Tina Rowley

writer + (performer) + [space left blank for surprises]

Welcome to the internet home of Tina Rowley. Here you'll find my blog, links to my other published writing, and whatever ends up climbing into the space I left blank for surprises.

 

los animalitos

Confession, and one that I think makes me less of a rocking good human: I'm not an animal person. I mean, I am an animal, so in that sense I'm either in denial or I'm the most reprehensible kind of social climber, denying my own people/fellow animals like that, but it's true. Taken as a whole, animals weird me out. If they spoke, that would help. And English, while we're at it, would be good. But I'd be down with Portuguese or Arabic or Swahili or French or whatever, because it would tell me we're sort of working in the same cognitive realm, and that would be comforting. If somebody's talking, then they're probably thinking, and I like that. Also, as a habitual people-pleaser, I can't please you if I can't figure out what you want, and if you're an animal and I don't anticipate your needs, I don't know how reasonable you're going to be about that. Like, what's the penalty? A pecking? Execution? 

I'm not totally solidly in the realm of the rational here. I know. Don't come at me with your logic, either. I don't take that kind of currency on this topic. 

See, so I think I'm a little not-quite-cooked as a human being. I admire the animal lovers and cuddlers, the rescuers of strays, the horse whisperers, the cat ladies, the falconers (somebody's doing it), all you Saint-Francis-of-Assisi types. You are better people than I am. You are more evolved. I mean it. Hats off. You've got it going on. I want to be more like you, so I'm here breaking it down today. I'm snuggling up to the concept of animals

in my mind

, and this is a start. 

It's equal parts attraction and repulsion for me with animals. Let me say right away that I have a good partial excuse on the repulsion front, which is allergies. I'm wicked allergic to dander and fur and animal saliva. I get hives and my chest tightens and it's painful to breathe. Also, the back of my throat is a fur magnet. If a room has fur debris around, it will shoot into my mouth and I will gack and hack until my eyes water. It's pretty to look at, and it

feels

good.  

But also, l'm a little stressed-out by how uncool animals are. I don't mean uncool like "they're assholes". I mean that they're not known for their restraint. They go for what they want. They're impulsive. Dolphins sexually assault people. Dolphins!

If you can't trust a fucking dolphin, the whole game is lost. 

I'm investigating this because we're considering getting a pet. My sons are huge animal lovers, and they're dying to get somebody furry into our family. Allergies are a concern, but I know there are dogs that are easier on allergy-havers than others, and I've successfully lived with some cats in my life. And I'm not made of stone. I'm susceptible to adorableness like normal people. Finn and Fred and I google-image Labradoodles and my heart skips a beat like a real human lady's. 

Question number one always seems to be, "Are you a cat person or a dog person?" Everybody is ostensibly one of these people, and I suppose I better work out which I am, especially if we're going to pick one. Because we're not picking both, as God is my witness.

Dog people seem like they're part of some elite, windblown, outdoorsy club. Dog people probably ski, or play tennis, or touch football, or they surf. They're leap-y and athletic and healthy and well-adjusted. I picture myself at the dog park with a dog, and other dog owners looking at me like, "Who lent you the dog? That's not your dog. Go get that poor guy back to his owner. You're traumatizing him." 

So you'd think this would indicate that I'm not a dog person, ergo I'm a cat person. You'd think too soon!

I've lived with cats, yes. I've lived with Patches, Veronica, Lela, Desperado, Toonces and Gilbert. (In case you know them.) Just because I lived with cats doesn't mean I ever instigated it, though. I never instigated it. I was just along for the ride. The first three cats on the list were our family's cats when we were growing up, one after the other. Patches was the first, when we lived in New York. Patches was whatever. Patches was fine. My brother was the cat guy, see? If you ask David about Patches, or Veronica, or Lela, you better buckle in because rhapsody is going to get waxed. There will be talk of the ancient Egyptians and cat worship. There will be ooh-ing, cooing noises—just noises, noises of love, exclamations. It's a scene, man. I did not inherit this gene. 

Cats love me, though, because I can take them or leave them. I give them space, and they're all, "Who IS she? She's fascinating! She's irresistible. I must know her better. I love her. She has a

je ne sais quoi.

" And then they're all chasing me around the revolving chair while I spin to avoid getting jumped on, and they're bumping their heads against my leg all luxurious-like, and purring their little faces off. It's sad! Cats! Come on! Have some self-esteem! Didn't you ever read

He's Just Not That Into You

? You'll feel weird when you do, cats, I'm telling you. Pang of recognition. 

Veronica and Lela were also fine, whatever. Desperado and Toonces and Gilbert were cats I lived with in college with my housemates. Desperado wandered on to our porch one night and threw himself on my friend Jen's lap, and that was that. He was dark brown, fat, and he only had one gigantic ball. He could walk, but he couldn't stand still without tipping over on his side; I imagine he was thrown off-balance by his ball issue. Toonces was orange and stinky. She had one spot on her back that she could never get clean, just one little sticky bit. They were depressing, frankly.

But then there was Gilbert, who was the only pet I've really been mad for. Gilbert was a slick little black-and-white kitty, all tuxedo'd-out, and he had grace and style and what even appeared to be compassion. I remember weeping on my pillow one night about an ex-boyfriend, and Gilbert curled himself around my head and wiped my tears away as they fell. I mean, really. In retrospect, I think he was probably like "Face game! Water on face. Move slowly so as not to scare the small waters, but then

get them

," which I interpreted as, "There, there. He wasn't good enough for you. Forget him. You have me." 

One night in college when I was walking home from the theater, I saw Gilbert blocks and blocks away from home. I didn't pick him up because I don't pick animals up because of fur and claws and bones and oh my god. Shiver. No. I cannot. But I loved him still, in my way, and wanted him home safe, so I lured him home walking backwards/bent over, beckoning him and making seductive baby talk. Jesus God, it was a task. A walk that should have taken ten minutes took an hour.

Giiiiil-berrrrrt. C'mon, baby. C'mon, kitty. Smooch smooch smooch. C'mon, kitty-baby. Come on. Come on. That's it. Over here. Hey baby. Baby. Over here. Yeah. That's it. 

I got in the door and there were all my housemates in the living room, and I was like, "You guys! I found Gilbert!" They looked at me blankly, and I looked at the couch, where Gilbert was already sitting. Oh. Well, who the fuck was this I'd just seduced home so hard? Uh-oh. And then I had to give Not-Gilbert the boot. Super. "Say, listen, thanks for walking home with me and everything. I had a nice time. Hope you did, too. Welp. Go away now. Go be outside now. Go. Bye." I shut the front door, and Not-Gilbert hung from the screen door with his claws, wailing. Oh, man, that was one for his journal, whoever that was. ONCE I MET A TROLLOP AND SHE FUCKED ME OVER AND LEFT ME FOR DEAD. NEVER TRUST A WOMAN. I'M OUT OF WHISKEY.

On the strength of Gilbert alone, I'd say I'd teeter in the direction of cats, but they have those claws, and those teeth. I know dogs do, too, but with cats they seem pierce-ier and knife-ier, and I feel like cats indulge themselves with that shit more often, and more unpredictably. I don't like that you could have a cat snuggling on your lap and you can suddenly get shanked in the leg for no reason. WTF? Don't stab me, fuckers. I don't care if it's a love stab. I don't care if you're playing. That is a fucked-up game, "Stab the Lady". If a person suddenly stabbed me—even just in fun, whee!—I would dial 911 immediately. 

Why do the most adorable pets have to be so potentially sharp? I'm against it.   

And do not speak to me about turtles or lizards or snakes or rodents, all the potential pets from the "other" category. Weasels and ferrets and whoever. (Hamsters are no go. Too vulnerable/inscrutable/high octane.) And if I can barely handle the otherness of a dog or a cat, who are respectively the vanilla and chocolate of Animal Flavor Metaphor Town, there isn't the first chance I'd be down with some wasabi motherfucker like an iguana.

But Tina, what about-

NO. You were going to say birds. Birds are the worst. I am an almost-complete ornithophobe. Once I was forced by fate to walk through a parking lot that was carpeted,

carpeted

in pigeons. I prayed

please don't take off please don't take off please don't take off

and when I was halfway to my car THEY ALL FUCKING TOOK OFF. I froze and covered my head and screamed and there was flapping flapping flapping everywhere and they

touched

me with their

wings

and it probably only went on for five or ten seconds but I died, came back to life and was re-killed again once every second. So that's long. That's five to ten lifetimes.

Our next-door neighbors have chickens, whose pen they thoughtfully keep far away from their house/snuggled right next to ours. Every morning there's a farm-fresh cacophony right beneath our bedroom window. And until the fence was reinforced, they kept muscling into our yard. You'd see a little horrible chicken head trying to work its way under the fence, all

I AM COMING FOR YOU. 

When something has fur, you can maybe reason with it, mammal-to-mammal, or soothe it with a violin. If it has feathers, especially fluffy fucked-up fowl feathers, it cannot understand you. It is bent on its own aims.

Another time I was chased by turkeys. I don't want to talk about it. And once a housemate went outside and threw a rock at some loud crows early one morning, and you had best believe we were fucked from then on. I came home one afternoon and found the way to the door blocked by a squawking, menacing group of maybe a dozen crows. I sat in my car for 45 minutes and then called an ex-boyfriend, crying, to come over and help me get inside, which he very kindly did. (I bet he misses me.) 

I've done work on my crow phobia, though, with huge success. For the last sixteen years, to make up for fraternizing with the rock-thrower, I've waged an intense psychic Good Vibes Shock and Awe campaign toward crows. I know they can remember specific people for something like twenty years, and they pass the news on to all their friends and relatives and everything, so you have got to step right with them. So I'm on top of that beeswax every which way. Whenever I'm outside and I see a crow, I beam every last variation of  "I come in peace" and "Blessings upon your young" and "May your endeavors succeed" and "May your food be plentiful" and "May your people triumph" their way and a miracle has occurred, I shit you not. I like them now. I like crows. I almost love them. It's spontaneous and genuine. When I see a crow hop by, or I see one on my fence, I say "Hello, sir" like it's my beloved village elder, and I feel a little bubble of warmth around my heart. I would nearly hug a crow. (I practice this in my mind sometimes and it doesn't make me cringe.) They register to me as these sweet, smart, appealing fellows now, which gives me hope for my relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. 

We have pets already, technically. We have eight fish: a goldfish named  Sheepie, a Black Moor named Blackie, a freakily energetic koi named Sheepiedoggiekittycat, and five cloudfish named Finn, Fred and The Three Peaches. I'm not in love, really, but I have amicable feelings for them, although I'd say Blackie has grounds for a sexual harassment suit against Sheepiedoggiekittycat. 

But something happened recently—just inside me, no incident—where a little door opened up and the idea of a furry being padding around the house all winsome started tugging at me, like a kind of baby fever. I'd look at the empty spot on the floor next to me and imagine some little pooch wandering up and making eyes at me, and I felt love already in advance for this nobody-somebody. That's faded a bit, but it's still kind of amazing to me that it opened at all. And if crows are my buddies now, all bets may be off. 

I have to say I get nervous at the idea of really opening up to an animal. I'm nervous about being needed. I'm nervous about letting somebody down. I'm even nervous about letting love flow between us—particularly being on the receiving end of that pure, crazy, innocent animal love. It's coming close to nature and god and wildness in an unnerving way. 

But I think of a moment soon after Finn was born, and it feels like it relates. We'd been home from the hospital for about a week. I'd had a c-section, and my recovery was tough. I couldn't lift Finn yet, so Dave was taking care of him in a lot of the real physical ways. I handled feedings, but Dave changed him and burped him and walked him around, comforting him. So Finn connected with Dave first, making and holding eye contact, while he still looked right past me. I was exhausted and jealous and suffering intensely about it. But one night, when he was all swaddled up like a samurai in my arms, it happened. He looked at me, and held my gaze. 

Here was this tiny being, alive, all mystery, no words, and we fell into a hole together, looking and looking. My mind stopped making words, too. There weren't any for this. We were there together, and I can't say more about what transpired, exactly, but it was fearsome and majestic and all I could ever ask for. 

I don't want to connect this in any more words. I don't want to make my point. 

You make it, quietly. The animals are on to something. We don't need all these words. 

self-consciousness

Here's what: I'm driving down the street...let's call it yesterday. I've got the windows down, and the new mixed CD I just made for the car is playing. The sun is out, it's hot but not too hot, the fan is on, and I don't have any immediate problems. There is no crisis on deck. I'm healthy, my family's good, everybody's hanging in. I'm not in a quarrel with anybody, I don't have any major aches or pains. I'm just out to buy some shoes. I love buying shoes. 

By all rights, this should be a golden moment. But we just had a party the day before, and my brain has decided to fuck with this lovely afternoon. I try not to do it, but I keep projecting myself into my guests' brains, planting judgments I think they might have had about our house, my hostessing, the music, the food, etc. My brain throws out stupid questions every two minutes: did _______ think my house was the wrong size? Did __________ like/hate the music? Did ___________ come out of obligation? I wave the questions off like flies over and over. I don't know! Who cares? God, shut up! But the constant re-arrival of the questions and the sour feeling that comes with each one hexes the drive. 

Self-consciousness is jive and it ruins everything it touches. I'm talking about that pinching little presence that whispers to you that you're wrong somehow, fundamentally, in your very being. That if you're not currently embarrassed, you should be, and if you're not feeling insecure, you're missing something. Vigilance, dread, all related to who you are. The threat is from within. The call is coming from inside the house. 

It does, it ruins everything. Self-consciousness mars performances and auditions and interviews and dates, it sucks all the sex out of sex, and it's hell at school. I remember being the new girl at my junior high, jumping in at 8th grade when everybody already knew each other, and the miasma of self-consciousness I waded through from dawn to dusk. I wore white pants one day in September, and I remember sitting near the front of my history class in a state of terror that my period would arrive and bloom red between my legs, my ears attuned to all the small sounds of my classmates. Was that a snicker? Is it happening? Has the blood crept up to my back pockets? And then my bra suddenly unhooked itself in the back and my hand shot up so I could be excused to go to the bathroom. I ran and dove into a stall, fixed my bra and then shoved my pants down to confront my sea of blood, which of course wasn't there. Everything was pristine. I stayed in the bathroom as long as I could, putting off my return to the battlefield.  

**********

An acquaintance of mine wrote a piece for The Stranger recently about a brutal strain of bodily self-consciousness that strikes him every summer, which I imagine at least half of the reading public recognizes themselves in. As a woman with "imperfections"—God, so dumb. We're the only animals that do this shit to ourselves. -That doe has fat thighs. -You call that a bikini body, squirrel? -Fuck that giraffe! He thinks he's such a bigshot! -Yeah, he's successful, but he's going a little soft in the haunch, if you know what I mean

I'm familiar with this feeling to the point of boredom. I can't keep caring about my arms/ass/knees/whatever. It's too hot and summer is too long. Also I'm old and married and not trying to pick up dudes, which is freeing. Dave already signed the papers. But the essential horror at the center of his piece—we all carry it, or something like it, whether we just got a lucky kernel or we're dragging around mounds of it. And I'm tired of this shit. I'm mad at it, on all our behalves. 

**********

I used to collect books about the French. It was a favorite genre of mine, How to Understand/Be Like the French. I have historically been a little obsessed with French people—Parisians in particular—because they have a reputation for being tough to crack, which is catnip to my self-conscious, people-pleasing side. They're like a Rubik's Cube that I was dying to solve. If I can learn to work the French, was my thinking, then I can work anyone. (An old college boyfriend once said he thought I was a little Machiavellian, and I was genuinely like WHAT IS THIS DUDE TALKING ABOUT, but in retrospect I think he was probably on to something.) Anyway, I'm a very smiley, ingratiating person. Annoying or not, that's my autopilot. And in Paris they hate that. They hate it when strangers smile at them; they think it's stupid, unearned, a little crazy, even. Now, my smiling seems pretty innocent to me. I think, let's be temporary sidewalk friends! Why not? But when I unpack it, I think there's a little bit of "If a bomb falls on us all right now, the people I've smiled at will be my allies in the rubble and will be less likely to eat me when we run out of food."

The Parisians aren't buying it. So in one book they said if you're a foreigner in Paris and you get invited, by miracle, to a dinner party, and it's your first time among that group of people (and possibly second or third), expect/plan to be a chair. Nobody is going to talk to you or care about you or engage with you, so pretend to be a chair and make peace with being furniture for the night. Don't take it personally. Just be invisible and pointless and suck it up. This is a self-consciousness exercise that makes my brain explode to contemplate. The worst! But also, and because of that, so fascinating! Probably medicinal as well. And it gets me thinking, where else might this be applicable? Anywhere? Everywhere? Why do we need to be taken in in a certain way all the time? Why do we need to—or even believe we can—control it? Be a chair! Who cares? 

**********

I flew to California with my brother a couple of years ago to take a class with him and give him a hand while he traveled, as he's disabled. He's been dealt a rough one in this life, bearing up under loads of physical and psychological pain. And he's also an amazing being, unlike anybody else I've ever met. David is brilliant and always, always, uncompromisingly himself. He has never trimmed or tailored his personality to his surroundings like I have. He doesn't do the opposite thing, either, where you get aggressively individualistic in that kind of defensive way. He just does him, as they say, and he always has, ever since we were kids. Anyway, we were at the airport, and he had his big walking stick with him, with the silver cobra head and ruby eyes. It's a not-fucking-around walking stick that can conceal a sword. It's crackers. (The sword was not traveling with us, naturally.) He also had heavy crystal necklaces around his neck in bunches, along with a bag around his neck with a big, rose quartz crystal ball inside. We're going through security and he's unloading all his stuff, emptying his pockets (equally packed with talismans and dealie-bobbers of all kinds), taking his crystal ball out of the bag, explaining to the security personnel what everything was, all with this perfect, pure, absolute lack of self-consciousness. Total innocence. I watched him with a kind of cringing joy, like, hey! You can't have fifty thousand items at security—especially fifty thousand super magical items! This is adorable and a little embarrassing! But then there he went, and he was so damn pure and sweet, and turns out, why couldn't he? You can! You can. You can bring a crystal ball and a wizard walking stick and eleventy billion doodads through the airport and nobody dies. On the contrary, everyone fell in love with him, as people do wherever he goes. My admiration for him—which was already a pretty unwieldy Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-style-balloon-type-deal—soared. What I wouldn't give for that particular kind of unselfconsciousness! 

**********

When Dave and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii nine years ago, I lay on the bed one morning and practiced disappearing. It's a fond memory. I was wearing this diaphanous white cotton nightgown that a friend of the family had given me as a shower present, which felt like nothing on my skin, it was so light. I was gazing up at the ceiling fan, feeling so good. There was a total absence of bummers. Our relationship was blissful, the temperature was perfect and balmy, there was nowhere to be. And it popped into my head to try disappearing, as an experiment. Not in a David Copperfield way, but in a Buddhist, is-the-self-illusory?-then-let's-see-it-go kind of way. Nowhere to be? How about also nobody to be? Let's try it. I didn't intend it to be any kind of meditation, either. I was just curious. I wanted to see what would happen if I let go of my affiliation with my history, my memories, my understanding of myself. What would it feel like? Would it feel as good as this nightgown? Would it feel like taking off a nightgown? It felt interesting and good for the drips and drops I could sustain it for, whatever I was doing or stopping doing. And when I look back now, I know that hell yes, that was meditation. On the money.

**********

That experiment begged the question: does a me always need to be present? Does it need to be so up-front-and center all the time, driving everything? I'm really intrigued by this concept of the self as an illusory thing. (Those Buddhists are always throwing something interesting out there.) The self is, what, a trick of the light? A giant practical joke? As a someone who's frequently experienced the self as a burden, I'm all tell me more. I'm part-horrified, part-fascinated by the idea that this me, this central locus of consciousness, is flimsy or fake, that I can participate in existence without it, even though something might die off in the process. 

Because there are two different levels of self-consciousness I'm talking about here. There's painful consciousness of the self, and then there's just plain old consciousness of the presence of the self, an "I" taking it all in. This big display all around us — how often do I take it in without folding a me into it, a me with opinions and memories and fantasies? Like, for example,  say I'm driving around again, and there's a song on. At the very least there's an "I like this," or "I don't like this." And I like or don't like the weather, I'm rating it, and if it's a song I love, then it's me singing it, I fantasize that it's me. I wrestle me in there everywhere. Can't I be a chair in my own car for a second, and let music just be music, let the weather just be the weather? Do I have to insert myself all the time? 

And so what if my party and I aren't perfect? What if the worst were true, and everybody thought every bad thought I assigned them? So what? It's still a little revolutionary to me, the idea that what other people think of me is irrelevant, that my self-consciousness isn't preempting anything, isn't saving me from anything. Maybe my house is offensive! Maybe my music is objectively, scientifically bad! Maybe who cares! I get a thrill from this, which indicates hope. 

cherchez la femme

Tomorrow's my birthday. I'll be turning 45, which feels surreal, but I've been tooling around my forties long enough to buy it, I guess. I think it's true. 1969. The number's right. It all adds up. I'm middle-aged, no fighting it. And that's cool. It's a little improbable-feeling, but word on the street is that these birthdays keep feeling improbable until the grave, so I'm not alone, at least. 

My genes—those bringers of mixed blessings—hooked me up with a young face, which is nice now, but might possibly have stunted my maturity a little, since it's hard to feel all grown up when the people of the world have been pinching your cheeks since time began. In my first year of college, in fact, when I joined a sorority (Kappa Alpha Theta, whose...what do we want to call it, 'motto'—?—is "Theta for a Lifetime", though I ultimately went with the lesser-traveled "Theta for Two Years"), we had an awards night for our pledge class, where every young lady was honored for some notable personal quality. I was excited as the recognition made its way around the room. What fun thing were they going to honor me for? Girls were getting props for their athleticism, their toughness, their boy-craziness. Would it be my sense of humor? My fashion sense? My indomitable spirit? I couldn't wait to find out. And then it was finally my turn, and my pledge mom, Jennifer, stood up and lifted up a big, pale yellow placard emblazoned with the word "Youthfulness" in girly script, with some stupid fucking poem about youthfulness or whatever copied by hand beneath it, and everybody beamed at me while she said stupid things about how young and fresh I was, and I forced a smile instead of jumping up and yelling, "YOUTHFULNESS?? WHAT THE FUCK??" and kicking over a table like I wanted to.

Fucking let a woman be a woman, even if she isn't one yet, was my feeling. I was seventeen and the most virginal virgin ever. At a function that year with my favorite fraternity—Delta Tau Delta—where we all wore white t-shirts and got wasted and drew on each other with Sharpies, the same basic thing happened. The hottest senior Delt, upon whom I had a huge crush, stopped and wrote on my shirt, smiling. I made my way to the bathroom and twisted the shirt around so I could see what he wrote. It was the letter "V". Just a big V. It even took me a minute. V? What do you mean, V? V? And then it dawned on me. Goddamn it. 

All I wanted was to be a woman, from as early on as I figured out that girls became women. (Not hip to transgender issues as a tot.) I was like, let's get this show on the road, then. Let's move it. Mostly I wanted breasts. I stuffed my shirt with tissues when no one was looking, until I saw Half-Pint try it with apples on an episode of Little House on the Prairie, which looked promising. (Tip: nope.) In first grade, sitting at my little table of four people, I was possessed with the idea to fold my turtleneck over in a flap at the chest area and rig a proto-rack for myself. I was pleased with the results until some slobbery, total non-player at my table ogled my flap and I shut the operation down, chagrined.

What was a woman? How did you do it, besides with boobs? The women around me made their impressions, and I took subconscious notes. 

First, always, is Mom. We like our women beautiful, culturally, and I'd heard the news. My mom was beautiful, I was happy to see. And she knew she was beautiful, and I knew she knew it, because she told me how often she'd been told it in her life, which was often enough that she said it took her a while to figure out that it wasn't enough just to look good. She thought for a long time that this was her contribution, that she could just bring her face into a room and then chill, mission accomplished. Good deed done. 

I loved watching my mom get ready to go out on the town with my dad. Sometimes they'd head into New York City to see a play, sometimes they'd go square dancing. (Square dancing! I don't know why but it kind of kills me. My mom had/has a very swish, Eva-Gabor sort of European accent—she's from Finland—pronounces "darling" as "dah-ling", that kind of thing—and so the incongruity of square dancing as a hobby with her fancy lady voice gives me Green Acres feelings.) She'd put on a pretty dress, usually in some silky brown fabric of the 70s, and some Revlon lipstick, which was the only makeup she wore or needed. High heels. Pearls. I was in love. 

But home was her real domain, and domesticity was Aino's jam. Everything in our house was clean and fresh and pressed, and she cooked squishy, yummy food: cheese soufflé, Baked Alaska, potatoes in Bechamel sauce, Finnish crepes rolled up with brown sugar, waffles on weekends. And if we were entertaining, especially if we had some kind of VIP coming over, she got a real glint in her eye, something almost cocky. This was her sport. Nobody was too posh for her to impress. She presided over her end of the table in smug calm while our guests ooh'd and ah'd over their plates. 

As much of a charge as she got from entertaining, Aino came even more alive in the garden. She kept her pearls on but she knelt in the dirt and tugged and toiled all day, beaming at us from underneath her sun hat. Hard work, sunshine, nature: this was hers, only for her. Not for guests, not for her family, just a pure date my mom went on with her own life force. I saw how she came inside different after a day in the garden, dirty and tired and happy and real. Her voice sounded right. It didn't have a spin in it, or the sound of trying. 

And there was her mothering, of course. She said over and over to me and my brother that she'd wanted kids with a blind urge, and that she recommended that nobody have kids who isn't dazzled with the need for them like she was. She loved the job. She wanted the job, she loved the job, and she was built for it, especially the early childhood part, which is so endlessly physical. Clean this, feed that, change that, boom. I don't know how she did it, but she was ten steps ahead of all of that stuff. Seamless. It's obnoxious how seamless that was, I say now from experience. WTF, Aino? Nice bar to set. I'm not clearing it, by the way. I could stroll straight under it wearing a top hat.

She loved her children, too, which doesn't go without saying in our lineage. (Granny, you're up in a moment.) She was tender and devoted and cuddly, and always talked to us in a soft, sweet voice, even if it wasn't her post-garden voice. There were hugs, there was bedtime singing, and above all there was her gaze, which told us she was always happy to see us, which was no lie, no spin. 

That gaze is the biggest thing, I can feel it. Ground Zero, the central sun of my conception of womanhood. Care and attention. I can see you. That's what a woman is, someone who can see you. Someone who stops to see you, who helps you know you exist. 

And then there was Granny—read up here if you need to—whose gender seemed somehow beside the point. It wasn't on the table. She was the most powerful person in whatever room she was in. I don't know if that was true when my grandfather was alive, since he checked out before I could check that out, but it was unswervingly true afterward. I never once saw her defer to another living person. She had none of the softness that I associate with womanhood, and she didn't seem particularly allied with her gender, though she had female friends. (There was no sisterhood thing going on for either her or my mom, for that matter. Feminism was loud and shocking to Aino, and didn't draw any particular comment I can remember from Dora, whose force of personality made feminism seem almost unnecessary for her. And there sure the hell wasn't any sisterhood going on between the two of them.) 

We weren't close, Granny and I, so while she's burned into my consciousness, she didn't become one of my chosen female icons. My mental walls are not lovingly postered with her image. But I know she's deep in my mix, such was her power and her proximity for so long. Inspiration, cautionary tale, I don't know. Something to grow into, something to avoid becoming. I'm still unwinding her influence. No verdict yet, or maybe ever. 

Then there were the female friends of the family who flew or drifted in for visits. Goddesses. They were close enough to bring love with them—that gaze—but they were distant enough and were with us in short enough bursts that there was no time or space to calculate their flaws. So they didn't have any. Case closed.

There was Renée, a philosophy professor with big, beautiful, deep brown owl eyes who sat with us in front of the fire one New Year's Eve, leading me and my brother in Socratic dialogue about Plato's allegory of the cave. I was hypnotized. She was so respectful towards us, towards the power of our minds, and her cashmere sweater was so soft, and her voice was like coffee and honey. She spoke French to us with that voice sometimes—she had a little Jeanne Moreau about her—and I died of it. She was Peak Femininity. 

And there was Emily, my mom's friend, the daughter of her Spanish professor in college, who was a world traveler and operator in high political/diplomatic circles. She had a soft, posh voice like Renee's, and sat on our couch with a ballerina's posture, legs crossed just so. Emily was fearsomely correct. But she loved us. She was crazy about my mom and so she loved the rest of us by extension, and not by default, either. Really really. So her correctness and refinement wasn't a threat; it felt more like an asset, even. She was one of ours, and she knew so much about the world, and she gave advice that felt, because of her palpable love for us, conspiratorial instead of corrective. She gave you her full attention, asked you lots of questions, and then bubbled over with ideas for how you, with your specific gifts and talents, could basically take over the world. It was hot stuff, and you felt like you could photosynthesize her charisma and savoir-faire if you sat with her long enough. She was better than a movie star. 

Then there were the walk-ons: an older Australian woman named Elizabeth, for example, whom we sometimes saw at Indralaya, with a slender figure and long white hair. She was old, chronologically, but her hair and the wrinkles on her face were the only tells. In every other respect she would have taken that Youthfulness award in a heartbeat. I remember an afternoon when she and I walked around the camp collecting pebbles, and then we retired to her A-frame to turn them into mice with black markers, which was bliss. The mice were charming but the time and attention she lavished on me were the real goods. 

And there was Hilda, an elderly Scottish lady at Indralaya who used to hold my face and exclaim, "You look just like a Victorian cameo!"—"There she is, my Victorian cameo!"—which was so unnecessary/sweet, and made me feel like ten million bucks. To this day, I do like Hilda did and don't hold back with the compliments. They cost nothing and I'm a menace with them, trying to pay it forward, assaulting mostly elderly women at the grocery store with "What a beautiful scarf!" and "The color of that sweater is so luminous!" on the off chance I can give them that same thrill of being seen and appreciated that Hilda gave me.

There were the glamour girl walk-ons, too, but I'm less inspired to talk about them now. I'll just give a quick shout-out to Charlie's Angels and my friend Amy's mom, who was an Avon lady, whippet-thin and sexy-chic, with long dark hair and long burgundy nails. She was the only real lady I knew who could have been a Charlie's Angel, though she was always harried and grumpy in a way the Angels weren't. Quick personality/schedule overhaul and she would have been there. 

It's only recently that I learned that the phrase "cherchez la femme" doesn't just mean something along the lines of "Hey, women are cool/sexy, so track 'em down!" like I thought it did. I found out that the phrase, which originated with an Alexandre Dumas novel called The Mohicans of Paris, evolved to mean something like "If a man committed a crime, find out who the broad was who drove him to it, because let me tell you, IT WAS A BROAD." This blew my mind. Also: sigh. It was better the other way. I'm reclaiming it, though, right here, right now. I'm supplying my own meaning. I'm keeping the "go to the source" part, and erasing the "of the trouble" part. We give life, after all. You come from us. You come from Dad, too, but let's be real. We're the door. You want to know who you are? You know what to do. 

P.S. I always thought I would have a daughter, but no. Two sons came. (I wouldn't, obviously, have it any other way.) I really wanted to shepherd a little girl into womanhood, and then I remembered, oh. What else have I been doing all my life? Right.

desert song

I had some different plans for this post—I'd been thinking about friendship break-ups, and my increasing reverence for deep, active friendships, what a kind of crazy miracle they are—but the instinct to get into that evaporated and now I'm just going to talk to you about what's happening at this moment, what I'm thinking about at writing time. The friendship break-up thing, though, I'll return to that here at some point. I had a big one this last year, and that's a hot topic in my brain on the regular. But today the breeze has blown me somewhere so much nicer, and I want to go with it.

I've mentioned earlier that I've been working with this spiritual teacher, Jim, whom I chat with via Skype every couple of weeks. We had a session today, and I want to take you where we went. 

Where do I start? How much do I set you up with? I can't drop you in cold.

I'll just start at the beginning. That's always solid. 

I started working with Jim last November, a few months after the recovery needle started moving up after my huge mystery illness. (For those late to the game, short form is that I had a huge mystery illness in 2012/2013 that had me bedbound for a few months and then hospitalized for a couple of weeks, and then I got all the way better and I remain at 100%.) Those first few recovery months were just about gaining strength/catching my breath/enjoying life, but the illness itself was terrorizing and relentless. I want to talk about it sometime, but not today. Anyway, a few months after I came out of the hospital, I lost nearly half of my hair in a delayed stress response, which will maybe give you a sense of scale. (Hair's all back now, been back for about six months, she said, pulling the strands around front and kissing them,

mwah mwah mwah

.)

So my body was recovering, but my insides needed some care. The illness was so damn medically mysterious, and I'm the sort that starts to wonder what might have contributed to it energetically or emotionally, and even if nothing did, even if my body randomly flipped out and broke for a while, I wasn't taking any chances. Once I was healthy enough, I was like fu-hu-huck this, let's grab a shovel and some mining helmets. We're getting a—what's a Sherpa for going underground?—one of those—and going in. 

Because I could feel it, while I was sick, that there was some kind of energetic mass deep inside me, like a collapsed star down in my tummy. Sometimes I could feel it move around, uncoiling and releasing, like plumes of black smoke. I made an MS Paint 

drawing of this while I was sick, what it felt like. Here it is:

That was the illness for me on a metaphorical level, what it seemed like it was trying to do for all those months. Cleaning house. Don't ask me yet what was getting cleaned, because I don't know, and I don't know if I'll ever know, and I don't know if I'll ever need to fully understand. My own stuff. Family stuff. Ancestral stuff. Quién sabe?

 But holy smoke, I must have had some kind of long-term ecological disaster reverberating down there. Gulf-of-Mexico, BP-level crud accumulating in me over who-knows-what span of time. That's what it felt like, anyway.

So, yeah, there was this

something

to deal with. And then Jim and I started working together. I'd approached him in the summer, after I'd taken a free class of his—in which I'd been impressed because he spotted that mass-feeling-thing down in my whereabouts and described it to me without my having mentioned anything about it—and he was like, nope. Go chill for a couple more months. You're still stabilizing. And then November came, and he asked me to meditate for half and hour every day, and we'd get on the Skype every other Tuesday, and dig in. 

It's hard to describe a typical session. It's not therapy, we're not talking about very many of the specifics of my day-to-day life. There's an improvisational vibe. It's like I'm one big, shifting metaphor, and we look at whatever gets kicked up to represent my internal terrain on any given day. We started out spending a lot of time in a kind of genie-bottle-cave right in my middle—sometimes inundated with flood-waters, sometimes clear and dry. I always had a little flame in there to illuminate things. Sometimes it was birthday-candle pitiful, sometimes it was campfire-sized, but it finally got gigantic/dazzling enough to break the genie-bottle-cave frame and deposit us in some different scenes. I've found myself at

Indralaya

, I've found myself in creepy, flame-extinguishing blackness, I've found myself in a forest. We take a look around, I desribe what it feels like, we see what it's connected to if we can, or we just note it and move on. 

We're getting to the good part, the thing that made me write this post.  

That desert picture up top, that's as close as I could find to give you a representation of the new terrain we discovered a couple of weeks ago. Amazingly, Google-Image doesn't have any shots from my subconscious, or superconscious, or wherever this place is. I don't know how I got there, I don't remember what came before it in the session where it appeared, but it's the best place I've ever been, so I want to talk about it. I want to say what it's like. I visit it sometimes on my own, and it's better than any vacation. Potent, alive, like a great dream that's broken out of its nighttime box and become real somehow, as real as my backyard. 

It's a pale, sandy, baked-out desert landscape. The air is still and warming, and it's usually dusk. I'm sitting there at a little encampment by myself. Home base. Maybe there's a rug and maybe there's a white tent, a kind of Laurence-of-Arabia setup, but the physical details are secondary to the feeling there. The first feeling is of permanence. This place, this warmth, this perfect stillness, they will always be available to me. It's not going anywhere. I will never be denied access, I can tell. And with the permanent feeling is a sense that this place makes all things okay.  There is no bitch or worry or heartache or fear I can arrive at this spot bearing that doesn't start getting transmuted instantly. 

When my husband proposed to me ten years ago on Balmoral Beach in Sydney, it was one of those transcendent moments where all the bad feelings in the world felt like they'd drained away. I couldn't feel a drop of darkness anywhere on Earth for the life of me. I wondered a little bit if we were still

on

Earth. The sensation lasted, I don't know, fifteen minutes? Half an hour? I mean, the whole day was glorious, but this shot of pure sublimity dissipated relatively quickly.

And back in 2001, I traveled with my then-boyfriend and his family to England, and we made a stop in Bath. The Roman baths there in Bath, the main attraction, where people went through the centuries to heal from illness—holy gods. You can feel in ten minutes how it came to be a healing Mecca. I sat by that pool and I never wanted to get up. The air there was so tranquil and humming. It felt like it was

doing

something, you know? Bittersweet, because after an hour we had to go, and I wanted years.

The love and brightness on that beach, the healing vibe by the baths: mush them together and we enter the territory of this desert image/experience/thingy. But the kick is, this place is mine. I own it. I have it, I can't lose it. It may even be me, the ground of my being underneath all my history and habits and specifics. That's Jim's theory. I can't speak to that and I don't care. All I know is that every time I take myself there, it's complete, instant respite, a heaven-feeling, the spa of spas. I don't know what it is, but it makes me feel so solid to know it's there, like I've discovered an endlessly renewable ace up my sleeve.

red light, green light

Starting back in January, when I made a commitment to pump life back into this blog and post once a week, I had a grace period for a couple of months where the topic for the next post would arrive well in advance, floating up to the top of my consciousness with a feeling of certainty and a few sentences ready to leap. It was a nice ride, all those ideas sidling up to me politely like little butlers, offering their services a cosmic minute before I needed them. 

Yes. Well. We've moved to a different part of the program. And, of course, I knew that golden age would pass. There are a lot of weeks under the every week

umbrella. They just keep coming. One of my writing mentors, Bob Ray, talks about how much endurance is a part of the deal, and that's a big set of muscles getting worked right now, though not the only set. 

Sometimes I get hit with resistance so hard that I can barely keep my eyes open. I took two long, powerful, inadvertent naps in front of the blank page just today, trying to figure out what the fuck I was going to talk to you about here, and that was after a good night's sleep. I didn't want to go under, I fought it, but it was as though I'd wandered into a field of enchanted poppies, or been slipped a roofie by some internal saboteur, which I actually think is about right. My money's on the notion that this move to develop endurance as a writer is starting to challenge some old identity, and whatever identity that is is not having it.

Soon after college, I remember hanging with my friend Tanya, complaining to her about how out of shape I was. Tanya offered, sensibly, that I could go the gym. And I was annoyed, like, THAT is not the POINT. I am not looking for SOLUTIONS here. If you drag solutions into a thing, you don't get to keep your beautiful, tragic destiny, and I guess my beautiful, tragic destiny was to be an under-appreciated weakling or something? If I went to the gym, I would become a whole different person, and nobody just becomes a whole different person. Doi. I didn't examine this resistance, either. You get an idea wedged in there and it's going to look solid at a glance, so you just leave it.

Lately, I'm having this thing where I burst into tears of longing whenever I hear of somebody getting a book published. They don't have to be real people, either. I saw

Her

for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and when Joaquin Phoenix's character was surprised with the news that a publisher was turning his letters into a book, I had a heart pang and a little sob popped out of me, so dramatic it was almost comical. But news of book publication, faux or no, hits me like I'm one of the people left behind after the Rapture. First it's like,

wow! Yay! Rapture! How 'bout them apples?!

And then I'm like,

oh, no. I'm down here among the damned. Everybody's up there eating potato salad in heaven or whatever and I'm stuck down here wandering around some horrible housing development underneath a gloomy, apocalyptic sky. 

You don't even have to say it. You don't. You want to, I can feel it, YOU SENSIBLE TANYAS. You're about to say,

how 'bout just writing a book, doofus?

I got that part. I'm working on it. I'm just stalled, so I'm popping open the hood to see what's gumming up the machinery. 

Like, for example, I have some ideas about what real writers are. I know I'm a writer, but I'm talking about Writers. Besides being published, they're like something. You got two kinds. There are your tough, whiskey-swilling, unstoppable, Indiana Jones motherfuckers who outrun boulders and hang off the bottoms of moving trucks and punch Nazis and just get the shit done, no matter how beaten up they get in the process. They have no time for little armchair dreamers. Talk to them after you've retrieved a couple of arks. And then you have your academic, straight-A, Ravenclaw types in sweater sets, typing away primly, amassing endless stacks of pages. They have no time for Type B fuckups, people who turn in their homework late or not at all. They peer down over their glasses long enough to sniff that you all got the assignment at the same time, so you really have no excuse. 

So that's the gamut. Real writers, right there. Never mind that I know a good bunch of real writers, by my definition, and they're generally delightful human beings whose company I enjoy. I'm still toting these ideas around, which is a problem because a) I'm not like either of The Two Kinds of Writers and b) I don't want to hang around with them or be rejected/mocked by them. Why go for success as a writer if it means I'm applying to swim in and then drown amidst a pond full of dismissive assholes? That sounds bad, right? Totally bad. Give up. 

What's a bit more radioactive, and trickier, is bumping up against an outdated identity that doesn't want to let go. I can feel it in there. I felt it in there today as I struggled to stay awake. The work I've been doing—writing work and spiritual/emotional/whatever-you-want-to-call-it  work—has dug up what feels like an ancient statue, a porcelain-hard Tina-likeness, something that's calcified over hundreds of years of reinforcement. (Let's agree that I could be a few hundred years old for these purposes, okay? It's just a metaphor. It's all a dweam.) 

This Tina-statue is an unassuming, supplicant, pitiful little creature. A wimp-angel. When I look at her face, I can tell that she needs permission for the least move. She looks flinchy, like she's been beaten, and she's just trying to sneak along under the radar so she won't get hurt. I don't know exactly where she came from, but being a writer probably feels to her like a terrifying move. If you're going to say things out loud to people over and over, you're probably going to say the wrong thing—over and over, even—which is inviting the worst kind of trouble. And I think when I say the worst, I mean the worst. A survival thing. 

Okay.

So there she is. You have to walk a fine line when you pull up something like this, I think. Deciding this is a made-up problem and plowing forward disregarding it feels like a mistake, like kicking the problem down the road. But there's a heavy victim element in this statue-image that I don't want to romanticize/further attach myself to, either. 

A friend of mine, a Real Writer, likens the writing process to doing dishes. You just get in there and do them. Sometimes it goes quickly, and sometimes you hit a patch that takes a bunch of scrubbing, and you just have to hang in and scrub, and you just do it. I like this. I like the simplicity of it, the lack of drama. I feel like something similar goes for undoing old conditioning, only the scrubber in this case is just pure attention. There's something cleansing in plain old attention, something that can dissolve anything with enough patience, no matter how hard and baked-in the mess is. It's enough just to look. 

clair de lune

I'm lying in our bedroom on a clear, full moon night. We have a skylight, so at the right moment the moon appears in the middle with a shock of brightness. I reach for my iPod, slip on my headphones and lie back with Debussy. For the longest time, I didn't care for

Clair de Lune,

but one day that turned, and now when the moon shines into my room like this, I let Debussy describe it to me. These are my favorite nights, special nights, rare nights. The light travels everywhere. Nothing is hiding. I feel safe in a way that I don't feel most nights, which I recognize each time with surprise. 

I tense up a little bit at bedtime, I guess. I stay up late, putting off the moment when I'm going to have to turn off the light, let go of diversions and become vulnerable. It's a carryover from childhood, when I'd lie in bed and beg the powers-that-be not to make me clairvoyant that night. Every night I put it out there as hard as I could, "I don't want to see anything, I don't want to see anything, I don't want to see anything," over and over until I fell asleep. I didn't want to see

what Granny saw

. My mom likes to tell me that when I was very small, I'd complain about things I saw hovering at the foot of my bed. I don't have any memory of that, but something sure went into this frantic drive to stay unclairvoyant. Anyway, some of that lingers. It feels a teeny bit dangerous to get so quiet at night, to give over, to stop, like that's the cue for unseen forces to creep in and get their game on. Forces from within, forces from without, I don't know. Forces. 

Something will come, I fear, and untie some knot* holding my third eye closed, and I'll be overrun with needy spirits trying to get messages to their loved ones. Like if my third eye opens, some red light will automatically start flashing on the astral plane, some rinky-dink "open for business" sign in a bad astral neighborhood, and all the etheric junkies and thugs will crowd my bedside, taunting me and tugging at me, and I'll have no way to make them disappear. 

*Whatever I have rigged up there feels way more elaborate than a knot, frankly. If you ever saw the show

Get Smart

, you'll remember the opening montage where Maxwell Smart walks into headquarters through a series of heavy, mechanized doors that slam shut behind him the second he's through.

Bam, wham, whoosh, thud, whomp

. I installed about a hundred of these over the course of my childhood, I'd estimate, every "I don't want to see anything" a nut or bolt or square inch of steel right between my eyebrows.

Now, clairvoyance isn't the only game in town for psychic ability to work through. There's clairaudience, where people pick up information aurally, and claircognizance, where people have flashes of pure cognition, and there's what I have, which is clairsentience. I get information in my gut that shows up kinesthetically. If I tune into a situation, I'll pick up degrees of friction/frictionlessness, heaviness/buoyancy, obstruction/fluidity, constriction/expansiveness, static, tranquility, speed, etc. I used to do intuitive readings for a living until I got very, very sick for a few months—my body went on strike, which is another story altogether—and once I was better I didn't want to do them any more. My point here is that the family lineage didn't skip me. I just squelched it and then rerouted it and then let it lay fallow, which is what I'm doing with it now.

The upside of having my third eye open never really presents itself to me. I'm sure it's fascinating, and there are probably perks beyond "I see dead people", which is no perk at all in my book. I fear-imagine that I'll feel like a baby again, taking in a mess of sights and sounds and feelings I have no context for, only this time I'd be motherless, unguided, left to fend for myself. A reverse Helen Keller with no Annie Sullivan. 

If I could be guaranteed somehow that the old third eye would sneak open just a bit at a time, if I could wake up at some retreat center staffed with trusty, old-hand seers, and find myself one-fifteenth clairvoyant, and get talked through that all day, and then two-fifteenths clairvoyant the next day—if I could move at a snail's pace, my hand held all the way, then yes. I'd like that. I'd do that. I would sign up.

But I never picture anything that gentle. I fear a sudden burst, or something else, something worse, closer to death. That's what I'm subconsciously braced against at night. It's not quite that I fear I'll die. What I fear is that something will happen that will make my current understanding of the world dissolve, and my identity with it, and then I won't die. I'll experience annihilation, then rearrangement, and then strangeness. Strangeness might be the worst, worse than death. Death feels familiar, cozy, well-populated, compared to what I fear. What I fear is exile. Strangeness, loneliness and exile, in some pure form. I stay vigilant because at any minute I think this could strike. And if it's going to strike, it'll surely strike at night. 

But I don't have to worry about any of that tonight. My moon is out. There's a book I loved when I was small; it's out of print now, but it was called

When the Sky is Like Lace

, and it was about three little sisters in white nightgowns who'd keep an eye on the sky for signs that a special kind of night was about to take place. These were bimulous nights, that was the word, and the sisters would sneak out through the woods to the sea and make spaghetti in a gazebo and dance all night and play poker with rabbits and exchange presents, all under this full, rare moon. I get exactly that excited on nights like this, but I don't move. I lie there, too happy to sleep, feeling so safe. The thing can't strike tonight. The moon is looking out for me. Debussy's piano wafts over me on repeat, and the moon is my mother, my bodyguard, my familiar friend. I gaze at her wide-eyed until she wanders away from view, and then I slip into sleep in the trails of her blessing, the world made briefly so easy.

P.S. The painting up top is "Clair de Lune", by Felix Vallotton, whom I'd never heard of until today. If you want a treat, Google-image his work. You might be all up in the Vallotton already, but I just got here, and I'm fresh with the fever about him. Go look. 

sun break

You can tell that my sons are real Seattleites when you ask them how they feel about sunshine and summer weather. "It's too crazy!" beefs Finn. "It was 68 at school the other afternoon and I was dying!" Fred rides around in the back seat on sunny days, grimacing and shouting, "My eyes!

I'm deep Seattle myself, so on the one hand this deformity in my children pleases me. If I had to choose between cloudy forever and sunny forever, I'd pick cloudy, because that's reading weather. I don't like the sun berating me when I'm caught up in a novel. But I spent my first few years in New York, where the summer sun wasn't kidding, and except for on the most extreme, humid days, we loved it and it was good. Beach, pool, popsicle, sprinkler. The Official Weather of Childhood Fun. So I'm a touch bummed that my boys don't have the sunshine bug, especially since summer vacation is a long stretch when bitching replaces wonderment. 

When we moved to Seattle, just as I turned nine, I found out that the summer sun wasn't such a guarantee. On a summer morning, I'd be up at dawn checking things out. You knew right away if it was going to be a good one, a hot one. And you also knew if you were shit out of luck, if it was pouring and there was no hope. And then there was the middle kind of sky—overcast-lite, cloudy with a glow—that could develop either way. The trick there was to exert your will on the sky as much as possible while also managing your expectations and being ready for disappointment. 

But when it was a good one and I stood outside in the dawn with the sun flexing its muscles already, an outsized promise-thrill rolled through me, hinting at something better than any actual day could probably deliver.

***************

I learned as a girl that you're supposed to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, because the sun does the worst damage then. Good to know! Those became my most prized teenage sunbathing office hours. 

It was a job, getting tan, or trying to. And you had to get tan. There wasn't a choice when I was young. Or, sure, duh, there was a choice, if you knew who you were and didn't care about fitting in and loved yourself unconditionally and other wondrous, far-fetched things. Like I said, there was no choice. And I had vampire-pale skin—I began more at light blue than white—so I had miles to go before I slept on a summer day if I was going to move the dial to ecru or, if heaven allowed, gold.

Supplies:

Back deck or yard where the sun was brightest 

Towel

Pillow

Coppertone (SPF 4 in a slight nod to danger, a reluctant 6 or 8 if it was a scorcher, baby oil if fuck you)

Lemony-smelling tan accelerator (?) in a spray bottle

Bowls of water/strips of tin foil to set around me for their reflective powers

Walkman, once I acquired one 

Before I had my Walkman, because I was too clueless to bring a watch with me outside, I had no way of figuring out how long I'd been out there. I'd oil up and close my eyes and just wait. The first few seconds were fine. Then I started getting bored and hot and irritated and twitchy. But I'd grit my teeth and dig in, lying there doing nothing but willing brownness until I couldn't take it anymore and I had to dash into the house to check the time.

Surely it's been an hour, or at least half an hour.

No. Fifteen minutes max, every time, that I'd been out there before cracking. Fuck! And the house felt so cool, felt so good. No sun headache, lots of entertainment. The TV right there, all tantalizing. Refrigerator full of drinks. Fuck. But I'd go back out. 

After I got my Walkman, though, I was a force. I could lie on my back in the sun for an hour or even an hour and a half without flinching. My eyelids went hot orange and everything was Duran Duran or Van Halen (which was a little sexier) and the sun on my skin didn't feel like a test but something else, something sensual and, okay, maybe a test, but a good one, more like a dare. 

When I'd put in all the time I could stand, I was free once again to relax in the Great Indoors. Time to pop a Fresca and curl up in the cool, wading through reruns of

Three's Company,

enjoying vicarious television sunshine. There was a bathroom run at every commercial to check my tan lines and see if anything good was developing. Sometimes I felt guilty, like I should be out there fighting for it while the sun was still up, but the fan was on and

The Love Boat

was next, and there was always tomorrow, maybe, if the weather held.

One time I was on the back deck—bowls of water everywhere, tan accelerator accelerating, skin heating up, "Panama" pumping in my ears—when I became aware of a hubbub in the air above me. I opened my eyes and there were 20 or 30 or who-knows-what-horrible-number of crows in a crow-cloud about fifteen feet up. They were cawing and flapping and beating the shit out of each other, and it was the worst thing I'd ever seen. I yelled and fell over myself to get inside, spilling some bowls of water on the way. Work day over. Tan as I'm going to get. But once I got inside, it was great, because the crows had removed the television guilt.

***************

The first time I went to the beach with the girls from my new school, I woke up excited and nervous. It was great to be invited, but I was a disaster of whiteness. But I had a plan. I would rise at dawn, sunbathe

and

use my new bottle of QT. Quick Tan. This was the answer to my prayers. A tan could come out of a bottle. I would never have to worry again. The air was still cool when I set out my towel at 8:00 am, but those were sunbeams, so something could happen. I was covering my bases. I spread the QT with an emphasis on my legs, stretched out on my towel and waited, until it slowly became clear that the shade I was going to take to the beach was partially-eaten Creamsicle: my regular vanilla, with streaks of sherbet-y orange. Scrubbing didn't help. 

Nobody said anything at the beach, and it got cloudy pretty soon so we didn't stay long anyway, so I guess I got lucky.

My bathing suit that year was a one-piece in skinny royal blue and white diagonal stripes that aimed down in a V-shape. What promise the early mornings held was whittled away by the feeling of lying next to the other girls, whose bodies looked perfect. I wasn't fat, but I was so pale, and I had stretch marks from developing too fast. Nobody else had those. I stole glances down at my body while we all lay in a row, and tried to find the parts that looked nice.

When I was a little girl in New York, my problem was my shoulder blades. My best friend, Allison, had blonde hair and golden skin, and her shoulder blades jutted out in a cool way in her halter tops. My shoulder blades didn't do that. I used to try to stick them out, but that was uncomfortable/unsustainable and I never knew if it was working. At thirteen, non-jutting shoulder blades seemed like a dream dilemma, now that my pale skin was such a problem, and these marks.

***************

For years as an adult, I disliked the noonday sun. It was so battering and obvious. But one summer day in my late twenties I was walking through my neighborhood to a coffee shop a couple of blocks away, and I had a change of heart. The sun was beating down from straight above, but everything looked good. The clouds were high and light and the sky seemed taller than usual, and the blue was pale and hazy, like the sunbeams were almost visible. And the sun was hot but it felt therapeutic. I flashed on the Aztecs and their sun gods, and in that moment the light and heat on my head felt both personal and impersonal, like receiving a blessing in a crowd. It was for me because I happened to be here and I received it, but it was for everybody. And here was the sun, a god I could see right up there, giving us everything in plain view, making the planet habitable, giving us life. I felt acutely grateful for it, and when the gratitude gets that acute on the receiver's side, it seems as though something like love is implied on the other.

***************

It's always summer in Hawaii, basically. I went there on my honeymoon for my first marriage, and then again with a couple of girlfriends a few years after that marriage ended. And then I went again a couple of years after that, and that's where I met Dave, which I'm going to talk about just a little, but first I have to sing the praises of Hawaii for a second. In Mexico (I'm suddenly dragging Mexico into it), the sun feels challenging and masculine, but in Hawaii, everything feels lush and feminine and maternal, splashing out with the luxuries and the wish fulfillment and the TLC. 

I met Dave on a yoga retreat. We were in a little group of people in a rented house on the North shore of Maui, and five days into the ten-day retreat, after five days of wanting to, we got together. On the sixth morning, I woke up with the sun, with Dave right there. The light was streaming into our room around the corners of the shades, and I knew as I watched him sleep—I didn't hope, but

knew

—that I was going to get to keep him. I got it, I got all of it; I was good just how I was, and loved how I was, marks of all kinds and all, and I was getting what I'd hoped for, exactly, like this was the kind of thing all those bright, balmy mornings of my youth were hinting at. I sat up on my elbow beaming at him, until he woke up and beamed back.

When I got back to Seattle, I visited my folks, and told them I'd fallen in love, and showed them pictures of Dave. There was one photo of me and Dave on the beach in our bathing suits, standing and embracing and smiling at the camera under a blue sky. My dad took the photo and disappeared upstairs a while, and when he came back he'd blown it up into an 8 x 10 print. "I played with the color a little," he said. "Is this close to what it was like?" 

Who knows if the color was right? How could I say if it was like that, if the sun shining on us gave everything that exact tint and brightness? But his instinct to try and bottle it, the generosity and impossibility and hope of the gesture, I got it and loved it and said that it was.

the seeker

I loathe writing bios. They're such a losing proposition. If I had some kind of prestigious job or if there were parts of my identity that I were fanatical about, I could see digging it, and I feel admiration/jealousy when I see somebody who's apparently embraced the form.

Mystery novelist! Dog lover! Outdoorsman and pizza aficionado!

You go, you guys, with your clarity and willingness to commit. God bless. I will admit to having judgmental feelings when I see bios that mythologize their owners in rakish, flattering ways.

Mad hatter. Artist. Thief of hearts. Dancer like nobody's watching.

I mostly hate trying to sum something up that I don't have a handle on. I mean, I love my kids and my husband, and I love Prince and green smoothies and Wes Anderson films, and I love reading and writing, but I'm not prepared to scrawl any of that on my tombstone. It's a "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" problem. All of those things are true, along with a billion more things like them, but those things feel limiting. Ultimately, I have no idea what this Tina situation is all about. It's seemed sketchy from the get-go. Like, there might be some kind of Tina persona on the loose out there, and if people are buying it—even though I've been actively honing it and selling it, whatever it is—that makes me nervous. 

But there's one descriptor that seems apt, and if it didn't give me that self-mythologizing vibe, I'd hang it out there every time and feel like I'm telling the truth without sweating that whole-truth-and-nothing-but thing.

 Such a great song. I first heard it when I saw Stephen Soderberg's film The Limey, when an old, black-clad, just-beaten-up Terence Stamp was staggering to his feet on his way to avenge his daughter's death. Holy gods, did I develop a crush. I thrilled to the moment because you knew he was going to have satisfaction eventually. You could see it. You could beat him down but he was going to get up and get exactly the fuck where he was going. 

I want something. I don't want anybody dead, but I show up at my meditation cushion 6-7 days a week because I want something, and I talk to a spiritual teacher twice a month because I want something. And that endless whirring going on all the time under the surface of me, this part of me that can't rest, it's because I want something. 

A few months ago, I was talking to Jim, who's my teacher, and a big thing happened. I forget what we were discussing, exactly, but he said at one point, "You're okay." Plainer, more boring words were never spoken. Nobody's going to break out their embroidery thread/tattoo needles for that little number, but something rippled through me when he said it. I thought of Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, when he's caught in that water tunnel, and he puts his hands behind his head and lets himself drop off the edge to his possible death. I felt like I was the fugitive, and that I'd been running for, fuck, I don't know, a thousand years. Forever. Like that was my whole gig, my whole raison d'être since time immemorial. But in this case, I felt like somebody had caught up to me just to tell me, "Nobody's chasing you." That's what I heard in that little "You're okay." Nobody's chasing you. You can stop running.

I can't tell you what a shock it was, what a newsflash, even though it only lasted a split-second. I just grasped a corner of it, and I could barely absorb it. Brain scramble. 

I had three reactions. 

1. I was running?

2. HOLY JESUS. RELIEF AT ITS FINEST. THE IMPLICATIONS! STORY OVER! THE END! HALLELUJAH.

3. Well, shit. Now what?

If you've been doing something for a thousand metaphorical years, even something that sucks, you're going to feel weird when you get the go-ahead to stop. If I'm not running, what's my next move? Or is that a fugitive's question? I want to add that it's not like I've actually stopped running, either. I just didn't know I was doing it. Stopping is easier said than done, especially when you have all this stupid momentum.

I was talking to Jim this afternoon, and he asked me some good questions. Like, what exactly am I looking for? What do I want? What's the thing? What do I think this seeking's going to win me? 

I thought about it. I pictured whatever I thought the end was, whatever the big win was, and just got a picture of this enormous peace and quiet, and I said, "Well, I'll get to rest."

And Jim asked, "Rest how? From what?"

I thought about it a little more, and described the picture, "It's like there are no more adversaries. It's like the universe has been washed clean of my enemies, and I don't have to fight any more, or recover from a fight, or wait for the other shoe to drop." 

"What else?" asked Jim.

"My responsibilities are all met. I did it. I don't have to worry about letting people down any more. I don't have to be so vigilant. I can clock out."

And Jim said, "Okay, well, let's imagine that's true. Boom. Right now. That's already done. That's all gone. What do you get now? What's there?"

Uh. I don't know. "I don't know."

Jim was happy with that answer. He said that that was kind of the thing, that you take any seeker and have them keep deconstructing what they're seeking, and they're eventually going to run into a wall. There will come a place past which you cannot get. That the seeking model is flawed, somehow, or a red herring.

I don't know where I'm going with this. I don't know what I'm trying to work out here in front of you.

In my mom's apartment is a framed, gilded skeleton of a leaf. It's just the veins, all wispy and fragile. This is one of those family treasures. It's a clipping from the tree the Buddha sat under when he reached enlightenment, or a descendent of that tree. I'm not a Buddhist, I'm not anything, but I love the story of Siddhartha. I love that he had a good thing going on—a palace, riches, a family—and he threw it all aside to go find out just what the fuck is going on here in this living. He went seeking hard, trying all sorts of things. And he didn't find it, whatever it was. And then he stopped and went and sat under that tree, or went and sat under that tree and just stopped. And then it happened, whatever it was. He found something or lost something. He made it.

I don't know what the hell I'm doing, myself. I'm just trying to figure out how to drive this thing. I want something, which right there is maybe already screwing me over—which is probably also wrong—and I don't know if I'm supposed to apply gas or put on the brakes to get it/not get it/find out I always had it or something. Or maybe hit the gas pedal on the way to the meditation cushion, and then once I'm there, coast. I don't know. 

And nobody's asking me for a bio anyway. You just kind of think everybody is all the time, and that you have to have some kind of answer. 

high notes

It's time for something light and refreshing. And so here, without further ado, is a small highlight reel.

Age 6: My crush Timothy Horton gives me (and probably everybody else) a valentine in class that's a box of all pink crayons. On the front it says "If you'd be my valentine..." and when you open it up it says, "I'd be TICKLED PINK!" My heart does a leap.

Age 7: My dad has brought a Simon and Garfunkel record home from the library. What the holy hell? We're a classical music household. Anything remotely rock has been outlawed all my life. The occasional folk music makes its way in sometimes; Peter, Paul and Mary is as extreme as we've ever gotten. But this record has Mrs. Robinson on it! Does my father not know what he's doing? This shit swings! I drop the needle down on Mrs. Robinson over and over, dancing around the living room dressed like a fairy in a sheer white nightgown of my mom's that she's donated to me permanently. She's cut off the hem all jagged for me, fairy-style. My skirt floats around when I dance. Simon and Garfunkel are singing "woo woo woo", which is what we say at school when somebody has a crush on somebody, so this song is even a little racy. I keep thinking somebody's going to come in here and stop me, but nobody does.

Age 7: We're driving from New York to Florida, heading to Disney World. I'm a hardcore Little-House-On-The-Prairiehead. I've read all the books many times over and I've been known to rock a calico bonnet on Monday nights when the show comes on NBC. My dad suddenly hands a book back to me from the front seat, where he's driving. It's a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are photos of the actual family and everything. I burst into tears. It's real. They're real. I feel like I'm shaking God's hand, a real hand.

Age 7: I get to stay up and watch Three's Company for the first time. It starts at nine. I've never watched a show this late. It's hilarious! Jack and Janet are gardening and Janet smacks a mosquito that's landed on Jack's arm. He yells OW and overreacts and smacks her or shoves her, as though he were saving her from something, too. I'm dying. Life past 9pm is something else.

Age 9: We have a huge, long laurel bush that edges our backyard. But I didn't know you could climb through the middle of it! The Harris kids across the street are butch and adventurous, unlike me and my brother, and all six of them come over and show us the gold we've been sitting on all this time. You go in one end and step from branch to branch in the middle and you can make it all the way through. Get a load of me! This is a physical kid thing, and I'm doing it. 

Age 9:  I'm out on the lawn by myself at dawn in early summer, wearing a long plaid dress of my mom's, another dress-up donation. The garden is still wet with dew. There's a slight mist, but the sun has climbed above the horizon, and you can feel in the air that it'll be hot later. I'm pretending, and I don't even know what I'm pretending yet. I'm a lady. A lady on the lawn in the morning. It's enough. Everything seems 100% promising.

Age 10: It's my birthday, and we've gone on a picnic. We've driven out to the Cascade mountains and have followed a trail into the woods. It's cold and rainy, but it's still good. I've always been scared of the carbonation in soft drinks—it's too crazy on my tongue—but I'm feeling bold and so I try a can of 7-Up. Turns out I can handle it. I don't even want to tell anybody how proud I feel about that. I just walk around the woods, sipping.

Age 10: I dream that I'm walking down the street with John Ritter/Jack Tripper. We have matching navy parkas on and he has his arm around me. I guess I must be his girlfriend.

Age 10:  David and I turn off all the lights in the living room every Sunday night and listen to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on BBC Radio. The sky's deep blue out of the windows but not black yet. It looks like it could have aliens in it. It's perfect. Atmospheric. Zaphod Beeblebrox is cooler than anybody I've ever heard of, cooler than Fonzie, and the humor is so fresh that we laugh as much out of amazement as anything else. I experiment with my own radio dramas which have no script; a typical episode is just the sound of my own footsteps and me eating refried beans into the microphone.

Age 11: For my birthday, my cousin Michael takes me to see Xanadu and buys me the soundtrack, overruling my parents' objections on both counts. I've had friends slip me little bootleg cassettes of Abba and Olivia Newton John, but this is the first time I've had a record of my own like this, out in the open. The sound barrier has been broken.

Age 12: My parents are out of the house for a while so I sneak into their room and turn the TV on to the cable channel that doesn't have a picture except for being pale blue, the channel that plays the smooth rock hits of today—Air Supply, Hall and Oates, Heart, Christopher Cross. I get my dad's hidden stash of broken chocolate out of his drawer, along with one or two of his Playboys or Penthouses, and I push the envelope in all directions. I'm theoretically allergic to chocolate but I don't think so, myself—I think I've outgrown it—and anyway I don't care. It tastes better because I'm not supposed to. Everything I'm doing is better because I'm not supposed to. 

Someday I'm going to get to do everything I want. That time is coming. I can feel it.

trails

The first thing I have to do here is offer a trigger warning, which is something I've never done before. It's a little like dialing 911 for the first time. You kind of can't believe you're really using those numbers, that the emergency is yours. So, okay, to it: if you're someone who's triggered by discussion of sexual abuse, then proceed with care or skip this if you need to. There are no particulars included here, no details, in case that informs your decision. But this is my experience I'm going to talk about. This is not an abstract discussion.

***********

When I was small, four or five, I had a recurring fantasy. It was my secret favorite, and I knew it probably meant I was bad, but I loved it anyway and played it out for myself over and over. In this fantasy, I would be with some adorable toddler, somebody two or three years younger than I was, and I would first hurt this child somehow—the how wasn't important, but the severity was; the toddler had to be in tears, serious ones—and then, the best part, I would comfort the child. That part was the payoff, silky and delicious. The first part was merely necessary. And it was no good comforting a little child that somebody else had hurt. Where was the honor? What was the worth of comforting somebody you hadn't hurt properly yourself? And when I say the first part was merely necessary, I'm underplaying it a little. The second part was better, definitely, but I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy seeing the fantasy toddler dissolve into tears. There was a sadistic pleasure to delivering these, well, whatever kinds of blows they were, which I never troubled to make clear for myself. This was power. I had it. I was the bigger one. And as soon as that fantasy toddler was good and broken, I could enjoy the wave of tenderness that swept over me for that sweet little creature, and I would cuddle it up like a bunny rabbit and whisper to it and pet it, and we'd sit there in that luscious, soft-focused cloud. I was happy, and it didn't really matter how the toddler was. I'd done my job. This was love, and I was the one who could give it.

**************

I both can and can't tell you with 100% certainty that I was sexually abused by my dad. I can because I was. I can't because it's my dad I'm talking about, and the mind will contort itself however necessary to protect itself from something so foundationally wrong. 

This is something I've wrestled with for more than twenty years; my first bout with the sick feeling that it did happen was when I was 22. I first saw a therapist about it at 23. The sick feeling eventually submerged itself and then didn't emerge again until I was 30, and then it went under again and didn't crop back up until I was 35, this time with more evidence, and then it faded and returned when I was 39, and I learned that my brother had been molested by our dad. (Which he's given me permission to mention here.) And it faded yet again and didn't return until just last Wednesday, at which point nearly all doubt evaporated. 

I won't be going into details here. They're not necessary and not the point. I don't need or want to explain how I suspected and what evidence accumulated over time and what clinched it. Some other time, maybe, maybe some other place. And I'm not going to talk about my dad now either. He died in 2005. He's gone. I loved him. Something warped him, made him—in addition to the wonderful things he was—grasping and blind. In any case, it's not about him any more. 

I'm writing about this, I'm telling you this, because I need to get it out of my way. This happened when I was extremely young, and my personality formed around that fact. I absorbed a lot of wrong information and acted accordingly for decades. I knew I was not important, I knew I existed to please and care for other people, I knew I wasn't quite real. I knew my problems were mine to solve on my own. I knew that help was not available. I knew that my speech was not for me, not for my own free expression. My speech was harnessed to other concerns. 

But I'm a writer. My speech: I'm fucking using that. I need that channel clear. I'm not going to have some hulking secret blocking my flow. I'm not going forward with some part of myself bound and gagged. I may have agreed to that before I knew what I was doing, but I'm nullifying that agreement now. 

I tried writing this post a couple of days ago and failed. I'd get a few words out, freeze, get some more words out, freeze again longer. I gave up and lay down on my bed, shaking, defeated.  I didn't think I'd be able to do it. I thought I'd have to write about something else this week, something safe and inconsequential. 

Two things made me change my mind: Xanax, which I took earlier today, and fuck you. Fuck you to this overwhelming pressure to be silent. It's different from the instinct for privacy. No, this is shame. I can feel it creeping around me, pressing me down. It comes from within, it comes from without. Our culture isn't helping. Who wants to hear this shit? What a downer! Can't you tell it to your journal? Nice people don't talk about this stuff. We live in a world where women get killed for saying they were raped. That's this earth, right now. So fuck you, shame. You're fucking bogus and I'm onto you.

***************

Anger is pretty unfamiliar for me. I generally reroute to something safer. But it's up a lot these days. Yesterday I felt the anger in my arms, in addition to the normal emotional hangouts: chest, solar plexus, tummy. It's as if we ran out of space in the usual places and had to spill over. I'm not going to be surprised if I wake up one morning and feel angry in my hair. 

But this seems good. I'm glad I'm not just sad this time. It's good to be pissed off. It's as though I've realized I'm actually worth something. 

*****************

When the adults around fail you early and often, it makes for a Catch-22 with the idea of God. On the one hand, you could use somebody big on your side. I've dragged around that Hamlet quote all of my adult life like a blankie, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Quiet addendum: there had better be. But at the same time, when your own parents handle you poorly, why is God going to bother with you at all, much less love you with some kind of gigantic, perfect love? It's like trying to imagine a color that you've only heard of. Nonetheless, I've ended up somehow with faith. I needed some, and I got some. I don't know if I'm sold on the love bit, but a vast presence seems plausible. It's something to work with. 

*******************

Last Tuesday evening, the night before the memory came back, I came out of the grocery store and had just finished loading my bags into the hatchback of my car when there was a sudden THUMP THUMP from the car next to me. I whirled around and saw a little girl, all by herself, who'd thrown herself at the window and was pressed against it like a moth, hands splayed against the glass. She was smiling. She'd gotten my attention, which appeared to be the object of that leg of the game. She hung there for a minute while I peered into the minivan to make sure that what I was seeing was right, that a preschooler or kindergartener, tops, had been left in a car by herself. I was right. She was alone. I was livid, and started cursing under my breath. Fuck! What the fuck? Who leaves a child alone in a car in the dark in a grocery store parking lot? And this was a block off of Aurora, which is arguably the most sordid street in Seattle. Insanity.

The girl wheeled away from the window, flipped into the farthest back seats, then darted into the middle again, pressing the button on the ceiling, flashing the overhead light on and off, and then she slipped into the driver's seat and started playing with the buttons and dials and instruments there. She might as well have been setting off flares, for all the attention she was drawing to herself. Leaving was out of the question until the adult/culprit returned so I sat in my car and waited. I called Dave and told him I couldn't come home yet, explaining why, and we fumed together a while. 

Eventually her mother returned, frazzled, a smaller boy in tow. As soon as she had the kids buckled in and she was in the driver's seat, I rolled down my window and gestured for her to roll down hers. I didn't shout, but I spoke in capital letters.

YOU CAN'T LEAVE A CHILD ALONE IN A CAR.
I STAYED WITH HER. I MADE SURE SHE WAS SAFE.
YOU CAN'T DO THAT.
I DIDN'T LEAVE. I STAYED WITH HER.
YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE A CHILD LIKE THAT. DON'T DO THAT AGAIN.

She mouthed "thank you" and then frowned and mouthed "okay" and she drove away. I sat in my car for a few minutes, my heart pounding, exhilarated. 

*****************

There's some Zen story or parable about a monk who's hanging over the edge of a cliff. Above is a tiger ready to eat him. Below is a plunge onto rocks. And right by his hand a strawberry is growing, perfectly ripe, and the monk is so in the moment that he can stop thinking about his imminent death and just groove on this strawberry, have a tiny enjoyable picnic before getting crushed. My death may not be imminent, but with the situation at hand I never know when the pain is going to strike. It comes on suddenly. I'll be fine, fine, fine, and then doubled over out of nowhere. But something nice is that when this thing has come up at other points in my life, I've sunk into a wash of pure darkness for months on end. I wasn't enjoying any fucking strawberries. But now, for example, I see the young cherry trees in the morning light in the Safeway parking lot, all blinged-out like so many brides in their thick, lacy blossoms, and I can give it up for them. I can get into it. And when I was driving to pick up Fred from preschool the day after the memory returned, the noon sky was so blue, and a fierce bright line of white vapor was slowly carving down through that blue, and it looked so forceful and steady and optimistic that it brought tears to my eyes, like it was telling me something.

freak

That's a paper towel tube with electrical tape wrapped around it, to answer your first question. It's one of my most prized possessions. I’m always hiding it in the back of a drawer or moving it to safe ground high on a shelf somewhere, just in case anybody in my house is tempted to throw it out in a cleaning jag. That's not just a paper towel tube, is why. That's my spine, or a model of my spine.

Let me explain. This is an exercise a teacher gave me. He asked me to get something to represent my spine, and then to get some tape, and wrap tape around the parts where I felt like I had some energetic or emotional blockages. And so I did and then we talked and I told him what I guessed each block of tape was doing there, how it might have gotten there. (This is a great exercise, by the way. You can borrow it.)

The tape in the middle, that third stripe of black, that's where the story I'm about to tell you comes from. They're all about fear, all the stripes, but I think I figured out that the one in the middle is the fear of ostracism. It's the fear of asserting myself in a way that could invite ostracism, more specifically. It's got a couple of other fears packed in there, too, but that's the relevant one. That's the ringer.  

We're going back to 1982 now. Pour yourself a Tab or a Pepsi Light or whatever and get comfortable.

Eight p.m. on a Friday night—after our softball victory, after our victory pizza—we're cruising around in Coach Karen's black Corvette. Karen is 19 and beautiful and shares an apartment with her boyfriend, Jim. We're doing a sleepover at Karen's tonight, and she and Jim have crammed our entire team into their two cars and are taking us out for the centerpiece of the evening's activities, which is just this, driving up and down Lake City Way. When we first moved here in 1978, cruising was the centerpiece of all teenage weekends, as far as I could gather. Lake City Way popped and revved all night, even though there was nowhere to be outside of a car. Now, in 1982, cruising's waning, but everything hangs on a little longer in our scruffy neighborhood, and we're just barely teenagers, so we're amped to be out on the road en masse. I get to be in Karen's car, and I feel lucky in my backseat spot. I feel lucky to be here at all. I don't quite know how I got here, on this team, in this group. For the first time, I'm popular. It never stops amazing me. Everything is shining these days. 

Our softball team, The Preps, is undefeated. Karen's dad is a bigwig at Domino's pizza, so not only do our jerseys have the Domino's logo on them (along with some cartoonish, non-Izod alligators we've sewn onto the chests) but we get free pizza after every win. We just stop at the closest Domino's to whatever field we're playing on that day, Karen goes in and says a few words, we loll on the sidewalk waiting, and soon a stack of pizzas is brought out to us. We're 6-0, despite the fact that we play in stiff, dark Levi's and Top-Siders instead of shorts and sneakers. I'm the catcher, and nearly worthless at it, but everybody else on the team is so good that we never lose. The post-game pizza has become our divine right. We're not even that excited about it any more. We're just bored and smug. I haven't contributed to our wins in any particular way—I never make any runs or get any outs—so mine is a contact smugness. 

The music in Karen's car is cranking. Asia's on the radio right now, with "Heat of the Moment". It's tough to describe one stretch of Lake City Way as more drab than another, as the whole thing is just a series of car dealerships, strip clubs, gun shops and fast food restaurants, but we're coming up on a stretch that's emptier and more dimly lit than the rest, past the Italian Spaghetti House, where nothing really is. A figure is walking by the side of the road, and in a minute he becomes recognizable. It's Charles McGovern.

I have to jump in and explain something. In the language we're using these days to describe outcasts, there's a hierarchy. The softest insult on the spectrum is dork. You can be called a dork yourself and it's not even a flesh wound. Everyone is a dork now and then, even the coolest people. Even Linnae Dengah is a dork, though probably not very often. You don't want to live at dork level, of course, but there's the sense that you could survive if it came to that. Nobody has vitriol for something as harmless and unassuming as a dork. They can be entertaining, and some dorks have gently jocular relationships with extremely popular people. There's good-natured teasing, and dorks tend to take it well, no harm done. 

A spaz is just a louder, more intense, more inveterate dork, but the spaz often has a kind of joie-de-vivre that saves him (and it's always a him). Spazzes get in trouble with their teachers, too, which creates a distant, accidental camaraderie with the toughest popular kids, and so the spaz stumbles on mostly unmolested.

The nerd does not have it so easy. A nerd is a magnitude or two more difficult a thing to be than a dork or a spaz. Nerds are overt, willing brains, quiet and serious, far less fun than dorks, no fun at all. Nerds are unpleasing to the severely popular. What gives them the nerve to be so smart? Teachers adore nerds, never hassle them. Something is unfair. The popular person feels edgy, bothered by the presence of the nerd. But if a nerd plays his or her cards right, stays quiet enough, he or she can pass mostly undetected and avoid the worst. At least that's the hope. Write small, talk small, dress small, no untoward broadcasting of your smarts, and try to smile a little. Nerds are grim, and that grimness is a rebuke to the aggressively laid-back popular person trying to have a good time. Dangerous.

Then there's the geek, who occupies the bottommost rung of the social ladder (though there's another category of being so low as to be off the ladder altogether). The geek is the offspring of the nerd and the spaz, inheriting neither of their saving graces. The geek lacks the academic gifts of the nerd, so teachers are no solace, but the geek also has none of the spaz's blitheness, which at least offers a kind of foggy protection among his peers. This is dire. It's social doom. There's no way out. A geek has no moves, and barring a miracle, it's akin to a life sentence. If you spend enough time as a geek, a kind of loneliness and despair will settle around you and sink into your pores, and then your bones, and you will transform into the worst thing you can possibly be: a freak. 

There are two ways to be a freak. Only one way is good—and one

is

good, even if nobody high on the social ladder recognizes this. The good way is to not give a fuck, to flamboyantly not give a fuck. Successful freaks wear whatever they like, hang out with whomever they choose, and they're not afraid of a fight. That's the key. Have a go at this kind of freak and they'll have a go back at you harder; they might even call on some mysterious freak army from another part of the city, who knows? This seems possible. The keyword for this freak is liberation. You may not like them—they're galling—but you grudgingly respect them. They've freed themselves from all of this bullshit. 

(And it is bullshit, of course, worse than bullshit, more poisonous; who doesn't know that now? But I knew it then, too, as much as I wanted to pretend I didn't. I was scared, so I pushed the knowledge down. But I knew it, I did, and I went along anyway.)

The other kind of freak, the worst freak, has already given up and died inside. An essential weakness has metastasized. It's no longer about geeks and dorks and nerds and what you do and don't do. The lowliest freak is a walking wound, sorrow incarnate, a reminder of what could happen to anybody if you get on a long enough losing streak. 

Charles McGovern is a freak, the second kind. There he is right now, walking down the worst part of this sad street, wearing his perpetual blue sweater with the black Charlie Brown zigzag across the chest, his army green jacket, his thick black glasses stark against his white face. He's as pale as can be—a ghost, translucent—with dark circles under his eyes. His hair is deep, bright, almost Ronald McDonald red. He's unbearable to look at. He's the most vulnerable being I've ever seen; he terrifies me, as though he's carrying a disease I could catch. The cloud of sadness he walks in is as visible as Pigpen's dust. He agitates me! Why is he so sad? Why is he so thin? Why is he so tired? Why does he only wear that one sweater every day? Doesn't he know he can get crucified for that, just for that alone? He's infuriating, he's upsetting. He won't save himself! What is his home like? Where are his parents? Why won't they make him change his sweater? Why is he walking alone at night on this horrible stretch of Lake City Way? 

"Oh my god, it's Charles McGovern!" somebody screams. Everyone exclaims and gasps, turning to look. Tanya Carson* turns, Sonia Kim* turns, Cheryl Leed* turns, Paige Anderson* turns. The front passenger window is rolled down, and a girl—one of us, I don't remember which, and anyway we were practically one organism—sticks her head out of the window and yells, "Freak! Go home! Go take a shower!"

He sees us. He hears us. He barely turns his head to look, but he does, and he just keeps walking. It's as though there's no more damage we can do, like he's a person in a movie who's been shot ten times, and we're delivering the pointless eleventh bullet. 

The car erupts in hot exhilaration. Something has happened! Friday night has delivered! There's excited chatting and laughter and more gasping, as though we, this carful of girls, have somehow come close to being harmed in that transaction. I make all the right laughing noises, and sounds of assent. 

Blackout. Return to 2014. 

As you can imagine, this is not a slide show I’ve particularly loved pulling out of the memory banks over the years. I feel a pea-sized, nuclear ball of hot shame lava detonate in my stomach whenever I flash on that night. Charles McGovern is probably not reading this, but if he is, I don’t know what to say to him that would be good enough. The obvious word is so small, so inadequate. But it’s the sine qua non here; we can’t do without it. Charles, I’m sorry. Whenever I’ve been in danger of too much self-congratulation, the memory of your skinny little form moving down Lake City Way has buzzed and blinked red up through the fog, reminding me of the fear that’s driven me since forever, and the cruelty of which I’m capable, both of which are entwined.

I’m 45 now, and I have two sons, aged 5 and 8. (If you have emotional armor and you’re interested in blasting through it, by the way, one surefire method of kicking off that process is to have children. When you become the steward of a bundle of pure vulnerability, you become extra-attuned to vulnerability everywhere: inside yourself, on the news, in your friends and neighbors. The whole map lights up with it.) It’s not long before my boys are going to find themselves in my shoes, or Charles’s shoes, or both pairs. I’m of the belief, too, that whatever emotional issue you ignore in yourself as a parent, you wrap up as an unconscious family heirloom and pass down to your children. Here. I didn’t feel like facing this. You try.  Luckily, I think the converse applies; the more you extricate yourself from old baggage, the cleaner the canvas you hand to the next generation to scrawl upon.  

 This memory is only the most extreme example of my cowardice through the years. I wouldn’t even know how to track the rest. Even in the present, the impulse to speak up and the impulse to muffle myself and stay safe do battle in my brain several times a week. The battle dictates how far I wade into politics, how deeply I’m willing to engage on issues of social justice, what I say on Facebook, what I say to your face. 
So I have this paper towel tube, a model of my energetic spine. I feel nervous saying "energetic spine" here, but what the fuck was the moral of this story if I don't say what I mean? I'm not talking about my bones. I'm talking about some bright channel of life running up the center of my body, and everything hidden in there that got stuck one way or another. Stories, lies, patterns. And this paper towel tube, this class-project-looking thing I made, it feels alive when I hold it in my hand, like something real transferred in there, something useful. 

 

*names changed to protect the...well, anyway. Names changed.

 

el bachelor

Look, fine, okay, fine, look. I watch The Bachelor. I have always watched The Bachelor*. What's more, I don't just watch The Bachelor sometimes, or a lot. What I'm saying is that I never don't watch The Bachelor.

*and, naturally, The Bachelorette

Even when I was sick in the hospital last year—too sick to watch the Oscars!—I was like

I...think...I...can...still...watch...The

Bachelor

 and I did, forcing my eyes up to the screen in between bouts of throwing up, which was a triumph of the spirit of fun, I think.

I read books, okay? I read big ones. I just started rereading War and Peace, which I almost finished twenty years ago, and I have every reason to believe that I can almost finish it again. I also listen to classical music on purpose, and I've seen a dance performance this very year! And it was a dance about Socrates! So when you judge me, fold that in.

What can I say? Watching ladies and gentlemen fight each other to bag a hottie relaxes and invigorates me. I'm married—I've been with Dave for ten years and some change—and so I'm out of the game. Watching The Bachelor gives me the chance to armchair quarterback a little. Also, there's a strong rubbernecking component because HOLY JESUS, who would put herself through something like this? I met Dave on a yoga retreat in Hawaii that I went on with my best friend and some other excellent folks, and I remember weeping tiny tears leaning against a van window on a trip home from the beach because my friend had fallen asleep on Dave's shoulder in the back seat. Her head was touching him! All was lost. Our love would never be. If we multiplied that by 25 but with women who were actually trying to wrestle him out of my grip, I'd have gone bald from the stress. It's awful/wonderful to witness, like watching a typhoon from inside a warm, well-stocked, indestructible house. 

My mom also watches The Bachelor, and this has brought us closer together. Every week she says, "It's a horrible show. It makes me sick. I don't think I'll watch it again," and then she watches it anyway and calls me during a commercial, all, "What do you think of the preschool teacher? I think she's nice." We've watched it together a few times, but this gets dicey as a season wears on and the making out gets more intense. She'll say things like "Do you think they're going to suck face again?" which is a troubling and totally unauthorized use of slang. A of all, nobody says that anymore—if they ever did—and b of all, she particularly times a billion does not say that. My mom saying

suck face

is about as credible as me attempting to work a stripper pole. I promise you that that analogy is proportional. 

The latest season just ended on Monday night, and it featured the most wack Bachelor ever, a narcissistic former professional soccer player from Venezuela named Juan Pablo whose air supply was apparently going to run out if he didn't have his hands on a woman's face at all times. Truly, he was the most face-fingering man alive, constantly stroking temples and chins and foreheads and noses, whispering "It's okay," and "Stop crying." 

The final two contestants were a pediatric nurse named Nikki from Kansas City and a hairstylist named Clare from Sacramento. Clare's speech pattern made me want to kick my television. 

Everything? She said? Was so?

*pause forever*

Dramatic

.

But poor, starry-eyed Clare got slut-shamed and then rejected something fierce by Juan Pablo, so she had my sympathy. What was truly wonderful, however, was when the final two women met his family. They know better than anybody what a dick Juan Pablo is, and they did their best to convey this to the women without outright crucifying him on camera. Examples, only the slightest bit paraphrased from memory:

Juan Pablo's mother, Nelly: What do you like about him?

Clare: He's honest!

Nelly: Honest....hm. He's rude. You know, he's made me cry many times.

Juan Pablo's cousin, Rodolfo: So how much fighting are you prepared for?

Nikki: Well, I think a certain amount of fighting is healthy.

Cousin Rodolfo: So if things get difficult, and he walks away—which he will—how much are you willing to sacrifice to make it work?

Juan Pablo's father, Saul: Juan Pablo is a difficult man. He's not easy. And he's always right. 

Nikki: That's great. He's honest. So...that's good. 

Nelly: What do you imagine your weekends will be like?

Nikki: We'll probably go to the beach with his daughter during the day, maybe the lake, and then we'll come home and do family things, play games maybe in the evening.

Nelly: What will happen is that you'll make him breakfast and then he'll watch TV all day. Juan Pablo is a simple man. Are you sure you want a simple man like Juan Pablo?

Nikki: .....yes. 

Nelly: Do you love him?

Clare: I do.

Nelly:  Are you sure?

It was one of the most pleasing segments I've ever seen. They didn't

throw

him under the bus, exactly. They just gently made sure that when the bus took off, he was under it.

I was hoping for more and more obscure relatives to pop out of the woodwork and give him delicately negative Yelp reviews. 

Great-Uncle Felipe: How do you feel about always being the person to take out the garbage? Juan Pablo doesn't like to do that. 

Ancestor Dora: He's never been all that kind to animals. Do you care for animals much?

Cousin Virgilio: On a scale of one to ten, how important is fidelity to you? Is it over, say, a three? I am simply curious. 

In the end, Nikki "won", if winning is having a handsome douchebag announce to you that he has a ring in his pocket but he's not going to propose, then grab your face and whisper "Don't be cranky" to it over and over while the credits roll. Which—no lie—is how the show ended, and which is exactly why I watch it in the first place.