beyond insomnia (or, how even ancient praise can continue to inspire)

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It’s not really insomnia if I roll out of bed at 5:51 a.m., even if I haven’t slept much, even if I want to throttle the neighbor’s rooster whose biological imperative drives him to begin crowing at 4 a.m. and continue into the afternoon. But the rooster’s not the primary impediment to sleep – that would be the ongoing pain in my shoulder or maybe the wine I drank celebrating a friend’s visit or perhaps the inability to sleep relates to the anxiety that nightly condenses in my brain.

Some things help. For years I tossed a couple Tylenol PMs down my throat, but a person can only imbibe so many pharmaceuticals before growing weary. I attempt less medicinal solutions, read before bed instead of watching a movie. The shift in attention from screen to page helps. At the very least, I fall asleep absorbed in someone else’s life. Like many similarly aged ladyfriends, I’ve switched from red wine to white – and soon, I fear, will abandon wine altogether for the promise of “Golden Slumber” tea. (The next step, clearly, being wheeled into a home to await physical death as all the pleasures of life will have had to be denied.)

The best advice I’ve encountered regarding insomnia came from the pages of Beth Lisick’s Helping Me Help Myself and involves rewinding through your day. I lie in bed, left arm tucked under the pillow, curled into a semi-fetal position, a foot sticking out from under the covers, and think backwards about all I did during the day. Typically, I’ll fall back asleep before I get to the part where I woke up. But sometimes my mind wanders too much and I find myself yanked sideways, worrying about the children, the bills, work, the future.

I wish that damn rooster would shut up.

When the clock notes we’ve passed the 5 a.m. mark, I figure I might as well get up. Downstairs the cats mew for food, so I feed them, at least the three that are around. I’m afraid to leave food in an untended bowl lest the other cats chow down before the fourth arrives. Too many cats. They all have their fine qualities, but really – too many cats. Two of them are family cats and the other two belong to my older daughter, who has left them here while she sorts out her life hither and yon. She’ll be back soon, then leave again, maybe taking the cats with her, maybe sending for them later. Keeping them here is truly only a small inconvenience, I remind myself, and an easy way to help her out. The kitten, a tuxedo’d thing as big as the full-grown felines, curls up on the couch, sated.

I stir turmeric and honey together, pour boiling water overtop, mix in soy milk. This is supposed to help the inflammation in my shoulder, as is the arnica, the cannabis tincture, the cannabis salve. Some combination of these healing efforts has reduced the pain from the tear-inducing waves of a few weeks ago, but I found myself tying my flannel into a sling Sunday while walking on the beach, the weight of my arm being enough to trigger more ache than I could ignore. I wonder if I’ll ever surf again. The past few days have offered small, user-friendly waves under plenty of sunshine and no wind of note. I should have tried. But I’m afraid. Scared I’ll hurt myself further, concerned my attempts to push off my board will radiate awkwardness, leave me stumbling, be an exercise in embarrassment. I am unsure which is worse: the sadness of not paddling out or the heartache of paddling into failure. (Insert surf-cliché as life metaphor: Is it better to have gone for the wave and wiped out than to never have surfed at all?)

So, yes. Poor me. Turmeric downed, I wait for the Earl Grey Creme to steep. The sky glows lavender. I page through a book I ordered special from Northtown a few weeks ago. Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers. It’s an older book, published in 2001, an anthology curated by the editors of Hip Mama magazine and foreworded by Dan Savage. I had a copy once, but apparently loaned it out at some point and my shelves haven’t seen the book since. I wanted another copy because I’m published in it, the only book I’m published in so far – not counting the surf guide that ganked an excerpt from my Arcata Eye report on witnessing a shark attack – and I have no copy of the essay within.

My tea steeps and I flip to my chapter. I laugh at how much I sound like me. Fourteen years has not changed my habit of writing action, action and action. I do this and then I do that and then I do another thing, hoping the reader gleans from these verbs all that is too important to leave to mere adjectives. I’m pleased to still be pleased. To have had one essay in an independent anthology nearly a decade-and-a-half ago is hardly proof that I’m destined to be a writer, but that triumph affirmed my path at a time when my roles as wife, mother, student, writer sometimes conflicted badly, often left me unsure which way to go.

The book garnered only mixed reviews. Publisher’s Weekly opined “this collection of essays by Gen-X writers proves that motherhood is much the same no matter what generation one is from.” But that same review also said, “Among the exceptions is ‘Learning to Surf,’ in which Jennifer Savage thoughtfully recounts her journey from being 22-year-old single mom and punk rocker to a married mother of three learning to surf.” That line, for better or worse, has sustained me through times of wondering what the hell I think I’m doing with all these words and stuff.

Encouragement can make all the difference in what one pursues.

(I should note, too, that I met my friend and Humboldt native Peri Escarda through Breeder. The Amazon review says of her essay, “And we can all be grateful to Peri Escarda for helping us find the ‘Perfect Name’ to offer a daughter when she points between her legs and asks, ‘What’s dat?'”)

I write.

writing exercise #50: I dreamed of a house

I dreamed of a house. The porch wrapped around, east to south to west. The front of house faced east, the kitchen just inside. I need the morning light for making breakfast, my favorite meal. I stood inside, whisking egg yolks into flour as the waffle iron heated. Beyond the kitchen was the dining room, sliding doors separating it from the outside, easy enough to throw open on sunny days of which there were many. We placed platters on the table inside, plates and hefty silverware on the end, let the guests pile food buffet-style, then ate in the fresh air, admiring the blue of the sky, the pink of the roses trellising up the porch corner, the gold of the homemade honey wine that caused cheeks to flush, giggles to emerge and couples to linger as the sun settled beyond the orange trees.

A living room off the dining area contained the requisite couch, love seat, entertainment center. We rarely used it.

Upstairs, our bedroom faced west. We left the windows open so the breeze would carry in the scent of citrus. I sprawled out on the bed, feet tucked against the wrought iron’s pleasing coolness, and wrote in my journal while you showered. I paused, pen clicking against teeth as I watched the white eyelet shower curtain billowing against the clawfoot tub.

“I’m so happy,” I wrote. Then tore the page out because I didn’t want to use the word “so.”

“I’m happy,” I wrote again. I couldn’t think what else to say, so I closed the book and shoved it away. I closed my eyes.

***

I dreamed of a house. The front door opened onto a busy street. Once we’d heard a screech, a thud, the kind of sound your gut knew was bad before your brain could make sense of it. I leapt to the phone, dialed 9-1-1. You ran outside. You made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a moan and it shot through the door I was racing through. I crashed into you as you spun around and pushed me back inside. “Don’t,” you said. “Don’t.”

***

I dreamed of a house. The roof lurched into a point. To stand on the porch was to feel as if a fairy tale witch was leaning over you, daring you to knock. Inside, the only windows faced north, except the one over the kitchen sink that looked west. I scrubbed the dinner dishes and tried to find the sunset, but the hill blocked it from my sight. You built a fire in the living room, pulled out the futon. “Let’s sleep in here tonight,” you said. The bedroom was always cold, so I said yes.

***

I dreamed of a house. The ceiling was made of glass and we giggled as we twined naked on the bed. The whole house was our bedroom, a sink and refrigerator in one corner and bathroom barely enough to turn around in, in the another. A deck jutted from the back of the house, extended just enough for a single lounge chair and an outdoor shower. We ate mangos, threw the skins on the sand. You collapsed into the lounge chair. “I can’t stand up,” you laughed. I smiled as the hot water spilled across my shoulders.

***

I dreamed of a house. Smoke filled the bedroom. I jolted from bed, ran downstairs to find you. You laughed. “It’s okay, it’s just the party,” you said. I looked around. The living room had no furniture, but the people filling it didn’t seem to mind. I was unsure where they’d found ice for their drinks as our electricity had been cut off last week and all ours had melted. People turned to me – a woman whose dark bangs slashed across her face, a man who stood so tall I couldn’t see his eyes, hands pulling at my nightgown. I fled into the kitchen. Knives lay on the counter. The blades were cold to the touch.

***

I dreamed of a house. I recognized the house because I grew up within its walls. Our house mirrored the others in the neighborhood, made different only by the photos on the fridge, the food in the cupboards, the ways in which the secrets our family kept differed from our neighbors’. My bedroom faced west, out to the front yard. The kitchen faced west, too, the big elm tree blocking afternoon sunlight. My mom’s sewing room filled the southwest corner. She brought home a dress from the store, split it into pieces at the seams, copied the pattern, sewed it back together, returned it for a full refund. There was a pool in the backyard, glittering and blue, calling. I swam laps until my arms grew useless and yet somehow they managed to prop me up as I swung my legs over the windowsill, were able to pull open the door of the car in which you waited, behind the wheel, to spirit me into the night.

things that scare me

Things that scare me:

1. Being unable to protect my children from bad people, risky behavior, terrible decisions and freak accidents.

When you bring a baby into the world, that mama bear love overwhelms you. You hug the tiny person close and swear you’ll never let anything hurt the unbearably precious creature. And you mean it, but it’s an unkeepable promise because – unless you live in a remote, armed, stocked fortress, which I totally support – eventually bullies will push your kid around on the playground and men will grope your daughters and bad drivers will crash into them and politicians will make shitty policies and if those are the worst things that happen, you are still lucky.

The news is filled daily with stories you can’t even think about, the kind that involve children going missing, being gunned down – and these events are rare enough, you try to find some comfort or maybe stop reading the news, but then the children themselves toddle into the street, into parties, into cars, into dysfunctional relationships and you realize it might be easier to protect them from the world than from themselves. You’d hoped they would learn from your own experiences – someone should, right? – but no. They will go down the wrong path, sometimes willfully, sometimes innocently, and all you can do is pray to the God you don’t believe in that they come back intact.

2. Drowning.

3. Living too long. It sounds exhausting.

4. That when I hurriedly tug on my surf bootie I’ll immediately feel bugs writhing all over against my feet and it will take at least a minute to get it off because you have to tug hard and then a hundred sow bugs will tumble out because I guess leaving my booties on the deck for a week wasn’t a good idea and I’ll never be able to put them on again without thinking wiggling bugs trapped against my foot flesh.

5. That sexual harassment, assault, rape will never stop because not enough men care enough to stop it.

6. Related: That stupidity will emerge victorious. (See Idiocracy, anonymous commenting, no one giving a fuck.)

7. Heights.

8. People jumping out at me from behind doors. Or shower curtains.

9. That I won’t realize my own foolishness in time.

10. Drivers who don’t bother moving over or slowing down when passing me riding my bike on the highway or over the bridges. I envision myself tumbling broken into bramble or over the concrete barrier into the bay. This is not how I want to go out.

 

Things that don’t scare me:

1. Spiders.

2. Taking a stand.

3. People acting like jerks because they don’t like your opinion or because they devalue your experiences. Take your friendship and go, jerk.

4. Diplomacy and compromise. Which is different than kowtowing and caving. We’ve all got to get along in this world, more or less, and although letting one’s defenses down enough to find that common ground can be frightening – Oh my god, I’ve got things in common with that person?! – it’s less scary than living an us vs. them life.

5. Public speaking. (Usually.)

6. Tsunamis.

7. Traveling alone.

8. The threat of eternal damnation.

9. Gay marriage.

10. Committing to the drop. Wait! I am often scared when paddling into a wave outside my comfort zone, big and steep and fast and gut clenches up and I have to yell at myself in my head to paddle, goddamn it, and go! But I’m trying.

in which I offer up an excruciatingly emotional post of questionably redeeming value!

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The problem with keeping a journal, a friend and I were discussing, is we tend to write when we need to decompress, to vent, to sort through unhappiness via the therapy of words. “People,” I’d said, “would have thought I was the most depressed, angry person in the world” if I’d hung on to those sad collections of my darkest adolescent thoughts.

Social media has changed that – in private, we may still pour out grief, bemoan our lives, but online we want to be liked, are literally rewarded by how many likes we garner, and so our posts lean toward love, vacation, sunsets, gratitude.

And that’s okay. Celebrating the good, acknowledging what gives us joy reinforces our awareness of how much joy permeates our lives. (Sure, sometimes certain friends come off as bragging or in denial. We’ll give them a pass for now.)

Sometimes I look back at this blog, which has variously served as a place to record playlists from my radio days, chronicle my parenting experiences, attempt meaningful observations on social issues, note what books I’ve read, track my surf sessions and insomnia, and occasionally to serve as a place where I work through hurt – sometimes a combination of the above.

All this is just preface. Or, in unkinder terms, bullshit.

I’m reminded of my creative writing classes, how I would turn something in, some exercise, and and my teacher would cross out the first few lines, paragraphs, pages, then write a note with an arrow pointing out, “This is where the story actually starts.” So much of writing is a feeling out of direction, is timid in the face of the audience. Sometimes I can dive in. Sometimes, like right now, I grovel, disclaim, excuse, explain. I need you to like me first. Because if I started with, “I hated everything tonight,” would you still come along?

Because I hated everything tonight.

All day, disparate obligations pulled me in different directions. It was the mental equivalent of being stuck in traffic, hand on the stick, foot on the clutch, shifting up, shifting down, unable to ever get past second gear. After work I finally followed the path that usually proves cathartic: I tossed my board, wetsuit and wax into my truck and aimed for the beach.

But it didn’t help. Instead, everything bubbled up. “You’re in the ocean,” I told myself. “Be here. Stop thinking. You have such a good life. Look at you.” But my brain wouldn’t quit. I hated my knees because they hurt and are making me look like a beginner all over again when I stand up. I hated my wetsuit because the holes in it are going to prove problematic once this summery weather turns. I hated myself for not getting enough education to have a better paying job, for not saving enough money when I did. I hated how lonely I feel sometimes. I hated that no one will just magically make my life easy. I hated that life has peaked and it’s just going to be struggle and scramble forever. I hated all the stupid racist, misogynist people. I hated wars. I hated all the various men who have put their hands on me against my will. I hated that I never reported any of them to the authorities because it means the offenses aren’t official and therefore are only my opinion. I hated all my so-called friends who are unbothered by the assaults on my person. I hate this delayed-but-profound anxiety I feel over it all. I hated being abandoned, in various ways, by various people once important to me. I hated that I could not protect my children from the world’s callousness. I hated that I always have to plan everything, care for everyone, even as I knew “always” was an exaggeration. I hated being unsure of my place in life. I hated being 44 and not having life better figured out. I hated how embarrassingly self-indulgent I was in hating. I hated being out in the ocean, which I love, full of all this hate.

Eventually the darkness encroached enough that I had to make the last wave I caught my last wave. I wanted a better one, to tap into that energy that makes everything else recede, that one magic ride that lifts me out of the mortal world and gives me a taste of the sublime. Instead I found myself dropping off a fading right and paddling against the current, the shore questionably distant. What if I just gave up, I thought for a moment, let the sea pull me out? I could just rest my head on my board, my cheek against the wax, inhaling that sweet crayon scent. Except I couldn’t. I’m not a quitter, not really, tempting as it sounds sometimes. So I kept paddling. Reached shore. Trudged to my truck, aware, despite my mood, of the pink glow dimming along the horizon. Very pretty. I flung my board into the back, started to tug off my wetsuit, except the zipper caught at the end, trapping me in neoprene. That’s when I burst into tears.

See how pathetic I sound? Good grief, my life is just fine – I cringe to recall how two hours ago I was sobbing, tears falling on the sand as I twisted the hubcab locks free.

I arrived home, all deep breaths and shuddering sighs, hid in the hot water of the shower until the crying stopped. Toweled off. Comfy pajamas. Oh, how I love pajamas. And then I had sharp cheddar cheese and decent bourbon and buttery tortillas with hot sauce as an excuse for dinner, and Slice of Humboldt apple cider pie for dessert. And took photos of the cat for my middle daughter because she likes her daily Skimble picture. And wrote a venting email to my dear girlfriends who would understand the emotional throes I’m thrashing about in. And answered an email from another friend who has utterly had my back in an aforementioned situation, reminding me that I’m not crazy, that some people do think I have value and, hell, a lot of people do, and I am lucky in that, even if a few have removed themselves from my life over the years. So, as happens, the hate ebbed, the gratitude flowed in.

Sharing this seems almost ridiculous – perhaps it would better serve, greatly reshaped, as fodder for some other type of writing not so blatantly confessional? But I know people and I know people hurt from time to time and sometimes misery is eradicated by company, so please, if you are in the thick of despondency, hold on. Breathe. Cry. Eat some cheese. Or pie. Write. Reach out. Find your own reasons to be grateful and wrap them around yourself until your heart is warm again.

writing exercise #50: one-syllable words, “From the back of the truck…”

From the back of the truck, the view was all sky. Jill lie there for a bit, sun near the edge of sea. She had to sit up to watch it drop. She set her eyes to the left of the bright orb. Heard you had to, to see the green flash. Myth, some said. She knew it was real. Half the sun was gone. Her eyes kept to the side. And then, there it was. A ghost, the green flash, so fast it was like, did her brain trick her? Did she see it for real? She thought so. 

Some nights she did not feel sure. Like on the night of the full moon. Jill swore she saw Mike lean in on Trish, kiss her, tongue deep, hand on her chin. Mike said no, trick of the light. That he had just told her a thing. A thing that made her laugh. And Mike had bent to her in jest. Jill said, sure, but did not feel that way.

The last time she saw Trish, at the school fair, she felt her eyes turn to the ground. She meant to look up, but her gut won. She did not say hi. Trish did not say hi. The smell of pork lit up the lot.

Jill had her truck that night. She drank pop, since she had to drive. The sweet taste stuck to her mouth. At the end, she drove home, just her. What else could she do? Ask Mike to come with her? Ask some dad whose wife had left? Bad news. They want a lot, she thought. They act as if they’re cool, just there for the sex, but they want love, like us all. They’re just worse when it comes to the words.

“The one thing I know for sure,” Mike had said, “is you are good. Good and true and my world is best with you in it.” Jill cried when he said that. It was the sort of thing a girl could not look at straight on. She had kept her heart to the side and hoped it was true.

 

writing exercise #49: What I talked about when I was 13

I was 13 and I didn’t know much. I knew all the songs from that series of dragon-rider books I was into. That didn’t do me much good in junior high. Some places, those years are middle school. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but middle school sounds more appropriate to me – I was in a middling place. On one side, the height of excitement arrived in the form of a Christmas sled perfect for racing down the hill our house sat two-thirds of the way atop. On the other, the realization that genetic inheritance had granted me the ability to be popular. In middle school, boys would creep up behind me, snap the strap of the bra I’d embarrassingly acquired. In high school, they’d kiss me first.

But back to 8th grade. I had this science teacher, Mr. West. Which was hilarious, because he was also a cowboy. With a ranch and everything. Twice a year, at the end of each semester, he’d have barbeques for his students and their families, plus a group of faculty members that encompassed, but did not exceed, those we all thought were “cool.” Mostly younger female teachers, the sort the boys all had crushes on and the girls all wanted to be.

Mr. West would have inevitably caught a rattlesnake early on, skinned it, tossed it on the grill. The smell would make us sick, but the boys and girls like me would insist we wanted a taste. Later, he’d bring out his guitar by the campfire, start sing-alongs, then wander into an old Johnny Cash tune, which he’d wrap up on a fade-out, as if he’d forgotten the words or maybe remembered what he’d wanted to be.

Only 8th graders were invited, which made it a sort of rite of passage. In 7th grade, my friends and I, and everyone else, would note those days a certain subset of 8th graders weren’t at school. They were at Mr. West’s BBQ, excused from classes for the day. “What do you think happens there?” we’d ask each other. Janine’s brother, a junior at the high school, told us that girls got naked and jumped in the river. Holly’s cousin, a senior, said that after all the kids were supposed to be asleep, Mr. West put out lines of cocaine on his guitar for all the female teachers to enjoy.

That seemed ridiculous to me even at 12. At 13, at the ranch, I could imagine neither nudity nor drugs. The fact that I would use “neither” and “nor” tells you what kind of child I was, but, well, that is the sort of child I was.

What I did not expect was the scandal to come from within my own ranks. My best friend, Lanie, whose parents were these kind of weird leftover hippie types – her mom taught step classes at the gym and her dad had some corporate job he hated – were closet pot smokers. I had no idea. I just thought they were really into air freshener.

“What’s going on?” I said, walking into the room behind the kitchen at the ranch. I don’t know the right name for it, the place where you’d come in to take off your boots and jackets all muddy from, what do they call it, breaking the horses? I guess.

“Nothing,” Janie said. She looked at me, but didn’t look at my face, not in my eyes, you know? I read somewhere once, well, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or maybe Restaurant at the End of the Universe if you must know, that the trick to outwitting your opponents is to focus on the space between their eyebrows. It will seem as though you are looking them in the eyes, except not, but they won’t be able to quite explain it. I told Janie that after I’d read the books. We were 10 then, but she was doing it to me now.

“What’s that?” I said, noting Mark Garner passing something to Brent Clunich. Both of them were football players and bra-snappers, the sort of guys Janie and I hated.
Mark laughed and his laughing turned into coughing as smoked sputtered out from his face, which was bent towards his somewhat advanced six-pack of a belly. Brent, on the other hand, stayed cool, reached out what looked like a sloppy cigarette.

“It’s a joint,” he said. “Want a hit?”

Everyone looked at me. I could feel every bit of skin on my face. “Uh,” I said.

Janie put her head in her hands. “She doesn’t want any, Brent.”

He laughed and passed the joint to the girl next to him. Lori Schiminski. Long blonde hair held back with a clip, red lipstick that left an imprint on the paper that she passed to Janelle, the black girl that went to our school.

I looked at Janie. She looked at me. Shrugged.

I left the room. Outside, Mr. West had brought out the marshmallows and chocolate bars. Miss DeWitt stood by with graham crackers. I took a seat on a bench made from logs Mr. West had, undoubtedly, chopped down and carved with his own hands. Douglas Wilcox, class geek, the guy that everyone remembered from when he was in second grade an picked his boogers and ate them, leaned over to me.

“What are they doing in there?” he asked.

I leaned back, making sure that anyone watching would understand I was revolted by him.

“Nothing,” I hissed. “Nothing at all.”

Miss DeWitt flounced up to us. “Graham crackers,” she trilled.

Mr. West passed us sticks and marshmallows. “You want to catch it on fire, then put it out right away,” he said. “You slide off the burnt skin and the inside is perfect.”

“Here,” he said, handing us squares of chocolate.

I tried, but I was looking at the house instead of the fire.

“Oh, dear!” Miss DeWitt cried.

Mr. West came over and smacked my arm. Apparently my sleeve had caught fire. I dropped my stick and the marshmallow fell into the flames.

“Shit!” I said.

Douglas gasped and pointed.

Mr. West and Miss DeWitt glanced at each other. “That’s not appropriate language,” Miss DeWitt said.

“But under the circumstances,” Mr. West followed.

I hung my head.

Douglas reached over and patted my hand. “Here,” he said, offering me a perfectly sandwiched s’more.

I jumped up. “I’m fine!” I yelled. I marched off to the house, ignoring Miss DeWitt’s commands to come back.

Through the kitchen, into the back room, everyone giggling.

Janie looked up, met my eyes for real this time.

“Wanna hit?” she asked, holding the smoldering, sweet-smelling piece of paper.

I took it, held it between my fingers like she’d done. “Help me,” I pleaded, silently, the way best friends can say things without words.

“Like this,” she said, reaching to hold my hand, press it to my lips. “Inhale. Okay, stop. Hold it.” We looked at each other. “Exhale.”

I did.

When the joint came around, I did again, no help necessary.

The next day, I told Janie what kissing Brent was like. Tasted like smoke, I said. But soft. Better than that rattlesnake.

We laughed.

That was when I was 13.

writing exercise #48: She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate.

She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate. In his jammies. He looked unshaven by at least a few days. His jammies, camo green, had elephants on the pants and the button up shirt matched the color, turquoise, of the pachyderm print. This made her feel especially bad that she’d been out of town during the election and hadn’t bothered to send in her absentee ballot. Shit. He’d only lost by a few hundred votes. And he was so cute.
Their eyes met.
“Hi,” she said.
“Oh, hi,” he mumbled.
Asking how it was going seemed insensitive, so she opted for, “Sure is sunny out today!”
He agreed. Added something about the drought.
“Right,” she said. “The drought. It’s terrible.” She tried to remember how she was supposed to feel. What she was supposed to do. Probably not take such long showers.
He accepted his gluten-fee double chocolate muffin and shuffled to a table. She ordered her soy latte, 16 ounces, and joined him.
“So,” she said.
Their eyes met again. Like something out of a romance novel, she thought.
What the hell, she thought. She sat down next to him.
“I thought you were a great candidate,” she said.
“Oh, thanks,” he responded. He looked down at his attire as if noticing it for the first time.
“It’s my face,” he said. “It’s not a good face.”
“Soy latte? Grande?” the barista called. She stood, picked it up, returned.
She examined his forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, cheekbones. “I think your face is fine,” she said. “Pleasing, actually.”
He chuckled, glanced at the ground. Then, without moving his head, tilted his eyes at her. “Want to come over?”
What was she to do? Poor guy, had been crushed by the opposition, except not crushed, exactly, but overwhelmed. And so they shared a moment of skin on skin, kisses, the reaching of hands across bodies.
Immediately after, she felt that familiar need to race to the door. Why was it such a challenge to find someone who felt the way she felt, emotionally, politically, physically? Was she asking too much?
I hate this, she thought. It’s all so corny, cliché. Who cared? The voters, she thought. They were the ones who got robbed. Their apathy, their busy lives, wait, she thought, I am one of those with the busy life. Just a couple hundred votes and he could’ve been a winner, earning an upper middle class wage and leading constituents into the future. Instead, here he was, with her, awkwardly preparing for a moment that wouldn’t matter immediately after and there ya go.
Afterwards, he turned to her. “Do you think I have a chance?” he asked.
She paused. “Maybe 2016,” she cooed. “That might be your year.”

(Failure to) Disconnect

It was too grand a plan, this idea of mine. I was embarking on my annual trek to visit my brother in New York and thought, How grand would it be to not only take a vacation from work, but heighten the sense of escape by staying offline? I would be unreachable (except in case of emergency). I would chronicle my daily experiences in Word instead of WordPress, upload one or two quality blog posts at the end, old-fashioned-like. I would be free.

Even before I arrived, I imagined how proud I’d be for committing to be more present when visiting. I would let moments exist in their own space, savor them, and then move on. Not everything needs to be documented – “Hey, look at me!” – all the time, I remembered. Nor do I need to always see what everyone else is up to. I would reciprocate the excellent company of my brother and my sister-in-law by giving them my full attention.

The morning I left, I deleted the Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Hangout and Instagram apps from my phone. I spared Paper and Tumblr since I use those mostly just for reading. (I kept WhatsApp because Kaylee’s in Europe and that’s how we’re communicating, so, of course.)

I would use my laptop only to work on my novel, freelance assignments or otherwise write offline.

I confess, I also had a bit of ego in the game. I wanted people to miss me.

Here’s how it went:

“On vacation!” I posted to Facebook in the form of an out-of-office auto response. Before I could log off, a friend noticed that I’d typed “back Thursday, June 10,” which put my return several years in the future instead of one week away on Thursday, July 10. People riffed. It was pretty funny.

My attempt to disconnect from work failed. Despite pronouncing myself “unavailable,” I ended up checking my email because I needed some key piece of information, a flight time or receipt confirmation or such. And then I would notice meetings being scheduled. Flyers being made. Questions about events arising. A mistake I needed to fix.

To be clear, no one forced me to respond to all these emails – emails were going happen regardless of what I was doing away from the computer and disregarding my vacation assertions by answering them was wholly my fault. But once I’d entered into dialogue, I had to see the conversation through. I ended up on email daily.

I needed to get online to plan my days. What would the weather be like? (Hot and muggy was a given, and really, I could’ve just gone with that, but no – let’s look at the exact temperature and percentages.) What would the surf be like? (This proved to be critical, as I was able to catch an early bit of Hurricane Arthur out in Long Beach.) Did we want to try to get tickets to a show? (Yes, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch was sold out.) How much money did I have left in the bank? (Yikes. Also, oops.)

Where I succeeded, the first couple days, was in not using my phone as the sole source of comfort and distraction. I people-watched. I eavesdropped. I took photos as something to remember the trip by instead of using them to holler, “I am here! Right now!” at my online friends. I was not that person only half paying attention to the world around her and that felt great. As one should do in New York. Or life.

The world contracted to be whatever Tag, his wife Jen, and I were doing, saying, making happen. This included visiting the Transit Museum, driving out to Long Beach for the aforementioned surf experience, fireworks over the East River, bicycling out to Rockaway for a day at the beach, East Coast-style.

It was during the Fourth of July party that I first slipped. Inspired by all the America-themed face paint adorning the people around me, I made a little Vine. They loved it.

And because I was trying to coordinate with a few friends via Facebook messaging (using Paper, which is Facebook, but almost totally not), I couldn’t help but notice messages from other people on various topics. Upcoming shows. Questions about references. Etc. You know how Facebook tells the sender when you’ve read their message? I hate that because once that’s noted, I feel like I have to respond. So I responded. (Note: Not everyone suffers the same sense of obligation.) In the course of these interactions, I’d see something someone posted that I liked. So I would “Like” it.

Then my daughter texted me, “Why aren’t you liking my Instagrams?” Good question. I missed keeping up with her journey and the comfort seeing her photos brought. So I reinstalled Instagram. And then I uploaded a photo. And then another.

My music column was due. I went back online. Finished with a minimum of fuss and far too many puns. Took a breath. Rented a bike. Rode alongside my brother through Brooklyn, Queens, out to Rockaway.

Despite all this, my internet use, especially that of social media, was notably less than usual. Yes, I’d posted to Vine and Instagram, but neither of those accounts provoke conversation, just the occasional quiet cheer. Staying off Facebook was huge – no newsfeed to get sucked into, no back-and-forth about the photo or topic du jour. I appreciate the ways in which Facebook allows me to keep in touch with people far away, to promote events, but not using it reminded me how much time using it takes up.

Then the holiday weekend ended and everyone but me went back to work. Staying off social media when alone proved much harder, especially when waiting for things as one does in New York. Facebook and Twitter are my go-to time killers. Instead I opened Notes and typed out things I wanted to remember when I wrote about my trip.

Until the moment when I found myself cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge. I caved. I was excited about what I was doing and wanted to share it with someone, so I did: I selfied and posted.

I also decided I wanted to write about biking in New York City versus biking in Humboldt, which rekindled my internet interactions. I could’ve waited to write the post, but I knew that the inspiration would probably flag if I didn’t take advantage of it.

As could have been predicted by now, I did not look away in time and found myself immersed in comments instead of turning wholly to the other writing assignments I’d given myself. This was my last day in the city and I’d planned to spend it combining two rare opportunities, one being in New York and the other having uncommitted hours to string words together.

Sitting in a Manhattan park, using the free wifi, listening to the two guys beside me workshop their poetry/rap/beats illustrated a good fortune I should’ve better utilized.

Little by little, my disconnection never quite happened. But I did shift from habit to thoughtfulness. If I’d been staring into my phone, I would not have caught the sunset between buildings as the train whisked by. If I’d been checking in to Facebook during brunch at The Sea Witch or dinner at The Pickle Factory, the conversational flow would’ve been more sporadic. Instead the constant flow led to the kind of dialogue more likely to happen face-to-face than over chat. Eye contact is awesome.

That’s what I hope to hold onto – the streamlining. I did not reinstall Facebook or Messenger on my phone and I’m thrilled at the lack of notifications. Again, I realize some people can leave things unread, but I suffer from a sense of responsibility to those trying to contact me. As it is, I decide when I want to access Facebook (via Paper), which allows me the power over it. And because Paper encourages reading outside of one’s newsfeed, I find myself intrigued by headlines announcing creative endeavors, social justice rulings, etc.

I plan to hold on to that power.

The benefits of shutting up

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” ­ – Mark Twain

Sometimes, when you make a mistake, what you need to do is to shut up and not make it worse.

Hard lesson to learn.

It’s counterintuitive, after all, because we often believe if we keep talking, keep explaining, that we’ll make ourselves understood.

People say to share your feelings, don’t keep them bottled up.

But people would rather chance losing everything than appearing a fool. In a civilized country, looking stupid is one of the worst things that a person can do. And yet, we find ourselves splayed out, slathered in emotion, exposing ourselves and regretting it even before the consequences unfold.

So my advice, like all other good advice, is to put a sock in it. Walk around the block instead of broadcasting your heartfelt feelings on the matter. Do some pushups. Write in your journal instead. Reinforce that wall around your heart until someone worthwhile breaches it with love, kindness, understanding. Never assume they are worthwhile. Let time pass. Remember you are not who are you in your lowest moments. Remember you deserve more.

You will make it.

Stop. Back away. Sit down,

Forgive yourself.

Breathe some more.

I thought I needed religion, but the only church I considered following lacked confession. And then I remembered, all I need is writing.

writing exercise #47: “I only remember the dogs’ names”

I only remember the dogs’ names. The children’s, those escape me.

No wonder, when I think about how often Sophia called the dogs. “Buddy,” she’d wail. “Trigger,” she’d cry. “Lucky,” she’d holler out in such a way the name took on three syllables. “Luh-uck-eee.”

Goddamn dogs. Yes, no wonder I could remember their names.

Buddy wasn’t anybody’s. He bit my youngest daughter when she was two. Lunged at her when she toddled past his food bowl. Didn’t break the skin, thank God, but Lula screamed whenever she saw a dog until she was 10 or so.

And Trigger? The only thing more disgusting than how fat he was – seriously, what was my sister feeding him? – was how determined he was to, a.) stick his nose into your crotch; b.) hump your leg. I’ve had gynecologists less invasive and boyfriends less single-minded.

Lucky was the worst. Part golden retriever, part God-knows-what, the creature could never relax. “Stickstickstickstick!!!” he would convey through the power of wagging tail and focused stare. He shed like every hair on his constantly trembling body needed to be off and off now.

I remember one day, early spring, the day had broken with the promise of summer and her oldest daughter, who was still no taller than my waist at the time, had set up the Slip’n’Slide, no one to help her, no need. Johnny, my sister’s husband, of course he was named Johnny, coming after Dwayne and Mickey as if they’d lined up in order of cliché, was barbequing, hollering at the kids the whole time, “Hot! It’s hot over here!” Meanwhile, their daughter continued to organize the children. I saw them through rippled air.

And then the slipping and the sliding drew the attention of Lucky. Whatever instinct kicked in caused him to go after each child in turn. The kids, being kids, didn’t realize what was happening, didn’t make the connection between his lunging and their sliding until he’d chewed through their pants and two of the younger children had run screaming to their mothers.

My sister’s child, the one who had commanded everyone to play this game, charged Lucky with a stick, an erstwhile mother to her lost siblings. Lucky lunged for the stick, locked onto it, knocked her to the ground and let go the stick long enough to clamp his teeth around her scrawny eight-year-old arm, shaking it like this was a game and by the time we pried him off, my own husband forcing his jaws by blows to the head, her flesh had been gnawed to the bone.

“My baby!” my sister shrieked. She meant the dog. Lucky was, indeed.

My niece, not so much. She still trembles when we visit.

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