just six words; make them count

Every year I teach a memoir unit and start it off with the The Six-Word Memoir: Encapsulate your life, or parts of it, in six words. Tell us what we should know about you in truncated, abbreviated form. Burn away the inessential fats and bare unto us your stringy sinew. 

Usually, a student will raise (usually her) hand and ask me for my own Six-Word Memoir. Turnabout being fair play, I do it. I give them ten:

  • I Live With It Every Day
  • PBS Body, NPR Mind, BBC Soul
  • Gonna Have To Rent a Truck
  • Desert, Ocean, Mountains, Forest, Tundra, Desert
  • Chubby, Skinny, Skinny, Chubby, Skinny, Strong
  • Just Smart Enough To Be Afraid
  • I Shouldn’t Drink On These Pills
  • Keep Walking, Straight Girl. Keep Walking.
  • In The End It Hurt More
  • It Made Sense At The Time
  • She’s Not Crazy; She’s Emotionally Interesting
  • Hi, Crazy. Hi, Crazy Crazy Crazy.
  • Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!

The ones I don’t share:

  • Got a Ladystick? No, I’ve Learned
  • A Dolphin In Her Tuna Net
  • I Can Taste Her From Here
  • Dammit, Autocorrect — Don’t Fix My Sexts
  • This Would Be My 17th Anniversary
  • You Can Make Me Feel Bad
  • This Is How I Lost Her
  • Google Search: When Does Fertility End?
  • With Her, I Finally Felt Beautiful

…Share some of yours?

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The right tool for every job

So, I guess I own a drill. Also 15 screwdrivers in various lengths and shapes, six pairs of pliers, assorted wrenches, a level, a headlamp, and a small megaphone (in case I ever need to stand on top of some rubble and shout instructions as downtown Tucson flees the zombie apocalypse).

I didn’t own any of this before the weekend, but I moved house three weeks ago and my girlfriend J., who makes things for a living, was aghast at my dearth of tools*. I didn’t even own a hammer. So J. escorted me to Harbor Freight and treated me to a cartful of must-haves, with a little red box (like a makeup case, but  heavier) to put them in. This was my favorite part! The little red box relaxed me, which was good because I avoid all manner of home improvements. I’m afraid of the claw ends of hammers; of tearing my face open on a lube rack; of staggering into the emergency room holding my severed right hand in my left. This conviction re: my own incompetence makes me feel lame and petulant, so I’m working on it except NO FUCKING NAIL GUNS. Glue guns are OK. For Christmas wreaths. And here you see the most insidious aspect of falling out of the upper middle class.

“I don’t know where you got the idea you couldn’t do this,” J. said, clambering nimbly around my pre-OSHA exposed-rafter nightmare of a ceiling. What’s hotter than a woman who can re-route a circuit breaker; what’s sweeter than a woman with faith in your ability to do it too? Who’s more generous than a woman who doesn’t laugh when she sees you don’t know that your bathroom cabinet actually opens because the latch is sort of hidden? Who, when she has to ask if you know which way to screw in the curtain hardware, uses the kindest possible tone?

Anyway, I love my new neighborhood, which is as close as one can get to a city vibe without driving to Phoenix or losing my shit entirely and moving to LA. I’m in an old house that’s been split up into several apartments, and the windows are bigger and better-lit than I’m used to (at this point, the entire neighborhood could draw my naked breasts from memory). My street is a piquant mishmash of Greek Revival, art deco, adobe, grimy student apartments, and a couple of abandoned warehouse-y structures. Two blocks down is a funky bed-and-breakfast that looks welcoming during the day — Hello, vacationing New Yorkers in search of your desert spirit animal! Hint: it’s either a roadrunner or a bobcat —  but at night glows with sinister blue light. Very Disneyland Haunted House. I can walk to Dairy Queen; a gay(ish) bar; the food co-op; and meh-to-excellent vintage resale shops. What else is there? Oh yeah, the view:

*She may never get over the time I called the round screwdriver a “Phyllis head”).

jerġa ‘jibda

I planned my suicide in the spring of 2008, after this happened. I was going to check out before checkout time; fuck the continental breakfast.

Canada’s handgun laws are inconvenient when you want to die. I could take care of this in 20 minutes back in Arizona, I thought, staring resentfully at the billboards looming outside the window of The Worst Apartment Ever (TWAW). Located in Toronto’s Little Malta, TWAE was a cross between a haunted office building and an over-lit dormitory. It was basically one long hallway with my terrifying cokehead roommate at one end and a steep set of stairs at the other. When I went down those stairs and opened the door, I was greeted with an Arctic blast of air, screaming sirens, and usually some guy throwing up behind the bus station. I also saw this:

TWAE had previously been home to several prostitutes, none of whom had informed their extensive clientele that they were relocating. Go figure. So, as I sat there trying to plan my death, I kept getting interrupted by the hopeful, staccato knocks of Little Malta johns. The language barrier meant I had a hard time running them off.

“L-onorevoli marru!” I’d say firmly (“The ladies went away.”) Then I’d trudge back up the stairs and root around in my pile of blankets, trying to get warm. I was working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. security shifts, living my days backwards, so I’d watch the sunset thinking it was sunrise and vice-versa. I couldn’t tell the difference between beginning and ending; between the start of my days and their close.

I wanted a rest. I wanted not to feel ashamed and alone, and the only way to do that was to put a stop to everything. There’s a difference between wanting things to stop and wanting to die, but you can’t do one without the other unless you know someone willing to put you into a medically-induced coma. I only knew bartenders and freelance writers.

Then, one day, I opened up an e-mail that said my friend C. had gotten there first. It wasn’t a “cry for help,” either.  It was potassium cyanide gas off the Internet and a note: “It was not you; you were beautiful.”

I made a terrible sound. Not a scream, not a groan, but a noise like I’d been hit in the stomach. My cokehead roommate, who cared about no one but herself, came running.

You know when people say, “The world is poorer without him” when someone dies? I didn’t understand what that meant until C. died. Imagine the funniest, most complex and exhilarating and flavorful person you know. Now imagine that person gone.

I spent the rest of the day re-reading every e-mail C. ever sent:

All is well, though hectic, on the C. front. Will soon write a longer e-mail with sentences, unlike this one, that contain a defined subject. Will tell you about the nerdy girl with whom I had a whirlwind evening stretching into early morning involving both shoulder massages and Chrispy-administered ink tattoos (“Julio 4Ever”, a ring of retarded dolphins around her navel, an anchor). Will explain to you just how horribly a young man can botch sweet potatoes. All this and more. Coming soon to an in-box near you. 

and

I’ve got another 11 months’ tour of duty here, I surmise (gotta have me another go ’round of that fabulous summer, you betcha), but after that, it’s the LA Times, baby, all the way. At least that’s the dream I had last night. Well, also that I owned a pair of talking gay dogs. (They talked and were gay, not that they talked gay. Though one of them did have a sibilant S.) They fought crime on the gritty streets of east Mesa when not coming home for leftover spaghetti.

Besides “angry” and “sad” — the words don’t do the feelings justice — I was jealous: C. had made everything stop.

My jealousy told me I needed to leave Toronto; to let go of the dream I had of a life there. The city and the person I loved were one and the same: I wanted them, but they didn’t want me. They were present, yet inaccessible. They were a torment. They were tainted.

I thought, Yeah, C. isn’t in pain anymore, but he’ll also never know how the November election turns out. He’ll never get to touch an iPad, and he was such an early adopter of gadgetry. His connection with life stopped in May of 2008, and as the years ticked by, I realized, he’d become more and more anecdotal. The world would spin one way; he’d spin another. Soon, C. would belong to “a long time ago.” He occupied such a tiny slice of time. And, even though so many signs pointed to his death — only after he was gone did I see how many hints he’d left; how many trail-markers for us to find — only then did I think, Of course this is how it turned out — maybe something could have altered his trajectory. A great therapist? Backpacking through Asia? I don’t know.

And also I thought, What an ass pain, trying to get a body shipped from Toronto to Southern Arizona. I pictured my father, old and heartbroken, trying to navigate some horribly complex, bureaucratic Ontario phone tree, agreeing to fees and pickups; getting disconnected and having to go through the whole fucking thing again. I couldn’t stand it.

So, here’s what C’s death did for me: I packed up a U-Haul, came back to the arid, politically-backward land of my birth, and started graduate school.

I promised myself: You can still check out early if you want to. In a year. If you don’t feel any better. In the meantime, why don’t you try to do something useful? Teaching is useful. Maybe you could be useful and help somebody, doing that.

I unpacked that U-Haul in the early hours of an April morning. In Canada, April was winter, but in Arizona, it was spring. I locked the door of my new place and took off down the street, marveling at my ability to walk again; to run. I wanted to be on campus when the bookstore opened. For the first time in years, I wanted to be where people were. And, while that’s the beginning of another story, it’s the end of this one.

Boundaries. I has them.

This week, I honed my “No” skills on the following razor strops:

1. The most uncomfortable “team-building” exercise in the history of ever. Our roomful of adult professionals was asked to stand up, find a person we didn’t know well, and silently gaze into their eyes for two full minutes. Then — still silently gazing — we were to take each other’s hands and reveal one of our “deepest fears.” Then, we were supposed to hug. This unwanted intimacy resulted, of course, in people giggling, looking away, and putting their hands in their pockets in an attempt to recover some personal space. The team-building “leader” started yelling: “DON’T LOOK AWAY! LOOK AT YOUR PARTNER; DON’T LOOK AT ME! NO TALKING! GET YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO CONNECT WITH YOUR STUDENTS IF YOU CAN’T CONNECT WITH EACH OTHER!”

I looked at the “leader,” a guy who, to me, represents $42,000 we AREN’T spending on books this year, and sat down. Forced emotional intimacy is an ugly thing, and part of our job as educators is to maintain APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES with our students. It would be inappropriate (maybe even actionable) to try to connect with them in anything close to this way. “GET UP!” he exhorted those of us sitting down. “BE BRAVE!” I stayed in my chair, because no way. No fucking way. No matter how much he tried to dare or manipulate me, my answer was no. Saying no felt so good, I was ready for

2. Last night, I met a few family members for dinner. One relative, delighted with his new iPhone, kept insisting I watch a “funny video on the YouTube. This girl got her wisdom teeth taken out, and she’s crying! Heh heh! Look at all these videos of crying girls!”

I declined, because I don’t enjoy videos of women crying and uncomfortable, filmed and watched by men who think it’s funny. This was triggering on a deeper level, because while I love this relative very much; while he’s brilliant and sensitive and usually funny, he has a tendency to laugh at women’s discomfort and embarrassment. I don’t think he’s alone in this, and I know he wouldn’t laugh at  real pain, but but but. I got up, headed for the restroom, and came back 5 minutes later to a sulking relative. After awhile, he brightened up and felt social again — but dinner was kind of ruined. I felt punished for saying no, and the message I received was that everyone’s discomfort was my fault. I had ruined dinner with my humorless jerk ways.

But, you know? It was worth it. I’m still upset about last night, but I’d be more upset if I’d caved and watched the damn video. I’d rather someone hurt me for saying no than hate myself for not saying it.

FedExing myself to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, with a note that says to use whatever looks scientifically promising.

I’ve been sick for three weeks. That’s not true — I was sick for 12 days, okay for 2, and then The Hand of Malaise reached up through a crack in the Earth and dragged me down into the Funk of Lung Disease. My immune system, constantly exposed to the petri dish of teen germs, is shot to hell — but I’m out of sick time so I go to work anyway. At my desk I have an electric kettle, a heating pad, a bucket of hand sanitizer, Vicks VapoRub, and a full complement of lesbo herb tea. The kids say I smell funny. I tell them to stay out of my air space because I want them to live.

I was in this run-down state when we began our Modern Poetry unit last week. I figured they’d had all the traditional rhyme and meter stuff, so I skipped straight ahead to the Beats and took a sharp left into slam/performance, e.g. Alix Olson. We spent the week reading silently, reading out loud, listening, re-listening, writing, editing, and passing the best stuff from group to group. Some adult content, sure, but all carefully vetted and parent-permissioned.

And then. AND THEN. I passed out the wrong Staceyann Chin poem. I meant to give them “My Grandmother’s Tongue,” which has great themes — cultural heritage; generational wisdom — and which starts out:

She gets shorter every year
her ninetieth birthday bending her into a new century

Now she has the time to wonder
how the seeds of her womb 
have come to such silence

Hearing is hard for her
the twilight taxes the organs of the poor
great-grandmother 
she wonders if the children born in exile 
look anything like her

American residents
they visits spaced like the teeth of the elderly
infrequent and few
they bring too many sweets anyway
old people should not partake of such pleasures
dying flesh cannot withstand it…

But I accidentally gave them “Catalog the Insanity,” which goes like this:

Within 30 seconds, the air in the room changed. I’d never seen students so intent on a piece of reading. Look! I thought proudly, even as I feverishly spit something horrible into a tissue. Active student engagement! Rigorous academic focus! 

Then someone giggled. I looked up to see 37 pairs of eyes bore holes through the giggler: Shut up.We’re trying to read this graphic lesbian sex poem. 

Alerted, I shot from my desk and took  the poem back like a Soviet censor: My mistake, here, let me print out what I meant to give you. Oops! Ha ha!  The great part was, they resisted me and tried to hang onto the poem. One copy was almost ripped in half as I confiscated it. There was actual passion for reading in class that day, for the very first time. Score.

Also, I gave in and went to the doctor for an antibiotic. That herbal shit is worthless.

“Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

Parts 1 and 2 of the new Mildred Pierce tripped my lobe into a sudden epiphany last night. Not having seen the original, I didn’t have any Joan Crawford-y preconceived impressions, and while the film is full of chewy radfem nuggets — Mildred’s marriage ends and she’s fine! She raises two daughters, overcomes tragedy, and builds her own business! — what I got out of it is that human lives often parallel the jagged trajectory of sociological/economic history. To wit: Mildred was born between 1900-1905, the absolute worst point in American history (so far) to be born. Why? The horror of World War I spanned her adolescence, with a short break before the Great Depression and a brief respite prior to World War II. This Crap Interlude, as the history books call it, lasted for 17 years between 1929-1946, and by the time it was over, poor Mildred was hitting menopause while people juuust slightly younger than she were starting college via shiny new G.I. Bills and buying affordable houses with cash. I mean, goddammit.

But, you know? These things are cyclical. Let’s say you’re Mildred’s younger neighbor, Betty, enjoying all the postwar 50’s boom stuff and feeling like all is right with the world. Everything’s going to go cattywampus again in about 1967, leaving you feeling betrayed and disconnected. All the kids are shooting pot! You don’t trust these newfangled convenience foods! Who is that skinny black man doing outrageous things to the national anthem on an electric guitar? You’re having a very hard time, and you will not feel better again until Reagan takes office in 1980, whereas Mildred already knows that life can go any direction it wants. She’s relaxed, like a cat falling 32 stories to the sidewalk. By the time the recession hits in 1983, you’re collecting Social Security and playing golf so the whole thing has resolved itself. But let’s say you’re Betty’s’s granddaughter, Jenny, born in 1974. Everything looks Clintonian and rosy when you graduate college in 1996, but then…

And so it goes. If you’re currently having a hard time, just think of it as your own personal 1929-1946. Try to retain all the survival skills you’re learning, like Mildred becomes a great waitress even though she hates it, and bide your time: Your 1950’s are coming, with their plenitude and hope, and maybe the creative explosions of your 1960’s, which will give you the momentum to live through the malaise of your 1970’s, etc. It will be up and then it will be down. You’ll grow and bloom and wilt; rinse and repeat. Someday all this will be a long time ago; the stuff of memory and miniseries.

In the Narnia of angry

Ever have a friend who makes you wonder what, exactly, she or he is doing in your life? A friend from whom oft wafts the sharp, alarming stink of sulfur? A friend you keep around because, well, she or he is interesting/stimulating/fun when not making you unhappy?

I just dropped that friend. It was difficult because I love all my friends and have a high tolerance threshold for human foibles. I mean, am I perfect? But said friend — hereafter referred to as “Dr. Crazyknickers” — brought to the table an inimitable mix of passive-aggressive pissery and pseudo-intellectual pontification not seen upon the Earth since the day Ayn Rand died — a quality impossible to describe in English but for which the Germans probably have a word. He also enjoyed borrowing my skirts and whinging about how it was “(his) turn to be someone’s “girlfriend.”

Please marvel, openmouthed, at the following rough timeline:

Dec. 22: An e-mail from Crazyknickers arrives to say he’ll be in town for a week; can he get back the graphic novel he lent me? I say, Sure! We don’t decide on an exact day or time, though. I make sure he knows that I’m having a rough holiday season and may not be much fun.

Dec. 23 (morning): Two calls from Dr. C. on my phone. One is a drawling, condescending voicemail — he’s channeling Lillian Hellman — the other, a hang-up. I call back; no answer. I get another e-mail later, though: When can we meet? Can we meet right now? 

Dec. 23 (evening): Text message: Can I get my books back? I reply, Sure! and await further instructions. None come.

Dec. 24: Family day. I turn my phone off, but when I check it at midnight, I have a text:. 11:30 now ooout when i cN come by toNite.Book. What? It’s Christmas Eve. I’m watching the Washington, D.C. Basilica Mass with a cup of sipping chocolate and a lapful of cats. I make a mental note to mail the damn thing to him after the holidays. I also realize why I’ve been resistant to seeing him. It’s not because I don’t have the time. It’s not because I don’t care about him. It’s because he’s emotionally tone-deaf and exhausting; the emotional equivalent of having my forehead middle finger-flicked ’til it’s bruised. He’s interesting to be around, and his oddities are fine when I’m in a good mood, but not now. Not at the most emotionally pungent time of the year. I remember how he embarrassed me at a party by asking over and over again for my pretty friend’s phone number, while ignoring my less-pretty friend when she tried to (politely) converse with him. I remember how it hurt when he asked me how it felt to be “falling rapidly” out of my upper-middle-class background. I remember many things he’s said or done that were rude, inappropriate, and creepy, and I don’t reply to the message. I get another at 1 a.m.

Dec. 25: More texts. Obviously, my lack of reply is causing him to want to MAKE ME reply. He becomes increasingly persistent and agitated. I refuse to deal with this on Christmas Day, and I’m not going to reward this kind of behavior. I table it for tomorrow. I still want to smooth the whole thing over.

Dec. 26: He posts on my Facebook wall, and his tone is so weird and off-putting that one of my friends responds, alarmed. They get into it a little bit. Embarrassed, I reply as politely as I can that I’m spending Christmas with my family and I’ll mail the book to him. He messages me to tell me how angry he is about this — “A week is more than enough time to return my property!” — and says that he “doesn’t have much faith” that I’ll return the book. His passive-aggressive, wispy-sad-pushy, ersatz-victim, blamey-blame — DAMMIT THERE IS NO ENGLISH WORD — tone pushes me past the point of no return. I HAVE GONE THROUGH THE WARDROBE DOOR TO ANOTHER WORLD OF ANGRY. I AM IN THE NARNIA OF ANGRY, WITH THE FAUNS AND THE TURKISH DELIGHT. I text him back. I say he is rude, inappropriate, and creepy, and I tell him not to contact me again. This feels amazing because it’s true, and because it’s the first time I’ve ever said it. To anyone. No matter how deserved. He texts back. I don’t read anything beyond the first word (“Whatever”). Instead, I delete the message and all previous messages, and text again to say that any further contact from him will be considered harassment. I hear nothing further.

So. The moral of the story is, purge your life of avoidable asshats. Don’t waste time wondering why they’re asshats, blaming yourself, or trying to fix it. I held onto this toxic friendship because I value my friends and hated to think there was someone in the bunch who could be so self-absorbed yet so un-selfaware; who could stalk across my boundaries in such a demanding, hurtful way. I made excuses — he’s stressed out! He just got fired! He’s having gender difficulties! — in a way I’ll never do again. I don’t have to be nice and forgiving and understanding to everyone, at all costs. The world won’t end if I’m not. I will shed the toxic, just like when I had colon hydrotherapy and raspberry seeds came out even though I hadn’t eaten raspberry seeds in months. That stuff really sticks around if you don’t get after it.

 

*I NEVER WANTED TO BORROW THE DUMB THING ANYWAY. He kept offering, though, and I felt awkward refusing. My first mistake.