I walked down the long hallway to the jury room. Aspiring pianists tried to read their fate in my face. Did she smile? Did she frown?
We’d just heard the twenty-four quarter-finalists, and in a few minutes we’d weed out half of them and announce the dozen semi-finalists. The failure to make it to the semis can mean the loss of a scholarship, the erosion of family support, a devastating blow to self-confidence. The jury’s decision is final, its power absolute. There are no appeals.
I savor the opportunity to discover new talent, but I don’t relish playing God in other people’s lives. Most of all, I dread the chats with the losers. They say they want the truth no matter how painful—“Tell me why I was eliminated and how I can improve” —but what they really want is validation, something to assure them their talent has been recognized. I could say I enjoyed their performance and was surprised when we tallied the votes and I saw their names at the bottom. That would give them hope but wouldn’t help them grow. I could say they played beautifully but that the level was just too high. That would be cruel. We educate our children to work hard, we praise them for putting in effort, we assure them that if they apply themselves they’ll be rewarded. Then they go into the world and get crushed by rejection for not being as good as the next guy.
What can I say to sustain their self-esteem without hyping futile expectations? I remember well my younger years when harsh criticism could pierce my heart. Who are we, the judges? What gives us the right to destroy someone’s dream?
The first jury I served on, I was determined that only the best would win. I suggested to my fellow jurors that we select somebody who could shine at Carnegie Hall rather than play like a well-schooled student. Everybody agreed. We all ranked each pianist and tabulated the results not once, but twice. The pianist who got the most points won. Nevertheless the outcome was disheartening. I thought the silver medalist was outstanding. After the award winners’ gala, I remarked that the second prizewinner would probably become world famous while the recipient of the jury prize might be forgotten. I glanced at my fellow judges—all seasoned musicians—hoping to provoke strong reactions that would betray the culprits who’d propelled the winner to the top. Instead, everybody laughed, and some said, “We’ll see.” And, “Don’t be so sure.”
The voting system is carefully structured to prevent bias and undue influence. The highest and the lowest marks are thrown out. No deliberation is allowed until the votes have been cast. And yet, mediocrity often wins. Here is how it can happen: I’m a judge from the fictitious state of Transatlantica. My government has sent me to the competition and paid for my airfare. I give the Transatlantic contestant high marks, but not so high as to stick out and get discarded. Then I identify the pianist who poses the biggest threat to the Transatlantic contestant’s standing, and I give him consistently low marks. Multiply me by five, and his chances of winning are null, while my guy may just sneak up to the podium.
There are also unimpeachable motives that propel judges to vote for average performers. What’s pedestrian to my ear may be enthralling to another’s. One judge may disapprove of an interpretation he deems unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. I once served as an observer at a famous competition. Six of the jury members rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition, while the other six celebrated virtuosity, imagination, and personality. In the end the scores of each group offset those of the other, and the most lackluster pianist, who hadn’t offended either camp, was declared the winner.
Competitions came and went, and my preferred pianists sometimes won and sometimes lost. In one competition, the organizers campaigned for their favorite contestant, a rather ordinary performer who hadn’t distinguished himself either technically or artistically. Their actions were an affront to fair process, quashed only when some of us in the jury threatened to go to the press. Those of us who’d led the revolt were not invited back.
In another competition, a Russian judge told me on day one that he had been on a hundred fifty-nine international juries—only to add on the last day that a hundred fifty-nine of his students had won awards. One of them got the third prize in our competition. There was nothing remotely remarkable in his performance and I gave him very low marks. Somebody must have liked him a great deal to counterbalance my score.
My favorite first-prize winner was an American male pianist of boundless sensitivity, who could turn a musical phrase into magic and lose himself in the indefinable. I looked forward to his New York debut recital, a decisive first introduction to the music world’s opinion makers, and an indicator of things to come. Even I, who had championed him throughout the competition, could not be certain that he had the chops for a successful international career until I saw him handle the pressure of a make-or-break concert.
A few weeks after he won he called me in despair: after graduation, he no longer qualified for a scholarship. His family was unable to pay for his lessons, and his teacher wasn’t willing to work with him for free. I assured him he was ready to do it on his own. He had to be, if he planned to embark on an international career. I knew all too well what could happen to a performer who failed in New York. Two of my friends, both excellent pianists, had been relegated to regional careers because they choked on the stage of Lincoln Center. Why a totally in-command pianist, capable of playing to perfection with his eyes closed, would fail to deliver at a crucial moment is a subject of endless analysis.
Think of Andy Roddick. He would have been placed on a pedestal had he won the fifth set in his last Wimbledon final with Federer. I watched that match like a laser, willing him to take that one extra daring shot. Close-up, I could see his eyes spelling caution, and I knew he wouldn’t make it. The line separating the champions from the runners-up is the thinnest of all lines known to man.
However, the brilliant young pianist I so appreciated withstood the pressure. His prizewinner New York recital was nerve-free and inspiring, the hall was full, the applause enthusiastic. He was on his way to stardom but for the wrinkle of a mixed review in the Times. The reviewer—just like his teacher—failed to recognize his exceptionalism, or he was not in the mood to use big words like “phenomenal” or “one of a kind” that can propel a career into the stratosphere. Some people cry for a few days, then move on. Not the young pianist in question. He viewed the review as the ultimate verdict of his chances, became overcome with doubt, and took a teaching job somewhere far away. Soon after that I lost track of him.
Years later he befriended me on Facebook. His timeline was filled with links to his performances on iTunes. I listened to some of them. Magnificent. He never lost that unique ability to arrest your attention with phrasing that came straight from the depth of the soul. It made me think of Paula Fox, the writer no one talked about until, when she was already over sixty, Jonathan Franzen stumbled on one of her books while browsing at the Yaddo library. You’d think such poignant elegance as, “I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch,” would have caught attention, but no. Her prose was either ignored or unappreciated until the famous Franzen said the word.
One can resurrect the career of an older writer, but classical music performers must make it at an early age of boundless potential, before the muscles begin to atrophy, the body resists the stress of globetrotting, and promoters turn their attention to the new kids on the block. My beloved pianist has missed the moment, and there was nothing I could do to rejuvenate his career. We, the jury, can only hand a young talent an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame, and the rest is history. That’s what my first agent said.
“What do you mean, history?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’re a huge success and we make history together, or you’re history.”
ISRAELA MARGALIT is a critically-acclaimed playwright, television writer, concert pianist, recording artist, and recently a published author of short fiction and creative nonfiction, with awards or honors in all categories, including the Gold Medal, New York Film & TV Festival, an Emmy Nomination, and Best CD the British Music Industry Awards. Visit her website at http://www.israelamargalit.com/
At the brand new HomeGoods, I buy thirty-eight dollars worth of things I don’t need. A tablecloth. Cloth napkins in an autumnal print. Two new dog toys that I’d been planning to save for Christmas, but when I walked into the house with all of my crap from the afternoon, one of the toys fell out of the bag and Essay spotted it and immediately ran to it and squeaked it. I couldn’t very well hide it away until Christmas. I also buy a roll of wrapping paper decorated with colorful donuts. I love donuts. They’re the comfort food I most often turn to in times of distress. When Steve was in the hospital for his emergency gallbladder surgery last winter, there were mini donuts in the house, and I picked up fresh donuts on the way to see him in the mornings.
I would probably spend more time and more money at HomeGoods this Friday afternoon, but it’s hot, so very hot for late September, and I have chocolate in the car. I’m worried that it will melt if I stay in the store too long. But there’s another reason I don’t stay very long.
The store reminds me so much of Christy and, as I see things that the two of us would get a kick out of, it hurts to think about how that store used to be a destination for us when our town didn’t yet have one, when it was only in Peoria or Shorewood. I pick up a mug designed to look like it was a mummy all wrapped up, just two eyes poking out, and I chuckle. I hear myself saying to Christy, “But I’m not allowed. I have too many already.”
Now Christy and I no longer speak because I told her husband, who is also my boss, that I had grown tired of his refusal to hear the things I said. In the strange logic of adult friendships, this meant that, because my boss and I were no longer friends, Christy and I also could not remain friends. Surely the two of them had interpreted my explanation in ways I cannot guess because that’s what people do. We defend our egos and our identities and we wrap ourselves up in stories that portray us as the innocent party even as we don’t realize we’re doing so. Only our eyes poke out.
The parking lot had recently been repaved, and the heat reflecting off of the deep blue asphalt is oppressive. When I get in the car, I turn the A/C up high. I feel around in the back seat for the Target bag with the chocolate bars; they still seem to be holding their shape. I rip open the bag of mini Hershey bars and take one out as the A/C begins to cool the car down. I tear open the deep brown wrapper and the familiar chocolate squares are soft, just beginning to melt. At this stage they are easily malleable, and I can imagine that it would not take much effort to manipulate this bar into another shape altogether. I imagine blending a bunch of little bars together to form a ball of chocolate. Or, with just a little more heat applied, melting four or five bars together to form chocolate soup. Shape-shifting. No more sign of the Hershey’s logo on each individual rectangle.
I pull up to a long line of cars waiting to leave the shopping plaza, and I feel that familiar dread that comes with recognizing that the cardboard sign that the sunburned, bearded, gray-haired man holds. It says he’s a homeless veteran waiting on public assistance that has not yet kicked in. He’s hungry. I have maybe three dollars cash in my wallet, three dollars that would surely help him, but still I make a point to pull in to the middle lane to ensure that another lane of cars will form a boundary between his suffering and me in my air-conditioned SUV with my bag of chocolate and my thirty-eight dollars worth of unnecessary purchases from HomeGoods. I turn my head away, check my phone, and then look out the other side of the car.
What I see on that side of the road is perhaps more disturbing. Two human beings make their way slowly toward the intersection of the busy roads. One is dressed in a cheap suit, with hair that at one point that morning was probably slicked back but is now stiffly hanging in the faint breeze. He’s smoking a cigarette, looking for all the world like the real-life version of Saul Goodman (‘s all good, man) The other is dressed like the sun, wearing what looks to be a very heavy and very hot perfectly spherical bright yellow costume, covered all around with little orange felt triangles meant to represent the sun’s rays. The person’s arms are covered in black material and poke out from two holes in the sun. The sun character wears black sunglasses (the irony!) and an exaggerated smile. The person in the sun costume walks very slowly, careful to step up on to the curb, and the man in the cheap suit puts his arms out as if to catch the Sun if she falls. The Sun carries a small, cardboard, professionally printed sign. Once the man and the Sun get to the place the man wants the Sun to be, he puts his arms on the roundest part of the Sun’s back and sort of positions her in place. The Sun then begins jumping in place with the sign advertising, I realize now, Sun Loans.
The man in the cheap suit walks slowly back to the shopping plaza, cigarette poised between his lips, ashes about to fall on the ground. He is in no kind of hurry to get back to his desk at Sun Loans.
The light finally changes. I leave behind the Sun with her sign advertising loans at what is surely a rate close to usury. I leave behind the veteran with his sign advertising America’s shameful treatment of those who have fought for our freedom. I leave behind the scorching heat of that parking lot and I think about the things I bought that I did not need.
I think about the irony of those two figures standing on either side of the busy intersection. They are both anonymous. One is sunburnt from standing outside too long, begging for money to feed and clothe himself. He is weary from standing on his feet all day. He is tired. He is ashamed of having to beg strangers for money to fulfill his basic needs. The other is covered, head to toe, in a costumed designed to look like the sun. She cannot stand still. She must jump up and down and wave her sign to get the attention of drivers as they pass. She wears a suit made of heavy felt that must weigh at least forty pounds. She is both protected from the sun and she is the Sun. She is likely filled with shame but we cannot see her face, so she is protected from our judgment. She cannot be making more than minimum wage. She has been driven to this street corner by forces similar to those that drive the veteran: a desire to feed, clothe, and shelter herself.
When we were fourteen, my best friend Hillary and I worked illegally as dishwashers at Jake’s Restaurant in the mall. We were paid four dollars an hour to spray down the dishes before putting them in the massive dishwasher and to scrub the pots and pans by hand. When we recall this very first paying job, we tell two stories. The first is that, when the pots and pans were particularly disgusting, with caked-on food that would take real elbow grease to scrub off, I would hold one out, look at Hillary, and drop it into the trash can. Next!
The second is that, one night Hillary and I had a party to go to. At this party would be the two eighteen-year-old boys (men!) we were attracted to and who we thought were maybe interested in us. We stacked dishes and scrubbed pots for a couple hours until, at the same moment, we each looked at our watches and decided to run. We quit our jobs without so much as a word by running out the back door. We ran and ran. All the way to the bus stop at the mall’s main entrance, where we then waited for the bus to take us home.
When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would respond that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. It seems I had a thing for running into, rather than away from, danger.
I cannot recall any responses to my expressed desires to put out fires or to deliver baked goods to my grandmother in the woods. What strikes me instead, now, as I think about the Sun jumping in place and Hillary and I running out on our first jobs, is that work is something that we are asked to begin anticipating from the youngest of ages, something we are encouraged to shape our entire lives around, but the jobs that perhaps shape us the most are the ones that are understood to be detours on the way to a career.
The street lamps in downtown Hershey, Pennsylvania are shaped like Hershey kisses and alternate wrapped, unwrapped, wrapped, unwrapped. Silver foil with the trademark paper plume billowing from the top followed by plain milk chocolate.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I taught for a summer at the Milton Hershey school in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I was working for a private study skills company called Readak, which would contract with private schools to teach six- or eight- or twelve-week study skills courses to middle- and high-school students before and after school hours. The Milton Hershey School was my fifth of seven assignments, my last being The American School in Barcelona.
Milton Hershey and his wife Catherine established the school for orphaned boys, beginning with the children they had adopted when they could not conceive children of their own. Today boys and girls of all ages, largely from impoverished backgrounds and largely from Pennsylvania, attend the boarding school and live with married couples called houseparents. While I taught there, I lived in an apartment beneath one of the homes housing middle-school-aged girls, and it was everything I could do to not set the entire building on fire while attempting one night to make stir-fry. Each morning, food was delivered to the homes, and whenever there was too much, which was often, the houseparents, whose names I can no longer remember, offered me fresh produce that might otherwise go to waste. I would wake up in the mornings and take long walks around the school’s property, the decadent smell of milk chocolate in the air.
Children who attended the Milton Hershey School were cared for completely, from food and housing to medical and dental care, to clothing and computers and school supplies. What struck me the most, though, were the nightly dinners I was so often invited to join. The houseparents would tell me dinner was going to be family style, but I had no idea what that meant. I came from a family, but in my family, we ate alone in front of the television or we watched our mother eat standing up near the stove because she didn’t have the patience to sit down at the table before returning to the living room to watch her shows. I was twenty-six years old and I didn’t know what it meant to sit down at a table and eat a meal family style. What had we been doing all my life? Fend-for-yourself-style.
At the other Readak assignments across the country—in Wisconsin and Michigan and Nebraska—I would stay with families of the children I taught. A family would open their home to me, and I would move in to their extra bedroom and become a part of their family for six or eight weeks. They wrapped me up in their lives, including me in everything from the glass of wine with family dinner to the football games on Saturdays. And when I left, they hugged me goodbye. In between, I taught their children and their classmates study skills.
I cried during only one placement and that was because of a fifth-grade child whose name I can no longer remember. Let’s call him Jack. Fifth grade was too young. I did not recall signing up for kids this young, but somehow, at this school in Cincinnati, fifth grade qualified as middle school. I could not control the kids. They did not listen to me. They talked over me. They shouted over me and they did not give a whit about study skills. And Jack—now that I look back, Jack probably had a learning disability or ADHD, but at the time, I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I just wanted him to shut up so I could teach him to take better notes. I called his mother in the evenings and asked her to ask him to please sit still, to please stop talking incessantly.
What I wrote just now about crying only once? That was a lie. I cried in Barcelona, too. There I cried because I was supposed to be teaching on a Saturday morning but the school was locked and I didn’t have any way of reaching anybody to let me in, but the parents had already dropped off the kids and they all looked at me expectantly. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired of teaching study skills. I wanted out. I wanted to start my M.A. program already. I wanted to speak English to more than just these kids. I wanted macaroni and cheese.
I came close to crying during a placement in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Instead of being housed with a family, I stayed for six weeks in the infirmary. On one of my first nights, as I tried to fall asleep, I heard footsteps above me in the attic. Many tiny footsteps. Squirrels. What was to stop them from getting into the room where I was sleeping? What was to say that they didn’t normally have the run of the place? The next morning I called the Readak office on the verge of tears, only to have the teaching coordinator tell me there wasn’t anything she could do about the squirrels from where she was.
One of the speed-reading skills I taught students was called the finger method, and it involved tracing your index finger very quickly along the lines of the text in order to train your eyes to move faster. It was bullshit. And I couldn’t very well laugh or smirk when I introduced the “technique” to high school students. I needed them to take me seriously. But come on. The finger method, for crying out loud.
Today I teach both undergraduate and graduate students. I teach writing and rhetoric, and at the start of every semester, I have anxiety dreams in which I cannot control the class. They’re shouting over me, they won’t sit down, they don’t care what I have to say, and eventually I just give up. This has never happened to me in my waking life. But it’s my biggest fear. It has stayed with me because of my experience with the fifth-graders.
So much of the work of a life is not visible. It involves shaping and reshaping the stories we tell ourselves about the work we do. It involves changing an emotional detail so that we can be the heroes of our stories rather than the villains. We engage, every day, in emotional work about the work we do, and this emotional labor is really what exhausts us. Shame threatens to eat us alive, so we tell ourselves that it was the children who were the problem, not me as a young teacher with no training on how to handle them.
We wrap ourselves in stories as heavy and as thick as the Sun Loans employee’s costume. We tell ourselves that somebody else will give the veteran money. Or, worse, we tell ourselves that the veteran somehow deserves his circumstances.
But like the best work, most of this work is collaborative. We do none of this on our own. We are supported in this emotional labor at every turn by a society that tells us that we are responsible for our own actions at the same time that we should respect those who risked their lives for their country. We have no shortage of stories to choose from. Pick one to wrap yourself up in. When it no longer fits the situation, simply let it go. Wrap. Unwrap.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is an essayist and professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.
Only after you’ve had two glasses of wine, and only in a joking way, can you maybe admit to having graduated from fashion school. But, after all this time, you still wonder why on earth you did it.
Maybe because all your friends and your boyfriend had somehow been accepted to college, but you had never even applied, because you were a confused and mediocre high school student, and nobody in your family had gone to college. And you had to do something, for God’s sake.
So, when you were moping over the photos of Lane hope chests in Seventeen, maybe you also saw an ad that said something about “a career in a year” and promised graduates entrée to a number of jobs, including buyer for a department store. You liked your after-school job at a small clothing and gift shop, so you cut out that ad and begged your parents to pay the tuition, if you promised to use your savings to cover your living expenses. They finally agreed, so you signed up for fashion school. And on September 13, 1970, fresh from the suburbs of Cleveland, the trunk of your dad’s palomino beige sedan crammed with your personal possessions, you arrived in downtown Toledo, Ohio.
Fashion school was seventeen courses, thirty hours each, for a total of 510 hours in the classroom. Plus homework. Principles of Buying, Fashion Sketching, Fashion Writing, Business Economics, Color and Design, classes like that. And while you could certainly argue that it was not the Harvard of the Midwest, maybe you liked those courses, worked hard, and got excellent grades, because it was so much smaller than your high school, just fourteen other girls and you, and your teachers were mostly women who wore lots of make-up, and hats and weirdly dressy clothes for a weekday, but were real-live career women.
Of course, there was that mandatory finishing school component of the curriculum that you overlooked in the fine print. Afternoons, during the first semester, you had to take classes like Visual Poise, Wardrobe Styling, Make-up, and Personality. That part may not have gone as well as the morning classes, because you might have been 5’3” on your tallest day, and less than lithe and, even with your contact lenses, your mother’s nickname for you was “Plain Jane.” Also, you liked to think you already had a personality, even if it was not the correct one. However, you did learn such valuable life skills as how to enter a car like a lady: butt-first.
In the afternoon, there was also a Voice and Drama class, and your teacher assigned a speech from Macbeth, the one that starts with “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,”and ends with, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You were all supposed to memorize it and be ready to recite it in class, but you refused to do it, claiming it was a waste of your time, but really you were terrified that you wouldn’t be able to do it, and there you’d be, standing in front of everyone, with no words coming out of your mouth. Normally, this was not a problem. You were shy, but you had also learned to make fun of yourself before anyone else did it for you. Somehow, you still passed that course and all the others, too, making you, presumably “finished,” not as in “ruined,” but as in “completed.”
And you stayed, even though you were miserable and scared much of the time. Like that Saturday when you and your roommate were the only ones on the floor of the residential hotel that was being converted to offices and that did not, contrary to the school’s ad, provide onsite adult supervision other than the elderly guard who sat at the front desk in the lobby and may or may not have been there 24/7.
You stayed even after you brought your laundry up that day and were folding it and a strange man appeared in your doorway and you froze, but your rural roommate threw the empty clothesbasket and ran at him screaming, “Get out!” and “Go away!” and finally he did.
Maybe one of the students was twenty-one, or knew someone who was, and so, some evenings, you were able to consume as many whiskey and Seven-Ups at one time as you liked. And you learned that those drinks made you calmer, happier; you felt as though you fit in better and were more like other people, until you had one too many and found yourself kneeling on the tiny white hexagon tiles of the bathroom, releasing the contents of your stomach, then sobbing hysterically about how much you missed your boyfriend and how much you hated fashion school.
But, one sunny day in the spring of that school year, you walked into your friend Karen’s room and heard a voice as plain as your own, but on-key, singing, “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.” You picked up the album cover and studied it: Carole King’s face was as plain as your own, with dishwater brown hair like yours but crazy curly. She wore a loose sweater and jeans, and no shoes. It was the opposite of the dress code you’d been obeying for the past seven months. You weren’t entirely sure about this tapestry business, but it seemed like something worth pursuing, and you suspected it had more to do with the books you were reading on the side than anything you were learning at fashion school. Books like The Art of Loving, The Feminine Mystique, The Chosen, Atlas Shrugged (so much longer and duller than The Fountainhead, but necessary somehow, at least then)and, over and over again, anything by Salinger.
Maybe you graduated with honors, which sounds like a joke, but is true, and you gave a speech about character, both of which you had forgotten about until you were going through your mom’s things a year ago and found the program and, neatly folded inside, a typed copy of your speech, with the key phrases underlined twice, in pencil, so you’d remember to emphasize them.
Maybe you stayed in Toledo and got an apartment with your fashion school roommate. You worked at a newly opened clothing store for Juniors in a newly opened mall, where one of your former teachers was the manager. You did not drive or own a car, and the mall was five and a half miles from your apartment, the bus situation was iffy, and you worked some evenings, so you sometimes got a ride home from work on the back of the assistant manager’s boyfriend’s motorcycle.
In your free time you read, smoked pot, drank, took muscle relaxers and, once, over the counter diet pills. The latter made you really peppy and not at all hungry, until you got stomach pains so bad you doubled over, and after those stopped, you walked across the mall to the bakery, where you ate too many cinnamon rolls and gulped white milk from a small, waxed carton.
You grew tired of spending your work shifts standing in the front of the maroon-carpeted, rough-wood-paneled Juniors’ store, wearing hot pants, and folding and refolding tops, while trying to strike up awkward conversations with people who walked by, so maybe you could lure them inside to buy something.
Once, after the district manager said you weren’t trying hard enough, you marched up to a woman who was browsing the sale rack, guided her to the new rabbit fur jackets, and convinced her she deserved to buy one for herself. You felt your lunch churning in your stomach as you stood behind the counter and watched her slowly pull wrinkled singles from her purse and then the pockets of her jeans, as she tried to qualify for layaway. When she finished, you fought the urge to push the money back to her, pat her hand, and tell her to go buy something practical. Maybe that was when you decided to fashion a life some other way.
Now, you are finally able to bear the thought of going back. The school has closed, but you stand outside the now-historic hotel where you lived forty-three years ago. As you look up at the fourth floor windows, you remember a night when you’d had just enough to drink so you were relaxed but not sick or weepy. You ended up, fully clothed, in a waterless bathtub with several of your classmates. You were all singing, though you’ve forgotten the song. Without a doubt, the cover of The Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, an album you had listened to over and over again during high school, inspired you.
You look down the street at the newly built Mud Hens’ stadium, and you remember Mondays, after your classes were over, when you and your roommate walked in that direction to the meat cutting school that has since been torn down, where you carefully chose a pork chop or some thin sheets of veal for your dinner that night. And after you cleaned up a corner of the filthy, shared kitchen with its limp heads of iceberg lettuce, shriveled apples, and cartons of curdled milk, you cooked that meat along with frozen vegetables and Rice-a-Roni, the latter to make you feel as though you were living somewhere more exotic than Toledo, Ohio.
As you turn the corner to check out the front entrance of the hotel, you think of a guy you dated during your “I’ll go out with pretty much anyone who asks me because my boyfriend is 204 miles away and increasingly absent” phase. This date drove a red Corvette he loved too much to leave downtown unattended, so you waited for him on the corner of Superior and Jefferson. You stood alone on a city street, after dark, no phone booth nearby, one of the many chances you took because you did not yet understand the word “mortal.”
And, finally, you remember that you eventually substituted your Glamour subscription for one for the new Ms. magazine, and you proudly wore flannel shirts and faded, patched jeans to your college classes. You got married, earned two degrees, had a baby, and ended up working with children and, later, teaching college students.
Maybe now you can finally give your eighteen-year-old self a break. Accept that, while it might have been a good fit for someone else, fashion school mostly helped you learn what you did not want, but maybe that’s a big deal, especially when you’re young.
MELISSA BALLARD studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. Melissa has written essays for Brevity, Gravel, JMWW, and other publications.
A slim, tattered volume of verse with a dark stain on its gold cover is one of my most prized possessions. The book is called Poems for the Little Ones, written by Edie Scobie and published in 1925. The poems in it are rather dreadful:
I’ve dot a lovely dolly
Her name is Violet May
I always take her wiv me
When I go out to play.
It’s not what’s in the book that I treasure; it’s the book itself, which I received from my mother for my eighth birthday. When I opened it, I learned that my mother had also received the same volume for her eighth birthday. Given by her brother, my uncle Arthur, who was eleven years older than my mother, it is inscribed:
To Florence, from Arthur
January 25, 1935
A foundation stone for your future literary castle
Like me, my mother always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her dream never came true.
Even though I always knew in the back of my mind that my mother had once had literary aspirations, I didn’t think much about it. Growing up, my mother was just my mother: the person who put food in front of me, told me to clean my room, and took me shopping for school clothes every fall. When I became a teenager, my mother was someone to fight with about my short skirts, my long hair, and my militant vegetarian eating habits. As a young woman/budding feminist, I saw my stay-at-home mom as the symbol of everything there was to rebel against. And as a not-so-young woman, I relegated my mother to the sidelines of my life as I pursued my goal of being an author.
Though we always mentioned my writing career during our brief, once-a-month phone calls, my mother didn’t know the whole story. I sent home copies of my books that I knew she’d enjoy and could show off to her friends: picture books like Where Is Bear?, Skunk’s Spring Surprise, A SweetPassover, and Runaway Dreidel! I did not send home books of mine that I knew she’d find upsetting, the thinly disguised autobiographical novels, short story and poetry collections: Nobody’s Mother, The Reluctant Daughter, Secrets, Jailbait, Just Like a Woman, Pillow Talk. These books starred the same protagonist (though she went by different names) who at various times struggled with an eating disorder, found herself in abusive relationships with men, came out as a lesbian, and always viewed her mother with an unforgiving disdain.
More of my books were published, more years went by, and then my mother got sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be airlifted to a hospital where she remained on life support for ten days. I flew across the country and remained at her side until she was well enough to come home. For hours on end I sat in her hospital room watching her sleep and contemplating our relationship. Our lack of closeness was something that I had always found extremely painful. And I had always blamed my mother for it. But of course it wasn’t all her fault. What could I do to bring us closer? I decided, though it was rather late in the game, to extend the hand of friendship and try to get to know her better.
A month after my mother was settled back home, I went to visit her. After lunch, I peppered her with questions. I wanted to know about her life as a young woman, if she’d dated anyone before she met my father, and whatever happened to her “future literary castle”?
“It’s not important,” my mother said, dismissing my questions with a wave of one manicured hand. Then she changed the subject. “Do you believe all this rain we’ve been having lately? Well, at least it isn’t snow.”
Since my mother was not forthcoming (to say the least) I called my “aunt” Phyllis, who had been my mother’s best friend since they were both ten.
“Oh, your mother was a very good writer,” Aunt Phyllis told me. “I still remember the story she published in Cargoes, Lincoln High School’s literary magazine.”
What? My mother had never told me she had written, let alone published a short story. Luckily my aunt never throws anything away and is very organized. Two days after we had this conversation, a copy of the story arrived in the mail.
I dropped everything and sat down to read, “M is for….” by Florence Levin.
All in all, it had been a pretty rotten day. If only I hadn’t shot my mouth off. It didn’t do any good. It never did. It only made things worse.
Whoa. My mother had written a thinly disguised autobiographical short story about shooting off her mouth? I read on. “Florence” is at the Sweet Shoppe where, “The rain poked an inquisitive finger through the doorway” and the “stool squealed in protest.” Florence, alone, and too upset to order a snack, watches the rain and remembers a recent fight she had with her mother. A huge fight that ends with the narrator thinking, “It’s a difficult thing to admit, even to oneself, that you hate your mother… ”
I had to put the pages down and ponder that sentence for a long time.
When I picked up the story again, it picked up with Florence remembering another recent fight she and her mother had:
“Look at her. She’s sitting there like a princess and I’m doing the dishes.”
“Please, momma. I’m doing my homework.”
“Oh so you’re doing your homework. So I suppose we’ll have to tiptoe around the house until you finish your homework. Pretty soon maybe we won’t be able to breathe if it disturbs you.”
“Oh, momma, please.”
“Oh momma, please. Oh momma, please again. A fine racket she’s got. She sits like a prima donna while I work until I’m ready to drop and nobody lifts a finger to help me….”
And the fight ends with Florence screaming words I had thought, but never dared to say aloud to my own mother: “I hate you, do you hear? I hate you! I hate you!”
As Florence sits in the Sweet Shoppe alone with her memories, an “errant tear chased a freckle down [her] nose.” She studies photos pinned to a bulletin board of “Lincolnites” who are in the military and thinks of all the boys “over there” on Iwo Jima and in Germany.
I picked out the smiling face of my sergeant brother among the bevy of others…..Bob with his white teeth and broad shoulders. Bob who had set feminine hearts aflutter before the days of Tarawa: Before the mail stopped coming. Poor momma. It was such a long time between letters. She must be so terribly worried….
Why my mother chose to change her brother’s name but not her own remains a mystery to me. But no matter. The story ends with Florence coming to a new understanding of her mother.
I thought I had troubles. Troubles—why compared to momma—momma whose eyes had been reddened lately. Momma, who needed comfort so desperately lately. Momma, momma darling.
And as Florence comes to a better understanding of her mother, she suddenly realizes that she is hungry.
My mother’s story absolutely blew me away. It’s extremely well written for a high school student, full of sensory imagery, telling detail, authentic-sounding dialogue, and original metaphor. It makes good use of flashbacks. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Something happens. And in addition to literary merit, I was astonished by the similarities between my mother and her mother, and my mother and me.
Of course I had to telephone my mother right away. After we chatted a bit, I said, “Aunt Phyllis gave me a copy of Cargoes. I read your story.”
It got very quiet on the other end of the phone.
“It’s a wonderful story,” I went on. “You’ve got a lot of talent.”
More silence. And then my mother said, “Thank you.”
“So,” I said, going for a casual tone, “why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”
“I didn’t think it was important.”
“What else did you write?” I asked.
“I stopped writing after that.”
I could almost hear my mother shrug. “I didn’t see the need to pursue it.”
A thought occurred to me. “Did Grandma ever read the story?”
My mother paused. “She did.”
“What did she say when you showed it to her?”
“I didn’t show it to her. She found it. And she wasn’t pleased.”
I wondered if my mother could hear me nodding as I thought about what to say next. “You know, Mom,” I said, “I’ve written some stories similar to this one. Stories I’ve never showed you. Stories that might upset you.”
“So what?” my mother asked. “A lot of things upset me. Then I get over them.”
“Even stories about me and you?” I asked.
“Darling,” my mother said in a gentle voice, “don’t you know I’ve read everything you’ve written?”
“You have?” I asked, my heart pounding.
“Of course I have.”
“And I think you’re a very fine writer.”
I started to cry. “But what about the stories where you and I—”
“It doesn’t matter.” My mother cut me off. “What matters is that you tell the truth. That’s what’s important.”
As I wept, it dawned on me: my grandmother must have said or done something to thwart my mother’s writing career. And my mother was not going to do the same thing to me.
“I love you, Mom,” was all I could say.
“I love you to pieces,” was how she answered.
From that point on, I showed my mother everything I wrote. She was generous with both praise and criticism. She had a good editor’s eye and often pointed out weaknesses in my writing that had slipped by me, the members of my writers group, my agent, and my editor.
Then she got sick again.
During my mother’s final hospital stay, she beckoned me to her bedside. “I’m giving you permission to write about all this,” she waved her hand around the room, “under one condition.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Promise me I’ll never have to read it.”
After my mother died, I felt her presence most acutely while I was writing about her. My mother loved poetry, and I could feel her sitting beside me as I wrote sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas about her illness and death, and my own grief. Formal poetry provided the firm container I needed to hold my unwieldy grief. Two and a half years after my mother died, my book of poetry I Carry My Mother was published. As I held the first copy in my hand, I stared at the cover with its painting of red high heeled shoes (my mother loved shoes as much as I do) and my sorrow at being unable to show it to her was palpable. I like to think that wherever my mother is, somehow she knows that I made good on my promise. And that she is very proud.
LESLÉA NEWMAN is the author of sixty-five books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief.
—Rumi, “The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor” trans. Coleman Barks
“What’s it like outside?” my friend Catherine croaked from under the covers. I walked past her bed nearest the door, balancing a cardboard carton of coffee for the three of us: me, Catherine, and the British man who had spent the night in bed with me.
“It’s bright and loud,” I grumbled in the throes of a hangover. “And hot,” I added, looking at the muscular leg and arm that were twisted up in my sheets like a man candy-cane.
Just then, someone knocked on the door. “Housekeeping,” a woman’s voice called with an accent.
“Shit,” I whispered to Catherine as I trudged toward the door. “What’s Spanish for come back after the British guy puts his clothes on?”
I opened the door to a woman whose face said she’d seen it all. I mustered what Spanish I could, “Uh, mas tarde, por favor.”
Later. But it was already so late, the last weekend before my teaching contract started up again for the fall. I had planned a trip to conduct research for the ethnographic study of Las Vegas that I was supposed to be doing. And then Catherine decided she needed to get out of town, too, so she booked a flight to join me. She was a few years older than me and married (and, as I discovered the previous night, a sound sleeper), but she could drink me under the table, and regularly did. I wasn’t getting any research done.
Simon stirred, opening his blue eyes. “Bloody hell, that was some fun we had last night.” He propped himself up bare-chested, stomach muscles rippling down under the sheet, and broke into a boyish grin.
Yes, the problem was the Brit. Or rather, the problem was my hooking up with a complete stranger when I was supposed to be in Las Vegas for serious intellectual work. I had crossed the not-so-fine line between immersing yourself in your subject and getting into bed with it.
Catherine was up now, searching for a bottle of Advil. Simon was sipping coffee in nothing but his boxer-briefs and helping himself to a box of chocolate on the nightstand. I sat down at the small table in the corner of our room, rested my elbow on the Formica top, and placed my forehead in my hand. Unless I figured out the right way to spin this for the research project, Big S was going to kill me.
Big S was the lead researcher on the Vegas project. One of her previous joint-authored projects had been required reading in most graduate programs in cultural studies. The Vegas book was to be her next project. Collaborating with her on it was an incredible opportunity, one that shouldn’t be squandered for casual sex, even if it was with a Norse god. But if I didn’t produce something acceptable soon, Big S would kick me off the project. She had already threatened to do so. Without this project, I didn’t stand a chance of getting a position at a better university. After working with Big S for two years, if she didn’t give me a good recommendation I would be dead meat on the academic job market. So why was I screwing around? It would probably have taken thousands of dollars in therapy to answer such a question. I was well aware that even though Big S’s idea of doing research was just to “hang out,” that that didn’t mean without any clothes on, and yet I did it anyway. My contribution to the book was originally supposed to be a chapter about Las Vegas wedding chapels, but it had quickly become more about women’s issues in Las Vegas. Now, the research was stalled because of my own issues. The last advice Big S had given me after disproving of yet another draft but not giving me any specifics about what I could revise, was that I should “put my soul on the line.” I didn’t know what that meant.
Two months before this trip to Vegas with Catherine, I’d travelled to Connecticut to stay at Big S’s farm. My nickname for her, I discovered then, was actually a misnomer. There wasn’t anything big about S, not her size (she was short and petite), not her heart (she could be stingy), and not her farmhouse (we packed five people into nine hundred square feet). I was there, along with many of her kids and step-kids, for her birthday weekend, but I had only been invited to stay for a few days prior to the actual celebration, at which time more people would be coming to the farm and, Big S had told me, there wouldn’t be enough water for everyone. “The well is low,” she said, “and it can only support so many people.” Even though I was not counted among those worthy enough to burden the water supply, I did visit for three days before the party.
I had offered to help Big S on her farm in exchange for conversations about my writing and advice about my career while I was there. We talked about her philosophies of writing while weeding her garden, how she first conceived of joint writing projects as a way to help her fellow colleagues advance in their careers and a way to achieve multiple perspectives on a topic.
From her property she was running a small CSA, where people in her neighborhood paid a flat fee at the start of the season and she brought them weekly baskets of the produce that was in season. Something about the CSA matched the idea of a collaborative research project. Just like she enlisted a group of us to help write about Las Vegas, with the help of a few graduate students she grew a few varieties of greens, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, and eggplant on her farm. In addition, her weekly CSA customers received fresh eggs; some even took raw, unpasteurized milk from her goats. While staking her pepper plants, Big S talked to me about how she thought I could get a job at a university where the teaching load wasn’t so high, so that I had more time for research. Her husband was an internationally award-winning scholar, and she told me that if I made a satisfactory contribution to the Las Vegas book project that she could get him to write me a letter of recommendation. Just the night before, her internationally renowned scholar-husband had complained about the excess of mustard I had used in the zucchini pie that Big S had asked me to make. I hoped he would leave that out of the letter.
Big S also told me about how much of a burden the farm was. It took time away from her writing. It didn’t sound like she actually enjoyed the farm work very much. She said that she couldn’t even take a vacation unless she had someone watching the place who knew how to handle chickens and milk goats.
“Is it really hard, milking a goat?”
“Only one of my kids was able to pick it up.”
“Do you think you could show me how to do it? I’ve always wanted to learn.”
“Yeah, I could let you try. The trick is to pinch off the teat with the upper part of your hand and pull down on it with the lower part of the palm.”
I practiced moving my hand the way she described. Big S looked doubtful but said nothing.
She took me into the barn and rounded up the goats that needed milking. She led one in through the back of the barn and up onto a metal stand. The goat put its head into a contraption on the end and waited for Big S to put its food in the slot. She closed a bar over the back of its head to hold it in position. Then she got down on the stool, grabbed its swollen teat, and pinched it.
“Here’s where you cut it off. Then you pull down.” She demonstrated once, then got up from the stool, motioning for me to try.
It was very difficult to hold the top part closed while running the rest of your hand down, but little squirts of milk started coming out. A few more tries and I had a steady stream. It was taking me forever to get anything in the bucket, though. By now the goat had finished its bagel and was getting restless. The height of the metal bench on which it stood placed its hooves level with my head. The pail was about half full when the agitated goat stepped into it with one of her hooves.
Big S frowned.
“You’ve got to dump that pail now. Her hooves have all sorts of bacteria on them, and we don’t pasteurize here.”
Annoyed, Big S motioned for me to get up off the stool and she took over milking with a fresh pail and without any further acknowledgement of me.
She had never mentioned that I had to somehow keep the goat’s hooves out of the milk.
When we got back to the farmhouse, she announced to her family, “Lynn ruined the milk. She let the goat step in it.”
Big S was not very forgiving of mistakes. Nor was she a great teacher.
The half-naked man in my bed shook me from my reverie, “Do you mind if I use your computer?”
I handed it to him. Catherine was packing a beach bag to take with us to the pool. Simon, now checking his email, was making no motion to leave us. In fact, he seemed rather lonely. He’d already been in Las Vegas for a week, part of his plan to tour the United States until his visa ran out. After this next week, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. That day, though, our plan was clear: we would sit poolside and drink mojitos.
But as we sat there in the reclining chairs and hot sun, I realized that I needed to at least attempt to get some research done. One good session of information about Las Vegas, and I might have enough to fill in the chapter I was working on. I got on the internet from my phone and purchased a ticket for a historic tour. I wasn’t sure if this would give Simon his opportunity to ditch us, but the three of us made a tentative plan for later. Simon and Catherine would go to dinner and walk around while I went on a tour and get some research done. It was a bus tour that promised to give information about the history of the area and some of its notorious figures. Finally, I might have something to write about for the research project. It was the kind of project where I would probably end up writing more about the dynamics of the tour I went on—how it presented Las Vegas to the public—than about the information it presented.
I left Catherine and Simon at the hotel and walked to the location where the tour bus boarded. On the way, I wondered if Simon would really hang out again with us that night, or if he would just silently wander off to something or someone else. I hoped he wouldn’t disappear. But it was silly to think he would follow through on plans with us; he was just some random guy I’d started talking to at the bar.
After the small group of people on the tour took seats on the bus, we were en route to the first stop. The tour guide announced our approximate return, a good hour and a half later than what I had thought. I would be late for meeting Catherine and Simon, if he was even still with us. The guide also announced that with the exception of the first stop, the Flamingo Hotel, we would be in the outskirts of Las Vegas, so there would be no easy way to exit the tour midway and return to downtown. Then he started a video for us to watch about the mob and its influence on Las Vegas. None of it interested me. I only had two more nights left before I had to go back to my crummy life buried by stacks of student papers. I would probably never see Simon again after that. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the desire to get off that boring tour bus and go find him. It seemed there was some larger life choice playing out here. Was I going to spend my time working on chapters of writing that were never good enough for Big S, that would be read by maybe a handful of scholars in my field? Or was I going to go find the hot guy—laugh, drink, and make love?
What would Big S do? I asked myself as motivation to stay on the tour, but I knew that she and I were as far apart in personality as Simon’s home in England was from mine in California. But I needed to be a part of this research project, I reminded myself. Without it, my career would fail. Then I turned to look out the window and saw my own reflection. “How to live?” I asked it softly. The tour guide droned on, delivering worn-out jokes with little enthusiasm. When we stopped at the Flamingo, I pulled him aside and told him I wouldn’t be getting back on the bus. Then I texted Simon to find out where he and Catherine were. Her job of babysitting Simon done, Catherine went back to the hotel and let the two of us to catch up over drinks at NY NY. I went back with Simon to his room that night. We hung the “do not disturb” sign on the doorhandle.
“Vegas feels like cancer,” I moaned the next morning to Simon who was already awake next to me. I was suffering from a cumulative hangover. Every part of my body ached. I returned to my room to catch up with Catherine and sleep for a couple more hours.
That afternoon Simon took me on a coffee date, like normal people who don’t hook up in Las Vegas the first night they meet each other. We spent hours at the Starbuck’s in the Excalibur. Simon told me about his upcoming trip to Los Angeles to attend the Sunset Strip Music Festival. Slash would be playing, as would Smashing Pumkpins, and a group called White Tiger. Rock music was his thing. Growing up, he lost himself in it to escape an abusive stepfather.
“Come with us tonight to a concert at the Hard Rock,” I told him. Tonight would be my last night in Las Vegas, and Catherine and I had tickets to see a band. I couldn’t imagine going without Simon.
“They’re pretty good,” he smiled.
“We’re going to see a piece of musical theater beforehand, so maybe you could meet us at the Hard Rock?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.” Then he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Ready to go sit by the pool?”
I stood up smiling, but I doubted that I would see Simon later. Eventually this good thing had to end. Did it really matter whether it was now or the next day when I left for the airport? And yet somehow it did matter to me. He mattered to me. More than Big S and the research project.
We found Catherine at the pool and Simon taught us to play Top Trumps with a deck of Star Wars cards. It was a game of luck that you won by being dealt the best hand. After Catherine won twice, and after a few more rounds of mojitos, we fell back into our pool chairs, our faces numb in the fleshy bosom of a rum buzz.
I thought about how I had to go back home tomorrow and confront the fact that I had done no research, that I had to go back home where Simon wasn’t.
“I’m feeling a bit melancholy,” I said. Simon turned his head toward me and opened his eyes. He reached out and grabbed my hand, interlacing his fingers comfortably with mine, then closed his eyes again, our hands still touching.
The time came and went for Catherine and me to leave if we wanted to get to the musical we’d bought tickets for. We didn’t move. Well, that’s not exactly true. We raised a hand to call the poolside waitress and ordered another round of mojitos.
“Vegas feels like paralysis,” Simon said.
We took long sips from our drinks so we had to reach for them less. Eventually the time came to leave for the next show.
“Well,” I said. “Who’s going to this concert? We should go get ready.”
“I am,” said Catherine.
“I am,” said Simon.
Catherine had purchased a bottle of vodka and some mixers at a convenient store, arguing that drinks were so expensive at the bars it made sense to buy some in larger quantity. It was an alcoholic’s logic, but somehow, in Las Vegas, it worked. Simon picked us up at our room and we had drinks before leaving. He looked dashing in a pair of form-fitting jeans and a black dress shirt.
Drinks were indeed expensive at the outside bar by the pool of the Hard Rock Hotel where Wolfmother was playing. Simon and I switched to beer. We were in for the long haul. Catherine stayed with vodka and made the mistake of trying to go drink-for-drink with us as Simon and I alternated buying rounds. Before long, she was having trouble walking in her heels. I got her a water. She wasn’t going to make it until the end of the concert.
“She’s saying she wants to go,” I explained to Simon. “I’ll take her and put her in a cab. Will you wait here for me?
I put Catherine into the cab and gave her money, silently betting she would miss her eight a.m. flight. And I stood there for a moment looking out onto the city lights. The Las Vegas night felt like a lover’s body under the sheets with its warm spots and cool spots. The sidewalks emanated the heat they’d collected during daylight, while a slight breeze trickled down from the red rocks of the Spring Mountains. Simon had indeed come to the concert. This was our third night together. But it was all over tomorrow. I’d gotten no research done and would return to California empty-handed. No hope of a future either with Simon or in my career. But I hardly cared. Somehow in that moment I felt more myself than I ever felt working on the chapters for Big S. In that moment, Vegas felt like freedom.
I returned to the raging crowd. Rounding the corner of the bar, I saw Simon right where I left him, waiting. Sensing me, he turned around, put his arm out, and drew me to him. Pressing my head against his chest, I inhaled his man smell. He held me tighter. No book ever hugged back like that.
The next week, during the first week of classes back in California, I got kicked off the Las Vegas project. Big S sent me an email calling me “infantile” and claiming that I was more suited to writing Harlequin romances than I was to cultural studies projects.
Was I an insolent child who sabotaged her own career? Maybe. But I would have done anything that Big S had asked me to do, if only she could have articulated what that was.
Or maybe every day of our lives is another opportunity to choose who we want on our team. I’m still in touch with Catherine and Simon. I just contributed to a fundraising campaign that he was leading for the homeless population of London. I haven’t spoken to any of the members of the Vegas research project in four years. If I were to put together my ideal team—not for a research project, but for life—it would be made of the Simons of the world. The generous spirits, the large hearts, and the easy-going forgivers. And that’s what I chose in Las Vegas.
LYNN MARIE HOUSTON’s essays and poems have appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, MELUS, Postmodern Culture, Proteus, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, Uppagus, Boston Literary Magazine, 3Elements Review, Extract(s), Watershed Review, and M/C Journal, among others. She is the author of book of poetry exercises for beginners, The Poet’s Playground (Five Oaks Press, 2014). After attending Arizona State University for her Ph.D. in American literature, she now resides in Newburgh, New York, where she lives in a renovated 1968 Airstream camper. When she isn’t teaching English, she tends her honeybees and kayaks the Delaware River.
The children wriggled and cursed in the old SUV, summoning me to exhortations about proper car-riding behavior. “Y’all know better!” I warned. I turned down whatever music was playing. I did these things while I watched traffic conditions on 30th street, which, if you’re traveling east in Tacoma, has a precipitous, San Francisco-esque drop. As you drive, you will feel your fingers tighten against the steering wheel once you realize that you can’t see beyond the approaching precipice. You’ll slow down, and that’s when you’ll catch a glimpse of it—the entire Puget Sound. You’ve got your bluish water and snow-capped mountains, the old barges dotting the coast. Porch lights wink from houses pushed far into the hills. This view is tantamount to falling in love.
Driving west, though, it’s all uphill. That’s the direction that I was traveling. My Rodeo was, at the time, twelve years old. I liked the vehicle just fine even though its manufacturer was a company best known for making good lawnmowers. As the children teased each other and bucked in their seats, my Rodeo stayed focused on the road. She climbed the hill with all her inelegant noise: a sound like cicadas trapped inside the engine.
“Do not call your sister names,” I said, or something close to that. Perhaps, I told my raucous kids to “Shut up.” I don’t recall. It was late and I was tired, plus my night vision is poor and there was very little light. The sky had a moon so slight that evening, you could say that it wasn’t even there. When we reached the top of the hill, I stopped to turn left onto Union Avenue. I waited and waited and waited. Each set of headlights that passed by blinded me for a couple of seconds. Finally, there was a break in cars and I completed my left turn. This is when I saw the delicate fawn in the street.
The fawn tottered on its pencil legs, froze, then bounded away. The poor thing probably saw us before we spotted it. Nocturnal animals like deer have what’s called tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue over the eye that reflects light and gives them good night vision. I pounded my brakes and swerved the car. We stopped within inches of the deer. “Ohhhhh!” my daughter said. “Where is its mom? Why is it all alone?”
“I don’t know,” I said. My heart thumped in my chest. “It’s a rough world out here in the animal kingdom.”
According to its website, the state of Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife gets phone calls each year about orphaned fawns. People stumble across the fawns curled up in tall grass in the woods, seemingly alone in the world. Usually they are not alone. The mother-doe is hidden nearby where you can’t see her. She keeps a watchful eye on her offspring, but the range she allows her young to roam is far and wide.
After we settled down, I drove my children back to the 1920s cottage that I was renting near the university where I worked. The kids were visiting me for one week. They lived most days with their father, my ex-partner, whose home was just outside of Phoenix. Like the animal we’d encountered that night, my children were seemingly without a mother during most of that year. I’d decided in May to take a two-year, visiting faculty position in Tacoma. My ex and I decided that the kids would stay with him during the first year of my appointment. It only seemed to make sense. From the time I got the job, I had less than twelve weeks to find a place to live, to move from Phoenix to Tacoma, and to prepare to teach three classes. There was no way that I could also uproot my children and enroll them in a school system I did not know.
So, instead of spinning my wheels over how I would bring the children with me, I planned for their year without a mom. We all have certain details about parenting which we covet. I knew the details that I paid attention to might be overlooked by their father while I was away. So before I left, I investigated babysitters and talked with relatives and friends about how they could help us watch the kids. I made sure the woman who braided my daughter’s hair had my ex’s cell phone number. I purchased school supplies for the upcoming year. Even after I was gone, I kept in touch with the kids’ school teachers via email and phone. Although I would not be there in the flesh with my children, I was still around keeping a watchful eye.
Deer are a uniparental species. The father deer, the ones with the big, scary antlers, are around to make the babies and then they’re gone. You will not see them hanging out with doe or fawn. If you spot a male deer in a herd, chances are that every deer in that group is male. Fawn are cared for by their mothers only. The mama deer do everything for the babies, including eating their droppings and urine so that predators won’t catch scent of them.
What surprised me most about my decision to leave my children in Arizona was the reaction of my friends and relatives. You would think my kids didn’t have a working, able-bodied father who loves them madly. “You can’t leave them with their father. Their father? Children need their mothers,” one friend said.
“Why don’t you take them with you? Your students will babysit the kids,” another friend said.
Each person I consulted was well-intentioned. They were expressing genuine concern for my family’s well-being. Still, the tone of alarm in their voices and the repetition of frightful scenarios like the ones my father liked to put in my ear, made me doubt my own decision. For example, my daddy insisted I research the sexual predators in my neighborhood so we’d know who was watching the kids walk to the school bus stop while I was away. I told him that we’d lived there for nine years without such information.
Other people’s fears and doubts became my own. As a result, the hardest part of my year away from my children was not the months when I was on a mountain and they were in the desert; it was having the courage to leave them with their father in the first place. I was trusting that I was making the right decision for everybody involved. The conventional wisdom was that I was the primary caretaker and needed to live in the same house with my children. But I was also a provider, and taking a job that increased my income counted as taking care of my kids, too. I can’t imagine that a man in my position would have been counseled the same way about this transition. I can’t see him being told that moving to a new city while single-parenting and starting a new job was a sane or normal balancing act. In the end, I decided I would not multitask in this way. It was hard to trust my own conscience about this. Then there was the actual moment when I had to say goodbye.
We said our farewells in mid-July, two days after movers loaded my boxes onto a twenty-two foot straight truck. My shipping order included the usual domestic items, like linen and dishware, but also fifty small and medium-sized boxes of books. The only furniture that I took from the Arizona house was a bed and writing desk. Their absence—the way the bookshelves and floor had visible gaps of unoccupied space—was, by the time the airport shuttle arrived, the only evidence that I was leaving. The rest of the house was intact. My ex had even moved back in for this one year. A clear light came through the windows that morning. Its brightness made me hopeful even though the shuttle driver, who was five minutes early, had robbed me of final moments with my kids.
My son was the first to rise from the couch and walk in shiny athletic shorts and no shirt to where I’d paused at the door. At eleven years old, he stood nearly my height. His thin body and sway-backed posture at one time reminded me of an apostrophe. Now, as his shoulders broadened over a small waist, his upper body resembled an inverted triangle or wings. We hugged. My daughter, who was six, ran up and wrapped her thin arms around my thighs. Then I embraced my ex. For a brief moment, we were a family huddled near our home’s threshold. In the next second, I would be through that door and inside the blue airport van. I wouldn’t see my kids for the next three months.
The other difficult part of leaving was accepting that my life could be full of similar curveballs in the future. I had never anticipated divorce; nobody does. Similarly, it never crossed my mind that I would have to take a job in another state in order to care for my kids. Nor did I think I’d be single in my forties, that I’d have to think about my safety at night or how I present at private parties where everyone else is coupled-up.
I’d told my daughter the night we saw the deer that the animal world wasn’t quite like ours, that it was unpredictable and dangerous. “Sometimes a fawn is just on its own,” I’d said. But the truth is that we are just as vulnerable as animals that walk on cloven hooves. This becomes most clear when we’re stripped of institutions like marriage or when we experience health problems or economic insecurity. It’s when our bodily functions fail us or we’re hungry without knowing when we’ll eat; it’s when we’ve been physically harmed by another person that we recognize life’s brutal underbelly. Sure, we erect boundaries between civilized society and the wild side, but these boundaries are easily crossed and civilizing tendencies require our constant attention.
Deer are mostly vegetarian, although they will eat meat on occasions. Some of the vegetation that can attract deer to your yard are dandelion, clover, wheatgrass, mushrooms, and other fungi. If you want to keep deer out of your yard, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests deer-repellant landscaping. Shrubs which deer don’t like to eat include globe thistle, lavender, oregano, rue, pine, birch, fig, trillium, lilac, and yarrow.
A friend in the Midwest recently told me about a family of deer living in her mother’s backyard. She used this story as an example of the way that nature was making its return to this urban area that has been in decline for several decades. It was a way to paint the picture of a crumbling city and infrastructure. “Can you believe it? Living in the backyard!” she said. I was struck by how the appearance of deer were interpreted by my friend and how differently they are seen here in my neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t have deer living in my backyard, but they sure bounce through it on occasion, and I’d wager that my neighbors consider deer as part of the area’s charm. Living close to wildlife means different things depending on a person’s context.
Take the deer I saw this summer in the South on a college campus where I attended a writers’ conference. The deer were considered by most writers as magical and spritely, as evidence that we were in a pastoral setting conducive to ideas, instead of the crammed cities where so many of us live. The deer, for their part, pranced in and out of our view as if the college campus was their world and we were in it by happenstance.
I have summers without the children, now, which allows me to attend professional events like writing conferences. My kids live with their dad in the summer and they live with me during the school year or nine months out of the year. It’s an arrangement that works, but again, it’s one I didn’t anticipate years ago. As I walked this latest conference one night, I saw a herd of deer near a tree. There were at least seven or eight of them huddled together. I’ll admit right here that I was slightly drunk, but I’m pretty certain of what I saw. As I walked closer to the animals I saw young and old deer, mostly doe, and one gargantuan male. As the doe and fawn nibbled the grass, heads down, the antlered deer kept his eyes on me as if saying, “Keep it moving, woman, and don’t step any closer.” I was in awe. The next morning, I told another writer who’s a good friend and poet and he said, “That’s incredible! The males rarely hang out with females and fawns.” He was right. That’s what I’ve read to be true about these creatures of the forest and woods. But stranger things, I imagine, happen all the time.
RENEE SIMMS writes fiction and essays which have beeen widely published. She is putting the final touches on a story collection, Because We Were Miles from Home, while teaching and parenting outside Tacoma.
“You know what I’m going to do when I grow up, Mommy?”
This is a frequent topic of driving conversation between my ten-year-old daughter and me. The acoustics kind of suck in our car, but when we talk about this particular thing, I never pretend to hear what I haven’t heard clearly. I lean my head backwards between the seats and turn my ear towards my daughter, without taking my eyes off the road.
“I’m going to start a bakery named Blue Sky Bakery. I will serve pie and gumbo. Do you need to go to college to start a bakery?” she asks.
“It depends,” I say, smiling. “A two-year college can get you some good training in food prep. But you can also go to a fancier school, like the Culinary Institute in New York City, or Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.” I’ve looked this up. I’m feeling virtuous for already supporting my daughter’s edgy entrepreneurial pie-gumbo fusion career path.
You can do whatever you want, I say.
And then I stop. My jaws click shut, belatedly, on the lie.
In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.
My husband had always, warmly and unequivocally, supported me in pursuing the doctorate. Yet we now had a fairly unusual set of circumstances to consider. He: a Presbyterian minister, where work was increasingly hard to find, poorly paid, and mostly located in the South and Midwest. My only brother: mentally disabled. My mother: widowed. And me: needing exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest.
It wasn’t adding up. But we tried. We spent three solid weeks, after we knew the amount of the scholarship award, talking to absolutely everyone: friends and family in academia, professors, ministers, finance people, each other. We looked up stats on line, took notes.
Finally, we went to a local diner for breakfast. I brought steno pads. We spent four hours there, the waitress stoically filling our coffee cups over and over as the “Pro” list filled one side of one page of the pads, and the “Con,” six sides. The decision was obvious. I made it.
I spent the next few days befuddled. I wrote apologetic, heart-broken notes, in a fog. Someone had not died; something absolutely had died. I had not lost anything; I had lost everything. I spun like a top on the pinpoint of an invalid assumption: that culture and commerce will part like the Red Sea in the face of your training, your commitment, your talent and desire.
Had I not, like any privileged, educated, self-aware person, identified my bliss? Had I not found and assiduously practiced what I was born for? Had I not fulfilled my obligation to Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell, to step firmly away from the life of quiet desperation, to find and nurture the thing that makes me come alive? Where was the world meeting me half-way? Where, goddammit, was my reward?
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” asked the third grade teacher, and I said, “I want a Ph.D. I want to be an English professor.”
“Why do you want one?”
Because I loved to read and write, and I wanted to teach other people to read and write and to keep reading and writing myself. This was my castle, under which I had thought I had built all the right foundations.
Nearly thirty-five years later, I heard Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame in a TED Talk, quoting a farmer he’d met. “Following my dreams,” the farmer said, “was the worst advice anyone could have given me.”
My grip on the dream had loosened by the time my husband and I decided to have kids—but only to the degree that I felt I could not physically have children safely by the time I finished a doctorate part-time, as our financial situation then dictated. I counted myself lucky to know the statistics in that regard, thinking of my brother, and the steep, cold slope between the chances of having a kid with Down’s in your earlier versus later decades of life.
So kids came first. My priorities were asserting themselves, so nascent as to be practically dripping with afterbirth of their own.
I didn’t see the grace in this at the time, although I wanted children very much. It was only what I needed to do, somewhat grumpily, without the power to simultaneously exist in two different dimensions. I want two lives, I would think to myself. Or three, or four.
You can do anything you want, only not at the same time, said a friend to me around that time. I don’t remember who it was, but in my mind, it was one of my most talented and ambitious soul sisters, and I was blessed to have plenty of them. Magazine editors, advocacy lawyers, dancers. The foment of their lovely lives seemed to lend even more gravitas to the words.
I latched onto this phrase and put it on like water wings. I repeated it to myself with every pangof intellectual hunger. I would do this thing, the thing I was born to do. Someday.
So what has been the result of my decision to say no to the Ph.D.? To stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial that houses a fridge, pantry, and medicine cabinet that, by all rights, I should just empty into a cardboard box and mail to Haiti. I should mail the whole house to Haiti. This is not Sophie’s Choice.
And yet I ended up asking around anyway about our culture’s obsession with the dream come true. I nose through books and articles because if I know one thing, I know how to find the answers to life’s deepest questions: research.
My mother is a genealogist, so I asked her what American generation she felt would be most akin to our own: where we looked toward a life for our children that would be demonstrably worse than the one we experienced. “There’s always the Great Depression. But there was also one during The Panic of 1819,” she wrote to me in an email.
It was the first peacetime financial crisis of the nation. “Your ancestor George Wells got stuck administering his father-in-law Meshack Hull’s estate in New Jersey from about 1816 on, for years,” mom writes. “In 1829, he was actually jailed for being for debt, though he’d been very prosperous before. His wife and children, instead of being able to stay on the family farm, had to leave the county and, in the case of his son, find another kind of work. George disappeared around this time, and it is assumed that he died, whether by his own hand, or naturally, being a question in my mind.”
I also asked my good friend Mary, who has her own doctorate in American history. She has routinely served in the role of perspective-giver in my life: when I was battling through post-partum depression over the deeply non-crunchy-granola C-section birth of my daughter in 2003, she was the one who gently reminded me that in 1803, the baby and I both probably would have died. (Priorities.)
She felt that our closest parallel was the 1970s. “The country was gripped in an economic recession, manufacturing jobs were starting to disappear, the country seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket—Watergate, Vietnam, Iran,” she said. “One thing that historians point to is the number of disaster movies in the seventies. American exceptionalism started to crack.”
Which was interesting. Three historical periods, all different, of wondering how to suck up hardship and hand it to your child. Maybe through disaster films. World War Z, anyone?
I assumed that the American Dream came out of generations actually achieving, to some degree, the American Dream—and no one can deny the general upward trend of the standard of living. But maybe a single life, a sixty-year span if we’re lucky, is not enough to really detect that slow crawl to civil rights and antibiotics.
Could it be that there is a reverse dynamic at work: The American Dream, as panacea for the many, many times—the majority of times?—that dreams did not come true?
Mary and I also talked, at length, about the Ph.D.
She told me that she believed that every doctoral candidate has at least one Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. “Mine was to show the world that I am smart,” said my wise friend. “Why do you want one?”
And I realized that my Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. ran as follows: “To not be lonely.”
And one more truth comes clear, one more layer of scale scrubbed from the eyes.
Something will work out, my mother would say to me after yet another agonized Ph.D. indecision-fest on the phone.
It’s a deeply kind catchphrase. It’s better than the first two I tried. But it’s not enough. It’s only the place where your sequined tutu, your fictitious blue bakery, your unearned doctorate, is honored by people who love you, and who know better than to make you a promise.
I have enough contact with the upper echelons of academia that at times I am still and suddenly wracked with envy. I’ll hear of some lecture, some conference. Discussing Hume as the sun sets seems then to be akin to paradise lost—because that is, of course, is how all doctorates spend their time. This scenario also involves French cheese.
These flashes are decreasing, though. It’s as if the decision actually worked, in one more reversal, to help me not to long for a misplaced future, or a misspent past, but simply, be in the present. I am, in the main, happy there.
Happy, but not content. For I still don’t know how to handle the bliss question with my kids, and that seems to be of paramount importance—especially now, when I’m reasonably certain that at least climate change is going to make many more big decisions for my children than it ever (never) did for me.
When my daughter lays plans for her gumbo from the backseat, or my son chatters about being selected for The Voice, what loving parental slogan do I use? What alternative vision do I weave for my children, in the face of the seductive, beautiful, barren American dream? And how do I do this without crushing their own creativity, their sense of the possible?
It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out. There’s a step, a saying beyond this, something at which my fledgling Buddhist practice is trying to aim, maybe. But I’m not sure which slogan fits it best.
There may be no slogan for the control of life’s outcomes. And we do love slogans, this side of the Atlantic. No wonder America has no words for it.
“Why do you want one?”
The last time someone asked me why I wanted a Ph.D., I answered in that way that happens sometimes, when a truth comes out of your mouth without any premeditation. I was older than eight, and I had dropped some of the bullshit—maybe I was ready to articulate the bottom line.
“Because I want to know something that deeply,” I said.
The friend who asked, having begun his own doctoral work that year, nodded in approval, and I felt as if I had passed some kind of test.
But I sense that the real deep knowledge—the real test—is now.
I remember the moments after making the decision finally to let go, looking at that mound of steno pad pages, pushing my cold eggs around my plate.
It felt very strongly like the night when my husband asked me to marry him, twenty years ago— the start, really, of the chain of events that had led me here.
That night, I did not scream in delight, or cry in joy, although I did a lot of that later. I wasn’t even aware, at first, of really feeling anything at all. I was, instead, waiting.
I waited for fear, for resistance, for alarms to sound, doubt to flood in, for my usual inner voices to clang and chime.
Instead, everything went still: as still as a pond before you drop in a pebble, and step back to watch what happens.
DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org.
In three hours, I have a chemistry exam I might fail. I say “might” because I could cram desperately in the three hours between this moment and the time of my probable failing, and I’d rather spend those three hours doing something useful. Cramming is a deceptive word for panicking.
This feeling of looming academic doom is familiar, and I’m skilled at managing it calmly. Somehow I passed chemistry when I took it in high school, over twenty years ago. (“Somehow” was actually Betsy, my saintly lab partner, who happened to be the daughter of a chemistry teacher.) I recall very little about our curriculum—octets and ions and moles—but I remember sitting close to the window, because through it I observed the antics of a brazen woodchuck that lived in the woods bordering the school grounds. I also remember looking at the graffiti on my desk, which read, “Paige and Erin are DIKES.” They were not, as I knew firsthand, because Paige and Erin were two of my best friends. I also knew how to spell dykes properly, with a Y instead of an I, but it took me a few weeks of staring at the doubly incorrect slur on the desk before I realized I could simply erase it. If high school chemistry had tested me on groundhogs and stupid rumors and the ability to sketch various martyred saints in my notebook while listening to the Doors, I would have received an A.
And now, this exam nears. All these years later, I thought I had learned my lesson about chemistry class. Unlike the first time, I have applied myself as much as possible, because the topic is genuinely interesting to me—or at least the parts that have to do with cooking, because I am a chef. I’m teaching a charcuterie class next week, and deadlines loom: finish typing up the recipe packet, order duck legs and duck fat, drive all over town to purchase ingredients. Chemistry and charcuterie both require my full attention. My heart is with the pig.
Charcuterie is the art of preserving meat, most often through curing, smoking, or drying. Different chemical reactions make it all possible, sodium and nitrogen compounds mingling and swapping electrons in atomic versions of French kisses and extravagant, multi-player sexual positions. NaCl. NaNO2. KNO3.
Of course, I can’t write balanced chemical equations for what happens when you rub kosher salt, brown sugar, and sodium nitrite on a slab of fresh pork belly and let it sit for a week or so (some juniper berries, peppercorns, sage, and bay leaves are helpful, too). I just know that it happens. You put the dry cure on, flip the belly over every day to make sure it cures evenly, and, five to eight days later, it’s bacon. (You can omit the sodium nitrite, and the myoglobins in the meat won’t turn that hammy pink color, but the end result will still be delicious.) Then you rinse off the dry cure, at which point you can smoke it or cook it off in the oven. It’s not rocket science, but it is chemistry. What you wind up with is different from what you started out with.
Always chemistry awaits. Chemistry awaits because I don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. I never wanted one, ever. I didn’t even understand the difference between an Associate’s Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree when I went off to college, because I thought college was for browsing for used cassette tapes at record stores and drinking gallons of coffee at noisy cafes while reading a stack of the local alternative weekly newspapers. I dropped out of college before I failed, which is like quitting a job right before they can fire you. This didn’t comfort my parents, whose money I had been wasting with great indifference. As it turned out, the money-wasting was merely an annoyance to them; their main concern, understandably, was my future.
My first paid writing job was for an alternative weekly newspaper, where I wrote music criticism. And so my parallel, independent course of study paid off somewhat, and for many years I was smug about it: I don’t have a traditional college degree and I never needed it, nah nah nah nha boo-boo! College was for amateurs, people who like to sit and talk. Working? That’s for pros. I’m a worker. I suck at sitting. That’s why I went to cooking school.
Writers sit a lot, however. Despite my deep love for alternative weeklies, I left that job and undertook a string of high-energy, low-wage positions that managed to more or less pay the bills. Chocolate factory. Cookwares store. Library. Introducing a daughter into this equation was financially irresponsible, but we did it anyway, on purpose.
Then I realized how flawed my logic was, and how pathetic and passive my budget-driven melancholy was. My husband, a likewise melancholic fellow with a meandering career background, was not going to bring home slabs of bacon, ever. I felt our lives slipping away from us as friends moved ahead into promised lands of financial security; we languished behind, tossing scraps at the incredibly persistent credit card balance we couldn’t knock out, no matter how many extra hours I picked up at whatever job I was working at the time. In order for our family to make it, I needed to become a different person, one who could gracefully eat shit. A person who could bite the bullet and follow directions she didn’t really want to follow.
We don’t discuss charcuterie in chemistry. It’s an online class, which I chose because my work schedule is unpredictable. There’s a massive, poorly organized textbook, and we’re supposed to read the textbook, log in to the web portal, and take half a dozen quizzes every week. That’s it. When I emailed my instructor and asked her to recommend some resources outside of the book, she suggested I come to her lecture. “But I’m taking the class online,” I said. “The lecture is supposed to come to me.”
We do take our tests in person, and that’s when I see our instructor, who is perhaps my age, with a petite build, an awkward manner, and a head of fabulously curly blonde hair. She seems to have a genuine concern for the academic performance of her students and a genuine difficulty connecting to them conversationally. I think she’s as confident leading the class as I am taking it.
So there it is: I will probably fail the test, because instead of attending chemistry lectures after work, I’d rather rake leaves with my daughter and watch her jump in and out of the leaf piles with unmitigated three-year-old glee. I’d rather walk the dog before dinner with my husband, and we will push our daughter in the stroller with us even though she’s way too old for the stroller and has to be coaxed into it with tiny handfuls of raisins or almonds, because if my husband and I don’t move around and talk about our days in the neutral air of the outdoors, bad things will happen. I’d rather set a real table with cloth napkins and cook a real dinner, which we will sit down together to enjoy, because that’s what we do in our family. I’d rather get my proper eight hours of sleep most nights, because if I don’t, bad things happen.
Most of the kids in my chemistry lab could realistically be my kid. All these years later and I still can’t make myself care enough to pass. Or maybe I care too much. Every week that infernal textbook throws more and more concepts at us, just when the one we were covering started to get really good. If it were up to me, I’d overhaul first-year chemistry and rename it Periodic Table Studies. I love the periodic table. It’s like a beautiful map; with each examination, it reveals more intricacies, more patterns. There’s a mysticism to it, a leap of faith, because I don’t care how many experiments chemists have done over the past dozen centuries, we can’t see and touch the atoms of those elements the way we can, say, a handful of cumin seeds or a stick of butter. Or a slab of pork belly.
I spent hours making flash cards for each element, because our instructor said we’d need to memorize most of the table. My inner child leapt for joy—craft time! I wrote the Latin or Greek roots of the names, or the interesting places they were discovered, plus short descriptions of what each element looked or smelled like, so it could be more tangible. Each element had its own story. I like narratives, and so far chemistry had not given me any good ones. On the day of our second exam, I was dismayed to find we were in fact not tested on our knowledge of the periodic table, but had to fill out a long list of electron configuration problems. And yes, those do have to do with the periodic table, but not in the way I like. By the time we hurtled to those, I was still swooning over radium and rubidium.
I went back to school with the ultimate goal of becoming a registered dietician. I have a culinary degree; I care about good nutrition; I love teaching cooking classes. I threw those things into a hat with my desired salary, spent a few weekends clicking away hopefully on the Occupational Outlook Handbook database, and—poof!—created my future, reasonably profitable career. The logic went like this: by the time I have my credentials, the job market for R.D.s will be extra-sweet because of the awful diets Americans have, my years of studying late into the night would pay off, and I’d be able take our family on nice vacations and finally fulfill my dream of pledging to multiple public radio stations.
I’ll be nearing fifty by then. Is it worth it? Foremost I am a chef and a writer; I intentionally cook with bacon grease and chicken fat, I use salt liberally but strategically, and I’d rather discuss how to get a good sear on a pan of mushrooms than how to best preserve their nutrient content. That many R.D.s don’t actually work with the public but create crummy, bland menus for giant institutions was something I chose to overlook.
Maybe failing chemistry is necessary. I’m stubborn, and I don’t like to accept that I can only accomplish so much in a given time frame. Those cloth napkins are one reason we have so much laundry to fold. I have quite an array. Some I purchased for a song on clearance. Some I sewed myself in the days when I did a lot of freelance writing. I thought sewing napkins was procrastinating, but it turns out it’s one of my preferred methods of prewriting. Ages have passed since I’ve made napkins, but I really enjoy using them. They make me feel especially civilized.
Using paper napkins would save me maybe a few hours of laundry chores every year, and I could use those hours to study chemistry. Instead, my pro-napkin actions have clearly voted against chemistry and all it stands for. Sometimes you can’t just dip your toe in. You have to wade up to your ankles and hang out for a while before you realize that body of water is not where you are supposed to be.
This morning, I saw my advisor so I could discuss my strategy for next semester: lighter class load, no sciences. “I am coming up on a place in my life where I won’t have the time available to excel in a demanding class the way I’d like,” I lied, because I’ve been in that place since way before I even contemplated going back to school.
My advisor suggested I take Cultural Geography to fill a requirement.
“It won’t bore me, will it?” I asked him. “Because some of my classes here have, and if I’m not engaged, I get surly and I sort of give up.”
“By showing up and doing your work during the lecture, you will get an A,” he said, which was his disguised way of confirming yes, it will bore me.
But I’m still looking forward to next semester, and the one after that. If the sad implosion of my performance in chemistry has taught me this much, what more thorny truths about myself could I discover? Class by class, I’ll wrestle with demons more terrifying and impossible than those run-of-the-mill academic ones.
I thought that understanding the reason for your past failures made you impervious to future failures of the same sort, but here I am, wrong yet again. I’ve dreamed of going back in time, armed with the knowledge of my terminally ill bank account to come, so I could excel in high school and college instead of drifting through. But now I know that I’d make the same mistakes, only with more flair. Your problems don’t go away, even when you acknowledge and accept them. They’re still there to deal with, no matter how grown-up or deserving of success you feel you may be.
You can’t just desire the result—in my case, the employment opportunities afforded by a fancy piece of paper with computer-generated calligraphy on it. You have to desire the process. There’s no point in making bacon at home if you aren’t enthralled with handling the meat, scrutinizing its progress as its flesh firms up in the dry cure, daydreaming of the savory lardons you will cut from it and fry up to top a salad of bitter greens. Making the bacon is the point; eating it is just the reward. I like learning about chemistry, but I love my family, and I can’t click pause on this part of our lives together. Chemistry wants more of me than I can give it, now or maybe ever.
I doubt I’ll go into nutrition. I’m much better at teaching people how to make pâté than I am telling them not to eat it. Wearing the costume of a future R.D. boosted my confidence a bit, but the outfit was ill-fitting. The only way I’ll ever get any kind of degree will be slowly, leisurely, the way I prefer us to eat dinner. To earn an A in my chemistry class, I’d have to rely on frozen pizzas and skip the bedtime stories I look forward to reading to my daughter. My brain and my time and my kid are too valuable to squander on half-assing anything. Maybe I’ll take chemistry twice. Not because I have to, but because I want to.
SARA BIR got 68% on her latest chemistry exam and had a blast teaching her charcuterie class. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregonian, and Section M. She’s currently drying a roll of pancetta in her basement and working on a vegan baking cookbook. Read more of her work at www.sarabir.com.