White Privilege ~ to Make Mistakes and Not Be Killed For Them

Black Lives Matter Protest in Bloomington
Copyright: shutterbreakerli

I saw the body cam footage from the Rayshard Brooks incident.

Upon viewing it, I became certain about something I already suspected.

The video shows an officer approach Brooks’ car, where he’d fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through line. The officer directs him to park the car, which Brooks does. When another officer arrives, they administer a field sobriety test and a breathalyzer; they determine he is indeed drunk.

Throughout the 20-minute interaction, Brooks is cooperative and friendly toward the officers, cordially submitting to the tests. He admits he’s been drinking. He’s in town to visit his mother’s grave, he says, in the course of the conversation. He offers to leave his car where it is and walk to the house where he is staying.

The officers ask him to put his hands behind his back, and that’s when Brooks begins to resist. He wrestles a taser from one of the officers and runs away. The cop who chases him points a taser at him, and Brooks points his stolen one back at the officer. It is at this point, one of the police officers shoots Brooks in the back two times. He died later of his injuries.

This was not just one man’s life. It was his family’s life as well. He had a father, siblings, a spouse and three kids. The day he was killed, his daughter had had her eighth birthday party. According to his family, he was a “loving husband and caring brother.” He adored his children. His niece said, “He was silly, had the biggest smile and the brightest heart,” and yet he was “shot and killed like trash for falling asleep at a drive-through.”

I have another story to tell you. There is no video footage or press coverage of it.

Two women in their mid-twenties stand on the street in downtown Austin next to a parked car. It’s around 2am. They are talking loudly and animatedly with one another when a police officer approaches them and asks if there’s a problem. They explain to the officer that they are both too drunk to drive their car home, but it’s in a space that will be tow-away come morning. They’ve secured a ride home from a sober friend. They are trying to decide which, if either of them, has the capacity to safely move the car to a nearby space where it will be legally parked.

The cop does not administer a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer. He does not ask them any questions. He would be well within the law to arrest them for public intoxication, but he doesn’t. He volunteers to move the car for them. He reparks the car, returns their keys, and they ride home with their friend and sleep safely in their own beds. Their parents, spouses and friends have the benefit of their presence to this day.

The police did not punish or even chastise the women for behaving somewhat irresponsibly; the police, in fact, facilitated their safe return home. Oh, did I mention? The women were both white. They were my sister and me.

It didn’t have to be this way.

What I suspected when I first heard about Rayshard Brooks’s murder was that it didn’t have to end in tragedy; it could have gone much the same way the incident with my sister and me did. What if, instead of trying to arrest him, they’d taken him up on his offer to walk home? What if they’d followed him in their car, or even driven him, to ensure he arrived safely and without incident? Without wasting taxpayer dollars on a purposeless arrest. What if that cop, even after Rayshard ran off with his taser, realized killing him would be a far worse outcome than the possibility he might escape?

But no, instead, Rayshard Brooks is dead, and his children will grow up without him. His penalty for a lapse in judgment, which we all have from time to time, was death.

Police aren’t trained to be helpful.

Sure, it happens sometimes, like with the officer that moved my sister’s car for us; there are cops who are reasonable and have a sense they are serving, not policing, the community, at least when it comes to white people. But how often are black people given that kind of understanding? How often, in the face of the police, is a black person allowed to make a mistake without dire, unjustifiable consequences?

If you take the militaristic methods by which police are trained and combine it with inherent bias and racism, you get the dangerously dysfunctional kind of policing we have now. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though; I’ve never been trained as a cop, but this guy has, and what he says about the toxic, racist, warlike atmosphere of police training is scary as hell.

Police officers are trained to expect conflict, to approach every person as if they are a mortally-dangerous enemy. The folks who get the worst of that mentality are marginalized groups like black people and people who are homeless or severely mentally ill.

White Privilege Redux

The point here is this: We white people need to realize that our rights are respected way more often than those of black people. And nothing is going to change by making officers attend a handful of “diversity education” classes. When you hear shouts of “defund the police” what people are really saying is “dismantle the police departments and reconstruct something better.”

Our Privilege is Showing, White People

The Stand Up to Racism march through central London
Copyright: Ben Gingell

I scrolled through my Facebook feed today, and god, it made me so damned sad. Coronavirus stats, cops killing people, riots, looting, journalists assaulted by police and protesters alike. With the Trump administration as the backdrop for all of this, it’s starting to feel like end of days, end of times, end of…something.

Harkening Back to a Previous Era of Violence

But this is not new. George Floyd’s murder called to mind another time police officers committed violence against an unarmed black man already in custody. In 1991, police officers beat Rodney King, leaving the man with skull fractures, multiple broken bones, and permanent brain damage. Those cops were acquitted in the spring of 1992, despite what most thought was damning video evidence. A matter of hours after the verdict, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. The rioting and looting were so pervasive and violent, the National Guard was called in. Mail delivery stopped, stores closed, and people could not go to work or school.

The indignation and anger were not only for the cops who went free; it was the boiling point for tensions that had been simmering in what was then called South Central LA for years. Unemployment, gang activity and a drug epidemic were rampant, and occupants of the area were not only unprotected by police but targeted and harassed.

I was going on seventeen years old, and I was shocked the perpetrating officers were acquitted. I saw the video, and the acquittal made no sense. My surprise was part of the problem. I could not fathom someone’s rights being so egregiously trodden upon by people of authority as were Rodney King’s and with no consequence. But the people of South Central LA knew. It was happening long before, by chance, someone caught those four cops on video.

Just a White Kid from the ‘Burbs

I was a white kid living in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I grew up in a place and with a face that meant people gave me the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t notice my privilege because I viewed that benefit, the assumption that I had a benign reason for walking down the street at night, as part of my natural right as a human being.

When I was in high school, two friends and I would sneak out of our houses at night. Sometimes we’d walk up to the all-night gas station and buy candy. Once, as we were walking down an alley behind the store, eagerly gobbling up melty Reese’s cups, a police car pulled up, lights and siren blaring. We were petrified. One cop got out, shined his flashlight at us and asked who we were. We gave our names and told him where we’d been. He said they were looking for someone who’d shoplifted at that same gas station. He told us to be careful and left. We were two white girls and an Indian girl.

In my twenties, I once got into an actual bar fight. These guys were being aggressively douchy, and I had just enough liquor in me to feel invincible. I got in the ring leader’s face and yelled I was going to kick his ass. A bouncer broke it up. The guys were kicked out, and my group left voluntarily, even getting our cover charge back for our trouble. The cops weren’t called; no one was arrested. We were a group of white girls, and the boys were white, too.

I remember college parties where cops arrived to find rampant underage drinking and possibly drugging, and no one even got arrested. “Keep the noise down,” was all they’d say. The party attendees were always, mostly, in appearance at least, white.

These are examples (and I can think of more) in which my white privilege — being given the benefit of the doubt even when I was acting less than admirably — showed. At the time, I didn’t notice.

I can’t tell you that the specific people in these stories — the cops, the bouncer –  would have behaved differently if we’d been black. But I do know that black people routinely have a very different experience with authority than I did in these instances.

Same Oppression, Different Day

Today, here we are in a similar boat as we were in 1992; it’s leaking, it’s on fire and the crew are fighting each other. People are rioting and looting; people are violent. We don’t have to condone it, but we do need to understand it. The black people of our country have been talking, shouting, working for change for generations, and the same thing is still happening: black people are dying at the hands of the authorities who are supposed to protect them. If you are not heard, if your fundamental rights get trod upon in both large and small ways every day, is it really so shocking that one day you grab that authority by the face and make them listen?

Trevor Noah says society is a social contract — rules we all agree to abide by for the common good. When police and people in power break that contract by killing unarmed black people, when that kind of grotesque display of hypocrisy is repeated again and again, why should anyone else abide by that contract? It’s not new: violence begets violence.

Our Privilege is Showing

As white people, we need to try to understand that the advantages we enjoy, the ones we are so accustomed to we don’t even notice them, are not available to everyone. Sarah Grimke, an early feminist activist, once said and was quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “I ask no favor…All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Your white privilege isn’t so much privilege as it is your unassailable right not to be held down — socially, economically, even literally, as we all saw as that police officer held his knee to a handcuffed and docile George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.

Jody David Armour, a USC professor and author of a book on the civil unrest of LA in the early 90s, refers to it as “the 1992 uprising.” While the word “riot” focuses on the criminal elements, he says, an uprising is defined as “the perceived failure of the criminal justice system to fairly serve all people.” We decry protesters’ violence while ignoring the systemic violence that spurred it. When American colonists, citizens of Brittain, willfully destroyed valuable private property during the nationally-revered Boston Tea Party, we called it a protest of unfair taxation, a rebellion against a tyrannical government. It also fits the definition of a riot.

A Sign of the Times

You don’t have to decide rioting, looting, participating in an uprising is bad or good. But no matter what we choose to call it, it is a sign that something is very wrong with our country and has been for a long time. In 2017, three years before George Floyd would have the knee of a police officer crush the life out of him, Armour said, “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is.” And now, sadly, it would seem he is still right.

But maybe this is, at long last, the catalyst we need. Perhaps, with corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook and Nike taking a stand, and the greater public finally taking notice, we can cut out the core of racism in our country and fill that void with egalitarian systems that serve and protect ALL citizens. IF that is, those companies put their money and efforts where their mouths are, and IF we don’t forget George Floyd as soon as the next news cycle starts. Maybe we can finally begin to remedy our past transgressions as a nation. Maybe it is end of times. End of racist times. We can not only hope, we can help make it happen.

Dickens Was Right, Damnit

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Copyright: Paul Rushton

Dickens, be damned.

My ninth-grade English teacher was obsessed with Charles Dickens. She made all of her classes read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. She was a member of the Dickens Society and attended Dickens-themed soireés where all the guests donned 19th-century garb and spoke in 87-word, obtusely-structured sentences. I assume.

We had to memorize the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, which didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized it takes up the ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF THE BOOK. I still fail to understand how it can be “good writing” when you have to go back and re-read the first part of the sentence because, by the end, you’ve forgotten what the subject and verb were.

I remember parts of that sentence. My brain cannot recall where I put my phone or what time a soccer game is, but it holds onto useless detritus like my childhood phone number, the lyrics to an old Velveeta cheese commercial and, yes, the beginnings of famous novels I don’t even like.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is how it begins. It then trails on for another sixteen lines with a series of very similar (and unnecessary) oxymorons. “Epoch of belief, age of incredulity…blah, blah, blah, noisiest authorities…blah, blah, blah…superlative degree of comparison only.” WTF, brain?

I hate it when he’s right.

BUT. Despite his mellifluous method of stating it, I’ve grudgingly decided Dickens had a point. That sentence applies to just about every era on the timeline of significant history. The heroics of the American Revolution alongside the appropriation and slaughter of indigenous peoples. The discovery of radiation’s miraculous cancer-killing properties and the deaths of thousands of innocent people in the form of a bomb. A new awakening for feminist activism but spurred by the election of a presidential misogynist.

My own, private heaven/hell/Idaho

It even works on a personal level. My twenties were filled with fun, friends, partying and carefree selfishness without guilt. I had a job and nothing to pay for except myself. And I cried a lot, lost four pregnancies and was in an unhealthy relationship.

My 30’s were an incredible time of self-discovery. I felt confident in myself as a person. Jason’s and my relationship grew deeper and wider. I had kids and discovered a love like I’d never known. I also worried a lot about fucking up and struggled with breastfeeding to the point of tears. I mourned the loss of time to myself. It was great and terrible, just like Oz.

The best of times weren’t that good.

I read somewhere that we recreate good times as better than they actually were. We look back on an overall fun vacation and remember playing in the ocean, relaxing on the sand, snuggling in bed with a mate. We forget the one rainy day we were bored, the lost luggage or the fight we had on the plane on the way home.

It’s helpful when thinking about now. With all the challenges — worry about kids, working on relationships, concern over finances and all the stuff I am constantly forgetting (with the exception of outdated commercial jingles) —  I know I will look back on these years and smile wistfully to myself. I’ll remember the kids young and not yet jaded by adult experience. I’ll recall learning to be a writer, the freedom to work from home, and the security of the built-in social network that comes with school-age children. Overall, this is a good time.

There have been some true, worst of times, where the “best of” part was indistinguishable: the immediate aftermath of my miscarriages, the throes of divorce, intense struggles with depression and loneliness. In comparison with those, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Why didn’t you just say so?

So, what I took 618 words (Dickens would be proud) and 15 minutes of your life that you can’t get back to say is this: PERSPECTIVE.

And also…

“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

(I never get to use the partial Shakespearean quotes that float around my brain, so now I’m just showing off. This is where you nod, virtually pat me on the head and roll your eyes. Go ahead. I totally deserve it.)

(non)Urgent Cricket Update

 

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This is technically a grasshopper, but really, who cares? Photo by Dmitry Grigoriev on Unsplash

So many people have asked me, “But what happened to the crickets?? Did they survive?!” that I decided to do an update. And I have the ulterior motive of showing off the original story at its new home, The Syndrome Mag. Thank you to the editors there for thinking it was funny and helping me make it even better.

I also have to give props to Maggie Dove, who writes RomCom Dojo. It was her piece in the same publication that gave me the idea The Syndrome Mag might like a story about dead crickets. Also, she is super sarcastic and funny, and I rub my hands together like a small child in a candy store every time one of her posts hits my inbox.

Anyway, yes, some of the crickets came back from being cryogenically frozen like Han Solo. They didn’t stumble around blind like he did, though. Or maybe they did; with crickets, it’s hard to tell. The other 950 insects stayed very much dead, and I had to extract the survivors from the piles of their compatriots’ carcasses, which they were surprisingly intent on burying themselves in.

I blame the post office. Our mail carrier is aggressively grumpy, and we all give him a wide birth. The crickets were left in a package locker overnight, and I wasn’t notified via text until the next day they were there. It got down below 30 degrees that night. Grumpy mail dude probably doesn’t give a shit about keeping crickets alive (which makes him remarkably like most people).

The company, Josh’s Frogs, from whence the crickets came, however, gave superb customer service and shipped me replacement crickets, all of which arrived alive. I think they threw in some extras for my trouble because there seem to be WAY more of them than usual.

Our beardie, Splynter, is now reveling in her abundance of deliciousness, or she would be if she were still eating crickets. Apparently, she’s fasting now. Figures.

What’s Grosser Than Ten Dead Crickets in a Box?

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1,000 stinky crickets

One thousand dead crickets in a box.

That’s what I’m looking at right now — 1,000 belly-up insects in a rectangular receptacle. I paid 30 dollars for them.

If that sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, to be fair to me, they were supposed to be alive. I bet most of you would give 30 dollars to get rid of a thousand crickets and wouldn’t dream of paying a third party, through Amazon, to carefully pack and send you (supposed to be) live crickets, but let me back up.

We have a bearded dragon. My youngest child has been obsessed with lizards since he was a toddler, so we gave in and got him one for Christmas last year. We did all the research on lights, substrates, tank size, and food. Bearded dragons, especially growing ones, like to eat crickets. No problem. Go by the local pet store every now and then and pick some up.

It turns out our beardie likes to eat LOTS of crickets — like 20 or 30 each feeding sometimes, even though she’s supposed to be about done growing. I don’t know where she puts them; she’s a very svelte-looking dragon. And she’s about the laziest being I’ve ever encountered.

The trips to the pet store and the money spent on a la carte crickets were starting to add up, so I began ordering them in bulk from (of course) Amazon. Here’s the thing: when you’re housing crickets a thousand at a time, even though they’re only going to get eaten, you have to supply accommodations of a certain quality.

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I never thought I’d say this, but that’s a really cute lizard.

Your pet is only as healthy as the crickets she eats, so you want to feed those buggers some quality food — potatoes, carrots, or the slimy, orange cubes you can also get (like everything else) on Amazon. Crickets need water, too, but you can’t give them too much at a time, or they drown in it because they have brains the size of cricket heads. So not only have you taken on the care and feeding of a reptile, but you also have to feed and care for their food. Fine. Whatever.

So this afternoon, when I opened a box of one hundred percent dead crickets, I was vexed, irritated, irate, annoyed, indignant, and I wrote a strongly-worded email to the company (through Amazon) asking for a refund. In a huff, I sent Jason a text, told him what happened, and asked him to pick up the high-priced crickets at the pet store on his way home.

I was just lying down for a nap to calm my nerves after the disconcerting experience of opening the mass grave that had arrived at my home via mail when my phone rang.

Jason: Hey, the pet store lady says they’re probably not dead. They just went dormant because of the cold weather. You didn’t throw them away, did you?

Me: No, of course not. Why would I throw away a perfectly good box of dead crickets? (In truth, I did still have them — you know, for proof so I could get my 30 dollars back.)

Jason: She says just to wait a few hours and see if they come to. Maybe put them by the space heater in your office.

So that’s what I did. Now I am sitting here typing next to a box of one thousand maybe-not-all-dead crickets incubating next to a space heater. Just call me Miracle Max. They’ve got their favorite egg carton pieces in there and a bunch of premium, orange, slimy food cubes in case they’re hungry when they wake up.

I AM NURSING A HOARD OF FUCKING CRICKETS BACK TO HEALTH.

This is one of those things no one tells you about parenting: that you will find yourself doing the most ridiculous of things in the name of your children’s interests. My office is now a cricket infirmary because my kid likes lizards. How the hell did we get here?

It’s absurd, yes, but secretly, I love it. Let me explain, lest you get the wrong idea that a box of passed-out insects would make an excellent Christmas present for me. I love that my kids take me with them into exploring things I’d never have delved into otherwise. After all, if I hadn’t been playing cricket nursemaid this afternoon, I’d probably have been working, so it’s a good tradeoff. (Sorry, I would’ve had that to you by five o’clock, but our pet’s dinner had a medical emergency.) Also, if this kind of ridiculous shit didn’t happen from time to time, what would I have so much fun complaining about? But really, please don’t send me a box of dead crickets.

For Javier ~ Goodbye Old Friend

MS 150 2005
Javier completing the MS150, 2005

Javier died last Sunday night. He passed from this world after a long battle with prostate cancer. We used to be close friends, and we were married once upon a time. I’d seen him only once in the past 13 years. This post is for him, to honor the part of him that I knew, best I can.

When we were in our early 20s, Javier was fond of saying cheerfully, upon introducing himself, “Most people don’t like me when they first meet me.” My late grandmother, Sue, found this delightful and hilarious. She told people about it all the time. It may have been true, but first impressions aside, he made a friend out of most people. His boisterousness and enthusiasm for spontaneous adventure was infectious.

I owe many of my wilder stories and youthful adventures to Javier. He was behind more than one last-minute midnight trip to Mardi Gras. He is the reason I took up mountain biking and scuba diving, two things I still enjoy. He talked me into quitting my job so I could backpack the western United States with him for two months. And as improbable as the stories from those adventures were in actuality, he always felt the need to embellish — to make the tale just a little funnier, a little crazier. I, the factual curmudgeon, was fond of raining on his hyperbolic parade: “That’s NOT how it happened!” It was a schtick we repeated because it got a laugh.

He could be a perfectionist. When we tiled the floor in our house, he dry-laid tiles for days in all directions to make sure the seams would hit the walls just right and was frustrated to discover that no wall is totally square to the floor or anything else. Several months (and fights) later, we finished the floor just in time for Christmas. We went to Home Depot on Christmas Eve, and everything was five dollars. We got a tree and a kick-ass stand for ten bucks and were thrilled at our fortunate procrastination.

Once, we went rock climbing with friends — the first time for us both. I was tentative, but Javier, like always, went for it with gusto. When he slipped and fell, the second before the belay rope caught him, I saw a look of terror on his face like I’d never seen before. I’ve not rock climbed since, but I’d be surprised if he hasn’t.

He was REALLY allergic to poison ivy. He once got a case so bad, I could smell the infection coming off of him. At the doctor’s office, his itchy, red skin impressed even the nurse, who said it was the worst case she’d ever seen. A cortisone shot took care of it, but he was more careful where he biked after that.

One night, when Javier had been downtown drinking with friends, one of them got arrested. He was desperate to get him out of jail, but several failed attempts to see him and a handful of phone conversations later, I drove to pick him up. It was around 3am, and I had a test the next morning. When we got home, he asked me to help him reinstall the seat in his truck so he could go pick up our friend the next day. I completely lost it and yelled at him for being inconsiderate of my need for sleep. The next day, I brought the two of them breakfast tacos after my test, tossed them onto the table and said, “Here you go, riff-raff.” Javier chuckled. In the retelling of it (embellishments included), he could laugh at himself.

He was into all sorts of things: biking (road and mountain), hiking, photography, camping, building things, softball, soccer, snowboarding, scuba diving, nursing. He’d discover a new activity, dive headlong into it, and inevitably love it, taking friends along for the ride. He was always planning the next vacation.

I know, 13 years later, he was different — changed, evolved from the person he was then. I glimpsed it in the few hours our families spent together a couple of years ago. To this day, I am sad we were unable to remain friends after I left, not that I expected to. I would like to have known more of the Javier he became.

Javier was smart and passionate, and he treated friends like family. He was honest, sometimes to a fault. He had a wonderful, belly-deep laugh. As I’ve been reminiscing, I realize there is much I have forgotten about life back then. I wish I could remember more.

Despite not having spent time with him for many years, I am going to miss him. His absence from this earth is palpable. I am so sad for the family he leaves behind; it seems really fucking unfair his kiddos should have to grow up without him, and it feels impossible that someone so enthusiastic about life should leave it so soon. But life is not about “fair.”

If I could tell Javier one last thing, it would be this: “Thanks for being in my life. We weren’t good at being married to each other, but I am better for having known you. I’m glad you found happiness.”

I only wish for him, his family, the people who know him now, that the universe had let him hold onto that happiness for longer.

Staying Friends: The Magic of Growing Closer Apart

“If you don’t want to watch me fuck it up, then DON’T WATCH ME!” my best friend shouted at me as I hovered over her shoulder micromanaging her filling out an application for a Blockbuster card. This was 20 years ago, which you probably guessed by the video store reference.

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Kelly and Me, circa 1996, having just dyed our hair

Back in the college days I’d rather put a fork in my eye than admit I was wrong, but I walked away without another word. It’s hard to defend yourself when you’re trying to tell your super-intelligent friend which line to write her name on like she’s a kindergartener. (Maybe that’s why I majored in child development…hmmm.)

Kelly and I occasionally bickered, but we mostly got along. We’d been close friends since mid-high school, and by the time we parted ways in our mid-twenties, we’d lived together for almost five years. And we still liked each other. We were prone to long strings of free association that sent us into hysterics but baffled the rest of our friends who thought our fascination with Beavis and Butthead was juvenile and beneath them.

We were weird, we were sometimes (often) obnoxious, and we were even depressed together that first year living in Jester Dorm together. Who wouldn’t be? It was designed by a prison architect and looked like something out of the Eastern Bloc in the ’80s. We who lived there had a specific odor even outside the building. It was a uniquely horrific combination of industrial Lysol and urine.

Throwing Books

Kelly and I had a complex yet solid relationship. She once threw books at the inside of our dorm room door because I was sitting outside, talking loudly with a bunch of people from our floor while she was trying to sleep. While she passive-aggressively hurled literature instead of coming out to ask us to pipe down, I inconsiderately and passive-aggressively ignored the thunks on the other side of the door instead of taking the hint and moving somewhere else.

Constructive Criticism

She once confronted me (which took a lot of guts back then since I was never wrong) about the fact that I couldn’t take any criticism whatsoever and it made me hard to live with at times. She did it in the gentlest way. I was embarrassed, but I knew even then it took a lot of guts and a true friend to say something like that. And she was 100 percent right.

Best Worst Movie Choice Ever

We once went to see a movie together because we were both bored and a little depressed. We went to see Seven, because you know, Brad Pitt. Bad fucking choice. So then we were even more depressed together, which is a lot better than being depressed by yourself.

More Misplaced Literature

Once, bored again, we gathered up all the unread newspapers we had accumulated whilst paving our road to hell with the good intention of being more well-informed and dumped them on our former roommate’s doorstep, ding-dong ditched him and drove off giggling. We thought it was hilarious and promptly forgot all about it until we ran into him several months later. ‘Turns out we had really freaked out his new roommate.

Call Out the Cavalry

One time I ran off to San Antonio on a whim one Thursday afternoon with a boy and forgot to tell her where I was going. Running off with boys was a habit of mine, but it was usually just around the corner at a party, not two hours away. By the time I got back that evening, she had half the dorm looking for me. I had no idea she’d be so worried. I felt warm and fuzzy and also guilty.

Another Great Use For Fortune Cookies

When her boyfriend broke up with her, I drove her around while she cried. We went back to my house and stuck fortune cookies up our noses with my sister and took pictures until Kelly laughed. When that same boyfriend got back together with her and then broke up with her again, I almost killed him, even though I did actually like him, just not for her.

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Me and Kelly waiting for the bats to come out from the Congress Bridge this past Tuesday

Growing Closer Apart

Kelly and her family came for a visit last weekend. It had been four years since I’d laid eyes on her, but we’ve become even closer. We told our old jokes and made a few new ones, but we also reflected on who we were back then and who we’ve become. Somehow, we have grown together, despite being states apart. Somehow, we’ve both evolved into writers, feminists, people who are real about the not-so-shiny side of mental health and motherhood.

I do not know why this happened — why she and I are so alike and yet different and fit together so well on a primal level, why we are able to stay friends across the country, why I am always able to learn something from her — but it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

My Two Grandmothers

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(not my actual grandmothers)

Every time I make up a bed, I think of my grandmother, June. She’s the one who taught me the secrets of fitted sheets. First, do the hardest corner, then its diagonal. She schooled me in their folding as well. Because of Grammy June, I don’t share the rest of the world’s fitted-sheet angst.

It seems like a trivial thing to remember, but with the memory of learning to wrangle sheets comes a feeling of zenlike order. Grammy June was a calm and soothing person, a creature of routine, and with the sheets and everything else she did, she taught me the peaceful feeling that can come with a task well-done, efficiently accomplished.

Grammy June baked and read us stories and did water aerobics. Dinner was served at the stroke of six in the evening, and no one ever ate more than one piece of pie for dessert. Grammy June, for her calm demeanor, was loved by every baby and every dog she ever met. She giggled a little “tee hee” when she laughed; she was the quintessential grandmother.

Granny Sue was not. Granny Sue was loud. She stayed up until the wee hours of the morning arguing about politics, and she was a bit overwhelming. At Granny Sue’s, you got to eat a whole can of vanilla frosting while sitting in front of the TV.

Granny Sue worked outside her home at a time when most women didn’t. She was a writer and a poet. She was fiery. She ran hot and cold and was hard to get along with sometimes, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a friend to all lost souls, welcoming them into her home like family.  Her car sported a bumper sticker: Well-behaved women rarely make history.

Granny Sue taught me to say the uncomfortable things when they need to be said. She taught me to stand up for myself, and the last thing she said to me was, “keep writing.”

My two grandmothers were diametrical opposites. They got along okay on family vacations, but Grammy June sometimes discreetly turned down her hearing aids when Granny Sue ranted on too long and too loud.

I feel a little of each of them in me — Grammy June’s calmness when I feel overwhelmed, her sense of peace, order, and comfort. Granny Sue is there, cheering me on when I write something controversial and am afraid to hit “publish.” She tells me it’s okay that I feel like a mess sometimes.

It’s a thing people say, that people live on in those who remember them, and it is only now that I realize it’s true — how often I think of them, how I can feel them at different moments, two very different women. Sometimes I feel like two different people, and that can be confusing. But I loved Grammy June, and I loved Granny Sue, so I guess I can love them both in me.

The Time I Drove a Motorcycle Through a House

teenage irresponsibility motorcycles
My sister, my aunt Val, and me on Val’s motorcycle. We start ’em young.

When I was eighteen years old, I drove a motorcycle through the wall of our house. I wasn’t actually riding the motorcycle, and it wasn’t even running. How might one drive a parked motorcycle through a wall?

I was home from college for the summer, and I went out to the garage to get in my car and drive to my summer job at the bookstore. It was a hand-me-down, 1987 Nissan Stanza, standard transmission. I opened the car door, plopped my butt in the seat with my legs still hanging out the open door, and turned the key to start the car. It roared to life and lurched forward as I panicked, scrambling to get my feet in the car and on the brake to halt the car’s forward progress. Which I did. But not before the car pushed my dad’s motorcycle, parked in front of it, through the wall and into the brand-spanking new den my dad had just finished building.

If you know anything about cars and stick shifts, you probably think I’m making this up. You are thinking, But standard transmissions don’t start unless you have your foot on the clutch.

Yes, but not this one. That car began having trouble starting back when it was still my dad’s. Eighty-five percent of the time when my dad fixes something, it involves removing safety features. Like the one that prevents a car from starting unless your foot is on the clutch. I always left the car in neutral with the parking brake on, which allowed me to develop the (bad) habit of starting it without being all the way inside it yet. My dad, however, liked to leave it in gear with the parking brake off, and I’d forgotten he’d moved it for me the night before.

So there I am. I have to be at work in fifteen minutes, and I am staring in horror at the motorcycle handlebars poking through that brand new wall. In the span of five seconds, I have scratched the front of my car, damaged my dad’s motorcycle and demolished a recently-completed construction project. My sister has traveled halfway downstairs (not all the way; she’s 15 and only one notch above bored by the whole sitch) and is gawking from the stairwell like, What’d you do?!

Did I call my dad at work? No. I called my mom. I pleaded with her to call him, so I wouldn’t have to face the music. She flat-out refused, saying something to the effect of, “No way. You made your bed, now you lie in it.”

So I took a deep breath and called my dad but not before I came up with a strategy:

Dad: This is Pat.

Me: Dad, it’s April. I just pushed your motorcycle through the wall with my car, but it’s all your fault because YOU LEFT MY CAR IN GEAR, AND I NEVER WOULD HAVE DONE IT IF IT WEREN’T FOR YOU!

‘Like how I didn’t give him a chance to respond? Like how I immediately went on the offensive and wholly denied any personal responsibility. Guess what? It worked. Just not how I intended.

My dad laughed his ass off at me through the phone. At first, I was scared he had lost it entirely, but then I realized he actually thought it was funny. My blaming it on him was so ridiculous, he wasn’t even mad. (Plus, by the time I was 18, he was starting to mellow a bit.)

He had me help him fix the wall, which was a logical consequence and was actually kind of fun — a bonding experience. It all turned out okay, and I never again started that car or any other manual transmission without both the clutch and the brake covered. I also learned…

  • When you fuck up really badly, if you can make your confession ridiculous to the point of hilarity, maybe they’ll go easy on you.
  • It is good to laugh at yourself.
  • It’s bad to park things in front of other things.
  • Under no circumstances should you remove safety mechanisms from devices used by people under the age of thirty.

Hammer Therapy

Hammer, nails on wooden boards outside on construction site
Copyright : Jozef Polc

When I was thirteen, my dad threw a hammer at me.

Now before you go getting all shocked and jumping to conclusions, I should point out, he prefaced the throw with, “Here, catch,” as he gently lobbed it about six feet to my outstretched hand. Also, we were on a roof, and I suck at catching things.

Okay, full story: My dad, mom, sister, and I were up on our roof hammering shingles into the addition to the house my dad had just completed. We have always been a full-on, do-it-yourself family, occasionally to the point of what some would call stupidity. When Dad said, “Here, catch,” and I realized he was going to throw a hammer I was expected to successfully receive, I was terrified I’d miss it and Dad would be mad. I did miss it, and it clattered to the roof, knocking some of the surfacing from the brand-new composition shingles. He was mad. It was the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, do you know what composition shingles are? ‘Cause I do. That’s how I was raised — knowing a lot of random construction details most non-construction people neither know nor care about. And yes, it’s a point of pride. Go ahead, ask me how dual vanity sinks are plumbed. I’ll draw you a diagram. If you want to know how a post-tension slab foundation works, I can give you details on that, too. Mind you, I couldn’t actually build one, but I could definitely write a manual.

But I digress. So I missed the hammer, and Dad got irritated at me. He said something to the effect of, “Goddamnit, April! Why didn’t you catch that?”

Mom then came to my rescue with, “Because she knew you’d yell at her if she didn’t!”

I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, Yeah. Yeah, that’s why! It was a revelation; nerves had gotten the better of me, and I didn’t even realize that was a thing that happened until she said it.

I tell this story, because how can you not tell a story that starts with, “One time, my dad threw a hammer at me…” and make people wonder? And because it’s a snapshot memory that stands out in technicolor clarity in my mind. It was when I realized that pressuring people to perform can have the exact opposite of the desired effect, and it gave me an inkling of insight into my own psychological hangups.

The moral of this story is, you’ve got to verbalize your children’s emotions for them from time to time to help them label those emotions. Or maybe it’s that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be perfect all the time. No, no, I’ve got it. It’s…

If you really want a kid to learn something, put them on a roof and throw hammers at them. Right?