Captain Underpants

We were skiing in Vail, Colorado, and it was a fabulous weekend with warm temps, bluebird skies, and decent snow.  It wasn’t a dramatic crash, it was just a simple turn on a steep slope and POP!  It didn’t hurt enough to stop skiing, but at the same time it felt awful, and adrenaline whooshed into my brain and made my hands shake and my whole body seem like it wasn’t even mine.  So, I did what any reasonable person would do:  I continued to ski.  Which did not go well.  Nevertheless, I made it down, made it back home, made it to the doctor’s office, and showed up on time for surgery to get my brand spanking shiny white new Anterior Cruciate Ligament.

My leg was unbelievably, haltingly swollen.  Surely there was a mistake, I didn’t have an appointment to swap my leg for a giant watery bratwurst, and yet, here it was: shiny and pale, lumpy and foreign, and feeling like it had been through a meat grinder in the ocean.  Trying to move this thing, which was strapped into a hulking black brace with gadgets on the sides and four straps across the front, padding, stabilizers, bars and clips, was quite a feat.  I sat in bed with this monstrous appendage propped in the air on a pyramid of pillows, crutches in reach, a tray with necessities: pills, water, tea, paper, phone, computer, apples, and a minefield of charging chords.  It was a great set up until I had to get to the bathroom, in which case it became a sea of tangles and impediments that reduced me to tears until my husband would bound in and scoop me up.

And under these conditions is when my parents arrived on their white horses to lend four helping legs and hands to the helpless, reckless daughter whom they have helped so many other unfortunate times before.  They tied their animals and poured glasses of wine.  Once properly nourished, they went to work: washing and folding clothes, straightening and cleaning, making beds, necessities shopping, child carpooling, cooking, everything we do on a daily basis without ever thinking twice about it.  All under control, my husband was free to go on a business trip, and I was headed to my first physical therapy appointment.

It was a big day, a first post-surgery outing.  I pulled on a pair of black athletic pants, a pair I wear all the time, that stop loosely at the knee.  Mom opened the car door for me.  I leaned over to lift my heavy leg into the car when she said with a casual lilt, I can see your underpants, and shut the door.  As she walked around the car I thought to myself, What an odd thing to say! Who says underpants??  We made a few stops, since this was my first day out of the house, the first of which was my morning book club.

Once arrived, I sunk into a chair and elevated responsibly while we watched a video pertaining to our last read, a political treatise on the state of the nation, a brilliant nail-biter leaving you excited and terrified; a leaf in a gust.  Mom met my friends and we had a lovely visit, all sending us off with well wishes and genuine offers to help, and we hobbled out the door together.  At the car, again, I leaned over to help my leg in, slid into the seat, and mom said with the same lilt, I can see your underpants, and closed the door.  I thought, furrowing my brow, Is she trying to be funny??  She climbed in the driver’s seat and off we went, recounting key points of the meeting and no other mention of underpants.

We didn’t have time to go home and rest before physical therapy, so we stopped at a great place on the way to our final destination to have lunch.  By this time I was fading, woozy and tired, leg throbbing.  The waiter made a nice place for me to prop my foot and in we settled for a quick bite.  He seemed slightly inebriated, a huge, hairy dude with curls all over his head and beard and probably a suit of hair armor tucked under his clothes.  Maybe it wasn’t he who was slurring, maybe it was me, hearing him slurry because the meds were making me slurry.  Did I dream the underpants comments?

We moved as quickly to the car as was possible, a pace so slow even time took pity and halted.  At the car, exhausted, I lifted the impossibly laden leg up and in, and as I leaned over to do so, my mom said, I can see your underpants.  I snapped, Please stop saying that!  She just giggled and shrugged and closed the door.  As we pulled out of the parking lot we talked about the hairy waiter, the great lunch, and a bit more about book club, but not one mention of underpants.

Finally, we arrived at the soviet-like brick building just off the highway for my much anticipated appointment.  My eyes were drooping.  My knee was filling with fluid, getting tighter and tighter against the bindings of the brace.  My foot was so swollen it looked like a fat flounder jammed into a sock.  We didn’t do much for that first appointment, we bent the knee a bit, flexed the quad, and then, anticlimactically, it was time to leave.  At the car mom helped me in, but before closing the door she threw her hands onto her hips and said emphatically, Erin, I can see your underpants!  I yelled back, What are you talking about!  I felt around my waist to make sure a) my pants were still there, and b) my shirt was still there, and before I could open my mouth to argue she boomed:  Your pants are see-through!  And then she shut the door.

The moral of this story is that being straight forward and precise with your words in order to save a loved one from a potentially embarrassing or mortifying experience is always the preferred course of action.  Also, if one is over four and under eighty, do not use the word underpants; it doesn’t make contextual sense.  And finally, if someone has been unfortunate enough to slip into a pair of pants that happen to be see-through, throw subtlety out the window.  Most of us do not wish to be seen in public in transparent garments, and those who do, probably should rethink it.  Try something, such as:  Hey, your ass looks like the harvest moon, or Wow, did you borrow those pants from Miley Cyrus?, or, and this is my favorite, Honey, your pants are see-through.  

Tackling Faceism in America

There is a growing trend in the hotseat of social media today, popularly known as Faceism, that has caught the world seemingly off guard.  In a time where the destructive fire of judgement is finally being extinguished, Faceism is taking root in nearly every uncontested playing field.  Initially an outlet for outlier academics and persnickety soccer moms, Faceism has exploded into all segments of socio-economic demographics as a haven of thought where one can assert power over others quickly and easily through the seemingly benign use of statements, or posts.  The danger of such a trend, as leading experts agree, is the dissolution of collective self-esteem on a grand scale and of, eventually, society as a whole.

For generations the educational system and the Department of Education, arguably together the fairest and busiest the world has ever seen, have worked tirelessly to expunge the toxic elements of individual thoughts and prejudices in order to promote a peaceful civilization of moderates:  moderately wealthy, religious, sexual, political, weighted and colored.  To great success, our nation has become the most equal in the world, but the hard fought battle is in danger of being lost even as it still basks in its most recent victories.

The danger of Faceism, a word not even recognized formally by the Department of Vocabulary and Lingual Development, is its rapid rise in incidence among not only Facebook users, but also in other segments of the inter web community.  One not need have a Facebook account to harass another via comments made on other web platforms. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained his lobbying efforts to legally limit an individual’s ability to comment across all reaches of the internet as “a move to expunge the ugliness that lies in all human hearts.”  He testified before Congress a person’s ability to be anonymous is the keystone of this epidemic, and that forcing everyone to communicate solely through Facebook, where nobody can be anonymous, is the solution.  He said, “Its adherents stalk the internet in search of victims, strike quickly, and then disappear. You can’t do that on my Facebook. I can find you.”

As one high ranking administration official bemoaned, speaking under the condition of anonymity, “Cyber bullying by the Faceist movement has reached staggering levels at which threaten to undo entirely the progress we have made over the years in eradicating social bullies from our culture.”  Her concern is that the backward slide from progress is much faster than the steady climb towards it because the diligent are no longer keeping watch, likening it to the current resurgence of small pox and measles due to the increasing trend of vaccine deniers and an inattentive medical community.  She also stated a major concern as being “The belief that one person is superior or inferior to another solely based upon their Facebook posts is disturbingly similar to its cousin, racism, and should be preemptively treated as such.”

The official hinted at the White House’s proposal to outlaw “verbal enslavement” by fiat.  Although the president acknowledges such an extra-executive move would be unconstitutional, the belief in the administration that the good so greatly outweighs the bad ramifications of such a law that it is willing to make the move in the face of the opposition in the legislative and judicial branches.  The president went further with this press release in the wake of recent developments:  “The Congress doesn’t care about enslavement and torture, and the Judiciary is simply too slow and corrupt to move us forward to where we need to be, and so some things I have to do on my own regardless of what anybody, anywhere, or for any reason, regardless, ever, has to say about it.”

The Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to millions of Facebook users in an effort to pinpoint the most egregious of Faceists.  Former Attorney General Eric Holder has issued a statement labeling the grassroots movement as “racist, fascist, classist, weightist, ageist, and homophobic,” as well as, “the most dangerous social trend in the  past eight centuries.”  When asked if at his new position with the Plaintiffs Bar Association he would pursue legal avenues if the government failed to act in suppressing what he has labeled “the domestic terror group of our time,”  his response was an enthusiastic, “Duh!”  (Utilizing plainspeak is one of the reasons why this former lead prosecutor remains popular among academics and elites whom in the wake of the Obama years have shed the veil of lingual pretension and adopted the more familiar usage of contractions, slang, gum chewing and swearing.)

The mother of Boy Doe, face covered for privacy, stood next to the president on the podium during his press conference addressing these issues.  Her son committed suicide in the wake of Faceist comments on his Facebook page after an especially grammar mistake-laden post. Through tears she said to the crowd of captivated reporters, “My son never aspired to be a student, or an English major, he never did well in spelling, or in any subject at all, but that is still no reason for the senseless tormenting he suffered from the Faceists who hounded him with grammar and spelling corrections to each and every one of his posts. No child should have to live under that cloud.  I hope he has found peace.”

Members of the media openly cried and shared handkerchiefs.  Long thought to be out of fashion as carriers of viruses, they are making a strong comeback as a show of cultural empathy and solidarity with those who are hurt by others, as well as stimulating immune systems.  Protesters in San Francisco waved their handkerchiefs in the air while marching and chanting the words “Down with Zucker, he’s a greedy F***er.”  One protester claimed she was on her way to work when she heard the chanting and felt moved to participate.  “I don’t really care about my job, it’s stupid. But I do care about other people’s feelings, a lot.”  She bought a hankie from a street vendor for two hundred dollars and tied it to her bicycle handle, claiming it to be the best purchase she ever made.

Designers and actors are now jumping on the hankie bandwagon.  Prada has already released its line of silk hankies in somber hues of blue.  The posh designer explained the color motif as “inspired by the tears of the beautiful and the tormented.”  The hefty retail price tag of twelve hundred dollars was justified by not only the hand embroidery along the edges shaped as pear-laden tear drops, but also the .005% donation of profits promised to fund increased awareness of the dangers of Faceism and counseling for those directly harmed by it.

You Have Beard Like Man

There is a nail salon down the street, exactly three miles from my house in a white colonial-style strip mall, intentionally designed to look like it’s not a strip mall.  There are upscale shops, for the most part everything upper-middles need to function smoothly:  grocery store, camera shop, book retailer, ice cream parlor, toy store, Pei Wei, and a nail salon.  Having a decent mani-pedi is an imperative in a charity gala-driven town like Saint Louis, where every weekend it seems one auction fundraiser or another is aiming to overshoot their previous year’s goal by that magical ten-percent.  And so, given the abundance of open-toed shoe events, we have nail salons on every corner.

These establishments are not truly salons, which implies a certain degree of sophistication, no, they are testaments to the sheer business prowess of the resident Asian community.  The one closest to my home is primarily Vietnamese.  Some speak perfect English and remember your and your children’s names and chit chat like old friends; and some go out of their way to pretend they do not see, hear, like or understand you.  My favorite is a young, charismatic girl who dreams of breaking out of the faux pampering factory and being a teacher.  I refer everyone to her, even though she nearly ruined a perfectly good open-toed shoe charity auction fundraiser night for me.  I forgive her.  Completely.

Three of us heading to the same event decided to mani-pedi together and were lined up in a row of vibrating thrones.  The husband of one of my friends surprised us with a carafe of cocktails, which we giddily gulped and then became loud and silly, and maybe a bit inappropriate.  It was then that our fate was sealed, judgements sufficiently impaired.  My nail friend leaned in close to me, and between clicks of her gum said, You have beard like man.  The look of horror on my face let her know that, no matter what, she had me.   She sat back and smiled.  I do not have beard like man!,  I protested, instinctively covering my chin with my newly softened hand.  Hmph, come with me, and off she marched to the room of slathering and follicle ripping.  My friends were protesting, they had beards like man, as well, apparently, which we knew was ridiculous, but our confidence was clouded by contraband martinis and like lambs we were led to the waxing slaughterhouse.

I had heard of stories where your skin and dignity are stripped in a regrettable expression of vanity, but until this moment I had not counted myself among the victims.  My favorite girl told me to relax and asked me questions about my daughters and their school, to make her seem less threatening, I presume, while she stirred the hot honey pot with an extra large popsicle stick.  In seconds she had slathered my cheeks, my jawline, my chin, my upper lip, or my beard, with burning goo and ripped it off so quickly my lips stretched out and slapped back together, jiggling cartoonishly.  My skin was in shock.  It tingled and buzzed, heat outlining the abused area, my heartbeat coursing through it.  Stunned, I emerged from wax room one to be met by my friends.  With similar expressions, and shiny red skin beards, we laughed because there was nothing else that could be done.

My husband found this mildly amusing, another melodramatic incident where I was forced to suffer publicly.  When he inspected the aftermath, tears rolling down my cheeks, he wondered aloud with incredulity, Why didn’t you just say, no??  I decided to not speak to him for a while.

This particular night was a hot one.  Our event was in an historic bowling alley upstairs in an old building, a small space with lots of overhead lighting, wooden everything, and no air conditioning.  It was still well above ninety degrees when my husband opened the door for me, my poor cheeks throbbing in the summer humidity and all I could do was pray the lighting was dim.  At the top of the stairs, the bright fluorescents bore down, like stepping into a tanning bed.  Vampiric desperation scurried me to the darker side of the bar where I sunk under my husband’s silhouette, rolling a cold beer bottle along  my roasted cheeks, which immediately began to itch.

A few passers-by stopped to say hello and it went something like this:  So nice to see you!  You, too!  How are you?  Great, I just had my Beard Like Man waxed and I’m in excruciating pain, how are you?  Over and over.  That I looked like an oily fifteen year old boy with raging hormones was certainly embarrassing, but feeling the need to explain my shocking appearance to acquaintances was flirting with the too-much-information boundary rule.  I violate that one a lot.

One of my fellow-denuded friends had the sense not to show, an option that never even crossed my mind.  But salvation arrived with the other, who dragged me from my protected perch under my husband’s shadow and into the ladies room.  What soon became apparent to me is that when you are not alone in suffering it becomes much more tolerable, heroic even, and the ability to laugh in the throws of calamity can assuage a whole lot of discomfort.  We stared into the images in front of us, red inflamed bumps dotting swaths of shiny pink rice paper, and we laughed.  As more entered the ladies room, we recounted our story, which grew more dramatic and harrowing with each retelling.  We had drinks brought to us and continued with our ladies room monologues for a long time, until an ally popped in to say our husbands had been looking for us.  We said good bye to our not-as-traumatic-as-they-were visages and headed into the sea of charity goers with newfound acceptance, having brought self deprecation to a new level.

The moral of this story is threefold.  One, when someone sells you something on a blatantly false premise, and your ego suffers greatly for it, do not expect sympathy from your husband.  Two, if you find yourself in a challenging position, find a good friend who will laugh with you.  And lastly, when someone with hot wax at their immediate disposal says You have beard like man, just say NO.

Technical Difficulties

It has been a long time since I have written.  Actually that’s not quite true; I write all the time.  It has been a long time since I have posted a new anecdote, or a string of unintentionally offensive observations, or a self-deprecating reminiscence.  There are several drafts in the holding pen on this site, but I haven’t the heart to finish them, and for very good reasons.  If you’ve ever baked a cake from scratch, you understand the amount of thought, time and effort that goes into it.  The same is the case with writing.  First, an idea pops into your head, you craft your story, you sift and mix words furiously before the inspiration disappears into the ether, and then you go back and edit, if you have time to do so before being called to the carpool line.  Very similar, these two endeavors.  When a cake is finished, it’s beauty and deliciousness on full display, through the nose and palette and into the brain, spreading joy to all ages, one sweet tooth at a time, and a feeling of triumph floods over you.  When you polish a piece of writing, and watch a reader relish your labor of love, the same wash of endorphins cleanses the self doubt that plagues most writers, and perhaps bakers, and you feel new shoots of creativity sprouting from your scalp like wild onions.  It’s mildly addictive.

Now imagine that your cake tastes like cardboard because you were distracted by some sinister happenstance and you forgot, rhythm having been interrupted, to add the sugar.  It’s ruined.  You cannot go back and fix it.  You are left to swear and dump the bland mess into the trash, pan included because it must be punished for its compicitness (autocorrect tells me this is not a real word, but I like it and it is working for me, so complicitness it is).  And a voice riding high on disappointment leaps inside your ear and whispers, I will never bake, again.  So it is when you complete something truly extraordinary only to click Publish and have most of it disappear, never to be seen again aside from bits and dots that flash in your mind, cruelly, recent flashbacks, dream-like remembrances that you try to grab ahold of only for them to slip away, always just out of reach…

It sounds like a nightmare, I know, because it is, and it is exactly what has happened the past several times I have sat at my dining room table tapping on a silver metal thing with a glowing apple on it, attempting to entertain family, friends, strangers, and myself, and ending helplessly in futility.  All those gorgeous run-on sentences lost…forever.  So many spam bots deprived of yet another blog posting to hound with incoherent pleas for URL’s and such.  So many laughs that will never have been born, their breaths ripped right out from under them, just as they were forming.  I know what you’re thinking.  You are wondering why on earth I would repeat the same mistake over and over when it grieves me so, the suffering so palpable that the voice would declare with confidence and triumph, I will never write, again.  In fact, would you believe that as I type presently I am playing roulette, exchanging glances between the Save and Publish buttons, wondering if either will dare betray my trust?

It is impossible to know whether or not technical difficulties are personal or simply things that happen.  I suppose a computer could develop a passive-aggressive personality disorder and play it out in subtle and irregular acts of sabotage, if computers are so darned smart they would be able to do exactly that and at the same time make it seem perfectly irrational, and impossible, for such a crazy proposition to have any bit of legitimacy.  If I were a computer regularly abusing my tapper for kicks, eating the fruits of their labor would be a good way to torment them.  I’m not suggesting that computers are conspiring against us, merely stating that if they figured out a way to communicate any sort of displeasure, this would be the perfect way to express it.  Like when you go away for a long weekend and leave behind only bowls of dry food and water for your cat, and it poops on your pillow.

So, to cover my bases before I hit the blue rectangle at the bottom right of this page, I say this:

To my little frienemy, temperamental fruit of the rose family who opens and closes at my will, forgive me for my indiscretions.  However I have neglected you, improperly fed and cared for you, I am profoundly sorry, especially for the powdered sugar donut crumbs that grow stale between your perfect keys, and for the smudges and fingerprints on your wide flat face, and the encrusted dust that can be seen but not reached in all of your edges.  I promise to be a better partner and caretaker.  I implore you, reward my forthcoming diligence and attention with rapprochement, with an end to the technical difficulties, the glitches and freezes, the buffering, and especially, the lost words.  We once worked well together, harmoniously, you and me, like butter and sugar, partners in crime and taste.  Let us go back to the days of unicorns and rainbows.  Sincerely lovingly, Me.

Oh, and, just in case I am the sole instrument of destruction responsible for all of my computer woes, I have just copied and pasted this into Word.

Saved In South West Texas

My nine year old daughter is obsessed with horses.  I rank it up there with being obsessed with The Ritz Carlton, or gold bars.  There is not a doubt, horses are magnificent animals, those enormous eyes baring into your soul, figuring out whether or not they can buck you off and still get their oats when they trot back to the barn riderless.  Oh, I am well acquainted with these animals and our relationship is complicated.

Flying through the air six feet above the ground and landing on your head is not an enviable experience, especially if you are going sixty miles an hour.  Even if you land on your back, or your butt, or your shoulder, it still sucks.  To Native Americans (yes, I am lumping them all into one category here), horses are energy grounders, which means they absorb yours, it flows through their bodies, down their legs, and into the ground where it is neutralized, therapeutically.  Learning this helped bring a fresh perspective to these animals, whom I have always loved and who have nearly killed me on several occasions:  they absorb my crazy energy, which makes them in turn crazy until some sort of grounding occurs, and thus far that means I end up on the ground, which seems to be my role in the relationship.  Some would call it dysfunctional, but I’m not going to throw the foal out with the bathwater quite yet.

When I was young I had riding lessons at a stable not far from our house.  It smelled.  The horses were fat.  My mom testified that horses kicked indiscriminately and to not get near them, especially their legs, which is difficult to do when you are learning to ride them.  The first time I ever fell from one was at this barn.  I leaned over to help my boot slip into the stirrup and all the lazy appaloosa had to do was shrug its shoulders, which it did, and I was on the ground wondering what the hell had happened.  This was only the beginning of a long string of challenging equine experiences.

At a ranch in southwest Texas I rode a dappled gray dragon in disguise.  His name was Blue and he was the largest creature I had ever seen, a massive quarter horse with three thousand acres of cactus, rocks and pure open space to explore at obscene speeds, unmolested, all year round.  There were three of us, college friends in Austin for a summer of excitement and adventure and I had never been so far south in the U.S.  It was like being on another planet:  flat, desolate, scrubby and prickly.  Occasionally a mirage of Longhorn cattle appeared in the haze to stare at you, and would fizzle into the heat and disappear.  Under such foreign circumstances we saddled our horses and headed off into the expanse.  When I playfully yelled, HeeYAH!, and slapped Blue’s rear, I wasn’t expecting to propel through the air at supernatural speed.  Most horses I had ridden up to that moment ignored me completely, until they decided to throw me.  I was blinded as the hot air ripped into my eyeballs and whipped my hair around, lashing my face and shoulders like tiny whips.  I tried to slow Blue down, but he mocked my WHOAs and stretched his neck even further, galloping faster, and faster.

I don’t remember hitting the ground.  My eyes were closed and it was dreamlike quiet, the thundering of hooves absent, when a soft muzzle nudged into my forehead and a loud snort puffed the hair from my face.  It was a slow and painful rising, but eventually I pulled myself up with the help of Blue standing close to me and being absolutely still.  Perhaps he could see what I couldn’t:  blood pooling in my hair and running down my cactus needle-covered back and into my jeans.  I pulled myself into the saddle just as the other two horses galloped up to us, panting, horrified.

Blue walked me gently back to the ranch where I was loaded into a car and hauled off to town.  I laid on my stomach on a steel bed while the doctor/veterinarian numbed my head with a syringe meant for a much larger creature than me, and sewed the gaping wound in the back of my head with twenty-three stitches.  Gospel music blared in the background and he sang along passionately as he tugged and stitched, and plucked the hundreds of cactus needles from my body.  When it was over, he congratulated me for being saved.  The Lord Jesus guaranteed you were hurt just enough to get to town, but not enough to be flown to Austin, he said in a slow, happy drawl.  He hugged me, led me across the deserted street to a nondescript building, and opened the door.  The entire town was piled inside, singing, a contagious joy hung in the air and wrapped all around me.  Perhaps next time Jesus could let me fall into a patch of grass instead of cactus.

A less dramatic ejection was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  My sister worked on a beautiful ranch, which meant that I got to hang out there as well and pretend to work.  Our cousin was visiting and a group of us went out for a late afternoon ride through the mountains.  Indian paintbrush, bluebells and columbine dotted our paths across meadows and alongside mountain streams, through aspen groves, sage brush and pine forests.  Unbeknownst to me, my horse, a white beast who smashed me into every tree and hanging branch he could find for three hours, wanted to have a quiet day back at the barn and I was wrecking his plans.  He snorted and stomped, kicked every horse who dared approach, and periodically ripped the reins from my hands.  By the time the landscape opened and the ranch came into view, my legs were bruised, my pants were ripped, my pinkie was broken, and a cut on my cheek was bleeding.  As I pulled leaves and sticks from my hair, the monster sensed an opportunity.  He chucked me in the dirt and disappeared into the trail of dust his hasty escape swirled into the air.  Luckily, it wasn’t a far walk for someone in my condition, albeit a tad humiliating, and my cousin rode and snickered beside me.  Things were getting better, though.

Not long ago, riding with friends in Augusta, Georgia, my spunky chestnut with a white lightening bolt emblazoned down her face suddenly accelerated to uncomfortably fast.  Had I not been down this road a dozen times or so, I would have been scared.  Alas, I smiled, held on tight, and tried to relax… I tend to survive these moments.  We were set to blow by the others when I utilized my unique vocal projection skills and called a polite SOS to the foreman up ahead:   EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME!  In an instant his horse met mine and in perfect harmony we swung to a stop.  My heart raced through my chest.  The foreman rested his hands on the horn of his saddle, chuckling, looking at me as though my nose had just turned into a carrot .  I have never seen anything like that before, he said over and over again in a slow southern drawl, shaking his head.  In imitating my civilized plea for help, he sat tall for the others and wide eyed, smiling, princess waving high in the air, “EXCUSE ME!  EXCUSE ME!”   Although my ego suffered silently, at least I wasn’t bruised and bloodied, so in that regard some real progress was being made.

Interestingly, my husband rides and has no issues with these four-legged creatures;  in fact, he speaks their language.  As does my sister.  I would love to learn, by the way, but I’m so busy trying to stay alive that it somehow alludes me.  Perhaps it’s the stress.  Nevertheless, my nine-year old has the bug.  She speaks to them, and they to her.  At horse camp pick-up she showed us around the barn and introduced us to every one, complete psychological profiles.  This one is Nelly, she said, Stay away from the mares, they’re moody.  Life lessons in the barn.  Then on to Donner and Blitzen, one bites and one kicks, not very Christmas-y, if you ask me.  Joe, whose head is the size of my torso, I’ll stay away from that one.  And on and on through the barn.  Hank is an old one who pretends he’s a statue, even when someone is trying to ride him.  Caitlin loves Hank and is saving her allowance to buy him, and if he lives to see that day, I will be surprised.  When all is said and done, I still love horses.  I love being around them, admiring them, even riding them, even though for me it frequently ends badly.  Perhaps there was something to that sermon down in southwest Texas, something about being saved…

All Funnied Out Until September

This is not my favorite time of year.  Crunchy ground, frost framing window panes, the warm glow of a fire, the silence of snowfall:  lovely, lovely Winter is my favorite.  In a close second is Fall with it’s rich colors and cool evenings, leaves rustling and falling, animals preparing, dashing about in their last hurrah.  Next is Spring in its glorious awakening and unpredictability, delivering colorful abundance and the cheerfulness we have all learned to expect.  The three together culminating in a nine-month family and friend affair chock full of birthdays and holidays, most of which have something to do with gratitude and love.  And then, there is Summer…

One of my biggest issues with summer is the widespread obsession with sunscreen and the scorn that diehard adherents reserve for those who refuse to slather stinky stuff onto our skin just so we can brag about how brilliant we are for doing just that one thing.  All else could be a complete bust, but if you dunk your family in 75+ you are a genius, and you can write a book on parenting, and run for office.  Personally, a nice glow is the most decent thing about the entire season, the one chance for everyone to at least look cheerful and alive, to fill up on Vitamin D and melatonin.  But the tyrants want summer to be sticky, noxious and pale.  And expensive.  I shouldn’t have to argue with so many about the whole sunscreen controversy.  That I choose to not buy poisonous chemicals that may or may not prevent my skin from developing cancerous tissue at some point in my life is nobody’s business but mine, and that they think it is makes me despise summer even more.  Because summer makes people nosy.

It is also when mothers turn into helmet centurions, wagging their fingers and shaking their heads as they paint their toddlers’ arms and faces in goo, while buckled to a tricycle two inches off the ground and strapped into a helmet the size of a suitcase.  I am in the perfect frame of mind to argue against this paranoid, mom-generated tyranny all the way from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They must think an enormous ball of radiated rays is going to fall on their children if they happen to turn their helicopter eyes away from the flat driveway for a split second.  I do not share this type of fear.  It requires an extraordinary amount energy to maintain a complete suspension of reason.  To be terrified of a two inch fall, one must constantly be imagining crashes and blood and breakage, and lost scholarships.  I have not noticed the same degree of paranoia the other nine months of the year.  Because summer makes people irrational.

Women love summer.  It is a woman’s season, and women are difficult.  They wait for it.  They diet in anticipation of it.  They buy clothes to show off how their diet succeeded and then they complain all winter long about how the cold made them gain it all back.  They chat about camps and beaches and clubs and vacations.  They read magazines and talk about their pedicures and how they’re just not as good as they used to be, and about what the heat does to their hair.  I know this because I participate in the emptiness, and I hear it as it leaves my mouth and I feel like I’ve been possessed, unwittingly driveling and sniveling, and I pray that God will drop an arctic weather bomb and free us from our heat-inspired insipidness.  Let the cold wind shock us into depth and mental clarity, let it force us to jump around and huddle close together to keep warm.  May the temperamental and deciduous dream of Florida as their leaves and bikinis fall away for the year.  Because summer makes people shallow.

There is another frustration that is gnawing at me, and it is that I want to laugh more.  I want to be around funny people, and I want us all to laugh together in a cackling chorus of frivolity and wit.  I want the random phone calls from faraway friends and the meeting of kindred spirits with whom you can banter for hours, best friends in humor, forever.  But summer is too disjointed and hot for this.  People are more easily agitated, they are too busy road raging and sitting in air-conditioned rooms to work into an endorphin laughing fit.  So, here I sit, writing one unfunny essay after another, trying to fulfill an arbitrary posting goal and coax at least one crooked smile from my husband as he scans it.  Of remembering the good ol’ days of September through May in any given year, and of being stuck, waiting for the pool to open, for vacation to arrive, for camps to begin, sitting in a lounge chair with a criss-cross pattern of plastic weave imprinted in the backs of sunburned legs.  Because summer is not funny.

It’s an incredible feeling to make someone smile, or laugh.   But good humor, for me anyway, is conditional.  It has to be just right, the proper ratio of ingredients:  affable companions, absence of stress, excess of endorphins, good energy, lack of judgment.  It does’t take much more than a negative nellie or a know-it-all, or a super-serious jerk, humor parasites who suck creativity wells dry, to leave those around them inspiration-less and depressed.  Conversely, there are the muses who may not even say a word but simply being in the same room with them fills you with so much positivity and energy you feel you may explode with ideas, and happiness.  I don’t know where the muses hide, but I know they don’t like the heat.  Because summer makes people crabby.

And so it is, I’m stuck in a rut that is just as un-fun to experience as it is to be around.  I find myself wanting to read political treatises and to complain, to analyze human nature and protest things, and to be nosy.  I want to brood and to be serious.  To be analytical and argumentative, and at times, shallow.  This time of year is very stressful for the mercurial types, irrationally sensitive to seasonal changes and who wilt in heat and humidity, indeed not funny.  And, not to sound crabby, but for some of us summer is a misery filled with bugs, body odor, and a panoply of chemicals, mildew, skinned elbows and knees, and incessant demands for play dates.  Where is the joy?   I do apologize if you are a summer lover.  I’m not trying to spoil your sweaty adventures, I’m just not a fan.  Because summer is stressful.   And I’m all funnied out… until September.


Two Gigs and a Warehouse

Not so long ago I was in a rock and roll band that tested my previously high tolerance for drama and danger.  Music has a way of attracting colorful characters, sensitive types with explosive and expressive personalities.  The kind and the wounded.  Having only played the guitar for six months or so, I was honored to be invited to sit in with some musicians who were talented and seasoned, and I was looking forward to the experiential learning that is more my style than the incremental.  We rehearsed Thursday nights in an old converted warehouse that rented two stories of studios with padded walls, black paint and graffiti, soiled bathrooms, grungy floors.  It was disgusting.  And in a terrifying part of town.  And I loved it.

This is not how it was described to me, but if one were to ask directions to the studio, they would accurately be thus:  Drive south under the Saint Louis University archway on Jefferson (the one where the “S” in “Saint” is upside down), cross over the highway and keep going until you feel uncomfortable.  Take a right at a gas station you thank god you don’t need.  After three stop signs (at each one check the locks on your doors and take notice of the prostitutes staring at you across the street).  Veer right towards a weedy lot.  The Warehouse is the lone, dark structure with an open gravel parking lot dotted with tattooed skinny people in interesting tee-shirts.  You made it!

Inside was a deep cave with hallways holding secret doors that opened and closed as people darted in and out, loud bursts of music escaping for an instant and disappearing.  There were pool tables in a ghostly common area at the entrance just behind the steel door you had to be buzzed in through by a faceless, ageless reading guy at a desk who pushed the button to let you in and never looked up at anyone.  Ever.  The thumping of drum beats and vibrations of strings mixed in the air, where you knew there was music, and it was exciting, but you couldn’t tell whether it was good or not.  It didn’t matter anyway.  Once you were in, it was all good.

We were preparing for our first gig together, an outdoor music festival in the West End with blocked off streets, barbecue, beer trucks, and friendly crowds.  It was perfect in every way, aside for a demonic heat wave that descended upon Saint Louis that week, raising the temperature ceiling from an almost pleasant eighty-five degrees to a stultifying one hundred and five.  In the intense late afternoon sun we trudged onto a black wooden stage perched on a cul de sac of naked asphalt and gasped for air.  There was only a small canopy above the stage and behind us, more for sound than for comfort since it, too, was black.  I had the genius to wear a summer dress, only, it too was black.  As was my guitar.  And my hair.  As the sun beat down, all that surrounded us mercilessly worked in concert to greenhouse the relentless rays and insulate us in a hot box of darkness, shielded from all drifts of cool evening air and humanity.  Even the fan was black, shapeshifting into an old drunk man exhaling intensely into our faces.

It wasn’t long before we were ragged and drenched, resembling more a group of protesters shot with a water cannon than entertainers.  We didn’t utter a word to each other.  My fingers slipped around helplessly on steel strings and electrocution flashed in and out as a distinct possibility for all of us.  A voice was convincing me it would be a good way to go.  Maybe the next song I’d be out of my misery, checking out on a high note;  it had been a good life, after all, no need to be greedy.  Sweat rained down from the top of my head, mixing with mascara and stinging my eyes dragging black streaks down my cheeks.  So there I stayed, plastered in place, dripping and dizzy like a grizzly bear in the desert, fantasizing about electrocution, until our time was up.  It was a very strange sensation, an addictive cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins, of self-pity and generic loathing.

Our next gig was at Bob’s, a dive bar with an interesting story in another questionable part of Saint Louis.  I drove there at night, by myself, guitar strapped in the front seat.  It was a sordid adventure, even farther away from my newly expanded comfort zone, but when you survive scary things, it is emboldening.  Streets grew darker, restaurants disappeared, row houses carried post-apocalyptic accusations, but I wasn’t deterred.  Courage welled inside me as I reminded myself of the harrowing treks to the Warehouse.  Abandoned lots and burned out buildings, zombies standing and staring on sidewalks, cars with broken windows.  It took the sudden sound of an alarm to strip me of my courage and fear rushed to fill the void.  My heart raced.  I was about to turn around when I saw the sailboat on the pockmarked sidewalk.  A half-lit sign flickered Bob’s in neon like a prophesied star.

The faded yellow Sunfish lay on its side chained and bolted to a lamppost that didn’t light by the front door.  It was the landmark I was instructed to look for.  With several pulls and a hard yank the door popped open and a wall of smoke greeted me with open arms, hugging me, flying up my nose and into my eyes and filling my lungs.  I stepped in, coughing and squinting, seeing first two grimy, hollow bartenders, and a row of gray people wobbling on bar stools.  Muffled Jimmy Buffet blared overhead.  No one looked up when I walked in, and although I felt safer than I did outside in the de-militarized zone, the margin wasn’t by much.  I cut my way through the already drunken throng to my band mates in the back setting up between the pool table and Golden Tee.  I took in my surroundings and was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was far too old for these sorts of scenarios, when a thump thump thump on my thigh redirected my attention.

I looked down at a wheelchair with an outstretched wooden arm, attached to a man with a wooden nose, a wig, and a cigarette dangling from his lips.  The other wooden arm was resting across his lap.  How you doing?  I’m Bob, he rasped and thumped me a couple more times on the leg.  Nice to meet you, I said and smiled, shaking the dainty outstretched mannequin hand.  Bob continued to tap me as we were setting up, and stayed at my side.  He tapped when I was singing.  He bumped into my knees when I was strumming.  He ran his wooden fingers down my arm, and when I leaned down to reach a dropped guitar pick, he rapped me on the top of my head.  Hey! and You need anything? were all that he would say, and he said it to me a thousand times.

It was time for the band to take a break.  As we were turning down volumes and setting down instruments, Bob was in front of me, nudging me with his wheelchair and his wooden arms towards his office, which was covered in pictures of girls in bathing suits, beach scenes and racing sailboats, ashtrays and cigarette butts, full packs and empties scattered across his desk, and on the floor.  He lit a cigarette while one still burned in his mouth and  for a few puffs smoked them together.  And then he told me his story.  He had owned a bar and lived in an apartment above it.  After a late night of partying and closing down, upstairs he went with his smokes in hand and awoke in the hospital weeks later without his limbs, his nose, his hair and most of his skin.  His recovery was horrific and grueling, and eventually, he reopened another bar two blocks farther east from the old one, which remains burned out and abandoned.  As he spoke I stared at the tinder, casually clinging to his lower lip by a spec of moisture on dry paper, the ashes breaking off and fluttering onto his shirt and pants as it lightly bounced with his words.  I desperately wanted to brush them off, but the strangeness of being the only one of us worried about those ashes kept my hands still.

Those two gigs and rehearsing in the Warehouse are special memories ranging anywhere from humiliating to enlightening, from terrifying to liberating, and some others in between.



Some People Just Don’t Like Tomatoes

My family’s common denominator is the tomato.  Everybody grew them, stewed them, ate them and appreciated them.  Everybody except me, that is.  I was never beaten with one, or embarrassed by one, or became mortally sick by ingesting one.  I simply did not like them.  And, yet, they were everywhere, in every dish, a determined and incessant presence with a bitter smell and a slimy texture.

When you reveal to someone that you dislike tomatoes, inevitably the question follows, Have you ever tried one?  This exasperates me.  As a full grown adult married with children, who has held jobs, gone to school, and solved a whole host of complex problems, one could safely assume, Yes, of course, I have tried one and I did not like it.  If I had a dollar for every time someone sincerely asked me that question over the years, I would be able to buy my own island and create the only place in the entire world that would be completely tomato-free.

Mom was convinced that my tomato aversion was a passive-aggressive election, that I was using the fruit to assert my independence, a latent defiant nature.  Determined to prove her point, she would smuggle them into every morsel she prepared.   She buried them in salad dressings, stuffed them into sandwiches, chopped them into microscopic bits, and folded them into sauces and meats.   The red pepper ruse was a desperate affair, incredibly deceptive, openly declaring those tiny red squares to be something my discerning eyes and palette knew they clearly weren’t.  Her efforts had a contrary effect.  I developed into a finely tuned picker-and-flicker.  A tomato ninja.  Even today, I close my eyes, and with Jedi precision I find them.  All of them.

In college I wrote a paper for a psychology class about the probable root of my tomato issue.  We had been learning about all sorts of pathologies, psych horoscopes general enough to make you think that you and everyone you have ever known is a semi-psychopath, and I thought this might just be where my answers could be found.  The assignment was to write a paragraph about one of the disorders we had discussed, so I wrote a ten-page in-depth analysis of the tomato and how it correlated to my intense dislike of individuals with similar traits:  thin-skinned, fragile, bitter, duplicitous.  I stayed up all night writing, and at the next class as everyone handed in their one and two paragraphs, I plopped my pile of life-changing observations and theories with a soft thud that only the wrinkly professor and a couple of other girls in line noticed.  Satisfied, I slid back into my seat, knowing that life could very well be different after this moment.  I may be asked to guest lecture on the nuances of behavioral observations and their relations to food fetishes.  Or, about how I was able to cure myself of a slight phobia.  Life was taking an exciting turn, indeed.

I couldn’t wait for the next class, about which I made several promises to God.  I swore I would try very, very hard to never skip it again.   I vowed that despite the comforting baritone humming barely above a whisper, and the rhythmic lullaby of chalk dancing in hypnotic cursive circles across the blackboard, I would not fall asleep.  I promised to stop asking questions.  At the end of the lecture, we single-filed out the door, each handed our graded work on the way.  I held out my hand and the professor tapped my forearm a couple of times and asked me to step aside, that he wanted to have a word with me in private.  I was thrilled!  We were going to delve into this once and for all, really pick apart the clues and find some answers, and then move on to other world challenges and write some books together.

In his office, I settled into a stiff wooden armchair, one that doesn’t want you to get too comfortable, under the gaze of thousands of dusty ancient volumes on endless rows of shelves.  My professor leaned in, lightly placing the tomato tome in front of me, pressing his hand to it for a moment, as though it might leap back into his arms and he was reassuring it to be still.   Shuffling to his desk, he silently took a seat.  He cleared his throat a few times.   He brushed at invisible things on the polished mahogany space in front of him.  He moved an empty engraved silver and leather pen holder slightly to the right.  Then, entwining his fingers he looked at me.  Intently.  After a deep sigh, and in a gentle tone, he declared:  Erin, some people just don’t like tomatoes.

I was stunned.  Firstly, I had been told my entire life that, everyone, in fact, did like tomatoes.  If you didn’t like them, you were either lying or something was wrong with you.  It was an illness, not an allowable preference.  But it wasn’t until he started to chuckle that I realized that my efforts had not been taken seriously.   He found my earnest work entertaining, not enlightening.

On that agonizing revelation, I silently gathered my thesis-that-almost-was and drifted out the door, quietly closing it behind me.  I felt as though I had been kicked out of a spaceship and instead of careening through the atmosphere and smashing into earth, I just floated around aimlessly, devoid of gravity or time-space continuum.  He gave me extra credit for my hard work and asked me to complete the original assignment with a strict adherence to the one or two paragraph specification, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something had been lost.  No books would be written;  no cures discovered.  Just another day as a human being with simple answers and common sense and a lot of blah blah blah.

My professor’s words still echo in my mind.   In this tomato-oriented world where it is inexplicably both the fruit and the vegetable in every restaurant in America, somehow making its way to the forefront of nutrition on a lycopene wave of false promises, we are out there, the dislikers, everywhere, misunderstood rebels against a red tomato brigade, without excuses or shame.  I even married one.   And so the irony is that one of my least memorable college courses, taught by one of my least favorite professors, was also the one that seared an ownership into my consciousness:  the stupefying and liberating declaration that some people just don’t like tomatoes.


Walking the Tightrope

photo-1High school is a trying time.  I remember most of it well as one of discovery, individuation and staggering screw-ups;  of parental power struggles, duplicity and hormonal triumphalism.  It is a bubble where kids navigate life’s deepest paradox, to simultaneously conform and be unique, a tightrope walk that favors the stable.  For those of us prone to emotional swells and sensitivities it is the same walk but on a moving cable.

My parents are in an anti-nesting phase right now, shedding all relics of their children by loading their reminders into bins and depositing them with their triggers.  Last summer when they drove in for a visit, they left behind a carload of deposits, boxes and bins of random papers, photos, clothing, books.  From one, I unfolded an entire closet’s worth of formal dresses.  It was as though a giant reached in and pressed them together like an accordion and folded them neatly in half, hangers attached.

I unfolded the dresses onto a bar and flipped through them, one by one.  Out flooded the memories they carried, a few in particular.  The strapless black taffeta with the beads I wore to homecoming my junior year, and my new fake nails punched holes in my stockings shooting white runners down both my legs as I stepped out of the ladies room.  That was super.  The other black beaded one with the oversized bow on the hip reminded me of advice I had followed in a magazine about using masking tape in place of a bra, and left me with red stripes across my chest from the mild flaying I suffered when I removed it.  The faint water mark on the red one with the sash reminded me of my allergy to silk which caused profuse perspiration under one arm, so my right appendage stayed unnaturally plastered to my side for an entire evening of socializing and dancing.  The bright purple sequined stretchy one was beautiful.  It was the same shade as the Hubba Bubba Grape Bubble Gum that twisted itself into my hair when I was a little girl and when they cut it all off suddenly everyone thought I was a boy.  And then there was the rebellious one, my favorite, a ruffled, strapless, multicolored floral number that I wore to my last dance of high school.

The guidelines for senior prom attire have dramatically changed, but in 1988 your dress was expected to be white and to the floor.  Having had a difficult time in the conformity department, I gravitated to colorful and short, and I found exactly what I was looking for in a women’s clothing store in the West End that serviced primarily old preppy white ladies.  I don’t know what they were thinking when they ordered the one that I fell in love with, but I knew nobody else in our small world was going to buy it, but me.  With black pointy-toed pumps, a black clutch, and wrapped tightly in an extravaganza of giant tropical flowers, I waded into the sea of white with my date/friend at my side.

Fondly, admiringly, I removed the dress from it’s hanger and held it against my body in remembrance.  It doesn’t look so small, a voice said deceptively to the image in the mirror.  Let’s give it a try, it encouraged, and moments later I was changing my breathing patterns to accommodate an uncooperative zipper.  I hooked the clasp at the top and wriggled it around the back where it was supposed to be, and with great concentration I edged it further up with my arms twisted awkwardly behind me, and in a final exhalation I was in.  Eureka!  I spun around excitedly and in one quick breath the zipper popped open in the middle and released twenty-five years of gradual BMI accumulation.  It was getting tighter by the moment, the hook not budging, my fingers not nimble enough to navigate it, my body uncooperatively cementing itself to the fabric, becoming one.

Belly-breathing in yoga is when you fill your lungs deeply and instead of your chest expanding, it’s your belly that rises and falls.  It is also what to look for when your child has asthma and the stomach muscles engage in the quest for air.  I would like to tap into some pubescent deception and claim to have been yoga-breathing in a Zen trance of relaxation, but the reality was more that of an asthma attack.  I was trying not to panic as my obituary flashed in front of me:  Loving wife and mother of two, long sufferer of body dysmorphia, asphyxiated by vengeful attire.  I left messages and sent texts to family and friends to the tune of:  Help me, I am stuck in a dress and I cannot breathe.  

Sending out an SOS is one thing, and having nobody respond is another.  I sat on the floor as a range of emotions flooded through me, from embarrassment and helplessness to fear and anger, from desperation to hope.  The tightrope was flying.  I closed my eyes and adjusted to the pace, looking for balance, frustration subsiding.  As the adrenaline receded it became easier to inhale, and with the oxygen came sounder perspective: I was going to make the best of this imprisonment.  With a book that had been waiting patiently in the queue on my bedside table, and sitting unnaturally erect, I began to read.

Two hours is not a long time to spend in a book, unless you have a million other things you would rather be doing, in which case it is an eternity.  One hundred and twenty minutes hanging in the air.  Seven thousand and two hundred seconds mercilessly dragging their feet.  It’s what dogs feel when you walk to the end of the driveway to get the paper and they stare at the front door closed behind you wondering if you’re ever returning, and when you do, a moment later, they freak out.  It’s what children feel fifteen minutes into a road trip prompting them to inquire ceaselessly, Are we there, yet?  How much longer?  Are we there? Are we there?  Are we now?  Are we close?  I reread the same paragraph, every other word glancing over at my cell phone that sat silently beside me.

My sister-in-law, Marty, was the first responder to my predicament.  When I answered the phone, it became clear that I had not appropriately communicated the gravity of my situation.  She chuckled as I recounted my ordeal, how I cried and despaired, alone in my home, far from Whole Foods where I longed to be, combing produce aisles for organic purple potatoes and fennel bulbs.  She gently questioned me in the way you approach small children and fragile people, the way that tells you that you may be an idiot.  I had felt a lot of emotions up to that point, and I had approached ridiculous but in a wave of self-defense I batted it away and chose not to revisit it and settled on unfortunate, instead.  But my sister-in-law was determined.  After forcing me to declare several more times that, yes, I actually did need help, and that, no, I wasn’t joking, she agreed to stop by on her way home.

I waited for Marty, her two mile drive an endless road trip, Are you hear yet? Are you close? Are you now?  Finally, a car pulled into the driveway.  In slow motion, footsteps approached the front door behind which I was standing, peering, wagging my tail in insufferable anticipation.   Marty’s smile was twisted on one side in skepticism until I whipped around to reveal the zipper that betrayed me and the tenacious hook that vexed me.  Her head dropped.  Quiet at first, she surveyed the situation and I thought she felt my suffering as I heard what sounded like soft crying.  With a massive breath it found it’s voice and released into the air in a crescendo of contagious cackles.  With the ease of an adult, she set me free and air flooded into my lungs, and in gratitude and relief, and a bit of disbelief, our laughter flew out and glided across the tightrope together.

I thought of Marty as I contemplated what to wear to an 80’s party the other night and stared fondly at the same dress, calling to me like a toxic crush.  Before I could recall Einstein’s definition of insanity, I found myself squeezing back into it with gasps and jumps, my husband navigating the zipper to meet my nemesis, the bionic clasp.  There was no panic this time as my ribs and organs rearranged themselves familiarly to accommodate what I was inexplicably determined to wear.  But, I was not alone this time.  I had someone to laugh at me, with me, strengthening my resolve and lending me the feeling of security that I had no business feeling.  I stepped into my pointy-toed black heels, grabbed my black clutch, and threw a white jean jacket over my shoulders in case the zipper failed me and I needed cover, and because nothing says 80’s like a white jean jacket.

So much effort and hair spray, so many formerly-estranged hot rollers, only to discover it wasn’t an 80’s party after all.  It was a retirement party for a band who had a few songs from the 80’s in their repertoire, which was primarily 60’s beach music.  I’m not quite sure how I mixed up those details, but there I was, walking into a familiar sea in my brightly colored floral dress.  And with a breath as deep as I could muster, and my date/friend/husband at my side, we worked our way to the dance floor and danced all night without incident.  I wasn’t uncomfortable, not as much as I deserved to be, but having walked this line a very long time ago, I knew that it was something I could navigate and survive to tell the tale.

Coloring Within the Lines

Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting.  I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so.  A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those!  I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.

My next most favorite angel of change is paint.  Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless.  When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint.  The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color.  The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean.  A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.

I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift.  I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it.  The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area.  I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.

Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover.  The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard.  I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him.  He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge.  A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.

As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me.  Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery.  After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish.  It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.

I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive.  My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming.  Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project.  The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky.  Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.

Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door.   Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash.  For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again.  Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.

By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor.  The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began.  They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves.  It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis.  Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go.  The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.

Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time.  He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below.  One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels.  By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch.  And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend.  I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time.  Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.

By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him.  He had painted everything:  the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops.  The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy.  In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea.  He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.

I had forgotten about Justin.  As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up.  Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence.  As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh.  The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations.  Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.