I picked up some bad fiction the other day. By that, I don’t mean I purchased it. I mean I actually picked it up, read a few paragraphs, and put it back down. The author began their chapter with a bit about some character’s eyes. Green-gray pools of mystery. Black doorways that held a hint of deception. Seductive golden jewels belying a quiet sadness. That was enough for me.
We can do better than this, people. I know it’s fiction, but nobody spends that much time staring at their own reflection in the town sheriff’s steely gray gaze or sitting in the coffee shop cogitating the corneas of the hipster college kid drinking a chai latte. I know, I know–window to the soul and all. Nevertheless, it’s cliché and overdone.
The nose has smelt just as much as the eye has seen. The femur probably has some good stories (soccer balls and coffee table corners and such). Imagine the ingrown tales a toe would tell. Why eyes?
If it were any other body part, we’d realize how goofy the obsession with eyes can be.
Lona sneaked a glance a Ronald. His smile broadened, but there was something in his ears that gave her pause. Maybe it was the holes, the way the dark recesses of his ear canals pulled her into their waxy depths. She wondered what it would feel like to get lost in those ears, to lie beside him in the moonlight, wanting so desperately to find a Q-tip. His ears told the story of his life: unattached earlobes, fleshy and pink–a cherubic child. A piercing on the left–he’d been a rebel, once. Cauliflowered cartilage on the right side revealed he’d most likely stuck his head in a laundry chute or a coal scuttle. The salt and pepper bristles peeking out–no loving woman to care for him, to buy him a personal grooming appliance or shame him into finding a pair of scissors. Those ears haunted her dreams.
I had to have my photo taken this morning for a publication. Some people might be excited by that. I was not.
I used to enjoy being photographed. I still like having pictures taken with my family, of course. They’re usually sweaty hiking photos or all of us mugging for the camera.
But something the rest of the world is going to have to look at, even for one issue? Blech. When it comes to publications, I’d much rather see my byline than my face. As I’ve aged, the proportions of my face have changed. I used to be able to smile normally. Close inspectors might have discerned the overbite and accompanying weak chin that I cannot ever unsee, but I could grin and be okay with those things.
Something’s changed with my face in the last few years. Smiling no longer comes naturally. Oh sure, I still smile constantly. I’m a smiler. But the “photo smile?” It’s hard to produce. It feels concocted. Perhaps it’s because the fat pads that used to adorn my cheekbones have begun to slide down my face like the Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazi. I can’t be sure. But I have to work at smiling now.
This morning as I was doing my hair, I practiced my photo smile in the mirror. What I saw straddled the line between creepy clown and woman-who’s-just-inhaled-caterpillar. I tried closed lips. I tried smiling with the top teeth showing. I tried smiling with all of the teeth showing.
That was when I noticed the chip.
When I was 22, I fainted in the shower and hit the tile floor, hard. In addition to the concussion, I woke up with a corner of my front tooth missing. Luckily, I found a dentist who did a great job of repairing it and I went on my merry way through life, until last month, when I bit into a chewy kale-chia bar (yes, it tasted like kelp and regret), the composite broke off. I’d gotten 16 years out of it, which is a nice long run for a tooth patch, I’m told, and I got it fixed within 24-hours.
This morning, as I grinned at myself in the mirror and tried to talk my weak chin into making a man out of itself, I saw this newest chip.
To my credit, I maintained my composure. I figured, what the hell, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by foregoing the smile. The chin, the bite, the chip, the idiot smile–problems all solved. I’ll be a serious writer, looking appropriately miserable, as we all tend to be.
To pull off a really good serious face, you need a solid pout. To accent that solid pout, you need lipstick. I think. I don’t know–I don’t wear lipstick. For some reason, it mixes with my saliva and forms a pink band of goo on the inside my lower lip. If you’ve ever talked to me at length, you might have noticed me not-at-all-subtly dragging my thumbnails across my bottom lip. It’s not a nervous habit; I’m windshield-wiping away the lip goo, but I’m trying to be casual about it. And now I’ve just written about it so the jig is up. Anyway, I don’t own lipstick, so I knew I had to stop at CVS on the way to the photographer to buy some.
I read an article that said your perfect lipstick shade is the same color as your nipples. It made sense to me–what matches the nips matches the lips. The problem is finding that shade in the store. I don’t know what your town is like, but in Wheeling, we generally frown upon those who take a boob out in the makeup aisle. In the past, I’ve tried casually peeking down to determine what color scheme I should focus on, but within the darkness of my shirt cavity, I can’t get a solid gander at what I’m working with, areola-ically speaking.
Today, I knew I needed to be clever. After all, we live in the technology era. Every one of us has a camera. Why not make use of it and capture said nipple for in-store comparisons? Yet here arose still another problem: lighting. What type of lighting was best for photographing a nipple to bring out its true color? I walked around my house for a while, looking in different rooms at different lighting conditions: window, overhead, plant growth bulbs. Each cast a different kind of light. At the window, my skin was pink. By the shefflera, it looked orange. Next to the kitchen sink, it was purple. I wished the photographer was there to advise me.
I found hundreds of nipple shades on the shelves at the store. Maybelline nipples. Revlon nipples. Glossy nipples, glitter nipples, purples, reds, and blues (if that last one applies, you might see someone about your circulation). Since nobody else stood nearby in the makeup section, I got my phone out and pulled up the photo.
I have to admit to being taken somewhat aback when the image popped up. I’ve got a big phone. It’s a 7-inch screen. If anyone else had been nearby, they’d have spotted it. Seven inches is a big patch of skin. And despite the efforts of the great Renaissance artists, the thing by itself, divorced from the body, just isn’t all that cute.
Cameras dotted the ceiling. I didn’t know how much a security viewer could see, but I was running low on time, so with picture in hand, blazing on its brightest setting for proper study, I went from kiosk to shelf, searching for my perfect shade. I held each tube that caught my eye against the photo, squinting and rotating the phone. I found a promising color for $11, but balked at the price. The $9 shelf offered up some good shades, but nine still seemed a lot to spend on a one-time use. So I took my phone over to the $2 lipstick section and held it up against the Wet n Wild tubes, a brand that has offered low-quality products since before I was old enough to wear them.
And there I found it. My perfect shade. The shade that would adorn the lips that needed to close to cover the chip and hide the shark-mouth. Thank you Wet n Wild, I said, for your inexpensive-yet-accurate representation of the American nipple.
The checkout line stood several customers deep. I took my place between a trio of backpackers–not homeless but clearly rugged travelers making their way on foot–and an older man buying a bottle of Jim Beam. A woman at the checkout counter was confused; the cashier tried to help her swipe her card as we waited. I shifted my weight and grew impatient and nervous. All this lipstick baloney wouldn’t mean a thing if I missed my appointment.
“I hope they call another cashier,” one of the backpacker guys said.
I turned around and replied, “I know, I’m going to be late.”
Another one asked me, “Hey, do you know what time it is?”
I pulled out my phone to check.
The thing about smartphones is that they always return you to your most recent screen. If you last visited Facebook, the phone brings you right back to Facebook. If you were reading CNN, there it is, waiting, right where you left off.
And if you happened to be looking at a close-up of your own left boob with the screen set to maximum brightness, that photo is ready and waiting when you hit the power button.
There it was, smiling out at the world. And at the dudes in line around me.
I smashed the home button with my thumb and the image vanished into the ether. Nobody said anything.
There are moments when we’re faced with the choice to explain our behavior, to try to excuse the thing we’ve just sent out into the world or to shut up and own it. I wanted to look these people in the eye and tell them that I was having my picture taken and I had a weak chin and my smile made me look like I’d eaten an inchworm and my tooth chipped because the only food I’d had in the car was a chewy kale bar and I really needed a natural shade of lipstick and I didn’t want to expose myself in CVS.
Instead, I stared at my feet, bought my lipstick, and got the hell out of there.
In the car, the clock indicated that I was about to be late, so I ripped the wrapper off the lipstick tube and applied it, pleased to finally have the process finished.
I stretched up to see my mouth in the rear-view mirror. Pink lips puckered back at me. Cotton candy pink. Poochie-pink. Power Puff-pink.
This was not the shade I had been looking for. I hadn’t matched my lips to my skin; I’d matched them to My Little Pony. Grabbing a stray napkin, I put the car in drive and scrubbed at my mouth until my lips hurt. I had to get every molecule of pink off, lest anyone see the photo and assume I was sporting Strawberry Shortcake headlights under my shirt.
I glanced in the rearview mirror as I pulled out of parking lot. The backpackers waved.
We tidied up our house yesterday. It was in desperate need. I used to have a friend who cleaned for me, but the house is so exhausting that she had to break the job into two separate days. It’s not that it’s a huge house or anything. It’s just that, in 1908, people liked each room to have about 12 corners, and each window has 8 separate surfaces to clean, and they had to have two staircases instead of just one. And then modern Roberts came along and filled said house with creatures that drop hair in a daily mammalian monsoon and added two kids with more toys than anyone needs. It’s a bit much for one person, and that’s why I’m now without a cleaning person. Plus, I decided that money would serve me better in a jar for Ben’s future legal fees.
During yesterday’s miserable exercise–one replete with whining and bickering and arguments about who was absolutely not going to pick up that shoe or hang up that coat–I noticed something.
We’re pilers. We pile things.
Now, maybe this is human nature. I haven’t been in many of your homes, but I can’t be alone in this. Isn’t it natural to seek out a flat space and cover it with your crap? As I write this, my butt is on the couch and my feet are on the coffee table. Also on the coffee table are two notebooks, a day planner, two bills, three remotes, a phone, a glass of water, a dog collar, a pen, a hair clip, another dog collar, a candle, and two lacrosse balls (which I use to work on the knots in my shoulders, and yes, it hurts like a mofo). And this is after we cleaned it all up. This is what’s left.
For me, for us, that’s not bad at all. I could walk around the house and photograph myriad flat surfaces that have far more stuff on them than this coffee table. The problem with having a flat surface in your house is that a flat surface was made for exactly one purpose: putting stuff on it. That’s it. That’s why we have furniture with flat tops. The table is for dishes and food. Counter tops are for appliances and cat feet at 2AM. The desk–always the worst of the offenders–is like a wide valley where creatures such as first drafts, water bills, paper clips, photographs, and lip balm come to graze and play and roam about on the expansive, composite-wood savannah. The desk is a place for piles if ever there were one. And when the desk’s real estate is maxed out, I move on to the top of the printer, and the top of the filing cabinet, and the top of the fireplace (which is always a fantastic place to put paper products).
These flat surfaces enslave us. At the end of my bed, I have a lovely wicker trunk that was a wedding gift. In it, I store out of season blankets and other sets of sheets. (As I write this I find myself asking why I really need more than one extra set of sheets. After all, I’ve got one set on the bed and a second set for when a kid comes in at 3am and barfs all over everything. Two should be enough. But, no, I’ve got to overdo it. I’ve got my flannel sheets with the doggy paw prints and my flannel sheets that are white so I can bleach them, and I’ve got my two sets of t-shirt sheets and my three sets of cotton sheets–one is pilly but I’m not ready to give up on it–and I’ve got my microfiber sheets that I always think I’m going to love until I put them on the bed and realize the fitted sheet has too much material, and it bunches up under my back and butt at night and reminds me of sleeping on the beach, which is truly a terrible place to sleep, if you’ve ever tried it, and there are sand fleas, too. But this isn’t a post about excess or sand fleas; it’s a post about flat surfaces. )
The wicker trunk has a magnetic hold on me. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s well-crafted, it’s summery, it smells nice on the inside, and it’s useful. And it’s so bad for me. If 365 days make up a year, only on 10 of those days does the top of that trunk see the daylight. Sometimes it’s laundry baskets, but mostly it’s just clean clothing I haven’t put away yet, random socks, and, if the picture to the left is any indication, a copy of The Catcher In the Rye.* When I clear it off, I’m always so certain that I’ll change my ways and keep it clear and zen. I’m suddenly quite sure that the bedroom should be a peaceful place, a feng shui masterpiece, if possible, and I vow to keep it thusly. And then, the next day, the wicker surface is lost again under a fresh load of Scooby Doo underwear and a turquoise pair of deer leggings.
You know what’s worse than flat surfaces? Catch-all pieces of furniture. Usually, these are chairs. I’ve observed that there is a certain radius around an entryway and if a piece of furniture is placed within that radius, it will become a catch-all. Now, my radius may be wider or more narrow than yours, but there is still a radius, and if there’s a chair within that area, we’re screwed. There’s a recliner about ten feet from our lower back door. You’d think that would be far enough away, but nope. The Roberts radius clearly exceeds ten feet because we hadn’t seen the cushion of that chair for three months. When we finally decided to deal with the evil pit, we found two seasons of coats in there, a pile of Ben’s homework, my belt, a dog leash, a set of sheets, and my long-lost bathmats. (In this case, the recliner is also within the radius of the laundry machines, but that’s a problem I’m not ready to admit I have, yet.) By the time I found the bottom of the recliner, I knew that it had to go. Anywhere. Upstairs to the living room, perhaps, beyond the radius of either the front or the upper back door. Because that’s the danger zone. And the front door already has its own chair, currently piled with the contents of a future attic run: a decorative ghost, a grinning, styrofoam pumpkin head, and a gardening trowel. Well, that last one goes to the tool shed when I decide to take out the deflated inner tubes.
You know what’s worse than a chair? A papasan chair. They are the devil incarnate. Whoever invented the papasan chair should be gibbeted. It’s literally a giant bowl that sits in your house like a Venus Fly Trap and waits for a flannel shirt or a hand towel to buzz into its gaping maw. The papasan chair doesn’t care what it eats; it will consume literally anything. It’s a black hole, a tiger shark. Pick your metaphor. Headphones, backpacks, drowsy felines…it doesn’t give a crap. It just wants your stuff. It’s the Pied Piper of Papasan. It plays a mystical flute that we can’t hear, but the stuff can hear it, and the stuff comes right out of the closets and dances merrily into the gullet of that tipsy rattan demon. That’s how the stuff gets there.
Plus, it’s bewitched us: we throw something in it every time we walk by. An offering on the Altar of the Unkempt. Thank god we’re finally waking up and realizing we’re cult members in this Papasan Slob Society. The chair must go to the attic. Formerly, it was a demon foyer-bowl. Before that, it was a demon basement-bowl. Now it’s a demon living room-bowl, and I have to exorcise it, no matter how much pea soup it spews on my shirt. I’m going to need an old priest and a young priest.
I’m not an organized person. Moreover, there are a million better things to do in this world than sort socks and papers and the works of reclusive American novelists. That’s the thing, here. I’m not writing myself into some great revelation about newfound tidiness. I know I won’t change, ever. We all have to sort socks, sometimes, but I’ll trade that in a heartbeat for 20 minutes of sunshine, or fresh air, or even a productive writing hour. Take a solid nap. Sing to the dog. To put it in the simplest, most adolescent terms, I just don’t want to sort my damn socks. So the piles accrue around me.
I know you tidy people are out there. You’re probably reading this on your wide open desk, next to your bare end table, shaking your head because you just can’t understand what’s so hard about taking 10 seconds to hang up your Gap jeans rather than tossing them on the ficus tree, and how can there be one ankle boot in the second-floor bathroom and one in the basement boot box because who does that? All I can say is that you must be a powerful Jedi to resist the siren song of the stuff-pile. I’d ask you to teach me your ways, but I’m pretty sure the Dark Side claimed me long ago.
*That’s the thing about trunks. They’re goddamn useful. Old Ben likes to use it as a diving board for the bed. Boy, I sure do need to work on my cleaning habits. I really do.
There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.
I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.
Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.
Ah, the glorious silence of nature.
In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.
It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.
Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.
I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.
A few weeks ago I had a series of interactions with jerks. A rude man on the phone, an argumentative dental insurance company operator, and a neighbor who gave her handyman permission to drive his truck on our lawn, leaving wet, muddy ruts. Jerks come in threes, I think, like disasters.
On such days, the world feels overstimulating and abrasive, like a cheese grater on my arm. People present their worst selves in clusters, and I want to respond by being a jerk back. A bigger, snappier, more clever jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. An eye for an eye.
But my parents raised me to rise above. Don’t be petty. Don’t be petulant. Do the right thing. Be kind. These are the values we all try to impart upon our children and for good reason. We can’t all be jerks, and we cannot exist as a society if we only exist for ourselves. We need to make an effort to get along, to extend the olive branch often, for the betterment of everyone’s lives. Sometimes, that means swallowing what a jerk dishes out for the sake of moving past the moment.
It’s easy to take that high road to an unhealthy extreme, though.
I always take the high road. Always. You can count on me never to start a fight. To play it safe and calm and cool. And I don’t think that’s necessarily something to brag about. My regular refusal to engage in any sort of confrontation really means I lack spirit. I don’t stand up for myself. I’m not up here trotting along the high road on my moral high horse. No way. I’m here because I’m suffering from elevated levels of door-matitude.
Unfortunately, door-matitude is tricky to overcome because I’ve allowed it to persist for so long. It’s easy to tell myself that I’m doing the mature thing by turning away from a jerk and refusing to engage them. What I’m often doing is letting them off the hook because it’s hard to step up. To further complicate the matter, there’s a distinct difference between solidly standing up for myself and acting like a petty little weasel. Everyone should practice the former, whereas weasels just make trouble. (They steal your keys and hide them under the couch every chance they get.) But as healthy as it would be to practice assertiveness, it would also feel really good to let my petulant inner punk out of the bag.
My friend Thomas once claimed I wasn’t the kind of person who started the fight; I was just the person who ran in at the end and kicked the loser when he or she was on the ground. But he was wrong. I’m nowhere near the fight. I’m the person sitting on the fence, watching, where nobody can accuse me of taking a side or throwing a punch or being anything less than totally neutral.
Talk about a weasel. That’s not even neutrality. That’s just wishy-washy.
I don’t know where I got my wishy-washiness, but I have plenty of examples in my family of people who not only stand up for themselves, but also allow themselves the pleasure of a little pettiness, now and again. No one could ever accuse Shawn of being wishy-washy. Recently, we received a notice from our neighbors about our trees. Our yard is bordered by a row of townhouses. The back porches look right into our yards, and the owners routinely tell maintenance workers to their drive big trucks on our lawn without so much as asking our permission. (And that’s the thing: we’d totally say yes if they did.) One worker borrowed a wheelbarrow, trashed it, and drove off without a word. Another broke off a tree branch.
When a cantankerous letter arrived demanding that we remove our pine trees from their view, we declined to do so. We did, however, trim the branches that had grown into their airspace and cleaned up some of the overgrowth. At this point, I’d have been content to let the whole affair fizzle and diffuse. Not Shawn. He wasn’t done, and went out and bought two more baby pine trees, specimens which will grow rapidly to heights of 40 feet and will block the neighbors’ view of our yard. And the sunset. And the sky. He enjoyed every minute of it, and he tends to those trees as he would his children.
How I envy both his carefree ability to say to the jerks, “Screw you guys,” and the smile on his face very time we talk about the baby trees. They hold the sweet promise of years of completely legal neighborly annoyance. I’d have let the neighbors push me around, but Shawn just plants more trees.
Hopefully, Shawn will impart upon our kids the desire to take less crap than their mother does. I want my children to feel confident when they take a position. I want them to know they’re on the side that aligns with their moral compass. Wishy-washiness and door-matitude will never serve them. Not only does fence-sitting show weak moral character, but you also spend a lot of time bent over in the bathroom plucking splinters out of your ass.
Benjamin has never displayed the attributes of a fence-sitter. He always knows where he stands, and that’s right there in the thick of the fray, brawling for all he’s worth. Andy, on the other hand, takes after his mother. He’s anxious, he’s slow to act, and he’s always worried about doing the right thing.
Recently, Andy’s fourth-grade class spent several weeks participating in the World Peace Games. They divided up into various countries and tribes, and together they worked through crises and learned how a global society functions, for better or for worse. Andy was assigned membership in a small tribe with few members.
He was also secretly given the role of the game saboteur.
I wondered how this would affect him. The saboteur’s job is to ruin things at just the right moment, e.g. poisoning the cattle, introducing disease, and dropping atomic bombs. Timing is everything, and if Andy was found out and convicted in World Peace court, his part of the game would be over. Plenty rode on his ability to be sneaky and snarky and devious, and I wondered if he would find the intestinal fortitude to take it on. Yet he had an enviable job, I’d say. Specifically given permission and instructed to throw a monkey wrench into everything.
I’d love to go back to eighth grade and drop an atomic bomb on the girl who told me my ideas were stupid, and to shut my fat mouth before she smacked it.
For the first week Andy seemed a little hesitant. He made it out like he was waiting for the right moment, but I thought maybe the idea of souring everything felt wrong to him. He had friends in various countries and tribes. He’s a sweet soul who feels uncomfortable when the people he cares about are uncomfortable. In the car after school my desire to live vicariously as a person who not only eschews the fence but blows it up entirely grew stronger each time he told me he was waiting for the right moment to strike.
Waiting for the right moment. I’ve said that many times as a way to justify inaction. When I don’t want to take a side or take a stand, I pull the I’m waiting card. And I worried that Andy might do the same.
And then one Tuesday he got into the car with a fat-cat smile.
“How was school?” I asked him.
“Oh, it was great,” he said. And continued to grin.
“Well,” he said. “The members of my tribe were real jerks today.”
“Oh buddy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. They were so mean. They told me I was going to ruin everything.” He smirked. “So I just decided I would.”
I held my breath for a second. “And?” I asked.
“I poisoned my own tribe’s water.” The smirk turned into a toothy grin as he leaned back against the seat and added, “Some of them burst into tears.”
Apparently, I won’t be plucking splinters out of Andy’s bum after all.
Writers consider their words carefully. Endlessly. To the point of madness. When we write, we think. When we revise, we obsess. We delete and replace and delete again. The words must be exact. They must flow. They must be premeditated and thoughtful and absolutely perfect.
That’s writing. When I speak, however, the process isn’t quite so deliberate. Sometimes the things that pop out of my mouth in conversation are really asinine. Like when I plan to respond with either “neat” or “cool” but end up busting out a hearty, “Nool!” Or when a relative stranger asks where my kids are and I reply that they’re duct taped in a closet at home. Not everyone appreciates that sort of comment, I’ve discovered. But just as often, the things that pop out of my mouth are a surprise to me because they’re not just Laura-chatter; they’re statements that reflect my true feelings.
Twice this week I’ve heard myself telling someone that I’d rather be in the woods than around people. The first time, I was sitting with a friend who was asking me if I would be attending a social event this weekend. I grumbled a bit, said yes, and then quipped, “I never go to social events. I’d rather be in the woods.”
Two days later, I had a similar conversation with a different friend. “I don’t like to come out of the woods,” I said, in reference to socializing. “I prefer trees to people.”
On a side note, this week I finally earned my Kooky Hermit Badge from the Girl Scouts of America. It’s one of the hardest badges to earn because it requires an intense effort to be both antisocial and muddy at all times. Nailed it!
It’s true. I’d rather be in the woods than celebrating or drinking or visiting or eating. Now, it’s also true that when I eat lunch with friends, I enjoy it very much. And I suppose I would rather go to Punta Cana with my husband than a tulip poplar. (Well, actually that really depends on if he’s going to do that thing where he packs three minutes before we leave for the airport and then forgets pants. I wrote about it once.)
But generally, I stand by my statements. I do prefer the trees, the mountains. And it’s not that I don’t love and care for the friends I see at a formal social event. It’s just too overwhelming, too overstimulating, and there are never any squirrels or moss or caterpillars in attendance. (Have you ever talked to moss? It is so polite. Never interrupts.) I have to wear high heels rather than hiking shoes and carry a purse rather than a fishing pole or walking stick. I have to check my quippiness at the door, and I can’t utter things like, “Hey, this looks like coyote poop,” or “I’m going to go take a leak in that ravine.” That’s what I’d say out in nature. At a formal event, it sounds a little suspect.
Of course, I always survive encounters of the social variety, and it’s never as stuffy as I imagine it will be, especially if I confine my bladder evacuations to the ladies’ room. Still, I’ll take any chance to disappear into the forest.
Yesterday, I had to take our new car back to the dealership in Morgantown for a repair. The prospect of a day in the repair shop infuriated me until I remembered Mo-town’s proximity to Coopers Rock State Park. I got downright giddy at the thought of sneaking up to the mountains in a rental car, and I did just that. Although the main road to the famous overlook was closed for the winter, I found a separate trail that led down into the canyon along a mountain stream through an eastern hardwood forest, past patches of hemlock and enormous boulders dripping with moss and icicles. I was the only person on the trail – the only person in the woods, even – and it was fricking glorious. And yes, I did pee in a ravine.
I found myself so full of joy, grinning like an idiot. The forest is where I go when I’m in need of spiritual comfort. That’s where I connect with spirit, where I find the divine. It’s the only place I connect with the divine, in fact. But on a more basic level, I’m just a happy nut in those mountains. I didn’t even say much to myself as I hiked, except when I approached boulders that looked like they might house a bear and her cubs, and then I made sure to recite loud, dirty limericks and have heated political discussions with Pete, my walking stick. You don’t want to surprise a bear (and it’s also important to remember that tragic man from Nantucket).
My emotions ran so purely joyful for those three hours that I conducted an experiment. Out loud, I said things to myself that normally embed in my brain and make me miserable. I said, “You’re a hack,” and, “Nobody is ever going to publish that book.” I said, “Your writerly income is pitiful, chicken arms.”
Nada. Nothing. Didn’t bother me in the slightest. The insults bounced right off. At home, I’d have felt awful hearing those things. Out there, I laughed at my chicken arms. Not a drop of negativity could penetrate. That’s the power of nature, of the forest.
And let’s be honest: as a species, trees are way better than people. Aside from their intrinsic usefulness and value to the environment, trees are just plain decent folk. Has a red spruce ever criticized your parenting skills? Has a quaking aspen ever raised an eyebrow and asked why you weren’t in church on Sunday? Has a sugar maple ever called you a slut?
Has the forest ever done anything other than listen patiently to your troubles, block the view of your drunken neighbor in his underwear, provide branches to burn on a campfire and a lovely whistling sound on a windy day? Okay, maybe that one sycamore branch that fell on your tool shed was a bit of a douchebag. But I’m telling you, trees are better than people. I’d rather be with the trees. A tree is the ultimate introvert. Even in a group, they stand sort of awkwardly, straight up, exactly like me at a party before I have a cocktail. Sometimes, like me after a cocktail, they swing their arms a little too wide and whack somebody in the face.
(The palm tree’s an extrovert, though. Look how it stands all saucy and angled, leaning to the left or to the right, they way women pose sometimes. Hi, I’m a palm tree! Check out my coconuts! I’m just going to grow here at an angle with my besties in a cluster and wave my fronds all around and make clacking noises.)
Yesterday, I eventually had to come out of the woods. After a solid, 6-mile solo hike, I was damn tired. (See What’s Wrong With You?–Part One, a tale of fatigue.) But I felt fortified against the world for another day or two. I hate coming down out of the mountains into a world of shopping plazas and office parks. Thankfully, the high lasts for a while, long enough to remind me that the world of humans isn’t always as bad as I imagine.
And I’m going to try to work on the blurting thing.
I know, you all groan inwardly. Here again we must listen to the obsessive-compulsive, Type A, neurotic mess of a writer talk about her own insecurities and do a little whining, followed by a predictable conclusion. We just came to see the duck fucking she promised us a month and a half ago.
Well, first of all, I keep wanting to write about the randy mallards but then I realize it might go into my thesis, so I’m hesitant to blog about it.
Wednesday was my birthday. It actually sucked royally because I was recovering from an obscene migraine, and four days later I’m still so darn fatigued and headachey that I’m wondering if maybe I contracted Lyme Disease while romping around in the wilderness of Belmont County for the last few months. Oh yes, I’m a horrible hypochondriac. Just a mess of a hypochondriac. All winter I had a twitchy eye (or was it a twitchy finger?) and I was sure that there was a growth on one of my lobes. And then I switched to the far more realistic fear of an impending-anaphalactic reaction. Every time I took any sort of pill I was certain my throat was going to close up. I’m absolutely off my rocker, I know. I never did continue with the medication that was prescribed to me, because it clouded my head. And now that the stress of school is over, the anxiety has largely melted away. I even managed to ride in the passenger seat with Shawn driving and not brace my feet against the dashboard in crash position. That’s progress.
What does this have to do with my birthday? Not a damn thing. I had a migraine; it makes you stupid for a few days. It was a tangent. Anyway, the Lyme Disease thing…I’m calm about it, for once, and curious, and cautious. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on. Stiff neck, headaches, fatigue, confusion, joint pain…those little bastards are out there. There’s nothing so creepy as a parasite. Anyway.
As I lay there miserably on my birthday reading my plethora of Facebook birthday greetings, a theme emerged: You’re the funniest person I know. You’re so hilarious. You make me laugh.
Holy shit, Batman. Don’t tell an obsessive-compulsive that she’s funny. It’s too much.
I know I’m funny. God didn’t give me the gift of beauty, or a quick wit, and he didn’t make me much of a public speaker. (In fact, I think I’m far more likely to pass a thesis defense if I just sit there and shut up for an hour. Opening my mouth can only screw it up.) The one thing He gave me was a sense of humor. A very specific, sarcastic, biting one. I’ve learned to be careful; last year I almost ended a friendship when I made what I thought was an innocent crack about a friend’s pants. Not everybody appreciates it. But, it seems that many of my Facebook friends and my writer friends do. Write more funny, they say. Where’s the funny, my local writing group asks when I show up without something to read.
Do you know how hard it is to write “funny” on command? In fact, out of every ten essays I write, only one is funny. That blog early in the semester that everybody loved about my encounter with a rabid squirrel and walking into a log? That was me being “on.” Most of the time I’m not “on.” And as for the Facebook folk, they only see me when I’m “on.” Funny people shut the hell up when they’re not feeling funny, lest they be discovered as an ordinary, not-so-entertaining human being. When I’m not funny, I’m not talking, or writing.
Also, I’ve discovered in my MFA program that there’s a huge difference between a funny quip and a funny essay. Quips are easy. They’re like the whoopee cushion of writing. Writing a humorous essay, or story, requires the literary equivalent of a room full of fart gags, and chances are that after a few air biscuits the reader is going to be bored. That’s a lot of pressure (pun not intended but I’ll go with it), and what’s more, humor doesn’t sit in a jar waiting for the lid to be lifted so it can burst forth. Imagine the circumstances that came together that day last winter for me to write that humorous blog: the dog had diarrhea, the trapped squirrel, the log in my face, the fricking flat tire…that morning was a gift from the universe.f
(I think I just stated that walking face-first into a fallen tree was a blessing.)
Therein lies the part where “writer” comes in. I don’t get those sort of funny days very often, so this means I’m going to have to rely on my skills. (Ugh.) And in turn, that’s where the insecurity comes in. I’m not sure I can force funny on any given day. Rather than a steady stream of comedy, it seems to come in wee bursts, all-or-nothing funny flash-floods.
I read 300 pages of Freudian humor analysis this past semester. Freud taught me how to craft his version of a joke. But even if I had any respect for Siggy himself, I couldn’t agree less with the way he deconstructs humor. Sure, somebody has to do it. It’s interesting to note why things are funny to the joke-teller and the joke-receiver. But I think analysis falls apart in my hands when I’m writing something funny. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. I don’t give a shit why you laugh at what I say, as long as you laugh. Any press is good press.
Moreover, when I went to a one-day conference at school last fall, I sat in on a humor lecture. And there was no comedy in that room. That is to say, it was dark humor. Sad, ironic, look-what-the-characters-have-come-to humor. The essays didn’t make me smile. Sigh. I hate that kind of irony.
Okay, I love irony. Writers feed on irony the way my kids live on cereal. In high school we were force-fed irony until we puked up Sophocles. Our discussions were led while the word “Irony” was written on the chalk board in huge letters, as though irony were the orgasm of our literary roll in the hay. And, I suppose it is. But dark, ironic humor isn’t particularly funny to me. If you don’t smile when you read what I write, it’s not humor. It’s not comedy. It’s not fucking funny.
That’s not particularly scholarly of me, is it? I just want to make you people laugh. Life is serious enough, and nature writing has the potential to be a serious downer due to the fact that we’re all in a sorry-ass situation of our own making. (Irony! God, yes! Right there!) But dammit, if you keep telling me how funny I am and how I should do stand-up in my kitchen and write a Sedaris-esque book, I haven’t a chance in hell. Lower your expectations. Then, maybe I’ll come up with something cleverly humorous just to stick it to you.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check my scalp for a bullseye rash.
*Please see the next blog post for the Official Nature Writing Blog Post of Week 6. This is a blather that I cannot keep in, because I blather.*
Now that I’ve spent a brief few moments exploring my senses and paying homage to the brilliant sun and a sky that makes me feel as though death would be nothing more than lying contentedly on a slab of ice alone (in a good way…sometimes lying on a slab of ice isn’t as much fun as others, say, after a hockey stick to the face or when you’ve just been pulled out of a morgue drawer), I can tell you what else happened. If you read this one, read the post below first. That’s the official one. It was all true and honest. So is this. Pam Houston and her 20% can go pick an ear.
When I left the house it was in disarray. School was letting out at 11:30am, and I had to make a 50 minute drive out, do my contemplative thing, and make another 50 minute drive home. AND make time to tinker with the toilet because it needs antifreeze and I had so much coffee that there’s no way I was going to get away with a quick wilderness tinkle behind my mother’s boxwoods. I left childen unshodden and a husband in the shower undoubtedly staring off into space having deep thoughts about man things like boobs and NATO.
When the girls and I arrived, they bolted for the lake. In the cabin I donned heavy snow pants, ski gloves, a balaclava that makes me look like an egglplant, and a hat over top of that. (I knit the hat myself, so I might as well have worn a paper towel on my head for all of the warmth it offered.)
I had my phone/camera out taking photos of the rock where I learned to jump as child. I was taken by the way it has a quiet cave underneath its eastern corner, and I always think I’d be the fat little bass that hangs out under there 5 days a week until the children come on weekends to throw sticks and pee off the edge. Being a writer, I can’t really just enjoy looking at a rock. I have to find meaning in a rock. Metaphor. Make a comparison. Find a symbol. Gah. It’s a rock that has an uppy corner. Shut up. You’re not a bass. You’re an ass.
The warmth of the sun called me out onto the ice and I decided to test its thickness with my own body weight rather than something sensible like a rock or one of my dogs. (That’s why I take two out there, right? Let’s be honest. I’ve got my ice-testing dog and my spare dog. They’re like birth control–it never hurts to double up because nobody likes an unexpected swimmer.)
My ego decided to come with me today. In my yoga class we’ve started this baloney of taking off all of our clothing, putting on some gaudy yoga pants and a tank top, going out into the snow and striking a yoga pose. And then we send them to each other and dare each other to top it. I wasn’t about to take off all of my clothing, but I decided to set up the camera, hit “record” and film myself doing a bit of eagle out on the ice. Wrapping my legs around each other, binding my arms was tough in so many thick layers, but I did it. As I retrieved the camera phone, again my vanity got the better of me and I hit “play”. There was my dumpy winter form on the beautiful ice, contorting itself into knots, and there behind me was my German Shepherd succumbing to an explosion of bloody diarrhea. Namaste, idiot.
Eagle ego: dog diarrhea not pictured
That smart phone has an uncanny ability to reflect buffoonery every time. It calls me out like an overly-honest 4-year-old, the same one who appeared in the shower stall the other day to tell me I had some real nice flappy boobs, and how did I to go the bathroom without a penis anyway?
The commotion was happening along the shoreline. I was down-dogging on a slippery patch of ice uncovered by the wind, and for once there was no hot breath in my face. Again, as with a little kid, silence means they’re into something. When I regained my footing, Maya and Nugget were on the shoreline, digging furiously, and something was squealing. Chirping. Barking?
Boat pose: the only boat on the lake
Moving in snow pants and thick boots isn’t easy when you’re moseying; when you’re hauling buns it’s nearly impossible. I couldn’t get there fast enough, and when I did, there was blood all over the ice. Maya was smiling up at me with a beet-red mouth, and I couldn’t tell if the blood belong to her or the shrieking varmint who was hiding in the sand under the thick lip of the ice where it piled along the shoreline. Clearly, dog and beast battled it out and beast dove for cover. Unable to break the thick frozen barrier, Maya took a different approach and set to work digging from the other end, through the muck. The thing screamed.
WARNING: Some blood
From my angle I couldn’t see at all what it was, but only a few possibilities extended themselves on a such a bitter day: squirrel or woodchuck. The latter hibernates, but this seemed to be making more noise than I’d expect out of a nut-gnawer. Regardless, the critter tangoed with a big dog and probably lost a foot in the process. Most likely, its life’s pendulum would stop swinging within a day or two. Suffering animals prefer to hide themselves away, to make themselves small and quiet, and only in their most desperate hour do they call out in anger and defense the way this creature called out. I could offer it nothing but the peace in which it might die.
Instead I turned on my video camera and slowly inserted it into the crack in the ice, hoping to identify whatever victim lurked beneath the surface.
I had that coming, I’ll admit. Not only did I react with a distinctly anti-eco-feminine nancy-boy yowl when it squalled at me, I also caught it on film and feel obligated to offer it up on the confessional altar of Google’s favorite blogging platform as penance. My name is Laura and I tried to film a wounded weasel-thing under a block of ice because I was afraid it would bite my face if I looked too closely.
The clock inched closer to the time of my required departure and the girls tore themselves away from the ugly scene. Happy to leave it behind, I took an extra 10 minutes for an ice savasana and received, in return, a hot tongue in my ear. Not the good, Saturday-night kind, either. The kind that smelt of resentful muskrat.
Up the hill in the house, I sat one more time on the world’s coldest toilet seat, not having been smart enough to turn on the heat when I arrived. But the car was still warm, and I loaded up the girls and drove out of the empty neighborhood, saying goodbye to the cabin for another week, and considering what I’d learned.
When a nature writer is in her chosen place in the year 2014, she may be doing any one of a number of things which do not include actual reflection. The intrusion of the smart phone into nature will prove to be the downfall of the deep thinker. Too great exists the temptation to amuse ourselves doing stupid-ass things that ultimately serve only to make us laugh, to give us an excuse to stare at our own faces rather than the face of the sun (actually, don’t do that – you’ll go blind). Hidden wonders wait under the ice for the soul un-tethered to her technology. A dog cannot find all of the gems in the wilderness for me. Next time I’ll have to look for myself, look at what’s before me.
For example, the log I smacked with my own face on the way back.
As I rubbed my split lip in the car an orange exclamation point lit up my dashboard, and an icon indicated my right front tire was low.
Low? That sucker was limp. Moreover, it was hissing. A steady stream of air was pouring out of the husk of its bulk. In the rubber flesh was embedded a tiny spearing rock. Like Dillard’s frog, a water bug had come up from under the tire and eaten out the inside, leaving a crumpled skin. Mother f*cker. This is because I tried to film a rat under the ice, isn’t it? As I crouched in the 3-degree air, it occurred to me that today was Friday the 13th. I wasn’t yet out of the shade of the hill, and the cell signal was at least a few miles away. Crap, I thought. Can I roll out of here on what little air is left or should I go back to the house and use the land line to call AAA or Shawn? I decided to gamble on the nearest gas station, 20 miles away.
As I emerged into the sunlight, I dared to pick up a little speed and thought I might just make it.
Rounding the bend, movement caught my eye and I slammed on the brakes as an inky black tomcat shot out of the bushes, crossing the icy gravel road in front of my car.
A better writer would come up with some conclusion. I’ll come back to this blog, soon, and write one. Until then, put that in your corn maze and husk it.