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.

Artifacts

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.

Plague Diary: March 15, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

Exactly one year ago and one day ago, I wrote the first plague diary.

It was early on in the pandemic, back when there was no toilet paper and we were hoarding dried lentils, back when we were all pretty sure we would keel over and die if we fetched the mail or made eye contact with a neighbor at any distance of less than 100 feet. Everything was closing up and yet, much of the world had not yet officially closed up, and I was spiraling into a panic attack that would last somewhere from three weeks to . . . well, it’s entirely possible I’m still in it, but it’s now just part of the landscape, almost comforting, not-even-“new” normal now.

I was having serious conversations with serious friends about impending food riots and when it was time to fill the bathtubs and write end of life requests on our chests in Sharpie, lest we take up too much valuable real estate in the hospital. I’d made what was one of my last unmasked supermarket trips to a local store full batshit panicked neighbors, where I ran into a friend whose wife had been hospitalized for kidney stones, and managed to drop a dozen eggs and a bottle of orange juice in the dairy aisle and just kind of stood there, unable to handle, while a shockingly nice employee tried to keep me from crumbling into a fetal position on a puddle of spoiled yolks. I remember thinking, This is the end. This is the end. This is the end, like I was a scratched Doors record. And I then I remember thinking, God, I hate The Doors. Of course, fucking Jim Morrison would come to mind at the end of the world.

It was some seriously bleak stuff, but you wouldn’t know that from the first plague diary (reproduced in entirety):

“3/14/20: I went on a long walk today because it was beautiful and sunny and there are flowers everywhere. When I got home, I wrote, I read, I worked on a puzzle, I m made dinner, I ate dinner. Afterwards, I realized I felt a chill, and my skin felt hot. I thought, “Oh God, this is it. High fever. First sign of COVID-19!” I went upstairs for the thermometer and while standing with it in my mouth I realized that I was deeply, hilariously, embarrassingly–like obvious t-shirt and bra-strap tanlines–sunburned from the hours I spent outside. (I was not running a fever). Anyway.”

In fairness, I was new at the gig. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a plague diary, or even if doing a plague diary was a thing worth doing for more than a minute or two. My only model for plague diary-ing was Restoration-era oversharer and bewigged gadfly, Samuel Pepys, who covered 90% of his the holy shit, we’re about to get nailed by the bubonic plague hype via tossed off notes about things he overheard at the coffeeshop. People getting sick in Genoa then Avignon then traders in Amsterdam etc. This all sounds very ominous to our 21st pandemic-wracked brains (and it certainly was) but the dramatic tension was mitigated somewhat by the inevitable slowness of 17th century shipping speeds. Like, early modern pandemics didn’t have it easy like pandemics today. Like, the bubonic plague couldn’t just hop on a 737, circulate through a bunch of Cinnabon customers by the Duty-Free in the International Terminal, and infect all seven continents in the roughly amount of time it takes to receive an Amazon delivery. No, those old school pandemics had to wait on decent weather and an advantageous wind to, say, convey a vermin-infested boat across the English Channel and then a horse to walk uphill both ways (probably in the actual snow because Little Ice Age). Pepys’ was a creeping dread as opposed to a high speed train wreck. I’m not about to judge which one is better (though my gut says a train wreck with science is probably better than several extra months to get sold into marriage, die in childbirth or get burned as a witch while waiting for buboes to trend in Hampstead or whatever ), but the traumatic suddenness of Covid’s arrival circa 2021 certainly compromised my plans to be a classic, pithy, “just the facts and the jokes” diarist.

That was one year and one day 86 plague diaries, 369 marks on the interior of my office closet wall and won’t even tell you how many words ago. Everything has happened since then, despite the fact I’ve barely done anything except finish a bunch of jigsaw puzzles and write plague diaries. If you’ve read any of them, I don’t know whether to thank you or apologize—maybe both? I’m sure I’ve been plenty repetitive, anxious, frustrated and depressed. Because what has this whole experience been other than repetitive, anxious, frustrating and depressing.

There will be people out there in the coming weeks and months, as we become more vaccinated and less likely to have our groceries delivered, that will try to put some kind of positive spin on all this. They’ll talk about the critical reconnections with loved ones, the relaxing commute-less days, the myriad projects they’ve completed, and their hard won-resilience in the face of a global crisis. And good on them, I say. A manifestly shitty thing ought to have a few high points for some ordinary-ish people that are not, say, bajilliionaires profiting off a world of suffering.
To be completely honest, I had good days, too. I read some great books. I lounged on the deck in the sun watching the seasons pass around the pond. I did reconnect with friends, especially friends at a distance. I had hours long continent spanning phone conversations as I wandered down sun-dappled paths in a winter forest, like some chatty disturber of a Robert Frost poem. I listened to good music. I planted flowers. I spent more time with my best friend than I ever imagined possible, given our actual geographic distance, and it was just as dreamy as I imagined. I bought an irresponsible amount of the exact kind of clothes, shoes and statement earrings most sane people have spent Covid rejoicing at being able to avoid. I am the now the owner of two pairs glam rock boots (pointy toed glitter stars and heeled green metallic leather). I had a surprisingly glorious birthday. I upped my shortrib game. I swam in a lake with my favorite cousin. I hugged my mother. I made a killer batch of Vieux Carres.

Of course, a true accounting of the last year doesn’t stand without factoring in all the things I didn’t do. I didn’t hug my father or my sister. I didn’t see the ocean. I didn’t eat a single oyster. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t lose my job or my home—and those are big ones. I did not get a positive Covid test result (and I hope I don’t). I did not complete a single home improvement project. I did not finish a novel. I did not perfect the Bill Evans version of “Here’ That Rainy Day” (it’s really hard, guys). I did not learn a language, although I achieved greater fluency in the dialects of grief. I did not bake a single loaf of bread. I did not talk to my grandmother in the forty-eight hours before she died. I did not ever get around to reading Proust.

In the grand scheme, I suppose all of this comes out as kind of a wash.

But then comes the big loss. 2.6 million people, 535,000 of them US citizens, were lost to Covid. That’s so many lives, breathtaking, unimaginable on those terms. And those numbers don’t reflect the many more lost, some of them people I loved, who died of other things because everything else didn’t stop just because Covid happen. And the ones who survived, but not unscathed. The long-haulers. The grieving friends and families. Then the first responders. The medical community. The millions of mostly overworked, underpaid people we’ve all depended on to do the jobs we’ve been unable or afraid to do over the last year. The number of people who are just totally burned out. The number of people who are unemployed and overstressed. The high school kids. God, I mean, sometimes I just can’ stop thinking about the high school kids.

Then, there’s the cafes that won’t come back. The bars that will stay shuttered. The clubs that have closed. The plays that didn’t open. The movies unscreened. The songs unperformed. The kisses unkissed. The gaps, the absences, the silences, the empty spaces, all the precious missing things we won’t even notice until we realize they haven’t come back, until we realize they can’t, that they won’t.

And even here, now, on the cusp of hope, there’s this sense that we’re nowhere close to a stable framework. We’re still talking about the new normal. We’re still, still trying to figure out if we should be afraid of it.

Why shouldn’t we be?

Why shouldn’t I be?

Among this year’s most trivial, yet surprisingly devastating losses was any notion that I am a brave, bold and/or useful person in moments of crisis. Turns out, I’m not. At all. And as a person with a Walter Mitty-ish fantasy life and strong impulse toward heroic narratives, it’s pretty disappointing (though probably not surprising to most of you) that when the shit well and truly hit the fan, I dealt with it way more like Little Edie Beale than, say, Imperator Furiosa. Like, here we are in a historic moment. Courageous souls are doing impossible things. Circumstances demand toughness, selfless dedication and keen insight. And !? I basically devolved into a full-tilt flibbertigibbet, playing dress up, and performing numbers from an imaginary musical on the stairwell for my cat while I re-alphabetized collections of not-exactly-critical necessities in my lonely house.

I’m pretty hard on myself, though (I’ve had honestly less people around to be hard on recently). And if I were talking about anyone else, I’d tell them that prolonged grief and global trauma is, at the very best, a perilous and unlikely path to self-improvement. Real life doesn’t operate like a superhero origin story or a heavily fictionalized inspirational memoir. That which does not kill us actually just makes us a little more fragile and unsteady when we finally start to stagger out into the other side. Living in a constant state of worry and uncertainty for a full calendar year+ does pretty weird things to a person. You need to cut yourself some slack.

I need to cut myself some slack.

And you’re free to remind me of that when I apologize for not writing a novel during quarantine whenever we’re out drinking together again. Which may . . . happen?

Probably not tomorrow. Probably not even next month. Maybe not even next season. But if I can make it through the next forty-eight hours without getting Covid, I have an appointment for my first vaccine Wednesday which, to a secular, depressed heathen, who probably doesn’t deserve it and is worries sick she’ll screw it up, tastes a little like hope and, after this year, after this terrible, no good, very bad year, feels about as close as I’ll ever get to what the church folks call grace.

86—wait—87 plague diaries. Shit.

Whenever we get to it. First round is on me.

Picture today is of yours truly being menaced by “gladiators” in the Roman forum, circa 2006. It is the Ides, after all.

As of this writing, 97,394,780 people have recovered from Covid-19. 359 million doses of vaccine have been administered.

Plague Diary, March 9, 2021

Plague Diaries / Women

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which a friend on Facebook reminded me was one of the only two Communist Holidays celebrated in the other states. This makes sense to me. Why else would they have color coded girls pink if not for our collective devotion to socialist revolution?   

Unlike many of the rest of you, I did not spend the holiday putting up pictures of my mother or the late RBG or resharing that video of Maxine Waters talking to Megan Thee Stallion (If you haven’t seen it, please go seek it out, it’s absolutely delightful). I did however have a small surgical procedure aimed at removing a few (five to be precise) vexing fibroid tumors. It was outpatient, performed in a neoclassical office park in that part of peak Cary, where everything, including the homes, looks like it’s part of a neoclassical office park.

Because it was Covid, I went in alone, double-masked, had my vitals collected and IV loaded by a nurse who swore he was a master of locating anyone’s hometown by their accent. “You’re from New Jersey, aren’t you?” he asked.  (I’m not)

He also absolutely loved cruises. “Where else can you find that many drag queens, sparkly muumuus, and all you can eat lobster tails? I just about died when Covid made me cancel all of my cruise plans for last year?” he said. Then he told me that there was a real possibility I would be in considerable pain after the procedure. “Like period pain,” he said, “but worse.”

A few minutes later, the doctor performing the surgery stepped into give me a similar spiel once my IV was hooked in. I don’t think they were hitting me with rock star level narcotics yet, but I was certainly just woozed enough that I didn’t reflect too hard on another man trying to color in the edges of exactly how a thing would hurt that he could only understand in basic anatomical terms. “The way I understand it is that it’s going to be kinda like a bad period,” he said, and then I was wheeled off to surgery.

I drifted out to a conversation among the OR staff about the costumes in “Coming2America.” I was able to get in a comment about the genius of Ruth Carter. “Who’s Ruth Carter?” asked one of the nurses, also male. “The costume designer,” I said. “She won an Academy Award for ‘Black Panther.”

“Weird,” said the nurse, who sharpied x’s on my feet like my toes were trying to get into a hardcore show.  “I would have figured it would have been a man that did those things.”

Then the fentanyl hit  and my brain congealed to aspic.  

A few hours later, I was dressed and sitting in a wheelchair on the office-park sidewalk with the cruise-loving nurse. “Remember to get ahead of the pain,” he said. “It could get pretty bad.”

“And by pretty bad, you mean.”

 “I told you,” he said. “Like a really bad period.”

I shrugged this off, half-amused half-annoyed by grown men talking about my periods.I felt a little sore, but okay. I thought, Men don’t have the foggiest notion of female pain. Then I thought, I don’t have the foggiest notion of how it feels to get kneed in the balls either, but at least it’s not my job to try and describe it to somehow who is about to have it done.

I slid into my mother’s car. We drove home. By the time I walked into my front door, I ‘d skipped right up the pain scale, from a mildly uncomfortable 3.5 to a bursts of “I might pass out” 10. It was the kind screaming, edge-of-reason pain that was barely touched by pharmaceuticals. I was rendered mute, with no thought but holy shit, this hurts.  It was, as I  described to a friend this morning, once things had settled down (they did settle down, considerably, I’m now sitting on the porch, upright, a little achey, but mostly fine, having exchanged the narcotics for ibuprofen about twelve hours ago), “Rather like being shot in the lady business with a flaming cannonball, and the flaming cannonball got stuck there.” It was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, and I say this as someone who’s had a concussion, an abscessed tooth and an infected gall bladder (though not at the same time). I know hurt from hurt.

In case anyone needs to know,  this is not what “having bad period cramps” feels like. To describe it relation to would be sort of like the difference between a papercut and having an arm amputated without anaesthesia while a whole hive of yellow jackets stings your feet.  Simply does not compute. Simply does not compare.

In the moments of yesterday when I could sneak in a few rounds of rational thought before the next wave, I kept coming back around again to watching  “WandaVision” over the weekend, because evidently Marvel properties are the new standard for how I’m weathering these challenging times. “WandaVision” was a pretty entertaining, well made, often silly superhero show that also managed to be about what it means to be a woman in such misunderstood and unmanageable pain that it overwhelms the world and creates another one made entirely of grief forced into the shape of nostalgia.

I wondered yesterday whether what I was feeling was so great that it could spill out and infect others. It seemed impossible I could feel something so tremendous without it leaving some kind of toxic afterglow that would  seep out from beneath the door and roll out around the neighborhood like a bruising miasma, until it was consumed by everything I was feeling. I wasn’t sure I could even come up with words to describe it and yet, here we are.

The ultimate goal of the surgery was less pain long term, which I guess is a trade-out for yesterday. Still I feel like I’m 100% the kind of weenie that would have maybe backed out if I’d known in advance what yesterday felt like. I definitely would have backed out if yesterday had gone on for days. There are people in the world who take perverse pleasure from what they endure. I’m not one of those people. I don’t think we learn anything from pain except for what pain is, and if we have any empathy at all, that we should be doing everything possible to limit the amount of pain people feel. Because, no way it’s good for you, no matter what your weirdo ex or  your fitness instructor says.

In the meantime, it’s about 70 out and sunny. I feel almost miraculously better, but I’m just superstitious enough that I’m not making a big deal about it. Just in case.

Happy International Women’s Day (a day late).

Picture is of my xed out ankles. One day later.

As of this writing, 93,715, 490 people have recovred from Covid-19. 313 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.

45 Things

Uncategorized

My birthday was over the weekend. I turned 45, an impossible seeming age. I was thinking doing some list of media–45 best records, books etc–but instead, I decided to be even more self-indulgent and share with you the 45 most important things I’ve learned in this first 45 years. If I’m still around at 90, I’ll consider an update.

For now though, and without further ado, wisdom!

1. Only talk shit about your own mother, hometown, spouse, dietary restriction, region or nation of origin, even (especially?) if it seems like the person you’re talking to is inviting you to do otherwise.

2. Having a bed that is easy to make-up makes it a lot easier to make up your bed every day. Also, decorative throw pillows are an attractive way to conceal your half-assed job.

3. Finish the first draft before you revise. Know that it’s cool to abandon a thing if it’s not working.

4. Money may not be the end all be all, but’s easier to say that if you have plenty. At the very least, as the philosopher said, it changes everything.

5. The kids are all right. It’s probably just that you’re too old and boring to understand the appeal of either Tik Tok or Taylor Swift.

6. If a job requires a license to do, you should probably not do it yourself, even if you have watched a YouTube video.

7. Always punch up.

8. Everyone suffers. Anyone can have a bad year. No one handles things well all the time. Any person that claims otherwise is trying to indoctrinate you into a cult.

9. The secret is probably more butter and salt than you want to admit.

10. After a certain age, you can either have one more drink or stay up late. Pick one.

11. The harder you try to not be like your parents the more you doom yourself to people telling you just how much like them you are.

12. Do what you love, but, like, understand that even people who actually do the thing you love and are successful at it most likely have a reliable secondary source of income. Thus:

13. You don’t have to love your day job (you probably won’t), but you’re going to need it, so it helps if it’s tolerable.

14. It’s absolutely fine to wear black and navy together. Or jeans to weddings. Or tutus to the supermarket. Or white after labor day. But seriously what is the point of white jeans? Who do these work for? Who are you? Do you live in an actual bubble? I’m asking genuinely.

15. Shockingly, other people really don’t notice the vast majority of things you’re self-conscious about. Even more shockingly, most people don’t notice you at all, and if they do it’s for a fleeting second. So you might as well double up on the sequins.

16. As an adult in America, it is extremely helpful to know of at least one lawyer you could call, even if it’s just to get a referral to another lawyer, because you’re never actually going to read the fine print.

17. Tell at least one person where you’re going, especially if it’s a trip abroad, a political demonstration, a hospital or a hike to a remote area. This person should maybe not be your mother, unless, what? You want to give her a heart attack from the worry? What kind of monster are you?

18. Taxis are cheaper than DUIs. If possible, live walking distance from at least once decent bar.

19. Things that are personal are always more interesting than things that are perfect. Taste is rarely about how well things go together but how they artfully don’t.

20. The best argument for honesty is how exhausting it is to keep track of the things you’ve lied about.

21. The difference between a delightfully quirky personality trait and a deeply exasperating pathology can be measured in as little as half an hour alone in a room with a person. Which is a thing you should definitely keep in mind when thinking about long term relationships of any kind

22. In most cases, you’re better off never telling anyone the identity of your secret crush other than (maybe) your secret crush. This is doubly true if you are a teenager.

23. It is perfectly fine to think a piece of art or media is sublime and life changing or absolute garbage . It is less fine to think a person is garbage for feeling however differently about said piece of art or media than you do (your favorite band, however, is overrated).

24. Like most things marketed toward women, bras are an absolute racket. If you’re the sort of person that needs/wants one, never pay full price.

25. It is shockingly easy to not be an asshole to people, especially strangers, especially people in service jobs, who are just trying to survive and get through their shift. You never know who is having the worst day of their life. Related: Tip generously. Always.

26. The crazy thing you’ve always wanted to do with your hair? Do it, but see 6. Especially if it involves bleach.

27. The only scenario more potentially catastrophic than buying a car from a family member is going into business with your best friends. Related: good clients can become close friends. Close friends almost never make good clients.

28. Always check your sources.

29. The coolest, smartest, most awesome person you can think of still probably mangles the pronunciation of a word horrifically every now and then. Especially if they’re speaking French. Especially *especially *if they’re speaking French in Paris to a Parisian.

30. Technically, you can get away with putting a lot of things in the washing machine that say you can’t. You just have to remember to NEVER PUT THEM IN THE DRYER, unless you’re keen to turn your favorite cashmere sweater into a thoughtful gift for a corgi.

31. People do not want to hear your opinion on what they should name their baby, which is a real shame because I have some great ideas. FYI: Tiberius is an A+ name, regardless of gender, and you’re all cowards.

32. In nearly every conceivable context: “I told you so” is better thought than spoken aloud. Even though we all knew that relationship/business/brief foray into macrobiotic scientology Cross Fit was ABSOLUTELY DOOMED.

33. It’s a good idea to have more than one LBD, because once a dress becomes a funeral dress, it’s hard for it to cross back from wake to a dance floor. That said, the absolute best funerals are the ones that are most like parties, so anything’s possible.

34. If you’re having people for dinner, it’s wise to cook enough to feed the people who forgot the RSVP. Because they’ll probably show.

35. It turns out that some of your grandmother’s etiquette lessons– the ones you used to roll your eyes to?—will spare you so much cringe. Also, thank you notes can do a lot of heavy lifting.

36. Flip flops are for beaches and pools. They are never, ever for large cities. I don’t care how they do it in Florida. Related: nothing ruins travel faster than the wrong pair of shoes.

37. Apologizing well is hard. Forgiving someone is harder. Forgiving yourself is really hard. Forgiving yourself for never seeing Prince live in concert when you actually had the opportunity and INEXPLICABLY PASSED? Perhaps the hardest thing of all.

38. Most of us have a surprisingly small window in which we can justifiably blame our families for ruining our lives while still expecting room, board and unconditional love in return It’s a real gift, seventeen-year-olds. Enjoy it while you can.

39. People do change. All the time. But rarely in the ways you expect and almost never the way you want. Which is an important thing to remember when you’re trying to figure out why all your old punk rock friends are into jam bands all the sudden.

40. You do change. All the time. But rarely in the ways you expect and never to the degree that you want. Which is an important thing to remember when you’re still the same clumsy, fat person with weird skin, gappy teeth, social anxieties and not great hair as you were at seventeen. It’s not ideal, but on the plus, dry shampoo is a real game-changer, you still fit into your prom dress, and that tooth gap is kind of on trend these days.

41. Exercise is not complete horseshit; it’s kind of an emotional lifesaver, and and there are plenty of incredibly rewarding ways to do it that don’t involve people yelling at you, blowing whistles, groaning, talking about sweat, and trying to compete with you. Oh, and, this may blow your mind, but it turns out running is a lot easier after you quit smoking.

42. It’s completely human to do a thing just to get the tote bag. Just make sure you remember to cancel the subscription.

43. The best and most reliable places to pee while travelling are almost always the lobby bathrooms of fancy hotels.

44. I don’t know if it’s responsible or preferable to regret the thing you have done versus the thing you haven’t. I can say the former will give you way better story material.

45. Make good friends. And when you know you have one (you’ll know), don’t take them for granted. They are invaluable. They can make your life worth living. Understand that they will totally expect you to reciprocate if you ask them to help move your record collection. Don’t be a jerk. Do it.

Plague Diary: February 18, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

: It’s probably bad form and almost certainly bad luck to tell you that I well and truly hit the low point on Covid/the 2020s/life on Wednesday. There are things beyond pale and places past the rock of the rock bottom. Personal nadirs, unlike the Alamo, usually have basements to spare. So let’s stick with the sidewise pop cultural references and instead say that we 100% reached a new low, but without the bouncy chorus.

As it happens, said low appropriately occurred spitting distance of Cats Cradle, at about 4:30 in the afternoon when the first wave of plague-reduced rush hour traffic at the fork or Rosemary and E. Main Streets was greeted by the sight of my ghostly pale, fat backside that had somehow liberated itself of underpants static-clung to the high-waisted (lies), tummy smoothing (damned lies) performance (fair) leggings as I wriggled out from the beneath my car, butt-first in the direction of the oncoming cars. I’d ended up down there because the black plastic brick that now constitutes a car key slipped from the keychain as I walked by on the sidewalk with a takeout burrito and a hard copy of the Indy (for crosswords and kindling purposes) and traveled apace to a spot on the asphalt uniquely out of reach from any direction. There were no sticks nearby and whatever long handled tools (ice scraper? umbrella?) were inside the car inconveniently locked over its fugitive key. Adding to the full red-faced horror of the situation was the fact that I am a claustrophobe, a condition that seems to worsen as I age. I can barely walk under a bridge these days without my heart rate rising, (you would be amazed at the lengths I go when I have to haul out my recalcitrant cat from under the bed), so when I realized my only option was to shimmy under my automobile, it was actively nightmarish.

And that was before my pants decided to head south.

The truth was I should have expected it. The whole day had mostly been a disaster, from the moment I overslept, and woke, groggy to multiple new alerts informing me that, as well as democracy ending, the planet collapsing and pandemic sucking every reason worth living from living for the indefinite future, none of my friends in Texas had power or potable drinking water, and oh yes, PS, I was also under a winter storm warning.

As a career catastrophist with, cruising into Year Two of “Fears Being Tidily Being Realized” with a real fear of being alone in the indefinite cold and dark, this was exactly the sort of information I needed to crawl back under the covers for a cathartic wail. Just the night previous (Tuesday), I’d regaled the screenful of faces that passes as a social life in these trying times that I’d hit a previously undiscovered country of Covid-related malaise that found me sitting on the sofa early in the week, letting supermarket stracciatella gelato melt over my hands from its leaking contain as I, a grown woman who never even read a comic book until she was thirty-five, Sicilian wake style wept at a Marvel movie (Was it recognizing the real loss of Chadwick Boseman? Was it the evident real world bankruptcy of the beautiful idea that people work together to fix things? Was it the very idea of a happy ending existing ever, for anyone? Why yes! Yes to all). “That,” I had assured my friends, “was definitely the low point.” Thereby assuring my certain doom via cavalier use of a definite article.

The under covers wailing didn’t make me feel any better, and by that point the energy company had sent a panic reminder with a “BE PREPARED FOR A MULTIDAY POWER OUTTAGE.” I realized I was almost out of firewood. I berated myself for my hedonistic and irresponsible use of the fireplace on occasions I didn’t actually need it for warmth. I called around to a variety of local business and found that everyone else, similarly spurred into action by EMERGENCY WEATHER UPDATES, had panic bought the existing stock. My house is surrounded by trees but I don’t own an axe or saw or any sharp object at all past kitchen knives and scissors. I guessed I could burn books, in a pinch. I have plenty of those, and in fact a rather large box of “To Be Donated” afer the Library Reorganization of a couple weeks back. I wondered how long I could stay warm off of “Existential Prisons: Captivity in Mid-Twentieth Century French Literature.” Certainly longer if I paired it with “Essays in Self-Destruction,” “Best American Short Stories: 1995,” “Gone Girl,” and my middle school yearbook.

To be fair, I have some cold weather PTSD from surviving Ice Storm 2002, an event that found me in a drafty old rental house without power for something like five or six days. At the time, I was living with two friends at the time and we spent the first day chain smoking, drinking beer, eating snacks, attempting acapella Pavement singalongs, and trying to keep morale up. It was good fun until around 10pm, not quite 24 hours in, when alreayd sobering up from early overconsumption of lukewarm PBR, I found myself faintly nauseated, headache-y and so very, very cold I could not even begin to concentrate on my roommate’s boyfriend’s freestyle rapping about microbiology and Marxism (not as bad as it sounds, but still . . .) Then everything just got so much worse.

I shuddered at the memory and so I swallowed my pride and asked Facebook for firewood. First offer came from a poet, which felt weirdly propitious, so I took him up on it, even though it involved a driving to the other end of the county. I also ground coffee in advance and ordered a charcoal grill for curbside pickup—because I couldn’t figure out how to heat a kettle in my smallish fireplace. Thus sorted, I walked out to the car, and so preoccupied was I with my planning that I started the car and backed right into the (still closed) garage door. It left a dent. More importantly it knocked the door off the track so it wouldn’t open. I tugged for a while and it finally rose. I backed my car out. My stereo inexplicably started playing Thin Lizzy, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried to “Jailbreak” before, but I just looked at my open garage door and wept. Thus I sat, paralyzed, for most of what constituted Side A, I managed to rouse around “The Boys Are Back in Town” and resolved to fix the situation. I gave the door a powerful tug and somehow, miraculously, managed to fix things.

Slightly satisfied, I drove to out to see the poet. He met me in his driveway with a wheelbarrow full of chopped pine, which he kindly loaded into the trunk. The poet is a regular attendee of a weekly Zoom, so I thought on the fact that I’d seen him pretty regularly, but not in person, for well over a year. It was nice to see him in three dimensions. It was nice to see any human being in the flesh. I realized, as I drove away, how much less dire things seemed when I could just exist in the same frame as another human. I wished I could get a hug, but none of what constitutes my teensy Covid hug bubble even resides in this area code.

At the hardware store, an angry teenager shoved a grill in the back of the car, maybe because I was the only shopper availing myself of curbside pick-up at what otherwise appeared to be a crowded store. I found myself apologizing to him, though I don’t know why. I took the long way home hoping for perspective. I pulled off for a hike but the trails were so washed out, I wasn’t sure I could stay upright, so I called in a takeout order, and the rest is history.

I did get from under the car and I managed to get my pants, if not fully restored, then at least to a PG rating. I somehow managed to do that without attracting the attention of any neighborhood watch that might have thought I was trying to steal a catalytic converter (which, according to the news, is was all the cool hooligans—cooligans?– are doing this days). I got in the car and nearly drove off before realizing my phone and the burrito were still sitting on the sidewalk. Thus retrieved, I tried again. I cried again. I went home and stuffed my face like a sad old sow. There’s some relief in knowing your outer boundaries. If nothing else, you have a kind of emotional perimeter, a standard by which you can operate, an “at least I didn’t end up unintentionally mooning downtown Carrboro at rush hour on dull, bad day.”

After dinner, I walked around the neighborhood texting with a friend about the incipient natural disaster. I reflected on my friends in Texas, who’d been suffering for days. I had no reason to expect better. Besides, the hits just keep on coming right now. My friend advised that I stay hopeful. “You know how it is,” she said. “There’s a 50% chance it will be worse than they say and a 50% chance it will be way better. “

That sounded reasonable. But, it’s 2021. So I said: “Given that it’s this year, I think there A 30% chance it will be better 30% worse, and 40% chance of alien invasion, anthrax, giant extinction event meteorite, civilization collapse, nuclear war, or the reanimated corpse of Hitler rising from the grave and retaking Poland with the help of Elon Musk and congressional Republicans.” I was kidding, of course. Kind of. But like, “stay hopeful?”

I ruminated on that after we got off the phone. Not about the “hopeful” part but the “stay.” Staying hopeful would suggest that I was already and it occurred to me as I walked, circles round my neighborhood in the cold and deepening twilight, that I couldn’t put my finger on the last time I actually felt hopeful. That was a real bummer.

At the top of the hill, I could just make out the last bar of sunlight over the horizon. I stood there and watched it fade. The day was over. The next day would bring a storm. It was already too cloudy for me to see the moon, so I pulled up Debussy and listened to what it would sound like if I could over and over and over until I got cold enough to stop walking and go inside.

Epilogue: the storm never came, at least not the way they said, but I bought a new pair of leggings. And I have a grill and have plenty of firewood.

Picture today is the pond at long twilight on Wednesday. BYO “Clair de Lune” soundtrack.

As of this writing, 85,941,244 people have recovered from Covid-19. 193 million doses of vaccine have been administered.

Plague Diary: February 15, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

So you know I’m not a big fan of Valentines Day. It’s a long-running thing. I even have a top flight Valentines Hater origin story that involves high school, embarrassing unrequited love and a traumatic head injury that maybe you’ve heard ( though honestly I pretty much hated Valentine’s Day well before that). I don’t like red roses or filled chocolates. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the best songs are the ones about how people tend to disappoint you (I may have made a mixtape for you at some point to that effect). I don’t like flirting, first dates and all the traditional expectations of at least nominally heterosexual relationships. But I’m not an unromantic person, and have an ego, bruised as it may be, so think it’s absolute bullshit that people don’t try harder to sweep me off my feet. Like, WTF, Cupid? Stop messing around with Psyche and get with the program already.

People used to call and check in with me on February 14 to get a blistering earful of my best ornery Miss Lonelyhearts. It was a reliable schtick that often ended with me sitting at a bar with other single people talking shit about the newly encoupled. That sounds like sour grapes and I can’t wholly deny the accusation. After all, new love is a world-class high and if it holds, a dual income is a real game changer when it comes to housing options. But like most drugs, love feels great when it’s happening to you and pretty tedious when you’re friend is telling you for the fifth or seventy-fourth time that with Steve it’s really different, like, really, for really real, not at all like it was with Sean and Scott and whatshisface from the gym . Besides, we were all still young enough in those days to worry the people our friends were before they fell in love, got married, had children were never coming back (some of them didn’t, most did eventually).

These days I’m not so hung up on Love or Lack Thereof. After years of worrying about becoming a sad old Spinster, it would seem that I have settled into Weird Cat Life with considerable ease. It is not such a bad thing to be alone in the world. Sure, it’s possible I’ll end up forgotten and impoverished in old age, dying of something stupid because no one is around to check in on me, but that could just as easily happen the tomorrow if I climb up on the bathroom vanity to change a can light over the sink and slip or whatever. And in the meantime, I have a lot of space to decorate, minimal conflict, and absolutely no one to call a sexist if they assume I’ll make dinner, wash their socks, or learn to appreciate their views on Prog Rock. I have not spent any of quarantine weighing divorce and/or contemplating trading my kids in on the black market. For that, I am truly grateful. And while it is true I hunger for physical affection, I’m not sure that, nearly a year into stay-at-home with all its undeniable, attendant unsexiness , anyone’s actual love life is the stuff of fantasy right now ( I don’t want to know).

But while whatever sting I felt at romantic deprivation on Valentines has mercifully diminished, the day’s proximity—a mere fortnight—from my birthday has brought it’s own Bonus-Size quiver of slings and arrows. Because feeling Overly Single is, on every imaginable level, a more manageable and less existential dilemma than feeling Unrelievably Old. Among other things, you can (at least theoretically) fix for the former. Old is not a thing that improves. It just deepens, and it’s so inevitable and unrelenting, that I can sit here right now, knowing that some portion of you are thinking, “Alison is not that old,” while others are thinking “Thank God, I’m not where she is yet,” and even knowing that I myself will look back on this chapter of my misbegotten career and think, “How much time did I waste in my early middle age worrying about being in my early middle age? Oh to be forty five again!”

But I’m gonna level with you: this age that I am now? It’s terrible. It sucks. It’s the worst. I hate it. And I really hate the idea that, in a few years, I will look back on this age as some comparatively healthful and halcyon youth. That is truly the most depressing thing I can imagine. Because what that tells me is that from here on out, things only get so much worse and harder. I just become more irrelevant and useless. The aches become more unrelenting. The illnesses less beatable. The people I love disappear. The opportunities for a better or more meaningful life, continue to blinker out like the burnt out letters of shabby roadside neon. And I am left with, at best, bittersweet nostalgia for a past that is, at best, a kinda funny anecdote.

That’s without the impending doom of climate change (that will probably be the death of me if I don’t go out first via illness or bathroom can light-related trauma) and the overlay of Covid, which has stolen a year—a year I might have wasted, but a year nonetheless. At least, Covid has an end date, maybe. If I can make to vaccination, if the variants don’t get catastrophically worse before they can figure out a booster, I can maybe travel again and be out in the world and pretend a nice vacation is an actual achievement and not just an expensive, temporary mute button.

45, guys. Seriously.

We all have one life, so we take the good with the bad. This is mine. It is insignificant. It is fine, though, seriously, fine. It is mostly missing the wild, sexy, adventurous bits in the first half that would make the stretch pants, “have you tried a gratitude journal?” and hangovers of this new section feel earned. It is not what I thought it would be, though honestly I don’t remember what I imagined. It was never a plan so much as a mood and a silhouette. On some level, I think I was always a little too superstitious to want anything bad enough to envision a future with actual shade and dimension.

Before Covid. I had some notion of how I would mark the year. I thought I might go sit in mud baths and contemplate the universe in the alien landscape of the desert Southwest with my best friends. I thought my best friend and I might go back to Europe or somewhere tropical. I thought I might plan a party themed around dancing to old 45s (and perhaps he occasional 12” Extended Disco Mix), because I’m a girl with zero meaningful accomplishments but a whole room full of cool records. I

nstead, I guess I’ll quietly meditate on the rest of my life. I suppose I could make some changes. I could do more yoga or stop eating dairy. I could take a page out of the Midlife Crisis Journal favored by the hometown crowd and trade in irony, and glittered, maximalist blasphemy for oatmeal knits, socks with sandals, and woo-tinged self-help. My mother would /will probably tell me to do more volunteering. “And you know it’s never too late for grad school.”

But, like, why? Will that make a difference? Does older adulthood, like life after high school, get better? (Be honest. It’s not like I haven’t already imagined the worst)

Somebody called and asked a couple of days ago what I wanted for my birthday. I’ll tell you: I want a Bloody Mary brunch and a massage, then a new dress and an Edie Sedgwick-inspired makeover, then I want to go out with my friends, and sometime, too late to be reasonable, I’d like to find myself on a dance floor, dancing to “Fame” ( both the Bowie version and the Irene Cara version) with a bunch of drag queens in a cloud of sparkly confetti. Then I’d like to fly to the Italian coast for a week . You know, normal middle aged lady stuff.

But it’s 2021 and I do not have that life, so I have to readjust. I want cheap dresses and cheaper tulle skirts and novels. I want fancy cheese and gin. I want my front door repaired and a new humidifier. I want a sunny day. I want to see a friend in person. I want consider the future without being sidelined by regret and dread. I want to look forward to something, not shuffle onward with a resigned sigh and sensible shoes, hoping that a multivitamin, magical thinking, and a chirpy inspirational quote will somehow keep the whole ship afloat. Honestly? I really just want a b-side that goddamn slaps.

Thirteen days ‘til 45. Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, my second favorite holiday. So laissez les bon temps rouler, weirdos. Please be gloriously hedonistic (but also Covid-safe) out there.

Picture today is of yours truly at her first birthday, when I was probably also, already having an existential crisis.

As of this writing 81,877,363 people have recovered from Covid-19. 173 million vaccine doses have been administered globally.

Plague Diary: February 11, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

When I was a freshman in college, inclined to stomp around the idyllic campus of my toney women’s college in leather outerwear and combat boots like I might hit Thunderdome on the way to Art History class, I signed up for a psych study to test for Seasonal Affective Disorder, because they offered to pay me $15, which, in those days was enough to buy a carton of Camel Lights and cup of coffee+100% tip at the Waffle House up the rural highway from the school. I sat in a dark room answering a personality inventory looking a few slides, ultimately flummoxing the two students doing the study.

“Oh my god,” they said. “It’s like you have the reverse of this. It’s like you’re actually happier in the winter. How weird!” They were both tall and blonde, a matched pair of Malibu Barbies, the kind of girls that had tanlines in February because they’d spent short term doing a bikini internship in South Beach, the kind of girls for whom summer as a concept exists.

I remember thinking, “I am a fat, indoorsy, pasty, ginger-adjacent misanthrope with a whole galaxy of moles and thunder thighs who has managed to get sunburned in the UK in February and currently favors a wardrobe that is 90% black tights. From a strictly practical standpoint, does it surprise you that I’d prefer winter?” Then I probably stalked out humming Jesus and Mary Chain lyrics under my breath, as I chainsmoked on the brittle winter grass under a sickly sky. I probably thought, though I never would have admitted it at the time, that I looked pretty cool. (I didn’t).

For the next few years, I liked to brag about having Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, as it if were some kind of official diagnosis and not a result of a 20 year old’s pre-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed quiz. I’m sure I did it in some ironic, blasé way, like, “I mean, total cliché, right?” inviting people to make fun of me, while simultaneously thinking that summer was for chumps and boors, the crass, the conservative, the shallow, the banal, the grossly commercial, the sort of people who would willingly wear shorts and sandals and choose to live in, like, Florida or Southern California. As opposed to, say, Seattle or Scotland or any other place that bands I liked were from.

Being into winter was a stance, a reflection of how cool and tough you were as a person, a move that justified wearing fashionable layers and keeping a closet full of boots, vintage coats and sweaters. Of course, being into winter was not such a heavy lift when you lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, in the kind of New South southern sprawl city where there is roughly one snowplow per million pairs of flip-flops and an inch of snow elicits panic at the supermarket. My “Winter,” even then, in the pre-Deep Climate Change years of occasional deep-ish snow, was a heavily 48 degrees Fahrenheit and cloudy phenomenon, in which you could comfortably chainsmoke outside the coffeeshop in January in a hoodie and a motorcycle jacket and feel zero pain.

It wasn’t real winter, which was not a thing I remember walking into until sometime the late 1990s when I exited a hotel on my birthday in an insufficient (but cute!) vintage coat into February in Chicago and it felt like an aggravated assault. I spent that night shivering and drinking whiskey and having a bit of an identity crisis. Who was I? A weak person? A warm weather person? God forbid, a summer person? Three days later, I flew to Austin, Texas and stepped off the plane into bright sunlight and about 75 degrees at 6pm and tried to make myself hate it.

Reader: I could not.

Because the truth is I loved warm weather. I’d always loved it. I loved swimming and beaches and bright sunlight. I loved dusks that went on forever and peaches and cherries and being able to walk outside wearing barely more than a sundress and being able to go about in the world without looking for gloves. I liked the feel of an impossibly warm wind that would blow across salt water and make you feel like you were flying. I love the heavy lush of peak summer when the green felt so dense and liquid you might slip into it and come out the other side just a mess of vines and gardenia and mosquito repellant.

So I very carefully, very quietly, stopped telling the Reverse Seasonal Depression story, because it was obviously bullshit. And though I loved my winter wardrobe—I mean, I do truly ove a good sweater and a nice pair of boots—I also loved the porch all day. I stocked up on sunscreen and wide brimmed hats. I learned to set my beach chair under an umbrella. I embraced sandals (within limits). I still avoid shorts (I have some self-respect), but I leaned hard into hot weather.

And twenty-odd years later, I still live in a place where I’ve never had to shovel snow in my life. I have friends now that never knew me when I was in my winter era. They give me a hard time about the summer thing. They don’t like the heat or the sweat or the bugs and all of that is valid. VALID. They’re also probably cooler than I am, or at least they actually know how to look like a badass and not a swollen marshmallow in a puffy coat and a beanie. Or else they have attractive throw blankets and candles that smell like boreal forests. They have Fair Isle ski sweaters and actually know how to pronounce “hygge.” They’re the kind of people who see a snow flake and think “magic,” as opposed to “Oh Christ, I should probably start rationing the alcohol.”

It’s not that I’m entirely opposed to cold weather. I’m rather fond of November, in fact, which tends to have a lot of dramatic clouds and limb-rattling winds and if you want to stand around on the deck and let your scarf unfurl around you like Gothic heroine on some poetic promontory (and who doesn’t?). January is tough, though, and February (the month of my birth) is always pretty brutal, even, maybe especially on the years when it’s mild. BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW.

That’s this year by the way. And this year is worse because the only way to do anything at all other than stare at a screen and write about your cold weather trauma is to be outside and outside right now is bullshit. There are not enough leather jackets and cute vintage coats in the world to make it bearable. Mostly because of the rain, which feels endless. Even with umbrellas and wellies and rainjackets, outside is mostly just an endless, lonely, muddy squish through the neighborhood.

I’m trying to stay positive, because winter will end and the particular conditions that make this winter so godawful will also (at least, theoretically) end. Spring will breeze through on a cloud of pollen and pent up frustration. The temperatures will rise. The days will lengthen. I’ll stow the sweaters in a drawer with a bunch of mothballs and eat peaches and burrata for days and feel like a human being again.

In the meantime, I’m trying to remember if there was ever a grain of truth to my youthful Winter fandom. Is there some part of my past I can channel? If I pull out the Doc Martens and stomp around my yard with Jesus and Mary Chain in the headphones, might I find some momentary reprieve in the Big Dumb Sad Angry of yore? The groundhog saw his shadow and it’s 36 days until spring. Worth a shot, I guess.

Picture today is of me in Central Park, peak Winter Layers era (circa 1997).

As of this writing, 80,317,150 people have recovered from Covid-19. Globally, 159 million vaccine doses have been administered.

Plague Diary: January 28, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

Plague Diary, January 27, 2021: A few weeks ago, a presidential election and a failed coup ago, I drove over to Hillsborough, to sit outside on a cold day, in a winter brown yard, ten feet away from a friend, the way you do when you’re trying to survive a pandemic. I stopped on the way for a short walk around the historic center of town, so I could feel like a tourist, and shuffled past the newly restored Colonial Inn. People were sitting on the front porch between heat lamps, enjoying a leisurely brunch, which is a thing I can hardly imagine myself doing. I peered in the windows to see the new interior, and saw a bunch of people in the interior dining room, also enjoying a leisurely brunch, which is a thing that feels about as unthinkable to me, at present, as joining a mass singing and nose-blowing event in an unventilated cruise ship cabin with a bunch of handsy, unvaccinated elderly nudists.  But unlike The Great Snort, the Great Interior Unmasked Brunch didn’t look so bad, and I found myself temporarily incapable of my typical righteous indignation at people seeming to happily and steadfastly carrying on as if we weren’t still living in a plague. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t frustrated or smug.  I was just kind of sad. Because that used to be my life.

I remember what it felt like to walk inside a nice warm place that smelled good and looked different than your living room on a cold winter day. The ambient chatter and dishes and inoffensive jazz or whatever in the background. The food someone else cooked for you, that someone else would clean up for you, and conversation with the friend across the table that would maybe restore your mood if the Bloody Mary didn’t. Standing outside with my face pressed against the glass (metaphorically, I was masked, and standing 10-12 feet away), I felt a tug of desire so profound, I could have walked right in and sat right down at the slightest encouragement, if the wind at hit me the right way. I’m not exactly wishy washy on this quarantine thing. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been to Target, and a couple of months since I last went to the supermarket in person.  I had a beer outside on a public patio the day they called the election back in November, and I basically had to come home and take a Xanax. So I know. And I wouldn’t. But like–the temptation. Sitting across the table and seeing my friends smile and laugh? Having a drink and reading in a fancy hotel lobby bar. I love a fancy hotel lobby bar.  Even if you’re a local, and especially if you’re staying at the much less fancy hotel down the street, because hotel lobbies are a great place to disappear into a different life for a while.

I can’t seem to escape myself into that whole different life thing right now. It’s probably the biggest reason why I look at all half-finished plays and fiction projects that seemed just the thing for Covid escapism and I feel like any useful part of my imagination has just dissipated. I can’t even come  up with dumb puns for ads. I think that’s because, though I may be booking  hypothetical vacations in between the Zoom meetings, I know I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (and I typed that sentence before I read that the More Vaccine Resistant South African Covid variant is afoot and enjoying community spread  in the other Carolina). In this context, does imagining a different life make me feel better or worse? I don’t know. I don’t like that.

My little sister called yesterday admitted that she couldn’t figure out whether to feel hopeful or hopeless about the future. I was stymied by both how accurately she described the feeling and  for the appropriate response. Do I give voice to my actual worst fears? Do I throw in the unfolding climate crisis for fun? Do I try to make my little sister, who I love more than just about anything and I haven’t seen in almost a year, feel better? Is it more helpful to be confronted with the worst case scenario upfront and in the face? Is it better to, as both of my parents (divorced, but still somewhat psychologically aligned) parents say, think positive? Didn’t I just read another article today predicting that the next few months will be brutal and we should steel ourselves? Haven’t I read that article at least once a week since March 2020? I’m not Superman. There’s only so long I can pretend I’m impervious before inevitable stress fractures.

I say this because I can understand why people are doing crazy shit right now. I’m not talking about the militia member conspiracy theorists or the kids (they’re still alright, as I understand it, fighting the power and doing sea shantys on Tik Tok) or whatever Jim Jordan and his cohorts are up to.  People are buying wildly overpriced houses in places I’m not at all sure they’re going to want to live in 12-18 months. People are getting way into Peloton. Friends are adopting puppies in the dead of winter with children in the house and nowhere to escape when they all start to cry at the same time. Friends are making fine-stitch knit blankets and taking up petit-point. At least two far left, secular academic friends (comrades?) up and started the process to convert to Catholicism (I failed at both the radical left and The Church, and both times just ended up back in the theatre). A couple more started selling real estate (see above) or stocks. Lots of people I respect and admire seem to have a lot of sudden respect and admiration for Taylor Swift (don’t get it, and I love dumb pop songs) and most of my favorite journalistic outlets have spent most of this week inexplicably obsessed with what a bunch of nerds are doing with video game store stock (don’t care and I’m too broke to gamble/invest). A couple of otherwise absolutely sane, pro-Science, Covid-believing people are planning elaborate trips for the near future, vaccine be damned. At least one of them invited me along and I wanted to go so bad it hurt. Like physically hurt. Because it would be so easy. It would be so easy to click a button, buy a ticket, let the chips fall as they may.

But Alison, you say, Alison. The vaccine is coming. Why start walking when the finish line is in sight? And of course you’re right.  I’m a human being, though, operating at the edge of what feels reasonable with a real faith deficit given the fact that I’ve spent, at minimum, forty odd weeks an unwitting participant in a collaborative global demonstration of Murphy’s Law. I am tired. I am sore. I am having a hard time putting effort into doing anything right now because all of it, frankly, feels like it might get obliterated at any moment. There is absolutely nothing I can do other than what I am doing and what I am doing is nothing.

Yesterday, I stood up in the middle of a ridiculously busy workday, surrounded by piles of work I hardly even know how to start, and drove out to a dairy on the outskirts of town and bought a chocolate milk shake curbside for lunch. I sat in the car in a muddy pull-off across the street, sucking at the straw and contemplating the unfolding pastures under a sky so flawlessly blue it seemed impossible it was winter and would, in fact, snow about twelve hours later. My phone buzzed with emails. I didn’t read them. I just at the sky and enjoyed the way the chocolate coated my tongue. 

When I was nineteen, and very unhappy, I used to sit in the strip mall parking lot outside the record store where my roommate worked, car pointed west, and think, “It would be so easy for me to leave. Start driving. If I had just a few more dollars, a word of encouragement. I would be gone.” Of course I never had a few more dollars. I never had a friend dumb enough to encourage me. I never went. It wouldn’t have been practical. It wouldn’t have been smart. It would have been dangerous and selfish. I don’t want to be either of those things.

Quarantine is tough for escapists. Maybe tougher for escape fantasists, because what do we have to imagine we’re running to but something so much worse.

I finished my milk shake. I drove home. I painted pictures of parties from the past until I got tired enough to sleep, because I, well, I couldn’t even dream of what the future might look like.

As of this writing, 73,819,457 people have recovered from Covid 19. More than 86.4 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.

Picture today is of the party paintings on my kitchen table.

Plague Diary, January 26, 2021:

COVID / Dresses / Plague Diaries

My parents got vaccinated yesterday. All three of them. They’re all over 65, and had been trying to get an appointment somewhere for days. Here, in my state, the various county health departments and large urban health care entities seem to have no functional system for handling the people that want a shot. There are theoretical appointment times, a theoretical waitlist for a phone call in which you might get an appointment time. But mostly you just sit around and refresh a webpage moment after moment, day after day. Or some friend or relative who gets an appointment calls and tells you they’ve opened up vaccines—“ACT FAST!”– in some distant rural county, where they have a sudden glut of vaccines. Then your parents get in a car and drive 30+ miles away, and you hope they won’t have an anaphylactic reaction in a parking lot behind whatever church/closed elementary school/dead mall that is currently standing in for a vaccination site.

My mother and stepfather went to Lake Lure, a small resort community a couple counties over built around the eponymous water feature. It’s a weird place to go for a vaccine because Lake Lure is a weird place to go for anything that doesn’t involve a boozy lake house weekend and maybe some Swayze-based nostalgia (“Dirty Dancing” was, in part, filmed there).  They’d been tipped off about the Lake Lure vaccines by my Dad, who had been tipped off by my Aunt Molly, who’d been tipped off by who knows what friend of hers. 

Vaccine info is the new Hot Gossip among Boomers, at least among the pro-Science, anti-Q-Anon variety of Boomers. As always I feel grateful that my folks are reasonably sane on that front. It’s nice to not have to convince my loved ones that Covid is real or that Joe Biden isn’t selling nice white Christian children on the black market to Hilary Clinton and her cannibal lizard cronies. About the worst I generally have to deal with is trying to explain the concept of tone policing in protest movements and why, when you give the homeless man in the supermarket parking lot a ride to the shelter (great!), you should probably open the windows, offer him a mask and certainly wear one yourself.  My people are good people and I love them, but the truth is I’d still be relieved that they’d been vaccinated regardless.

Mom called afterwards to report that she felt fine and that she cried after she got the shot I called Dad later (with a glass of wine) and he gave a similar assessment, sans tears.

“Can’t wait for you to get vaxxed too,” he said.

“I’m thinking, if I’m really, really lucky, that will be somewhere between August and October 2021,” said I, a healthy forty-five year old woman with no preexistings and a job I can work from home.

“Bud, I think it could be April,” he said.

And I laughed and thought that was exactly the kind of whimsical optimism that makes me love my parents. I didn’t mention that a friend of mine had said, on Sunday, that she thought it would be well into 2022 before the likes of either of us got a shot.

Still, I spend a lot of time these days looking at hotel websites at places in other countries I am technically not allowed to travel to right now. I pick out rooms. I plan vacations. I wonder who I would invite to come along. I sometimes poke around shopping for travel outfits.  After all, I’ve never been a person particularly comfortable hanging out in pajamas (honestly, most of my pajamas are not that comfortable) anyway.  One critical component to my mental health has been getting up, getting a shower, getting dressed, even if dressed is just clean gym clothes and lip balm. I also tend to put on shoes around the house, which I’m aware will horrify at least half of you, but I like the thought that I’m ready to go at a moment, should be needed, even if the odds are I will not (I also kind of like my shoes and my clothes and can anthropomorphize anything.  So I’m always operating with a touch of “Leopard heels! Satin shell with the giant bow: I promise I haven’t forgotten you! You are all loved! And  honestly, people are weird about secondhand goods during Covid and I can’t begin to  figure out the donation hours at the PTA thrift store right now, so I couldn’t even give you away right now if I wanted to!).

Yesterday, while I was talking to dad, thinking about the potential for vaccination (far flung as it may be), dreaming about travel, I was wearing a polka dot dress I’d bought years back for trip to Ireland. I thought it was purple when I ordered it, and that it would be appropriate for a Wilde statue pilgrimage in Dublin. As it happened, the dress was navy and Oscar lounged permanently in the square across from our hotel, so we ended up there just off the plane before I even had a chance to change. But the dress ended up being kind of perfect otherwise, for that trip and maybe a half-dozen others to various places both foreign and domestic afterward. Whenever I put it on, I feel a hankering to go out of my way to walk down a street, just to see where it goes, even if that street is just a cul-de-sac in the next suburban neighborhood over from mine. Maybe there’s something cool there.

You do what you have to so you don’t end up pacing the living room and forgetting the way the air feels and the world smells when you’re in a place beyond the allowable travel distance—the supermarket, the forest at the end of the block– in January 2021.

“April is a good month for travel,” I said, even though I knew I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, there’s no way.

“Sure is,” said he.

But hope springs eternal. We all have to have our fantasies. And you know, I already have the dress for it.

Picture (taken by father) today is of me in the dress at Trinity College in Dublin circa 2015.

As of this writing, 72,728,091 people have recovered from Covid-19. 68,153,138 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide .