Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Jamming My World

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My forty-year-old Swingline stapler is jammed. I’ve stabbed myself in the thumb with a pair of tweezers, a pen, and now a knife trying to get it working again. I understand the urgency of my righting the stapler has more to do with the state of the world and my fear for the global future than the need to attach pieces of paper. But the world is an ugly place right now. Right now, it is really ugly.

I’ve tried to keep out of social media for the last two months. That world is another chaotic and mean venue. Real mean. One word and everyone descends to feed on your bones. Kind of appropriate for last week’s Halloween but I don’t want any part of it.

I’m not chicken shit, but life is tough, and I feel myself pulling away in response. As I get older, I wanted to get a little sweeter, a little nicer (that might be a stretch), and a little more thoughtful about where I put my fiery energy, but I’m not becoming any of those things.

In massage school and then again in yoga teacher training, come to think of it, even in graduate school, I have always been the fireball. The one who is not afraid to say what I’m thinking and usually a few others too, the one who will stand against what is wrong. This stance is necessary and right (and self-righteous).

I am pitta; I am Aries, I am the consequence of a history of inflicted wrongs, one who wants justice. I pick up my sword to fight but in the darkest hour of the night, when I am honest with myself, the question – do I like the Adrenalin high – pings around inside my head. What if I am addicted to fighting for the sake of fighting, basically self-mutilating to get that feeling of being on the side of justice?

And it is getting in my way of allocating my energy in useful ways – ways that are beneficial to myself and humankind?

My graduate school advisor, the thoughtful and wonderful Dr. Norm Thies-Sprinthall, told me to “Pick my battles.” My therapist, a kindly soul, told me to “Be careful with your judgmental stance.” My friends tell me to “Use your power for good not evil.”

So, I’m trying to use their words as my mantra and good grief, it’s hard work. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I cannot look away. I could not live with myself if I negated the millions of lives demolished then, now, and into the future. I don’t want to dwell, hyperfocus, obsess because PTSD is an ugly and incapacitating result.

I need to find balance. I’m working on it. Paying attention to the world but placing parameters about the amount of time I watch TV or listen to NPR, spending more time with friends not talking or picking apart the latest terror, and guarding my sleep. Those 3 am panic attacks suck. I am so over them.

In the meantime, I am asking you to pick up the sword, pay attention to the world, while I get my own house in order. My father’s death and the repercussions hit hard. The move to Texas continues to be tiring. Coming back to jobs where I have been replaced while looking after my father and family was hurtful.

I stare at the stapler. Work dammit.

(My image – you can use it.)

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Right now is a weird time for me. I’m in a new location, Texas with the cows, really huge horned cows, without access to friends in town, trying, really trying to make some friends here but my people are harder to find now I’m older, and my father died. After two weeks in ICU, we decided to let him go. His death was easy. A whisper of breath, a silence of the machines, the falling into himself that was disastrously elusive in his life. I was grateful for the mercy.

Coming home has been not so graceful, not so grateful, to end up – not so quiet – as I hoped.

I have been loud. Effectively loud. BECAUSE. The doctor, hospital, and funeral home could not coordinate the death certificate. 

“Yes, he died,” I told everyone. 

“I was there when the machines stopped. A doctor stopped by and declared him dead. What, you can’t find the doctor? Did he die too?”

“What do you mean – it’s been two weeks. Dad’s dead. Where’s his body? Where’s the paperwork?” 

Yep. I started out professionally cool, then curt, throwing around some of my degrees and threatening with the barrister cousin, days later I became loud, yelling under my breath and finally, into the phone. By some mysterious power, and no one will tell me what kind of power, my father’s body made its way to the crematorium. I need to see my hairdresser for the extra grey hairs.

The yelling continued; upon my return to North, North Dallas, I found out that my classes had been canceled or I had been replaced. Yes, that lovely national organization, espousing religious values, gave my class, the one I trained for over two months without pay, to another teacher while I was away tending to my family. They didn’t tell me. I had to write an email and wait for their response. A pox on them. I mean frogs, boils, and locusts on their facility.

(Truthfully, I expected to stumble with the class initially; I had been upfront with my supervisor telling her of my inexperience but a willingness to train. Still, a pox on them.)

With all this distress, I have restarted watching horror movies. Finished with the big shark extravaganza, I watch vampire movies in the afternoons. I don’t know why it helps, but it does. Perhaps bloodsuckers, like the sharks, have some profound, blocked message about grief or suggest a clue about my internal state. I don’t know yet – stay tuned.

The panic attacks at night come and go. Nightmares, full of people I love attacked by a faceless murderer, rouse me out of sleep multiple times a night. This rite of passage, being without parents in a chaotic and alienating time, emphasizes how alone I am in this world and the importance of connections. Some days, I enjoy the revolting troll stalking me on Facebook and my blog. Easy enough to block her and report her to the authorities. Should I send her a thank you note for the opportunity to feel powerful? A pox on her, wait, someone already poxed her!

So, let’s all get connected. Maybe not gracefully or quietly but gratefully. Sending lots of love to my friends and supporters. Say hi below! And send job leads …

(Image courtesy of morguefile.com. Thank you.)

Teething: Fractured Grief

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I restarted grinding my teeth at night. Like I did after Rod died. For years until my dentist started talking to me about a bite guard. A bite guard! I had visions of pimples and acne cream and headgear out of an 80s John Hughes movie.

But it wasn’t until years later that I took the dentist’s advice seriously and hustled down to the neighborhood CVS for a two-pack of bite guards figuring I would ‘boil and bite’ myself into a decent fit by the second try. The cat used the mangled first attempt as a toy, tossing it into the air and catching it in her mouth. I was impressed. Some serious chompers on that kitty – hers are in better shape than mine.

Eventually, maybe ten years after my husband’s death, I stopped wearing the bite guard, probably in the search for a decent night’s sleep. My teeth had stopped grinding by that point; my heartache had lessened.

So, now I’m thinking- will I need another twofer as I grieve Dad’s death? Should I hedge my bets and use my 30% off coupon or wait? Wait like we did sitting two weeks in ICU tearing out our hearts. We sat, siblings, wife, and friends, listening to the constant noise of the unit whittle away more and more of my father.

That unit was never quiet. I don’t begrudge the nurses their laughs or gossip. It’s the mechanical noises that got to us. The continual and rhythmic whines and whirl loved ones learn to block out, but the unexpected beep sends our hearts racing with adrenaline and sets my teeth to grinding. The nursing unit jumps into action and visitors shuffle to the walls plastering their ashen bodies against the hospital green paint.

Every night during that two weeks, I changed out of my clothes as fast as I could. Who expects to spend two weeks in a hospital chair with the frigid air circulating the stench of decomposing bodies? We began to look like the sheets, wrinkled and threadbare with use. After eating a nutritious dinner – we were keeping up our strength – we would retire to our corners of the house.

I sat by the computer watching Netflix movies, any movie with a killer shark. You don’t get many killer sharks in ICU, so I thought they would be safe to watch. I was aware of teetering on the edge, dancing between the extremes of closing everything up so tightly that it would take an act of God to open me up again and on the other end, the great beast of grief breathing down my neck, teeth ready to drag me under. Maybe Jaws wasn’t such a great idea. If I tiptoed up to the abyss, I saw a long drop down into sadness and pain as deep as the pain I had known before – an abyss where the tiniest act of kindness would send me into a despair for days, knock me down and leave me winded to the point that I wondered if I wanted to go on living, waking every morning with my jaws aching and the taste of old teacups in my mouth. Maybe the shark movies were a brilliant leap of my subconscious.

I searched my Netflix queue; I watched six shark movies and even got my sister hooked on them when she joined us in our vigil. The night before she left, we gave it a rest and watched a comedy, but only after watching an hour of The Omen, a 70s movie, predicting the end of days. Maybe My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 was not the most tactful of choices, but I figured we needed something not too taxing. We laughed. I thought my stepbrother might fall out of his seat at one point. Even so, my teeth ached the next morning.

Back home, trying to establish a world without my Dad, I still feel the need to watch my “big bug” movies. I know Andrew wonders what the fuck I’m doing, but I don’t want reality right now. I want fantasy where my father wakes up demanding decent coffee with whipping cream and brown sugar, Lichen tries to serve us tripe, and I don’t stick a clear chunk of plastic in my mouth every night to avoid fracturing my teeth.

(I drew the shark. Don’t copy without asking me.)

 

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This 200-word piece is the second assignment from Coursera using the ABDCE process. Again, it is fiction. (Little trolls, go away. Actually, you remind me of a grumpy smurf.)

 

The patient left the doctor’s office after a briefer visit than her previous post-op appointments; without hesitation, she had gathered her purse, shifted her good foot underneath her, and lashed out with the booted foot knocking the podiatrist on his ass.

“Hope that hurt.”

She hobbled past the reception desk, staring down the assistant who took copays. A nurse rushed past her calling out, “Doctor Nitwit, are you okay?”

She smashed the large red exit button to open the heavy building doors. On the hike to the car, she thought about what he suggested. “I’ll lend you my beach house for a vacation.”

“You idiot,” she had said. “You put me on antibiotics so I can’t go in the sun. You created an open wound so I can’t go in the water or walk on the sand.” He had shrugged his shoulders as if to say, I tried my best, what do you want?

Halfway to her Honda, she saw his shiny BMW. She lurched over, used her cane to knock dents in the sides, stepped back, and took a good swing at the driver’s window. The twinkle of falling glass brought a smile to her face.

Dr. Nitwit came running out mouth agape. She lifted the back of her hand to her forehead. “I fell. Maybe I do need that walker after all.”

 

What do you think?

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I signed up for a course on Plot in Fiction through Coursera and can’t figure out how to post my assignments. Running up against many web walls, I decided to post them on my website.

Remember, this is fiction, made-up, not true.

My nasty little trolls (Jennifer G., Richard A., and Susie S.) can make all the comments they like but I will block you.

Here goes: The Coffee Clutch: Rising Action using 12 unrelated words.

All she wanted was a cup of hot coffee, French press, with whole milk and two teaspoons of sugar, sometimes within the first hour of awakening. She padded into the kitchen on bare feet, pushing aside the debris of unpacking, and the assorted filth of teenagers, swearing. Patience wasn’t her strong point, and her hand-eye coordination refused to engage without that first cup. She reached for the water heating appliance, not a teapot or even a pan but something her partner bought her as a consolation prize for dealing with his cranky daughters and plugging it in, knocked over the canister of beans.

”Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said crouching down to sweep up the beans.

Managing to get the beans into the grinder and then into the press, Sara sighed when a large black bird, a crow or a jackdaw, flew into the window above the sink. Shards of glass and metal lay around her feet from the fallen press. Holding her breath, she looked for a safe place to step feeling more and more like a hungry tiger prowling its cage while outside, freedom taunted.

“What’s going on?” said a muffled voice from their bedroom.

“Nothing,” Sara said, pretend-sweet, reaching across to turn off the water; she flinched when its steam scorched her arm, and a boiling stream exploded onto the remnants of glass, metal, and coffee grinds. Red splotches colored her neck and face as panting she cleaned up the mess.

A memory of their first six months together filled Sara’s mind emphasizing the difference between the two realities. She looked at the tell-tale towel thinking that she was responsible for the messes in her life from the coffee to her relationship. Then her defenses settled back into place; this is the universe’s trick to get me to be nicer and go caffeine-free – not happening.

“Sounds like you need help in there,” her boyfriend said from far away. Nearby teenage grumblings set her nerves on the edge of crazy.

“Naw,” Sara said grabbing her coat and keys. “All aboard the USS Misery.”

******************

You are my peer evaluators. So, what do you think?

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Last night, I was flipping through the channels and saw an advert for the TV series, The Brady Bunch. The last time that I thought about the show was when a group of therapists was kvetching about stepfamilies. Someone brought up The Brady Bunch, and every one of us groaned, which soon became a throw-darts-at, annihilate-the-series free-for-all. Therapists loathe this show. We loathe The Brady Bunch for multiple reasons, professional and personal.

One, Carol Brady was a nincompoop – without a job, but she still needed a housekeeper, slightly exasperated but still way too calm, and was addicted to caffeine, probably to keep her awake. Not a role model nor representative of a mother in any stepfamily we knew of or were a part of.

Two, apart from Jan the whiny one, the show’s characters are flat, stock stereotypes. Goodie-goodies who could share bedrooms and bathrooms. Try that with your teenagers. Take out extra insurance!

Three, where are the zits? This was a show populated with teenagers, and there was not a zit in sight. Or feminine hygiene products. Or stinky tube socks. Or birth control pills or condoms. Not even a dish or glass left on the counter.

(I am kind of glad for their neglect of diversity, in any form – who knows how they would have mishandled it.)

The big reason to loathe The Brady Bunch  – the show sets up unrealistic expectations around the coming together of two families. Stepfamilies are difficult, horribly painful and awkward, from deciding where to live, who gets a particular bedroom and especially, bathroom, to the weird hormone stew stirred by the proximity of unfamiliar relatives smashed up against each other, to finish with the delusion of two families having this sorted out in under five years.

Not my experience. When Dad moved out, I was fifteen and tired of the parental tension, so the idea of divorce was not a problem. Things were pretty good for a year. Mom was grumbly and lonely, but the three of us siblings kept going to school, no one got hooked on anything, and we established a pretty tight family bond.

Then Mom announced that she was dating. The kids looked at each other, grimaced, and went to our rooms. I had a good-sized bedroom as the oldest; it was my haven. During that first year, post-divorce, I got a separate telephone line. Yes, it was the late 70s. I remember phoning my friend to tell her about Mom’s announcement. She was silent. This was happening before divorce became common, almost a rite of passage, among teenagers.

We kids proceeded to make Mom’s life hell. We pestered her with problems, had emergencies during her dates, ignored him when she introduced us, and other usual adolescent brouhahas. We were annoying little shits.

Then one day I saw them. I was walking home from high school wondering where I had put my zit cream when I saw his car approaching. I ran behind a shrub. Not a big shrub and probably they would have noticed me if not for them being so involved in each other. My mother was laughing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her laughing. What followed was a weird epiphany; Mom deserved the opportunity to be happy. Did I need her to be alone, lonely, waiting for me to grow up before she moved on with her life? What right did I have to judge her? Something opened up for me on that day. I had a toehold on transformation.

I’d love to say that it was sunshine and rainbows from then on. No. My younger brother and sister were not happy with Mom’s choice to date. We never met his children. Adolescence with all of its pain continued, but I didn’t feel the need to create additional drama with Mom over her dating habits. At some point, they stopped dating and Mom must have decided to avoid the problem for the rest of the time her children lived at home.

Home on break during my senior year at college, I asked Mom why she never remarried. She said she didn’t want to subject us to the ordeal of bringing another man into the house. I nodded and went up to my then shoe-box-sized room feeling guilty for my part in her decision. Maybe Mom didn’t want to subject herself to the ordeal of her annoying little shits, her own kids …

Now, I wish for TV shows that help us navigate changing family structures, shows that hold up characters struggling for their needs, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but with at least a foot in reality. A TV show about the craziness of blending families with the squabbling and the unevenness of humanity and the possibility of transformation.

 

(Image by Rudy van der Veen at Skitterphoto.com – do you know how difficult it is to find a realistic pic of a family? For some reason, sheep felt right.)

An Imperfect Mother

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Most of my readers know about my ambivalent relationship with my mother. She was so many things – ill, sad, and abusive, but also independent, feisty, and in her very peculiar way – loving.

When the memories of her other characteristics threaten to make her unredeemable, I remember this story.

She could see things that other people couldn’t or refused to see. When I was struggling with my weight as a teenager who desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer, she took me to the perfect meal. Weird, huh? A meal.

I had spent my fifteenth summer at a dance camp, and I came home freaked out. A couple of months before going to the dance camp, I had gained the necessary ten pounds to jumpstart a late-onset puberty. Literally, before the weight gain, my body fat was too low to provide the necessary materials for a teenage body and brain. Pleased with my new curves, I went with another girl to our yearly dance intensive.

But throughout the camp, my dancing teachers had complained about my weight gain.

After the first few days, they would take me aside and say things.

“Your dancing weight is 98 to 103 pounds. Do you weigh that now?”

I let the ice cream drip down my hand, onto my toe shoes.

“105 is too much for your height.”

I was 5’6” tall.

“How much do you want to dance professionally? Really? That much. Well, you can’t be a dancer at that weight.”

In an audition, before my fellow dancers and competition, my teacher said, “If you lost some weight, you could make the company.”

When I fell out of a double pirouette, the ballet mistress said, “Maybe you could bind your chest. And your hips.”

I slept the whole way home from camp, too exhausted from writing down every little thing I ate, trying to find my balance (no one explained the needed rebuilding to suit my no longer androgynous body), while every second blocking out the faculty’s hurtful comments. Mom met me at the door, and I burst into tears. All week, I would catch her watching me.

On that next weekend, Mom said she was going to the mall and did I want to come? I must have muttered something because we ended up wandering around until we were standing in the doorway of the mall’s cafeteria. Over my objections, Mom pulled me in. She giggled. I had heard her laugh before, but giggling was new. She tucked my arm under hers. Like girlfriends.

“Let’s have dessert for dinner,” she said. “Pick two.”

She slid me a tray, smiled at me, and went off to pick her desserts. Lost before a line of forbidden desserts, I looked back at her. She was bright enough to keep her overt focus on her choices. Time to choose. Anorexia or dessert. I picked the chocolate cake and Jell-O. She didn’t say anything about my choices. Just paid. It was not a big moment but a decisive one.

I guard that memory. Mom could be so many things, lots of them ugly and painful but every once in a while, she was perfect.

Happy Mother’s Day. Share one precious memory, and we’ll guard them together.

(Image used with permission. By Andrew Giovinazzo.)

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