pink taffeta prom gowns, it wasn’t. She wanted to be gone.

(So, perhaps this is the better question: Why did they stay in that house, dipping their cornbread in buttermilk, dancing to Lawrence Welk, playing dominoes? Why weren’t they the ones to tear it down?).

The dream continues, but the atmosphere changes. The house is gone and now my grandmother and I are walking down a dusty path at the ranch, looking for treasures again. I fade to the background and my grandfather’s palm replaces mine in my grandmother’s hand. I watch as they continue walking ahead together, leaving me behind.

Sharon Jones Shakes It; Drunk Girl Breaks It

So, despite the late Tuesday timing, I went because Chrissy promised I’d remember this one. It was 9:30 pm and the opener hadn’t taken the stage. I’d done fifteen minutes in the beer line to get my bottled water only to learn that the bar was cash only. I was life-threateningly parched; still, I obediently stepped out to the ATM, then did my time in line again.

I heard a few catcalls from front stage and knew it was time to weave back through the mass of tall bodies that refused to acknowledge the existence of shorter ones. By the time I reached the front, I was pretty well ready for a fight. Enter drunk girl. A decidedly beautiful twenty-something trying to look like a 1970s supermodel interrupted her faux, stage-side photo shoot to get up in my face. She reeked. I no longer regretted opting for Aquafina vs. Fat Tire. I got a contact buzz just from the fumes. “Where do you think you’re going? What’s happening here?,” Glamour Girl challenged. I still don’t know why.

“Are you a bouncer?,” I asked. She let me pass.

I rejoined my friends and within the next thirty seconds, the opening act owned the room (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ_BZM0GrD0&feature=related). An L.A. band, they call themselves “Fitz and the Tantrums” and they put on the best live show I’ve seen since David Byrne performed with the Tosca Strings in 2005. And speaking of David Byrne, Fitz looks like the love child of Byrne and Geraldine Ferraro, a trait that certainly works in his favor for me. Don’t ask.

It took me a moment to recover from my recent and unanticipated confrontation, but soon all the soul in the air had me shaking my groove thing. Glamour girl was too, and I even felt a slight kinship with her as with everyone else in the nightclub. “We are all just stardust together,” a friend lists on her Facebook profile under “Religious Views.”

I felt a slight sense of loss after the Tantrums ended their set and I fretted that Ms. Jones might not live up to the hype. Um, she lives up to it, with her eight-piece brass band, perfectly controlled wail, and a fifty-year-old strength that makes every woman in the room want to be just like her. As her song lyrics indicate, she learned a lot the hard way. But she learned a lot.

If I could even just stand still as confidently as she does, I know no one would dare get in my face to ask me where I think I’m going.

And Jones was kind. Even to drunken, Glamour Shots Girl. Jones invites a lot of crowd participation, a habit I would not tolerate from any other stage diva. Note: I really hate sing-a-longs. Jones invited “the youngest man in the room” to join her on stage. And let me tell you, baby-faced, white, and likely an SAE, that child did not look like he was going to be able to handle her. Ah, but he delivered. Hip swinging, shoulder shaking, and a down and dirty groove face-to-face with one of the most spirited songstresses on the international music scene. Button down polo shirt or no, that frat boy got downright pornographic. Get it, frat boy.

Then it was “the ladies” turn. Two of my friends took Jones’ offer alongside about five other femme fatales from the audience. I stayed glued to the sticky floor down below but enjoyed seeing them shine. They were awesome, though a bit eclipsed by the aforementioned horribly intoxicated young woman who kept blocking Sharon Jones’ spotlight. The shit-faced urchin kept bending over and shaking out her hair like a stripper; spinning around, wiggling her booty, stumbling drunkenly, bending over like a stripper again, and then repeating the whole cycle almost indefinitely. She did do this Wonder Woman whirl that was pretty good. It was hard for Sharon Jones to get her off the stage.

For much of the remainder, the young woman’s friend banged an empty beer bottle against the stage in rhythm with the songs. “She’s going to break that,” Chrissy yelled into my ear. Smash. After the crowd dispersed, we noted the jagged remnants left behind for the cleanup crew.

Once we reached the open air, we saw shit-faced girl running wildly into the street and then back to her boyfriend like a pet dog that’s just been let out to pee before dashing back to its master.

I was a little worried about her.

I hoped her friends and (MUCH older) male companion would make sure she got home safely and that she would remember a great night fondly (if not a bit spottily). I hoped we both went home “a better woman than we were before.”

Perspective

Dear Love,

I found out that one can actually be arrested for having an expired
license tag. I could be locked up wearing a fashionable orange jump
suit right now, and Big Barb could be waiting for me to drop the soap
in the shower. So, if I’m arrested for having a suspended license tag
for lapse of insurance that never really lapsed, and I decide to spend
my one phone call on you, here’s what to do (don’t lose this email):

Sound comforting while I sob some incoherent nonsense about jail
cafeterias, the Bone Yard, and how I had to hammer out my own new
license plate while visiting “the Big Yard.”

Next, instruct me on some crucial martial arts maneuvers that could be helpful for surviving any sudden and violent prison riots.

Finally, say something sweet about how I look great in orange, and
hang up the receiver.

Now, call Ablaze Bail Bonds at 542-BAIL.

Tell the sales rep that “No, we won’t qualify for the discount since
this is only my first arrest.” For future reference, they grant discounts to third-time customers. But you have to have done something really bad.

Find out how much it’s going to be to bust me out, and go to the
Chatham Marketplace and take up a collection.

Pay Ablaze whatever they ask, and don’t leave without grabbing one of
their bright red promo ink pens labeled, “When You Need a Little Help from the Pen.”

If you can’t raise enough money, buy a dry erase board from Staples
and haul it on over to the Bynum General Store. Call a Community
meeting and devise a way to rig up some explosives near my jail cell
for a breakout.

For what is enjoying the constant challenge of life-long love if not to have someone to help you plan prison breaks or to call when your neurotic fear of unjust arrest becomes a bright orange reality?

You know I’d do the same for you.

Ghost Dreams

Charlottes-Bloom-Porcelain-Teapot

 

Now that you know that tornadoes and Oldsmobiles regularly haunt my subconscious, you should also know that I dream about ghosts. A lot for some reason. Once I dreamt that I was house sitting someone’s basement playroom. There was one door to the outside, and the slide lock slid into place without human assistance. Toys were played with by some unseen hand. I asked the entity if it was happy living there. I watched the condensation on a single window shift to slowly reveal the letters Y-E-S. I could not see the fingers writing, but I could see the response rendered.

In another ghost dream, I’m a guest at a Caribbean resort that once operated as a sugar plantation. Gauzy whiteness dominates the place, spreading and ensnaring as Kudzu. I’m sitting in a white wicker love seat on a rear patio. Nearby palm fronds casually sway atop tall, thin and bending trunks. Something about their carriage reminds me of 1920s catalog models with their chic cigarette holders. Elegant, relaxed, aloof.

Across the room, a woman wearing a white sundress sits with her feet folded beneath her in a chair matching my hard woven seat with pale floral cushion. I do not know her. She reads a contemporary home decorating magazine, yet something about our surroundings feels like an Agatha Christie mystery set in the jazz age – or maybe it’s more Victorian era. Mist hovers like mosquito netting as the white ceiling fan above us whirs with slow-motioned repetition.

Though the air feels heavy and too sticky to inhale, the current from the fan feels sensual as it brushes my shoulders. I catch a brief chill. A young girl approaches me and places a miniature teapot in the cup of my hands. She explains that if I hold it to my ear like a seashell, I can hear the sounds of the house where she found it.

She clasps my fingers around the handle and gently raises my hand to my ear. And I do hear the sounds of home: the clanking of pans, footsteps, a call to dinner. Then there’s the voice of another young female who explains to me that her house was destroyed by a hurricane years prior. The teapot comes from the ruins where her family perished. Again, I feel a chill, this time coupled with suspicion.

The pre-pubescent girl on the patio with me bounces, happy and eager. “See?” she says. No one else would believe her. Somehow, I realize that the spirit voice is using the teapot as a conduit to return to the living, like a body snatcher. I want to consume more of her story, but I know that the more I hear, the more she’ll consume me. I tell the little girl never to play with the teapot again. “It’s dangerous.” I carry it with me as I walk away from her before waking.

Just Fine

IMG_0096The horses were indifferent. They were the chance offspring of chance offspring. They were here and so they grazed. Tip-toeing around ping pong piles of equine droppings and the foot pricking remains of dead sea oats, I’d wandered inland and alone from the beach. The horses I found there are called “wild,” which seems imprecise considering their nonchalance. I’m serious. They really don’t care.

Last summer, my significant other worked on a certain reality t.v. show that has recently become the darling of tabloid covers. The episodes he did were set “on vacation” at another NC island touting Iberian Stallions as a prime tourist attraction. The female lead, normally a shrew of Shakespearean proportions, suddenly began to wax Snow White: “Oh they’re so free,” she crooned. “Those are the happiest horses in the world.” If one didn’t know better (but believe me, one did know better), one might have thought the Wizard of Oz had bestowed upon her a soul.

In contrast, my findings held that those horses weren’t happy. They weren’t unhappy. They were just eating grass to fill the time until there was no more time to do so. They were fine with that.

Looking for a spot clear of biowaste stacks, I settled into the sand 10 feet from them. Apparently, this was their boundary. I tested 9 feet, but they took a few steps away now placing me at 13. I stepped again closer but stopped at the estimated 10-foot force field. They seemed fine with it.

The island was vast, as islands can be. Something about the spotty patches of grass and low lying shrubs evoked memories of Cape Cod. I closed my eyes to better hear surf, grass chewing, and big bugs who were far less motivated to feed on human juices than I’d feared. I half fantasized that the most elegant of the herd, sensing our kindredness, would allow me to jump right up, grab some fistfuls of mane and ride him bareback like Alec in the Black Stallion. But I couldn’t remember the timeline required for Alec to step across the 10-foot personal space barrier. The horses didn’t know me.

So, I just was and I just watched.

The stillness made me need more stillness.

Just over the bank lay long bare stretches of beach, bayside and seaside. And beyond that lay “the line-up.” On my walk to the horses, I briefly met “David,” a stereotypically sun-bleached, sanded-down surfer who instructed, “Enjoy the day; that’s what it’s all about.”

“Really?,” I asked. “I thought the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about.” We watched one of his wet-suit be-clad friends glide through North Carolina’s version of the “tube.”

“Hope I’ll see you again,” an inspired David called back as he took off toward the water. “You’re the King of the Waves,” I called back doubting that he could hear me.

He was the third in a week to tell me to live like the horses. Another man in a weathered red ball cap was grabbing take-out from the all-locals cafe in Beaufort. The cafe manager ordered him to have a nice day. “Every day is a nice day,” He said. “Isn’t it?” he asked looking directly to me for an answer. Do I really look like a completely harried non-profit director weathering the worst economic crisis in US history, even when I’m vacationing? Do I look like I need to be reminded to enjoy my day? Do I look paranoid about people reminding me to enjoy my day?

For the surfers and the horses, problems are not problems. Chasing happiness is just something people do to keep themselves unhappy. There’s no difference between good and fine. They are fine with being just fine. Now that I’m back inland doing non-profit management (something often akin to indentured servitude) with no horses or surfers in sight, I hope I can be too.

Fini and Fine.

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