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.

My Mom, The Fixer

Throughout my childhood, my mom was The Fixer. You had a problem, yo, she solved it faster than Vanilla Ice, no revolving DJ necessary. The vacuum would start emanating that burned-motor smell, and she would spend the next half-hour sitting on the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaner upside down, with a screwdriver in her hand. She’d take it apart, clean off the gobs of hair wrapped around the rotor, retrieve whatever plastic hair tie had clogged it, reassemble it and finish cleaning the floor. “A clean machine is a happy machine,” she would say.

Put a package on it!

My sister and I liked to draw at the kitchen counter when we were little. Mom would be in the same room, cooking or doing science experiments in the sink or whatever moms do in the background when you’re six years old and self-involved. Ma, the meatloaf! I never know what she’s doing in there.

We’d invariably make a mistake — the cat’s tail was too fat or we left an “r” out of “Merry Christmas.” We always went straight for the markers, never learning from experience to write it in pencil first. We’d wail that our life was over because of this egregious error; now, we would have to start all over, and we just didn’t have it in us to face the blank canvas (manila construction paper)again. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Mom would swoop in with a fix: “Put a present over it!” Thus, our artwork was littered with random, brightly wrapped packages with red bows, smack in the middle of words, trees and cat’s hindquarters to unsubtly cover our mistakes — kind of like a kindergarten version of Japanese Kintsugi.

Mom applied the same technique to our clothing. When holes appeared in the knees of my jeans way before I’d outgrown them, she covered them with the assorted patches she kept in her sewing stuff — rainbows, hearts, flowers (presents). Until that is, I reached sixth grade and patched knees became too horrifyingly uncool for school. She sewed up the holes my sister accidentally cut in the collars of her shirts while trying to rid them of every millimeter of itchy tag full of size designations and washing instructions with a pair of safety scissors. Once, my sister cut a hole in a nightgown my grandmother had made, viciously forcing it to part ways with the detestable bow on its front. Mom fixed that, too.

Put it in a box.

Mom was also a pretty good fixer for teenage hearts that had been shattered into a million-billion pieces causing much weeping to sappy Richard Marx songs. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend and was wringing my hands over what to do with all of the memorabilia of our relationship that had adorned my room for the entire nine months of our coupling, Mom knew what to do. I didn’t want to look at that shit, but I couldn’t bear to throw it away, so she brought me a box. We put all the precious things — dried flowers, saccharine love notes, mason jar full of deflated balloons (a story for another time) — inside and stashed it in the back of my closet where I would find it several years later and toss it without a second thought.

Break out the lug wrench.

Mom is in her best form when annoying and unpredicted problems arise. She’s good with a flat tire. One year, she changed no less than six of them, each time on her way home from work. My dad accused her of running over nails on purpose, which made perfect sense. I’m sure she was just itching to wrench off lug nuts on the side of the highway in the dark after working ten hours at the hospital where she’d, incidentally, been fixing things all day.

In a crisis, Mom is cool as a little Fonzie. She’s the one you want first on the scene of a car accident and first in line to fix a ruined bridesmaid’s dress an hour before the ceremony. When my sister’s best friend’s mom exited stage left to go live in New Hampshire with her boyfriend, leaving two kids and a hapless ex-husband behind, my mom helped pick up the pieces. She shuttled those kids to and from school, dance classes and soccer. She fed them when necessary. She sprinted down to their house to shut off the malfunctioning burglar alarm all. the. time. Because no one was home and they didn’t want to have to pay the security company for yet another false alarm. “Stay calm now, fall apart later,” was her motto.

Pass down the skills.

My mother is the reason I calmly handled a tire blowout while driving a child-molester-sized van full of day camp kids 65 miles an hour down I35. She is the reason I fix the holes in my adult jeans, though now they show up, relentlessly, in the butt along the back pocket seam where my trunk junk can’t be contained by mere denim. She is why, when my toddler fell and hit his head on the tile so hard he started passing out and throwing up, I didn’t explode in a volcano of dysfunctional hysteria while trying to keep him awake on the way to the ER and instead pressed that rising panic down so I could function for my son.

Luckily, he was okay. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find time to fall apart later because I was so relieved my kiddo wasn’t permanently brain-damaged (though it was a little hard for the doctor to assess since he’d just started walking and moved around like a drunken college student already). It’s a good thing, too, because that kid is ten now, and he’d look pretty funny with a red and green-bowed Christmas package on his head.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thanks for always keeping our shit together.

Roses are Resting Bitch Face

Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_evgeniy3030′>Evgeniy Medvedev</a>

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

You don’t know me,

But I know you.

I was coordinating the university blood drive, sitting at a table helping people fill out forms when a boy arrived in front of me with this bastardized clichéd poem. He gazed down at me with his big brown eyes, grinning at his own cleverness and manufactured mystery. In fact, I did know who he was. We hadn’t met, but his name was Diego.

I thought about using a pseudonym just now, but with a suave name like Diego, I just couldn’t do it. He was a friend of a friend and a nice-looking guy — cute, maybe even sexy. But I was not amused. I glared back up at him, tapping my pen impatiently.

Are you going to donate blood?

No, I just wanted to meet you. (flirtatious smile)

Then move out of the way. I’m busy.

I was not playing hard-to-get. When I am intensely focused on something I can be a dick to anyone who interrupts me. It’s a well-known fact in my family. But there was more to it than my annoyance. Diego was not just a gnat buzzing in my ear that I absently swatted away. He represented a larger conflict.

I was a nice kid. When people came up to talk to me, I smiled, listened and made eye contact, even when I was in a hurry or they were interrupting my intense navel-gazing. As I went through puberty, though, this started to backfire. What I considered polite and friendly was taken as flirtation and a promise of something more. Then, I’d get ambushed with some guy’s tongue on my face and he’d act like I’d stolen his lunch money when I pushed him away. Or worse, I’d think I’d made a friend only to discover he didn’t want to hang out with me if friends were all we were going to be.

So I quit being nice. I stopped smiling at people on the shuttle bus, quit making eye contact when a male person asked me an innocent question like, “Does the Pleasant Valley bus stop here?” I had resting bitch face down so pat (before it was even called that) that my ex-husband — who intimidated most people right out of the gate — was afraid to talk to me when he first laid eyes on me. The only time I did let some boy past the barrier was when I was entertaining the idea of making out with him; I had sunken to their expectations.

It became a habit. I didn’t just shut out potentially lecherous guys; I barred the door to everyone. And I did it long after the days of my getting hit on in public spaces were over. I eventually put resting bitch face to rest and became more outwardly friendly again. Still, I had lost the ability to open up, to be myself, to put myself in the position where I could potentially be shoved aside and rebuffed because I wasn’t offering what was wanted.

Luckily, I’m 45 years old and still here, so I have time. I can work on it. I AM working on it, and I’ve already gotten so much better at being vulnerable and making real friends. I’m not sorry I didn’t give Diego more attention 25 years ago, but maybe if I ever run into him again, we can be friends…metaphorically, anyway.

The Lorax, Guinea Pigs and Charles Lindbergh

Stonehenge Brain Beasties
(Stonehenge:
Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_coffe72′>coffe72</a&gt;; walrus:
Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_alexlaz’>Alexandra Vasilenko</a>; Guinea pigs:
Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_ayutaka’>ayutaka</a&gt;)

It’s five o’clock in the morning. I see Stonehenge, the massive horizontal stones looking deceptively precarious atop their supports. The circles of rocks are surrounded by a lush, green, rolling landscape. The monument is bathed in late afternoon light as are the inhabitants atop it. Calmly perched on one of the horizontal monoliths is a cartoon walrus who resembles the Lorax. He’s pink, anyway. Keeping him company are several, normal-colored guinea pigs – the kind who look like their hair is one big cowlick. They are brown and white and frolicking around on top of the stones, making those cute squeaky noises. There is also the name, Charles Lindell. Not printed anywhere, and certainly not a person in the flesh, but just the idea of a name. In the air, maybe. An aura?

Stonehenge, pink Lorax walrus, cheerful guinea pigs and the idea of a name? It’s not an acid trip; it is what is going on in my brain as I lie in bed between waking and sleeping, in a perfectly ordinary bedroom, no drugs involved.

I am crazy. Or I am some sort of oracle.

I watched a documentary on Stonehenge right before going to bed last night. I also saw a cartoon walrus who made me giggle in a Facebook meme yesterday. An old friend sent me a message recently and mentioned his kids had lots of pets, which prompted me to wonder if they were the regular dog-and-cat variety or something more exotic like birds, lizards or guinea pigs.

The documentary mentioned that the horizontal cross stone on the tops of the supports are called lintels. I remembered that’s also what you call the crosspiece over a doorway, and noted that lintel is a general-crosspiece word, not one specific to stone monuments. It was interesting (to my writer brain, anyway.) Lintel sounds like the last name, Lindell. Which reminded me of Charles Lindbergh, who did something cool with planes or aviation or something, so the name “Charles” got attached to Lindell.

The Stonehenge documentary got me to thinking about how we, as people, tend to have a less intimate relationship with nature and the celestial cycles for which Stonehenge seems to have been created. Thus, the Lorax element. I didn’t realize I was doing any of this. I just saw the trippy Stonehenge panorama, complete with cavorting beasties. But when I traced each element, I realized its origin.

So that is what my brain sometimes does when it is supposed to be sleeping. It’s pretty entertaining. It makes me wish I could draw better, too. I’m not crazy or clairvoyant, just a little weird maybe. And super adept at free association. What does your brain do in the twilight world between wakefulness and sleep?

Best Laid Plans (podcast)

When Sharon Hudson hired me to edit her e-book, I was thrilled. I’d always gotten good vibes from her, and we have a serendipitous friend in common. I met Hannah, who Sharon interviewed for Episode 9, in a prenatal yoga class; we ended up giving birth across the hall from each other on the same day. That kind of connection, even once removed, seems significant. Still, I figured I’d scroll through the rough draft of the book, make some developmental suggestions, dot some i’s, cross out some split infinitives and that would be that.

But in addition to the standard editorial fare, I could not resist typing rambling personal commentary in response to her content. The book, Authentically Me, (coming soon) addresses how society’s values and teachings can interfere with our finding out who we really are and what we want. Even in the editorial process, it caused me to reflect on my expectations for myself and why I’ve struggled with a narrow vision of success. My takeaway?

Man, Sharon is really smart and introspective! I want to spend more time with her.

I am terrible at following up on thoughts like that, so when Sharon asked to interview me for her podcast, Soul Quest, I was excited. And then I was nervous. I was going to talk about myself for 45 minutes, and not like, which are my favorite yoga pants, but about my divorce, my miscarriages and how my whole initial plan for adult life fell in the toilet. I took many, many deep breaths, tried not to ramble and put it out there.

The podcast is “conversations with inspiring people about their quest towards living their authentic life.” You may come away from Episode 15 inspired by what NOT to do as a functional adult, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Huge thanks to Sharon for allowing me to spill my guts on some of the messier moments that have bludgeoned me into who I am today.

Oblivious

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For someone who is pretty attentive to all the shit that goes on in her head and whatever the latest science/space/blackhole news is, I can be oblivious to the walking, talking, irl stuff. Early concrete example: my dad built me a Barbie house for Christmas when I was eight. While it was a work-in-progress, he threw an old paint-stained olive green bedspread over it in the garage. I walked past its five-by-five Snuffalupagus-like bulk every day for months to access my bike and roller skates. I didn’t notice it.

My mother said, when I was young, sometimes kids would make fun of me in that subtle, it-sounds-like-a-compliment-but-any-sentient-adult-can-tell-it’s-not kind of way. It hurt her heart, but upon realizing I had no idea anything was going on beneath the surface of “I like your hair,” she decided perhaps ignorance was bliss and kept it to herself.

I am still like this. Although, at forty-five, I may get an inkling that your “that sweatshirt looks so comfortable” comment may be your way of passive-aggressively saying, “You look like a slob, and now I feel better than you,” I am still too exhausted to try to figure that shit out. Whatever. You are dismissed.

I was just reading an advice column in which a person asked, “When a guest brings a bottle of wine to my house for dinner, do I have to serve it with the meal?” Figuring out what social custom dictates you do in situations like this is so incredibly tiresome. If you bring me a bottle of wine, please, for the love of god, tell me what to do with it. “I thought it would go nicely with the chips and queso” or “Save this for yourself for later” are welcome directions. Better yet, take liberty, get comfy in my house, and open that shit yourself or shove it in my wine fridge, which is probably empty because stocking up on wine is not something I’m capable of.

Whatever you do, don’t give me a choice and expect me to say the “right” thing. If you say, “Whatever. Open it if you want.” I will circumvent trying to read your true desires in your face like tea leaves and do exactly what I want. I’ll ask, “Are you sure?” That’s your one out. If you don’t take it, you’ve no one but yourself to blame.

Look, I will pick up on your mood. I am annoyingly empathetic. If you are having a shitty day, I will know that you are sad, tired, pissed off, depressed, whathaveyou. But if you are trying to send me subtle social cues to tuck my bra strap under my sleeve, I will absolutely not notice. Then, you will make fun of me to your “friends” later, which will feel delicious at first but leave you with that horrible hollow feeling after the fact, and I will go home none the wiser.

I used to think this lack of social awareness was a failing of mine, but every time I have gotten a clue that I didn’t use the right fork or someone was smirking at my shoes, it hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel bad (when I was younger) or annoy me (when I was older). Plus, Jason says he loves this about me, and with all the other shit he has to put up with, I oughta throw him a bone. So…oblivious. Yeah, I think I’ll keep it.

Cutting Loose ~ A Sotol Story

Big Bend National Park at sunset, Copyright: Leong Kok Weng 

“I thought y’all were in a cult,” she said.

She’d wandered up to us in the middle of Big Bend National Park under a scorching midday sun. Despite her misgivings, thirst drove her to take the risk. “Hey! Y’all have any water?” Her name was Sarah.

We were in our early twenties and made friends with Sarah over the course of the next several sentences. We stood there in the semi-desert, sun bleaching out the curves and valleys of the Chisos Mountains in the background, chatting. Sarah said she and her friend, Clay, were crossing the border to Boquillas later that evening. “Have you ever heard of sotol?” she asked.

Surprisingly, as well-versed in cheap liquor as we were, we hadn’t.

“You should totally meet us over there and try it!” she said before waving goodbye and continuing her hike, empty Camelbak slung over one arm.

It didn’t take much convincing for Javier, Trey and me to go to a bar, even if it was across a stagnant section of the Rio Grande and nestled in a dusty cluster of buildings with no electricity. Later that day, we happily paid a few bucks to be rowed 50 feet across the still, mud-brown water and just as happily declined their offers to sell us coke on the opposite shore. It was the late ’90s. There were no border patrol agents, no gates, no checking of identification at that deserted bend in the river, just a handful of locals running a rowboat service.

We found the bar, indistinguishable from the rest of the modest buildings, except that it had a counter inside with a guy selling liquor behind it. We started to order a shot of sotol each, but when we found out a bottle was ONLY SEVEN DOLLARS, we pooled our money. Curiously, the sotol came in an old tequila bottle.

We were several shots in when Sarah walked through the door. “Hey, y’all!”

“Sarah!” She was our newly long-lost Norm in a perky, blond package.

We were already well on our way to being drunk, so Javier offered Sarah a shot.

“Oh, I don’t drink,” she replied.

One of us said something like, “But you said….sotol…”

It turned out Sarah was a recovering alcoholic, and she had only heard of sotol, not sampled it herself. What we had taken as a personal recommendation had only been an uninformed, whimsical suggestion, one we would pay for later. 

We were there long enough for me to need to use the outhouse. The back jutted out over a cliff, so everything you deposited in the hole went spilling down into the canyon, which was a handy way to avoid having to clean it. At some point, Sarah left, we finished the bottle, and it was time to go back.

It was dusk. We stumbled back toward the river, through rocks, dust, prickly pear, and mesquite trees. Halfway there, I stopped to pee again and fell into a cactus, impaling my butt cheek with spines. At the moment, thoroughly numbed, I thought it was hilarious.

When we came to the river, we saw a boat moored on our side and a pair of sad mules tethered to a hitching post, but no rowers. They’d promised they’d be there, but since we were communicating in both broken English (them) and broken Spanish (us), we could have been mistaken. Instead of considering this, though, we were drunkenly outraged.

The boat had a slow leak in it, so we decided David, Javier’s younger brother and the lightest person in our group, should row us across one at a time to prevent sinking. As our one-brother ferry made its way back and forth, Trey began to get more and more irate.

When he and Javier were the only ones left on the Mexico side, Trey managed to get Javier’s blood up as well. It wasn’t hard; the two of them together and under the influence almost guaranteed madness, which is part of why I loved them. They made me laugh and sometimes pissed me off, but they were loyal as hell — to each other, to me, and as it turns out, to two sad, strange mules.

It’s unclear whether the source of their irritation was the absence of promised rowers or the ill-treatment of the emaciated-looking animals tied to the post, but it culminated in this (loosely remembered) inebriated exchange of words:

“You know what, man. We should cut their mules loose.”

“Yeah! Yeah, we should! Serves them right.”

“Yeah, they should be free. Look at them. They’re starving!”

And then the two of them untethered the two beleaguered animals, at which point Trey slapped one on the ass and yelled, “Yah, mule! You’re free!” Like some sort of vigilante Yosemite Sam.

Said mules glanced curiously at the loud, stumbling gringos behind them but made no move whatsoever to “yah!” When David returned to retrieve Javier and Trey, they gave up trying to cajole the mules to freedom and got in the boat.

Finally, with all ten of our feet planted firmly back on U.S. soil, we surveyed the quiet, mud-colored river, the sedentary mules, and the leaky boat in the moonlight. Then, someone suggested, “We should push the boat down the river!”

And someone else said, “Yeah, serves them right!” (Middle-aged me is SMH in embarrassment at that group of naive, ineffective, self-centered white kids.)

So we pushed the boat down the river, and it went scarcely farther than the mules. I say “we” a lot in this story, but aside from falling in the cactus, I can’t take credit for most of these shenanigans. Not because I’m above such drunken ridiculousness (I once picked a bar fight over a stolen novelty condom), but more because the impulsive behavior quota was already filled, and there just wasn’t space for one more bad decision.

After the anticlimactic boat launch, we heard two people approaching from the Mexico side — our rowers, pushing through the brush. We panicked. Someone whisper-yelled, “Let’s GO!” and we all hopped in David’s waiting Jeep and sped off, gravel spitting out from the churning tires, just like the hardcore hooligans we weren’t.

Young, entitled assholes, maybe. Hardcore? Definitely not.

The rest of the evening was par for the course. We made dinner around a fire, talked and laughed. Javier and Trey got in an argument, and then I got mad at Javier and stomped off into the desert darkness. But only a little way off, because I was scared of getting lost. I was probably crying because that’s what I do. Aside from the fact that we were in Big Bend, it was a typical Saturday night. Javier and I were dating at the time, but it often felt more like the three of us were buddies. We acted more like family — there was closeness and trust, but fairly often, we annoyed the hell out of each other.

We all made up in the early dark hours of morning when the moonshine sotol hit our intestines. We were forced to stumble out of the tent, dig quick holes and pass around the toilet paper in the dark. Nothing brings people together like a shared case of the runs. The next day, we woke up late and hungover and went hiking because that’s what you do when you’re young and invincible. 

Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m married with two kids and living in the suburbs. Trey lives in San Francisco with his husband; I keep up with him on Facebook. David got married, had a kid, then got divorced. Sarah had a kid, too. I lost track of her after that. Javier died about a year ago after a battle with prostate cancer, survived by his wife and two young sons.

I look back on that time in Big Bend, and it makes me smile as much as shudder. Unfortunately, I never could take anyone else’s word for it; I had to discover first-hand that it sucks to wake up hungover in the desert, that turning a good friend into a boyfriend into a husband is sometimes a bad idea. Some of those mistakes were fun to make, others more painful, more lasting.

At a time when I was emotionally volatile (she says, as if she’s not now), Trey and Javier reflected my sometimes violent feelings with their intensity, their humor, their arguments. Around them, I didn’t feel like such a mental misfit. But it wasn’t just that. I loved both of them. Still do. And after writing that, I can hear Trey’s theatrically nervous laughter followed by, “awk-ward!”

The History of Mortis Manor

The History Behind Mortis Manor

Horror has always fascinated me — the freaky, the spooky, the macabre, the swimming pool dug in the old burial ground causing the long-dead to haunt the unwitting inhabitants of the new neighborhood. In sixth grade, I memorized The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. The Telltale Heart kept me rapt in English class, and when required school reading took a more mundane turn, I ignored it for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Christine. They gave me nightmares, but I couldn’t stop; I’d read deep into the night, gripping the book with white knuckles. I’d watch every frightful moment of the film through the grill of my fingers.

My teachers looked down their literary noses at the so-called trash I read, but at 45 years old, I’ll stand by what I thought when I was twelve: It takes a true master to craft a story so suspenseful, so chilling, you can’t look away, even though you’re terrified. I don’t mean Texas Chainsaw Massacre slasher stuff that grapples for your attention with new heights in blood, guts and torture. I’m talking artful weavings of spooky, uneasy suspense and stories of baser human urges or warped dimensions of time, space and humanity no one likes to talk about. The kind of thing you might glimpse in the gutter at dusk or lurking in the corner of your dark bedroom at night and think what if…

I’ve never written horror. Maybe my early reverence of its masters intimidated me. But when my friends down the street, Liana and Brian, asked over beers in the pool one day, “Could you help us flesh out the backstory for our haunt?” I rubbed my hands together with murderous glee.

Starting around the first part of November every year, you’ll find Brian and Liana in their garage, already building for next year’s haunt. Brian crafts enchanted wells, and Liana creates gruesomely detailed monsters out of plaster and latex. They recruit live actors for certain parts. It’s not just a collection of peeled grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for brains. Every haunt has a story, a theme that ties it together and carries you from one trepidacious room to the next. They employ much more than the element of surprise; last year, we traveled through the house over and over and were creeped out and delighted every time. It’s not just horror; it’s art. It’s spooky and subtle and freaky and in-your-face all at once. Come the season, the Robinsons’ average suburban house becomes unrecognizable. It transforms into the haunt, into Mortis Manor.

Liana already had some insight into what had happened at the manor. I teased out the details, pulling the story from my own muses, who were familiar with the Mortis family and their…circumstances. A few back-and-forth exchanges later, and we had unearthed the mysterious and chilling history of Mortis Manor. What we found, the truth behind the notorious estate, made our skin crawl. Mortis Manor seems abandoned, but it’s not dead.

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.