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Who Am I Now?


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As I was preparing for the last week of College Writing, I found myself reflecting on what we’ve been exploring this term: How regular writing—even if it’s not long, or even directly related to a single subject—can capture the essence of experience. Joan Didion calls it “keeping in touch with our past selves.” I call it a survival kit. Let me explain.

Almost exactly a month ago I got a “friend” request on my Facebook page. It was from a gray-haire but otherwise beautifully preserved man who called himself “David,” which, in the reality of internet security, I understood to mean that his name might or might not actually BE “David.” I don’t judge; I am known in some internet circles as “Bodie Parkhurst.” I have a friend who goes by “Shamala.” This is common practice. But I digress. 

Unlike many of the men from whom I get “friend” requests, David wasn’t a three-star general, a Nigerian prince, nor even a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He said he was a marine engineer. Given a steady diet of generals, princes, and philanthropists I was understandably eager to learn more, but David proved surprising coy. “I don’t want to talk about work,” he said. “I talk to you to escape from work.”

I thought about that, and wondered if I wanted to be anybody’s “escape” from life, but I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, I had a good friend in law enforcement who once told me that she told people I was her “Bohemian” friend, because I lived below a tattoo parlor and designed things on the computer rather than going to a regular office job. Maybe being trapped on a ship doing machiny and engineers things got old for David. Who was I to criticize?

In the beginning most of our conversations were of the, “Hi, how are you/Fine, I’m just headed out the door/Okay, have a good day” variety. David was invariably polite and supportive of my busy schedule. He never implored me to switch to What’s App, which seems to be the generals’, princes’, and surgeons’ platform of choice. He never became angry when I couldn’t or didn’t respond immediately. In internet friendships on my page, this counts for quite a bit. But then a few weeks in things started to shift. Maybe David caught me on a good day or maybe the long series of tiny polite exchanges just gradually evolved, but one evening I was somewhat startled to discover myself in a real conversation with David.

We talked about his daughter. We talked about my son. We were suitably guarded and respectful, but it felt real. And then one day David said it: “I’d really like to meet you. I feel like I’m developing feelings for you.”

Well. I am not a person for whom men readily develop feelings, particularly on such a scanty basis. I’m more the “wear them down and then pounce in a weak moment” kind of person. When David said he had feelings for me, it took me by surprise. What surprised me most of all was that I wasn’t terrified. Something in my brain woke up and said, “This is the point where you’re usually scared spitless. Why do you just feel good about this?” A part of me worried that maybe I SHOULD be scared, but the larger part felt a little bit proud. Maybe the thirty years of therapy were finally paying off! Maybe at last I was figuring out how to be comfortable with being courted? Maybe I could learn not to laugh at romantic overtures? Maybe I was finally learning how to be normal?

So I took pride in my lack of fear, and chatted happily back. David talked more and more about his feelings. I took some time to reflect on my own. I didn’t love David, but I thought that maybe, once his current contract ran out, it would be nice to meet and see what, if anything, developed. As I have said, I’m not the sort of person who provokes amorous intent in available men, so I was prepared for David to retreat hastily to friendship upon meeting me in person. Still, though, it was nice to think that someone found me worth pursuing. Someone said I was beautiful. Someone enjoyed my conversation, even if he was strangely leery about offering details about himself.

And so it went. Until David’s birthday came up. “I have a small favor to ask of you,” he wrote. “I need you to buy $500 of Steam cards and send me the numbers. I need them for my phone. I’d like to do a video chat on my birthday.

“I’d like to help,” I chatted back, “but I’m not made of money, and $500 is a lot for me. Also, isn’t Steam just for gaming?”

“I use the software on my phone,” he responded, somewhat ambiguously. Still, though, we had been talking for a month. He had feelings for me. More, he made me feel beautiful. “If the money’s a concern I’ll send you my banking information and you can transfer the money out of my account into yours.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get home.”

At home I told my son what was happening. My son is the tech savvy member of our household. Also, my son had not been chatting with David, so he tended to see things a bit differently. “This sounds scammy, Mom,” he said. “Why does he want Steam cards? You can only use them in gaming. They won’t help with his phone.”

“He says he uses them to run the video chat software on his phone.”

“How long is he planning on chatting?” my son asked, and he asked it with a certain tone. At least I thought I heard a tone.

“He’s going to be at sea for another couple months,” I answered.  “And he’s not asking me to front the money; he’s given me access to his account.”

“He gave YOU access to HIS account?” my son asked. 

“Yes, so I can transfer the money.” I clicked into his bank account. Lines wiggled. Bar graphs shot up. It looked far more creative than what I was expecting. Also, the spelling on some of the terms was creative, to put it mildly. Maybe it’s a bank from a non-English-speaking country, I decided. Maybe this is badly translated.

“Call your bank,” my son insisted. “This sounds like a scam. Listen…” and he started reading from some site discussing scams and Steam cards. 

“But David’s not asking me to spend my own money. He wants me to transfer the funds to my account and then buy the cards. How could he be scamming me?” I asked. And I defiantly pushed the button. 

“Call your bank,” my son said again. “Ask what they think. This sounds like a scam to me.”

Every time he said “scam” I found myself getting more and more irritated. Finally I offered a compromise. “I’ll call the bank. Whatever they suggest, I’ll do.” 

This would probably have been easier to say if I hadn’t just spent the last couple weeks congratulating myself on having moved past my fear of intimacy to the point where I could feel good about chatting with David.

You probably know how this story ends. The bank called back. “We’re locking your account, closing it, and opening you up a new one. This is a scam. When you put in the money transfer information they have your banking information. They get you to give the Steam card numbers, then they reverse the transaction. Sometimes they empty  your account.”

I felt heartsick. David had been my friend, or at least I thought he was. Worse, I had had all the old messages from my childhood, that romance wasn’t for me, that people wouldn’t care for me for myself, and that I was only worth duping, reaffirmed. Suddenly I was right back at the “self” I had been in the bad old days. I felt worthless. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed.

How had I, veteran kicker-to-the-curb of three-star generals, Nigerian princes, and philanthropic doctors, been fooled? How had David slipped past my defenses? And then it occurred to me: I could know exactly how it happened. I had our chat. 

And so I went back and started reading, analytically this time. I noticed how often David evaded responding to questions about himself. I noticed how his language challenges—he said he was Norwegian—ebbed and flowed. I noticed how often the details he offered reflected details about myself that I had previously offered. 

And then it hit me: David had provided me a framework—a few chats and a few pictures—and I had constructed a person. And then I had decided that person was my friend. I had participated in my own scamming.

The people who know about this all said I should block David, but there was still a part of me that hoped for some explanation—even as the smarter part of myself recognized that the most overwhelming possibility was exactly what appeared to be the case: David wasn’t David at all. He was probably some kid seeking out vulnerable people online, and then scamming them.

David and I had a final conversation. I told him that what had really tipped the balance for me was the long list of evasions. When the time came that I really, really needed to trust him, there simply was nothing there to trust. He responded sarcastically, telling me he had been “straight” with me, and answered every question.

I sent him a list of all the questions I had asked, questions he had carefully slid around before charging off on another conversational tack. 

“That’s what you’re basing this on?” he asked. “Those are details.”

And then he informed me—in perfect English, yet, that I was the “sketchy” one, and that he would never trust me after the “stunt” I had pulled. 

“I googled your bank,” I said. “I couldn’t find it.”

He shot me back a screen capture. “Here’s the bank you “googled,” he said. “Click the link.”

I read the name of the bank, went into my search engine, and entered the name. “The bank’s name is different,” I told him. And it was. The screen background was the same. The client information box style was the same, but the bank’s name and logo was completely, completely, different.

“There were a lot of misspellings on your account page,” I typed.

“Probably because you were making an unauthorized transfer,” he shot back, conveniently bypassing the fact that he had instigated the whole thing and had, in fact, pressured me to transfer the money.

“People who have seven-figure bank accounts don’t need random people on the internet to buy Steam cards so they can use their phones,” I finally said.

And that was when he told me that I had been a waste of time, and that I had “trust issues.”

I thought about that. “In this case, you’re right,” I finally typed. And then I blocked him.

***

So what is the meaning of this? Why am I writing about this? Because tonight I found myself thinking that the record of our conversations—a kind of journal, certainly a kind of notebook—I had kept had, combined with my son’s sharp eye and persistence, had first, saved me from quite possibly devastating financial loss. More important, though, they showed me what it meant to be me in this last month—and what it meant to be David. In the end, that chat has shown me that I don’t know myself as well as I think I do. When I look at that I see a woman who is not as ready to give up on the idea of love as she has thought. I’ve seen a woman so entranced by the idea of being thought beautiful and valuable that she was willing to risk far too much to perpetuate the illusion. But it also shows me a woman who, once she has a place to start, can analyze, evaluate, and learn from an experience, no matter how embarrassing. Finally, I see a woman who, while she might be embarrassed, refuses to be ashamed. She speaks up. She tells her story—even if she doesn’t look particularly good in it. She owns her truth. 

The truth is that David was a scammer. But I helped. And in looking at HOW I helped, I am learning a lot about who I am, and who I want to be.

Emma’s Family


This is Emma and Rudolf, close to their wedding day.

I only know Emma in flashes. In the first flash she stands with the man she loves, my great-grandfather Rudolf. She is persuading her parents to overlook his less than aristocratic birth, to see instead what she sees—a man with a fine mind and a drive to succeed. She wins that battle, though her family never really forgives her for taking Rudolf’s name, leaving her “von” behind her.

In the next flash she stands on a rough pier in Bremen, enormously pregnant, clutching her toddler daughter’s hand, keeping an eye on her energetic son as he runs back and forth, shouting, “Wir gehen nach Amerika! Wir gehen nach Amerika!” Rudolf stands with her, holding their tickets. He has $3,000 dollars in his pocket along with the Kuypchinski’s address. The Kuypchinskis are their destination in Wisconsin, the bit of home they will find waiting for them in America.

I see her next in bed in one of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabins, dreadfully seasick, and in labor. The ship rolls in a storm, back and forth, back and forth. She heaves, and pushes, heaves, and pushes. At last she gives birth to a tiny daughter, Alitor.

Emma spends the remainder of the voyage in the bed, Alitor beside her, and small Meta in a basket on the floor. She tries to keep a hand on Meta’s basket, but seasickness and birth have weakened her, and the basket slips from her fingers and slides across the cabin when the ship rolls one way. It slides back to her when the ship rolls the other. Emma keeps grabbing for the basket, and losing her grip, and watching her daughter sail away from her, only to return, time after time.

I see Emma next in her house. Snow lies deep and pristine all around. Branches snap and crack in the cold. Emma’s mother-in-law Anna sits on the porch, holding Alitor wrapped in shawls and blankets. It is Wisconsin, and midwinter, and that night Alitor begins to cough. In a flash and an eternity, baby Alitor is gone. Emma’s arms are empty.

Emma (left) Bill (second from right) and cousins, I believe.

In the flashes, Emma is never center stage—she is the woman at the stove, a gentle presence at the heart of a family whirlwind. Her eight surviving children grow strong and musical. They start a band, and travel the area, providing dance music at house parties. They court, and marry. The family thrives.

That’s what’s important to Emma: family. Emma and Rudolf’s farm becomes a safe haven for more and more of her family. They set off from Klein Morin in Posen, journey to that pier in Bremen, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and New York, then venture home to Emma in Wisconsin. They stay until they have enough English and money to navigate in America, then buy their own farms close by, or, in the case of the daughters, become farm wives or maids for wealthy families.

Emma, front and center, with her children behind her.

And still Emma is there, in her house at the farm. She is there the night the house catches fire. The family wakes and flees the blaze searing their backs and heels. Morning finds them with the clothes on their backs and a box of pictures—all they salvaged from the fire.

Rudolf, their sons, their friends, and their scattered family rally around to rebuild. And still the family in the Old Country keeps on coming. When Emma’s first child after Alitor, her son Wilhelm, marries, he brings his wife Gladys to the farm. His first two babies are born in the new birthing room just off Emma’s kitchen. It feels very modern and convenient, does that birthing room—purpose built with cupboards for all of the linens and paraphernalia birth requires, and close to the stove for hot water.

When Bill’s family moves into their own home a few miles away Emma misses her grandchildren terribly and woos them with gingersnaps with they come home to the farm each Sunday for chicken dinner and baseball. It all feels very American.

When Bill has a truck accident the children come back to the farm to live, while Bill’s wife goes to work in a furniture factory to pay their mortgage. Emma feeds the children, and her youngest sons—still little more than boys themselves–drive the children to school each day in their Model A’s and play with them when they aren’t working with Rudolf on the farm. Her oldest daughter Meta takes a shine to Bill’s oldest daughter. And so the farm becomes home to her children’s children.

Emma, with two of her daughters

Those are good days for Emma, at the center of the family from Posen, and the family from her body. And then one day Rudolf goes to bed, sick with some mysterious malady. The doctor says he can smell the cancer on Rudolf. Maybe he can. Rudolf lies in the birthing room just off the kitchen, dying in the bed where his grandchildren were born. He becomes convinced that Emma is trying to poison him, and refuses to eat. His grandchildren stand in the birthing room door and throw shoes at him until Emma makes them stop.

Emma and Rudolf, in their driveway

When he dies Emma goes on keeping house for her youngest sons, the two designated to stay home and care for her in her old age. Bill’s children grow up. Her granddaughter, my mother, moves across America with her own husband and young daughter, to start again. And then, amid her dwindling family, Emma herself begins to slip away.

It’s little things at first: A burned pot of potatoes, laundry left wet in the basket rather than hung on the line. The gingersnap jar stands empty. The vorgarten–the flowers she loved and planted on the gentle slope between her new house and the road–lies indifferently watered and poorly weeded. It gets worse. Emma, for whom home and family has always been everything, forgets them. While her sons work the family farm she begins to wander. Her sons seek her out when she goes voyaging alone and confused on roads and paths that have become foreign to her. They find her clothing first, and then Emma herself, naked, lost, seeking the home and children she can no longer find.

https://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/emmas-family/
Emma, with two of Bill’s grandchildren.

Emma, who has been the center of the family, swings in increasingly irregular orbits. She cannot hold, and so they put her away. It’s called the County Home. Emma’s grandchildren call it the Poor Farm. It’s where families put people like Emma in those days before nursing homes. It’s where the county also houses the orphans, the indigent, and everybody else who no longer comfortably fits in the world.

And there Emma stays. Alone. My mother says they didn’t visit her because “she wouldn’t have wanted us to see her like that.” Maybe she’s right. I know my mother loved her—she wept bitterly when Emma died three months after I was born. At least the people at the County Home probably kept Emma clothed, inside, off the roads and out of the Wisconsin winter. But even now, nearly sixty years after my birth and her death, I think of her, spending her last days in a strange place, amid strange people, strange sounds, strange food, and strange smells, far from home and family. I wish it could have been different.

I never knew Emma, but the world she built lives on for decades after her death. The year I turn ten the whole family meets at the farm for a picnic and baseball. Dinner is an enormous cauldron of what Emma’s family call “barbecue” but most people call “sloppy Joes.” Emma’s daughters cook the barbecue over a fire outside the back door of Emma’s kitchen that green, humid summer day. We, Emma’s family, fill the farm to bursting, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren running, laughing, arguing, and eating. Women wear light summer dresses. The men wear plaid shirts and khakis, or bib overalls. One or two bold sons-in-law wear bermuda shorts. The air is filled with German and English, spoken in rich Wisconsin dialect.

The last flash comes one winter’s day. I am young and lost, and far from home. Somehow I find myself back to the farm. I sit in Emma’s kitchen with Great Uncle Fred, who has custody of the pictures rescued from the fire long ago. Thin winter sun pours over us, and over the pictures Uncle Fred has spread on the old formica table. His thick brown farmer’s fingers gently slide the pictures around as he tells me stories and laughs gently. Across the kitchen stands Emma’s stove, not far from the birthing room door. The winter house smells sharp, like cedar and damp wool. The sun warms my head, though icy air swirls around our ankles. At last I understand that though Emma and I only shared the world for a few short months,  I have found my family right where Emma left it for me.

Solstice


Here’s an excerpt from
Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal.

Happy Solstice!

I wrote this piece a number of years ago, when my dad was dying. It was an odd sort of comfort back then, but comfort, nonetheless. I find myself taking comfort in it again this year, when so many of us again stand surrounded by death…and life. Happy Solstice!

We stand, my son Patrick and I, on a knoll high above the Columbia River. The bluffs roll golden above us to the hard blue sky. Below us lies the river, ruffled blue by a baking wind. This is a respite, a hiatus in a day-long car trip to my parents’ house. I wonder if my father will be able to eat the corn chowder I have packed frozen in the ice chest in the trunk. I wonder if he’ll be able to walk. I wonder if he’ll be able to sit up. I wonder if he’ll still be alive. He is dying with the year, fading as the trees fade from their July green to their late August grays and tans.

Facing his death is  in some ways easier than facing his life, a fact that shames and saddens me, but it is true, nonetheless. I do what I can, which is not much. I drive the eight hours from my home in Medford to my parents’ home in Pendleton. I make corn chowder, one of the few things my father can still eat with some pleasure. I clean the house. I talk to my mother. I help my father to the bathroom. I try not to wince when he touches me. I hug him back instead. And at night I lie in my childhood bed in that painful house and I read into the early morning hours because even though I’m a grown woman with a child of my own I’m still afraid to turn off the light.

We have turned off the freeway, crossed the Columbia on the delicate, spindly bridge that spans the river at Biggs, and followed the winding road up the hill, turned right, then turned right again onto a small side road, and then turned right one more time onto gravel. Few people come here, and those few were usually brought by someone else in the beginning. I was brought here myself years ago, and now I am bringing my son, although to be honest the trip is more for me than for him.

It never changes here. Grass ripples tawny and amber around the massive stone circle. It looks like savanna grass, the kind from which lions might spring. But this is Washington, and there are no lions here. There will be no heart-stopping roar, no tawny mane, no gaping, powerful jaws, no sabre-tipped massive paws. There will be no drama, no last-minute rescues, no animal savagery. Which is not to say that death does not live here. We stand above rimrocks rising like ziggurats from the river to the sky. A miss-step, a stumble, could send us plunging into the abyss. Diamondback rattlesnakes love these places. They take refuge from the sun’s heat in the myriad tiny caves and grottoes, slithering out in late afternoon and evening to hunt and sun themselves in these very grasslands. And then there are the standing stones, silent sentinels to the memory of local boys for whom death came far away, not on a sun-baked grassy hilltop, but in a muddy trench, a heaving ocean, a roaring sky. These stones and row upon row of white crosses in red-splashed fields are all that mark their lives these days. They died young. I doubt many left wives or children.

I look around me and feel the emptiness of the place, and think that death can come in many ways, most of them small, quiet, and mundane. I think of my father, lying in a hospital bed in the living room, waiting for death to claim him, and suddenly the grassy mountaintop with its savanna grass and rattlesnakes seems like a pure, clean, and safe place. I look down at my son standing beside me, tanned knees bare below his shorts, feet shod in sturdy leather boots, honey-gold curls tossing in the wind. I wonder what he’s thinking. Surely he’s not standing here thinking of death, as I am. Patrick tucks a hot, sweaty, slightly sticky hand into mine and we scuff wordlessly through the waving grass to the center of the place.

There are others here. A middle-aged couple in golf shirts and white shorts moves quietly from stone to stone, reading the names on the brass plaques. A man poses his wife and three children beneath one of the massive, empty stone doorways—“Smile nice, kids…not like that, smile nice,” he commands. “There, that’s better…just one more for Grandma…” His children bare their teeth as he snaps and snaps. A lean couple in skin-tight rivet-studded bellbottoms and slinky black shirts stands entangled, hands shoved deep into each others’ back pockets, heads slanted, mouths devouring each other, at the edge of the drop-off to the river below. I see a flash of tongue before I avert my eyes. “Look, Patrick…see the stones?” I say, hoping he didn’t see the tongues, too.

We wander from stone to stone, reading names unknown to us, as dead now as the boys who bore them. None of us here today are old enough to have known these men, to feel their loss as anything but a vague regret. These men are as lost—and as unknown—as the builders of the original stone circle an ocean and an age away.

Patrick and I finish the circle of stones and wander out into the grass, seeking the heel stone, touching the tall obelisk to the east, then ambling back to the altar stone at the center. He is silent and still sleepy. I keep an eye peeled for snakes while I try to explain a mystery that has puzzled archeologists and historians for centuries. The afternoon ages. The circle slowly empties until at last our car sits solitary in the dusty parking lot, and we stand alone by the massive stone altar in the center of the circle.

I lift Patrick to sit on its flat top, then lean beside him. A cooling wind cuts the baking heat the stones reflect. A hawk screams high overhead. Patrick drapes an arm around my shoulders and we gaze around at the massive worked stones, the dark brass plaques bearing the names of men as surely dead as my father will soon be, the waving grass, the heel stone, the river far below, and the blue, blue bowl of sky overhead. I realize that in my years away—in the flight from the pain of my childhood—I have missed this clean, open space where my soul can stretch. I have remembered the pain, the blows, the shame, the browns, the grays, the dust, the wind, the heat, but I have forgotten the campfires orange against black fir forests and diamond-studded night skies, toasted marshmallows and frogs going courting at sunset, the ice cream sandwiches on hot afternoons, and how it feels to stand on a high bluff with nothing between the golden grass and blue sky but myself and the wind blowing through me.

I stand anchored by the little arm around my neck, and lift my head and pull the day into my lungs, and a part of me that has been bound lifts its head. I tighten my arm around my son and tell him about Stonehenge far away, about how the stones mark time, how the sun rises around the circle as the year turns, about how each midwinter day, as the sun rose above the special stone, the people rejoiced not because spring had arrived, but because they knew it was coming. Through the remainder of the winter, through blizzards, ice storms, endless gray days, starvation, disease, and death, they clung to the circle’s message. Spring is on its way. Life will triumph. The cold, bleak days will end. Stonehenge was more than a calendar. It was hope, set in stone.

I fall silent. Patrick sags against me. I look around me and see the stones with their brazen reminders of death standing tall and silent against the tawny hills and the blue sky, and I realize that as surely as the stones with their brass plaques surround me today, death surrounds me—but I am not confined by it as long as I can see the world beyond the stones—the tawny grass, the blue sky, and the sun. The circle goes round. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Better times are coming. I think of my father looking out over the hills and valleys, dying on a hilltop far away, and I know that I have not reached midwinter yet. It will be worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I may never know what the standing stones said to their creators, but I know what they have said to me today—and I am grateful to the depths of my soul for their voices. The hawk screams again, and together Patrick and I watch it soar high above the stones, over the rimrocks, beyond the river, and into the blue beyond.

The Potty Dance


These are not my legs, nor are the legs in the approved Potty Dance stance, nor are these my shoes. About the only thing this illustration has going for it is that it looks awkward and funny, and the legs don’t look hairy. Don’t judge. I’ll put in a nice car farther down, and maybe a bike.

So I’ve fallen down–or up–stairs three times in the last month. This has had me concerned. I mean, I’m falling down more often than my mother does, but then she’s a remarkably fit 84. Actually she runs circles around me on a regular basis. So anyhow, falling down and worrying. This has had me thinking. And then tonight, as I was limping across my office and standing timidly at the top of the stairs, worrying about my descent, I suddenly realized that I was falling not because I was getting old–is 59 old these days?–but because my body is inattentive to bodily things until conditions have reached DefCon 1.

If you’re a classy sort who doesn’t discuss body stuff in mixed company, you’ll want to stop here, because I’m about to tell you about the Potty Dance. I’ll wait a minute.

Okay, they’re gone. On with the story. I learned the Potty Dance in early childhood. I executed it frequently because, my body’s pee meter wasn’t a gauge, which measures slowly increasing pressure, but more of an idiot light, which, like the little oil lamp in my car, only comes on when it’s far, far too late. This system does not work well, and never has.

As a small child I provided a lot of entertainment for my siblings and their friends, who took delight in trying to make me laugh when they could see I was performing the Potty Dance, a sort of Drunkard’s Path path executed with thighs pressed tightly together and legs scissoring in a sort of circular motion–all of this performed with what I must confess was an absolutely transparent air of casual ease–I was just staggering toward the bathroom this way because I wanted to. There is still a story enshrined in family history about the time I staggered into the bathroom door at my mom’s friend’s house, nearly knocking her lovely full-length mirror to the floor.

Here’s the bike I promised you, because I always keep my word. Also because I love this guy, with his big nose and his clodhoppers and his fat-tired bike, freewheeling through life. I would never dare to do this. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter, but who cares? I’m feeling rebellious. Who says stories and illustrations have to match? Not me! At least not today. It’s a guy on a bike.

When I was a teenager I worked on a ranch. Much of my time was spent in fields where men might come driving up in pickups at any moment. Having to strip in the field (bib overalls were my garments of choice in those days) for a quick whiz was risky business. So how did I cope, you ask? Did I go to the bathroom in the outhouse down by the grain elevator at the river?

I did not. The outhouse was there for the convenience of the truckers, true, but none of us ever used it. This was because we had robust senses of humor. We found it hilarious to pelt the outhouse–which was metal–with rocks if anybody went inside. For some reason there was an outside latch on the door. Rumor had it that some newby had gone into the outhouse one time, and a trucker had locked him in. And then everyone stood around and pointed and laughed as the newby huddled inside, mortified. So–no outhouse for me.

Instead, I developed a bladder that could have doubled for a blacksmith’s bellows. I mean, that thing had muscles on its muscles. Halfway through my first summer driving harvest I realized that I was going all day–that’s twelve to fourteen hours, for those of you who have never drive a harvest truck–without a potty break. Nor was I performing the Potty Dance. How did this happen? I don’t know. I just know that during the summers I developed muscles everywhere, even where nobody ever thought to look.

Ah, if only that happy state of affairs had continued. I had a baby. I had my lady parts removed a few years ago. And suddenly here I am, performing the Potty Dance regularly again. It still provokes amusement. Now it is my son who takes pleasure in my complicated and gyrations as I stagger to the bathroom.

And now my feet are getting temperamental, going along for months, carrying me everywhere without an issue. And then one morning I’ll swing them to the floor, stand up, and fall back on the bed because it hurts too much to stand. My feet will have cracked in the night. Imagine, if you will, trying to stagger through the Potty Dance when your feet insist that yes, you can and should levitate.

But there’s another complication, this one psychological rather than physical. Like all new mothers, I was faced with the complication of having to wrap, feed, and carry my child using my hands and arms. I got very good at juggling a baby, a diaper bag, a baby seat, various bags of groceries, and sometimes a cat.

In those days, I learned to load myself up on trips between the car and the house. Otherwise I would have been toting groceries all day. I’ve never really broken the habit. When I can’t skive off completely and rush into the house while Patrick and whoever is riding with us at the time bring in the groceries–Potty Dance!–I Do My Part. I load myself up with boxes of soda, jugs of milk, occasionally the eggs when I’m feeling very brave, the bread, vegetables–you get the idea.

So picture me a couple weeks ago, loading myself up with groceries and juggling a large cup of ice water and a Strawberry Mist Frost as well–a Strawberry Mist Frost from which I had only taken two small sips. I got two steps from the car and the idiot light went on. I Assumed the Position–thighs clamped to the knees, lower legs swinging out to clear the gravel and leaves lying beside the driveway. I made it to the two little steps leading up into our pergola, stared at them doubtfully, took an enormous risk, and unclamped my thighs just enough to lift my foot onto the bottom step. I knew instantly that had been a mistake, but I still had another step to go and then the walk to yet more steps unless I wanted to spend the night under the wisteria bush. I grimly lifted my other foot, resigned to the knowledge that I would be changing my trousers in just a few minutes.

And then I navigated the walkway, doing a flamboyant, twisting rendition of the Potty Dance, tacking back and forth across the walkway like a sailboat in a strong wind. The sole mercy was that The Boy had preceded me into the house so there were no witnesses. I made it to the steps. My arms ached. I took a better grip on my Strawberry Mist Frost and my water cup, hoisted the grocery bags, and attempted the first step. I got my foot up on it, but I was off balance. I lifted my other foot quickly to the second step–always a mistake when one is performing the Potty Dance. I made it again, but there was another step, and now I was really off-balance. I lifted the first foot quickly to the porch, then took a couple little running steps, thinking, as I always do at times like this, that if I could just catch up with myself I’d be okay. I don’t know why I believe this because never has that ever worked. I did, however, realize suddenly that that idiot light had gone on for a reason, and it would shortly be going off again, whether I made it to the bathroom or not. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about this because by now I was seriously falling. I was close enough to the door that I smacked it with my forehead–hard enough to break the door jamb and pop it open, but not so close that my head couldn’t continue its journey to bounce on the concrete porch.

I landed on top of my Strawberry Mist Frost and my cup of ice water. I also bruised a lot of vegetables. The Boy appeared to see my lying flat on my belly, cursing into the concrete as the Strawberry Mist Frost soaked through my coat. “You need help, Mom?” he asked, because he really is a good and kind person.

“No, I’m fine,” I said even though idiot lights were going off all over my body at that point. It is part of my Code that I must get myself back to my feet On My Own at times like this. Having help would be taking unfair advantage. I got myself down there; now I have to get myself back up. Don’t look for logic in this–there is none. I clawed my way back upright, limped inside, and continued to the bathroom without needing to perform a single step of the Potty Dance, if you take my meaning.

So that was one fall. The falls before that had resulted from a simple arithmetic error: I went down a flight of six steps, but only planned on five. It could happen to anybody, I tell myself. And then tonight I stood up from my desk, only to realize my feet had developed cracks like the Grand Canyon, but had kept that information for a little surprise. I winced and rolled up on my heels–the cracks run across the balls of my feet–only to have the idiot light come on.

I hobbled to the steps, doing a strange truncated version of the Potty Dance. I stood at the top for a long time. And then I slowly, slowly descended, sideways, one step at a time, bracing myself on the wall. And I made it. I’m learning. I’m learning to think in terms of time since my last visit to the bathroom, rather than expecting my bladder to alert me that perhaps I should start planning a trip. I’m learning to accept my son’s arm when I go up and down the outside steps. I’m learning to stop loading myself up like a pack mule when there are groceries to bring in. Making a second trip is not a mortal sin.

And I’m learning to laugh at myself when this happens, even though it feels shameful and humiliating. I’m learning that changing my trousers in the middle of the day is not the end of the world. Well, it kind of is right now, since our dryer’s on the fritz, but I digress. Mostly, I’m just letting my idiot light and my poor feet remind me that I’m traveling through life with somewhat temperamental equipment, and if some things don’t work as well as they once did, other things work a lot better. I’m learning that it’s okay to be human.

And here’s the car, like I also promised. Here’s hoping I’m not feeling as rebellious tomorrow. I really do like it when my stories and pictures match…

LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI

WRITER, memoir teacher, knitter, quilter, happy trail walker...

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