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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The Risk Dish

I stood on the rutted dirt holding a block of Spanikopita in a Pyrex. It was a risk-dish. Most men I’d dated, including my ex-husband, were avid carnivores and hated it. Sometimes they would grin with their mouths full and make fake yum-yum noises before leaving two-thirds of their serving on the plate and asking if I felt like ordering pizza. Spanikopita was the dish I made best. Lesbians would love it, I betted. Tonight, I must have settled on it as a test, a set-up. I even sprinkled dill over the top. If he didn’t go for it, it wouldn’t be a total deal breaker, but it would be disappointing. It would tell me something. It might stop me from doing the stupid thing that I already knew I was going to do anyway. 

About 20 yards away, Owen’s headlamp swooped left and then right and then left again. He was like a wandering lighthouse lost in the dark. “Christ. What am I doing?,” I mused. “He’s not the one.” I looked away and tried to focus on enjoying the warm air on my bare arms. I was wearing my new lavender spaghetti strap tank with hiking pants that barely stayed on my hips. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?,” My boss observed. “Yeah, divorce’ll do that for you,” he added, making me uncomfortable. 

I probably bought that top just for this occasion, though Owen and I made a big show of pretending our picnic was a spontaneous idea, not the premeditated fantasy we’d both nurtured since he’d helped me paint the kitchen to charm up my new place, a shabby chic shack that qualified as “affordable housing.” 

We were just going to take a walk and then have dinner together for the first time on our own without a group of friends to inadvertently chaperone. We’d engaged in long and tedious discussions about preserving our friendship, about propriety. Owen had also been acquainted with my ex. But last minute, he suggested that he knew this great surprise place. It was too late to get into the state park by the lake, but this would be similar. “Sure,” I agreed, disgracefully eager.

I was wearing nice lingerie too, slightly trampy but with that right hint of class. That’s how I was selecting my undergarments in those days: lacy enough to maybe get my groove back but understated enough to stave off images of myself as the harlot my Victorian Grandmother feared I might become. “Did you see your friend Kristin with that young man? They were all over each other! You can just tell that they have sex,” Grandmother once announced, scandalized after spotting Kristin and the young man holding hands. At least she hadn’t made me sign a “Chastity Agreement” like my friend Leanne’s mom. The contract bound her to “reserve” sexual intercourse for the sanctity of marriage. LeAnne dropped out of her first year of college and married at age 19 b/c she “just couldn’t wait any longer.”

The pyrex was getting heavy. I considered finding smoother ground where I could sit, but I was afraid I’d trip on a rut and risk sacrificing my culinary trap to a stagnant puddle infested with parasites. What hope would there be for me then to keep my senses, to remain pure until I was, you know, really ready to get out there again. 

I was left standing alone in the night with no headlamp but the one way off there, atop the meandering lost lighthouse in the distance. It had been at least 10 minutes. There were a lot of scary “No Trespassing” signs posted along the fence we’d circumvented to get to a semi-secret rural quarry with the term “Sugar” in the title.

I tried again to focus on feeling the night air on my skin, I mean REALLY feel it. The meditations my ex-husband sent instructed me to focus on singular sensations: the presence of my toes or just on the fact that I have skin. Or I could try feeling the breath move through my nostrils, but my inhalations always stuck halfway up my nasal passage. As my allergist told me, something wasn’t right with my septum. Kevin, the ex and an army veteran, was treating his newly diagnosed PTSD with meditation, and it was working. Well, working-ish. 

We hadn’t heard much about PTSD back when he was throwing full coffee pots at the wall for no readily identifiable reason. I’d seen the acronym somewhere, but I thought it had to do with Weed that somebody laced with hallucinogens. Once in college, I’d smoked something like that. It was supposed to help me see the face of God; instead I saw Keith Richards.  

Kevin and I hadn’t been apart all that long. He’d tried a couple of times to get me to take him back, and it made me cry uncontrollably because I really wanted to. Friends and family had been waiting a long time for me to be, as they put it, “finally done.” And I was. Finally.  

During the earlier part of my marriage, I’d heard people talk about the “Seven Year Itch” and how women have a switch that can get flipped off. It sounded like a lot of nonsense to me. It reminded me of how shots and childbirth hurt a lot more when people tell you how much they’re going to hurt.  The power of suggestion can reliably transform myth into reality. But when Kevin hit a blind rage and knocked our seven-year-old nephew off a tire swing, my flip got switched. What I’d perceived as hooey hit me like an epiphany I’d never un-comprehend. 

“You should start trying to date again,” Kevin urged. “I’m seeing someone now. You’d like her. She’s really, really aware, and she loves animals. She’s an artist even.” 

I told him that I was thinking about it. 

“Not Owen though.” Kevin warned. He didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t date Owen. That nebbish has been trying to wriggle into your pants for years. I bet he’s been really helpful since you and me split, hasn’t he?”

He had. 

“It’ll be tempting, but trust me. It’s a bad idea.”

My naked silence revealed me. 

“Don’t date Owen” Kevin repeated before hanging up the receiver. 

God my arms were tired, but the headlamp was heading my way.

“I’ve found the spot,” Owen told me before leading me back toward the woods. Headlamp straps stretching over hair isn’t as disconcerting as the Red Cross logo-like target they made on his moonlit bald scalp. Silently invoking the name of the Lord our Savior and summoning whatever salvation from my bad judgment any deity might offer, I hobbled over more uneven ground and gravel in my flip-flops. I tightened my grip on the pyrex like it was a battle shield and followed Owen to his tranquil den of sin by the lake.

He unzipped a shoulder bag that unfolded into a picnic blanket. “That’s handy,” I said unable to think of anything more witty or tantalizing. In high school, Owen earned Eagle Scout status by launching an initiative to teach foster children to play rock and roll. Plus, he’d been on a record-setting mission to earn every merit badge conceived save the ones in dentistry and bugling. Bugling seemed like low-hanging fruit for him, I thought. He always came prepared, so the shapeshifting shoulder bag/picnic blanket posed little surprise. “It’s a re-gift from my sister,” he told me. “Several friends gave her one for her wedding. It was a trendy item that year.”

“Oh,” I said working myself into a blind panic over the need for banter, a daunting task when all one can think about is whether or not her jogging blisters look like foot fungus or her dry mouth makes her breath smell like the dead opossum her dog rolled in earlier. The pyrex was shaking as I began to, despite a sultry summer breeze, develop something akin to the night sweats that accompany menopause. 

I set it down and settled in next to him, crossing my legs to conceal my gnarled Hobbit hooves beneath me. I must have suddenly inhaled a heap of his pheromones. I had a thing for scent. I could have barely noticed someone until I grabbed a good whiff of them. Then, KABLAM.  I strained to regain control of my hypothalamus by focusing on the elastic bull’s-eye on Owen’s head, but that was no help either. I’d harbored a preoccupation with bald men after learning that strong, barren-scalped Vin Diesel was a sensitive English major before he was typecast as high-octane, testosterone-overloaded bad boys. Despite the cliche, for me, paradox was erotic Kryptonite.

We continued nestling close on Owen’s clever blanket contraption. I cut him a Spanikopita square and waited. He made a couple of yum-yum noises before sliding his hand to the back of my neck with his thumb resting on my face and leaning in. I could feel the heat from his face and body before the rest of him was even touching me. I felt a familiar but long lost shiver. I took a deep breath. 

During the early stages of any romance, it’s tough for me to tell if someone is *really* a good kisser or if I just *think* that he’s a good kisser because a sudden dose of nerve transmitters are overwhelming me with delusion. I hate being trite, but in no time, we’d set my risk dish aside, and the spaghetti strap top and hiking pants went flying. It was smoking hot. Thank God for nerve transmitters and delusion.

Our abdication to primal urge forced me to forget all about my ex-husband’s warnings and about the myriad “No Trespassing” signs surrounding us. We were buck naked and grunting like wild boars when the beam of a Maglite brought it all flooding back. The spotlight came from only about an eight-foot distance. We live in a very small town but could not see who stood on the other side of that beacon. Statistically speaking, chances were it was someone we knew. And chances were that my shining white, Scotch Irish backside was blinding him. For once, my powdery pale complexion served me well.

“I’m pretty sure you know that this is private property,” said the disembodied voice that I couldn’t quite place. “And I’m pretty sure that you’d appreciate knowing that in five minutes, there are going to be six other men here. So . . .” The voice trailed off, and we began feverishly feeling about for boxer shorts and sundry trampy but elegant under pants.

We located enough clothing items to return us to a state of modesty. Owen velcroed his water shoes as I continued scanning our blanket with my hands for one lone remaining flip flop. The man with the flashlight began counting down. I’m not sure what we did about the Pyrex, but we fled, leaving the flip-flop behind like Cinderella’s lost slipper. We had a long hike to our parking spot. Owen hoisted me on his back with my bare foot dangling and toted me to safety. I forecast a future in which I’d receive an envelope containing my lost shoe. The return address would bare my boss’s name.

We scrambled into Owen’s truck and fell together laughing. He rolled the windows down, started the ignition, and we could feel the summer night on our skin, REALLY feel it, as we drove and, like young kids, listened to Owen’s favorite band croon from his cassette player. 

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 ( 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.”


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



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.

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