Personal History

I don’t remember how old I was when someone first told me I had a weird mouth. Maybe three or four. My dentist, at the time had habit of filling the awkward, sometimes painful silences with aggressive UNC sports boosterism. I was neither Tarheel born, nor particularly Tarheel bred, and when I died I hoped I would be less Tarheel dead and  more “suite at Cannes, at twilight, surrounded by doting admirers.”  So the dentist and I didn’t have much to say to each other.

He directed most of his advice toward my mother, poking and prodding at my still baby teeth. “Look at this gap,” he said about my front teeth. “It’s a big one. Also, Alison has an unusual mouth. Once her adult teeth come in, she’s going to have way too many teeth.”

I glanced up at the mirror by the light and tried to figure out what they were talking about and found myself both panicked and fascinated by the fact that I might sprout multiple rows of hideous, razor sharp monster teeth. I was a child enamored of Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile. I wondered, was I part crocodile? Would I also end up with claws, scales, a long swishy tale, secret plans and clever trick? None of my friends seemed to have been told they had too many teeth. As they lost theirs and collected quarters from the tooth fairy, cheerily anticipating adult teeth, I wiggled my mine and wondered how long before I went sprouted some sixty more canines.

When I tried to talk to my mother about this, she’d pat me on the arm, “Don’t worry. You just don’t have enough space. You have a delicate features and very small mouth.

This was literally the last time in history anyone would ever accuse me of the latter.

Mom seemed untrustworthy. I thought it was possible she was a beast herself, who just wore human skin to make me feel more comfortable until I molted into a dragon or whatever. I went to the library and researched reptiles until I was quite sure I couldn’t go suddenly cold-blooded, but somehow I stumbled into a history of freak shows and became convinced that I was becoming a monster, and if I expressed any misgivings about it, the universe would punish me for being vain by transforming me into something even more hideous and forcing me to spend the rest of my life as a pariah.  And yes, Greek mythology does a real number on an imaginative kid with a guilt complex.

The dentist worked out a scenario to start pulling my permanent teeth as they came in, starting when I was about eight years old in order to make room in my mouth for the others. Most of the pulled teeth were molars and the experience of their removal was . . . not without discomfort. I was too young for pain killers, and though the Novocain helped, I usually came out with terrible headaches, a bruised lip and that weird dull, sometimes electric pain of an empty gum. I’d nurse a consolatory chocolate milkshake and the bring home the bloody-stained extracted teeth as souvenirs. I kept them—eight total—in a heart shaped satin box on my night stand. The tooth fairy brought me five-dollar bills, and at least one time, after tooth number seven, she took me to the toy store and let me pick out whatever I wanted (I went with a then-coveted pink Care Bear).

I didn’t look like a crocodile, just a little girl with swollen cheeks and a buck-toothed smile with a gap everyone told me was unfortunate. “Braces will take care of that,” said Nana. And so, I crossed the office park parking lot from dentist to orthodontist at eleven so another obsessive Carolina fan in a white smock could take impressions of my teeth so they could be correctly imprisoned.

As a slightly north of middle-class kid whose peer group was mostly comprised of other slightly north of middle-class kids in the 1980s, I had come to recognize orthodonture as a destiny inevitable as puberty, divorced parents, a liberal arts education at a four-year university, and a sincere appreciation for both the Paul Simon discography and (eventually) the films of Wes Anderson. Thus, I didn’t mind being fitted with braces because it meant I fit in, even if they did tear at the inside of my lips and ache after tightening. I beamed with the rest of the metal mouths, all rotting food particles and slimy rubber bands. We did all look pretty monstrous in those years, I suppose. All transformation is a kind of body horror, even the sort of that ostensibly makes us more attractive, or at least more socially acceptable-by-current-standard of beauty. David Cronenberg could really knock it out of the park if he ever decided to make something about preteens in headgear.

I didn’t get the class implications of the teeth thing, yet, which was pretty funny given that I grew up in Appalachia. I watched people blacken teeth at Halloween to go as caricatured White Trash or Tramps or Trailer Trash without much thought to the fact that the people they were mocking were our literal neighbors. People made jokes about British people and their bad teeth, which I both hadn’t noticed and understood to be commentary on how much better America was at everything. Can’t you tell how much we love freedom by our straight blinding white smiles?

But it was Nana’s enthusiasm for the orthodontic experiment that really drove the point home. A daughter of a coal miner, she’d achieved a lot of material comfort in her life, but always rued the insult of her imperfect teeth. I knew Nana’s  mouth well and I can tell you honestly that I didn’t notice anything weird about it, maybe because I myself am a person with a weird mouth who has never quite been able to figure out why people think it is so weird (you know how some people just don’t notice when you cut your hair unless you, like, dye it green or shave it into a mohawk? Well, something has to be pretty goddamn radical for me to notice your teeth).

Nana was absolutely ironclad in her insistence that I would have perfect teeth. Those braces would come off and I would have a kind of smile that opened doors. Nobody would ever mistake my mouth for being low class. My teeth would be elite, my grin to the manor born.

When, after a couple years, the braces came off, the gap had disappeared. I remember sitting in my mother’s car, boxed retainer in my hand, running a tongue over freshly aligned (though still slightly too large) front teeth. Mom was thrilled. She couldn’t stop telling me how wonderful I looked. I kept checking myself out the in the rearview. I didn’t look like a crocodile at all. Otherwise, I couldn’t really figure out what the big deal was.

I can’t remember how many retainers I lost. I can remember that they were hard to keep in my mouth. I forgot them pretty regularly. Even in the spans of weeks or months I didn’t, I started to notice things shifting. By the time I started my freshman year of high school, the front teeth had started to express themselves in the only way they knew how. At my late-blooming, full-on puberty some 8-12 months later, the teeth had resettled in their previous abodes.  And I had the gappy, buck toothed grin that my mother lamented, and my grandmother raged about. There was a lot of blame thrown around—at the dentist for pulling all those teeth (“now she has too much space in her mouth!”), at me for being an irresponsible retainer user and wasting my parents’ hard-earned attempts to give me a perfect mouth (not unjustifiable), at my weird mouth for failing to fall in line.  But no one forced me back to the orthodontist. My mother sent me to a new dentist, a kind, gentle man, who filled all the cavities (7) the braces had caused and never talked about sports but told lyrical tales about Kilimanjaro and the quality of light over the African savanna as he drilled into my molars.  

I just couldn’t make myself care about the teeth.  As a young woman, I believed my monstrosity to reside elsewhere. I was fat, oily, with greasy, flat mousy hair and moles, a  stuttering, pig-nosed, no-necked, pock-marked wretch whose obvious best course through life was to distract everyone with statement earrings, self-deprecating humor and a really good record collection. The teeth were so low on my priority list as to be irrelevant. When it came up among family—as it sometimes did—I just ignored them.


In the summer of 2006, following an explosive end to a half-assed infatuation with a heavily tattooed, radicalized, ex-Jesus Freak, conspiracy theorizing line cook/poet, I started worrying about my teeth again. I’d had a wisdom tooth abscess the year before, because I’d been putting off having them extracted for, like, a decade in part because I’d had so many teeth removed as a child, I couldn’t really see the point of taking any more out. A tooth abscess is Hell pain. Like, overwhelming fade to black pain. And, in what feels like a weirdly cosmic nod to my childhood dentist, this abscess occurred about twenty minutes after the UNC men’s basketball team won the NCAA tournament in 2005 and I was observing the subsequent mayhem on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

Go Heels.

Fear of the pain returning nagged at me, especially because I did not have a dentist to speak of or the means to pay for one. And the conspiracy theorist harped on my teeth when he rejected me. Something like—“The girls I like have beautiful hair and great bodies and perfect teeth”—and it struck me for maybe the first time in my life that, despite what Chaucer would have you believe, the gap wasn’t doing me any favors with men.  

It was also around that time that an English friend listened to me tell how I was  perennially misread in Europe as an English-speaking European instead of an American. I’d been mistook in Britain proper, even after people had even heard me speak. These were the W. years, when everyone was wearing Canadian flags on their backpacks. I took it as a kind of compliment that I appeared so more sophisticated than my fellow Americans. But after advising that being mistaken for Irish wasn’t always exactly a compliment in England, my friend said, “You know, it could also just be your teeth.  Most Americans seem to have perfect teeth, at least the Americans that visit Europe. Most people probably just don’t see Americans traveling with teeth like yours.”

I started looking at the mirror again. I started looking at my teeth. They were slightly yellowed from a decade plus of smoking cigarettes and heavy coffee consumption. The front teeth were the same from childhood, gappy, bucked, one slightly chipped at the bottom following an incidental collision with a beer bottle after a raucous show.

I remember thinking how my grandmother had never stopped offering to pay for me to get my teeth fixed. She made her life goal, above and beyond anything else. I remember thinking, I don’t have a dentist. I remember thinking, hey, two birds, one stone.

My mother knew a cosmetic dentist in my hometown. I’d met her—the dentist—once at a fundraiser, when she’d swanned into the smoking lounge in an extravagant Alexander McQueen ballgown under a men’s tuxedo jacket.  She sat beside me and bummed a light. When talked about art parties and gin cocktails. Before she flicked away back to the dance floor, she told me, “You know, I love your diastema. If I were your dentist, I would never fix it.”

That was the first time I’d ever heard the word, or at least registered the word. Diastema sounded like a poetic term or a lesser Olympian. Better than gap, anyway. I liked the fancy dentist too, and not just because I’d never been that close to an Alexander McQueen ballgown in person. I told Mom to book the appointment.

The dentist’s office was preposterously fancy. The hygienists were black blouses and skinny black paints. I had my teeth cleaned while laying on a massage table with thousand thread-count sheets while “To Catch a Thief” played on the wall over my head. Afterwards, I was offered espresso or champagne while the dentist and I reviewed my x-rays and discussed a treatment plan.

What she offered was radical, even borderline Cronenbergian. She would crown, like, twenty of my teeth, possibly entirely replace a few. They were all in really bad shape, she assured me. So she would drill them down to crocodile points, fit them with shiny white toppers, and needed to switch out a couple for implants, we could. The cost of this endeavor was, to put it mildly, substantial. At the time it was somewhere around a mid-level car, a year of law school, or a credible down payment on a more than decent house. I could have used any of those things, and when we approached Nana with the estimate, I did ask,  “I’m feeling conflicted, really conflicted, about the fact that we’re not using this for something important, like paying off my debt or buying a house.”

But Nana just shook her head. The teeth were all-important. “Just imagine how beautiful you’ll be when you smile with that new mouth.”

Even the dentist said something similar. “You’ll have so much confidence. It will genuinely change your face. It will make you so much more.”

I relented to initial molds. The dentist gave me a clear retainer to wear when I slept. Every night when I pulled it out of the box, it felt like rebuke to my junior high self.

The last appointment before the drilling was supposed to start, I sprawled on the fancy sheets in the dentist office and watched “Edward Scissorhands” on the screen above me during a cleaning. In the conference room afterwards, I sat with the dentist and listened to her outline the process in grotesque detail. I swallowed back my anxiety, my fear of the intervening monstrosity on the way to promised beauty. I tried to Good Riddance my familiar gappy smile. And then the dentist let slip—oh by way—that even after all was said and done, after all the money and all the drilling, I’d probably still be in a retainer—maybe some kind of permanent brace- for the rest of my life. Also new teeth would be more fragile, and they’d probably have to be replaced as I got older. Black lines might appear between the gums and the crowns. I’d have to devote myself to their care.

And I dunno. I looked down into my espresso and just kind of lost it. Like really lost it. I was crying and mad and yelling about how it is that anything that anything requiring so much pain and money and effort so it could appear “normal”  could be anything but horribly abnormal. The dentist tried to console me; she was unconvincing. She seemed to know she was unconvincing. I reminded her of how when first met at that party she told me if I were her patient, she’d never fix the diastema. She gave me a long silence and shrug. She told me to sleep on it.

My mother called Nana for me. Told her I was trying to make all the dental procedures work with my calendar to buy me some time. I spent much of it staring at myself in the mirror, trying to figure out the degree to which I was not only looking a gift horse in the mouth, but choking it to death with my bare hands.

Two days later, my dentist disappeared. She left town. Her practice closed. The high thread-count sheets, the salon-like hygienists, the espresso machine and the patients waiting on fancy new smiles were all left in the lurch. There’s more to that story to tell, but it’s both sad and not mine, and the only relevant detail to this one is that she wasn’t coming back. My extravagant treatment plan was permanently tabled. And I was forced to admit that the universe or whatever does even the most ill-fated skeptics a solid every now and again

At about thirty-five years old, I went to see a new dentist, a congenial, easygoing young dude, who didn’t talk about UNC sports or Tanzania or Paris Fashion week. When I told him I had the worst, weirdest, ugliest mouth he’d ever seen and all of my teeth were bad, he pulled up my x-rays and shook his head. He said my teeth were totally healthy. No cavities. No cracks. No abscesses. He could refer me to an orthodontist if that was something I really wanted, but honestly, things looked fine. “And if you’ll sit tight for five minutes, I’d be happy to buff out that chip on your front tooth.”

I told him I got the chip from a beer bottle while he geared up, so I didn’t tear up at the notion that I was fine. Fine. My mouth was fine.

I called my mother on the way home and told her. She sounded relieved as well. Whatever disappointment at the idea I would never have perfect teeth had more or less been balanced by the  fiasco with the fancy dentist.

Nana was a harder sell. Or rather, Nana wasn’t a sell at all. She never stopped asking me to fix my teeth. Up until the last year of her life she kept offering, promising, telling me how much more beautiful I would look. I felt a little guilty at letting her down, but over time it got easier to let the tooth talk settle back into the scenery. I stopped thinking about it as much, except every now and then I would meet a new friend or see a celebrity with gapped teeth and feel a twinge of affection, a touch of kinship.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m keeping weird teeth alive. That somehow we’ve collectively forgotten that teeth, like eyebrows or noses or ears or whatever, can be interesting and idiosyncratic. That difference in a smile might also be attractive or aesthetically pleasing. But I also have privilege to think that way and even still: I don’t kid myself.

Even if I don’t notice them most of the time, I suppose my teeth make the wrong impression on plenty of people. I might have been happier or more loved or more successful if they were straight and white and had no gap between them at all. Farfetched? Sure. At least as farfetched  as the idea any part of any living thing could be perfect by some external measure, that perfection in and of itself is a finite process to be decided by someone else, then bought and paid for and guaranteed. That kind of perfection, the unimaginative, immutable, by definition ordinary, requires stasis, which is never possible when life itself is constant change. Things are only perfect in the moment. And in this moment, right now, when I smile I think it looks as close as this old crocodile is ever going to get to perfect.

Plague Diary: June 15, 2021

Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

It is a known fact that I am not very good at ending things. I stay at jobs for way too long and habits for longer. My tendency is to forgive, but hounded by memory, I rarely forget. I can get sentimentally attached to almost any object if I think about it for a moment or two. And on the narrative front, I have written many stories, plays and otherwise; every single one of them basically ends at an open door, metaphorically speaking.  To date, I have one story—exactly one—that has a solid, immutable, unambiguous resolution and I still haven’t finished it yet. There are a lot of reasons why ranging from the emotional/aesthetic (I’m not sure if I’ve totally nailed a couple of the characters) to the practical (it’s a murder story, based in my hometown, and I know what happens when one dares to tread on the fragile egos up in Vanderbilt Patchouli Holler).

I mention this because I’ve started writing this particular Plague Diary, which is not so much an End-of-Plague Diary but certainly a Locally-Postive-Change-In-Plague Diary if not a guaranteed Actually-This-Plague-is-Ending Diary, about nine or ten times, probably owing to the fact that my enthusiasm for starting things  is comparatively endless. I won’t take you all the way through the rejected first paragraphs, but my favorite was probably:  

“I frequently feel condescended to by writers of dystopias. Most of them feel like I’m getting a lecture by an humorless adult who liked philosophy and is very good imagining architecture, but just can’t do empathy. Like you can just tell me why you became disillusioned by communism, George Orwell. I’ll listen. I don’t need you to do a puppet show with talking pigs and rat hats.

Thing about boots. Tina Turner.“

I’m not sure where I was going with the dystopia thing. But I suspect the “Thing about boots. Tina Turner” bit was a note to myself about where I wanted to pass through on my rhetorical frozen daiquiri-drunk lazy river to making a point. So let’s get this out of the way, upfront:

 1) Over 14+ months of quarantine, I never once made a loaf of bread or learned a new crafty skill, but I did buy three pairs of  boots (two sparkly) and five pairs of “fashion” sneakers (plus four pairs of running shoes), also mostly metallic of sparkly and

2) in all the dark months of mostly solitude, panic, reflection and endless Internetting, I never could nail down (no pun) the bathroom mechanics of Tina Turner’s “Thunderdome” chain mail dress Best guess: maybe the water shortages in the Mad Max Universe meant that people were so dehydrated they just peed less? Still the risk of rusty metal chafing private parts is the kind of thing that keeps a girl up a night, and if you’re wondering, it did. Because finding yourself deep in the fall surge around the election, trying not to think about Our Current Hellscape, while also trying not to think about whether your tingly foot means you have liver disease, while also not trying to think about the fact that you’re alone and wasting your life, while trying not to think about the fact that you’re a failure, while trying not to think about your grief for your late grandmother, while trying not to think about the fact that if you ever have to sell your house, you probably will have to move to a different state because of this real estate market, while trying not to think about the fact that you are officially, absolutely no question about it middle-aged, means you go down lots of rabbit holes trying to find a different thing to think about, and sometimes when you’re even failed by the pirate epic you’ve been writing mostly in your head for twenty years, you end up in the back of the mental storage unit trying to figure out how you still remember all the words to all the songs in the talent show episode of H.R. Puffnstuf or whether you’d have been a healthier person if you’d been able to admit, unironically, that yes, you did kind of wanted to slow dance to “More than Words” when you were sixteen or the whole deal with peeing in chain mail.

But that was then.

Two days. Two weeks. Two months ago, back before I’d been to the bar or been to a restaurant or ran my hand over dresses on a rack that was not in my closet. That was before I drank outside, then inside, then inside without my mask on. That was before That was before I hugged my father. That was before I hugged pretty much anyone that would let me.  

On each one of these occasions, I’ve expected to get a little emotional but the slings and arrows of outrageous hormones have defied prediction. So, like, I didn’t even get misty when I let my dad in the house for the first time in a year, but Sunday night, at the movies, I got pretty choked up when I realized the  bartender at the fancy movie theater was still working at the bar. “I’ve really missed seeing you,” I said, when he handed me my beer. He just kind of stared at me like he was trying to figure out whether I was insane or hitting on him or both.

We took our seats, my friend and I, about halfway up a half-filled house, clinking pint glasses in a pre-lights out selfie. The last social thing I did before I locked up last March was to see a movie at the same theater with the same friend. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was a beautiful, affecting  movie, but when I think back on it now, I mostly remember being afraid to touch the armrests of the seat and making mordant conversation with another woman about whether thirty seconds of handwashing was really enough. “Maybe forty-five? Maybe a whole minute?”

The lights dimmed.

“I forgot above previews,” I said. “I love previews.”

And we began. And we begin.

I’m not very good at ending things. I’m not sure we should be ending things. I couldn’t stop fiddling with my mask.Did I need to replace it immediately after taking a sip? Did I need to be wearing it at all? Was I courting disaster by even drinking in a movie theater? Was I a reckless sociopath l for even going to see a movie?

As the film started, my friend was like, “This feels like things are getting back to normal. But it’s not normal, right? There are variants. There is India. What is even happening in India? Is everything still terrible there?”

I said something vague. I’m only reading the newspaper once, maybe twice a day, down from thirty, maybe thirty times. There’s something comforting in the fact that I don’t know and also undeniably privileged and also terrifying. I think I’m supposed to be enjoying myself, but my brain is still sending out little anxiety alerts, sometimes about Covid, sometimes about the doodly feeling in my stomach, sometimes about the economy. “I’m not concerned about the 2022 election yet,” I tell friends, but of course I am. People forged new relationships during Covid, and I ended up in a mutually dissatisfying, codependent long-term hookup with a collection of worries as messy as a disastrous roommate and emotionally exhausting as a bad boyfriend.  

Worry Collection and I spent fourteen months doom-scrolling and producing a variety of elaborate psychological shadow puppet theater that the gaps between jigsaw puzzles, Netflix series and Zoom meetings. Now it’s time to move on, but we can’t quite let go. Which is probably why, seven days ago, at the maybe end of this pandemic, I found myself wandering the woods behind my house at dusk trying to tire out Worry Collection, who’d spend the day telling me I was probably dying of pancreatic cancer and would definitely end up living spending my golden years living under an overpass with a three-legged dog named Randy (not a metaphor). As I watching a blue heron (Ambrose) pose beside Bolin Creek in the gloaming, I thought, “this is probably the end of me. I should just prepare to dwindle and fade” like I were a sad European man in a rumpled suit drunk on 100-proof Criterion Collection

And that is an objectively absurd and maybe even hilarious kind of thought, when you’re looking at HOT VAX SUMMER head-on and you have a closet full of irresponsible, but honestly life-affirming fashion purchases you’ve made over the months of lockdown and there are beach trips coming and you’ll almost certainly be back in NYC soon and, fuck it, it’s time to activate those dating apps, let’s cast out the net, let’s make eyes at the bar. Should I go blonde? Should I start dating women? Should I start a band at forty five? Do I dare eat a peach? I mean, they’re in season and I AM STILL ALIVE AND AM NOT GETTING ANY FUCKING YOUNGER.

But it can be hard to safely activate the part of your brain that allows for risk and relaxation when you’ve spent the last year plus bombarded the thought that a routine trip to the grocery store could kill you and you might kill your best friend if she doesn’t sit far enough away. One wrong move and you could be a disease vector, a local extinction level event, who might inadvertently decimate the whole community because your mask slips at the gas station, because you let a plumber in to fix the faucet. And now you’re out in the world, watching people watching you futz with your mask in the theater because you have zero idea about what actually constitutes best practices at this point in the game. There’s a kid two rows up and even though you’re vaccinated, if you somehow passed it on to him, would you be a murderer? And what about the variants and the breakthrough cases? Can you still get Long Covid with two Moderna shots?

I don’t know. Maybe you’ve decided not to worry about it. I’m envious. I’m dreaming of indifference.  Not because I want to be irresponsible or a bad citizen, but because I’m not a natural agoraphobe. I was already a bit worn before Covid, and I’m not sure this year hasn’t frayed some edges that cannot be stitched back.

I want to be done with this story. May we? Will we? Are we?

We’ve made it this far. Is it time, once again, to begin?

Picture today is at Peel Gallery, in Carrboro, which is one of the very greatest things that has happened during the last year.

As of this writing, 161,615, 602 people have recovered from Covid-19. Globally, 459,688,374 people have been received at least one vaccine dose.


Music / Personal History

In the beginning, I was not Generation X.  I thought perhaps I wanted to be, because they all seemed to have seen The Replacements play live, but my birthdate but me outside the range agreed upon by the authorities on the topic—journalists, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, advertising executives, Billy Idol.

Time Magazine and Coupland put the Gen X cut-off birthdate at around 1972. Of the two, I  suspected Coupland was more credible, even if his novel, Generation X was printed in a weirdly oversized, impossible-to-shelve paperback format with a a cover screaming hey, edgy young person, this book is a lamestain-free zone for cool cats only. It was one of those obvious zeitgeist-y things that I knew I wanted to read so I could have an opinion about it. Still, I waited to buy a copy until I was sure no one would see me with it, so shameless was the cover art.

I finally bought the book in Charlotte, on a day when I had to spend ten hours stuck at SouthPark Mall (long story) with exactly $34 and a pack of Camel Lights. I read the whole thing on park bench between Sears and the parking lot, periodically getting up and doing a purposeful lap around the mezzanine level so the Security Guards wouldn’t harass me.

I admit to being surprised by the content. Once you got past the vintage typography, the slang glossary in the margins and the coffeeshop bathroom stall chapter titles (e.g. Adventure Without Risk Is Disneyland), the book was about a bunch of comfortable, underemployed thirty-ish yuppies languishing in the California desert through a very low-stakes quarter/third- life crisis. They weren’t particularly relatable, but far too milquetoast to be enjoyable terrible. They were the kind of people you imagined might wear khakis by choice and do the sniff thing with supermarket wine. The kind of people who would go to a bar and get excited about live music without being at all interested in the music itself. The kind of people who might ruffle your self-consciously disheveled hair and tell you you’ll grow out of it before waxing poetic about how much better it was when they were kids.

You know, like, parents.

Using that as evidence, it seemed reasonable that I wasn’t part of that cohort, no matter my  feelings about shoegaze and Sub Pop records. Only problem was that Time Magazine suggested that the Gen X follow-up– Generation Y – didn’t start 1977 or 78.

I puzzled over this for days. I wondered if it was possible that I just didn’t belong to any generation. Was I just a born free agent or somehow evidence of a cosmic anomaly? I decided to derail a Gulliver’s Travel’s discussion and ask my English class about it, as we were all roughly the same age. “Is it possible that the mid-seventies no longer exist in this dimension? That they just disappeared into a wormhole or something or I maybe come in from some other timeline.”

Physics dude, who’d recently graduated to School Crush following a legendary Grunge Hamlet performance, didn’t have an answer, though he did suggest that it might be a drug thing. Didn’t everyone do a lot of drugs in the mid-1970s? Or maybe a collective trauma thing. “I mean, like, Nixon and Vietnam. When was the fall of Saigon? 1975?” he asked, though he definitely knew. We’d all made 5s on our US History AP the year before. “Maybe they just took a few years off. Forgot things happened. That would explain Reagan. But like, has anyone ever heard anyone talk about Gerald Ford? It’s like he didn’t happen.”

These kinds of conversations were common to AP English 4 that year. We were all of us seniors, mostly charged with doing well on standardized tests, getting into college and completing the year-long, school-required senior projects that were like mini-theses for overachievers. Our teacher, a particular favorite, was inclined to let the twelve of us explore the text in whatever way we saw fit. Hence, the unit on John Milton’s Paradise Lost covered (among other things) masturbation (girls do it too), whether “Push, Push in the Bush” deserved a place in the Disco Pantheon (obviously), and if being hot for Miltonian Satan was morally equivalent to being attracted to Nazi Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List” (complicated).

“Gerald Ford was hardly memorable enough to be Swiftian,” said the teacher, in a half-hearted attempt to make our digression relevant. “Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford, however . . .”

I’d hoped to steer conversation back toward the fact that our age cohort had been collectively forgotten, but the kid from the Bahamas seized the moment to discuss Betty Ford and somehow the rest of the hour was lost to a debate about which President (FDR) and which first Lady (Jackie Kennedy) we had the hardest time imagining in the bathroom.

Still puzzling it out, I decided to write about Generation X and generation x in my college essay. My advisor gave me the side eye when I told him. “You sure you don’t want to write about what you learned doing a service project or a mission trip or something.” I told him that the only service program I’d effectively carried out was corralling a bunch of theatre kids and choir nerds to carol for old people at nursing homes. As it turned out, they were less enthusiastic about the renaissance motets and selections from “Les Misérables,” and my fellow students seemed a teense aggrieved about singing “White Christmas.” It was not an abject failure, but if I learned anything from the experience it wasthat sixteen-year-old actors are pretty confident in their future success and cranky 90-year-olds have nothing to lose by telling them they’re destined to fail, “so stop pouting and sing the Bing Crosby again!”

As far as mission trips, I’d never been on one. I was a heathen. The whole endeavor sounded both blatantly imperialist and soul-crushingly boring. I’d probably heard a half-dozen of my fellow classmates (all white people) stand in front of the student body for a ten-minute talk required of them to graduate, and drone on about how singing U2 songs with their youth group while getting hair braids in Haiti had endowed them with the courage and resilience they’d need to survive Rush Week at Dartmouth. I figured whoever handled the slush pile at the Ivy-caliber Admissions Offices had read thousands of them. It sounded like pure torture.

Why not make those sad sacks’ days less miserable. So I skipped any transparent attempts to come off like a better person and kicked off by writing about reading Coupland novel at a mall in Charlotte and trying to avoid getting hassled by security guards. I talked about both my aversion to flannel (hot, doesn’t pair well with skirts, seems more needlessly complicated than just putting on a sweater), despite otherwise having a fondness for tartan, and how most of what constituted “Grunge” was dull as a mudpuddle. I threw in a section about how “Pump Up the Volume” was in every way more relevant and meaningful than “Singles,” and concluded with a bit about on how weird it was that David Silver, no one’s favorite “Beverly Hills, 90210” character, was the only teenager on television introduced as being specifically my age. I asked the Admissions Officers to consider how that made me feel: unwanted, unloved, adrift in a world that couldn’t even be bothered to make empty generalizations about me because of my birth year.

Clearly, this point impressed the Admissions officers, because four out of six wrote back to offer me a place, which made me feel validated. “See? No one wants to be David Silver,” I said to my father, as I triumphantly waved an acceptance letter. He looked confused, then slightly nervous, then said something about it being a real honor that I got in even though, by the way, funny story, there was zero cash on hand for tuition.

I probably responded with some kind of sarcastic comment. Sarcasm was a thing that  Generation X was supposed to be good at, and by then the National Media had banished Coupland’s melancholy thirty-year-olds back to Baby Boom and all of us in mid-late 1970s were officially invited to try out an OK Soda and sit with the cool older kids.

That was in early April of 1994. A few weeks later, Kurt Cobain died. I heard about it when I was at a hotel in Baltimore with my family, part way through the sad, follow-up college trip, in which we toured the only two schools that had offered a scholarship as well as an acceptance, neither of which I wanted to go to. The Kurt news hit me weird, maybe because I was teetering on the edge of some a personal sadness I had no idea how to qualify. I remember running down to the bank of payphones in the lobby to collect call my friend Ivy League, because I didn’t have a phone card and she was a big Nirvana fan, or more accurate a big Kurt fan. She was a mess, didn’t even flinch at accepting the charges. I listened to her grieve and wondered what all of this meant about the space of time I inhabited. I owned all the Nirvana records and liked them, but it was 1994, a pinnacle year for suspicion of anything popular. Was it appropriate for me to be upset about a rock star death? Was it acceptable for me to be upset about that rock star death? And, totally selfishly, what did the end of the Nirvana era mean for my me and my friends—a bunch of otherwise nerdy teenagers with extremely niche musical interests and thrift-shopping habits, who’d spent much of the last academic year being mistaken for cool because we already owned old man cardigans.

I spent an evening eating shellfish with my mother, twelve-year old sister, and future stepfather, trying to explain who Courtney Love was, and why she was taking up airtime. It was frustrating and disappointing, but not as frustrating and disappointing as my future looked. At least I’d long since known that , despite my parents being reasonably hip, I would be incapable of convincing them that the things I liked were, in any sense, worthy of their attention unless they hit in the narrow heart of our shared experience . I didn’t think I could distill the noise about one of the biggest bands in the world into a compelling narrative, and ideally one that didn’t just end up being another gateway for my stepdad to discuss Santana, let alone explain why it even mattered to me. But I also didn’t think I would do anything by yelling about my own life being a total crock of shit, except for souring everyone else’s crab legs experience. So I ended up getting weirdly emotional about Cobain, wiping tears away with a butter-soaked napkin as a I hopelessly contemplated the moon rise over the Chesapeake Bay.

It’s not at all accurate to say that the greater Cultural Relevance of Generation X dissipated at that moment exactly. There were still more original recipe Lollapaloozas to come. “Alternative” as catchall genre was not yet the sole province of ball-capped suburban white dudes in wallet chain-bedecked khaki cargo shorts. Dave Matthews Band fans were still easily avoidable. Biggie and Tupac were still alive. No one had been to a party where the host just played the “Pulp Fiction” sound track over and over and over again yet. I’ll take 1994. Even the absurd and shitty parts—”Natural Born Killers,” the OJ White Bronco chase, Madonna’s “I’ll Remember,” big pants. Even Hootie. Something did, however, change for me, and in that way that the personal informs your view of culture, there’s a twinge that comes in around 1995 that has expanded into some kind of doom vortex by 98 or 99. Which, to be fair, also describes the trajectory of my life in those same years.

I spent the last few months of quarantine building this  ginormous self-indulgent (and frankly ginormous) 90s playlist, and I can’t deny the fact that things start to get ugly, like really ugly, around 97/98s. I’ve forced to confront some hard truths about myself: like, I might have been a healthier person in 1999  if I’d just straight up admitted to liking Britney Spears more than, say, Don Caballero.

By then though, people had long since stopped talking about Generation X. The used bookstores were no longer buying back Coupland novels and the thrift stores once again full of old man cardigans and discarded flannels.  The advertisers and media commentariat had turned their attention to Millennials—my little sister and her cohort–who maybe have been more doomed than we were but also younger, more ambitious and memorable. I was, to paraphrase  one of Douglas Coupland’s stupid chapter titles, no longer a target market.

This was, as are so many things in life, both a relief and a peculiar disappointment.

(Picture: Dorm closet, 1994)

The Last Chapter

Personal History

Twenty-five years ago this month my roommate and I received word from the Academic Advising office at our non-flagship state university that we’d both been placed on Academic Probation. They cited our poor showings over the last two semesters and poor showings they were indeed. Having enrolled full-time, we’d each managed to complete exactly two classes (both ones we shared—an art history survey on Renaissance and Baroque painting and a symposium on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics and Decadents of late 19th and fin-de-siecle England—we’d made As in both). The rest we’d dropped out of without formally dropping out, or,  in at least one notable exception, never attended at all. Our continued presences at the university would only be tolerated if we agreed to attend summer classes and maintain a B-average.

We laughed at that. We were not, as we saw it, B-average people. To the world, we may have been miserable, broke sack of shit bums and procrastinators that reeked of cigarette smoke and sweaty punk rock shows. Amongst ourselves, we were misunderstood geniuses on the brink of great intellectual or artistic success, paragons of taste, and on the increasingly rare days that we liked each other, the closest of friends.

This misapprehension rightly doomed us. And I can’t even blame it on pure folie à deux.  I knew that I was behaving like a lazy asshole. If there was ever a person that deserved failure for reasons of pure obnoxious self-regard and willfully squandered potential, it was yours truly. At the end of the semester, we broke the news to our horrified parents and enrolled in summer school.

Two weeks later,  my roommate and I went for a ride around the scuzzy edge of  Greensboro’s downtown and listened to droning electronic music and fantasizing about occupying condemned victorian mansions. My roommate let slide that a friend of a friend had offered hers a job selling phone cards at the Olympics. She would be leaving town ASAP. She hoped that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was a problem,  not insurmountable, but in my surprise and surprising hurt, I got snippy; we had one of our all-too-common arguments. I couldn’t bring myself to beg her to stay, because I was pretty sure if I did she’d never come back. So I may have reminded her that the only reason I’d even applied to this shit college was to live with her. She said something painful but entirely accurate about my self-respect. I asked if she even liked me anymore. And when she didn’t answer, I told her I thought she was wasting her life by going to Atlanta.  Then she said I was wasting my life period, and all signs indicated that I would continue to do the same. “You always talk about writing a novel,” she said. “I bet you a hundred bucks you never finish one.”

Two days later, she fucked off to Atlanta and left me living, for the first time in my life, entirely by myself. Eventually, all of us learn learn that life moves on and you can’t expect it to save a place for you, even if you are actually running to catch up. I most certainly wasn’t. At twenty and a few months with a couple shoeboxes of old letters and childhood knick-knacks liberated from the rubbish heap, I’d trudged through the predictable afterschool special disorientation of my my mother remarrying and the selling of the last house that could ever be described (even generously) as a childhood home and landed at a point when the only space for me in my hometown was on the living room sofa in my new stepfather’s condo, where my mother and sister had repaired while they waited for their new house to be built. I felt unmoored, adrift on a dead calm in the middle of the ocean with a broken mast and no tools

I took two classes that first summer session. One was Earth Science, a soft touch remedial course that allowed athletes and artsy types to fulfill a Science Requirement by coloring the tundra pink on a xeroxed map while a sweet-faced, baby-voiced professor asked us to raise our hands if we thought rocks were pretty. Why yes, Kevin! I think geodes are super neat too!

My other class was an Early American lit survey. It was taught by an aging, sardonic hippie named Jim who looked like a thinner Jerry Garcia and thought too much of Melville for my taste.  I didn’t know then that Jim was the head of the Creative Writing program at the college. He most certainly didn’t know that the Creative Writing program was what I told people I’d come to the college for, because for reasons lost to time, I hadn’t even enrolled in a single workshop.

I had been writing. In those days I could write like I was on fire. Youth, perhaps, but also cigarettes and coffee. I regularly lost computer keyboards to nicotine sludge and spilled, scorched Café Bustelo. None of what I wrote in those days was good. Most twenty-year-olds write bullshit, and there is no twenty-year-old bullshit more bullshitty than twenty-year-old bullshit with literary pretensions. I had a stack of stories about lonely young women, more attractive than I, with excellent taste in music and the kind of unflappable cool that made them seem fashionably wry even in their heartbreak (and they were always heartbroken).

I didn’t talk to Jim about writing in his class. I just wrote puns about Edgar Allen Poe in the margins of a Norton Anthology and went from campus to job interviews at weird smelling offices and sleazy chain restaurants. A man at a contractor’s office asked me what sort of underwear I planned to wear to the office, and surprised and naive, I answered “probably cheap and unflattering.” I didn’t get the job. Obviously a blessing. But I was still pissed because it paid $7.50/hour which felt like a fortune in Greensboro, NC in 1996.

I didn’t have any friends in Greensboro. I’d lived there for nearly an entire calendar year and could not think of a single person, other I could ask for coffee, not even a person I could call who might even recognize my name. So I came home at night and read Ulysses with the TV muted, the college radio station playing in the background and stuffed my face with 99cent bean burritos and boxed Macaroni and Cheese consumed direct from pot.

All of this is the kind of sad and embarrassing that makes me squirm in retrospect, but it’s the kind of sad embarrassing at the time that prompted me to start writing down a weird dream and end up a few months and about seven hundred pages later with the seemingly completed novel my roommate had predicted I’d never write.

The book itself was some more twenty-year old bullshit. At least two times too long and almost hilariously melodramatic. When I gave it to one of my remaining high school friends, she skimmed and said something like, “You’ve really got to start hanging out with some more emotionally stable people and thinking about a more meaningful future.”  Which I took as a back-handed compliment–look how edgy and transgressive she thinks I am . She meant that I needed help.

By then, my roommate was back from Atlanta, but our friendship was finished. I’m not sure I even told her I finished the book. Jim, by then my writing teacher, thought it would be instructive to send the book out. I did, and it was, of course, rejected, then rejected again, then rejected a few more times, but by then the credit card I used to buy printer cartridges and paper and send it off in the mail had tilted and I couldn’t even really afford to pay the credit card bills. So I quit sending it out and I started working on more projects. Rinse. Repeat. The uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story may discuss rejection (“Don’t give up! Keep putting yourself out there!”). What the uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story fail to note is that it costs money to submit things, and sometimes your bank account gives out before your will to succeed.

I rewrote that first book from scratch when I was thirty, on its ten-year anniversary. I don’t know why. Maybe because I was out of ideas. Probably because I have a problem letting things go. The eternal urge to tinker and improve is common to most creative people, I think, even/especially when grafted upon some seriously magical thinking. Like, if I could make that book work, I might not be able to rewrite my past, but it would at least make that past and all its attendant unhappiness feel worth it. And for the tiniest spark of a moment, it felt like it might actually work. But it didn’t. I quit sending it out. I started working on new projects. Rinse. Repeat.

I spent about fourteen months alone during Covid over the past year. I did not write a novel.  I’m well off the cigarettes for years and years. The  coffee after about 1pm just keeps me up all night in a dyspeptic, anxious, non-productive way. I no longer write like I’m on fire, unless it’s a work project and I’m under a deadline (and even then, hey, let’s see what’s happening on Twitter). I have stuff in the hopper, new ideas on deck, but it’s hard to summon up the energy to write them down, and even harder to imagine why someone else would be interested in a thing even I struggle to find the interest to do. Like, there’s a lot of noise in the world. A lot. Maybe the nicest thing I could do is to not contribute to the clamor and just shut the hell up for a while (she says after 1700 words).

Did I pull out the old book during lockdown? Oh yeah. Of course I did.

It had been about four years since I last read it through. The twenty-year-old bullshit turned thirty-year-old bullshit is now forty-five-year-old bullshit because even now, I have a file entitled “Old Book Fuck Around,” where I go on days when I feel unmoored to improve myself or find closure or save my soul through some kind of self-indulgent literary “Back to the Future”-ing.  

Years ago, back in the 90s, someone asked me what it would take for me to get a tattoo. I told her I’d probably do it when I finished my first novel. Two and a half decades later, I don’t have any tattoos (you’re welcome, Mom).  Maybe it’s because I can’t figure out what kind of tattoo I’d get. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’ve done anything worthy of permanent commemoration. Maybe it’s because there is always some ghost piece of me, still haunting that apartment in Greensboro, rewriting feverishly, and I know she’ll never be done.   

(Picture is of Elsewhere, which is definitely one of the coolest things in Greensboro. It post-dates my local residency by a few years)/

Eternal Flame

Music / Nostalgia / Personal History / Uncategorized

It was maybe the second dance of the eighth grade, early enough in the school year that I didn’t wear a coat, early enough in my career as a teenager that I hadn’t yet learned I could skip the dance. Mom dropped me off outside the gym l and I entered in through a chorus of nervous mothers squeeching out last minute instructions from minivan windows. Be careful. Don’t leave the school grounds. Be sure to call if you need me.

My particular junior high school was broadly considered to be the worst school in town. There were a lot of transparent reasons cited, but the truth was that it brought together a bunch of affluent, mostly white kids from the north side of town, a bunch of working class white kids from the west side of town, and a near majority of black kids from the center and south sides of the urban doughnut, so to speak. Parents were outwardly supportive but quietly concerned. And the integration of all of us played out like you’d expect at an Appalachian public school in the early 1990s. Which is to say, we didn’t really mix. The school kept us rigidly tracked by academic decree established so early it might as well have been Predestination. It was entirely possible to go through a whole class year in a school thronged with strangers without ever sitting beside someone you hadn’t gone to kindergarten with. And teenagers are masters of self-segregation on their own. Even the dance arranged itself by geography. The West Asheville kids in the bleachers on the far side of the gym. The North Asheville kids in a topsider-ed circle on the floor by the door. The Central South a moving column that divided the room between the two non-dancing groups of white adolescents seemingly oblivious to the other’s existence.

I found my place in the Northside corner, on the outer rim of the outer rim of popular North side kids. I glanced toward the dance floor with yearning. It was a dance.  Hadn’t we come dance? But all the nerdy girls that were still talking to me were transfixed by The Diplomat, a boy in our class in possession of the full arsenal of traditional North side popular traits—rich, smart, athletic, conventionally attractive, but he was uniquely regarded as nice. He always kept his distance—and convenient obliviousness—to the sniping and bullying of his expanded coterie, and eschewed long term relationships, making him a perfectly agreeable, acceptable crush for any girl in Honors Algebra.   

I tried to pay attention to conversation around me but the gym was loud and the music was infectious. 1989 was an exceptional year for hip-hop, thick with songs that were funny and sexy and furious and drunk with joy, and whoever the school hired to DJ was playing all the hits. I had a kind of out of body experience, coasting on beats while the kids around me stood around in tight rolled jeans and Duke sweatshirts like a pouty toadstools. I couldn’t figure out why we were standing stock still. What were we all waiting for?  

The  answer came soon enough when the DJ turned down the lights and turned up Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The floor cleared, and west side descended the bleachers across the room mustered in the center of the gym with the northside kids—some sad confluence of white adolescence—and then paired into couples to sway along to Robert Plant.

Annoyed, I turned to one of the nerdy girls to ask why it was that white people were so determined to dance to this undanceable song, or why they’d even want to. Instead, I said: “I hate this song.”

I thought she might agree. She owned a B-52s shirt, after all,  but before she could respond, The Diplomat tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to dance. I found this both shocking and disappointing, but Algebra Class was thin, so she wasn’t monstrous in the the way I was. I skulked off to the sidelines.  I looked around at the silhouettes of the other remainder girls, wondered if I looked like them, staring mournfully at the dance floor, while a significant proportion of Asheville’s white adolescents attempted to bustle a hedgerow. Whatever that means.  I wondered if the other remainder girls expect something  more or different to happen at this dance? Did I?

I walked out into the gym lobby, now packed to capacity with dancers griping about whatever bullshit was being played inside. I missed being a little kid, when you could wander up to another little kid in the supermarket checkout and ask straight out if they wanted to be friends. I imagined myself doing that now, and blushed with mortification. I would die. I would die right here.

Around me, the crowd shifted. I heard the vice-principal clapping students back into the gym. I rode the wave back inside during what I believed to be the longest, wankiest guitar solo in history (I was wrong, sadly). The rest of the crowd started massing around the edges of the dance floor, heckling the slow dancers.

The DJ must have felt a riot was imminent because he cut “Stairway” off about three steps shy of the landing to what must be described as jubilant relief and played what I remember as “Bust a Move,” but I don’t think that’s possible chronologically speaking. Regardless, I started hopping around, in the intermediary zone, not quite in line with the dancers, but far enough away from the bleachers to, I thought, the kind of confident, devil-may-care energy that would differentiate me from the other remainder girls. I got a chorus of laughs when I attempted the Roger Rabbit, and took that as cue  to never dance again. So I went to the bathroom with the girl from Algebra and watched her fluff her spiral perm and reapply blueberry LipSmackers. She told me that The Diplomat was the only one for her. She was sure he would ask her out now. I felt torn. I was pretty sure The Diplomat was the only boy who had ever asked her to dance. Seemed like a pretty low bar, but what did I know? I’d never been asked to dance by a boy either.

A couple of  high-banged West Asheville girls produced a pack of cigarettes, and fearing Algebra Class would freak out or narc or both, I ushered her back into the gym, where she fluttered around The Diplomat, giggling and I stood aside until the next slowdance, when shockingly, unbelievably, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

When I turned, I saw the Diplomat. He gave me a line. “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class,” he said, and I knew it was a line, because I wasn’t cool and neither was Algebra Class. But the song was “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles. And he was cute. And he was smart. And he smelled like laundry detergent and Flex shampoo. And no one had ever asked me to dance before. I followed him to the dance floor. He put his hand on my waist. I worried he might feel a fat roll, then my stomach sort of flipped, because he grinned and pulled me closer. I touched the woven sleeve of his polo. It was blue. Susannah Hoffs asked if she was only dreaming.  I totally forgot about the girl from Algebra class. I totally forgot that I didn’t really even like The Diplomat.

When the song ended, he pulled me close and whispered, “Thank you,” before walking away. I stood on the floor, while a not-yet-problematic Bobby Brown summoned the crowd back around me. And even though I knew I wasn’t real, even though I knew he’d just done the same thing to Algebra Class, for a second I thought I was maybe, actually cool. That The Diplomat hadn’t lied. That he’d wanted to dance with me. Maybe he even wanted to go out with me.

The girl from Algebra class was annoyed when I got back to the corner, but now I was the infatuated one. I drifted around him, laughed at his commentary, and  ignored the stink eyes of the actual popular girls. At the next slow dance, I tensed up, full of expectation, and peripherally saw Algebra Class do the same. But The Diplomat walked past us, further down the bleachers to the next of the Remainder Girls. He asked her to dance. I heard him say, “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class.” I could almost feel the warmth of her blush from a distance. I felt sick.

He did it four more times that night. Each time with a different girl. Fat girls. Plain Girls. Girls with visible handicaps. Girls with bad skin. Girls that no one much liked. Pariah Girls. Invisible Girls. Girls that everyone felt sorry for.  All of us weird and unfortunate and grotesque. And him such a saint to condescend to treat like real humans for the length of a song.

The dance ended after the last slow song. He helped the girl with her crutches back to the bleachers and again, turned, without looking back and returned to his friends.

Outside we waited for rides between rainslicked breeze blocks. I watched my crowd dwindle and other kids, laughing, took off walking out of the parking lot I had been instructed not to leave. I could see The Diplomat from where I was standing, talking to a couple of popular girls, triple threat girls like him, rich, pretty, smart. They were flirting, buzzing around him, full of compliments.

“It’s so nice that you danced with those girls tonight,” one of them said. “They’re all so sad. I mean, they might not ever get asked to dance again. And you are, like, such a good person.”

“I mean, I think it’s important to be try and be decent to people,” he said, and I swear he saw me then. I swear he made eye contact with me. “Especially people who aren’t as lucky as we are.”

I probably should have yelled at him, but I was in the eighth grade, still making all the wrong decisions and feeling all the wrong feelings. I saw the shape of Mom’s headlights and stumbled toward the car, because I didn’t want to cry in public yet. I pulled at the door handle and hoisted myself into the station wagon.

She asked how the dance was .

I blinked. I thought about Susannah Hoffs. ” You’ll never guess who danced with me,” I said.

I saw her smile. I saw her thinking maybe that I was cool and pretty, that I was the kind of girl someone wanted to dance with.

“So you had a good time?”

I closed my eyes and reconfigured the plot, until the memory looked the way it was supposed to. “It was the best,” I said.

“Tell me everything,” she said.

I didn’t, but the version I told was so much better than the truth that I almost made myself believe it.

Summer Jams

Nostalgia / Personal History / Pirate Necessities

In early 1989, at pirate camp, I let a bossy, chain-smoking, fourteen-year-old liar from Atlanta cut my hair during a tornado. This seemed like a good idea at the time.

She was kind of mean and definitely full of shit, but she was the only one of the cool older girls in my cabin that didn’t talk to me like I was a child. She’d been hassling me for days about my look, and I, a noted soft-target for any promise of makeover was finally, like, Fine, then. Do something about it. After all, we were stuck inside during a storm. What else did we have to do.

We’d been evacuated off the sound about fifteen minutes before, just after our visibly stoned junior counselor maybe named after a liberal arts college, executed a perfect swan dive off the swimming platform between two blue-white crackles of lightning. She surfaced moments late and climbed up the barnacled ladder, flashing the awestruck onlookers a woozy peace sign.

“Tubular,” said one of the boys I had a crush on.

I thought it was a little reckless, but I was still young enough that I couldn’t apply the lessons of myth to real life. So hubris often looked like superpowers, especially when strutting past back to dry land with one boob almost completely liberated from a string bikini top, like an Amazon on spring break. The older camp staff were screaming at us to come in panicked from the shoreline, but Liberal Arts College simply had to gesture and we all followed.

In the nick of time too, because the wind kicked up when we came ashore, tossing around loose towels and surf boards. I narrowly avoided a tumbling catamaran in my path. I climbed the stairs of the weather-beaten two-story cabin I occupied with some thirty other girls. The counselors shut the storm shutters over the screens while we shrugged out of wet bathing suits and vied for showers. The wind had knocked out the power, but water was as warm and almost as salty as the body of water we’d just left. My skin stuck to my clothes–cutoffs stiff with salt, and an R.E.M t-shirt worn to near translucence, neither of which technically mine, but borrowed or bartered—and I remember the whole cabin listing and creaking with the wind, almost as if it were a ship itself.

“You know, if this thing gets intense, we’ll probably die in this cabin,” said Liberal Arts College. “Sorry if you’re still virgins.”

She fired up the boombox, which contained a mixtape her boyfriend (who was named after a city in Alabama) made for her. She played it obsessively, so I primed for the opening bars of “Dear God,” and tried to imagine what it would be like if we were about to die. I followed Atlanta to the rail-less enclosed stairs at the back of the cabin and she propped a flashlight between her knees.

“I think we should start by cutting the rest of this perm out,” said Atlanta. “Perms are over.”

I might have blanched at the first length of still-sopping hair that dropped down the landing at her first hack, but I settled into the rhythm of it, as the storm shuddered and Andy Partridge wrestled with faith from the speakers. An epic roll of thunder opened for track two, Cult of Personality. I mouthed the lyrics, like Mussolini or Kennedy, while Atlanta talked about her act for the forthcoming talent show. She claimed she was a celebrated freestyle dancer which was like a breakdancer, but with more serious moves and, like, cheer skills. One could only learn freestyle dancing on the streets, and she’d grown up hard on the mean streets of Buckhead.

I hadn’t spent much time in Atlanta, but I knew Buckhead was my Nana’s favorite neighborhood on account of the fancy malls. Seems like a weird place for dancing street gangs, but Atlanta was currently wielding sharp things pointing at my head, so I didn’t say anything.

She stopped to ask if I was into New Wave, which I figured was maybe because we’d moved onto track, Blue Monday, but she meant my hair. “It might be kind of New Wave, when I’m done,” she said. “But that’s going to be way cooler this fall than a grown-out spiral perm.

“Fine,” I said, and listened to the cool girls in my cabin sing along. If she’d promised there was hair of a chance that it might have made me interesting to them, I would have let Atlanta shave my head.


“I let someone cut my hair,” I told my mother, on the phone that night on the phone, in the camp office, overseen by the small cadre of actual camp adults. I didn’t mention the tornado, because my mother was afraid of them and would have freaked out

Mom didn’t seem worked up about the haircut. She asked me how it looked. I hadn’t exactly reached a solid conclusion yet. I gave it another looksee in the reflective panel on the pay phone, and told her it was kind of cute and close to a bob, without going into details, because the details were that I’d let a gossipy, fourteen year old fabulist from the mean streets of Buckhead pretty much do whatever she wanted and it looked like it.  

One of the other adult staffmembers, the one that forced me to call my mother when she saw my hair, took the phone from me and performed a thirty second tone poem of uh-huhs. When she hung up, she shrugged and released me to dinner. It was shrimp night. Shrimp night was always the best night at pirate camp.

After dinner, I wandered out past the knuckle ball tables where a saucer-eyed older camper with Jami Gertz hair shot fireballs at boys she thought were cute with a Bic and a can of Aqua Net. She laughed at me when I flinched. I sidestepped a group of boys by the water cooler, and headed to the water so I could feel what the breezy afterside of the storm felt like when it ruffled my hair.

I took the storm damaged pier a launch halfway down and planted myself two staira closer to the water with my feet in the warm briny Sound and my finger marking the pages in Stephen King’s It, which I’d borrowed from Atlanta. I tended to spend most camp nights on the halfway launch, back to the younger campers, digging up clams in the reedy patch behind me. Sometimes Irish Name, my oldest friend from home, came with me, and we faced the end of the pier together, watching spectral boats and barges float up the channel past, the top of the island and into the sea. Increasingly she didn’t, which was okay, because increasingly we had nothing in common to talk about except our increasingly unlikely friendship

Tonight, the pier end was occupied by a few counselors and older campers half-assedly trying to aright the fleet of small sailboats—mostly Sunfish and Flying Scots—that had capsized during the storm. Just beyond them, on the outer edge of the boathouse, the typical evening crowd of underage smokers had gathered for a post-dinner puff. The counselors ignored them, probably because they’d soon join them, as soon as they’d drained the fleet of kayaks. It seemed preposterous that I had gotten in trouble for a haircut, a camp activity so benign that it had been figured into “The Parent Trap,” while no one was making the smoking section call home. I watched them enviously, wishing I’d been invited to join, terrified I might be, because I had no idea if I wanted to do whatever they’d expect me to. I suspected I’d be met with the smirks of boys, the haughty bitch-faced pity of girls, or worse, they’d just ignore me, pretend that I wasn’t there.

The sky darkened, gold to pink to violet. Sunsets are usually spectacular after a storm.

I could hear the muffled bass of the music from the barn, where the camp hosted a “dance” every night nights they didn’t show old James Bond films or host Atlanta’s beloved Talent Show. They were playing Stairway to Heaven, which was a terrible song to dance to, but a popular favorite among white kids named after cities in Alabama or liberal arts colleges (and track seven on my counselor’s mixtape). Most of the camp only went to the dances as an excuse to hang out in the dark and try not to attract too much attention while they messed around with each other’s shorts and bra straps. Stand By Me would play later–—the camp dance playlist was as predictable as Liberal Arts College’s mixtape. I loved that song. It sounded like floating under the stars on navy blue sea. It sounded, I thought, like what it must feel like to be loved back. Eventually they’d play Violent Femmes or Beastie Boys and I’d skitter back over the splintery planks to shore so I could pogo around the for a song and half and hope people would be so disarmed by my new hair that they’d suddenly start talking to me, that they’d realize I was so much more than what I’d seemed, that I was the kind of girl who’d let a bossy liar cut her hair during a tornado.

Because, why not?

Plague Diary: April 9, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

My first vaccine dose happened on St. Patrick’s Day. I was scheduled in at a family health clinic one county and about thirty-five miles away. I left about an hour and a half early, terrified some unforeseen circumstance might stand between me and my fresh antibodies. I listened to disco in the car, hopeful the songs might lighten the mood, and quell any last minute “oh shit, does my throat hurt? Does that mean I have covid? What if I get covid and can’t get the vaccine” hypochondria. When I got to the parking lot, I had forty-five minutes to kill and spread out in the front seat with a couple recent issues of the New Yorker. After about ten minutes a nurse came out and knocked on my window to ask if I was there for the vaccine. I said yes. He told me I could come on in.

The vaccine staff were St Paddy’s-ready, bedecked in Mardi Gras levels of shamrock beads and antenna headbands with flashing green lights. They were listening to Katy Perry. The mood was about as close to barely controlled jubilation as you can in a room full of no-nonsense nurses shuttling you from table to table on the way to a needle. The nurse who gave I had to tell the nurse who gave me the shot about my preexistings. She was about my age and wore a Flava Flav-sized shamrock over her scrubs. “I’m an obese ex-smoker,” I said. She shook her head sympathetically “Who isn’t?” and jabbed just south of the left shoulder. I sat in the hallway in a line of distanced chair, waiting my required fifteen minutes, weeping with something like relief but more weight, while the nurse who fetched me from the car danced along to “Teenage Dream” in the open front door. Beyond him, past the parking lot, I watched an old man walk a terrier across a winter field, just starting to green. I drove home on a winding back road, barely paved, past tidy nooks of meadow with gingerbread farmhouses and storybook barns. I’m not sure it qualifies as a side effect, but that night I slept so hard, I don’t even think I rolled over.

I don’t remember the last time I slept like that. I haven’t slept like that since.


One of the nicest people I know opened an art gallery in the middle of town at the beginning of the maybe end of the pandemic. Most Sundays over the last few weeks, I’ve dropped by, because she’s lovely and talented, because I like petting her dog and looking at her art, because the act of going to a place for something other than food feels satisfyingly dangerous, and it is the only place like that I go. I walk past photographs and canvases, thumb through glossy-paged art books. It feels decadent in that it is, strictly speaking, an inessential errand.

Still, we stand masked, doors open, yards apart. I feel my hackles rise when another person comes in. I pretend at lingering, but never do.

Early on, I thought I was a risk taker, I bristled at people telling me what to do. Now, I feel timid and fragile and if feels like everyone does more than I do at this point.  They sit outside at restaurants. They go to non-grocery stores. They have dinner with friends. They, improbably, travel to places for pleasure. I feel their irritation with my reticence. Do they think I’m a coward? Do they think I’m a scold? Do they know I’m jealous of their bravado? Do they know that the last year has turned me into a constant gnaw of worry, of second-guessing? I’m historically a person who does not say no, because I’d rather regret the thing I did than the thing I didn’t, but this thing has messed with my brain.

“You know a third of the people who get Covid have long-term mental health issues,” said a friend, this evening on the porch. “They become anxious and depressed.”

I shook my head, sympathetically like my vaccine nurse, thinking, “Who isn’t?” But I didn’t say it aloud. I just came inside, worried, and pulled up the articles on my computer, trying to figure out if anyone in the study was anxious and depressed beforehand they got Covid and how much worse it made them. Then I thought maybe I had a sore throat, but it was just that I’d been sitting outside all day in a chartreuse haze of pollen.


“How do you figure we go back to normal?” someone asked on a work call last week. She was making conversation between agenda points, but we all kind of got quiet mulling it over.

“It’s going to be a long time before I go back to dinner inside a restaurant,” said someone.

“Or a concert,” said another.

“Or to the office,” said another, and then kind of blushed when she realized she’d said it aloud in front of her boss.

I made some point about bathrooms, which I didn’t really mean. Peeing in a restaurant bathroom seems infinitely less scary than spending a couple of hours there, crowded, eating and drinking, with the doors closed.

I’m hungry for normal, but I still get weirded out when someone stands too close in the supermarket line.  How the fuck am I going to board a plane or get on the subway or go see a band play or sidle up to the bar, like old times? Will the second vaccine make all that go away?


I went to Virginia last weekend, ten days before my second vaccine, in order to help my mother clean out the rest of my grandmother’s house. At 12:15 Easter Sunday, I was bone tired, wrapping stacks of Dresden china that Nana loved, but is out of style and no one wants, in sheets of newspaper. Earlier that day, I’d followed my mother into a general store-style quickie mart down the block from Nana’s soon to be ex-house, and remarked, as I stood, masked, in line with a six pack of beer under my arm, that I hadn’t been inside a convenience store since August 2020. And I’d held my breath the whole time.

I left with a car full of stuff, pretty things I certainly don’t need, because I’m taking on the material weight of the woman I’ve lost, I guess, because on some level, I still don’t feel like I had enough time with her and I couldn’t give her a proper goodbye. A day later, my mother arrived with a truck full of things and we loaded them into my overburdened house, and I tried to figure out how many overpacked shelves I was from becoming a Collyer brother.

I showed off my new things, my new old things, my relics for elder worship, and endured friends’ ambivalence as they struggled to find a nice way to tell me that the picture I’d send of the thing I’d put there didn’t fit in my house and it all looked faintly ridiculous. My best friend, who I prize for her honesty, just flat out told me that it was too big. And I snapped at her, told her to fuck off, ungenerously, disproportionately hurt by what is, what was self-evident. To wit: my grief is too big for the space I inhabit. The things I have lost take up too much space. At which point does the past looming around you impede even your present

This morning, an electrician, a supremely nice dude, opened a box containing the ridiculous crystal chandelier that Nana kept hanging over her bed and tried to install it in over my dining room table. Every step in the process involved a nagging setback, but he finally got it hanging, and at the moment of glory, as the sunlight prismed and covered my stairwell in rainbows, he came out to tell me that the wiring was off, the whole thing would have to be restored. He couldn’t, in good conscience, connect it to power. He couldn’t, in good conscience, even leave it hanging.

Reader: I flipped out. I choked up. I called my mother like a baby. I saw this thing, this fragile object, this ridiculous glittery doo-dad go back into a dusty carboard box to be stored (who knows where), to be fixed (by who knows who and at what cost), to be reduced from treasure to burden, to become this weight that I can’t even move by myself, that maybe I shouldn’t even have.

“We’re not going to throw it away,” said my mother, on the phone, as I sobbed and watched the pollen marble the pond, while the embarrassed electrician repacked all the bits back into ziplock bags.

And I thought, maybe we should because it’s just turning into another disaster for me to drag around. And then I felt immediately guilty for thinking it.

“It’s just that this a lot for me to handle alone,” I said.

This is a lot for me to handle alone, after he left, staring at the mess, trying to figure out how to summon up the energy to even deal with it.

And felt guilty for being selfish. And I was selfish. And I felt guilty.


I should be clear: I have friends. I have family. I have neighbors. I am a social person, even in comparative isolation. I know that if I send up flares, boats will appear on the horizon.

But I am also a single person who survived a pandemic at a few hundred miles remove from family in a single-family home without a roommate. I did all the calculus on what would happen/what would have happened if I got sick. The things I could realistically depend on people to do (bring groceries). The things I could not (leave food outside my bedroom door). The things I would have been afraid to ask (take me to the hospital), because the last thing I would ever want to do is put other people at risk.

I don’t know how to make a decision anymore without calculating risk. This sounds like a good thing, maybe, but it lacks any possibility of spontaneity, of surprise, of fun. I hate living this way. I hate that I don’t know when I’ll be able to stop.

I get that I’m not alone with this. I read articles about who we think we’ll be after Covid, but it seems like a lot of people they talk to have come to solid, affirming truths about themselves. “I’ve learned to be more forthright in the things I want.” “I’ve learned that work isn’t everything.” “I’ve learned to find strength in meditative silences.”

I’ve learned that I can finish a whole 1000 peace jigsaw puzzle in about six hours if I put my mind to it. I’ve learned that I can still spend a lot of money on going out clothes when I can’t go anywhere, and all the sane people have been living in sweatpants for thirteen months. I’ve learned that, in absence of anyone else to cook for, I’d just as soon eat cheese and crackers for dinner. I’ve learned that I am a collection of bad habits that look worse the longer I am alone with them. I’ve learned that the most stressful, demanding, capricious, judgmental person I hang out with is, by far, myself, and she is very hard to get away from. I’ve learned that a shoe only has to be a little uncomfortable to make your toe go numb. I’ve learned that I my skin tone is 100% more mauve than anyone else on the same Zoom call. I’ve only recently learned that you can hide self-view on a Zoom call. I’ve learned that grief is exhausting, and stress diminishes you. I’ve learned that cardinals live on my roof and what their song sounds like. I’ve learned that disasters turn you into the kind of snooze that’s into all kinds of boring shit, like jigsaw puzzles and birds.

I don’t care for the person that Covid has made me, or rather, I don’t care for the person that Covid has revealed me to be. But I’m alive and the flowers are blooming so . . .


I get my second shot on Wednesday. I’m sure I’ll leave two hours early. I’ll drive down, worried that my spring allergies are a freak case of Covid. I’ll listen to disco. I’ll bring a New Yorker for the parking lot, and maybe the nurse will come back early to the fetch me in for my final inoculation.

I don’t know how I’ll feel on the back side, side effects, notwithstanding (they’re worse after the second shot, they say, and I’m getting Moderna). I guess I’ll feel relieved. I think I’ll feel like, at the very least, I’ve put in the foundations for After, whatever After is.

Fingers crossed.

Picture today is of a chandelier that is more than the some of its parts in a distended cardboard box .

As of this writing, 108, 457, 156 people have recovered from Covid-19. 175 million vaccine doses have been given worldwide.

Traditional Fields Family Easter Protocols: 1985

Family History / Nostalgia / Personal History

5:30 am: Wake from dream about playing mini-golf with friendly monsters. Tremble at the sound of the “creepy bird,” whose song signals the arrival of the evil zombie Easter Bunny doppelganger who rises from the dead every Easter Sunday to abduct over-eager, non-sleeping children and fly them away to a dusty fairground populated by the dead. Quiver under the covers, as terrified of being discovered by the evil rabbit as you are terrified of being discovered terrified by your still-sleeping mother, whose habit of explaining away childhood fears by brain chemistry and behavioral psychology, is so effective you come out the other side feeling both comforted and completely ashamed of yourself.

5:45 am: Satisfied the demonic rabbit has moved on to the Orr’s house up the street, you crawl out of bed making as much racket possible. Stomping across the landing, slamming the double doors, messing with the toilet seat and opening and closing the radiator cover cleverly disguised as a shuttered cabinet. Recoil in horror at the sight of a giant spider trapped between the actual window and storm window. Contemplate the mermaid shaped bathroom toys. Braid their hair. Investigate the contents of the medicine cabinet. Make flowers out of toilet paper and bobby pins. Wonder what would happen if you sprayed the entire can of bathroom cleaner into the toilet bowl. Pretend to be the long-suffering prisoner of a despotic regime and deliver a rousing, if whispered, gallows speech to a crowd of demoralized populace, encouraging them to fight on for another day. Flush toilet to punctuate. Flip the light switch off and on several times.

6:05 am: Begin waking people in earnest now go about waking people in earnest. Go first to your parents’ room and say “mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom,” until she rolls over, groans and tells you to go back to sleep. Calmly inform her that this is not possible. Scoff and walk across the hall to wake your three-year-old sister. Tell her if she doesn’t get up the Easter Bunny will steal her candy and return who to her actual parents, who are monsters in another dimension. Do not acknowledge that she will one day use this against you as evidence of childhood torment.

6:08 am: Return to parent’s bedroom with the enlisted support of your sister, her security blanket and your own stuffed raccoon (named Violet DuBois). Stand perfectly still with stare at your mother with the most puppy dog expression imaginable, trying to create the illusion that you are one of those sickly, yet saintly Victorian children from the most boring books in your library , instead of the Machiavellian tyrant you know yourself to be. Sniffle a bit. Let your sleepy eyed sister say something treacly like “Do you think the  Easter Bunny brought something for Daddy?” Try not to roll your eyes, because parents just eat that shit up. Listen to mother groan. “All right. All right. Go put on your slippers and give me a few minutes.”

6:10 am: Sit crouched on upstairs with little sister, awaiting the green light to go downstairs, as Mom puts on bathrobe. Wonder at the amount of noise coming from Dad’s study. Secretly hope the Easter Bunny has brought you a Walkman.

6:12 am: Enter den, where two large, elaborately beribboned wicker baskets sit atop the gate-leg table infront of the window. Outside the sun has just cleared the tops of the mountains and you feel like you need to squint. Dash over the soon-to-be completely refinished floor to gape the mounds of chocolate rabbits, jelly beans, egg shaped petit-fors, sour candies, gummy bears, white chocolate lollipops, tiny pastel stuffed animals and one of those imitation Faberge eggs made of sugar with a tiny confectionary vignette inside. Wonder if it would be satisfying to eat. Know you will not.  Trade sister a bag of gummy bears for all of her petit-fors. Thrill to discover, at the bottom of the basket, a cassette copy of Wham!’s “Make It Big,” but no Walkman. Your cousin once got a Walkman from the Easter Bunny. Your cousin also got one of those fancy pre-made playhouses from the FAO Schwartz catalog. You spend a lot of time trying not to think your cousin is an asshole, even though she makes you play a game called “Interior Decorator” every time you visit, which involves her locking you in her bedroom closet with a wallpaper book, while she goes downstairs and flits dramatically around the adults until they tell her how pretty she is. The last time you were locked in her closet for an hour. Your grandmother found you, said you were being dramatic when you cried and then gave you a sip of her Gin and Tonic. It is possible your grandmother is an asshole. It is also possible your cousin is an asshole. “So why did the Easter Bunny bring her a Walkman?” you ask your mother on the way to the kitchen, as you lick marzipan frosting off your fingers. Your mother explains that life isn’t fair. This will continue to be an unsatisfying response for the rest of your life.

6:35 am: Coffee is made. You request a cup. It is served “Nana-style” with a lot of milk and at least three heaping teaspoons of sugar. Mom sticks a pan of hot cross buns in the oven and requests that you stop tormenting your sister. Which strikes you as typically unjust, as your sister has been trying to bite your arm for the last half hour. Your father emerges in a threadbare brown terrycloth robe  that makes him look like the only monk in the frat house, and  sits down in the den to delve into “The New Yorker”. He may opine that “Maybe we should go to church” This discussion will continue, in fits and starts, in the background, for the next 3-4 hours.

7:30 a.m: You are nominated to call Nana. Nana tells you she loves you and wishes you a Happy Easter as you jerk the cord away from your sisters grasping fingers. Before handing the phone to your mother, you tacitly suggest that Nana is infinitely cooler, more loving and more generous than either one of your parents. Nana has a pillow on your bed at her house that says “If Mother says no, ask Grandmother.” You point blank ask Nana for a Walkman before your mother grabs the phone away from your and tells you to play with your sister.

8:00 a.m: Dressing begins. For you, this involves dress (sometimes with pinafore), white tights and white leather Mary Janes that your mother special orders from the shoe shop downtown because they often only carry white patent leather and “everybody knows white patent leather is tacky.” When you were little sometimes you had a hat (once an actual bonnet), but it is the mid-eighties which means you’ve moved on to the on-trend oversized pastel hair ribbon worn on the clip you’re using to grow out your bangs. Your Mom thinks the bow is kind of French. You think the bow is kind of Madonna, but you’re both delusional.  Your sister’s dress is in a complementary color with a French lace collar and satin sash. Your mother takes you outside to pose you in front of the forsythia and pink dogwood so she can get a few snapshots before you get grass stain on your tights and chocolate all over your dress. Your sister gets a speck of pollen on her dress and starts to cry. You take off running for the swingset deaf to your mother’s appeals, promptly fall and get grass stain all over your tights.

9:30 am: Your father has yet to shower, but your mother looks like she’s ready to go to a yacht party in Monte Carlo with Cary Grant. Her high heels precisely match the indigo of her low cut, full skirted linen dress. She wears a shiny gold choker and matching earrings, and you think she looks quite fabulous, despite the fact  that if she’d asked,  you would have gone with something with a bit more pizazz (ruffles, feathers, sequins), but no one ever asks. She taps her heel against the floor of Dad’s study and suggests that he might hurry up if you’re going to have a prayer (no pun intended) of finding a seat. Dad sits in a leather chair of roughly the same color and condition as his bathrobe. He looks irritated at having been distracted from a book about either golf or Kilimanjaro or maybe both. You cross your fingers and hope your father ignores this request. “I, for one, don’t need to go to church,” you say, in your best approximation of a world-weary thirty-six year old. “I mean, don’t we all know the story?” Your mother warns you against blasphemy and shoots your father a “see, this is why we should take them to church” look. Your sister asks for some orange juice. Your mother sighs. Your father tells you that Hemingway once climbed Kilimanjaro and he was a master of concision. “Have you read A Moveable Feast, bud?” You haven’t. You are nine. Your mother sighs like her last nerve has finally given.

9:55 am: You sit on the sofa in the den with your sister, disappointed that there are no cartoons, only church programming, which is boring and weird, though sometimes they wear interesting costumes. It is clear you will not be attending Sunday School, which is fine with you, because Sunday School is always boring. A few months ago,  you spent the night at Kristina’s house and went to her Sunday School class at the Lutheran Church where you learned two important things: 1) Martin Luther was not the biological father of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.and 2) Palm Sunday has nothing to do with Jesus taking the disciples to Miami beach for a little r&r. It’s hard to say which of these realizations was more disappointing to you. After you told her about it,  your mother took you to back toSunday School at the evangelical church she grew up in  for a few consecutive Sundays because she thought you might learn something about the Bible. But really all you did was memorize the titles of the books of the Old Testament with the promise of a prize. So you did, thinking that prize might include a Walkman, but after you rattled them off, the Sunday School teacher told you the prize was Jesus’ love and the promise of everlasting salvation, which sounded like bullshit to you, and because you mentioned it to the Sunday school teacher, you’ll never return to Sunday School again. You wrangle the remote from you sister and manage to catch the conclusion of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” on Mtv.

10:10 am: The airing of Madonna’s “Material Girl” video prompts a frantic dance party. Your three-year-old sister knows all the words. You indicate that you have a personal relationship with Madonna. Your sister appears to believe you.

10:35 am: The entire family loads into Dad’s sputtering Saab. Your grown-out  bangs have liberated themselves from the bow. Your mother tries to correct this as you fiddle with the rapidly expanding hole in your tights. The backseat is cramped, and feels more so because the red felt upholstery covering the ceiling sags like an old lady’s panty hose and threatens to engulf you.. Your mother reminds your father that there will be neither parking nor seating still available at the church. Your sister breathes. It irritates you. You ask her nicely to stop breathing and she takes the opportunity to smack her lips in your ears. By the time you get to the expressway, you’re hitting her and she’s biting you. Both of you insist that the other one started it. Your mother threatens punishment if the violence continues. Your sister keeps slurping. You raise a hand as a warning. Your sister screams that you hit her.

10:52 am: A parking space is discovered in the drive-thru lane of the Biltmore Village branch of Wachovia. You hustle over the green in front of the Church, where two ushers try and direct the bottleneck of tardy parishioners. Inside they’re already vamping on the pipe organ and some guy with a French horn,  and you hope maybe this year you will get a seat with a decent view of the stage. But of course you don’t. You’re directed to the furthest back corner of the side arm of the cross-shaped sanctuary, which pretty much guarantees you will see nothing but the procession and recession. Once seated you crane your neck, see a few of your friends and try to get up and go see them, but are directed to sit down or else by your mother who mutters that she needs a cigarette and a Bloody Mary.

11:00 am-12:00pm: Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Stand up. Kneel. Sit down. Sit down. Stand Up. And also with you. Scoot the embroidered prayer bench back and forth using the heels of your shoes against the stone floor. Pick up the Book of Common Prayer. Put It Back. Pick It Up. Skim the Text. Add “in the bedroom” to the end of every sentence. Giggle. Ask your mother for a mint. Flip through the hymnal. Add “In the Bedroom” to the end of every title. Tilt your head back to look at the people in the stained glass. Try to figure out which one of them is supposed to be Jesus. Ask Jesus for a Walkman. Ask Jesus for a copy of “Like A Virgin.” Think about being a nun. Wish you were Catholic so you could be a nun. Figure you’d make it in a convent about a week, but at least you’d figure out what kind of underwear they wear. Twiddle your thumbs. Mess with the hole in your tights. Wish your guardian angel still brought your presents. Listen to your mother explain, again, that all the flowers in the front of the church came from the Biltmore Estate. Find the choir sort of boring. Sit down. Stand up. Ask if you take communion because you’d like a snack. Get denied. Go with your Dad while he takes communion and kneel beside him on the bench. Get blessed by the priest, who is wearing a fabulous sparkly gold poncho. Mention this to the priest. Get blessed again.   Go back to seat. Be bored. Try to make faces at friends across the church. Stand up. Ask if it’s almost over. Thrill at the recession. Watch an acolyte stumble while carrying a candle. Wonder if you’d survive if they had to evacuate the church in a hurry.

12:05 p.m: Help yourself to iced butter cookies from central table in fellowship hall. Find friends. Ignore little sister. Tell your friends that the Easter Bunny brought you a Walkman. Pretend not to hear when little sister calls you a liar. Walk outside and try to enter as many closed doors as you can. Get shepherded back inside by your neighbor, who teaches your gifted class at the  elementary school. Ask her if it’s true that the Episcopal Church only exists because Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Glow with praise that you are precocious. Figure being called precocious at church means that God wants you to have a Walkman. Think that all the cool people you know have divorced parents. Wonder how long it will be before your parents get divorced (four years).

12:30 p.m: Drive to the Biltmore Estate, access using Dad’s pass, which he has because he does all the advertising. Listen to your mother ooh and ah over the spring greening of the grass. Wonder why there’s so much bamboo on the estate and no pandas. Ask to go to the house. Get told that you’re just going to the gardens to take pictures. Sulk because the gardens are boring. Walk through greenhouse. Get posed with your little sister. Ham it up for photographs. Try to appear as if you are a glamorous movie star. Get annoyed when your father does not take a picture of every single one of your practiced facial expressions—furious, distraught, sultry, tragic, “Starring Linda Carter as Wonder Woman.” Run out through the tulips, imagining that Han Solo or ideally David M. from your gifted class will pop out of the jonquils to receive your theatrical embrace. Imagine that you are a princess. Imagine that you live in the house and all the other people around you are peasants. Call someone a peasant under your breath. Feel bad. Know that as princess you would abdicate to lead the peasant revolt. Ask your dad for fifty cents to buy a Fresca from the vending machines. Wish you were in the throes of an epic romance. Make plans to call David later and ask him if he likes you and then hang up before he responds. Complain that your father is wasting all his film on your stupid sister.

1:45 p.m: Arrive at  Club. Immediate take off for Ladies Lounge to lounge on the sofa for a little while, pretending that every woman that comes in is a guest at your Parisian salon. Make rounds through dining room, greeting all your friends. Brag about your haul from the Easter Bunny while finding some way to highlight the tragedy of not receiving a Walkman. I mean, I got a Wham tape, but what does the Easter Bunny expect me to play it on? The Fisher Prince tape player. God, I think not. Get called out on having previously lied about the Walkman.  Get told by at least six people that the Easter Bunny isn’t real. Explain that you know that, but that your three-year-old sister does not and so you have to go on pretending. This is absolutely true. Explain to no one that you are terrified of an evil, Easter Bunny doppelganger that haunts the pre-dawn hours of Easter morning. After all, that one might be real. You don’t really have any hard evidence one way or the other. So better safe than sorry.

2:00 p.m: Order a Shirley Temple and join the Easter buffet line for large helpings of some sort of casserole, chicken salad, overcooked scalloped potatoes and whatever seafood options are available. Avoid the beef for fear that it might be too chewy. Excuse yourself to return to the Ladies’ lounge at least three times during the meal. Practice an English accent. Practice an Irish accent. Practice a Russian accent. Think your French accent is pretty believable. Elect yourself chair of an imaginary committee. Try to replicate the opening dancing sequence from “West Side Story.” Perform a “Camelot” medley. Pretend to be imprisoned. Practice your swoon. Think you have tremendous natural talent as a tap-dancer. Flush a bar of soap down one of the toilets. Try to hide in the lobby. Run into Teresa in the hallway. Encourage her to play Cabaret Singer by Day/ Spy by Night in the bar. Discourage Teresa from inviting Erin, your nominal best friend to play along. Erin will want to add babies into the mix. Everyone knows that a glamorous spy would have nothing to do with a baby. War is hell. Tough women have to make sacrifices. Dodge the Gestapo all the way back to the dining room.

2:30 p.m: Convene outside the Pro Shop for the Annual Easter Egg Hunt in and around the tennis courts and the eighteenth hole. Listen as some guy in a green golf shirt with David Cassidy hair  who looks like he’d rather be tokin’ up for topless coed volleyball explain that there will be prizes for the most eggs collected. And one lucky person stumble upon the Magical Golden Egg that contains a magical prize for one very special little girl or boy. This last bit is delivered in a monotone. Look at Erin and roll your eyes. The countdown begins. Three. Two. Egg Hunt.

2:35 p.m: You’ve been shoved, elbowed, trampled and roundly inconvenienced. You’ve crawled through pine mulch to retrieve two or three empty plastic eggs under a buggy rhododendron. You’re too short to reach the high places and too tall to crawl around under the shrubbery, and you do have some dignity, not to mention three new holes in your tights and a lot of pine needles stuck to your pinafore. Erin has managed all the same things without getting one single thing on her pink smocked dress. Which defies logic. Likewise the fact that what’shisface has found the Magical Golden Egg for the second year running. Amy tells you that what’shisface goes to Asheville Catholic and has a real Pac-Man machine in his house. Also he breakdances. You are so over breakdancers. You tell Amy he’s probably lying about the Pac-Man machine. And you should know. You’ve absolutely told that lie before.

2:38 p.m: The magical golden egg is not magical at all. It’s a plastic pantyhose egg spray-painted gold. Contained inside, however, is a ten-dollar bill which pretty much the most magical thing you can take to the mall. What’shisface walks through the crowd cradling his prize with a smug grin and as much swagger as a four-foot tall third grader with a clip-on tie can muster. That guy is a dork, says Amy; because dork is about the worst thing you know to call someone. I don’t like him, you say. One of the boys flips him the bird and gets in trouble. You have no idea what flipping someone the bird means and are terrified of appearing uncool so you do not ask. It will take another three years before you figure it out.

2:55 p.m: Your mother takes a million years to finish talking and leave. You try to get Kristina to invite you back over for a sleepover at her house, despite the fact that you were there the weekend before. Kristina has a laundry chute large enough to crawl through, a Persian cat and a large, round sunken hot tub. Last time you stayed over at  Kristina’s you kept her up all night to her parent’s great consternation and taught Kristina and her seven year old brother the word “motherfucker,” which you’d recently learned from your neighbors, who are all gross boys, but useful in small doses. It does not cross your mind that you’ve done anything wrong. Even after you are never invited to Kristina’s house to spend the night ever again.

3:15-9:15 p.m: Return home. Eat candy. Sit in the kitchen hallway eavesdropping on your mother’s telephone conversation while your sister falls asleep on the sofa to HBO. Later your dad will play a Miles Davis record and you will eat a grilled cheese. “The Sound of Music” will be broadcast tonight on one of the networks and you just can’t get enough of the nuns. You will be made to go to bed just after the wedding, but before the Von Trapps must run from the Nazis. You will be unable to fall asleep and sit up reading one of the four books you have squirreled away beneath your covers the light of the streetlamp. You have survived Easter.

Past Lives

Nostalgia / Personal History / Women

In my favorite episode  (4) of my favorite season (2) of one of my Desert Island Top 5 favorite televisions shows (“Fleabag”)an acknowledged Hot Priest stops on a meander through a drunken crisis of faith to ask the protagonist if she’s a nostalgic person. He admits that he can hardly encounter Winnie the Pooh in the wild without turning into a sobbing wreck, and they share a moment of heartfelt reverence for Piglet. It’s hardly the most memorable exchange in that episode( and in fact, so far from it, that you’d be forgiven if you’ve seen it six times and have no idea what I’m talking about).

I think about it all the time, though,  for I, too, am an intensely  nostalgic person. Pooh is not my poison, maybe because I grew up in the U.S .on a steady diet of 1970s and 1980s kid-friendly pop culture, (which, in retrospect seems like it was engineered at the time to produce an endlessly addictive nostalgia high some thirty to forty years later).  My list of particular nostalgia triggers is pretty varied (it includes everything from Chaka Khan to “The Pirates of Penzance” to the smell of a Pizza Hut). The Muppet universe pretty much wrecks me.  I cannot listen to Kermit the Frog, or anyone really, sing “The Rainbow Connection” without blubbering all over myself (the last verse slays).  

Quality has little to do with nostalgia triggers. Objectively speaking, I’m not sure Maxell cassettes smell good. I mostly hate Mr. Big’s “I’m The One Who Wants To Be With You” even though it transports me in the back of a friend’s mom’s station wagon at peak fifteen like I’m on some kind of virtual reality ride at Psychology Funland. For me, anyway, nostalgic things are different from influential things. The latter are on some level aspirational, thus future focused, and sometimes challenging at first bite; the former are well-worn magnets that draw you back to the past. This is not to say that influential things are always objectively “better” (witness the eyerolls whenever I try to talk about what “The Legend of Billie Jean” means to me) but they do more than provide a comfortable balm and a bar anecdote.

Like most intoxicants, nostalgia should be enjoyed responsibly. People get weird when they start overdosing. They take it too seriously, and freak out if anyone says anything questionable about their favorite nostalgic triggers, terrified that if we start recontextualizing the beloved things of our pasts we might undo the magic that transformed the stuffed rabbit on a trash heap into a wild hare in the moonlight. I’m a person that loves to deconstruct essentially trivial stuff, but even I get tetchy when it comes to excavating my own nostalgia. Like, I know “The Goonies” is a problematic text and I still love it. And I don’t actually want to think too deeply about the Jennifer Connelly/David Bowie age difference in “Labyrinth,” or what it says about me and girlhood in the 80s that I always thought they should have ended up together.It’s hard when things get ruined. I mean, a possibly unfillable hole exists in my best party playlist where “P.Y.T” used to be, even if that song is done for me these days.

Nostalgia is not the real past, not even close. It’s just a candle that smells a little like your grandma’s house. You can get lost in a collage of evocative, if anodyne fragments and mistake them for actual history. And that’s dangerous because the 90 minute mixtape version of the past tends to edit a lot of narrative out, in favor of mood. Which is why the embedded version of the 80s in pop culture never forgets “Ghostbusters” but mostly leaves out H.I.V.

As a person that spends a fair amount of time writing about the past, and specifically my own, I can tell you that it is hard to navigate around the nostalgia when you’re trying to tell something true. I write a fair amount about my own teenage and young adult years. I was a pretty miserable teenager, dealing with a lot of uncomfortable, depressing, infuriating crap. I was also extraordinarily lucky, as far as relative level of privilege was concerned. I escaped any violence and oppression and real material want. I never starved, either for sustenance or familial affection. I went to a fancy high school with a 100% college acceptance rate, where I learned at least as much about indie rock, post-modern novels, and what cool Europeans wanted to dance to and as I did about Shakespeare and Modern European History ( and significantly more than I did about math).

Those years were a storm of worry, boredom, and gutting sadness, inconsistently broken by hilarity and thrill and waves of near-euphoric anticipation, probably enhanced by a steady diet of black coffee, Camel Lights, the 3.99 Vegetarian Taco Loco from my favorite Mexican greasy spoon, and increasingly, almost competitively obscure track listings on friend-made mixtapes. And note, even as I write this, I am falling prey to the nostalgia version, woven into everything I write about that time. Sometimes it so threatens to supplant my actual lived experience that I have a hard time remembering what was real and what is a figment, conjured by an air freshener that smells like Salon Selectives and/or the opening bars of Tears for Fears “Break It Down Again”(still a banger), of my high school best friend, drunk at seventeen, dancing wildly on her front porch in a lavender shorts and argyle knee socks in the dead of winter.

I’ve revisited that story, even told that story, a bunch of times, and every time I forget  that  she was heartbroken that night. That I, myself, had shown up at her house in tears. That our world was mostly populated by other fucked up and heartbroken teenagers, a handful of often fucked up and heartbroken adults doing the best they could, and a whole world of people that we–ourselves posers, liars, fakers and pathologically desperate to be cool– had only begun to realize were not who or what they seemed.

Years ago, a friend, who went to the same high school as I did, but a few years later, heard a few of my stories and lamented that her experience hadn’t been fun like mine. The school, she said, sounded so much better when I was there. I laughed itoff. I may have even agreed, already old enough to have fallen under the sway of nostalgia, to have edited the playlist so I wouldn’t wreck the mood. But caused me to dig in the stacks, revisit a few songs I hadn’t heard in a while, and reflect that it’s a whole lot easier to tell a story about something wholly good or something wholly bad, than one that is equivocal or complicated.

None of us live in a vacuum. Our experiences touch others and others’ shape ours. Nostalgia can erase that complexity so completely that when you’re remind of it, it can feel like a slap in the face. No wonder we get defensive, no wonder our first impulse is to minimize, if not flat out deny, things we once knew to be true, the things we know to be true if you just widen the frame on the memory.

I’m not a journalist or historian, despite occasional feints. I don’t tell other people’s stories unless they tell me to, and even then I do my best to call it fiction. I have learned that lesson the hard way. So even I as stick to the (unreliable?) narration of my own experience, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole other story, in which I may or may not play a part at all, happening off camera, or left on the editing room floor in someone else’s memory palace.

I am trying to reckon with the past without the distraction of nostalgia, because I don’t want to forget all the hard stuff, because I don’t want the hard stuff to happen again, or more accurately, to keep happening. Because, if I’ve learned anything from both activists and  nostalgia-bait time travel movies, it is that often the first step to changing the future is changing the way you view the past.

I am trying to remember that.

I am trying to remember.

I am trying.


Family History

Nana had a little three drawer chest by her bed that she used as a nightstand. On top she kept and ashtray and a little dish full of hair pins that she used to secure her sleep scarves. These were always chiffon, usually pink, yellow or lavender and lived in the drop drawer of the chest. The other drawers were also full of scarves, but silk, the kind  you wore with a sweater or blouse. They were all colors, with bright prints and sometimes French names printed across the bottom. When I was a very little girl, she’d let me take them out while she sat at her wide vanity, lining her eyes in a magnifying mirror. I’d drape them all over myself and run to the closet mirror, soft ends unfurling about me like a small, pigeon-toed human kite, then I’d open the closet, which smelled like leather and gently lift the lids on a wall of shoeboxes.

I was a curious child. Inclined to open every lid without a lock and cabinet I could reach. Some adults found this trait horrifying and impolite, but Nana never minded, even encouraged. If she saw me pulling at a brass draw pull or nosing behind a rack of old kimonos and evening gowns, she’d often help, ask me about what I found, and afterwards keep an eye, as a I carefully put what I found back into place. She’d send me on a coat closet safari to find lighters she left in jacket pockets. “And if you find any money, you can keep it.” My ever-generous grandfather, observing and not to be outdone, tried to pull the same trick, except he also left a Hershey bar and twenty-five dollars in the pocket. That was, for me, at nine, a tycoon-level score, but an obvious gift. Nana’s felt more organic, even serendipitous. There weren’t always dollars in the pockets, and if there were, no guarantee how many, or how deep into the closet you’d have to go looking. It was somewhere between archeology and gambling, which, as it happens, is a fair description of the antiques business.

It suited me. The quest. If I got the hunger and curiosity from Nana, I got the mythos from the other side of my family–my paternal grandfather, who spent his whole life the sole protagonist of as yet-unwritten Arthurian legend (the only Knight of the Round Table to be felled by cirrhosis in Defuniak Springs, Florida). There wasn’t a corner safe from my inspection, a shelf protected from my wandering fingers. I was tireless in my efforts to see what was there, and if I was very lucky, find some reward, either tangible or intangible.

Occasionally, I found things I knew I should not have —a Highboy drawer full of blue-boxed dolls meant to be doled out as Christmas and birthday present presents, a black and white snapshot what appeared to be a dead man among ruined aircraft on a South Pacific beach, the cold barrel of a revolver under the edge of quilt. When that happened, I knew I’d gone a step too far, and I was always quick to shut the drawer, but not before I catalogued the contents. Sometimes, I’d return to see if the items had moved. The gun stuck around until it was sold after my grandfather died, the last doll lived in in box in the drawer for decades after I outgrew her, but the photograph, which still haunts me, disappeared so quickly after I saw it, I wonder, to this day, if I imagined it.

I don’t know what happened to Nana’s scarves or what became—or perhaps what will become–of the little chest that held them. In the years before she died and the months since, the catalog of things missing or unknown is greater than or equal to the text messaged snapshots of flowerpots, cake pans, dessert plates, baskets  and Pyrex–so much Pyrex—that well-intentioned relatives have sent me in these last remaining weeks of Nana’s house still being her house.

A half year out from her death, we’re in the scrambling, tidy-up section of the grief process, where it is assumed settlement brings closure. Nana’s house—not the one I visited in childhood with all the magical closets, but the one she move to after my grandfather’s death—sold quickly. It’s a hot housing market out there, even in the places you don’t expect. What’s left in the unloading, the parceling out, the arguments, the antique dealers, the estate sales, the junk collectors. Nana was a person who measured her life in beautiful things, which makes the process of figuring out where things go unusually complicated. Because every item seems valuable, every object imbued, even the ones that actually aren’t worth much.

My mother and my aunt are hard at the business end. The negotiations, the arrangments, the various checklists and forms and contracts and appraisals. Theirs is a numbers game, prices and dates, and estimates that offer a relatively stable, objective filter and an orderly to-do list that purports to eschew sentimentality (it does not). It’s a well-trod path in the management of grief, because it addresses the hard, practical “No one wants this old thing and maybe someone will pay good money for it” as opposed to the sensory flights of fantasy that come when you handle an object and catch a whiff of her perfume or a scratch from her pen or remember how some fabric felt against your face when you were young and you still believed your grandmother was the most magical person in the world.

I always imagined I’d be part of the organizational process. I’d assemble the catalogue before the inevitable disbursement and disposal. I’d sort through that scarf drawer one last time. I’d count the gloves and handkerchiefs, the napkins, the decades old ledgers, even the Pyrex with the same curiosity, the almost archeological fervor Nana instilled in me. I might build narrative through the pieces, before they are scattered. Maybe I could even conjure some final impression of her, one that could feel just tangible, if imaginary, enough,  that I’d feel a sense of lightness as I let it go.

But you know, 2020. Covid. Life. Reality. I am a grandchild—one of three–not a child. I don’t live there. It wasn’t the right time. There honestly just wasn’t time.

And in reality, I don’t know that long days of packing boxes and sorting through the incidental detritus of a life, even a life as materially lovely as Nana’s, would have provided any critical substance to her biography or allowed any useful vehicle for my grief. Because no tablecloth, no chandelier, no chest of draws, no number of hairpray-scented chiffon scarves can even begin to fill the empty space she left.  

I miss her being in the world more than I can say, though I know she lived a long life, and nothing, not even Nanas, last forever. But selfishly, and with even greater intensity, I miss her being in the world for me. Because while I’m often a mess and famously kind of a fuck-up, Nana loved me like I was beyond reproach, like I was practically perfect in every way. Even if she was momentarily peeved, even if there were parts of my life, as I got older, that I kept from her. It was like she knew and it didn’t matter. She made me feel like I lit up a room whenever she saw me, even if she was the only one that noticed the glow.

Everyone should have that  kind of advocate in their life, that kind of full-heart support, even, especially, if we don’t deserve it. I know I’m lucky, enormously so, that I had that person as long as I did and had her for as long as I did. Remembering that allows me to float along as the grief ebbs and flows. It gives me the focus I need to keep digging around in the corners, looking for the traces of her magic still left in the world, and the lingering confidence of knowing that you have been well and truly loved, and may yet be again.