All Our Names

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a voracious reader, a lifetime book slut, carrying multiple books everywhere I go like a security blanket.   Here’s a review of the latest novel I’ve read.  I think just about anyone and everyone would enjoy it.  Originally written for the Friends of the New Smyrna Beach Regional Library website,  it is cross posted here by kind permission of Friends President Diana Bardyn.  (

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells at least one love story. The ending made me cry, and it will probably make you cry, too. Now that I’ve got that out on the table, here are some of the other things this wonderful novel is: it ‘s a tale of friendship, of being an outsider, of losing and forming an identity. This is a novel of political and social upheaval as seen from the personal micro-threads of its main characters.

One narrator is a young man who leaves his family farm in Ethiopia for the busy city of Kampala, Uganda. We never learn his given name, although he alludes to a long string of family names and titles. He makes friends with another young man from similar circumstances, who calls himself Isaac. Both young men dream of achieving greatness in the heady days of post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. These are the days where the dream of Pan African freedom is quickly fading and corrupt leaders like Idi Amin have twisted the dream into a revolutionary nightmare.

Even though they are too impoverished to afford tuition, the narrator and Isaac gravitate to the university. Transforming themselves from outsiders, they gradually make their reputations as campus radicals. Isaac, the braver and bolder of the two, forges an identity by attaching himself to a revolutionary figure named Joseph. His transformation from a saucy student rebel into a deadly serious thug, and the personal sacrifices he makes for power, are heartrending.   The narrator’s friendship with Isaac endures, however, and both young men are forced into political exile after a violent coup.  Mengestu skillfully withholds just enough information to let us know that one of the young men escapes to America with the identity and passport bearing the name “Isaac Mabira.”

The second narrator is Helen, a young social worker in a small Midwestern town. Her job has eroded her idealism and she’s running low on compassion. She takes on the assignment of foreign exchange student Isaac. Not particularly curious about his background, she’s happy that by taking Isaac to the university library and helping him shop for Goodwill furniture, she can avoid going to the hospital to visit terminally ill clients, prison inmates, and boring staff meetings.

On the surface, Helen and Isaac have little in common but their youth. Helen, however, is as weary of her hometown as Isaac was desperate to escape his Ethiopian village. Although she still lives in her childhood home, Helen has little to say to her husk of a shell-shocked mother who has never recovered from the departure of Helen’s father.   Helen regularly packs boxes of belongings and puts them in the basement until her bedroom is nearly empty. She’s been leaving for years, even though she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Isaac likes Helen’s loud voice and she, full of misconceptions about Africans, is surprised that he isn’t tiny and malnourished. They share an offbeat sense of humor and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Isaac offers little information about his recent past, and Helen doesn’t ask.

Isaac forces Helen to see her hometown through an outsider’s eyes. As they grow closer, Helen is forced to reckon with a post-Civil Rights American town in the 1970s that is not quite ready for an interracial couple.   In one painful scene, Helen takes Isaac to a diner she’s frequented since childhood. As people stare and the waitress suggests that Isaac takes his food in a Styrofoam to-go box, Isaac insists that they stay put and finish their meal. Isaac, no stranger to the daily reality underlying “progress,” says, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces. “ Helen comes to realize that the Isaac she loves is just the tip of the iceberg; the parts he’s kept from her are dangerously vast, murky, and unknowable to her.

Mengestu cleverly builds suspense and keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. He achieves this disorientation partly through alternating narrators, switching from Uganda to the Midwest. Not only do we not know until fairly late in the novel which Isaac Helen is falling in love with, but also there’s a tense time constraint to their affair. Isaac’s student visa will expire in one year. One day, Isaac gets shattering news from Uganda. His identity unravels, and the only person who can help him weave a new one is Helen, if she can stand to hear the stories he has to tell.

Author Mengestu is listed on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of gifted young writers. He has written two previous novels about the Ethiopian diaspora, but this is the first book told partially from the perspective of a native-born American. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to America at an early age. Although he’s covered parts of Africa as a journalist, he has said that the story of the two Isaacs does not reflect any specific chapter of Ugandan history, just the general progression from idealism, to violent revolution, to escape and exile.  And love, as always, is universal.

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Mother of Reinvention

I haven’t posted since December! I’ve had some sadness and a severe case of blogger’s block. Every topic I thought of just made me go, “Meh!”


2014-03-25 14.19.54(Sculpture at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) 

A couple weeks ago I toured Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a friend for no other reason than we both love architecture and airplanes. A man on our tour asked, “Do you ladies have children or grandchildren going here?”  My friend, never one to shrink from male misassumptions, said, “No, we don’t. What makes you say that? Maybe we’re here because we’re prospective students.” Why not? I thought. Given the time and money, both of us could learn to fly and start new careers. While this might not happen literally, it’s a good metaphor for starting afresh, finding my wings, and flying again.

People, I have been SO depressed! My firecracker mother-in-law who lived with us passed away in January. Gloria was a sharp lady who loved fiercely but didn’t suffer fools.   She’d be the first person to feed stray cats and help those in need, but I’ve seen her say, “Go fuck yourself,” and slam the door in somebody’s face if she thought she was being swindled. Her death really flattened our household, and my husband and I had a couple of rough months where we woke up sweating every night reliving scenes from Gloria’s final days and wondering if we made the right decisions about her care.

I’ve had my own personal mortality lesson in the form of menopause. I have staunchly resisted writing about it because I’m embarrassed by it. I’m just so tired of menopause jokes, complaints, and stereotypes, many of which I lived through at work.  I remember so many coworkers having hot flashes and putting mini-fans on their desks.  They’d crank the air conditioning so low I’d be wearing three sweaters. I remember their snappiness and brain farts being chalked up to, “Well, she’s just going through menopause.” Part of me always thought they just needed to get some hormones, get their acts together, and quit making the rest of us suffer.

For the record, I’m now saying, “Respect, ladies! You were NOT kidding!” OMG. The horror is real: the mood swings, the energy crashes, the boob sweats, the 20-30 lb weight gain. I’m looking in the mirror and going, “Who the hell is that?” They say people start to resemble their dogs. Sure enough, I am getting jowls like one of my pugs or bulldogs that render me unfit for selfies. So you won’t be seeing too much of me on Facebook or Instagram. Just look at my pugs and pretend it’s me.

No energy. No joke.   One trip to the grocery store and I’d be down for a nap.  And by a nap, I mean a nap that lasted the rest of the day. The only thing I had energy for was Pinterest, to the extent that friends wanted to do a Pintervention. “That’s the only way I know you’re still alive — I see you pinning online,” they said. It was easier to gather images of other people’s accomplishments, their crafts, their clothes, their art, their lives, than repair my own underwhelming existence. Luckily, I had a few freelance writing assignments that kept me going.

Finally, bored by my own inertia, I found a way out of zombie land by finding a good doctor and taking hormone therapy.   I know there are risks, but they’ve changed my life. Without hormones I might seriously be wandering the house listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” wondering when and how and why I killed everybody in the house.



So, yep, on to reinvention.

My heroes are usually not other writers. Writers are too introspective and self-loathing. I like people of action, like astronauts, aviators and racecar drivers. I think what I like about them is that they are always striving, that they are constantly busy, they are always focused on goals, and they don’t let themselves stop moving long enough to get mired in torpor or self-pity.  In the depths of my depression this winter I read two astronaut autobiographies: Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins (1974) and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield (2013).



Collins, of course, was part of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and he, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon with Apollo 11. Canadian Hadfield just transitioned out of his career as a Space Shuttle astronaut and a commander at the International Space Station. He’s an endearing media personality, particularly famous for singing and recording David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on orbit at the International Space Station.

These astronauts come from two very different eras of spaceflight, but they share a great deal. Both guys are given to philosophical reflection, high scorers on the scale of astronaut-thoughtfulness. I was struck, however, that their trajectories were full of frustratingly small baby-steps. They sometimes took pilot assignments that seemed a universe away from joining NASA, career moves all over the world (that their families patiently endured) while they wondered if they’d ever go to space. Before Hadfield, there’d never been a Canadian astronaut, and he sometimes questioned if it were at all possible. But they kept moving, flying, persistently taking opportunities to learn new skills each and every day. Their careers serve as reminders to all of us, every day, to DO something towards being the person we want to be, to work towards the job we want to have.

I also had the happy experience of going to the Tico Airshow, something I’ve always wanted to do.  I was not just cheered up: I was ecstatic.  The sheer beauty of the planes and aerobatic feats was astounding,  and I thought, “Nobody here, whether they’re flying or watching, is just sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.” I became the four-year-old girl whose dad took her to the airport to see planes taking off, who wriggled with wonder at the speed, the noise, the surge into the air.

So it is time to be active and take steps every day. Be the mother of my own reinvention. I think my next few blogs will be dedicated to people who relentlessly (re)invent themselves– either by choosing a life of boldness or by making a midlife career change that catapults them into the bliss of doing what they love.

And just for the record: no, I am not giving up my Pinterest addiction. And yes, I actually do admire writers, too. Here’s one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

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April 8, 2014 · 12:32 am

Some Enchanted Evening . . . You May Meet A Yeti

When the weather gets nippy, I dream of sasquatches, or more specifically, the yetis of Tibet crunching through the snow of the Himalayan Mountains.   The reputed hairy ape man, the abominable snowman, haunted my imagination when I was young.


Can’t believe I just found an online image of this book! What a treat!  The Abominable Snowman by Eric Norman was one of my favorites.  This picture used to TERRIFY me.  Look at this psychologically tortured face.  Those teeth!  It evokes loneliness and alienation, a visual mashup of a caveman, polar bear, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a pulp manifestation of T.S. Eliot’s poetic moanings.  (And notice I did not mention Duck Dynasty.)  For an 8-year-old, it took some nerve to even pull this one off the shelf because the cover image was so disturbing.

The only person more terrified of the abominable snowman’s image and adventures than I was my younger brother Charles, nicknamed Bubba.  Out on the sun porch with cast off paperbacks  that were yellowed with sunlight and dog pee, I force-read him passages of The Abominable Snowman.  Upsetting my younger brother was a fringe benefit of  scaring myself.

There were lots of books on the shelves.  There were Lord of the Rings paperbacks, and I absorbed the hills and dales of Middle Earth maps before I actually read the trilogy.  There was also a grown up, titillating biography of David Niven who, among other things, recounted his first sexual experiences in England, which I barely understood.   But the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and David Niven paled beside those of the yeti.

The yetis, or abominable snowmen, were always leaving mysterious footprints, eating the dogs of trackers and tossing their carcasses, emitting unearthly roars at night that made villagers’ blood run cold, throwing trees around and leaving smelly patches of fur everywhere, breaking into monasteries and stealing food from monks,  leaving posters around for rave clubs that nobody could ever find (just kidding about the last part).  In short, this was just enough to tantalize and terrify everyone, and of course, nobody could catch a yeti on camera.  Many experts, however, attested that they were real, and that was good enough for Bubba and me.

“Stop!  Stop!” Bubba would scream.   When we could take no more of the yeti’s misdeeds, one of us would toss the book across the room like it was on fire.

Our favorite story was both scary and naughty.  It involved a man’s wife who mysteriously disappears for a few months.  Search parties can’t find her. But lo! One day she reappears on her own recognizance, as they say, walks through the back door, and explains to her husband that she had lived as the Yeti’s mate.   “I am expecting his child,” she said, as she rubbed her abdomen.  Or maybe it was belly.  (I haven’t read this book  in years, so I might have the exact words mixed up.)

I’m sure we looked up the word “abdomen” in the dictionary,  hoping it meant  something really nasty, and we couldn’t be more thrilled when we discovered it  partially involved the lower stomach.  Anything “down there” was fascinating, the regions of pee, poo, and sex, although we didn’t really understand what sex was at that age.  There was something more provocative about this story than any Playboy or Penthouse magazine that I found in my dad’s nightstand.  The lady had done IT with a yeti.  Whatever IT was.  Top that, Miss January!  Bet you never made love to a yeti in a hot tub.

“’She rubbed her abdomen’! Did you hear that?   ‘She rubbed her ABdomen’!”  I would intone, like an English professor teasing out the impact of Shakespeare’s lines to a freshman class.  Bubba’s hand would fly to his mouth in shocked horror.  Could there be anything naughtier, dirtier, more verboten?    Like all the kids in your class could pull down their underwear simultaneously, and it wouldn’t even be a runner-up to the bride of the abominable snowman rubbing her belly.

This lurid tale is the product of a prolific writer named Brad Steiger who now enjoys near-cult status.  A Midwest college creative writing professor, Steiger cranked out  fiction and loosely investigative non fiction about freaky phenomenon and unsolved mysteries to support his family.  He used the pseudonym Eric Norman when he wrote The Abominable Snowman in 1969.  Thank you, Mr. Steiger and whoever did the cover art.  What a thrill you gave us! And yes, we are screwed up to this day.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining why I wished the beast would just stay the way he was in Beauty and the Beast, rather than turning into a prince, but that’s another story.

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Ghost House

Architecture is one of my pet obsessions, particularly residential architecture.   Good houses are art, but even dime a dozen tract homes enclose, protect, and create psychological space for their inhabitants.   I imbue houses with personalities and spirits.  I imagine that their walls hold the collective residue of all the sadness and joy of their human occupants.  Their staircases witness people trudging down to schooldays, workdays,  rushing down to holiday mornings, nervously leaving for college and job interviews, being carried down to ambulances and funeral parlors, ascending for passionate nights in bed or and taking  babies up  to new nurseries.  Older homes see generations of these coming and goings.

Nothing is sadder than a demolished house.  All the hopes, dreams, fights, births, deaths — just snuffed and leveled.  As though none of it meant anything at all.  There’s a disturbing tendency to buy an older home and, if its less than 3,000 square feet, to raze it in favor of a much larger new home which then squats, bloated and pretentious, hogging the entire lot.    When did people start needing so much damn space?  I do love contemporary architecture very much, but so much of it is just bad conformist junk , that I mourn the “tiny” structures that proudly held families and dogs and cats and holidays and now aren’t good enough. *  The wrecking ball is so impersonal.

A few weeks ago, I realized that a home had been torn down.  It once belonged to a friend of mine and it was lovely:  a 1920s pastel stucco with archways and wood floors,  a small wedding cake of a house that had a garden in back.  I knew my friend no longer owned the home, but I circled the block in disbelief to make sure I had the right address, unable to comprehend that it had been replaced so quickly with new construction.

I know nothing about the original circumstances or owners of this house.  But in the days I knew it, there were so many fun times in that place, so many parties, boisterous love for one another, and drunken foolishness.  I’ve got photos of myself dancing with abandon on a happy night when two of my friends became a lifetime couple.  This house witnessed the misery of its owner when his partner left, his dogged fight back from the breakup, and his joyful dancing in the street one night that caused his stick-up-the-ass neighbors  to call the police.   And that’s just my own solipsistic, here’s -what- I -know memories.  That’s a mere smudge of the emotional torrents that house saw.   My dad remembers going to lifeguard parties in that house back in the 1950s.  It may have seen some sadness, but I can say with certainty that this residence witnessed and inspired lots of happiness.

A house destroyed is an exercise in mortality.  We see our memories — or if we’re the architect, our work — destroyed and realize that nothing is permanent.  Nobody will now experience the smells, light, sounds, colors, and textures of living in this place.  Especially if you grew up there . . . hey, your reality is now dust, and cosmically you just don’t matter that much.

Artist Rachel Whiteread addressed this Gone With the Wind syndrome with her 1993 work “House.”  Basically, she created a full sized concrete cast of an East London row house that was slated for demolition.  The grey husk sat in London for some time, looking like a sarcophagus, and winning the 1993 Turner Prize, annually presented for a significant British artist under the age of 50.  Whiteread specializes in treating contemporary culture as artifact, producing resin, plaster, and concrete casts of things like rooms, bathtubs,  mattresses, and houses, turning domestic fixtures into archaeological objects.  The casts of these discarded objects are strangely haunting.  They attest to the presence of the people who left the room, just as fossils in the mud are vestiges of things once alive and crawling.


I wish there was a cast of my friend’s 1920′s house — the front steps, the archway, the patio that supported the people  who were coming in and out for more food and drink, laughing and gossiping, and not thinking about a time when the house wouldn’t be there, or a time when they wouldn’t be there, either.  A cast of my friend’s convertible in the carport would be nice.  In this way, generations are  immortalized and we’re the Grecian Urn, and Pompeii, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Probably I should take a longer view, and London is a good metaphor to use because it’s just so damn old.  It seems like for every parking garage built, somebody uncovers a Shakespearian theater or a Roman road.   There was and is life on all levels, at all times.  Whatever new structure is being built where my friend’s house once stood  (and I’m still not sure — condo, apartment, annex to a nearby new hotel, bigger home?), it will undoubtedly fulfill its basic architectural functions, physical and psychological shelter.  The rest is up to people — and one day, this place, too, will have its own luster of  memory.  And my friend’s ghost house will be there, too, just underneath, with all our voices.

(*Yes, of course I cry at The Brave Little Toaster.)

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Baby Blue

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Breaking Bad Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After spending a week  mourning the end of the television series Breaking Bad, it occurs to me that I have trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality.   What is it about great television that does this to people?   After a few seasons, the characters seem more real than the people in your own life.   And a helluva lot more entertaining.

“Baby Blue” a 1971 song by Badfinger, is a love ballad that makes me weepy under normal circumstances.  Now it will always be linked to the final scene in Breaking Bad, when meth master Walter White takes his last look at the lab equipment he designed to create his special blue methamphetamine.   “Guess I got what I deserved,” the lyrics say, as the camera pans over a dying Walter White, fittingly ending his life in the arms of chemical science, his first and real love.  I keep replaying that scene and that song over and over in my mind, the way you keep touching your tongue to a sore tooth.

Most viewers knew where Walt’s hubris was headed several seasons back.   By the time the finale wrapped, they were almost blasé.  I thought I was, too – I was really prepared for anything to happen – and then they played that damn song.  Wahhhhhhh!   (A poignant aside is that the Badfinger member who wrote that song, Peter Ham, hung himself a few years after he wrote it.)  We watched Walter White go from nerdy science teacher who could barely make a decision, to a drug lord who acted so fast and ruthlessly that it didn’t even look like he had made a decision.

You watch villains become heroes and vice versa, and you discover you love them, or you love to hate them, and their crimes become secondary to their humanity.  I worry about the survivors.  Several times this week, I kept worrying whether Skylar and Walt Jr. would be okay.  I had to remind myself,  “Hello!  It’s a story!”

I am not alone in this.  The end of Breaking Bad left an apocalyptic trail of fan emo-drama in its wake.  “Baby Blue” has been downloaded kazillions of times from iTunes this week.  Just look at the reviews and comment threads.   People are posturing, like,  ‘yeah I knew this was gonna happen two seasons back,’ or they’re violently disagreeing and threatening to kill each other with ricin cigarettes.  Drama gives us a convenient way to invest our feelings in situations and characters that aren’t really ours, without having to risk the emotional expenditure in real life.   My husband threw the only temper tantrum I’ve ever seen him throw, after he thought he messed up the recording of the finale.  (Praise be, the recording was intact, and our household was saved.)

One viewer in a commentary thread said she felt like she’d given birth, just emotionally wrecked after viewing the finale.  That’s catharsis, the sense viewers get from having their emotions worked over.  They watch tragically flawed heroes pursue their ambitions into the ground, sacrificing loved ones in the process – and then they die, and we clap and sob.  We experience a vicarious cleansing because we rode the character’s emotional roller coaster for five acts or five seasons.

Last time I felt this way was when another great television series, The Wire, ended.  The Wire was filmed in Baltimore, a town I started to love when I lived in Maryland.  I returned to Florida a few years before the series started, but somehow the reality of the brief time I spent in Baltimore is completely confused with stuff I saw on The Wire.  The actual tame things I did — going to bookstores and concerts and restaurants and bars and the Enoch Pratt Library  — had nothing to do with crime  drama or drug dealing.   Tell that to my mind, though, and I’m not even a crazy old bat on her deathbed yet.  Go ahead, ask me for a Baltimore memory:  “Well, we were hanging out after the concert, going to Café Hon, and Jimmy McNulty was there, blah blah blah.  Oh, and when I got out of my interview at Enoch Pratt, I went to the parking garage and who do you think was there?  Stringer Bell!”

Yes, I’ve got a real life, last time I checked.  You’d think my real problems this week, a broken hip (my mom-in-law) and an abnormal mammogram (me) would keep me occupied.  Breaking Bad and Baby Blue made me cry.  Somehow this was way easier than crying about the fear and anxiety in my own life right now.   It made me really cognizant of the fine line between what I want to avoid and what I want to feel.

During the final scene between Walter White and his wife, Skylar, he finally admits that he made his meth fortune not for his family’s financial security, as he always claimed, but for himself.   “I did it for me.  I was good at it.  And  –  it made me feel alive.”  That’s why anybody does anything, if they’re lucky enough to find it.  For the rest of us, we make do with television until we discover what makes us feel alive.




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Great expectations . . . they’re a bitch!

For some dumbass reason unbeknownst to anyone but myself, I decided  to wean myself off antidepressants.  This is the first time in my life I’ve felt stable — whatever that is — with the right partner, some dubious maturity, and the house of my dreams.  I’m living that cliche of being  “in a good place.”  Soooooo —  after a month of withdrawal nausea and brain zaps and lots of saltines and ginger ale, I flushed the chemicals from my system and was curious to see who I might be, chemical free.    Well, here’s who I am:  a bitch.  Not just any bitch.  A bitch with great expectations.

Let me back up and define bitch.    I don’t mean somebody who jumps in people’s faces  saying unkind and rude things.  I might occasionally think those things, but I don’t say them because there’s too much meanness in the world already.  Mostly, I’m talking about somebody who says mean, rude, or judgmental things to herself.    So a bitch with great expectations is highly critical of others, but mostly of herself.  Oh, and to describe more bitch symptoms,  just so you know I qualify:  I am teary, easily irritated, impatient, insecure,  defensive, and snarky.   All the things I thought I’d outgrown — they were just masked by medication, every last one of them.


 (Photo credit: snowlepard)




So I’m caught in a limbo between wanting to bitch-slap other people and bitch-slapping myself.

In an earlier blog post, I referred to myself as  “a nice person,” which drew the guffaws of several of my nearest and dearest.  “Mimi Hall,” said one of my BFFs, “you are a lot of things, but nice is not one of them.”

Stung by this, I asked my husband, “Honey, Girlfriend X says I’m not a nice person.  Do you think I’m a nice person?”  And bless his diplomatic heart, he said, “Well, I think you’re fundamentally a nice person.” Ha Ha Ha. And ouch.

So I placed all this at my therapist’s feet like a cat dropping a rat at the doorstep.   “You are highly critical,” he said,  “but I find it hilarious, and you generally turn your critical eye on yourself as much as other people.”  And I guess that’s the heart of it.  I’m just highly-super-hypo-reactive, or affected by what other people do.  Not always a good life skill for somebody who’s 48 years old and just wants to get through the day without conflict.  I should be too mature to feel this way.

This is why I needed a barrier of medication between myself and the public when I was working.  In my mind, it was all drama, and anything potentially could crawl under my thin skin.  “Oh, please, please help my son find something to read!” a parent would beg.  So I invest thought and energy making suggestions, pulling books from the shelves, hoping the parent and/or kid would love the books as much as I did, only to later find those books left behind somewhere on the shelf, in the wrong place, not checked out.  I took it personally.  When someone scratched the paint on my car in the parking lot, I took it as a personal insult. “Who  the fuck did this?  Who did this?!”  The grandma who “tutored”  her grandson every afternoon by  loudly berating his homework mistakes was assaulting the mental health of the kid, but also insulting the dignity of everyone overhearing her troll tirades.  “That’s a decade of therapy for this kid, granny- bitch!” was what I wanted to say. I was exhausted at the end of each and every day.  Gee, all I wanted was for everything to be perfect.

Recently, I signed up for a cognitive program to handle anxiety and depression without medication.  One of the assignments the program gives you is to retrain your negative thoughts by listing them in a notebook.  My first thought was, “This notebook is way too thin to hold all my negative thoughts.”  That was negative thought number 1.  Eventually, you learn to restate those negatives in a more positive voice.  Like,  “I am a loser who wasted my entire day on Pinterest,” becomes something more like, “I collected so many inspiring images today.  Tomorrow I’ll use them in my work.”

I always figured low self-esteem was my biggest demon.  Turns out, it is unrealistic expectations.   Unrealistic expectations make us want everything to be fair.  We assume that since we try to treat people with respect and kindness, that others will always treat us that way, too.  Does this happen?  Well, what do you fucking think, Opie?

We  – that means me and all the other perfectionists I’m dragging into this —  want to do everything perfectly and are petrified of failure.  We are devastated by even constructive criticism because, chances are, we are our own worst critics.  We’ve already beaten ourselves up more than any other person could ever do.   And don’t you DARE say anything bad about us, because we’ve already said it in our own minds, thank you very much.  Is this sick or what?

According to my program, we’re supposed to lower our expectations of ourselves and others.  Gain more by expecting less. Be more effective by being less affected.   We’re also supposed to forgive ourselves for situations that we see as “failures.”   Yeah, okay.  I see all this and I think it’s very helpful.   But sometimes I don’t want to let people off the hook.  That wicked grandma shouldn’t be taking her own perfectionism out on her grandson.  Sometimes,  I don’t want to let myself off the hook, ditch the pain and guilt, and trot off to the ice cream parlor.

I’m just not gonna forgive myself for everything, saying, “Well, I didn’t make the best choice at the time, but I did what I could with what I had.”  For instance, several years ago,  I didn’t attend the wedding of a very good friend.  My only excuses for not going were selfish and shabby:  that I didn’t want to travel up north in the middle of winter;  that I didn’t want to be trapped in a hotel with a bunch of people I didn’t know — or any group of people for that matter — for a weekend;  that I was so exhausted by my job and crappy personal life that I simply lacked the emotional energy to pull myself together, get on a plane, and be there for my friend.  None of those are good enough reasons in my mind.  As far as I’m concerned, I don’t deserve to be forgiven.  Did my friend get happily married and have a good time without me?  Of course.  (So yeah, I know, the wedding didn’t depend on me being there, so don’t even call me a narcissist because I already think I’m a narcissist, okay, so you don’t get to call me that, so there! )

Was I a good friend to her?   No.


Is there any redemptive value in accepting that the mistakes we made were just that, mistakes?  I guess we try to learn from them so we don’t act like such a dumbasses in the future?

Oh, and the guilt?  In case you are wondering — no, I am not Catholic.


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Susie Q

1172224688_thumbnailMy dad and I were driving one night after taking my babysitter home. The car was a royal blue Plymouth Roadrunner with white vinyl upholstery.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “Susie Q” played on our 8-track tape deck.  At age four or five, I just assumed this song was about my babysitter Susie.  I figured the whole world knew about this beautiful, smart high school girl.  Her cheerful “okey dokey” made everything right in my world.

Dad let Susie behind the wheel of the Roadrunner for driving practice.  “Wow, Mr. Hall, are you sure?  My mom doesn’t even let me drive over the bridge.”   She tossed her hair over her shoulder, a gesture I would strive to emulate with my own stringy tangles that I never brushed because my hair was so fine that brushing was excruciating.

Susie was blond, long-legged, beachy, funny, and got very giggly about Joe Namath.  Her poker straight golden mane of hair was on the cutting edge of chic in the early 1970’s, like Cher and Peggy Lipton and Susan Dey.   She stepped right out of what I dimly perceived of the Age of Aquarius, the colorscape of Peter Max murals that permeated décor and advertising.  She was very different than my petite brunette mother who was a Jackie Kennedy clone, her dark bob carefully teased and sprayed into a helmet every Friday at the beauty parlor.

Susie represented a seismic shift in style, but more importantly, a seismic shift in attention.  My parents were extremely sociable and generally out all weekend.  I was an attention sponge, and I curled up, dry and whiny around the edges, if I didn’t get enough.  I don’t write this to discredit my mother.   She did important things like teach me to read and take me to my first library.  I got every book or toy horse I ever begged for.  But she tended to set things in motion,  then step back.   I had to have a major meltdown before she would really stop to bolster my ego.

If you’re lucky, you are blessed with a caretaker who is generous enough to give what birth parents sometimes cannot.  Like Aibileen tells little Mae Mobley in The Help,  “You is smart.  You is kind. You is important.”  They convince us that we deserve that level of love.   The trick is staying convinced when these people are no longer in your life.

Susie was really my first friend. She never made me feel like she had somewhere better to be.  We played a Black Beauty board game by the hour, read Artie the Smartie over and over, ate Beanie Weenie TV dinners, went to the beach, walked in the orange grove and down by the river.  I started writing and illustrating a comic strip featuring the Pink Panther, Susie, and me.

“Look at this, Mom,” she told her own mother, Marilyn.   “She’s writing and illustrating her own book!  She is so smart.”

“Hmm,” said Marilyn, echoing my own mother’s blasé attitude. My mom thought of course I would be able to read, write, and tell stories by the time I was in kindergarten.  It was kind of expected.

Susie bragged about me.   This was something my mother made a point of never doing, ever, because she hated listening to other people who boasted about their kids.  Later, after I was a children’s librarian for a decade, I saw what good parents act like.  They are almost insufferable because they talk about their kids nonstop.  But their children glow with a quiet self-confidence.

When my brother came along, he naturally took his share of Mom’s love and attention.  And to be fair, my brother was a troubled, difficult spirit who needed extra tending.  My mother had her work cut out handling his darker energy.  But my brother didn’t win Susie over, and that was important.

One day, Susie, my brother, and I walked on the beach.  His diaper got wet and dirty, and he marched along naked, pointing his tiny tinkler at cars and squirting them. Susie and I laughed and laughed, complicit in allowing this undignified spectacle. We both knew my mother would have stopped it pdq.

When we got home, I overheard Susie’s mother, Marilyn, say, “ You let him walk home that way?  You don’t pay as much attention to him as you do her.”

“I like Mimi better.  She’s more interesting.”   That is all I wanted my mother to say.  Of course, she never could or would.

While I needed attention, Susie needed something else. She needed to bust out of our small town.  As I drove around with Susie and her girlfriends in Marilyn’s old Plymouth, the restlessness was palpable.

“God, Mom is driving me crazy!”  said Susie, backing out of the driveway, friend in the front, me in the back. The girls’ purses bulged with bright wallets, gum, and hairbrushes to groom those long manes.  Their big girl stuff announced that they were adults ready to join the world and get the hell out of Dodge.   If it didn’t happen today, it was going to happen one day soon.  Driving around town was just orbiting until they achieved escape velocity.

I went to Susie’s high school graduation.  My parents must have been busy that weekend because I spent the night at her house.  In her bedroom, she and a couple of friends got ready to go party.  I put my pajamas on, watching her squeal as she unrolled a huge poster of Joe Namath.  When Susie left for the evening, I knew it was the beginning of goodbye. Marilyn checked on me as I drifted off to sleep.

Susie left the beachside periwinkle that she shared with her mother, went to college, met a nice guy from up north and moved to Manhattan.  She learned her way around that urban island with the same sunniness that illuminated my young world.  She went on to have a brave and interesting life, and is mother to a beautiful, accomplished daughter.

“You were my practice,” Susie told me years later.  I just didn’t know it was practice.  I never really got that kind of concentrated attention again.  Without knowing it, I’ve subjected every single good friend and partner over the years to the Susie-test.   Do they like me enough so that I feel safe basking in their light?

A few years after she left for college, Susie brought her boyfriend to Florida and married him.  My dad performed the ceremony in his office.  Apparently I was there, but I don’t remember a thing.   Nothing.  Not what I wore, what I said, not what Susie or her husband looked like.   Recently, I saw a photograph of this day, and I realized I completely blocked this event from my memory.  My face looks wan and defeated, as close to gray as a five or six- year-old’s can get. I looked like a kid who just lost her best friend.

The notion that I had any special abilities or deserved to be loved that much faded gradually.  I started to discredit my own memories, and any notion that I had been a special kid made me roll my eyes with the same disdain that I reserved for people who checked The Velveteen Rabbit out of the library.

One day at work, I got an email from my long-lost friend and babysitter.  She reminded me of what a bright and beautiful kid I’d been.  I went in my office and cried because I thought I’d imagined the whole thing.

The happy coda to all this is that Susie is as funny, bright, and loving as I remembered her.  My first friend is still my friend, and her wonderful partner Nancy is now my friend, too.   Susie became a spiritual counselor and minister, and she performed our wedding ceremony when I married by husband in 2011.

So, people, not only love your damn kids, but also tell them you love them.  Tell them all the time.  Tell them in front of other people.  Make everyone suffer through it.   Who else is going to boast about your kids?  Most families don’t have a super-babysitter to do it.  Even if you secretly think your kid’s coloring page is average, tell her it’s wonderful.   A kid with average talent who is comfortable enough to make art is the one who becomes an artist: not the kid with loads of talent who is too self-critical and scared to paint anything at all.

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