Editing my Book is Scrambling my Brain (and other terrible metaphors)

skeleton with hand up to mouth as if thinking
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

I’ve never thrown a boomerang before, but I understand, when you do, it’s supposed to come back, at least according to the cartoons I watched in the 80s. What it’s not supposed to do?

Let’s say I pull my arm back across my body and enthusiastically whip that boomerang into the air. It starts off at great speed, hurling through the atmosphere as I grin at its agency. Then, my smile falters as the boomerang does the same. It’s not turning as I’d expected. It’s slowing down, slowing down, drifting. Soon, it starts to break apart and the pieces fall away from each other in a lovely example of entropy.

It’s like throwing a boomerang on the moon, I assume, as a person more in love with astrophysics than comprehending it.

The point is, you start off feeling perfectly assured your toy will return to you, neatly falling into your grasp but instead, it escapes and disassembles itself, lost.

This is what happens with some ideas. I sit my coffee on my desk, pull my hair back, stretch my arms and flex my fingers. I go to town on that brilliant idea about parenting or privilege or where all the socks go — whatever. I create confident, directed prose for a few paragraphs. Then, it happens. I digress into eight different free-associative ideas, going from tulips to gender norms to the heat death of the universe. I type slower, there are long pauses. I wonder….

Where was I going with this?

I had a point, didn’t I?

Is this blog post turning into a book?

Oh, god, what is happening….

I stop typing, I stare, I get up to pour more coffee and never come back. It’s the heat death of an idea.

Heat death, as I loosely understand it, is not about a fireball explosion, ending all that we know, it’s about a slow dissipation of the universe’s heat so that all is evenly distributed — no clusters of temperature or particles remain to form galaxies, planets, atoms or anything interesting.

I, morbidly, find the idea of the heat death of the universe somewhat comforting. It seems like a really calm, zenlike state, not that any of us will be around to appreciate it. However, when it happens to ideas I’m trying to wrangle into engaging essay form, I find it really fucking annoying.

(This is a really good book on the heat death of the universe and more by Katie Mack — well written, in engaging non-jargony terms. She is an astrophysicist and a fabulous writer; I am super jealous. Please do NOT rely on my interpretation of her science, in any way, as fact. )

This happens to me a LOT lately.

Thoughts that seem so meaty at first, get flung forward in the name of progress and fall apart like a raw burger patty tossed carelessly across the backyard, missing the grill and falling into ground-chuck crumbles in the grass. (How many more completely unrelated metaphors do you think I can cram into one post?)

Why?

  1. It’s May, and there are too many end-of-the-school-year activities going on to allow me to focus.
  2. I cull an income from several different sources, which lends itself not to focus but to constant shifting.
  3. I have a book to edit that I am avoiding because going through a manuscript you wrote and have now read 106 times is as much fun as going to the dentist. (Don’t click on that link unless you want to see exactly how long I’ve been running away from this.)
  4. I have SO MANY IDEAS in my head right now, it feels impossible to choose one to sit with. Also, I am going through a bit of an existential writing crisis in which I’m not sure I can write well, and I’m not even confident I know what good writing IS.
  5. There are flies in my house, and no matter how hard I try to be cool with it (What are they really hurting?) their incessant buzzing and purposeless zooming around my office is making me feel murderous.

Have you enjoyed my long-winded explanation for why I haven’t published a post in four months? Because I have (for the too busy and also existential crisis reasons) been having a hard time making myself throw the boomerang. And when I do, it often doesn’t come back. It just hovers out there before disintegrating and becoming a general part of the microwave background of space.

This is terrible writing.

I’ve just taken up your time complaining and making excuses for not working whilst dressing it up in at least three disparate, messy metaphors, two of which I tried to tie together (a boomerang and the heat death of the universe, really??). The third burger-in-the-backyard clunkiness I just left dangling out there by itself.

You can tell by now, this little scrap of text is not going to have a neat ending. It is not calm or zenlike; it doesn’t feel anything like heat death. (Heat death is good? Bad? I don’t even know.) Editing my own book in May has turned my brain into an exploded file cabinet, with documents as disparate as tax forms and half-written poems mingling together in chaos on the floor, filling the room so you can’t even get in the door…

Shit, I’m doing it again.

Ode to an Elementary School

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

It was winter break 2013.

We were enjoying a relaxing time at the grandparents’ house with our kindergartener and 2-year-old when Jason’s phone rang. It was the school. We couldn’t fathom why they’d be calling over break when the faculty and staff, ostensibly, would be relaxing at home as we were.

It was the unthinkable. Jack’s teacher had been killed by a drunk driver in a tragic car accident. When we told Jack, who was a kid intensely attached to routines, his main concern was, “But I’m supposed to be Outrider when we go back.”

The Outrider brought in an “All About Me” poster and got various privileges. He was worried the substitute wouldn’t know this, that she wouldn’t know that lunch was at 11:15 or that the folders got passed out at 2:30. That 1:20 was storytime. His anxiety about the schedule added to my own anxiety and grief over the loss of a kind and knowledgeable kindergarten teacher.

The school stayed in close contact with us.

Almost as soon as I’d wonder something (Who would be the sub? Would they be permanent? What would the school do to ease the transition and help all those 5-year-old kids understand what had happened?), then I would get a message or phone call addressing that concern, before I even asked.

Parents were invited to walk their kids to class that first day after the break. As soon as we walked in the door, the sub, a seasoned teacher, greeted us. When I said, “This is Jack,” she said, “Oh hi, Jack! You’re Outrider this week, aren’t you?” I could feel his anxiety melt away. I felt relieved and so very grateful.

The school provided counseling for both the kids and the parents. We had extra parent meetings to allow us to discuss what had happened and what would happen next. It felt real — not like they were just checking a box. Everyone — the substitute, other teachers, school counselor, principal and assistant principal — cared, and they wanted these kids and these parents to be okay.

My youngest kiddo is in 5th grade, now.

The past nine years have held a lot of joy and fun, but the real test is always when the going gets tough. In our time at this elementary school, I have seen the staff handle many crises, big and small, with grace, humor, empathy and steadfastness. Whether it’s nefarious critters on the playground, a flooded first floor or a possible threat to safety in the immediate area, they always communicate with families in a thorough and timely manner. Even when the community could, at times, be less than supportive, I never saw bitterness or defensiveness, only a dedication to meeting the needs of their students the best they could.

The pandemic has challenged educators like never before.

This has not been an isolated incident in which they’ve had to fix things, manage fallout and pick up the pieces. It’s a large-scale crisis punctuated by smaller, related ones. In March of 2020, they scraped together online learning in a week and continued to improve it as it became clear video conference classes would be here a while. They managed the constant flux of in-person and virtual school while coping with their own pandemic stress. It had to be hard, but they never seemed defeated. The going did get tough, but they proved they were tough enough to keep going and to do so with care in their hearts.

The schools were a significant part of why we moved here ten years ago. I had taught in the district and knew our kids would get a quality academic education. But I underestimated the genuine attention to their social-emotional growth and the dedication to the community. It’s admirable to be the kind of teacher who constantly asks yourself, How can I do better? What do the kids in my class need? What can I do for their families? It’s impressive to be the principal who stays close to what’s happening in the classroom and the community. It is awe-inspiring to be the kind of educator who does that during the tragedy of a suddenly-lost kindergarten teacher or during the stress of a pandemic that is constantly morphing but refuses to go away.

I taught school for 10 years, and I’m not sure I could’ve done it.

I don’t know that I could have handled the fraught emotional landscape of death, the constant pressure from the community, the wearing down of a pandemic. So when I think about the people we’ve known who work there, when I contemplate the elementary school that’s felt like a second home for almost a decade, I feel the purest sense of gratitude.

You guys are not my family. You don’t live in my house. You didn’t have to care about my kids in the sea of hundreds that traverse the halls each day, but you always did. (And now I’m bawling, which is why I write these things instead of saying them in person.) From the bottom of my aching, swelling heart, thank you.

10 Tips for Feeling Refreshed at Any Time of Day

Photo via Pexels

This article was written by Justin Bennett. When Justin contacted me about guest blogging, I was skeptical, because I’m always skeptical. But his article on feeling refreshed lines up with some of the things I do to reduce stress throughout the day. And it’s well written, which is also refreshing. So here are a few truly easy tips from Justin about how to relax here and there, just in time for the holidays:

Does your life feel hectic and overwhelming? If so, it’s time to evaluate your daily schedule and start creating opportunities to slow down and relax. 

Here are a few suggestions that can help you feel refreshed and recharged throughout the day.

Enjoy Your Morning

Start your day off right by incorporating these ideas into your morning routine

  • Create an upbeat morning playlist so that you’ll feel energized and motivated when you get out of bed.
  • Approach your typical morning cup of coffee as a soothing ritual to get centered.
  • Leave time for a few minutes of meditation before you get to work.

Take an Afternoon Break

If you tend to experience a mid-day energy slump, these tips can help you stay focused during the afternoon.

  • To shrink your to-do list, hire a freelancer to tackle administrative tasks or content creation for you.
  • If you can’t get away from your desk, do a few yoga poses to stretch out and relieve any strain in your back and shoulders.
  • Do you balance running a home-based business with watching your kids? Zenbusiness.com recommends strategies, like delegating important chores, to help you create a little more “you” time!

Relax in the Evening

Don’t go to bed feeling frazzled – instead, try these techniques to wind down in the evening.

  • Make sure you’re not staring at screens before bedtime. Follow these tactics for cutting down on your screen time.
  • Write in a journal to get any lingering stress off of your mind before you head to bed.
  • Want to treat yourself? Take a luxurious bubble bath to let go of the day.
  • Finally, sneak in a little reading time before you go to sleep and chill out with your favorite book.

When your schedule is packed, it’s not easy to find moments of calm. But you would be surprised by the small changes you can make that will lift your mood. With these tips, you’ll find that you can take on each day with plenty of energy.

Want to run your business more efficiently? Fill out the contact form on our website so we can discuss your content needs.

How Many Activities is Too Many?

Kids: How many activities is too many?

We have a child who likes to do ALL THE THINGS. I’m not sure where he comes from, except Jason and I were both there when he entered this world, so we’re fairly certain he’s ours. When he was younger, he would bound downstairs like a ten-ton gazelle, leaping but somehow thundering with each step as if he were fifty times his 30-pound frame. It would be Saturday morning, and I would be settling into the couch to enjoy my coffee, staring out the window, and the quiet beginnings of a blissfully unscheduled day. Jack would ask, impatient with expectation…

“So what are we doing today?”

“Well, *yawn* I’m going to sit here and drink my coffee.”

“Then what?”

“I’m gonna read some.”

“For how long?”

“Until I feel like being done.”

“But what are we going to DO today?”

“I don’t know! Sheesh, I’m not the activities director.”

All the Activities

Jack wanted a SCHEDULE. Not a suggestion, not a list, but activity bullet points complete with times down to the minute. Now in 8th grade, he has manifested this desire in diving headlong into 80 percent of the extracurricular activities offered to him. He sometimes starts the day at 7am with clarinet sectionals and schleps home at 9pm after school, football and soccer.

That amount of activity for me would, at any point in my life, have quickly sent me into an overwhelmed tearful meltdown. But as much as he looks like me, he isn’t a clone. He thrives on his busy schedule. He revels in the challenge and the physical activity. I am amazed.

One of the Activities

Our younger kiddo is in his last year of elementary school, and he hesitatingly committed to play select soccer this year. It is his only activity besides school. It is enough, and occasionally, even that one thing feels like too much. I don’t know what Gage will decide to do when he gets to middle school, but it’s hard to imagine him reveling in a fourteen-hour day the way his older brother does. Gage comes home from soccer in an upbeat mood. Then, he disappears into his room for several hours to rest, watch videos and play with his bearded dragon.

What I Thought I Knew

I had these ideas about parenting before I had kids (oh, didn’t we all) — about what the “right” amount of activities was. I never would’ve approved of Jack’s dizzying schedule. But I also thought that, in order to show support for my kids’ interests, I should sign them up for classes or clubs related to their fascinations with sports or lizards or art. Both of these ideas are valid. There is such a thing as too much or too little structure in a kids’ life. And signing a kid up for a pottery class if they’re interested can be a good thing.

What I Learned After Becoming a Parent

  1. There is a wide range of “the right amount of activities,” and it is largely dictated by the kiddo’s personality.
  2. That right amount will change from year to year.
  3. It’s possible to ruin a kid’s interest in something by turning it into an “activity.”

Why Those Three Things Are Important

I’m a firm believer that all kids (and adults) need SOME free time — to rest, reflect, let their mind wander, discover what happens when they get bored. But maybe one person needs a few minutes while the other needs days.

Age matters, of course. It’s never a good idea to fill a three-year-old’s day, from waking to sleeping, with adult-directed activities. The older kids are, the more they can handle…if they want to.

There are other ways to support a kid’s interests than signing them up for classes. This is one I am working on now. I recently saw Jack dribbling a ball in the driveway and asked,

“Do you want me to sign you up for basketball camp?”

“No, Mom. I just wanna shoot hoops on my own.”

Even Jack has a limit. Turns out, he uses driveway basketball to wind down after a long day; it’s meditative to him — the rhythmic sound of rubber bouncing on cement, the clang and swoosh of the hoop. I support that interest by moving the car out of the way and hanging out on the driveway with him. He’ll occasionally tell me about school or friends as he shoots, or he’ll throw me the ball so I can bounce it off the rim into the neighbor’s yard. Basketball doesn’t need to be an organized social activity. Thank god.

Gage is in love with snorkeling right now. He talks about our trip to Belize two years ago almost daily. This is a hard thing to turn into a regular activity in Central Texas. So I order him books about it and, more importantly, listen to him talk about diving and practicing holding his breath. I respect his interest, letting him know that being a snorkel guide and living a simple life by the sea would be awesome if it makes him happy. Gage mostly prefers to explore his interests on his own, outside a scheduled, directed class. And he has come to know himself:

Mom, I really don’t want to do any activity that’s gonna go on for more than two hours.

It’s Their Path to Walk.

Above all, I try not to compare my kids to each other. (Though sometimes it’s hard — they live in the same house, attend the same schools and have had some of the same teachers and coaches.) I tell myself daily, each of them is walking his own path. No matter what characteristics they share with each other or with us, their parents, they will not make the same choices. I can’t choose for them any more than I can save them from the heartache they’ll experience along the way (much as I’d be tempted to if it were possible).

More and more, as the kids get older, I find myself not in the driver’s seat but simply along for the ride. I follow their curiosities, their interests. I support, I mentor, I listen, I comfort. I sign them up for the things they ask for and allow them to move on if that interest proves fleeting. I offer advice sparingly. More often than not, at this point, the world provides consequences for their actions, and I don’t need to. I don’t know exactly who they will become as adults, what their roads will look like. I’m just happy to be a part of the journey.

WHO Are YOU?

Owl by the Alchemist Pottery

Who Are YOU?

That’s what the owl said to me, in the voice of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. However, unlike the caterpillar, it delivered the question without disdain, and the owl was not expecting an answer.

We were walking around Town Lake for my birthday, moseying northwest under the high leafy canopy of pecan trees just before the Lamar Street Bridge when I spied a fluttering of wings out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, looked up and saw a giant barred owl staring at me from a tree branch above. “Look!” I said with awe, and Gage followed my pointing finger to the owl. His eyes grew big and he grinned.

“I’ll go get Dad and Jack!” He raced off ahead, his sneakered feet pounding the packed gravel. Owl’s head turned and followed Gage’s progress with mild interest. Then it turned back to me. Eyes big and round, calm, attentive, curious.

Who ARE you?

I watched and snapped pictures as Owl stared, turned its head to survey the surroundings, adjusted its stance in the tree, and stared again. Owl glided to another branch facing the water, then swiveled its head in that impossible, 180-degree way and made eye contact again.

Who are you?

As I watched Owl, a calm resoluteness came over me. I was not intended to answer the question. I was meant to be it, go out and find it, in the world and inside myself. Owl’s was not so much a question as an invitation, one posed without judgment or attachment. Then, Owl soared away.

Days later, an owl landed in my inbox. A raku potter I follow, the Alchemist, had made some. I picked one who spoke to me, and my very own owl arrived, carefully wrapped, in my mailbox a short while later, all the way from Canada. It was addressed by hand.

Now Owl sits on my desk. I smile when I see her. She watches me type, and she is always asking….

Well, who ARE you?

And I am always answering. There I am.

Getting Lost

Copyright: stokkete

I am really good at getting lost. As I’ve mentioned, I’m also not a very good driver, so maybe don’t get in the car with me. Ever.

Young and Lost

When I was a wee thing, younger than five, my parents sat on the sands of Galveston, Texas, and watched me frolic in the surf and dig holes in the sand with my chubby hands. They saw me collect shells that only a child of that young age would find remarkable. Then, they watched me walk off down the beach in the wrong direction, away from them. They waited for me to realize my mistake, but when mom began to lose sight of me, she hustled down the hot sand to retrieve me. I had no idea. Ah well, she’s young, they thought.

When I was thirteen, my friend, Cindy, and I liked to be dropped off all the mall where we would revel in our independence and spend all our babysitting money on nail polish and cheap earrings at Claire’s. One of the first times I was allowed this freedom, I got lost. We’d agreed Mom would retrieve us from the very same Sanger-Harris entrance where she’d dropped us off. We waited, and Mom didn’t show. Mom waited, and we didn’t show. After a lot of driving/walking around and missing each other in that pre-cell-phone era, we realized we’d been waiting at the wrong entrance. At thirteen, Mom decided a little advice was warranted:

“April, when you walk in the mall, look at where you are. Are you by women’s shoes? Luggage? Furniture? What floor are you on?”

Most people don’t need to be told this, but I did, and I still forget to pay attention to it sometimes.

Drunk and Lost

In my late 20’s, I attended a gathering at a close family friend’s new condo in East Austin, about the time the gentrification in that area was really picking up momentum. We were scarcely out of earshot of I35, but I still turned the wrong way out of the complex and ended up driving around two-lane roads bordered only by tall grass and trees in the dark for the next two hours. I had a cell phone by then. I called my then-husband, Javier.

“We’re lost!”

“Where are you?!”

“That’s the problem, dummy. I DON’T KNOW!”

I don’t know what I expected him to do. You couldn’t track phones back then, and he, stupidly, did not have the magical ability to divine where I was. I gave up, hung up, then I put my little red Dodge Stratus in a ditch. I rolled right off the gravel side of the road into a small depression in the earth that was not exactly a gully but trapped my car nonetheless. We may have been a little drunk.

Miraculously, after driving around for over an hour on unlabeled roads without seeing another vehicle, a car came by, and the group of guys inside helped us push the car back onto the road. About fifteen minutes and several more random-guess turns later, I saw a road sign:

“Ed Bluestein!” I yelled.

One of the special and maddening things about Austin is how half the streets have more than one name. Start driving down Bullick Hollow at one end, for example, and it’ll turn into RM 2222, Northland Drive, Alandale, then Koenig before it sputters out at I35. Ed Bluestein happens to be what Highway 183 is called at one of its more easterly sections. 183 would take us home.

Married and Lost

Once, when Jason and I first started dating, his cousin was giving me directions over the phone. Mike said, “April, you’re going to have to be the direction person in that relationship because Jason has no sense of it.”

Uh oh.

Jason and I have spent a lot of time driving around, missing exits and asking each other, “Where are we? I thought the restaurant was right here.”

Engaged and shopping for wedding bands, we drove all over the city looking for a Jared’s we swore we’d seen on Brodie. Or was it on William Cannon? Maybe the other side of 71? We finally gave up and went home only to find the Jared’s within spitting distance of our apartment.

Soccer Mom Lost

The advent of Google Maps on our phones changed our lives. We reduced our driving-around-in-circles-lost minutes by 60 percent. I still sometimes manage to get myself and my family spectacularly misplaced. A couple of weekends ago, I was responsible for all the driving for the soccer tournament because Jason was sick.

I carefully mapped out each location, saved them in Maps, checked traffic well in advance and left extra time for parking and finding, say, field 17 out of 35 when nothing is labeled. (Seriously, have you ever tried to find one field in a park/event center/soccer complex? It’s a Where’s Waldo? sea of numbers, nets, cleats and umbrella chairs.)

Saturday afternoon, Jack and I departed Gage’s game early to get to his, leaving my mom to ferry Gage home. My phone battery was dying, so I asked Jack to navigate us, ensuring he typed the address correctly. We’d been at the same exact location earlier that day for his morning game.

We took a lot of weird turns and ended up at the address on Pecan Street, where we intended, but somehow, it was a gas station now. There were TWO addresses that were THE EXACT SAME on that street. It makes a big difference if you leave the “East” off “Pecan Street” apparently. When I squealed up on two tires, delivering Jack to his game minutes before the start time, I was full of apologies, explaining we got lost then ran into horrible traffic. A friend teased,

“You know they didn’t move it after this morning, right?”

There you have it. I can get lost at age three on the beach within sight of my parents, and I can get disoriented in a brightly lit, well-labeled mall. I can misremember what is outside the home I’ve lived in for two years, and I can take a wrong turn while driving to a place I’d been THREE HOURS AGO. With GPS! It’s one of my many talents, so friends, if you ever find yourself just a little too well located, a little too sure of where you are in the world, hop in the car with me. Let’s go on an adventure.

“My Vagina’s Falling Out”

Copyright: chajamp

It’s not mine, actually. It’s a friend of mine; the title is a direct quote from the text she sent me. And I don’t mean “friend.” If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know I’d tell you if it were my vagina that was falling out. I once typed out several frank paragraphs about the time I lost a tampon in my hoohah for months and the ensuing odor. I almost wish it were my vagina falling out, just for the material.

No, no, not really, vagina gods. I am making light of an uncomfortable medical condition for the sake of art. Please do not visit that karma upon me. In all actuality, I would like my vagina to stay right where it is, in that boring yet comfortable place, tucked inside my body where I can’t feel it nor do I feel compelled to write about it. But things do not stay put as we age, so read on for a few common, distressing and distressingly common female reproductive issues.


FUN FACT: "Vagina" refers to the inside part you can't see that leads to the cervix and then the uterus. The outside parts we tend to call the vagina in everyday conversation are actually the vulva and labia. Helpful definitions and diagram here.

Jen’s Wayward Vagina

Jen woke up one morning, and while getting ready for work, she noticed a familiar yet uncomfortable feeling — like her tampon had slipped down and was poking out. Only she wasn’t wearing a tampon. Upon exploration, she was horrified to discover what she felt was not a wandering sanitary supply but her actual self — tissue from inside was trying to be outside. Jen has some medical experience, so she knew what she felt was a prolapsed vagina, which is just doctorspeak for, “Your vagina’s falling out of your body but we’d like to make it sound a little less terrible.”

After five or two hundred deep breaths, Jen calmed down enough to do some research. She was shocked to discover that 40 PERCENT of women have vaginal prolapse at some point in their lives. Why then, we wondered together, did we not know about this? Vaginal prolapse can come with a smorgasbord of fun symptoms that range from that feeling of “tissue protrusion” Jen felt to constipation and general sexual concerns about having a loose vagina.

We all know about erectile dysfunction and vasectomy reversal; pharmaceutical companies are falling all over themselves to develop treatments and yelling it out to the world as they do it. If 40 percent of women have vaginal prolapse, why had I not heard so much as a peep about it until Jen freaked out and shared it with me? Might she have freaked out less if she’d seen 80 thousand commercials for how to treat it? I’ll leave that to rattle around in your brain while I move on to another friend of mine. More info on vaginal prolapse here.

Rachel’s Pain-in-the-Pelvis Bladder

Rachel and I were supposed to meet up to walk, but she texted me that morning to say she didn’t feel well enough, but could I come over and talk? As I walked to her house, I wondered what was up. Maybe she’s worried about one of her kids. Maybe she’s leaving her husband. Maybe she has cancer. All three of these, I’m finding, are common at our age. It was none of them.

Rachel has a chronic urge to pee, though not much comes out. She doesn’t have a urinary tract infection. A urologist gave her a vaginal suppository to treat it, but she had a bad reaction to it. It burned her insides. Her doctor “had never heard of this happening before.” Now, she can’t exercise because she’s in too much pain. She has trouble sleeping because of the pain. And she’s generally unhappy because, again, pain. Our shared gynecologist suggested melatonin and general disregard for the impact this pain was having on her life.

She’s since done some internet research, diagnosed herself with interstitial cystitis (IC) and altered her diet, which has helped some. IC affects somewhere between 3 and 8 million women and has no cure. Thanks, medical people. Let that one marinate along with vaginal prolapse.

Sarah’s Disappearing Clitoris

That’s right; that little motherfucker who brings you so much pleasure can disappear, and she is not going to go quietly either. She’s going to go kicking, screaming, itching and scarring all the way. It’s called lichen sclerosis. I would never have heard of it if Sarah hadn’t told me she had it and has to keep Clobetasol cream on her person at all times for the rest of her life. Obviously, it messes up your ability to enjoy sex. Four percent of women who have it wind up with vulvar cancer. It’s a lifelong, incurable thing that affects one in 80 women, mostly those peri- or post-menopausal. Betcha never heard of that one either. Ever see a commercial for itchy, scarring clit pills? No? More info on lichen sclerosis here.

The Really Disturbing Thing

It’s scary that these conditions exist, but what’s worse is that no one talks about them. That makes them even more terrifying. Men can make jokes about not being able to get it up because everyone knows about that thanks to Viagra and their never-ending ad campaign. No one jokes about itchy clits or vaginas gone rogue. Or undefinable, vague pelvic pain that maybe wouldn’t be so undefinable if there were more research dollars poured into women’s reproductive issues.

I don’t want much. I’m not asking for science to make me fertile at fifty. Believe me, I don’t want that. I’m just asking for a little transparency — that women not be blind-sided by these conditions. That we not feel horrified and alone about something that affects 40 percent of people with vaginas. And maybe some money and research put into what medicines, procedures or therapies would help us be more comfortable as we age.

License to Drive

“Fucker,” I mutter under my breath at the tan, dented Cadillac crossover immediately in front of me. It’s traveling ten miles under the speed limit, and I’m impatiently tooling along behind it, but that’s not the source of my ire. There has been a hideous traffic violation.

Seven seconds earlier, the same nefarious boat of a car and I had been idling at a red light, side by side, in the left-hand turn lanes, me in the outermost one. The green, protected-turn arrow blinked on, and we veered off, southbound. In the process, the Cadillac casually drifted into my lane as if it had every right to do so, and I was forced to apply my breaks and let it in.

“Hey!” I gesticulated with indignation. I tried to honk the horn but missed the center of the steering wheel in this vehicle I wasn’t accustomed to driving yet. And so I settled for a few choice expletives that only I could hear while I glared at the back of the car that had just cut me off. I no longer flip people off or yell out the window; somewhere in there, I got old enough to realize I was neither immortal nor always right.

As soon as I had room, I swerved into the left lane and zoomed around the Cadillac but not so fast I didn’t have time to turn my head and get a good look at the offender. She was around 80 years old with hair dyed the dark brown of her youth and giant sunglasses covering the top half of her face. I turned forward to keep my eyes on the road ahead again, was quiet for a second and then burst out laughing.

She was me. Or rather, I will be her in thirty or so years. I have never been the best driver, and at 45, I can already feel my night vision failing. It stands to reason that I will eventually progress from occasionally cutting someone off, realizing it and gesticulating an apology, to obliviously drifting into the lane next door without noticing. Her hair was dyed brown, my hair was dyed purple. I had on giant sunglasses too. And yes, the vehicle I am getting used to driving is, hypocritically, a Cadillac crossover handed down from my late father-in-law.

I put that last part in there so you would know I didn’t choose this vehicle; I’m just driving it out of convenience and circumstance. I am not so bourgeois that I would purchase something as pretentious as a Cadillac. But secretly, I love that car. I could’ve driven my 2013 Toyota minivan with bald front tires and Goldfish crackers permanently ground into the floor mats this morning, but I chose the Caddy because damn, it is comfy. I smile with pleasure when I sit down on its plush seat and close the door to its calm and silent interior. It corners beautifully; it has a great sound system and a big color backup screen which is something my spacially unaware ass sorely needs.

Coincidentally, the dueling Caddies incident happened when I was driving home from getting my license renewed at the DPS office where I’d had to prove I could read the bottom line of an eye chart. Lucky for my left eye, it had to read the same six-letter sequence my right eye had just called out, so it knew that what looked like a blurry “O” was actually a “C.” I’m going to be Muriel (that’s what I named my future Cadillac-driving doppelganger) before I know it. The way she’d been straining forward to see over the steering wheel…I feel myself in the same pose, every time I’m driving home in the dark.

When I was young, immortal and always right, I was a shitty driver but for different reasons. I could see just fine, but I was an impatient asshole who would sooner slam on the breaks to make a turn and risk getting rear-ended than pass it up, turn around and arrive thirty seconds later than planned. I cut people off on purpose. I almost wrecked my parents’ van on the way to a Eurasure concert in Fort Worth, because I was unsure which way to go when the highway divided. As my friends frantically flipped through the Mapsco from page 45 to 102 to find our next turn, it was only when someone shouted, “Left, left, go LEFT!” at the last possible second that I swerved to avoid the concrete barrier in the middle. I didn’t want to go the wrong way and be late; missing the opening acts would’ve been the worst — far worse than slamming into cement, killing all my friends and bleeding out on the side of the highway.

Fortunately, by some miracle of the traffic gods, I made it through my impulsive teenage years with only a couple of minor fender benders. I got speeding tickets aplenty for doing 90 in my grandmother’s Chrysler while flying through the ranchlands between Austin and Dallas, but I never hit anyone going faster than a roll. And now, despite my presbyopic vision, I haven’t even dinged anyone’s bumper in at least a decade. According to me. A certain person I live with alleges he’s gotten his car back from me with new dents, but that’s just hearsay. And there was that one time I backed out of our driveway and hit our neighbor’s Jeep, but I only hit her tire. There was no damage, so it doesn’t count. Plus, I was distracted, bitching at the kids for bickering instead of looking over my shoulder, so it’s their fault anyway. This is why I need the Cadillac that beeps when I’m about to hit something. Well, shit. I’m Muriel already.

Taken Back

I was going through jewelry, getting rid of some things, when I came upon a pair of silver peace signs, small and dangly with black backgrounds. I smiled inwardly and remembered:

It was the early 90s; my friends and I were at Lollapalooza at Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas. All our favorite bands were there, but I was most excited about Alice in Chains. Between shows, we wove our way through the vendor’s booths of hand-woven bags, scarves and homemade jewelry. Russell had asked me to carry his wallet for him. I was wearing my favorite, low-slung jean shorts and would have carried his anvil if that boy had asked me to. And so, I perused the jewelry, oversized 90s guy-wallet sticking out of my back pocket.

I came across the peace earrings, smiled and fingered them. I said, within Russell’s earshot, “I really like these.” I moved onto the next table of wares, confident he’d heard me but not at all certain he would choose to take the bait. That boy was full of mysterious processes I could never figure out. He had an ulterior motive for stashing his wallet with me, I’m sure; but to this day, I’ll be damned if I know what it was. I liked being in charge of his things, though — having a sense of propriety of him. My heart blossomed with delight when he reached over to pluck his wallet from my back pocket to purchase the earrings for me.

He cares; he wants to make me happy.

The woman behind the table chastised him for using his girl’s cash to buy her a present, but strangely he didn’t correct her. Perhaps he’d given me his wallet to set up precisely this situation for whatever convoluted motivations lurked in his grey matter. Or perhaps I’m giving him too much credit.

That same day, ensconced in the shade of the main pavilion between acts, we sat side-by-side waiting in amiable silence. We were early; there were a few people scattered here and there throughout the bolted-down folding seats. To pass the time, I watched them. A dude came galloping through the empty chairs, leaping over rows and eventually tripping. He fell but recovered himself quickly. He had a wild and unfocused look about him. I casually thought, he’s drunk.

Russell turned to me. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” I answered, as I turned toward him, my eyebrows raised questioningly.

“No, you said something about that guy being drunk.”

My mouth fell open. This is an ability my husband has now — something that drew me in when Jason and I first got together — that uncanny habit of voicing what I almost opened my mouth to say.

Those earrings transported me to a snapshot of the past when I felt confident and connected to the person I was with. It was a day of fun and good music — one when, for once, I didn’t secretly long to go home before everyone else I rode with was ready.

That relationship, mine and Russell’s, was, for the most part, a fucking mess. It was on-again-off-again and rife with infidelity, manipulation and mind games. When I look back at the four years I spent wringing my hands and crying over him, I shake my head at my younger self. How could I not have gotten disentangled from that doomed liaison sooner? The earrings, and moments like that day at Lollapalooza, remind me, though, that there were good times, there were reasons (maybe not solid ones) I kept hanging around.

Our relationship wasn’t so much banging my head against a wall as it was sitting at a slot machine — one that, as time went on, payed off less and less, but I still kept playing, hoping for another break. Rats will learn to push a button, when they’re hungry, to receive food pellets. They’ll push it obsessively, even after they’ve eaten their fill, if they only receive food pellets ever so often. Russell was my Vegas, my gambling habit, the one everyone in my life could see was dragging me down but me. I did, at long last, break it off for good. It has been a good 20 years since I even laid eyes on him.

It started when I was 16 and had been legally driving less than a year. Four years later, when I called it quits over the phone and knew this time it would stick, I was 20 and what passes for an adult. I was closing in on a degree and had modest career aspirations. Those are some formative fucking years. During that time, I fashioned a life in a new city, learned how to make friends and grew into a person independent of her parents’ house and finances. Russell was in my life through all of that, often on the periphery, throwing a wrench into my works by showing up when I least expected or by his conspicuous absence when I needed him most.

My relationship with him was by far the most volatile of my entire life. I still harken back to it because I learned so much, so painfully — that some people will take advantage of my openhearted nature, not because they consciously intend to, but because it’s the only way they know how to be. That I, despite the apparent ability to leave, had a tendency to become complicit in my own misery. I also now realize that, in retrospect, he may have been an asshole, but he wasn’t the only asshole in that relationship. My connection to Russell burned blisters into my soul, then formed callouses. Callouses that protected me from future harm. And from future connection. Much much later, I slowly began to file off those callouses, began to trust that the people in my life would be gentle with the soft tissue underneath.

It was dramatic and hard to ignore, even in the present.

I can look at those earrings, smile and recall the parts of my life that held some joy at the time. I can even remember the rocks I dashed myself upon too many times to count. And I can be grateful I learned those lessons then and have them to better navigate my life now.

Second-Hand Bricks

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

I am hunched on the edge of the concrete slab, summer sun scorching my neck and shoulders unrelentingly. I am chiseling, with hammer and file, the mortar off of salvaged bricks. I curse each time a brick breaks under my chisel; that’ll be a dock in pay. It’s August in Texas; I’m fifteen years old.

It sounds like a scene from a post-apocalyptic, dystopian teen novel, but I’d chosen this brutal prisoner’s labor. The concrete slab was our front porch, and the bricks had been reclaimed from the demolition of the front wall of our house. Dad was paying us a quarter a brick to clean off the old mortar so he could reuse them in the addition he was building, but you only got a nickel if the brick cracked in half. Our younger cousin, JulieAnn, had already been fired from brick cleaning for breaking too many.

The addition was designed to give our family extra space now that my sister and I were teenage-sized, with gaggles of teenage-sized friends we brought home to take over our one living room. My parents were tired of being banished to their bedroom. Dad completed the project, with the last coat of peach-colored paint on the walls, in May of 1994 after I’d been off at college for two semesters and my sister, Bonnie, would be out of the house in a few short years — just in time for my parents to rattle around in a place that was now too big.

Dad honestly didn’t care how many bricks we cleaned; he offered the monetary incentive and left us to our own devices. He didn’t micromanage us or yell when one of us broke a brick (to our surprise), and he rationally “let JulieAnn go” for her clumsy cleaning, without a note of reproach in his voice. As I remember, Bonnie cleaned more than I did. I was fifteen and eager for the money, but I also had a boyfriend with a car — places to go, things to…well, places to hang out, anyway.

I didn’t think too much about the legacy or metaphor of brick cleaning at the time. My dad put us to the task to save money and also because it would have been difficult to find new bricks to match the original ones. Mostly though, my father hates to waste things. Throwing something out when you can clean it, fix it, reuse it, offends his very nature. In our house, there were flip flops repaired with twine, a washing machine with a weird metal knob replacing the plastic one we kids broke, and a manual-transmission vehicle that started without the clutch engaged. By the time my sister and I were budding teenagers, we took things like chiseling mortar for the sake of frugality as a matter of course. It was weird to our friends but not to us.

Just today, however, I was reading a chapter of Walden, “House Warming,” and came across an account of building a chimney with used bricks, and I was excited. Granted, I had to go back hundreds of years to find camaraderie in brick cleaning, but still. Let me use this opportunity to quote Thoreau and seem much more cultured and literary than I am:

My bricks being second-hand ones required to be cleaned. The mortar on them was fifty years old, and was said to be still growing harder; but this is one of those sayings which men love to repeat whether they are true or not. Such sayings themselves grow harder and adhere more firmly with age, and it would take many blows with a trowel to clean an old wiseacre of them.

Henry David Thoreau

I started reading Walden because a novel I was reading — blasting through fervently, actually, and ignoring everyone in my house – frequently referenced it. I’m not blasting through Walden but reading it more like you would poetry or philosophy – a few pages here, a chapter there, accompanied by a lot of pondering. I have been delighted to discover Thoreau and I are philosophically similar in a lot (but not all) ways. I’m surprised I have that much in common with a nineteenth-century man who never had children and died when he was younger than I am now. But like me, he reveled in nature and simplicity, he was a writer, and apparently, he cleaned bricks.

Thoreau took a much loftier approach to his mortar chiseling than I did, sweating over the quarter per in-tact brick I would get. He would have pitied my working for coins when I could’ve been toiling to my own ends. In a way, I was, as it was the roof I lived under that my dad was expanding. I, of course, didn’t see it that way. I was fifteen. I wasn’t helping improve our homestead; I was after money for movies and snacks.

Now, 30 years later, I can more easily see Thoreau’s and my dad’s view of things — brick cleaning and otherwise. Because while I was occasionally motivated by the almighty dollar in my youth, the older I get, the less excitement I’m able to muster about a couple of bucks, which is unfortunate because you know, capitalism. Now I prefer to do a lot of things myself instead of hiring someone, who admittedly, might do it better and faster. It’s money-saving, but the real reason I cut my own hair is that it’s simpler. I don’t have to make an appointment or drive anywhere or torture myself and a relative stranger with soul-killing small talk.

This is why I clean my own house (a.k.a, why my house is so fucking dirty); why there’s a hole in my bathroom showcasing visible bathtub plumbing that has been there so long I don’t see it anymore; why we have inside doorknobs on outside doors replacing the ones the kids broke. There is satisfaction in repairing things ourselves. The downside is, there is always shit waiting to be fixed in our house; the backlog is like, eons. We’ll probably fix that gaping hole full of PVC plumbing in the bathroom when we decide to sell the house in ten years. Probably. Because, unlike Thoreau, we can’t spend lazy days fishing at the pond and tending a fire for hours to cook our catch. We have kids to take to soccer, a geriatric dog to drag around the block and Everests of laundry to wash and never fold or put away.

But even if, like Thoreau, I could build my own little cabin with second-hand brick chimney upon the idyllic land owned by my financially independent good buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, I wouldn’t. Thoreau himself said his two-year stint by the pond, second-hand bricks included, wasn’t about making a map by which all people should live. He only sought to prove (primarily to himself, I suspect) that it was possible — if you lived simply — to work for yourself, to work very little and to be contented for it.

I’m not gonna go live off the grid. I like cell phones, Netflix and having neighbors. But I do seek to make things simpler by cleaning my own metaphorical bricks when I can. When the work is for my own house or my neighbor’s and not meaningless labor to make widgets or advertise said widgets for a corporation who will then pay me so I can turn around and pay someone else to fix my toilet, even when it’s hard, tedious or maddening, it feels good. So I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything or process anything, but maybe I am okay with cleaning bricks, as long as they’re metaphorical…me, Lloyd Dobler, my dad and Thoreau. Good company.