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

The Price of Gas
The Price of Gas

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 too, 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. And to a homesick, Baby Jesus-stalking-five-year-old wearing corduroy koulots and untied shoe laces, 30 minutes seems a lot 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 thirty minutes 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 shoe lace 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 had 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 shoe laces, 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.

Update: My dad called to tell me that this school burned down in early April. The playground was reduced to ashes. The woe.

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Ghost Dreams

Now that you know that tornadoes and Oldsmobiles regulary 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 play room. 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, indicating that 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 yet 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 bio waste 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 fitsfulls 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.

On Leaving: Never Speak Ill of the Dead

coffin“Oh, doesn’t she look lovely?”
“Yes, they did a really nice job.”

We all searched for something original to say, but this was all we mustered. And it was meaningful in that the deceased would sigh relief to know that she was decomposing in style and carefully coordinated accessories. It helps to have a decorator in the family. Truly.

But now, how to be truthful without being mean? How irreverent is it really to mention that while her make-up lent color to her cheeks, the beige foundation on her hands made her seem waxy and dead? Her bright coral manicure was flawless but her fingers long as a concert pianist’s and spotted as a Florida snow bird’s. The sight of the shining pointy nails combined with the dark mahogany coffin could only make me think of Ann Rice. Telling the unglamorous gospel about sacred experience is aptly distancing, providing the perfect emotional defense when one is already well defended.

“Eileen, you look lovely,” my Grandmother said directly to the corpse. Eileen lay permanently resting in the pink chiffon, pearlescent beads, and white sequins often brandished at ballroom dance marathons. She’d worn the dress to her daughter’s first wedding,” my step-sister explained. Since the groom turned out to be a scoundrel, and a homo-sexual scoundrel at that, it wasn’t the happiest moment of the woman’s life. Still, she had asked to be buried in pink, and in a pinch, this was all any one could find.

Surprising even myself, I gasped. “I thought her favorite color was purple,” I told my substitute sister. “No, it’s definitely pink,” she informed.

“But she has that purple room in her house.”

“That’s just the guest room.”

“I’ve been giving her purple all this time,” I accused like I’d discovered some long standing practical joke. “Purple pendants, purple flowers, purple hand towels with reindeer on them.”

Since I graduated college, Eileen had begun sending money: $100, sometimes 500. It embarrassed me. I rarely sent a thank you note; sometimes I forgot to make the deposit.

My sister added, “They had a pink casket. We thought about it; we almost got it, but it was too . . .”

“Mary Kay?”

Briefly smiling, pseudo-sister nodded. This was one of those rarely achieved moments of kinship that made us each feel great, though we never said so aloud.

We met when we were six, and our first fight was over how to fill our time. We were at her grandmother, Eileen’s lake house. I had discovered that if we looked, we could find dusty, broken quartz rock revealing smooth pinkish, sparkling contents. Chelsea wanted to make our Barbie and Ken dolls make out.

“Why do you want to look for rocks all the time; rocks are stupid,” she said.

“Rocks are interesting,” I replied disregarding someone I had already deemed an inexplicable alien life form.

“Rocks are not intestering.”

Dropping my most recent find, I looked up at her. “It’s ‘interesting,’ not intestering.” I said it pretentiously and a bit too loudly.

We fought until we were sixteen. She told me that Jewish people were going to hell. Scornfully, I asked, “Really? Haven’t they been through enough?” Her mom told my dad that Chelsea was afraid of me. This made me feel guilty and not just a little self-satisfied. From there, Chelsea and I simply avoided one another.

From the age of thirteen, we lived in the same house, but ten years was an exhausting battle for us both. At age sixteen, I stayed in my room and read or spent time with friends’ families until I could escape to college. She stayed in our home town, had kids, and decorated people’s living rooms. I went away, searched for more cool rocks, and went home as infrequently as possible.

I was standing closer, but my brother-in-law noticed my Grandmother’s tears before I did. He rushed to slide a simple wooden kitchen chair behind her as I watched the 95-year-old matriarch’s shoulders shake. I suddenly liked him better, which was a relief because I wanted a reason to like him. I wanted him to be good the way I wanted Darth Vader to turn out to be good in the end of the Star Wars Trilogy. But I was scared and thrown off guard. I thought I was closer to Eileen than Grandma was, and not even I could cry. At least I couldn’t until I saw her cry. Then I cried, but only a little. She collapsed into a chair too small for her and her grief.

Grandma and Eileen weren’t related. Did the two of them even get along? I’m fairly certain they didn’t get along. In recent years, they would share an hour or two together post-dinner in the living room, Eileen reading US Magazine while Grandma’s chin rested on her chest in slumber.

Once during their seven year courtship, my dad broke up with Lana, Chelsea’s mother. Soon after, my Grandma and I ran into Chelsea and her own Grandmother at a downtown Travelogue. It was about the Smoky Mountains, and in the lobby one could sip cool-aid from paper cups while touring an exhibit of Appalachian taxidermy. We stood by a red fox with rigor mortis and pondered what to do. My grandmother encouraged me to exercise southern grace by saying, “hello,” but Eileen shot us a look and steered Chelsea quickly away. Clearly we had entered enemy camp.

The funeral home carpet was so mauve it made me feel my spaghetti dinner. I excused myself to find the ladies room, that ever welcoming and generous space so available when one must hide alone to pull one’s flailing self together. I closed and locked the stall door and “breathed to my knees,” as my yoga instructor challenged me to do in such moments. This was not enough to curb my runaway internal dialogue. I imagined what it will feel like to see my own Grandmother lying dead, waxy, and made over by the local king cosmetologist to the rich and cadaverous.

Was I wallowing or just preparing myself?

I wiped my nose on thin, rough toilet paper. Funeral homes should have Charmin. Is not their purpose to provide comfort and gentle, squeezable softness?

So selfish of me – to be only thinking of my own impending loss as my – sister? Is that what she is? As Chelsea’s greatest comfort lies lifeless and gone. Eileen was one of the three – five people in the world who loved my sister most. I knew this wholly, and I wished I could feel more for her and for the woman who had been both mother & grandmother to her the way mine has been to me. But I suspected that my lack of appropriate feeling was genuine.

(As pittance, I would at the very least self-flagellate for being a bad person.)

I did care, but I didn’t know what, if much at all, I felt for them. I kept trying and I kept pretending. I kept trying to convince myself otherwise. As my aunt told me once, “You’re an only child, and she’s the only family you’ll have one day.” I know that this reality weighs heavily on my sister too and that she also tries and pretends and sometimes convinces herself that things are different.

If only they would have at some point slid a chair beneath my crying kin, perhaps everything would have been the way we keep trying to make it. I never thought they liked me either, and I was always trying so damn fruitlessly hard to please. Despairingly contrasted we were, then and now.

I’m not a smoker, but for some reason I briefly visualized myself a sullen observer in the corner of the parlor, taking drags off a cigarette and turning my head to exhale. Imaginary addiction, a merely moderate black sheep’s coping mechanism.

My step-mother stood far from my father. He looked like this did not come as a surprise. Come to notice it, my step-sister stood far from her husband too. This did surprise me.

Soon, when I’m in this very same funeral space again, I thought, I’ll be clinging to Elrond’s arm like a broken and pathetic creature. But Eileen was like this with Frank. She seemed embarrassed to be with him. She was too Republican to be feminist, and yet men were the enemy. All of them, no matter how kind. Well except for my brother-in-law, but he’s a doctor. And he’s charming, never revealing a hint of vulnerability.

Eileen acted proud of her marriage. Frank was from prominence, but her disappointed heart permanently adorned her sleeve. Nevertheless, their family remained steadfastly united by their common belief in God’s will, predestination, and low taxes. I wanted to feel the same poetry & romance as others when my sister announced that Eileen died on the same date and at the same time as her husband had six years prior. Again, God clearly wanted it that way. But I was skeptical.

From where I stood, it always seemed that Frank was around to swat spiders and fix hinges on broken cabinets. Eventually, he became (or was he always?) the sort who incessantly talked at and never listened to. I see the same thing happening to my father as he learns to shut out the world, an ineffectual defense from constant harping abuse.

“No one wants to listen to you talk about war, James. Stop scratching your bald head, James. Do you want to go more bald?”

One time, we were traveling in Texas. My dad and Lana got into an argument over the volume control on the t.v. set. Dad lost some of his hearing when he was a navigator in Vietnam. Like quarreling siblings, like me and Chelsea pre-1986, one would turn the volume up before the other would grab the remote and turn it down. They went on like that for a while; I sought refuge in the restroom.

Then, there was the time that Dad’s commuter van got hit by a Dodge Caravan. I watched the two of them talk on the stairs. Lana wouldn’t go to the hospital with him b/c she had an appointment at the Acura dealership. She was in the market. Dad had a concussion.

Chelsea defended her mother; I defended my father.

(But he’s an engineer, and how else are they supposed to get his attention?)

On the one hand, I can kind of understand it, these patterns and ruts, but this is the real story about why I don’t visit. I suppose it’s not that uncommon once one leaves.

Not knowing how to deal with disbelief, my sister compliments me on my dress. I compliment her too. Dolled up in madras, her seven year old son sits well-behaved, showing signs of knowing and not knowing enough to know. His name is Chaplain, a title really more than a name. He’s a cute kid but like most of the men in his family, starving to be noticed and appreciated. His sister is too young to be there. Their dad’s mom is home with her, watching Kung-Fu Panda.

I smile and try to notice when and who needs space. I’m determined not to go until I make myself feel something more. I briefly converse with my step-mother’s cousin who, over dinner, clandestinely revealed that she’s an Obama supporter. I let her know that it was safe to unleash her secret to me; it even provided me a sort of catharsis as though we might suddenly lend one another, even as strangers, the courage to brazenly announce our political preferences. But it wasn’t a good time.

I grab gift baskets of high quality coffee items and give them to Lana and Chelsea. I say it’s to get them through the next few days of relentless estate management and funerary ritual. Lana hugs me and tells me she loves me. I say it back and really want to believe us both.

My sister and step-mother depart together in a large, black Toyota Landcruiser built not only for transportation but also as a potential dwelling should the latest election, in fact, be the dawning of the apocalypse. I leave with my dad and Grandma in her 1991 sea green Buick. Dad tells me that the downtown neighborhood we’re in is being re-developed by Lexington’s nouveau hippie elite. Surrounding the mortuary are food coops, crack houses, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors. He knew I would approve of this, and he transparently hopes I might move back. I never knew Lexington had craftsman-style housing.

I watched the night time through the car window and tried to figure out why Eileen would take her last breath at the same minute that her husband, so seemingly disconnected from her, would take his. I didn’t really believe in God, but I was the only one who noticed a custom, back-lit business sign outside a bridal shop. Cosmically, it bore one word: “Frank.”

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