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Home Movies

I spent most of my childhood under the impression that my immediate family was, if not quite desperately poor, then just steps away from abject destitution  Even though, we had a nice house, in an ostensibly nice neighborhood, with plenty of food and clothes and toys and vacations. Even though my parents were both employed and reasonably well-paid. Even though, all the grandparents (six, at the time, via remarriages) were all comfortable and reasonably generous with their gifts. The party line at home was that we had no money at all. We were barely getting by. My parents carped about bills and worried about the future. My mother would suggest that we might one day not have enough money to eat. My father told me I should probably get used to the idea of one day living under an overpass.

The most pervasive worry seemed to be my mother’s concern that that any day my father might quit his full-time job as Creative Director at an advertising agency, move us all into a shack on Wrightsville Beach, and write a novel, while we dug starvation rations of periwinkles and crabs out of the tidal pools. To prepare for what I believed to be an inevitability, I spent my youth reading about precipitous declines in family fortunes. I all but memorized the section of A Little Princess, in which Sara Crewe was trundled off into the garret and forced to wear last season’s black dresses and socialize with rodents. Honestly, I thought Mom’s scenario didn’t sound so bad. I liked the beach and seafood and lord, I was born ready to not live in the mountains.  I wondered would I be able to swim in the ocean every day? And could we also have, like, flounder or would it just be crabs and periwinkles? what would the shack be like?

Mom would give me some long look and say, the kind of shack that doesn’t stay up during hurricane season. And then where will be? Probably the poor house

I was unclear on the Poor House, too. Was that also near Wilmington? Would it be like the Work House in “Oliver!” Would I have to wear brown in the poor house? There was a lot of brown happening in “Oliver!”  I didn’t really care for brown clothes. If Dad finished his novel, would we then be able to leave the Poor House? And if it was successful maybe move to a cool, cosmopolitan city that had, like, an Orange Julius and a Benetton at the mall.

But even if Dad didn’t quit his job[1] and make us live in a shack, evidence of my impoverished lifestyle was everywhere I turned.  Our house was old and though my mother and grandmother did in their power to indoctrinate me into the cult of fragile 18th  century furniture, heritage beds you absolutely cannot jump on ever, and antique Japanese porcelain I fretted endlessly about breaking, all I could see was that our house lacked a rec room with a ping pong table. We  also didn’t have a trampoline or any Big Wheels. We didn’t go on family trips to theme parks or to Chuck E. Cheese. We didn’t have a minivan. Or a basketball hoop. Mom never bought Cheese Balls or Pudding Pops. It took years of begging to get a swing set. And we didn’t have a video camera at all

No video camera meant that no one could record my piano recital, or play performance  or middle school slumber party lip synch contests, which meant we could never rewind to see if Susan flubbed the second verse of “You Be Illin.[2] It meant that within the largely white and upper middle class cohort of kids tracked through the honors program at my otherwise largely black and lower middle class middle school, I would forever be operating at a disadvantage because I was never able to film a skit for a school project the way the other kids did.

This last part was worse. It hardly seemed fair that the Triple Threats (rich, smart, athletic) easily aced projects while I struggled to get a B+ just because their parents would film their earnest reenactment of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the downstairs rec-room or direct their pyrotechnics enhanced demonstration of the Big Bang Theory on the Asheville Country Club Golf Course.

I would try to explain to Mom. In order to do well on this book report, you need to pick up four or five of my closest friends, drive us to a scenic location, costume us in period appropriate costumes, film it and then probably take us to Boston Pizza for dinner before you drop all of my friends off

My mother looked at me as if I were delusional. Didn’t I know she had to work, then sit at a city council meeting, and follow that up with a dinner part for a visiting Scandinavian urban planner. And what does a video camera have to do with a book report? This was a stupid question. You couldn’t do a clever skit about “To Kill a Mockingbird” without film and you couldn’t film it without a video camera. It was no use for her to try and belabor the point by suggesting I do something so outré as WRITE a book report. For the love of God, I was in the Gifted Classes. A simple paper would never pass muster, not when the Triple Threats were collaborating with Duke students they met at a summer program to clone Boo Radley using a chemistry set, some Sea Monkey eggs, and a shortwave kit they brought home from Space Camp. My seventh grade English teacher already didn’t like me, and as she liked to remind me, I was never going to get into college, let alone Harvard, if I didn’t step up my game. And my game required, at minimum, a video camera. ANY video camera. Even one that only took Betamax tapes like the Murphys had.

Mom would listen, patiently, give me a long slow look and suggest that I talk to Dad. Which meant I’d end up wandering through his creative department on the weekend sans camera, seeking out the tools to elevate my poster board projects and dumb haikus, (in the pre-computerized days of the advertising industry, this mostly meant magic markers and a potentially brain-damaging fog of Spray-Mount). I’d come out  with maybe a B+

And it wasn’t just school. I worried about the future. I worried we will have nothing to prove our existence to future generations if there is no video of my 11th birthday party at Pizza Hut, but the parents would point out (correctly) that we had an embarrassment of snapshots. Dad was an enthusiastic and talented amateur photographer, even if his go-to photo of me always captured me from all the worst angles, slumped and highly-double chinned, staring moodily off into the great beyond, probably wondering why Wrightsville Beach? Why not Topsail? Why not Emerald Isle?

Of course, the shack thing never happened. Neither did the video camera. However, there two times in which my mother drove up to Videoland and rented a camera for the evening and I had a sliver of filmed childhood.

The first of these was a  full-album’s length sing-along and dance revue to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. I was eleven; my sister was six. I imagined myself in possession of Broadway-level vocal chops and jaw-dropping dance moves, ala “Fame” and “Flashdance.” I’d also recently come into possession of a head-to-toe Esprit ensemble of lavender jersey in various patterns (polka dots, stripes, etc.), which I thought made me look like a real talent. My sister had coincidentally developed a deep-seated love of denim mini-skirts, sheer knee-high stockings, and plastic bangle bracelets. She availed herself of roughly half the contents of a blue eyeshadow contact, found in the depths of mom’s dressing table, and tied a bandana at garter height on her thigh.

As farce, the “Dirty Dancing” revue was an unqualified success. What my careful choreography lacked in technique and physical prowess, it more than made up for in extensive, mishandled props and gratuitous (if unintentional) flashes of my underwear . My sister positioned herself about two feet away from the camera. She swayed and gyrated and slunk about living room like an alcoholic stripper, occasionally thwacking herself in the head with her own hand in the heat of passion. Between my panties and her sexy dance, the end result is both hilarious, and slightly uncomfortable. Caddy Compson meets Dolores Haze meets “Dance Fever” with dance moves cribbed from “Jane Fonda’s New Workout.”

At the time, however, I thought it was a miserable failure, spoiled by my sister’s relentless camera hogging and my horror at how fat I looked on camera. We hid it away in a drawer with movies we taped off HBO but would never watch again (“White Nights?”). I rediscovered it about fifteen years ago, after my sister revealed it had been popular favorite in her college dorm room. She’d secreted it away in her early adolescence, fearing it would disappear into a junk drawer and subsequently become junk. I have it now, stored in a filing cabinet. Because I think I’m the only member of the family to still own a VHS player (albeit collecting dust in a closet).

What’s particularly funny is that “Dirty Dancing” is not even our favorite home video. That would be the second, and the only time my plea for a filmed school project ever hit the mark. I don’t know why I chose to deliver a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity fake-crying in a terrible German accent, wearing a head scarf and a nightgown, with a pillow underneath to simulate pregnancy, but I did. I might have had something to do with the fact that I was trying to show off by giving a nod to Brecht, a nod, I might add, lost entirely on my eighth grade General Science teacher. (I think you can do better, Alison. You’re a bright student, but you don’t go the distance. I mean look at that video the Triple Threats brought of their combined family trip to the particle accelerator and the two dozed, red velvet electron cupcakes they brought to share with the class. That’s the kind of quality work I expect from a student in the Gifted Program. B-)[3]

Afterwards there was still plenty of battery left and room on the tape, so my Dad filmed my little sister, then eight, as she tried to hawk the baby bunnies her pet rabbits would not actually end up having. She was the consummate saleswoman, still over-accessorized and blue eyeshadowed, and wearing a Meet Me at the Mall t-shirt, just so you’d know it was still 1989. Afterwards, my father talked to the dog for a while from behind the camera, in a kind of congenial drawling monologue hey girl, hey buddy, hey are you my buddy, yeah, you’re my buddy my sister and I can (and will) recite verbatim

The last half-hour is made up of a walk down to the lake in my childhood neighborhood. My mother forgot the camera was on, so all our progress is recorded in nausea-inducing detail, as well as a scene when my sister ran into the meadow past the boathouse  on the edge of Beaver Lake, and then, reported to the camera: “I’m Sara, and I love to run” while my mother and I quibbled gently over dinner plans. I wanted tacos. Mom wanted spaghetti.

My sister and I watched that video obsessively after the fact, maybe because it funny, but maybe also because it was shot about a month before my parents announced their divorce, about two months before my father moved out of the house, about three months before my grandfather died, and about a year and half before we moved out of that house, and set in motion a series of events I couldn’t have possible predicted as I walked back from Beaver Lake and turned up my nose at the suggestion of pasta for dinner. I don’t know what happened to that tape. Somehow it fell through the cracks. It disappeared.

My family acted well in front of a camera because it was rare for us to have one. Sometimes I still wish we had a few more films.  Other people can reminisce with sound and pictures. They can sit back and watch their hyperactive holiday mornings and senile grandmothers on holiday. My friends can’t imagine my parents being married, or our house on Westwood Road. I still lack the language to give them a solid picture of what it was like there  on the good nights, with the four of us together, when my parents still seemed to be totally in love with each other, even if they were complaining about money or envisioning romantic penury on the North Carolina coast in the service of the novel that never did get written.

It was only ever an illusion, and I know that. But it was a really good one.

___________________

[1] He didn’t

[2] She totally did.

[3] Obvious hyperbole. But barely.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Washed Up

The winter of 2010 had been a dawdling, long-haired mope that rippled through oversized scarves and rattled the chains of the playground swings, where I spent the morning of my thirty-fourth listening to terrible love songs and letting cold, bright, blustery February elevate my shitty malaise into something that felt heroic. I was, I thought, a failure, a particularly lonely failure, remarkable only in how unremarkable my plight was. I tried to fix it with long runs and whiskey, which I’d taken to drinking to keep me from wanting to smoke cigarettes, which I’d quit some four months previous, which I’d managed with the chemical assistance of anti-depressants, which my doctor kept refilling because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

The depression I felt I didn’t even want to dignify by calling it depression. On paper, I wasn’t even in a particularly bad place, just a place I couldn’t afford without a roommate. Mine—my favorite, my best friend—had decamped to Brooklyn the summer previous. We’d lived together for almost seven years. Nearly of which on a tree-lined, dead end street, one block from our favorite bar, two from the nightclub, half a mile from the record store, a mile from the university. Our best friends lived across the street. We spent nights under shade trees, talking until midnight, throwing extravagant parties. The house was an eternal drop-by, an endlessly fascinating conversation about everything and nothing in particular.

College towns are, by nature, transient places. It had maybe, sort of, occurred to me that my roommate and my friends might be merely passing through as well, and that their  paths would only briefly converge in the 200 block of Maple Avenue. But it took them actually leaving for me to get it, and another three solid seasons afterwards for me to figure out that they weren’t coming back.

I had  gone to visit my old roommate in New York on a snowy weekend. We’d trundled around Brooklyn, damp with weather. She was living in a place in Greenpoint, kind of a dump, but with one of those rooftop views that can cause you to confuse real estate with poetry, even when you haven’t been stung to tears by the cold wind off the East River and laid bare by a couple hours of immoderate Irish whiskey consumption at a bar full of Williamsburg douchebags. She tried to explain that what we were looking at was the fantasy and the tenement the reality, but lord, if it didn’t feel romantic as fuck.   This was my best friend’s life now and she was living it and even though it was irrational, it didn’t seem fair because seriously wasn’t I the one who was always supposed to end up in New York?

It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

By early May, I was dead broke, sleepless, writer’s blocked, and plagued with a nervous stomach, which I decided to blame on meds. I tossed the pills in the bathroom drawer with the extra Band-Aids. I fretted over my credit card bills. I stared at thousands upon thousands of words of unfinished[1] projects, projects I knew had clear and precise endings, but instead rewrote the beginning of a love story about New York or maybe to New York about sixty-eight times. No matter how many times I wrote it, it was still cliché and I was still in a house in North Carolina, unsure if, like, I actually wanted to move to New York.  I couldn’t figure whether even thinking about the possibility was proactive or self-destructive. Was it possible for a thing to be both?

A friend’s former roommate called, out of the blue, one afternoon while I was counting quarters and trying to shake the pall of fourth day leftover curry and impending financial ruin. She needed a place to live and followed a hunch that I be desperate enough to consider letting her rent my spare room. I said sure. We negotiated a deal. She’d move in a few days shy of the first of June.

When I told my mother I’d found a roommate, she rejoiced, convinced an occupied second bedroom would alleviate, if not all, then most of my problems. New roommate was a working artist and a good one. Mom thought my proximity to someone else doing creative work might inspire me to pick a file on the hard drive and just finish it, damnit.[2] She also thought I should come with her to Pensacola for four or five days the next week. My stepfather had recently started working on a project down there. We’d have hotel rooms—nice ones—right on the beach, overlooking the Gulf. Why not come down?

At the time, we were about  four weeks out from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. I knew the state of things. I’d struggled to reconcile the vastness of it, and had tried to remain as blinkered as possible, given the fact that the last time a Gulf disaster had made nightly news I’d nearly lost my damn mind.[3]  Given my tenuous emotional state, I wasn’t sure I was ready to literally wade into Actual Environmental Catastrophe. Does that make me sound weak?

Mom told me I was being dramatic. Things were fine. She’d called the hotel. It’s not the end of the world, just a vacation. We can even go over to New Orleans if you like. You haven’t been there since the hurricane, have you? No. I hadn’t.  It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

I woke up crying. I was at once relieved and horrified, because I couldn’t stop. My mother called and found me incapable of an answer about Florida because I was sobbing so hard. She thought maybe I should come home anyway because what the hell was wrong with me? I thought she was maybe right, because I’d been googling “brain tumor” and “uncontrollable weeping” (but not Wellbutrin-withdrawal) before she called. I packed a bag with all-purpose summer things—swimsuits, novels, unflattering sundresses, cheap sunglasses—and cried all the way to my mother’s house. At midnight, still crying, I decided to go to Florida.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Saturday, June 5, 2010

“All of the seafood is from the Gulf,” said the bartender, who was either a young-looking forty-five or a hard living thirty and obviously tired of being asked the same questions. “It’s snapper season. Shrimp is good as ever. Still not oil-based.”

I studied the bumper sticker over the bar–Pensacola. A Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.

Federal waters are closed here. So long as you keep your fishing boat less than twelve miles out from the coast, you can still fish, but that limits all deep-sea fishing (and has cancelled an annual deep-sea fishing tournament that our bartender tonight assured me has not been cancelled in forty years). This means trouble for guys looking for a bigger haul and certainly introduces some short-term complications for those looking to eat local seafood. As of four o’clock today (before the nasty, flooding thunderstorm I drove into this afternoon), the first large oil slick was about three miles off Pensacola Beach. There are booms (not enough) protecting the wetlands on the inland side. The fisherman, put simply, are pretty much screwed.

Of course, there’s another side to this. I overheard the bartender talking about his cousin to a couple of local customers. The cousin has worked piloting deep-sea fishing trips for tourists. Now, with that job effectively over for the summer, the cousin has taken contract work with BP. “They pay up to $1500 a day,” said the bartender, “which is a shitload of money for my cousin. “Apparently this scenario works out for BP, as guys like the cousin are prohibited from talking to the press, and unlikely to even talk to their neighbors as “there are folks around here who’d just as soon put a bullet in anyone that works for BP.” In the meantime, a bunch of small-time fisherman and small boat captains make more money in a week than they’re likely to make in a couple of months. The bartender grinned. “We call them oillionaires.”

***

Pensacola is a lot weirder than a town immediately adjacent to a giant naval base would suggest. Save few high-rises and Spanish street names, it didn’t feel much like Florida. It felt quite a bit more like Alabama, which I could see from my stepfather’s suite at the Pensacola Beach Hilton.  Downtown is late afternoon porch nap of a place, charming even, especially perhaps, in its overgrown gardens and storm stripped stucco walls in the way that so many Southern towns are, so long as you don’t stray too far or think too hard about it.

To get to the Beach, I drove out through a rainstorm across a new bridge parallel to an old one that had been carved into a sinister ellipsis by Hurricane Ivan six years before and left to decompose in Escambia Bay like a monument to any human that rebuilds near storm-haunted waters ever since. I paid a dollar at a toll booth and saw a giant blinking marquee telling me Do Not Pick Up Tar Balls.

Jimmy Buffett got to town the same night I did. He joined then-governor Charlie Crist at a press conference at the Grand Opening of the new Margaritaville Resort Hotel. Together, they informed the public that the beach was open despite oil sludge and the fact that the entire strip smelled like an Exxon, or more accurately, a BP station. I got the giggles in the hotel lobby, which was equally packed with drawling tourists and members of the international media posting live from the shiny blue bar, because what the fuck was I doing there?

In the suite, I had my own room and my own balcony. I could look out at the gulf and see sharks and sting rays swimming in the water, round the legs of swimmers. I read a strange, dreamy novel about literal fairies in upstate New York. I sat at the bar in the lobby, pretending to be a journalist, writing Dispatches from the Gulf for mostly disinterested audience of Facebook friends.

It was the second day, sitting at the lobby bar drinking gin and tonics with the Associated Press that I realized I’d stopped crying.

***

Notes From The Gulf, Sunday, June 6, 2010

The desk clerk at the Pensacola Beach Hilton has a lot to deal with right now. There are news crews editing footage at the lobby bar and journalists hunkered over laptops. There are several weddings—both past cancellation date. There are visiting dignitaries. There are drunken frat boys. There are next week’s guests calling every five minutes or so to get an honest opinion on the beach condition.

“I tell them it’s a beautiful day outside,” says the desk clerk. “I tell them the beach is full of people. And they all think I’m lying.”

She’s not. The sky is cloudless blue. The sand still soft and pale as powdered sugar. The Gulf is clean and aquamarine. Hundreds of people have crowded onto the quarter mile stretch from the Casino Beach boardwalk to the far side of the Hilton. They’re surfing and sunning and plenty are swimming in the breaking waves. No one’s really paying much attention to the half-hazmat suited guys in protective booties, scraping pea-sized tarballs out of the seaweed that washed ashore in last night’s thunderstorm. No one’s paying much mind to the 30×30 foot square caution taped off and bearing the footprint of a not-quite-cleaned up oily mess. No one’s exactly noticed their oil stained extremities, and if they have, no one really seems to care (they probably won’t until they try to wash it off). But mostly, no one’s talking about the smell.

I’d tell you it’s sort of like a service station in August, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Because it’s a smell that you can’t really get to go away. Even when you’re inside it permeates. Even when you’re two bays off the beach and walking through downtown Pensacola, you can smell it. To ignore that odor and all of its unmistakable implications (as most of my fellow beach goers are/have been doing) is a truly epic feat of fairy-dusted, calorie-free bacon level denial.

And maybe denial isn’t so bad. I mean, if the alternative finds you crying in the surf like the fifty-some year-old blond woman in a pink batik dress, who drew a crowd while scrubbing tar off her grandson’s knees. Or if the alternative finds (collective) you fleeing the gulf coast in abject terror for fear of contamination and taking all of your friends with you. Or if the alternative has you jumping to all kinds of nutty conclusions about why it’s happening (the Wrath of God/Mother Nature,/Greenpeace pipe bomb/ Obama-led plot to kick start his Marxist-Fascist-Totalitarian Muslim Regime/ Republican ploy to destroy the world) and to whom (the Gulf is full of sinners and hedonists who deserve it because they don’t love god/ the Gulf is full of bigots and bible beaters who deserve it because they vote against their interests).

There are thousands of people down here whose depend on these tiny, unsustainable spits of sand and surf that will play natural boom to the invaluable bays, wetlands and tributaries on the inland side of these barrier islands. However many more days tourists can convince themselves there’s nothing really wrong are days the local population can get paid. And I’m sure it’s stressful—the curious dance of the service industry in a tourism-based economy made even more absurd by the fact that they’re working on the outer edge of a disaster.

The conference rooms of the Hilton are packed with BP led seminars for new employees on the subject of cleaning white sand and coral, skimming oil off the water surface and (maybe) misleading the press.

Speaking of which, those guys that work for the AP certainly do have snazzy matching anoraks. If you happened to share an elevator with them today, you probably learned that AT&T has been mostly out (occasionally in) on Pensacola Beach all day today, preventing all of us from fully utilizing our iPhones.”

***

My stepfather took us on a tour of the town. We had dinner with a local socialite in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. It sat way out on a toe-shaped peninsula in the middle of a bayou. She tells hurricane stories, showing how far the water came up by putting a hand to the knee of her white silk trousers, then the seat of the sofa, then over the wainscoting, up the wall. The priceless antiques and art and artifacts the live oat branches and cypress limbs barely missed when they stormed the parlor.  I nod along, fascinated by extravagance at unsustainable places the way only someone who has grown up in the mountains can be. In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan and all.

I didn’t mention any of this, of course. We also avoided talking about the oil spill, because rich white people in the Deep South are generally a nothing but the weather and health unless they signal otherwise.

I sat by the pool during the day. I shuffled through muscle-d dudes with military haircuts and tribal tattoos to order frozen drinks from the tiki bar at the boardwalk. The drinks came out of neon boxes, refilled up top from pre-mixed bags of milky pastels and jugs of Bacardi. I avoided the blue raspberry bushwhacker and the Dixie Peach daquiri in favor of the pina colada, which was at least a color that existed in nature. One day, sitting at the bar, looking at the distant shimmer of oil on water, I saw a plane fly over, dragging a banner that read VOTE GOP: DRILL, BABY, DRILL!

 I thought, you could not make this shit up. I thought so, gleefully we self-destruct. I did not think all of that would seem quaint by comparison just a few years down the line.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Monday, June 8, 2010”

Gene Valentino, Escambia County Commissioner, headed up a televised press conference this evening on the Pensacola ABC-affiliate today regarding the oil spill. He offered assurances that the county would do everything in its power to ensure that high-paying BP clean-up jobs came first to local workers and that they would only utilize county funds to pay for spill related issues until the BP settlement funds appear. “The beach is still open. Tell everyone you know. Our local businesses depend on it,” he said, and then added that that the county had yet to determine whether it was safe for anyone to swim in the Gulf.

Everything changes on a day-to-day basis. Sunday night, the stench of oil was so strong I could barely sit on balcony seventeen stories over the water. And then the wind changed. The oil sheen drifted from a half a mile to a mile back out into open sea. And then it went west, to Destin. The cameras, the reporters, the sense of imminent doom went with it. On Monday, there was nothing. Hardly a tarball. Just kids building sandcastles. If you could ignore the big, white, clam shell-hinged hazardous waste containers lining the beach like robot cabanas, it’s almost like there was no oil spill at all.

“The oil spill didn’t just blow away,” said Valentino. “The winds could create a yo-yo effect, moving the sheens from place to place.” In other words, we’re not out of the woods. The deep, thick sludgy oil is still sitting out there in the Gulf, menacing out past the horizon line, thirty miles from land. There’s no such thing as being out of the woods when you’re dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude. Not when questions like where we can dock the vessels being used for clean-up where their oil-slicked hulls will not further contaminate the water have no long-term answer.”

***

Mom and I take my car to New Orleans on a sunny June morning, with the heat making mirage pools shimmer off Interstate 10. I sit in the passenger seat and try not to be worried because it’s five years after the storm, and things are going to be fine, right?

 I have a family connection to New Orleans. Several of my relatives–including my favorite great-aunt—lived there for decades, some portion of which in a house on Royal Street. My first trip there, years before, had been revelatory. It was a place I hadn’t expected to love,[4] let alone love with such immediate full-throated intensity. But I did love it. And weeks afterward I still dreamed in filigreed wrought iron and found myself perversely driven to Proustian reflection by terrible smells—sun warmed trash and old salty rot and stale alcohol—because they’d remind me of wandering through the French Quarter in the morning, stopping in secondhand shops with my Dad’s old girlfriend to browse vintage Mardi Gras ballgowns and voodoo paraphernalia.

I’d never been to NOLA with Mom. She went with my stepfather, a Louisiana native with a French surname. Hers was the New Orleans of Commanders Palace and the carousel bar at the Monteleone. So, we ate lunch at a nice restaurant. We stopped in art galleries and fancy boutiques. We drank gin when the sky opened up and turned Jackson Square into steamy glass. It was hot, hot enough that even the tourists were in short order. We didn’t wander far. At vampire themed gift shop, I got a note from my new roommate, telling her that her first rent check was going to bounce but no worries, I’ll fix it. I stared at a wall of fanged rubber duckies and thought, is this the moment when everything falls apart?

 It wasn’t.

We bought a bag of beignets for later. The ladies at Café Du Monde suggested we take a Styrofoam bowl of powdered sugar for the road, so we could sugar the beignets when we heated them up.

New Orleans was as New Orleans is. I drove us home and zoned out while Mom talked. I was relieved that I still loved it. It was comforting to know I hadn’t completely lost myself and that the city wasn’t totally lost to me. I wondered if I should move there. I wondered if I should move anywhere. I wondered at how it was that I’d become so resistant to change. That wasn’t supposed to be who I was at all. I was supposed to be adaptable, adventurous, a mossless stone. And yet . . .

I spent my last night in Pensacola, sitting on the balcony, long after my mother and stepfather had gone to bed, dunking gently reheated beignets into a bowl of sugar and staring out at the oil-slicked gulf. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

At night, though, it didn’t’ feel so much like disaster. And I didn’t feel so much like a disaster. I felt like I could put up a sail and, with the curious breeze or a double dog dare, let the wind and water carry me away to some place that wasn’t falling apart because of its own complacency, that didn’t need to be stripped and rebuilt and made whole again.

I didn’t, of course. Instead, I arose the scrape the tar from my feet and begin the long, slow business of making my life bearable again.

_______________

[1] Still unfinished.

[2] That wasn’t how things worked for me, not exactly, but you can’t really explain about process, mostly because whenever someone talks about process, they’re 99% full of shit.

[3] Katrina really fucked me up but good, y’all.

[4] My favorite places usually end up being the ones I don’t expect to love. The ones I imagine I’ll adore usually come out a little gray in the wash. The most famous example of this is how I thought I’d become a Paris devotee (I didn’t) and figured all of Italy would be overrated (it’s really, really not).  There are exceptions to this rule. New York City is exactly as billed. So is San Francisco, or at least, the part of San Francisco that’s yet not entirely composed of entitled nerd bajillionaires.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Plaid Tidings

Dear Boy I Briefly Had A Crush On In High School:

Tonight around 6:15 pm, EDT, your old flannel shirt from 1993 passed out of the world of attire and into the scrap pile, when it will soon be dismembered and used for things like dusting and maybe polishing the silver.  The shirt was (I’m guessing here) somewhere between 26-30 years old. Maybe older. I have no idea whether it came new to you, or as another hand-me-down. You might remember, if you remember you had this shirt at all. It was 1993, after all. The world was awash in plaid flannel shirts. Even I had several, and I was the kind of girl that at the very apex of grunge was all I’m looking for a prom dress that says “Versailles, 1780.”

I ended up with your plaid shirt because we were in a play together. Shakespeare. I loaned my old summer camp foot locker as prop and after the run, when we struck down the stage, I took it home and put it back into my mother’s basement and didn’t think about it until sometime (maybe a year) later, when I was looking for a place to hide an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes (which I wasn’t supposed to be smoking) in the basement (where I wasn’t supposed to be smoking) and landed on the trunk. When I opened it, I found several things: a school t-shirt commemorating Girls’ Sports Day 1992 (with the classic It’s weird what slides by the censors at prep school slogan: Stick ‘Em, Spike ‘Em, That’s the Way We Like ‘Em!), a campus book store copy of Tess of the D’Ubrervilles with testicles and an erect penis drawn on the title page, a plastic sword used by one of our classmates, and your shirt.

I thought about giving your shirt back. I didn’t have any sentimental attachment to it. My crush on you had ended almost as soon as it began. You were kind of weird, and not in some sexy, dangerous way, but in that “let’s get naked and talk about our feelings and I’ll tell you about these vegan self-help books I’ve been reading” sort of way. To be clear, I was also weird, and also not in a sexy, dangerous way, but more in a “OMG I can’t wait to go to college where I hope to date a sexy communist and start an loud, all-girl garage band that sings entirely about how all men in Modernist novels are terrible” kind of way. We weren’t the right fit. And that was fine. But I kept your shirt, even though it was a bleh gray-brown plaid and kind of ugly, because you didn’t go to my school anymore and it was trouble to get it back to you.  It was soft and I figured it would be good for pajamas.

That was twenty-four years ago. I don’t know why it lasted as long as it did. I don’t have much else from high school, save the a couple prom dresses (including the Versailles one), yearbooks, a few pictures, a box of letters and a bunch of really hilarious journals, in which you figure prominently for a couple of months junior year but then resolve into ham-fisted, 11th grade erotica about a gorgeous, furious leather-jackety type that was very clearly not you and a bewilderingly precise recounting of the meaningless l bullshit C and I  talked about when we drove the abandoned warehouse circuit (years before it gentrified) in her dad’s SUV, smoking Virginia Slim Lights we stole from my Mom and listening to that one Cocteau Twins song on over and over again.

I last wore the shirt in January, while I had the flu. I ordered cake and pineapple from Whole Foods and slipped money under the door, so I wouldn’t be a public health disaster. I watched Harry Potter movies,[1] even though I am too old, I was too old, when they came out. At some point I reached up to scratch the back of my neck and my finger snagged the collar, at which point the collar just sort of disintegrated. I had a thought that I might try to fix it, but seriously, that’s probably not going to happen and, like, the shirt is almost thirty years old and falling apart.

R.I.P. Shirt

You were a good shirt. Even if you were bleh gray-brown. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] As boarding school movies go, they’re not too bad. If you take away the actual magic, they’re certainly no less credible than, say, “Dead Poets Society,” a movie that paints schools like ours as a kind of soul-crushing rich kid suicide machine, and yet 100% convinced us that we should be attending boarding school.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Travel Pangs

At the lowest ebb of my early twenties, when I was wallowing, in danger of running irrevocably off the rails because I was not sure where I was going, what I was going to do when I got there, I went through an extended phase of reading novels about Mexico City. I liked the vast, thrilling, convoluted, messy stories about what seemed to be a vast, thrilling, convoluted, messy city, light years from the ugly, boring new south purgatory to which I’d sort of accidentally exiled myself. I was too miserable to sleep much in those days, but when I did I’d dream about smoggy thoroughfares and art nouveau artist-crammed warrens and Aztec ruins and street tacos and  Diego Rivera murals think, lord, if I’m going to be an exile, I might as well do it properly. I thought, I should really work on my Spanish.

 In my early forties, still wallowing, but now  in danger of clinging too narrowly to the rails because I know what I’m doing and where I’m going but no longer sure why, my best friend called and asked if I wanted to go with her to Mexico City, and get lost in that vast, thrilling, convoluted messy city with her tall Australian friend, who lives there.  And I was like finally and I bought a plane ticket.  I worked on my Spanish. I didn’t, on the advice of my mother, tell my grandmother. Because, she will definitely think you’ll be kidnapped by a cartel and forced to write communist poems high up in the mountains while eating well-intentioned, but mediocre tamales.  I thought that sounded pretty nice, actually. Not unlike my day job of working in advertising in Western North Carolina.

And I told myself the stomach pains I was having in the weeks leading up were stress-based indigestion, incidental travel worries. That I was worried about being worried about having digestive problems from eating street food in Mexico City. I bought two boxes of Pepto-Bismal. I drank week tea. I ignored the doubled-over middle of the night cramps.

Thirty-six hours prior to departure, I dreamed I was back in the ugly, new south sprawl city of my early twenties, trapped inside an shop full of vintage dresses, while outside the world was on fire. I was speared by the hand of a manicure and woke up in excruciating pain. I thought, that manicure sure has sharp fingers. I took a deep breath and thought, surely I am imagining this pain. I thought, surely this will pass. It did not. I dressed in the dark. I drove to the emergency room. It was 2:30 am.

The waiting room was deceptively dead. A triage nurse that looked and sounded weirdly like Wesley Snipes took my vitals. I sat on uncomfortable chairs between a drunk man, who seemed to just be hanging out there and joking with the nurses like a barroom regular and two college students who were reporting a fake concussion because a cat scan will totally get you out of a Bio exam tomorrow. I’d picked up a book off the night stand, a literary novel about terrorists. It didn’t really distract me from a stomach roiling with increased anxiety about what it meant for my Mexico trip if an alien burst out of my belly.

At five-thirty, a nurse came and wheeled me back through an emergency room crammed triple-parked beds. It felt like a war zone. The nurse said, Full Moon. I, overtired, still in pain, distracted, thought, they’re all werewolves? My curtained bay was between a woman that couldn’t stop throwing up and an elderly man that sounded like he was speaking from beyond the grave. The woman spoke Spanish between retching. I thought, deliriously, this will be good practice for Mexico. The man spoke a language no one could understand. They brought in every nurse they had to try out every language on file. At long last, before they got to Klingon or Elvish, the patient on the other side of him—another older woman—was like, He’s speaking Czech, you idiots.

 Doctors wheeled in an ultrasound. Results were inconclusive. Probably nothing, I thought. I hope I get out of here soon so I can catch up on sleep before I leave tomorrow. They thought I should get another, bigger ultrasound, so I was wheeled away again. I texted my Mom on the way back to the ER. I said, Don’t freak out but I’m in the hospital. It’s probably nothing. I’m still planning to go to Mexico tomorrow. I’ll probably be home in an hour. I got back to my bay. The vomiting lady had been moved, replaced by an older man who snored loudly and occasionally called out Joy To the World! in his sleep.

The nurse brought me a cup of water and then immediately took it away. She said, you’re probably going to have surgery today. I said, don’t be ridiculous, I have to go to Mexico tomorrow to see art and eat street tacos and see Diego Rivera murals and hopefully sort out this midlife crisis. And I’ve always been the kind of person to make fun of people having a midlife crisis. How embarrassing.

The surgical team rolled up. They were all gorgeous and young, with great hair. They told me I was going to have my gall bladder removed, immediately, as soon as they could clear an OR. We’re busy today. Full Moon. And I was like, I’m not a werewolf. And I am I going to Mexico tomorrow. They apologized for not being able to give me any pain killers, but they gave me a surgical gown. It was Carolina blue and had kind of an Aztec print. I called my best friend, then. I told her the situation. I said, I’m still going. I don’t care I’m still going. The tall Australian sent me a note saying he was sorry to hear I wasn’t coming to Mexico. I started crying. That lasted for about six hours. At some point, I think the Czech man tried to insult me or comfort me, but everything he said sounded like gravel falling off the edge of the world. It could have been a curse. I felt cursed.

By the time my mother arrived, it was early afternoon. I was furious and spent. She wondered if I was afraid of surgery, of going all the way under. I said, at least being all the way under means I don’t have to think any more. The anastesiologist came and gave me a “you probably won’t die, but  you might” speech and I joked about how I should have written down my passwords. As he wheeled me away, I was like, no, seriously, I think I wrote down some of my passwords, they’re in my desk, ask my friend, she’s a lawyer, but not really my lawyer. And then I was out. I woke up in excruciating pain, like that mannequin with the sharp fingers had conspired with the alien to engineer a subway system through my abdomen. They gave me Fentanyl. I thought, party drug of the apocalypse. Fields, out.

 I recovered quickly. Everybody acted friendly and solicitous, offered to do things, sent flowers, gave me the whole aren’t you glad this didn’t happen to you in Mexico?  Sure. I guess. But I’m sad I missed my trip. I’m super sad I lost the chance to use a trip as an excuse to not deal with this perpetual state of indecision and insecurity and the specter of regret, both past and possibly forthcoming, that seems to me to be condition of being an adult human being, now one organ down, in a vast, thrilling, convoluted,  messy world.

I’m still having a bit of a midlife crisis.  I don’t think I can fix it with a sportscar or an affair or a yoga. I won’t do anything rash. I like my life. And so I’ll probably do the smart thing and stay the course I’m on, because it’s a good and reasonable one. But, as I recover, as my interior parts stitch back together, I’m allowing myself the luxury of being unreasonable, as I imagine slipping away, losing myself in an unknown city I know only from novels. Maybe I’ll buy a new suitcase. Definitely I’ll keep working on my Spanish. Then, maybe Hindi. Maybe Czech.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Ireland

I recently sent off for one of those DNA reports. It was on sale and I wanted to make absolutely sure that I wasn’t some magical foundling or infant switched at birth my parents had taken home and claimed as their own.[1] The results were, I’m sorry to say, unsurprising, and more or less lined up precisely with what we already knew. To wit:  I am a white person, descended from white people, the vast majority of whom came from the British Isles (the rest were French and German). Of that number, approximately 20% were Irish. I’d figured as much. I knew the surnames. In Ireland, I’d received some unsolicited commentary about how I “had the look of Cork about ye,” which didn’t sound entirely like a compliment. I felt (and still feel) fiercely ambivalent about Ireland, like it tapped into some combination of This place is lovely and magical and I need to get right the fuck out of here before I end up trying the lotus.  If I were the sort of person who believed in that whole “places speaking to you/historical memory/ancestral resonances” bullshit, I might give the pot another couple of stirs, but I’m not and I don’t, so leave it.

I mention this, of course, because today is St Patrick’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day is an abomination. I need you to know that I don’t say this because I hate Ireland or Irish People or the color green (in fact, my favorite color) or quasi-mythological, beatified snake charmers or whatever portion of myself[2] may be distantly rooted in the auld sod. I hate St Paddy’s because it is a drinking holiday in the US and while all drinking holidays in the US are uniquely awful (see also: the Fourth of July, Cinco De Mayo, New Year’s Eve), St Paddy’s is the one that tends to produce the most toxic combination of drunk bros with tribal tattoos, tin whistles, and old men reeking of green beer and cabbage farts that take “I’m going to pinch you if you’re not wearing green” to mean “I can put my finger pretty much anywhere I want because Erin Go Bragh.”

This year, St. Paddy’s falls on a Saturday, which means it will be a waking nightmare out there. The only way around it is to stay out of it. So pour yourself a stout, put on your favorite “traditional” Irish record (My Bloody Valentine is perennial favorite round these parts, but Thin Lizzy also works pretty well), pull a book from the shelf  and let Ireland dazzle you with her unsurpassed skill at just turning a damn phrase.

These lists are always overstuffed with the classics. And that’s fine. Today would be a great day to finally maybe give Ulysses a go (thought, strictly speaking, that novel has its own holiday, and it’s generally lovely). It’s a lot funnier than you’ve been led to believe and is less intimidating if you take it one chapter at a time, maybe with friends, maybe with beer, ideally with both.

Wilde is always a charmer. And his effortlessly elegant wit certainly helps nullify the horrors of whatever thick-necked, cargo shorted rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward your local bar to order Irish Car Bombs accompanied by House of Pain (apologies to W. B. Yeats).

But in the event you want to step off the beaten track (or maybe visit a bookstore. Book stores are a fantastic place to spend St. Paddy’s Day. If you happen to be in Ireland, try out Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, which is maybe my favorite book store, like, in the world), here are a few of my recommendations for making the holiday a reading holiday:

 

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien. It’s always a toss-up between this one and At Swim, Two Birds. And the truth is, you can hardly go wrong with O’Brien. They’re all brilliant and weird and hilarious. The Third Policemen, though, is a clever philosophical argument bound up in a surrealist, dystopian farce that’s kind of about bicycle theft. And if that doesn’t entice you, I can report that I truly laughed out loud regularly throughout this book, even, especially at moments when it edged toward melancholy.

Skippy Dies—Paul Murray. As a one-time student of boarding school, I find most boarding school novels to be awful. This one was a rare, surprising gift. Murray is a great writer (and he does a really deft job with teenagers). Funny, sad, and probably the most compulsively readable novel I’ve ever read whose title gives the plot away on the front cover.

Days Without End—Sebastian Barry. I wrote about this book on my Best of 2017 list. I still haven’t stopped talking about it or recommending it. Perhaps even more appropriately for St. Paddy’s, this is a book about an Irish immigrant and his singular experience throughout the US during the middle of the 19th century. It’s also on my short list of Favorite Westerns.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing—Eimear McBride. Full warning: this is a difficult book that deals with a very tough coming of age and Eimear McBride writes in a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness style that might turn off those wary of unconventional sentence structure. It’s worth it if you stick with it, though. McBride does a thing all her own. Hers is a voice I’m always eager to hear more of.

Troubles—JG Farrell. Technically, JG Farrell was an Englishman of Irish extraction, but this extremely funny, brutal satire concerns itself with the failing fortunes of an English family in Ireland on the eve of Irish Independence. It’s also maybe my all-time favorite extended metaphor for colonialism. If I’ve ever talked to you about books, I’ve probably tried to get you to read it.  You should read it.

City of Bohane—Kevin Barry. If you’re after a dystopia (and still not convinced we’re not already in one), Barry’s post-apocalyptic urban Ireland is a good one to get under your skin and freak you out with its imagery (eerie as hell) and its language (gorgeous). I liked it better than his follow-up (also pretty good), which fictionalizes John Lennon and sends him exploring the West Coast of Ireland.

The Untouchable—John Banville. In general, you’re either on board with Banville’s morally compromised, dirty old men and their classical allusions or not. The Untouchable is a bit different, though, in that it’s a spy novel, specifically focused on young men at Cambridge University who ended up spying for Russian, during and after WWII. Banville’s protagonist is a fascinating character, who’s playing a part, within a part, within a part. And I’ll wholly admit to loving this book. Reads pretty fast too.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923—RF Foster. I’d be remiss without a piece of non-fiction. This is a big book that covers the decades leading up to the Easter Rising and afterwards to Independence and the formation of Irish Republic’s government. It’s a fascinating take on the collision of art and politics and the things that tend to get sold out (women’s rights, for one) when your creation of a revolutionary national identity requires the cooperation of a population steeped in traditional religion.

Oh and if you’re absolutely determined to venture out into the crowds, consider going to bed with this recent gem from the New Yorker. I’ve been haunted by it for months because what lord, a beautiful bit of writing.

Slainte and happy reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, I like Ireland. I generally like Irish people. Green is, in fact, my favorite color. And though I’m not terribly keen on traditional Celtic music, I do like it a bit better than bluegrass, (faint-praise-be-damned as that may be). There were plenty of Irish people in my family tree, a fact now confirmed by a DNA report, a sense of fierce, As many of you may know, St. Patrick’s Day is an abomination. St Patricks’ Day is the worst holiday. The. Worst. Holiday. Please understand: I don’t say that because I hate Ireland or Irish People or the color green (in fact, my favorite color) or quasi-mythological, beatified snake charmers.  It’s just that people in the US cannot handle a drinking holiday just don’t care for most drinking holidays, or to be precise, I don’t care for drinking holidays in the US. It’s not entirely the fault of the Irish that St. Paddy’s Day has become synonymous with hordes of wildly shit-faced

[1] To be clear, I am absolutely, incontrovertibly my parents’ child, as anyone who has met my parents for even a fraction of a second will confirm. I have known this ever since I was able to look at my face and their faces side by side in a mirror, but while they may have endowed me with my good looks and a truly epic catalog of seemingly congenital eccentricities, they did not endow me with a  great fortune or any supernatural powers. And look: a girl’s got to dream.

 

[2] I devote all of my historical shame, horror and self-loathing to the fact that I’m a Southerner.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Plus

i.

When I was five years old, my mother and my grandmother used to ply me with treats because I was all eyes and skinny legs, chronically underweight. They supposed I drank too much (juice and water, charges of hitting the gin too hard were a few decades yet to come). They supposed I ate too little. They doctor supposed I would stay small into adulthood, despite coming from (mostly) tall people. I doubt she’ll hit 5’4. My little sister (who came roaring out into the world like a queen and was thus (partly) named after The Queen) was projected to be a giant. The pediatrician poked at her chubby knees and said, She could be six feet tall. Six feet wasn’t all that rare for women in my family. My mother (herself barely an inch shy of) just nodded and said something to me about the charms of being petite, a fairy princess.  

 I had the youthful confidence of being a pretty child. People told me so all the time. My mother was an artist. She painted portraits of other people, other children. She used to study my face and tell me it was uncannily symmetrical, very beautiful. I would stare at myself in the mirror and summon an imaginary friend from my reflection. I called her Zaka. She was pretty, even if her hair didn’t curl the way I wanted and truly, if it were as short as my mother regularly threatened to cut it, she might look exactly like a boy. Zaka would clearly, obviously, stay pretty, in much the same way she was, because pretty was most important. I felt relieved to have her. I knew, no matter what, that she would stay loyal and constant, that she would never betray me, that she would always have my best interests at heart.

I still have a symmetrical-ish face, I suppose, marred as it may be by moles and wrinkles and the ever-lengthening list of age-related imperfections. I lost half an eyebrow about six years ago, thanks to an over-enthusiastic waxing job at a cheapo mini-mall nail salon. I still have one pointy ear and the same inconstant shade of green eyes I’ve long suspected to be my most reliably good feature.  I can still the barest traces of Zaka if I squint through time and disappointment and, mostly, fat. But what I mostly see is Fat. Because I am Fat and Fat is me and it was always thus since Zaka slipped away without rhyme or reason one day around fourth grade and never returned. I never even got to say goodbye. I never got to ask why. I just turned on the light one day, one morning before school and instead of Zaka’s knowing, confident grace, I saw Fat. Slunking, slumping, skulking, sloppy Fat, who eschewed eye contact and changed her clothes in the dark. I despised her. I felt sorry for her. I hated everything she was. I wished she would go away and find some other poor soul to attach herself to, because couldn’t she see that I was better than that. That I wasn’t like her. That I was pretty, uncannily symmetrical, very beautiful. And she would only ever drag me down. The more I ignored her, the harder she chased after me. She seemed quite gratified by my scorn, like, she was some kind of masochist. And after all was said and done, she hung around. She hung around longer than anyone else. Absolutely loyal. Firmly steadfast. After thirty-odd years, it would seem I couldn’t lose her if I tried.

ii.

The thing about Fat is she’s easy to blame. And depending on my mood, I blame a lot—A Lot—on Fat. My lack of confidence, my solitude, my professional failures, my personal failures, my personality failures, my failure failures. She takes it because she’s round and cushiony and hard to break. She lands soft and giggles out some self-deprecating commentary and waddles along her way, inured to the stares and the that’s what happens when you don’t take care of yourself.

Is it possible there are other reasons why I am not an endlessly beloved, swaggering bastion of poise and perfect achievement? I am—this junk drawer of words perhaps notwithstanding—a rational, reasonable human being. Plenty of people who have been side-eyed out of a boutique that doesn’t carry their size or reminded they are technically obese by a medical professional have found fulfillment and fame and happiness and copious amounts of passionate lovemaking with a partner that simply adores them despite their stretchmarks. Am I also socially awkward and kind of elitist and inclined toward existential despair? Do I procrastinate?  Do I talk to much?  Yes. Am I lazy? Do I lack will-power? Is Fat the manifestation of all the ways in which I am flawed or are my flaws the reason for Fat? How much of my life is determined by the expanse of hips—comically oversized like the boned and fluffed architecture under a Rococo court dress? How much am I letting this or that chin (or all in concert) steer my course through life?

Fat has a weakness for conspiracy theory. She feels bad for buying into it (because she feels bad about everything) but she still keeps me up with second guesses. Here’s one:  do I have friends in spite of Fat or because of her? In high school, in college, I’d find myself surrounded by whisper thin, pretty girls and think I might shine in a bit in their collective shimmer. But Fat would whisper, you make them look good—even better, even thinner–by contrast. They like you because you’re not a threat. Because compared to you, they always win. She wasn’t alone. My grandmother once told me, point blank, that I’d be far better off making friends with bigger girls, so when we were all out together I wouldn’t look so . . . so . . . disproportionate.

Nana wasn’t wrong. Fat did look disproportionate. When I saw her in pictures with my friends, she appeared to be a different scale of thing, maybe a different species altogether. Every piece of me was bigger—from features to fingers to feet. I growth-spurted into tall-ish late, sometimes during sophomore year of high school, as if to underline just how wrong my childhood pediatrician had been. But Fat didn’t stretch out into lean angles and elbows, just reconfigured, and settled into new, uncomfortable curves that didn’t make me look like a glamorous woman so much as a prematurely middle-aged frump.

 

iii.

 

You’re asking yourself, Has she lost her mind? (Maybe) You’re wondering, Why doesn’t she just do something about it? Like eat less and exercise. (I’ve tried and failed and failed again and failed better and failed so well that I’m in pretty good shape, no matter what Fat would have you believe). You might even be thinking, You’re not Fat. And hey, there’s always someone around telling Fat she isn’t. That person is usually not fat. That person is usually normal-sized, often the variety of normal size that spends two weeks in the gym trying to work off a burrito lunch because they live in fear that three extra pounds is a slippery slope. Other fat people generally refrain from such commentary because they know the fuck better. Specifically, they know that while fat is the kind of elastic-waisted, billowy pejorative that can be applied to just about any person with an extra ounce of body fat, Fat has its own zip code and it’s never going to be the right side of town. And though Fat comprises considerable diversity in size and shape, she tends to recognize herself even as she obsessively compares. Am I the fattest person in the room? Is she as fat as I am? Is she fatter? It’s terrible, embarrassing, wrong that she does it, but I doubt she’s alone. And at least it’s not as bad as the moments when Fat is the only fat person in the room, or in on the block, or like, in the actual zipcode.

I know, by the way. The grass is always greener. Thin people are nodding. And let me crystal clear about this: I don’t think I know a woman, no matter her size or shape, without a body image issue. It’s the only metoo bigger than #metoo.  You came blame fashion designers and fast food and the diet-industrial complex and the patriarchy (it’s probably the patriarchy).[1]

Pretty, thin girls worry they’re valued only for their looks. Fat worries she’s judged for her lack thereof. It’s not enough to be simply unattractive. Beauty has a moral component. Fat is unhealthy, irresponsible, lazy, self-indulgent, hedonistic, needy, a visible sinner, deceitful, leeching off society. Most other transgressive self-destructive behaviors can look a little romantic in the right light. Consider the sordid glamor of movies about, say, heroin addicts. But gluttony is the least sexy of the Seven Deadly. No one writes great swaggering rock songs about going on a pasta bender. There’s no famously edgy poetry about being too fat for an armchair. I’ve yet to see a fashion magazine advertise a new look as being “carb chic.”

Fat assumes people won’t smile back. Fat is surprised when people don’t recoil. You figure out what makes you interesting. You work on your shtick. You do funny—people tolerate Fat when she’s funny. You do easy to please. You don’t freak out. You don’t get too serious—people can’t take Fat seriously. I mean, please. You try not to judge people the way you think you’re being judged.  You know first-hand, that people are so, so much more than how they look. You find that you know little things, like, how it’s always safer to compliment a pair of earrings of a shirt or a haircut or a tattoo than it is to tell someone they look thin or they have beautiful skin, because that tattoo is a choice about how a person wants you to see them as opposed to whatever perfect storm of genetics and lifestyle and health and a whole College of Social Sciences worth of circumstances well out of their control gave them the underlying hardware.

Some of my friends are freaking out about their age these days. They’re worried about incipient middle age making them invisible and undesirable. Fat finds this hilarious. She doesn’t know what it is to be visible, to be desirable, to walk into a room and have people gaze in admiration. She wants to tell them, you know there’s more to you, right? She wants to say, it’s not so bad, really, when you can’t fall back on looks. You get used to it. After all, you can be left alone. After all, it could be worse.

 I get the fear, though. We’re taught not to judge books by covers from earliest fairy tales on. We strive not to. But we still live in a world defined by racism and sexism. We still fear things that are different from us.  We find them unsettling, useless, disgusting. And we still have to live in that world. Society requires we interact with those things, even when we don’t believe those things, even when they say we are those things.

You may be angry at the fact that I’m not preaching radical self-acceptance and reclaiming Fat as something strong and powerful and beautiful. Something to be loved, not hated. I wish I could do that. I’ve been trying to learn how. It’s maybe harder than anything else that I’ve ever tried to do, including, say, eating less and exercise. As noted above, Fat makes a great scapegoat. She literally eats the job right up, sometimes with an extra serving of whatever current dietary wisdom says is bad for us. By blaming Fat, I can avoid having to burrow in too deep with the other deficiencies. They’re all there. A real rogues’ gallery, another story down, drinking whisky and playing a hand or two with my future and my financials, waiting for their 4am curtain call on a sleepless night, after Fat has finally punched out and gone for some shut-eye.

iv.

 It may surprise you to know that I forget about Fat. I can go hours, even days, without giving her so much as a thought. I spend a lot of my life inside my own head, unreflected by mirrors or unflattering Facebook photos, and in there I’m anything. A shapeshifter, a chimaera, an endlessly glorious, slightly androgynous being suffused with the power of infinite transformation. Or at the very least: a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett.

I can strip myself bare (not always literally) and interact with the world on a purely sensual level. All body and no body at once. I am the first spring sun glancing across my face when I wander up the street for coffee. I am the smell of rain and salt from the bow of a boat on one of those summer afternoons that make you feel like you could fly over the tempest and across the bay. I am the sound of the wind rattling the oak limbs and the autumn roses and the breeze curling its fingers round to brush the short hairs on the nape of my neck. Or Orion over the backyard on a cold, clear, winter night winking at me like I’m the only girl left in the room.  I am wine that tastes like a dry sunset over a lazy sea. Cheese that tastes like a nap at Versailles. Berries that taste like skinny dipping in the dead of summer with the friends your mother didn’t entirely approve of. Shellfish like briny abandon. Warm, crusty bread, fresh from the bakery, that tastes like a kitchen full of wisdom.  I could go on with the food. Obviously, you think.  And at risk of sounding cliché, I don’t thing Fat has hung around this long because I ‘m a bad cook. She feels guilt–so much guilt–about it. But we really are both hedonists.

In those moments when I forget what I am and become only what I feel, I have a sense of anything being possible. I am free from the girl in the mirror. Any of the girls in the mirror. I can just be purely myself. Honestly, I don’t even know what that looks like. Only that it doesn’t matter because it feels right. To me. To anybody else. But mostly to me.

v.

Sometimes I wish I could see Zaka again.  I have words for her. Not all pleasant. Also, I would like to introduce you to her. I want you to know that I was not always this.  And I know you can’t see her, but she still lurks in the peripheral, in the flattering selfie, a silhouette of missed opportunity, a flittering shadow of what may have been, now reduced to a footnote to what is certainly a hefty (natch), annotated biography of Fat—my partner, my nemesis, myself.

As a child, I read myth the way other kids read fairy tales and Bible stories. I was fascinated by transformation, even when it became grotesque. I thought it possible I might become a tree, a spider, a swan or a God. For a time, I believed perhaps my own unwelcome transformation was a result of this, that the universe had misread my interest as latent desire and fashioned for me a monster suit that I could not remove so I could better understand how those stories ended. How did Niobe fare once she became a waterfall?

I’m just American enough to still believe in spontaneous, fantastic transformation, but in a measured, sidelong kind of way. Knowing what I am and being okay with it is more rational, more preferable to endless expectation of Salvation via Powerball, the eclipsing success gleaned off a single TED talk, a Rom Com of a love affair, the dreamy reflection of myself as Beauty, Realized.

I suspect the solution to Fat is to no try and force her away or into something she cannot be, but to try and make her more comfortable. I can maybe stop trying to stuff her into pants that don’t fit and let her exist in a corner of the world where she’s not just a thing to be pitied and jeered at and loathed in my bathroom mirror but something that could be, just maybe, if not beautiful, never beautiful, at least worthy of my eye-contact, of basic respect, of the simple, affectionate regard of a sustained second glance.

[1] To be clear: there are plenty of men and non-binary people with body image issues and eating disorders too. That’s also probably because of the patriarchy.

 

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions. 
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Wind From The East

The way I figure it, something is brewing about to being and she blows in from the east and shows up on my doorstep.

“Are you here to help me make peace with my family and encourage me to do chores?”  I ask.

“Seriously, don’t you think you’re a little old for that ?” She comes in, takes a hard look at my closets and sighs. “Maybe a little tidying up. Have you read Marie Kondo? She’s great. No matter. I’ll just enchant the cat and send some local dancing tradesmen down to IKEA. I’m sure they can sort it out for you.”

And I say, “Shouldn’t I do it myself so I can learn a lesson?”

“Sister, you’re an adult woman. You work hard. Time is at a premium. And I’m sure you’ve read some “Real Simple” about how organization is some zen bullshit, but come on. It’s just a scam to get you to buy more shit you don’t need from the Container Store.

“Women have for too long suffered under the assumption that we’re supposed to be not only tidy up the nursery without complaint, but perform domesticity in a way that absolves the men in our lives of regular household and emotional labor. So you end up with men who are irregularly employed, emotionally unavailable and trying to “find their authentic selves” or whatever while one-man banding or sidewalk chalking or g@#$%&m chimney sweeping or blustering around like giant mustachioed babies in banker suits. And then they turn around and think that ten minutes of kite flying or the occasional empty compliment (delivered in an insultingly terrible Cockney accent, I might add) makes up for their shambling awfulness literally every other moment of time. Do I sound bitter? I apologize. It’s been a shit century for me.”

I smile. “If it makes you feel any better, I download Tinder once a month. Set it up. Scroll through and then delete it from my phone thirty seconds late in a state of hopeless rage and self-loathing.”

“Tinder is the actual devil.” She takes off her hat and pats her practically perfect updo. “So you want a lesson?  Here goes:  The planet is in crisis. We’re surrounded by actual fascists. You’re probably never going to be able to retire. Idris Elba is never going to be your boyfriend. A spoonful of sugar might give you diabetes. Life is suffering. We all die alone. Yadda yadda yadda.  You might as well live a little. I  thought we might just go out and bitch about the number of people that act like it’s an actual tragedy that we don’t have husbands or children of our own–like I don’t have enough bad fathers and terrible, psychologically damaged, spoiled little shits to deal with in my @#$%ing day job. I mean, seriously.  It’s negroni night at the penguin bar. The former Mrs Banks is buying. She’s a lot of fun post-divorce and you’ll adore her new girlfriend.” She opens her bag. “Now then, dresses! I’m thinking tawdry, with lots of feathers and sequins and tulle and then, like, totally comfortable, sensible shoes.”

 

“I don’t know how to thank you, Ms Poppins.”

 

“My friends call me Mary. And you, friend, can top off my travel tea mug with a slug of whiskey. Later on, it’d be great if you’d keep me from drunk texting Captain Hook again. He’s so pathetic. And I hate waking up on that gross boat the next morning. Truly foul.”

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Notable Birthdays: 1995

February 28, 1995

 Venue: 30 Griffing Circle, Asheville (and various)

The BA Society formed during Short Term at the Women’s College I attended Freshman Year. Short term, for those ignorant of the rightfully antiquated 4-1-4 semester system, was a month long “mini-term” in which students were (in theory) encouraged to devote their time to one intensive course, research project or internship. In practice, short term allowed the roughly 75 % of campus rich enough to do a fashion internship in Paris or study the efficacy of Hawaiian Tropic Sunscreen firsthand from Emily’s dad’s yacht in the Caymans or Mary Ellis’ Mom’s condo in Vail, while the rest of us took the sort of dozy, no-stakes classes common in day camps for summer nerds—Medieval Italics, Improv Theatre: Past Present and You, Feminism in “Star Trek.”  I took, “The Counterculture and Those Counter to It,” which was taught by a woman with Bernadette Peters’ hair, a serious Eileen Fisher habit and tendency to relate the upheavals of the late 1960s to her ex-husband’s myriad deficiencies as both husband and lover. We read Abbe Hoffman and Tom Wolfe and wrote journal entries about how the Woodstock documentary made us feel. One whole class was devoted to discussion of how much we admired Angela Davis’ earrings.

Suffice to say, I had plenty of time on my hands. And so did my other friends stuck on campus. These included C, who’d been the first friend I made on campus, L, who I’d met doing theatre, sort of, and M, who lived in the single at the end of the hall. We were an odd mix (even odder than my thirteenth birthday party) that in any other circumstance (and almost certainly in a larger college), would have maybe never hung out together. What we shared mostly consisted of the Womens College itself (about which we didn’t even agree internally), smoking and our ability to have a surprisingly good time at the Waffle House.  C & I had already been hanging out a lot off-campus downtown with the bunch of the music fans, local bands and artfully disaffected townies that more or less constituted “The Scene” as it existed in Roanoke, Virginia circa 1995. Our friend, Killer, a skateboarder (ironically dubbed for his baby face and small stature) somehow came into keys for an old Elks Lodge, where we wiled away the winter hours playing pool, posturing, and trying not to behave like nice young ladies from that nice women’s college. We weren’t supposed to be there, and we definitely weren’t supposed to be drinking the beer in the fridge with Killer and his friends. But what else were we going to do? We’d already exhausted the goodwill of our one friend with a Fake ID and we kept getting stymied by snowstorms in the Shenandoah whenever we tried to drive up to DC.

I don’t remember how or when we came up with the BA (stands for Bad Ass, with ample irony) Society, except that I’m pretty sure The Lodge was involved. Virginia has a long and storied history of collegiate secret societies. My father may have even tried to start one during his tenure at University of Virginia, back in the era Professor Eileen Fisher liked to compare to her ex-husband’s sexual prowess.  We appointed ourselves as member/officers, invented a completely ridiculous secret handshake and preceded to break the cardinal rule of any secret society worth its salt by telling everyone we knew about it  And it became yet another way to unite our otherwise disparate group, consisting of : opinionated Texan self-described “waver” with a weakness for poetry and Dr. Pepper, a theatrical Massachusetts hippie who professed to actually enjoying Phish concerts, a blonde Virginian who spoke German and dressed like Holly Golightly and an underachieving, over-literate, prep-school-educated wanna-be punk rocker, straight off the mean, leafy, scenic streets of Asheville, North Carolina. The BA Society was the banner we traveled under like a super group or a group of superheroes. And that would be a pretty good analogy if, say, the Avengers were four eighteen-year-old girls whose combined superpowers were impossible late-night caffeine intake and infinite snark. We may not have been able to save the world, but we could fill a Honda Civic with asphyxiation levels of cigarettes smoke in less than fifteen seconds while dancing in our seats up I-81 in a snowstorm.

I could think of no better way for the BA Society to solidify itself than with a group road-trip, and no occasion more wanting of such a voyage than my nineteenth birthday. I had a new (old) car—the afore-mentioned, smoke-drenched Honda Civic—a Mom willing to host three desperate characters and a notion that I might recreate the magic of my eighteenth birthday. [1] Specifically, we would all stay at the house, drink wine like grown-ups, talk all night and go up for the epic, Vegas-casino-with-ice-an-butter-sculptures brunch[2] at the giant resort hotel up the block from Mom’s house the next morning.

We took off on a Thursday afternoon and drove to a roots-music themed nightclub, roughly halfway home, in not-so-metropolitan Winston-Salem to watch a mysteriously popular ska band ride one of the mid-90s most regrettable trends into mass popularity. None of us were huge fans of the band, in fact, we probably disliked it equally, each for our own separate reasons. The club was gross, crowded with the kind of baggy cargo-shorted, tribal-tattooed baseball capped disaster that traditionally presaged bar fights, casual racism and someone named Jeremy spilling beer all over your shoe while trying to touch your boob. M wore a silk blouse and pearls and complained at the lack of espresso machine. L and I stood in the corner on the far side of the stage watching a huge amp teeter ominously over us from its implausible perch atop the stack. We emerged, sweaty, uncrushed by amp and vaguely euphoric in that particular galloping eighteen-year-old way. We drove west on I-40 and took a room at a motel on the western edge of the Piedmont. Next door was a truck stop, where we ordered breakfast at 3am and, for maybe two hours, pretended we were a touring rock band called Condiment Chaos (the A was an anarchy sign) that constantly struggled with inter-band personal dramas, exacerbated by our track-suited d-bag manager, who was always trying to get one of us to go solo as a pop sensation. We did our best to sound blasé and worldly which was totally belied by the fact that we were literally playing pretend. Eighteen feels well down the road to adulthood when you’re eighteen, but you can still catch childhood in the rearview, so close you don’t even have to turn your head.

The next day we drove into the mountains. I took my friends on a tour of my hometown, complete with high school roundabout and downtown walkaround. We met up with a few of my friends who had been at my eighteen birthday the year before (some of them were still in high school). My best hometown friend joined us that night, adding a Y-chromosome to the undertaking. We took him to the basement, inducted him into the BA Society and then agreed to forget we ever had, when we retroactively decided the BA should be a tits-only kind of deal.

My mother made the most decadent pasta dish (it involved so much cheese) she could envision for a mostly vegetarian table. We ate. We had cake. We woke the next morning and everyone agreed to look the other way as I lapsed out of vegetarianism and into pure hedonism with heaping plates of oysters.

Surprise: The BA Society lived on, long after my birthday, long after half of us transferred away from Women’s College at the end of Freshman Year. We had a BA Society reunion in winter of 1998, at which we got wildly drunk on airplane bottles of booze at L’s apartment. Two BAs ended up in Austin. One ended up moving in with me, almost eight years after we met. She would eventually move to Asheville, about exactly a decade after visiting for the first time on my 19th birthday.  At time of writing, it’s about twenty-three years later and I keep up, with varying degrees of regularity, with every single member of the BA Society. Three of us met up for coffee over the holidays, two of us shared a 40th birthday jaunt to the Riviera and a lazy long weekend of cocktails and chocolate just last week.  It’s tempting to credit this to social media and the vast nostalgia-industrial complex that binds us electronically to our pasts with humiliating Throwback Thursdays and Google-stalking high school crushes, but the BA had done a pretty solid job for more than a decade before Facebook. Which is pretty remarkable given that the BA Society only ever spent about four months with all of us in the same place. That four months seems more epic in memory, a product of the magical temporal distortion of youth,[3] but it really wasn’t such a long time to carve out the foundation of friendships spanning decades.

Best Gift: The Y-Chromosome-d member of the weekend’s festivities gifted me a mix tape, which like all of his mixtapes, was a good one. Though an obsessive mixtape maker, I rarely received them from others. Whether that was a function of most mixtape makers not liking me enough to make me a tape or a function of musically-minded people being afraid I’d hold their cloyingly juvenile and hopelessly pedestrian tastes against them, I cannot rightly say. I always admired the friends that went for it, because they were the ones who trusted me to listen, even to things I didn’t think I liked, and try to hear them the way they did.

Also, my mother bought me a black leather motorcycle jacket, which briefly made me feel like the coolest person in the world.

 

 

 

[1] My eighteenth birthday was really good, quite poignant and, when I considered writing about it, way more complicated to recount in retrospect. Maybe I’ll tell you about it one of these days.

 

[2] To my 18-year-old mind having a raw bar AND a fruit bar AND a Belgian Waffle Bar AND a guy in a lampshade toque doing custom omelets AND a waiter that would totally turn a blind eye if your Mom ordered you a mimosa was the very pinnacle of luxury.

[3] If I had one superpower, it would be time manipulation, so I could slow down, hasten, rewind or pause time as needed.  If I had two superpowers, they would be time manipulation and the ability to change the song to whatever I think of whenever I enter a room.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Notable Birthdays: 1989

February 28, 1989

Venue(s): The Asheville Mall, Chickadees & Rye, 109 Westwood Rd, Asheville

Twelve was probably not the worst year of my life.  But I drifted into it on creeping dread, bolstered by two eloquent letters[1] I received from each of my parents the morning of my birthday. Each suggested, in subtle, spiraling, marvelous language that being twelve sucked for everyone, and I’d need to steel my resolve if I wanted to survive it without becoming a permanently sucky person. Oh, and by the way, adolescence would be exponentially better for me if I’d smile more, brush my hair, snack less, iron my clothes, get some exercise, improve my math scores and try, just try, not being a fat person.

Neither one of my parents were assholes. They knew from experience that actual Hell was likely inspired by a middle school lunchroom and Satan was a bored looking thirteen-year-old psychopath with good hair.  They tried to arm me with the tools I’d need to survive adolescence (encouragement, spiral perms, “Sassy” magazine, the Esprit book back everyone had until it was a Benetton backpack until it was a LL Bean backpack, diet soda) because they hoped, maybe, just maybe, things would be better for me

There solidly non-miserable moments in my twelfth year.  I went to England with my grandmother, for example. That was as close to magical as you could get without a talking dragon and actual evidence of wizardry. But the reprieves made the rest more unbearable. I’d feel a breath of something more and then have to slum  back into my day to day, absolutely sure that I’d not only been born into the wrong city, in the wrong state, in the wrong region of the US, but perhaps onto the wrong continent entirely. I lit off for eedy heart of Daydream City, where I doodled in the margins and designed my own curriculum and imagined my way out of the halls of Hill Street Middle School for as much of the academic day as I could muster. My grades fell. My teachers were dismissive. The popular mantle passed from the mean party girls with purple shimmer lipsticks and tale of libertinism  to triple threats:  the rich, smart, athletic people. They were nerds too, but hot nerds with that looked good in bikinis by the country club pool in between tennis camp and summer programs in Physics at Duke. I was the wrong kind of nerd. I didn’t have a scene or a clique or a crowd that I even enjoyed hanging out with. hadn’t yet pulled up anchor away from the scrap-edge of the lunchroom and just fucked off to become a pirate

I had three friends I called best friends, though I’m not sure any of them every thought of me that way. Only two were in my school. Of those, one was in my grade. None were in any of my classes. Irish name was my oldest friend. I’d known her since before memory. We’d done everything together despite having almost nothing in common. She’d been tracked differently than I in middle school and spent a lot of extracurricular time at youth group. She shared a best friends heart necklace with another girl (in fact, the girl who locked my out of her house during a slumber party), but we were like siblings in closeness (I still know her home phone number by heart, despite not having called it for something like twenty-five years). Ivy League was my smartest friend. She was talented and weird, a year younger than I was, but most likely among my friends to dance around the front yard, reciting Elizabethan poetry to the moon’s reflection in the lake, which was exactly the sort of thing I was into. I figured Sunshine  the most beautiful girl I knew in real life. She was a warm breezy afternoon of a person, gentle and funny and, to my mind, impossibly humble despite looking like she rode in on a seashell on the crest of a frothy green wave.  I’d known her since pre-school. She went to the private Saint school across town, but as with the other girls, we’d stayed friends, mysteriously, marvelously, especially then, in a year where I felt so suddenly abandoned by everyone else.

So when Mom  asked if I wanted a party for my thirteenth party,  I think I probably rolled my eyes. What are we celebrating? With what friends? What I wanted was to spend twenty-four hours with the only three people that didn’t seem to hate me, who didn’t even all know each other, who didn’t even all like each other, who had scarcely more than me and a zip code in a common. I wouldn’t have to pick a clique; I could just wallow in being all of myself in the space between them.

Best Gift: This is real dumb. I went to the mall on my thirteenth birthday with three twenty-dollar bills. It felt like tycoon-level money. I let my friends talk me out of blowing it all at the book store and bought myself an entire outfit at the then-new-to-me Gap. It was nothing special—a pair of stretchy orange pants and a long sleeved black t-shirt, both on clearance (and an enormous pair of orange and back teardrop earrings to match)—but it was the first time I’d ever picked out my own clothes and bought them without even a whisper of parental opinion or approval. I also bought “The Joshua Tree” on cassette.  I thought it was overrated.

Surprise(s): Irish Name and Sunshine sat quietly, without the giggles and scorn entirely deserved, when Ivy League and I capped off our fancy pasta dinner reciting stanzas of Eliot back and forth to each other over the bread basket. Irish name didn’t bring up youth group at all and let fly a “motherfucker” when she got her hair stuck in a zipper at The Limited. It turns that even the endless kindness, coolness and celestial charisma of Sunshine could not encourage me to learn to love the Grateful Dead.

Everyone got along, though no new friendships emerged. They all went home the next morning and we returned to our normal, gross, stupid teenaged lives. Sunshine and I would spend a week at Irish Name’s family at the beach a year and half later. It was a fun trip, but felt nostalgic in advance because we were already drifting apart. Ivy League, Sunshine and I would all end up as day students at the same boarding high school. Ivy League and I would graduate and stay reasonably close well into our twenties, even as she slid into a more accomplished, more secure sort of an adulthood and I confounded (and maybe disappointed) expectation by loitering indefinitely at the frayed and frantic edges of maybe one day having my shit together. [2] I went to her wedding about ten years ago. It was lovely. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since.

When I turned thirteen, I believed nothing could ever be as bad as twelve. The nasty kids, the terrible unmooring of adolescence, my failure to live up to my once-touted potential and the unshakeable sense that I was like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly,”[3] slowly sloughing off my humanity with each extra pound, every new oozing zit, each stuttered word (and where and how did I get a stutter?), every failure to present like a normal person and would one day just become a grotesque monster, unlovable to everyone. And the only humane thing for them to do would be to just let me go, so I wouldn’t ruin their lives as well.

At twelve, I was well-fed, well-housed, well-loved (despite my misgivings) by still married (if unhappily so) parents. I was only naïve enough to believe that middle school was the worst thing that could happen to a person because none of the big foundation-cracking, paradigm-shifting stuff that could happen to a person had happened to me yet. Thirteen would mark the start of my unsolicited educated in some of those darker mysteries. I made it through, though, armed with (and sometimes only with) the idea that somewhere I had three friends in the world and somehow, against all odds, I’d fucking survived twelve.

After that, anything was goddamn possible.

 

 

[1] Both of my parents are marvelous writers.

[2] Still there.

[3] Which I was told explicitly not to watch, but as with every movie in that category, I did anyway.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Notable Birthdays: 1986

February 28, 1986

 Venue: 109 Westwood, Asheville

I wanted a slumber party. Slumber parties were peak popular girl, peak 80s movie, peak teenager, all things I aspired to be. For several years, winter weather froze out my birthday parties—a regular occurrence when you’re born in the temperate part of the northern hemisphere during the month most associated with Freak Blizzard. Mom did her best to alleviate the fog of gloom. All I ever really wanted was a pool party, because I loved the water, so one year (my eighth), she rented out the pool at the downtown YMCA. We splashed around and endured the glowering impatience of elderly lap swimmers counting down the minutes until we were forced out of the pool.  It was only an hour, but a great weird hour. At the end, we were sopping and reeked of chlorine as we were ushered out to converge outside the locker room. I blew out the candles and unwrapped presents, while adults with workout bags breezed through, chased by snowflakes and arctic outside winds, on their way to the pickup basketball game in the gym. Immediately afterward, six of us came down with bronchitis. My mother blamed it on all of us having wet hair in the middle of winter.

Mom thought I wasn’t old enough for a slumber party. I reminded her that most of my friends were already having slumber parties. I’d been to a few including: 1) the one out in the middle of the country where the host’s father got into a screaming match with his wife upstairs hours after we went to sleep, and drunkenly staggered into a living room to pass out of the sofa mumbling about whores 2) the one where my nominal best friend’s best friend locked me out of the house in the dark, in the cold on the side of the mountain for about an hour during a game of truth or dare 3) the one where my bad influence friend’s bad-influence-with-therefore-limited-custody mom had us all over to her Adults Only apartment complex, made us hide when the landlord came by and then promptly went on an all-night date, leaving us to our Prince-themed dance contests, underwear drawer explorations and gas-stove related fire experiments. Mom reminded me that I’d not yet managed to stay the whole night at a slumber party (I basically faked a stomach virus every time, by locking myself in the bathroom, groaning and pouring Dixie cups of water down the toilet to sound-effect vomit until someone called my mother) and the girls having them were not my close friends. Both of those things were absolutely, true. But I made enough noise about Mom being boring and over-valuing the limp-bowed rich girls who, generally never set things on fire or called their biological father a “useless sleazebag jerk” or claimed to know what oral sex was[1] that she finally agreed. I went to Hallmark, bought a bunch of black and hot pink invitations and conspicuously passed them out among the girls in my class, carefully avoiding anyone I thought might be “boring,” which was to say nice, smart, reasonable and having anything in common with me. I was just shy of ten years old and it was my first (and really only) attempt at playing mean girl. I believed I would suddenly become popular and effortlessly adult, that I might just elide the awkwardness of adolescence and turn out Molly Ringwald overnight. I micromanaged the cake, the movies, the snacks and prepared for my apotheosis into ten-year-old cool girl.

Surprise: To say that it backfired spectacularly would be a massive understatement. For one thing, the few of my actual close friends I invited didn’t come because they were all on an entirely wholesome (if problematic in retrospect) YMCA Indian Princesses weekend with their definitely not-sleazebag dads. Also, they didn’t like the other girls I invited because the other girls I invited were mean.

 Said mean girls arrive at the house en masse—they were all best friends with each other—and immediately started sassing my mother, which I found disconcerting, because my mother was generally nice, fun and accommodating. They picked at the food. The quibbled at the movie. Half of them made fun of me for being comparatively rich. The other half made fun of me for being comparatively poor. They eviscerated my haircut (which was, admittedly, disastrous), my weight (chubby, and noted by every single person in my life at the time), my clothes (nerdy), my interests (super-nerdy) and my parents lack of available objects to be set on fire. All of those girls were wearing bras already. Two had started their periods. I remember feeling hopelessly, helplessly, impossibly behind. They sat around talking about underwear like old pros, as they shared bottles of brilliant purple glitter nail polish (traces of which still remain, to this day, on furniture in my mother’s house). I remember one of the girls, notably beautiful and the kind of early bloomer that looked like a tiny seventeen at eleven, was absolutely sure that girls who didn’t get their period by sixth grade would never grow boobs and would, thus, stay weird, ugly babies for the rest of their tragic lives. This didn’t sound entirely credible to me—my parents were comparatively forthright and scientific when it came to discussion of sex and human development—but it haunted me, because I was a late bloomer[2].

I think I finally fell asleep around 4am with my fingers stuffed in my ears so I wouldn’t hear my party guests talking about me. I remember waking up the next morning in cold white February light, completely relieved that it was over and sure I would never tell anyone how bad it was, lest an I told you so.

Best Gift: My dad bought me a bicycle. It was pink and minty green with streamers and a basket and the words Sea Princess printed on the side. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. My parents eagerly insisted I take it out for a test drive. I demurred. I’d literally, embarrassingly only learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels the week before. I was still wobbly, had never ridden anything as big as the Sea Princess. I was terrified those girls would see, would laugh, would report back to everyone else in school. They insisted though, joining the parental chorus. I was weak to peer pressure. I agreed and promptly fell twice. My father offered to hold on to the back, so I could get my balance and I could hear the cool girls snickering by the station wagon as I swayed in place, but when I finally a-righted, I felt like I took flight. I forgot they were there. I found my own peace. I thought up a thousand adventures I could (and did) take on my own, free of judgement, as I unknowingly embarked on the front edge of an adolescence I would mostly ride through alone.

Note: There were no pictures taken at birthday party 1986. The visual is from Christmas, a few months before, but should serve as a reasonably clear view of the protagonist at the time.

[1] They didn’t.

[2] Fifteen, to be precise.

 
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Notable Birthdays: 1981

 February 28, 1981 (or thereabouts), 12-2pm

Venue: 109 Westwood, Asheville, NC,

As a child, I was into dresses. I was into dresses in the way that other children are into sports or bullying or video games or salting slugs in the rose garden or all of the above (you know who you are). My mother tells me she spent hours with my aunts and grandmothers changing infant me into dress after dress after dress just because people kept showing up for more baby dresses and they were so cute, and you were so cute. It was as if whatever conversations my parents had in utero about my presumed boy-ness somehow steeled my resolve to come out woman and roaring about, like, sequins, feathers and tulle. My dresses were vindication, another emphatic Yea to the ever-strengthening familial matriarchy. I slept most soundly in the stroller, parked amid perfumed dress racks in department stores and boutiques while Mom and Nana tried on clothes. I looped out ball gowns as soon as I could hold a pencil. At two-ish, I told my mother the sunrise over the lake in front of our house looked like the sky was wearing twelve fancy dresses, which sounds apocryphal, but also absolutely like something I said yesterday. When I was about three years old, Nana told me that when Elizabeth I was queen, she never wore the same dress twice and I was like #goals.

My relative level of taste was an issue. This was to be expected from women for whom “tacky” was the very apogee of insults, the absolute nadir that a human being could be.  I didn’t care much for the smocked pinafores, French sailor collars, white (and only white unless it was ballet) tights and tidy leather (never patent) Mary Janes the various taste mavens in my family tried to force me into. I wanted  glitter, a universe of glitter, ideally with ruffles. I wanted a skirt that swooshed like the tide when I walked in it and I wanted to wear it with my favorite tights which I referred to as “hole tight” because they had holes in the knees.

Sometimes my mother and I would go to a children’s store in a shopping center just up the lake from my house. There she would buy my tights and sundresses while I gazed in earnest, covetous wonder at racks of garment bagged pageant dresses in a special section in the back, those sparking concoctions of frothy chiffon and crinolines and so much sparkle.  I had, even then, no interest in being a beauty queen (that would require giving a fuck about hair and make-up and pretty and smiling, which I didn’t), but God, I wanted one of those dresses. I cried about it. I sulked. I think I once prayed for one. I begged to even be allowed to try one on. No dice. Sometimes I would watch in awe as big-haired little girls came in with their bigger haired mothers. They would assume the circular stage in surrounded by bagged tulle and rhinestone tiaras. I would near-drool with envy. My mother pretended to be oblivious, while she asked the sales clerk about where to find a blouse with navy blue piping to match the navy-blue monogram on my totally not sparkly sweater. Later in the car she would say, those dresses are tacky, Alison, you don’t want to be tacky do you? And I was like, yes, God, yes. Of course I do. From the depths of my soul! But instead I was left with a broken rattan trunk of dress-up clothes—my mother’s castoff cocktail dresses, slips and the minimalist tutus favored by my hippie ballet teacher, paper dolls and the bountiful delights of both Vogue and Modern Bride(for the bridesmaid dresses) in the supermarket checkout line.

I think the fancy dress party was a kind of olive branch. Mom dreamed it up, after I complained about having another party in the off-season 19th Hole Bar and Grill at the local country club, where our membership dues allowed rental of a space with astro-turf colored carpet and sticky naugahyde chairs the color of oatmeal that permanently reeked of cigarette smoke and gin and white privilege. Mom agreed that five was a red letter year. She suggested we have my friends over to wear fancy dresses and eat at fancy tables like fancy ladies. Like a tea party, but with better cake. She stressed girl friends, which I found befuddling, and tried to explain again that boys didn’t like fancy dresses.

This was news to me. I  once begged my father to take in the bar next to the public library downtown because they had the most elaborate fancy dresses on mannequins in the windows. After a moment of hesitation, he kind of shrugged and obliged. That place was entirely full of men. Not another girl in sight. They were all very nice to me and delighted that I wanted to know more about the dresses. The bartender helped me climb up on a bar stool and made me a Shirley Temple and asked me if I’d ever seen “The Wizard of Oz.” I told him it was my favorite movie and he said it was his too and we sang a little of “Over the Rainbow” together. It was a marvelous afternoon, so marvelous that it took years for me to figure out why people were scandalized when I told them I’d been there. And of course, boys liked fancy dresses. How could anyone not like fancy dresses? It like mom was telling me there were a people in the world that didn’t like blueberries or cats or draping oneself in a feather boa and several of Nana’s  cast off chiffon scarves and dancing passionately along to the Soul Train opening credits. Impossible!

The boys didn’t come though. Instead, I had about eight girls I liked, another two my mother thought I should like. Among the former were my best friends at the time (including one I still drink with to this day). Among the latter were rich people with limp hair bows. I picked out paper cups and plates from a local gift shop printed with pink paper dolls. Mom covered the kid sized table with a linen table cloth and ordered a cake with a bustled lady in a portrait hat iced on top. My friends came. We posed for pictures. I remember it was the first party where I thought, the anticipation for this event absolutely exceeded the event itself.  I tried to get everyone to play Queen of England. No one  would even try to  follow protocol. I picked at my cake with white lace fingerless gloves. I turned five.

Surprise: None of my boy friends were disappointed that they weren’t invited.

Best Gift: Nana had a soft spot for me. She bought a cross-stitched pillow for my bed that said When Mother Says No, Ask Grandmother because she was a busy, professional woman and had no time for cross-stitching. I asked her for a pageant dress. Nana, with her Dior frames and wall of designer shoes, gave me a long, hard, sympathetic look before the honey, that’s tacky.  But as a child of the Depression, she understood the ache of wanting. She knew the intoxicating allure of the ridiculous and sublime. She hired her occasional seamstress, a woman called Marguerite [1]to make a dress-up dress to measure. It came, wrapped in brown paper, just days before my birthday. I unwrapped an organdy (polyester) gown with puffed sleeves and an ample neck ruff and billowy ruffled skirt. It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, but still a completely badass present that took center stage through the next few years of my youth.

Also, my mother was four months (or so) pregnant) at the time of my fancy dress party. I didn’t ask for a little sister (and was, at that point, quite sure I didn’t want one), but that situation turned out to be more than okay.  My fancy dress party would be the last birthday I spent as an only child.

 

 

[1] If you ask my mother or Aunt, they will recount hair-raising tales of Marguerite’ sartorial villainy during their teenaged years.

 
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Notable Birthdays: 1976

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions. 

February 28, 1976, 6:55pm EST

Venue: Bristol Memorial Hospital, Bristol, TN.

I was supposed to be a boy. They had the name picked out—Thomas Butler Fields. They had a Peter Rabbit-themed nursery. They had, what I suspect given my parents’ interests and affinities, a notion of some floppy haired young son that would age into a sensitive preppy with a fondness for golf, tennis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was also late. Two weeks or so. I’d managed to shirk off the doom of being born on Valentine’s Day and barreled right on through the various Presidential birthdays to push the envelope on a leap year. My mother, understandably impatient with my delay (though chronic tardiness is a family trait for sure), had embraced various, non-peer-reviewed strategies to encourage me to leave the womb. The night before I was born, for example,  she and my father attended a cocktail party. Afterwards, they got a ride home from their friend Frank, who repeatedly drove the car back and forth over the railroad tracks in the center of town to try and jostle me out. This maybe(?) worked, as my mother went into labor several hours later.

At the time, my parents lived across the street from my recently divorced grandparents, in a duplex that would one-day house my alcoholic grandfather, his standard poodle, Barkus (pun probably intended– assume a non-rhotic Mississippi accent if you’re confused), a collection of Faulkner novels and a reasonable stock pile of both golf shirts and Tanqueray. When we’d visit Grandjay later, my mother would remind me this is where we lived when you were born. And I would think, no wonder I’m so comfortable around genteel poverty and disappointed literary ambitions.  And she would go to great lengths to tell me how different it was when we lived there.

In Bristol, the state line runs through the center of town. There’s a giant metal arch commemorating it that runs over some train tracks, possibly the same train tracks that catalyzed my birth.[1] My parents lived in Virginia, but the local hospital was in Tennessee, ensuring that I would spend the rest of my life wrestling with the mixed bag that is being a native of Tennessee.[2]

It was an unseasonably warm February and the hospital air conditioning was on the fritz. Mom sweated her way through hours of labor. I arrived at the tail end of Happy Hour, 6:55pm, as the obstetrician complained about how my delivery would force him to miss “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which aired at 7pm.

Surprise Factor I think I threw pretty much everyone for a loop when I turned up female. They’d kind of like, maybe, sort of  talked about girl names. Mom tells a story about hearing church bells on the breeze, whilst standing in the alps some years previous. They sounded like Al-is-on. And I thought I would name my daughter, if I had one. Judging from the name’s popularity, a lot of people must have heard Alison bells in the mid-seventies including the guy still recording demos as Declan MacManus at the time. Like my mother, he went with the traditional spelling, absent y’s, extra-Ls and all the other bells and whistles teachers, friends, employers and grandparents have since tried to add to my name. Years later, I’d sit over his record sniffling at how his aim was true and was all and you even spelled my name correctly *swoon.*  

Evidently, there was a rash of births at Bristol Memorial on February 28. The nursery squirmed with newborns by February 29. I was the only girl, a phenomenon that would be coincidentally replicated throughout my childhood. The nurses delighted in my female-ness, coaxing my baby hair into cartoon-style curls with Vaseline and horrifying my mother. My maternal grandparents doted. Dad’s parents, drunk on divorce and actual drink, scheduled visits so they wouldn’t risk running into the other.

Best Gift: 1976 was a weird year, the middle of the ugliest part of the 1970s that bottomed out the birthrates and gave rise to all sorts of terrible ideas like  brown shag carpet, bicentennial kitsch and the mass-popularity of The Eagles. On the other hand, I like that I emerged around the same time that popular culture started to step out of bell-bottomed denim and into either leather and ripped fishnets  or spangled chiffon and disco heels and let me sort of carve out my way with both at the same time and all in-between.  Oh, and I’m not always 100% sold on The Endless Joy of Living, but if I’d never been born, I probably would have never been introduced to, like, negronis in Italy or triple crème cheese or David Bowie (who played (possibly cheese-less) Cleveland, Ohio the night I was born).  So I guess that counts too.

[1] The celebration of the state line as an attraction was apocryphally  the brainchild of my great-great grandfather, during his brief tenure as Governor of Tennessee in the early part of the 20th century.  If I know members of my family, he was probably like “this is maybe the sort of thing that will encourage town unity and discourage the half of my family that act like assholes just because they live in Virginia from lording it over the  rest of us.” It didn’t.

[2] Pros: Stax Records. Hot Chicken. Alex Chilton. Dolly Parton. Weird Memphis. Graceland souvenir shops. Lambchop. Robert’s Western World. The Metal Dude I Saw once walking around the Parthenon in Nashville playing the  Electric Guitar. Are you from Tennessee? Do I like you? Then, pro.

Cons: Whatever I didn’t list in “pros”

 
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.: