Chilling Out

A diary kept during 72 hours without power in the Texas Winter Snowstorm 2021

February 14 Sunday
10:30 p.m.

I discovered that while I spent the evening of Valentine’s Day stranded on a mysterious desert island with a merry band of misfits, a winter wonderland had formed in my yard. San Antonio hasn’t seen snowfall like this since the blizzard of January 1985, so seeing my yard covered with snow shocked me. Snow landed all across town unbeknownst to me as I binge-watched the TV show Lost on Amazon Prime. When I spied the chilly white blanket in my yard, I gasped and thought to myself this must be a lovely portent of good things to come. What a Pollyanna idiot I turned out to be.

February 15 Monday 
1:35 a.m.

Still awake, while I watched Finding Your Roots reruns on my laptop in bed, my power shut down. Fearing this might happen, I had kept my phone charged up. Ha, winter storm, take that! I am so prepared! My electricity came back on after about 15 minutes, and I foolishly believed everything to be back in order. 

Instead, City Public Service, the electric company heretofore know as Satan, began a series of rolling blackouts. Oh, I’m sorry… ‘managed outages’, they termed them. Their announcement claimed they were designed to give everyone in the area some time with and without power. Instead of some areas bearing the brunt of consistently having no power, all areas of town would share the pain. 

Only Satan clearly assigned the outage task to a minion who I like to believe has the math skills of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade. Over the last several hours, my house has had juice for bursts of time ranging from five to ten minutes, followed by no power for half an hour or so. I feel this is a bit of a mindfuck, because I want to believe each time it comes back on that the ordeal is over. When it shuts back down, it takes hope with it.

10:34 a.m. 
I have settled into a cycle of sleeping as much as I can. My bed offers me the only option for not freezing. Even with multiple blankets piled on me, my teeth still chatter sometimes. I curse every time I have to leave my safe spot to use the bathroom or scrounge together a snack. I am overdue for a grocery store run, which means supplies are low. Hopefully, this will be over soon.

As miserable as this new habit of trying to achieve unconsciousness in order to pass the time has become, I worry a great deal about someone else. Sawyer, my Siamese cat, is elderly and in poor health. The cold house affects him harder than my other two cats. Sawyer and I have established a pattern in which he paws the blankets so I can lift them up, allowing him to climb under and settle on top of me. Our shared body heat helps warm us both up, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who appreciates feeling less alone for a bit. As angry as I am that my own health and comfort are being affected by the loss of power, it pains me that my poor kitty crew has no idea why they’re freezing and Mom won’t turn on the heat. 

6:01 p.m.
As of late this afternoon, the rolling blackout pattern is power off for approximately twenty minutes, then on for a whopping two minutes. Am I supposed to channel Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched and crinkle my nose in order to heat an entire house and make a hot meal in 120 seconds? Checking in with friends and monitoring the news in quick bursts on my phone shows an inequitable split around town. Some of us are getting these piecemeal snippets of power, while huge pockets of the city are experiencing no interruptions in service.

As the last of the daylight sinks behind my backyard, I despair at the thought of another stretch of dark hours ahead of me. My financial situation does not allow for me to seek shelter in a hotel, nor do I know how easily one could be procured when so many in the city are in need of shelter. Even if I could find a room at the inn or a friend whose home has power, I cannot leave my cats behind. They need me to be the company to their misery.

As of 10:06 p.m., the power has gone off without any sign of returning. It is nine degrees outside and flakes still gently fall from the sky.

February 16 Tuesday 
2:12 p.m.

Satan has blessed my friend Stormy’s part of town with no lapse in electricity. She knows my predicament and drove through the ice and snow to see if she could get me some groceries and bring me a phone charger. Stormy found herself turned away at the grocery store due to their limited hours and hundreds of people already standing in line. Walmart, Target, and just about every restaurant shut down due to inclement weather or loss of power.  

Stormy managed to snag a place in line at a Dollar General store, but their food aisles were mostly cleaned out. Still, I feel victorious to be the proud new owner of a jar of peanut butter and two boxes of Triscuits. I phoned in an order to Domino’s, but they were only offering carry-out service. When Stormy picked up my pizza, the cashier told her they had stopped taking any more orders. Demand for hot food proved so high that the store ran out of ingredients by mid-afternoon. The pizza crust was paper thin and the pie barely warm by the time it got here, but I loved that lunch so much that I want to marry it and have its black olive and mushroom babies. 

I have lost hope that the crisis will be over soon. The local news reported that those of us without power should prepare to hunker down for the possibility of two or three more days sans electricity. 

Pro Tip #1: I stuck on a Breathe Right strip. Not because I was stuffed up, but because it keeps part of my nose warm.

5:38 p.m.
I drifted off under four blankets, only to be woken up by the sound of knocking on my door. I was overjoyed, thinking it was the electric company here to save me! I made my way to the front door, a frightful mess of bedhead, wrapped in a thick, grey fleece blanket. At my door stood not the utility cavalry but a man and woman who identified themselves as my neighbors from down the street. They had heard I lived alone and am having health issues and took it upon themselves to see if I needed anything. A Hispanic couple I guessed to be in their late 40’s, in my two years of living in this house, I had yet to meet them. 

As I stood in the doorway, I shivered from the freezing temperature while we exchanged contact information and news of the storm. As much as I longed to end the conversation, close the door, and hightail it back to my blankie fortress, I also wanted to tell them that their arrival proved to be another gift of humanity delivered to me from an unexpected source. I thought I knew all the names of my angels shepherding me through a rough patch the past few months, but apparently, whatever you want to call it – fate, kindness, serendipity, or God/dess – had a couple of surprise guests for me. 

After I bid my visitors adieu, I hurried back to settle into my two-inch-thick fleece cocoon. Lying in my bed, I fought the invitation to lose my mind. My neighbors confirmed the news that we may be days away from power. I had to fight not to lapse into a full-blown panic attack. I already have born inhumane living conditions for going on two days. How on earth could I survive several more? I knew that dwelling on that would likely jumpstart an anxiety attack. If I had one of those, things were going to get really ugly. I felt like I was in hell and it had, indeed, frozen over.

I forced myself to concentrate on the fact that others have it worse than I do. People rely on oxygen equipment and home dialysis machines. They try to soothe their small children who can’t comprehend what’s wrong. They lie in sick beds, their bodies unprepared to do battle with the cruel burden of a days-long blackout. Some of them have coronavirus. How can there be such cruelty to then take away their heat, light, and cooking resources? I told myself I was going to have to suck it up and appreciate that as bad as I have it, there are those who would trade places with me. I nodded off with that mantra in my head.

Pro Tip #2: If you shove your hands inside your underwear and rub them over your stomach and hips, your hands warm up quickly. Plus you can pretend the hands belong to singer Eric Church, should that particular idea blow your skirt up. 





Go fish. Yahtzee! Or whatever. Does it even really matter at this point?

6:30 p.m.
I awoke and began the arduous task of arranging blankets around myself so I can make the trip to the bathroom. If you want to know what that’s like, try rubbing a block of ice on the toilet seat for several minutes, then take a seat. 

Then it was time to begin another round of Passing the Time In the Dark. The challenge of putting new batteries in my small camping lantern by candlelight proved frustrating, but I told myself I would complete this mundane task without bursting into another crying jag. I failed. A grown-ass woman now reduced to tears because I am so exhausted from groveling in the dark for basic human comforts. 

Tears dried, lantern burning brightly now, and a mystery-scented votive burning on an old dessert plate, the night’s activities begin. Staying warm-ish and semi-fed are both huge challenges, but boredom is a formidable foe, especially after the sun goes down. I had placed a TV tray stand next to my bed and established a few choices for self-entertainment. I cycle through updating my blackout diary and using a deck of cards to play Solitaire and a version of Gin Rummy for one I invented (spoiler: I always win). 

As those events got old quickly, I knew I had to get more creative. My plethora of partially empty spiral notebooks offered the opportunity to use pen and paper to occupy my time. So far, I have used one notebook to record these busy-work gems:

  • A detailed budget for exactly how much money I would need for various vacations. These include a month in London, a train trip to California, and a theatre binge week in Manhattan. 
  • A list of all the main characters from Lost by memory (there are 27 before the end of season two). 
  • A list of the bestest TV shows ever
  • A chart of the evening and overnight hours. I check off each hour I survive. 
  • A six-page summary of an imagined reboot of the TV show Northern Exposure detailing what each character is up to now and what event caused those who left the small Alaskan town to return

9:45 p.m. 
Sweet baby Jesus, the boredom messes with my mind. My hands ice up if they stay outside of a blanket for too long. I have some jigsaw puzzles but I don’t think I’d get far piecing one together while wearing the purple socks I sometimes put on my hands because I can’t find my fucking gloves. It occurs to me I could use my socks to put on a puppet show. If I had some banjo music, I could perform a dueling Grimace act. If I don’t have power by Friday, I’m sticking googly eyes on the socks, videoing the performance, and sending it to America’s Got Talent: The Lunatic Snowbound Edition

11:48 p.m.
I slept for about ninety minutes. Hunger got me out of bed to grab my next semblance of a meal. I’m here to tell you that lighting a match and running it back and forth under a leftover piece of pizza in hopes of having a half-ass warm meal does not work.

Water, camping lantern, notebook, pen, and a snack brand I resent.

February 17 Wednesday
12:31 a.m.

I got out the jar of peanut butter from the Dollar General bag, expecting to find my preferred brand of Jif. Instead, I found myself clutching some off-brand I’ve never heard of before. Dollar Store peanut butter. Oh, the humanity. 

12:47 a.m.
I put a new battery in the fancy desk clock inherited from my mom and put it on my nightstand. Now I can see the time without burning precious phone battery seconds. The clock makes a loud ticking noise, which in turn has sounded either soothing or ominous. How many ticks and tocks until this is all over?

9:48 a.m.
I awoke and reluctantly sat up in bed. Another day in a frozen hell. I really don’t know how I can get through another one. I checked the news. The roads are so bad that everyone is urged to stay home. The traffic authorities issued a black ice warning and ordered all highways closed. The minuscule amount of grocery stores willing to open are only operating for limited hours. The lines outside wrap around the building. This weather event has my state harkening back to last spring when COVID-19 panic had taken over. Now people were again standing in line for hours to fight over bottled water, bread, and toilet paper. 

I know Stormy won’t be able to get here today. I can find no discernible news about when the power will be back on. Satan offers video updates on Twitter, but they are almost an hour long and precious few of us can spare that much phone battery power. I choked down some cold pizza and room temperature Diet Dr. Pepper. How many more days and nights of this are ahead of me? How many people out there are already dead or dying?

2:19 p.m.
I’ve been thinking about this. I know once this is all over and we become a city filled with heated homes and burning light bulbs, CPS and ERCOT (the other electric company bearing a lot of the blame for refusing to prep for this disaster) will be bombarded with questions. The excuses offered so far include how these are unprecedented weather conditions for Texas. The statewide system is not equipped to handle this. Don’t blame us! Blah blah blah. Right now I am so angry I could shriek to the rafters of my snow-covered roof. 

The rolling blackouts proved to be a fallacy. I can buy the idea of power outages for hours or even a couple of days, but the timeline so many of us are now experiencing remains inexcusable. I haven’t had power in 56 hours. The temperature hovers in the 20’s with snow and ice on the ground. No justification for these living conditions for hundreds of thousands of people exists. Even though I expect to see CPS and ERCOT told to explain their enormous failure, I don’t hold out hope for change. After being subjected to four years of a Trumpian world, I am now trained to anticipate that powerful groups and people often get away with murder. 

February 18 Thursday
12:07 a.m.

For days now, my life primarily consists of huddling in bed under my mountain of blankets, nodding off for periods of time. When I wake up, I quickly check for news and try to pass more time while the energy company wonks play with the lives of millions of Texans. The water company has now issued a “boil your water before using it” order. I’ll get right on that as soon as you power up my stove, Einstein. I count myself lucky to have two cases of bottled water on the floor in my office. Thanks to the low temperature in the house, the water is actually chilly. I wish the peanut butter sandwich and banana I’m eating right now weren’t also cold, but I remind myself that cold food beats no food.  

Pro Tip #3: After I ate, I put my COVID mask on. It keeps part of my face warm. I wish I had thought of this three days ago.

2:41 a.m.
I don’t want to jinx it, but Satan turned the power back on and it has remained on for exactly an hour now. I emerged from my cloak of blankets. Dare I say I am actually only mildly chilly? I quickly heated a can of soup and relished each spoonful of hot Progresso minestrone goodness. I’m exhausted but too excited to sleep. Part of me is afraid to fall back asleep in case I wake up to a house darkened and frigid once again. I’m charging my phone, updating Facebook, and hoping for the best. 

4:55 a.m.
The electricity remains on. Satan’s website reports that all power is restored to my area of town. I survived it. I kept myself and my cats alive. That counts for something. The house is so toasty, I actually have to turn down the heat a bit. That thought causes me to smile as I prepare to extinguish the lamplight and attempt to sleep the rest of the salvaged

Addendum: The Texas Tribune reports that at least 111 people died in Texas due to the storm. That number was expected to grow. The non-partisan media organization reports that “The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to motor vehicle wrecks, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

He Walks In Beauty

Online comments sections are typically a train wreck. Self-righteous keyboard warriors and people who lack the fundamentals of basic spelling and grammar tend to overrun them, making it difficult to have an experience participating in the comments that doesn’t spike my blood pressure.

The rare exception I have found is an advice column I’ve followed for years. When I first started reading the comments for it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, even though it’s a national column, the majority of those who comment are part of a small group of regulars. They retain the ability to be mostly respectful even when disagreeing, and they don’t write as if they came in last in a second-grade spelling bee. I became comfortable enough to wade in from time to time with my own thoughts.

Of all the regular commenters, one, in particular, stood out. He didn’t use his own picture for an avatar, but rather a painting of the poet Lord Byron. Byron was clearly quite well-read and intelligent. His sardonic humor quickly hooked me. No matter the subject, he often fired off something unexpected that left me in fits of laughter, such as when he said “defining ‘feminism’ is like trying to find an erogenous zone on Margaret Thatcher (lots of shouting, disagreements, broken furniture, and an eventual agreement by all parties that it was a waste of time)”.

I sought out his comments, eager to enjoy another dose of his amazing wit. Lord Byron fascinated me and I have to admit I developed a weird online crush on my poet. I read through months of archives looking for his replies, fitting pieces of his puzzle together one at a time. I learned he lived in the South, he was divorced with no kids, and a voracious reader. He made his living in the healing arts, skilled at massage therapy and acupuncture, and had acquired a degree in Chinese medicine that he used to treat some of his clients. He also worked as a personal trainer. He gave the name of the business he owned, and that sent me to Google faster than my Siamese cat running down the hall when he hears me unwrap a cheese stick.

I found Lord Byron’s website. I told myself I wasn’t one of those creepy ass stalkers. The man willingly gave up his information on a public website! I just did a little digging. Turns out Lord Byron was really a man named Stephen who lived in Charleston. He looked nothing like the British poet; in fact, nothing like my type at all. His hair was grey, his eyes blue, and he was shorter than me (I’m 5’8”). Had I stood in line behind Stephen at the bank, I wouldn’t have given him a second look. But my schoolgirl crush on his intellect and sense of humor had cemented itself and soon morphed to include a physical attraction.

I knew nothing would come of this. I had not been involved with a man in years, having given up on ever finding love again, and I had missed romance, affection, and all that came with it. My fixation on Stephen became a sweet way to reawaken the side of me that used to believe I would find someone again. In looking over something I wrote back when I was in the midst of my crush on him, I found these words: He’s my emotional dildo. I can’t have the real thing, so I’m using him to get off.

Once I knew Stephen’s name, I found him on Facebook. I have a policy of never adding someone I don’t know, so I figured any friend request I sent him would be met with the same fate. Besides, wasn’t it kind of weird to try to add him under the circumstances? I consulted with a friend who I knew would tell me to go for it, and I did. I woke up the next morning to the notification that my newest Facebook friend was Stephen.

Now what?

I decided to document the whole experience in a writing exercise. A kind of ‘Weirdo gal crushes on an unsuspecting man in a comments section and nothing comes of it’ tale. I figured I could process my emotions, exorcise him from my system, and get a short story out of it.

I wanted to make Stephen’s character realistic, which meant I would need some idea of the details of a massage therapist’s job. After a couple of weeks of being Facebook pals, Stephen had yet to respond to or like anything I had posted, leaving me to believe he wasn’t even reading my stuff. I sometimes ask for input on Facebook when I need advice or info on a subject I’m writing about. I figured it was safe to ask if anyone knew something about massage work, believing the odds of him seeing it were slim, so I put out the call.

Much to my shock, Stephen responded saying he had worked in the field for years and would be happy to advise me. I couldn’t exactly reply with, “I know you have. I’ve seen pictures of your home-based studio on your website. Also, you have ever so dreamy blue eyes.”

I consulted the same friend about if I should take him up on the offer. Having had a few drinks, she laughed hysterically and told me to go for it. I felt like I was entering into a plot worthy of a “Three’s Company” episode that features the delightful misunderstandings and ribald subtext of a low rent French farce. Man unknowingly advises nut bag woman how to write a character he doesn’t know is himself. Hilarity ensues!

I took Stephen up on his offer. We began emailing, with him answering my questions about his job and a typical session with a client. I wrote furiously for weeks, my short story now growing into near-novella status. Writing that story was like pulling teeth, for many reasons, the least of which was that Stephen had said he looked forward to reading it when it was done. I couldn’t think of any legit reason to tell him no. 

I finally completed my story and battled my nerves. Once I sent it to Stephen, the jig was likely up. He would have to see through it and know the story was completely based on him, right? I changed some details, mostly to protect the innocent. Or rather, the writer. In fact, in my story, the woman went so far as to make an appointment for a massage with the object of her affection, not telling him that he actually knew her as one of his fellow column commenters. I would never do that myself, but I felt it pushed the story to an interesting place.

Stephen read my tale, replied with a few dry comments about details I hadn’t gotten completely correct regarding massage work, and that was it. He never said a word about anything else, including if he enjoyed the story. I was baffled. To this day, I don’t know if he realized the story was based on him or that the protagonist was a version of me.

In the meantime, something I could not anticipate happened. Through our emails, Stephen and I began a genuine friendship. We wrote long missives, often several times a day, trading thoughts on a host of subjects. I learned he was just a few months older than me. Like me, he loved cats. He had five indoor ones and three ferals who came by daily for the food and head scritchin’ he passed out on his porch. The man researched how to make nutritious wet food from scratch and purchased chicken and other ingredients a few times a month so that he could whip up another batch to serve his kitty gang. 

Stephen fascinated me with stories of his life. I remember one that began with “I was living in D.C. and rollerblading home from work at 2:00 in the morning in the snow.” How do you not want to hear the rest of that story after such a powerful opening sentence? The image of this still sticks with me. If I were a painter, I would commit it to canvas.

My crush on Stephen slowly ended. It was nice to feel just friendship for him, instead of being bound up by other emotions. When I did get involved with a man again, Stephen became a source to whom I could turn when I needed to talk. When things turned sour with that man, I had to laugh when Stephen advised me to break up with him because in his last note to me, my guy had incorrectly written ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’. 

As I began to become more serious about my writing, I decided to promote it on social media. The first time I shared a short story on Facebook, it came with my shy, bumbling attempt to get people to read it. Something about if you have the time and you don’t mind, could you maybe possibly look at this thing I wrote, etc. Pure amateur hour. 

Shortly after I posted it, I received an email from Stephen. In a professorial tone, he adamantly told me I needed to get confident about my work and act like people were fucking lucky to read it. “If you don’t believe in your shit, why should I read it? Bad writers aren’t hard to find, don’t come out of the gate sounding like you’re not sure you’re not one of them.”

My jaw met the floor. My old self would’ve been injured and insulted. But I knew where Stephen was coming from, and this was his way of trying to instill a bravado in me that I needed. Instead of throwing a pity party, I took his proverbial hand and allowed him to help elevate my confidence.

Stephen was a gifted writer, too, but not in the sense that he wrote professionally or as a hobby. His emails and many of his replies in the comments section often contained pure gold. He came up with things so out of left field that it took me a second to take them in. One time he announced that he wondered what a short story that was part Mickey Spillane and part Danielle Steel would be like, then delivered a bizarre few paragraphs of how he envisioned it. A hardened detective strolled into a restaurant and swept all the silverware and dishes off a table, ripped open the bodice worn by the woman sitting there alone and laid her down on the table. The kicker was the woman was Laura Bush. One of the funniest stories I’ve ever read, yet also full of real talent.   

When describing the feeling a man experiences when he finally gets a woman he’s been dying to have sex with into bed, he phrased it as “I’m finally getting my mitts on you, my pretty, the village market was well stocked with stout and oysters, and now I’m going to do you so long and hard I may change your past.”

Over time, my emails with Stephen became less frequent. I missed them, but I knew we were always a few clicks away when we did need to ask a question or run a rumination past each other. We both remained fans of snail mail and began filling each other’s mailboxes with oddball postcards or greeting cards we came across. I have two of his postcards pinned to the corkboard on the wall above my desk.

Stephen was the recipient of my annual Christmas card, telling me the first year when I asked for his address that I would disappoint him if I just signed it and did not include a handwritten note. I never disappointed him.

A few months ago, Stephen sent me a message via Facebook. “Some rather unexpected news. I recently found out I have stage four lung cancer. Expectancy is unknown, but keeping on that as long as I can.”

The weight of this unexpected and dismal news crushed me. I immediately emailed him, telling him how much I valued him in my life and he needed to stick around because the world was more interesting with him in it. He didn’t reply. I decided to sit down and write him a proper letter. I would tell him how much I adored my friend. I might even finally tell him about how I’d fancied him for a short while, in case he hadn’t figured that out yet and it might bring a smile to his face.

I planned to write that letter soon. I missed my deadline.

Three weeks later, Stephen succumbed to cancer. He lasted just a few months from diagnosis to death. By the time he exited our world, it had riddled a great deal of his body, leaving him weak, in pain, and, according to those who were with him in person, devoid of the very personality and wit that made so many of us feel blessed to know him.

I experienced the usual emotions that come with mourning the loss of someone you care about. Chief among them was anger. I wanted to write a strongly worded letter to whomever was responsible for this obvious fucking error in judgment. Call it what you want – God, fate, or simply an illness – but I was going to have a word with it.

It was similar to the way I felt a few years back when I desperately wanted to tell someone in charge “This is not fair and completely unacceptable. You give Carrie Fisher back RIGHT THIS MINUTE!’ Some losses just seem meaner in spirit than others.

According to a lovely Dutch woman who attended college with Stephen, and with whom I connected via Facebook, there was no funeral. I don’t know if that was strictly a COVID thing, or if he had requested there be none. A memorial service of some sort was held, and I do wish I could have been there to meet his family and trade stories with those who knew him.

Stephen’s friends poured onto his Facebook page to share memories, giving me the gift of more stories about him. My favorite one was how he injured his foot in college but refused to let that ruin a good time. His foot in a cast, Stephen joined his friends on the dance floor of a club, only able to spin in a slow careful circle aided by his crutches, so that he wouldn’t miss out on a night of dancing. 

People shared some great photos, too. Stephen in the mid-80’s lying on his dorm floor surrounded by albums as he listened to music. Stephen hamming it up as a member of a wedding party. Stephen as a little boy dressed in a suit and brandishing a toy pistol, pretending to be James Bond. 

I especially loved the photo of Stephen a few years ago taking a break at one of the dragon boat races he participated in, lying on a massage table in the shade of a tree with a book propped open on his chest. I didn’t need an explanation to guess the story behind that one. He and his team had a full day of races that were physically demanding, so he hauled his massage table to the lake in case anyone needed some of his healing arts. 

The Dutch woman gave me Stephen’s mother’s address. I want to write her a letter about how much of a gift the five years I knew her son was, but I still don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to miss this deadline, but I’m just not in the proper headspace yet. Of course, it may be that I just don’t want to go there, in the emotional sense. 

Lord Byron’s most famous poem is She Walks in Beauty, which starts off:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies

It’s not often a truly accurate description to call someone one-of-a-kind, but Stephen was unique in ways that very few souls are. I feel a void in my life knowing he’s not here anymore. Stephen walked in beauty, and those of us who got the chance to stroll beside him, even for a short time or from several states away, are some of the luckiest people on earth. Farewell, my poet. May you travel on gossamer wings, dear Byron.

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Eddie Van Halen

In the late ’70s, maybe early 1980, I heard Van Halen for the first time. I was a kid in the 8th grade, mostly still listening to top 40 radio stations. I can’t remember my specific thoughts upon first hearing the band but I can tell you exactly what went on in my head the first time I listened to an entire Van Halen album. 

My family had just moved to Plano, a bedroom community north of Dallas, and I was a few days into my freshman year of high school. Loneliness was my only friend, so I was excited when a girl who was in one of my classes and lived two houses down from me invited me over to her place. 

“Do you like them?” she asked me, handing me the first Van Halen album. Vinyl, as all albums were back then. “Um, I’ve heard of them…” I said, wanting to appear cool but unable to back it up. My new friend, whose name may or may not be Emily (I honestly don’t remember), dropped the needle to the record, and “Runnin’ with the Devil” began pouring out of her speakers. Had my ears had the power of speech, I’m pretty sure they would’ve remarked something along the lines of “What. The. Fuck.” 

In a good way, I mean. 

As the album continued to play, Emily said a couple of things to me, but I could barely concentrate on our conversation. I was beginning a relationship with a young band from Southern California. I sat cross-legged on her bedroom floor clutching the album cover and staring at the pictures. Each band member seemed exotic and wild to me. A bare hairy chest, flaming instruments, intense facial expressions, and long hair flying around. I felt like I had stepped into a new portal of something vaguely shocking that the older kids were caught up in. 

Van Halen was loud and they intimidated me with parts of their music and looks, but I knew I wanted to spend more time with them. By the time Side One of the album was over and Emily turned off her record player, I knew where my allowance would be spent as soon as I begged my mom for a ride to the nearest record store.

A year later, I owned Van Halen’s first album, “II”, and “Women and Children First”. The band sold out two nights at Reunion Arena and I somehow talked my parents into letting me attend both gigs with a friend. I still remember how electrifying and enchanting those concerts were. If I forget, I can always refer to the seven-page handwritten entry in my diary detailing every little moment. How intense those recorded songs proved when heard live. How the audience was like a rock-n-roll choir singing along to every tune. How seeing David Lee Roth in person made me feel funny in my pantaloons. How Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was like something from an entirely different orbit than the one we mere mortals inhabited.

Eddie began to rack up awards and accolades in lightning-quick succession. Guitar Player and a host of other magazines recognized the Dutchman turned Californian as more than just a flash in the pan. Only in his early 20’s, the shaggy-haired guitar god was busy upending the entire rock music industry and was easily the most innovative thing to happen to an electric guitar since the advent of Hendrix. Immigrants: They get the job done. 

Van Halen went on to sell a slew of albums, concert tickets and merchandise. Eddie influenced untold numbers of guitar players, pushing them to reject the standard guitar licks and approach to playing and instead work towards developing their own style. 

Eddie’s personal life became a tabloid staple after he married actress Valerie Bertinelli. The couple wed in 1981 and ten years later welcomed their only child, a son named Wolfgang. Their marriage ended in divorce in 2007 after several years of separation, but the two remained close even after the divorce. Each of them attended the other’s wedding when they remarried. As a child of parents who split up, I can attest to what a blessing it is for the kiddos when their folks can pull that off.

Many of us watched in wonderment and with full hearts as Wolfie followed in his father’s musical footsteps and became a bass player. At the tender age of 15, he joined Van Halen. Father and son touring the world together, along with Eddie’s brother, drummer Alex Van Halen.

Surrounded by his wife, Janie, Wolfie, ex-wife Valerie, and Alex, Eddie Van Halen passed away on October 6. Bertinelli remained close with her ex, as evidenced by her touching tribute to him on social media.

The news of Van Halen’s passing shocked millions, me included. I read it on my phone and then cried for several minutes. Yes, Eddie was 65. He had lived a hardcore rock star life and spent years gripped by the hellish realities of alcoholism. His nicotine addiction contributed to tongue cancer, and lung cancer finally took him. But still, reading of his unexpected passing was a heartbreaker, especially for those of us fans who were there for the rise of Van Halen, both the man and the band. 

I find myself listening to that first Van Halen album over and over since the news broke. I still get lost in it, some 42 years after its release. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” remains my most favorite of their songs. I’m saddened that Eddie has left the building, but his music leaves behind a permanent record of his impressive mark on the world. 

More and more, as I age, I’m experiencing the loss of ‘my rock stars’. I could write another piece just on the brilliant music of British rock band UFO, whose bassist Pete Way recently passed. Would it be unoriginal to surmise that the proverbial band in heaven must be pretty rich now that it sports Pete, Eddie and Rush drummer Neil Peart in its numbers? I won’t, because it leaves the singer slot open, and I don’t want to tempt fate. 

My thoughts on all this wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that I have a friend who adores “Eruption”, the brilliant calamity of an instrumental featuring Eddie Van Halen’s inimitable burst of guitar shredding from the first album. Dan is a United Methodist minister and tells his parishioners every Easter that he likes to think that as Jesus emerged from his three-day nap, “Eruption” burst out loud filling the sky, providing the perfect “Surprise!” musical serenade as the son of God rejoined the living. 

Farewell, Edward. Thank you for the documented literal records of your musical genius, the memories of seeing you live, and that pivotal moment when a kid in North Texas sat on the floor in her neighbor’s house, ears crackling, and discovered just how much one person could change an art form.

Canaries in a Covid Coal Mine

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I’m fortunate to have a lively group of friends who are all teachers. They teach varying subjects, including English, biology, chemistry and horticulture.

I’ve watched with great interest as they dealt with closing up shop early when COVID-19 shut school doors in the spring. I could feel the sorrow permeating a picture my friend took of her abandoned classroom on the day she was allowed to return to it long enough to clean it out before summer began. Emotions ran high for Laura, a high school French teacher in Virginia, as she snapped that photo, unknowingly documenting what may be the last normal school room from which she will operate for quite some time.

Over the past several weeks, my teacher friends have been posting on social media about what their schools expect of them as the fall semester begins. Some school districts have opted to keep their campuses shut down through the rest of the year, relying on distance learning. Not Laura’s school. As I read the updates she has shared online that show her prep work for returning to the class, I looked for at least a modicum of humor in some of them. Laura is an expert at delightful, self-deprecating comedy. She can laugh when others might want to cry.

Yet I find that there is nothing funny about these pictures. I’m not feeling it, and I know Laura well enough to deduce through her posts and comments that worry and frustration are consuming a lot of her headspace. I find myself gripped with anger. Anger on behalf of my friends. And fear. I worry about them being unnecessarily exposed to health risks that are unprecedented and unwarranted.

Laura’s latest post is a picture of a giant white bucket with a label on it that reads ‘Disinfectant wipes bucket’, her room number and instructions on how to refill the bucket. The caption Laura wrote says, “Can’t get quite as excited about school supplies this year”.

And now, I am fucking furious. Laura spent six years in college, including grad school, to become a teacher. She has spent countless hours over the years in more classrooms for teacher recertification. She has banked about thirty years as an educator, and a damn good one. Laura is a teacher. That seems obvious, that last statement. Yet apparently the sort of minds that come together and decide that it’s perfectly fine to reopen schools already are not quite clear on that concept.

Laura is a teacher, not a janitor. Yet when she returns to her place of employment next week, she will busy herself between classes by using the contents of her shiny new bucket to disinfect her classroom, so as to minimize the risk of herself or her students contracting COVID-19.

Laura is a teacher, not a magician. While she is busy playing Virus Maid in between classes, she is also expected to be in the hallway monitoring the students. Her college training did not instill in her the art of being in two places at once.

Laura is a teacher, not a guinea pig. She received marching orders to report to school five days a week, four of them with students in her room. Yes, there is social distancing and masks are required. Many students have opted to do distance learning exclusively, lowering the number of kids per classroom. Yet this is still the great unknown.

Many schools that have reopened found themselves quickly closing down again when it proved impossible to monitor hundreds of kids and teenagers to make sure they follow the new pandemic rules. Too many school districts either bathe in ignorance or cave to political pressure to reopen, forcing their teachers, staff and students to serve as test subjects. Modern day canaries in a coal mine.

Laura is a teacher, not a lunchroom employee. Yet every day, Laura will forfeit time to herself in order to follow new school policy that she must eat lunch with students in her classroom. The teenagers will be instructed to face forward at their desks and speak as little as possible while having their meal break. Sounds like they’ll all be serving detention with snacks.

Laura is a teacher, not a nanny. Weather permitting, she is expected to gather her students and take them outside for some fresh air. She must ensure the kids are compliant and don’t interact too closely. Kind of like a dog walker.

Laura is a teacher, not a crisis counselor. She has already spent a huge chunk of her summer fielding emails and other contact from panicky parents. She expended energy she did not have to spare to soothe frightened students who understandably want someone in charge to tell them what exactly is going to happen, and that ultimately everything will be alright.

Laura is a teacher, not a politician. People from all segments of the general population are getting in the face of educators, whether in person or via online options, to force their opinions on them. Somehow, despite not being teachers or school administrators themselves, they believe they possess the knowledge of what is the only right way to do things. If any proposed plan deviates from that, these self-appointed professionals are only too happy to bypass healthy debate and go straight to name calling and predictions of doom.

Laura is a teacher. She wants to teach. She looks back at the many times she arrived on campus in late summer, sighing at the usual workload ahead of her. How many days until Christmas break, she would joke with her friends in the teachers’ lounge. She now pines for the simplicity of those days. In 2020, in a world gone mad from a virus, and unnecessarily suffering from the appalling lack of action taken when the threat was first beginning, the average teacher’s sighs have turned to tears, rants, and panic attacks.

Their Fall To Do lists aren’t just about budgeting for a few cute new outfits and catching school supplies on sale at Target. They are about ensuring they have the safest mask available. They are about sitting down with a spouse or partner and asking if a career change or early retirement might be their best option.

They are making out their wills. Their goddamn wills. Because worrying they will be victimized by yet another school shooter wasn’t enough of a reason to worry. Now they have to fight obsessive thoughts about if they will get sick and if they will die. Weak, ineffective people from the federal government all the way down to local school boards are playing games with the lives of teachers.

I don’t pretend to have a step-by-step guide to how to handle the educational crisis. What I do feel to my core is that many schools are rushing to try to populate their classrooms, when the jury is out on if this is a good idea. My friends are involuntarily front and center in a puppet show that has nothing to do with their careers.

Laura is a teacher. She is not a volunteer for a military maneuver. She is not a rabbit in a cage in a medical testing laboratory. She deserves better than this. All teachers do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations with Ghosts

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Molly was sinking. Floundering like a fish. It’s funny (not funny) how she used to be a chatterbox about this sort of thing. When she found herself mired in a hopeless place, she thrived on the act of sharing her troubles with friends and getting support. She easily blathered about what was weighing her down. Even if things remained bleak, it left her feeling as if she was now walking through her dark tunnel with a Fourth of July sparkler to help light the way.

Now, as the British said with such frivolity, she couldn’t be arsed.

When challenged with a low emotional period, Molly could usually glimpse hope around the corner on some days. Now, not so much. Unbeknownst to even those who believed they knew her best, she remained mired in a hellish vortex of a hopeless future. A precarious financial situation worsened by the mass unemployment brought about by Covid-19 left her mummified in a wrap of bone-paralyzing fear.

Added to that was her poor health, which was not easily addressed when she had access to neither insurance nor the cash to make up for it. There were no easy answers or quick fixes for any of her situations.

And the worst thing? For the most part, Molly didn’t care. She was unfazed by the idea that her time may be short. She accepted it. In fact, exiting Life’s Stage Left sounded like a pretty good deal. Her only real concern was that someone would promise to take care of her cats, and she had managed to square that away.

Molly wasn’t officially planning on checking out. Not by her own hand, in that she would procure a bottle of pills or tie a rope. Yet, day after day, she did nothing to address her poor health. She asked herself if that was not passively checking out, then wrapped herself in the blanket of more slumber when the painful answer filled her head.

The depression and anxiety had encased her like a life vest on a floating Titanic survivor. The strength Molly needed to fight this felt non-existent. Hope, like Elvis, had left the building.

Molly finally reached a breaking point. She knew she needed to reach out, but was overtaken by the cliched fear that she would burden her friends if she told them how bad the traffic in her head had become. It was LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving weekend up in ye olde noggin.

In a moment of desperation, Molly decided to open up a conversation to release the waters that were saturating her mind. For this conversation, she needed no phone. She didn’t have to leave her home. Instead, she begged an invisible entity to appear, discuss her situation and offer both comfort and a solution.

Molly sat in her living room as a haze settled over the early afternoon sky. She invited in the dead, served tea and, metaphorically speaking, stripped naked.

“Mom! Hi. Wow, I can’t believe it’s really you! I’ve missed you so much.”

“No time for sentimental greetings, kiddo. Why did you ask me over?” Molly’s mother, who had died five years prior, sat across from Molly in an arm chair, dressed in a powder blue Coco Chanel suit.

“I’m in trouble, Mom. It’s a long story, but it started when…”

“I know the story. I may be gone, but I still watch you. I’m like Santa Claus if he were deceased. I see you when you’re sleeping, all that jazz. Tell me what you want from me.”

“I want you to help me.”

“Help you how? You’re Dorothy, you know. You’ve got the slippers on, but you always did like to argue that you’re barefoot in Oz.”

Molly fought back tears. “Mom, I need you to tell me it’s all going to be okay.”

“It’s all going to be okay.”

Molly loudly clunked her tea cup on her saucer and pouted. “That didn’t sound sincere.”

“Baby girl, I believe in you. I always have. You have to decide to believe in yourself.”

“Tell me what to do, Mom. Where to start.”

“You already know this.” Molly’s mother pulled her teacup close to her face and peered over the rim at her only daughter. She sighed, took a large sip of English Breakfast, and shifted her approach. “You start small. You wash your face. You eat a piece of fruit with your meals. You open your mail when it arrives, instead of letting it collect dust in a pile on your desk.”

“That’s baby stuff, Mom. I need to take much bigger steps than that. And, for fuck’s sake, I don’t even have the energy to wash my face most days.”

“Language, child. I did not come all this way to be cursed at,” Molly’s mother said.

“Where are you, anyway? I mean, in the afterlife,” Molly asked.

“I’m not sure, but it’s quite nicely decorated.”

“Is it heaven?”

“Well, your Aunt Muriel isn’t there, so it must be.” Molly’s mother moved over to the red velvet sofa and sat next to her daughter.

“Oh, Mom…” Molly began, ready to spew every fear and dark thought she had shouldered for so long.

“Shhhh,” her mother said quietly. “It’s not about confession right now. It’s about beginning a habit of using baby steps so that the burden of those thoughts and feelings you have becomes lighter.”

“Will you help me with the first one? Please.”

Molly’s mother took her daughter’s face in her hands and delivered a soft kiss to her forehead. Molly felt static electricity; the result of a soul no longer encased in flesh touching a soul who was still earthbound.

“Come with me,” her mother said. Molly followed her mother to the master bathroom. Her mom adjusted the tap for warm water, plucked the bottle of face wash from the glass shelf just below the mirror, and rummaged around in the linen closet for a washcloth. “Here, Molly. Wash your face. Do this once a day. It will add up. Just like doing any other tiny step adds up as time passes.”

Molly watched her mother stroke the colorful, striped bath towel hanging just outside the walk-in shower stall. She turned to face her reflection in the mirror and dutifully scrubbed her face clean. The water felt like a baptismal. Inspired by such a simple act, she rubbed astringent into her skin with a cotton ball, wincing a bit from the sting of it. She closed her eyes and applied a generous amount of moisturizer to her tingling face.

Molly turned to show off her work to her mother, but she had disappeared. A cleansing had taken place that went beyond the borders of just her clogged pores. One baby step taken, perhaps while sporting a slipper that at least had a faded red tinge to it.

As the sun rose the next morning, Molly sliced a Granny Smith apple into small chunks. She stood at her kitchen counter, speared each piece with a toothpick, as if she were enjoying hors d’oeuvres, and delivered them to her mouth. She planned to wash her face again today, as well as tackle the pile of bills, donations requests and colorful advertisement circulars that had sat dormant for way too long in her office.

The conversation with her mother had impacted her quite a bit, but Molly wanted more. She craved another ghost at her tea party. She had already brewed her usual half a pot of dark roast, so she changed the menu to coffee klatch. She fastened her robe tightly around her body, set two cups of coffee on her breakfast table and took a seat. She summoned her next guest. Molly did not specify who should arrive. She asked only that it be someone who could build on what her mother had given her the day before.

With no fanfare, the next guest appeared across the table from Molly. A white-haired man in his mid-60’s dressed in a department store label suit pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket and flipped through it.

“Which one are you again? I saw so many clients. I don’t appreciate being summoned like this with no time to prep,” he said.

Molly nearly dropped her coffee mug. “Dr. Munder? You look so much older than when I saw you.”

“You’re seeing me at the age I died. I treated you twenty years earlier. Molly, is it?” Dr. Munder squinted through his glasses at a page in his notebook. “Yes, here you are. Garden variety patient riddled with anxiety. I’m assuming you haven’t conquered that yet, if you have to make another appointment with me two decades later. Is this decaf?”

Molly looked at his coffee mug. “Uh, no. You can’t have caffeine… where you are now?”

Dr. Munder ignored her question. “What do you need from me, Molly?”

“I miss our sessions sometimes, Dr. Munder. I know I didn’t have all my shit together when I stopped seeing you, but our therapy really did help me. I was hoping you could say something to help me. I’m in real trouble.”

“Are you utilizing what you learned in our sessions?” Dr. Munder asked. He looked as if he already knew the answer would disappoint him.

“Yes, as much as I can. It was just so long ago. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and…”

Dr. Munder cut her off. “Ah, yes. I remember more now.” He read aloud from his notes on Molly. “In her head way too much. Her motto should be ‘Hang on a minute while I overthink this.’ I would tell her that but she would spend the next six weeks dissecting what I meant.”

“Maybe I do still overthink things sometimes, but I don’t want to get bogged down in details here, Dr. Munder. I need you to give me one of your patented pieces of advice that used to help move me forward. You could be such an inspiration to me at times.”

“Where are you living these days?” Dr. Munder picked up his coffee, sniffed it and took a small sip. He mimicked pouring milk into his drink. Molly quickly snagged a to-go creamer cup from the condiment packet drawer and a spoon.

“I’m still in the same town,” she replied.”Or did you mean my actual place? It’s a three bedroom house near, um, you remember where the old Saw Mill outlet mall was?”

“Not where do you live physically. I mean emotionally.” Dr. Munder tore a sheet from his notebook and ran his finger under each line on it as he read aloud from it. “Patient lives in the past, constantly shaming herself for past decisions and lost opportunities.”

“I remember that, Dr. Munder, but I worked hard on that. You said I stopped living in the past.”

Dr. Munder flipped the page over and read the notes at a whisper level.

“What?” asked Molly.

Dr. Munder stirred the powdered creamer into his coffee and explained. “Yes, you did leave the past, but apparently you packed up and moved to the future. You became afraid of being a failure. Of being successful. Of making wrong choices that you would later regret. As I recall, it was quite the fight to get you to just live in the here and now.”

“I can tell you exactly why I got that way,” Molly insisted, disappointed in the attitude she felt coming from her latest ghost party guest.

“Of course you can, Molly. As I recall, you could spend weeks going on and on about why something happened. You’re asking me to give you some meaningful advice that will have impact? Stop doing that. Don’t dwell on why you aren’t doing what you need to do. Just focus on doing it.”

“But how can I fix bad habits if I don’t understand why I developed them?” Molly moved quickly to the kitchen counter, retrieved a coffee cake swimming in cream cheese frosting and one fork, and set them on the table. She sat back down and held her hand motionless over the lid of the store-bought confection, like someone threatening to fire a gun if they didn’t get their way.

“You already know why you do what you do. I have upwards of seven thousand dollars in receipts from you that prove we spent a lot of time going over that.” Dr. Munder deftly slid the coffee cake over in front of him and removed the plastic lid. He picked at it with his bare hand, delivering a succession of small bites to his lips.

Molly stared at her former therapist. Had he really helped her at all in the past or was she romanticizing their weekly sessions?

“Alright, you want bumper sticker philosophy, Molly? I can do that. Treat your life like you just inherited it from a previous owner. Think of it like it’s a new company you just purchased. Business is slow, the accounting books don’t add up, the employees are thinking of forming a union, and the warehouse is on fire. You cannot back out of this deal. This is your company now. You can sit around pontificating on how the business got so bad and deciding who you can point your finger at, but the place will burn to the ground by the time you’re done indulging in that luxury. What you need to do is grab a shovel, a fire extinguisher, a bullwhip – whatever it takes. Get busy fixing what’s wrong now.”

“My mom was here yesterday. She told me to take baby steps, not this baptism-by-fire thing you’re talking about,” said Molly.

“She and I are talking about the same principle. One step at a time. It’s your life, Molly. No one else can fix it. Assess immediately and act quickly. Start putting out the fire. Then go through the books that were cooked. Then do this task, then that one. It all adds up, like a paint-by-numbers kit. One splash of color at a time in a tiny shape will eventually deliver you a full painting.”

Molly felt like a pin in a bowling alley being bowled over with great force. She had not misremembered Dr. Munder’s talent for giving her a big idea for a new way to look at her life.

“Thank you, Dr. Munder. I will try to save my company, and I promise not to overthink it first.”

Dr. Munder took a final bite of the coffee cake, jotted something down in his notebook, and promptly disappeared.

Three days later, Molly sat at her laptop updating a spreadsheet she made to mark her progress with her steps. Like a toddler earning gold stars for going potty, she checked off each daily task that helped move her closer to her goals. Whether it was baby steps or Big Foot leaps, she counted them all.

A sound from her back yard startled her. She glanced at her computer clock and saw that it was just past midnight. She gritted her teeth and hoped the sound came from a raccoon family her neighbor had complained about, rather than, for example, a serial killer.

Molly grabbed her bottle of Snapple and went to the back door. She flipped the weak outside light on and saw a person on the patio standing at her whiskey barrel planter full of red and white petunias.  Molly could not tell if the shadowy figure was a man or a woman, even after they turned to face her, smiled and beckoned to her with a crooked finger.

Without fear, Molly unlocked the door and walked outside. A cool breeze dusted the night sky. The figure stepped off the patio and sat down on a tree stump Molly had chosen to leave in her yard after the elderly pecan tree had to be chopped down. She dragged a metal chair off the patio and took a seat across from her visitor. She understood this to be the latest guest in her Conversations from the Beyond series, although she did not recognize this person.

Molly took a swig from her Snapple bottle.

“Ooh, gimme,” her guest said. They held their hand out. Molly passed the cold drink over and watched her guest drain the entire bottle, then wipe the fruity sweetness from their lips with the back of their hand.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m God.”

Molly sat perfectly still, unable to think of a single thing to say. God handed the empty bottle back to her. “Don’t forget to recycle,” God said.

“God? Really?” Molly stammered out her words. “I pictured you more…”

“Old man? ZZ Top beard? Tunic down to my ankles? That’s the white bread image of me. Besides, these are so much more comfortable.” God indicated the hunter green flannel pajamas he sported. Or she. Observing God’s flattering pixie haircut, Molly really couldn’t detect a gender, which made absolute sense. Sort of a Bowie as deity image.

Molly leaned back in her chair. “I confess I did want another conversation like I’ve been having, but I never expected this.”

“I’m just a ghost, like the others. A Holy ghost, if that makes you more comfortable,” said God.

“What steps do you think I should take?” Molly hoped the answer wouldn’t be complicated. She would hate to get advice from such top level management and forget some of the details.

God replied, “It’s not what you should do, it’s what you should have.”

“Have?” Molly asked. “You want me to buy something?”

God snort laughed. “No. I want you to possess something. Something I have, your mother has and your old shrink has.”

“Which is?”

“Faith.”

“Faith,” Molly repeated.

“Faith. In You. You see, you can invite every spirit you know for tea and scones, but unless you foster faith in yourself, nothing we say or do matters.”

“How do I begin, Father? Or… is it Mother? I’m sorry, I can’t really tell.” Molly momentarily expected a bolt of lightning to split her open for what was surely a blasphemous observation.

“Either is fine, Molly. I’m both and neither.”

“I don’t know how to have faith. I don’t trust myself to fix everything that’s wrong before it’s too late. Maybe it already is too late. Even if I try my hardest, the rug is always pulled out from under me. Faith is a pipe dream, God.”

Molly rose from her seat, desperate for any busy work for her hands so she would not have to see her companion staring at her. They must surely pity her. She filled a plastic pitcher with water from the garden hose and replenished the bird bath. She picked out dead leaves that had fallen from a tree into her hanging basket of thyme. Molly could hear the swishing sound of pajama legs rubbing together as God quietly trailed after her.

“Well, if that’s all you need, I’ll be going,” God said.

Molly turned quickly to face them. “No, wait! It’s not enough. I need more.”

“Faith, my child. Not just in yourself. Have faith that every time you wash your face or sit in the sun instead of a darkened room or take one more brick down from your wall, you are doing something valuable. It all totals up, Molly. Have faith that your mother is right about you having power as yet untapped. Have faith that Dr. Munder taught you lessons that are worth revisiting. Have faith that I am here, walking through your garden with you whenever you tend to it.”

“God, everyone feels so far away.”

“Have faith that you are loved, Molly. Even when you feel an ocean between you and those who love you, have faith that you can teach yourself to swim.”

“I can’t share this darkness with anyone. I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Molly said.

“Tell those who care for you. Tell it in a Molly way and they will hear you.”

“What if it’s too late anyway?”

“What if it’s not, my darling?” God turned and walked off into the starry sky.

Molly stood motionless. A symphony of music cascaded from her ears, filling her yard. Classical music mixed with edgy punk rock. Weeping violins and writhing electric guitars.

The ghost party had concluded. Like most parties, it hadn’t gone exactly as planned, and you could always count on a surprise guest. This party proved to be a housewarming of sorts. Molly had been gifted with tools she needed. It was too early to tell if she would do what she needed to do with them all. It might be too late for the tools to save her. But they were there now, sitting in opened gift boxes around her home.

Molly walked slowly to the side of her house and dropped the Snapple bottle in her recycle can. She went inside, turned off the patio light and locked the door. She took baby steps down the hall, and one big leap into her warm bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working From Home During Quarantine

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Covid-19 has presented the world with numerous challenges, some of them quite sad and harrowing. One unifying event that millions are experiencing is learning to work from home. For someone used to driving or taking public transportation to and from the office five days a week, being away from home most of the day, and having fellow employees around while on the clock, the pandemic has served up a complex and often daunting test of how to make the switch.

I have worked from home for fifteen years, so being home all day is old news to me. Like many who have long managed careers from their home office, I always watch with interest when others adapt to this transition in their own lives. Since some of the adjustments are common to all, I’d like to offer my own experiences, as well as advice to those who might benefit from it.

Many people are experiencing a decided change in how glamorous they look on a daily basis. Women who are used to applying full-on war paint for the office and embracing their fashionista side often find it difficult to make the switch to having no one to impress, save perhaps a couple of eye-rolling teenagers or a disinterested dog.

It hasn’t been an issue for me, because I gave up long ago. On any given day, I look like I just somersaulted out of the dryer after 20 minutes on tumble dry.

My best advice to my friends entering the work-from-home world is to skip the usual hopeful steps, such as “Continue to dress for success!”, and go straight to accepting that pants are actually optional during the work day. As long as you don’t stand up during a Zoom or Skype call, your secret is safe. You will also discover that, while a scrunchie may be verboten on Sex & the City, it’s your new bestie in Corona World.

I mean, it’s fine if you want to continue engaging in dress-up decorum, but just know that some of us old timers will snicker and whisper, “Look at Ms. Fancy Pants, wearing a bra on a Monday!”

I normally maintain a rule of no eating at my desk while I’m working, but let’s face it: comfort food and eating out of boredom are the new black. I have developed a compulsive need to have potato chips no further away than arm’s length. All kinds of brands and flavors. Right now I’m on a Sun Chips kick. I tell myself with a straight face that they make an excellent addition to breakfast.

I’ve also developed a co-dependent relationship with cookies. I have gone through bags of old favorites and several store brand selections. I am currently working my way through the entire Keebler inventory. I had no idea Elfwich sandwich cookies existed before, and now I can’t imagine my life without their fudgy goodness.

If I had extra money, I’d buy stock in several weight loss companies. I think it’s a safe bet that once we start returning to our old lives, plenty of people are going to rush to try to counteract the results of months of stress eating.

I don’t normally give financial advice, but I believe I have come up with a winner. I opened a savings account to buy presents for all the baby showers I realize will result from people who are spending the spring knocking homebound boots at a much higher rate than usual. Sometime around Halloween, the invitations for these events are going to start rolling in, and this will help me cover the avalanche of impending gift grabs from parents of the Covid Babies.

As any boss will tell you, it’s important to make sure that you maintain a quiet, professional work space at home. This is especially vital during on-camera work meetings. To prepare for these, people turn off televisions and music sources. Parents bribe and threaten their children to behave and stay out of sight. We all do our best to isolate house pets.

But the reality is the most interesting part of any digital work gathering is when the unexpected happens. Mike’s adorable tabby cat hops up on the desk and wanders across the keyboard, adding gibberish to everyone’s screen. Abby’s toddler throws open the office door and streaks through the background whipping a used diaper in circles over her head. Hope’s up-to-now unheard of boyfriend can be seen wandering into the kitchen butt naked and pouring a cup of Folgers.

Screw the third quarter projections and stock portfolios: these moments are the glue that holds your company together now.

If you are new to working from home, and only doing so because a horrible virus has seized control of your work habitat, hang in there. You will get used to it. You will figure out the best way to make it work for you. Odds are that when this is all over (let’s assume it will all be over at some point), you will probably have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to a cubicle or corner office.

I believe it is likely that many people will not be required to return to a brick and mortar setting to earn a living. Bosses and CEOs alike are busy right now learning that working from home can often result in employees who are happier and more productive. Employees can rejoice in no more rush hour commutes, no more co-workers stopping by their desk and interrupting them with time-wasting conversation and, best of all, no more pants.

All The White Horses

 

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I saw her today. My former best friend.

Our parents were friends before she and I even came along into the world. We ended up in the same first grade class, beginning a friendship that often proved to be my rock. We spent countless hours playing at each other’s houses, preferring our Breyer model horses with which to exercise our imaginations, rather than the more traditional Barbies and baby dolls that most girls chose.

I can easily access many treasured memories of weekend sleepovers. If it was Friday, we stayed up late to watch the 1970’s music stars perform on “The Midnight Special”.  If it was Saturday, we sat down on the floor in front of the tube with a snack and tuned into “Project Terror”, a rerun of some scary B-movie too old for us to recognize.

The teenage years saw us catapult deeply into the waters of angst and rebellion. We ran around in our black heavy metal concert t-shirts, carrying cigarette packs and whatever weed we could score in our purses.

I could write volumes about Ethel. That’s not her real name. Nor is my name Gladys. Those were nicknames we gave ourselves as we laughed about what kind of crazy old ladies we would evolve into, certain we’d still be best friends.

Like I said, I could write volumes. There are memories of days and chunks of life and strings of sentences shared between us that saved my sanity, made me laugh until my sides ached and soothed my soul. Our friendship helped shape the woman I became. But that’s not what this is about.

Ethel hated conflict. If we had a fight, she’d just stop talking to me for awhile. If she had built up negative feelings about our friendship, rather than open up a discussion and work through it with me, she’d cut and run. Just after high school, she cut me out of her life for about six months. No discussion, no warning. Just stopped taking my calls or talking to me. When she finally contacted me again, I was so lonely and desperate to have her back in my life, I acted like it was no big deal and welcomed her back.

It happened again a few years later, and I’m sorry to say I reacted similarly. I had no idea how to stand up for myself, and was frightened of losing the most important friendship of my life again. After several months of the reborn friendship, she ghosted me a third time. This time, it lasted for five years.

I knew Ethel’s parents had an influence on her, despite her not being fully cognizant of it. After we hit adolescence and began to rebel, especially when I introduced their precious daughter to the music of the rock band KISS, her mom and dad began to blame me for screwing up their kid. I remember Ethel telling me that her mother called me ‘white trash’. That cut me to the core. It took me years to ask myself why Ethel would even relay such a painful comment.

My belief is that Ethel used me as a scapegoat at times, too. If she could see me as less than her, it gave her some self-esteem she couldn’t find in other ways. I think she saw herself as the more educated and well-rounded one, while I was still the same misfit stuck in her teenage years.

After those five years of no contact passed, I received a letter from Ethel.  She wanted to talk again. She wanted to apologize.

Ethel was now married, living in Chicago and going to grad school.  I wrote back, telling her I would tentatively correspond with her via letters. I needed time to test the waters and see if I could extend trust not born of my youth and former loneliness.

After several weeks of snail mail, I supplied Ethel with a caveat. If she ever pulled her act of just taking away the friendship without even discussing it with me first, then she needed to understand it would be the final straw. Don’t ever contact me again, I said. She accepted my terms.

We became close again. It was a rewarding, much more adult friendship this time around. I was thrilled I didn’t miss out on her giving birth to two beautiful daughters. Her family moved back to the area, and I got to see them more often. I thrived as a pseudo aunt. Those girls were the be-all-end-all to me.

After twelve years of having Ethel back in my world, we got into a fight. The details are unimportant as far as this writing goes, but I can say that it began with me telling her she had said something to me that hurt my feelings, and I wanted to discuss it. Suffice it to say her old habit of being unable to handle disagreement with me reared its ugly head yet again. Despite now having a graduate degree in a counseling field, she couldn’t deal with conflict. Ironic, don’t you think?

She cut. She ran.

Ethel still had some of my things, like CDs, DVDs and a book. I found my items in a small cardboard box that had been surreptitiously tossed on my front porch. It was raining, but the box was left open, allowing water to do some damage. Thanks! So kind of you to offer one last gutless wonder maneuver. My guess is it wasn’t even her that performed the drive-by. She likely handed off the task to her husband.

That was thirteen years ago. As I said at the beginning of this, I saw her today.

Not in person. It was during a middle of the night Google session conducted when I couldn’t fall back asleep. I searched various people I used to know, catching up with neighbors and old school mates. Then I thought of her and started poking around. I mainly hoped to see what her daughters look like all grown up. I still miss them.

I found recent pictures of Ethel posted on social media. There she sat having a meal out with her extended family. I did see what I believe are both of her daughters. But what I could not take my eyes off was Ethel herself. No longer the six-year-old sprite running around our elementary school playground. No longer the teenage girl applying purple eye shadow and puffing on a Marlboro. No longer the thirty-something new mom.

I could say I felt an instant longing for our closeness again. I could say I had to fight the desire to try to find her phone number and see if we could work this all out. But neither of those is true. I found myself awash in bitterness.

That face – my God, how much she looks like her father. Ethel’s dad was one of the most judgmental men I ever knew, and I was often standing in front of him as he brought down his gavel in contempt of me.

It wasn’t just her face. It was her expression. I knew it like I knew the back of my hand.  Ethel was never comfortable being photographed (neither am I). She often expressed fear of being seen as ugly or fat. I could see in these photographs the discomfort she tried to hide behind a grin. The way she sat, the placement of her hands, the tilt of her head. Her body language still proved familiar to me. I saw that she wasn’t happy about her picture being taken, but knew she had no choice.

She sat next to her mother-in-law. The one about whom Ethel often complained to me, but she couldn’t (wouldn’t) stand up to her. She sat across the table from her sister-in-law. The one about whom Ethel often complained to me, but she couldn’t (wouldn’t) confront her either.

Yet these people were still in her life, because Ethel had no choice. The very fact that they were in-laws meant she couldn’t pull her Ghost Routine. I was different. I was disposable.

I saw something else in those pictures. Ethel had gained weight. I knew her well enough to know what a number that must do on her self-image. In a flash of pettiness, I briefly took pleasure from knowing this. The anger at her goddamn audacity to throw me away time after time proved strong.

Taking in her physical changes, including how she has aged (as we all have), and seeing that patented I Am Uncomfortable Ethel body language and frozen smile posed some questions.

Has she changed in the past thirteen years? Does she face her fears about conflict and know how to resolve it now? Does she regret trashing our friendship? I don’t know. I never will know. I sure can guess, though. Pictures vs. a thousand words and all.

I took twenty-four hours to consider it all. Who and how she is now, as well as my reaction to seeing her in digital form moving through the current day world. My former best friend.

I spent the majority of the last several years being a caretaker for my mother, who had dementia. My entire life came to a halt while I did my best to ease her through her last years. I lost ground in terms of my career, my savings, my social life and my sanity.

When it was all over, I felt like I had spent ages on the side of the highway with a broken down car. My friends in my age group had all whizzed past me. After taking months to properly grieve the death of my mom, as well as the loss of the years of my life, I found myself in a depressive state. How on earth was I ever going to catch up?

In processing my reaction to seeing Ethel, I turned a corner in understanding something. We all spend time broken down on the side of the road. It’s not that I didn’t already know this on a cognitive level. I just needed a ghost from the past to stop in and remind me that I need to relax. I needed a revelation to give me a gentle shove towards getting back out on the road.

For months now, I’ve felt this favorite old Tori Amos lyric about feeling left behind summed up my life:

“All the white horses have gone ahead”

Now I’m realizing that I need to also hear the rest of that stanza:

“When you gonna make up your mind
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
‘Cause things are gonna change so fast”

And they have changed quickly. I actually started writing this piece some two months ago, then set it aside because my focus was suddenly diverted. I created a major opportunity in the creative writing field that, if it pays off, will change my life. I’m also now more at ease that being a menopausal woman with problems is not only okay, but matches me well with a group of friends I have in the same boat.

I released Ethel, that ghost from my past. That old haunting feeling of ‘She must be way happier than I am’ is gone. How she is, what she’s accomplished and what she weighs is none of my concern.

I’ve got my eyes on my own lane. I may be in a jalopy moving forward in fits and starts, but I am on the road again.

avw

Home for the Holidays

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My mom came by to visit me yesterday. Not in the flesh, owing to the fact that she died summer of last year, but she found a way.

Back in 1994, I decided to record a conversation with my mother. I treated it like I was interviewing her, with the purpose being to achieve a sort of life history for her. I caught the whole thing on cassette tape, as this was back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and people weren’t armed with smart phones and digital video recorders.

I spent forty-five minutes asking her questions, going chronologically from when she was born through when I was a little girl. My mother was 71 years old at the time I interviewed her, so less than an hour was nowhere near enough time to cover all the bases. I did manage to get in a lot of factual questions, along with ones with a more emotional base to them.

One of my biggest problems is that I procrastinate like it’s an Olympic sport. My intention to record more was put off and put off, and eventually the tape was relegated to its plastic cover and shelved with my hundreds of musical cassettes. I had not heard it since I created it.

Shortly after my mother died, the tape resurfaced. Not ready to deal with it yet, I put off listening to it. The day finally came when I wanted to hear it. More accurately, I needed to hear it. I cued it up in my ancient boombox. I was disappointed to find that the sound quality was so poor that I had to start and stop every few seconds. I could just barely hear her, which served to frustrate me and make me cry. I put the tape back up.

Yesterday, I decided to try again. The volume was still way too low. In desperation, I smacked the side of the boombox with my hand, as one does when a television, computer, kitchen appliance and host of other machines fail us.

Voila! The sound roared to life and my mother’s voice filled the room.

I listened to a twenty-seven year old me play journalist, sorting through the details of an elderly woman’s life. And it was beautiful. An early Christmas gift created by both my mother and myself to be delivered twenty-five years in the future.

The first thing that hit me in the face was that I never realized my mother had a Texas accent. How is that possible? The voice definitely belonged to her. The younger voice I remember, not the woman with dementia I knew for the last several years of her life. Yet it had a subtle but noticeable twang; sweet like a little sugar in a glass of iced tea.

Startling as well was a fact about my grandfather I had long forgotten. He was forty when he married my grandmother. She was only twenty at the time. My grandpa became a father in his mid-40’s. My mother entered parenthood in her mid-40’s, too. This means my own grandfather was born in 1880.

1880! When Laura Ingalls ran barefoot through the prairie, my grandpa was alive. Edison patented the light bulb the year before my grandpa entered the world. The invention of the car had not yet come to fruition. I simultaneously feel like I’m touching a piece of living history and that I myself am older than dirt.

I asked my mom about World War 2. She relayed how she was riding in a car with a couple of friends when the announcement about Pearl Harbor came over the radio. She spoke of the ration books she used to purchase things like meat, sugar and gasoline.  She was unaware of the atrocities of the Holocaust until the war was over.

When asked what attracted her to the man she married before my dad, she exclaimed that he was “oodles of fun”. The fun stopped when it was clear he was a raging alcoholic. Tired of living with him in Waterloo, Iowa, she left him and came back to Texas. I asked her who filed for divorce and she replied that she did. She told me at that time, most women were the ones to do the filing. If the man filed for divorce, it marked the woman as ‘unmarriable’, and was a black mark on her social record. If the woman filed, it just meant it must not have worked out. No Scarlet “D” for the man.

I learned about most of the cats my mother owned. (Shut it! Like mother, like daughter.) She reminded me of the multiple places she called home in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas. She told of my father’s proposal to her when they were out with friends drinking and dancing.

She spoke of so much more, happily answering all my questions. Yet there were so many I did not get to. I wish I had gone back to this project, but I am grateful that I achieved what I did. This precious testimonial has lived on, and it has allowed my mother to do the same, at a time of year when I really needed her to come to life in some form.

While listening to the tape, my eyes only watered a couple of times. I didn’t go into the full-blown grieving cry, which delightfully surprised me. It felt like my mom had stopped by for a visit at Christmas. As if she were just sitting next to me on my bed, painting little portraits of her life experiences.

If you have relatives whose life stories you’d like to relive down the line, I encourage you to document them now. It’s much more personal when it comes with their voices and faces, as opposed to just jotting down a timeline. There is so much more technology available for this today.

I meant to talk to my father, too, but he died a few months later. Time waits for no one. Make a piece of living history with your mom, dad, grandparents, spouse and others while you can. It will pay you and other family members back down the line.

On a similar subject, I wrote a piece last Christmas called “Red”. It’s about the last Christmas present my mother ever gave me. For those interested in an update, I unwrapped the red package to find a beautiful ornament.

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You might think I rushed to hang it in a place of prominence on my tree. I did not. I let it sit on my desk for weeks, afraid of breaking it while handling it or finding it had fallen from the tree and shattered. Weeks turned into all year, and it was only when I put up a tree this month that I was forced to make a decision.

I asked my friend to put a beautiful green bow on the top of the box and set it under my tree. Thus, a new tradition was born. I like the idea of placing the boxed ornament among the other presents. It feels like I cheated time and am able to enjoy that single present from my mother long past the one Christmas. Now every year will contain a gift from my mom.

I can’t decide if that is charming and clever or merely a cloyingly sweet idea fit for a horrid Hallmark holiday movie. Time will tell, but for now it feels right.

I wish a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or whatever applies to all my readers. May the new year bring you the peace I felt for forty-five minutes yesterday.